I keep telling them that it is a wonder of sorts that we are here, so far south, on the Western Cape. A fall climate with angled sun that dissolves into cool evenings filled by the crunch of sand and scrub, and the bees riding waves of air.  I look at maps and Antartica seems almost touchable.

The waves here boom and roll, and though it seems terribly cold, the locals run towards the water in their wetsuits, boards held between arm and body, only pausing to navigate slippery rocks.  They are mostly young, though I saw one man with gray tinting his temples and beard.  He approached the water more thoughtfully than the others, but seemed more intense about the lines and waves he rode.

We saw stingrays, and long slivers of salmon running, and heard tell of shark sightings. A week earlier, 40 pilot whales beached themselves near Hamelin Bay and despite locals’ efforts, perished.  Up the Margaret River we went with a canoe, though we were not good at it, often drifting from side to side and frustrated by our lack of coordinated effort. We sampled strips of kangaroo, emu, and crocodile meat, and touched peppermint and tea tree bark.  Leaped from a large rock into the cold river darkness.

Later, we drew our hoods around our faces during evening walks along the coastline and on the beach.  The clouds would roll in during the night, and I could not tell from where, and the disconcerting fact of my inability to understand much of anything, of nature, of beauty, of that endless, endless ocean, weighed heavily on my sleep.



Trying to Pray in Bali

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If I were a painter I would have captured the light of that morning this way: it slanted through the clouds which lingered from the previous night and dove into the morning mist that lingered over the field next to the hotel. The field would soon appear like rusted gold, but now the air above it seemed to flutter with the rising fog. We set out, making a path. The long stalks itched our legs and occasionally stung and whipped. I heard the Sport King begin to hum, an old gospel from Mahalia Jackson, and the words began to fill me up and lightened the weight of the surfboard I carried across my shoulders.

After crossing the field we entered a layer of trees and a small rocky path appeared. We began to descend, and soon the path ended and dropped away. The Sport King indicated that we’d have to climb downward and motioned toward the outlines of a trail. He pointed out hand and footholds along the descent, and I could see below us a narrow wedge of stones and sand. When we had finished our descent, my hands were rough and chalky from the cliffs. The strip was too small to be called a beach; it was simply a fortuitous place, dry and with plenty of large boulders on which to lay our packs and towels. I knew that we’d have to be cognizant of the tide or our belongings would get washed away.

The Sport King paddled ahead, occasionally at an angle, quick to understand the nature of the waves breaking against them. I clumsily stroked in a straight line, only partly successful as I tried to duck under each curl of foam. They seemed to attack me mindlessly and I had a vision of the eternal hordes in fantasy novels. Pouring line upon line, unceasing. The Sport King reached the calm waters out beyond the break even as I struggled backwards and under, and backwards and forward, my arms burning and body twisting as I tried to make some headway. The muscles in my shoulders felt swollen and huge, and I tried to find comfort in the possibility of having a real physique from all of this. The Sport King straddled his board in the distance and it looked as if he was watching me for an eternity, but that wasn’t the case and he soon slid on his board past where I bobbed, cutting across the powdery water, a look of concentration tensing the muscles of his face. When he finished his wave, he quickly repeated the process, paddling past my floundering and into the quiet space. “This is absolutely great!” he yelled from afar. I nodded as best I could, my chin lapping into the water.

When I arrived into the empty space of calm water — what the Sport King called “the silence” — my board suddenly seemed tiny and insubstantial, and I only then wondered idiotically if the poly styrofoam and fiberglass mix could really support my weight. The water seemed wider here, as if connected to the sky.
“Grab that.” The Sport King had paddled near, and was pointing to rusted metal protruding from the water. For the first time I noticed the rounded funnel of a ship piercing through the ocean’s surface. In the slanted dazzle of the morning sun, I hadn’t seen it from the shore. It struck me then that the ocean was a version of outer space. I wondered if I looked deeply enough into its azure would I encounter celestial bodies? I dipped a hand beneath the water’s surface, and then my face, and reached downward, watching my fingers lose their form as my eyes filmed over. From somewhere outside of this universe I heard the Sport King say, “It’s all timing.”
I pulled my head back, water dripping from my nose and lips and squinted into the sunlight behind me. The water looked upside down, or maybe it was the sky. A rolling swell approached, lifting everything above the horizon. The Sport King was already sliding into position. I knew though that I would miss it, as I had missed so many opportunities by looking in the wrong place, or in the right place too late. There was nothing to do about it. I kicked towards the wave and ducked under as it cycled by, seeing a television screen of green and yellow static, until I broke through the surface and into the air once more.



In William Finnegan’s brilliant memoir, Barbarian Days, A Surfing Life, an early chapter is called “Off Diamond Head.”  He recounts stories of learning to surf and how to relate to both the locals and the waters surrounding Oahu.  It seems to me that one often learns more in the process of looking backwards than in the present.  In other words, meaning is found through reflection.

On this work trip, I made sure to find time at the end of the days to explore other parts of the island.  This included short excursions to places near Diamond Head, such as Halona Beach Cove and Kailua, and also the hidden, beautiful ————- Beach near the town of Haleiwa.  In all these places, there is much and nothing to see.  But the draw is always the water.  The sheer number of waves, stacks and stacks it seemed, were awe-inspiring and also unusual to me.  For the first time, I could see the difference between a beach with waves, and waves that would be worth searching out, waiting for.

I stopped at a shop on the edges of Waikiki one evening and spoke to the owner, who recounted a story of learning to surf in the 1960’s as a kid.  He told me of surfing with a friend who apparently violated some of the unwritten code among local surfers one day out on the waves in the lineup, or perhaps just in the parking lot.  His friend ended up watching as one of the local boys took his surfboard and cracked it nearly in two with a few sharp, backward blows of an elbow before throwing it off a cliff.  He remembered later being able to see the board from the ocean, splayed upon a ledge of high rocks like a sacrifice to gods below.

It should not be surprising, any of this, as the Hawaiian islands and people are a culture in both literal and figurative terms. Interestingly, in the news before I arrived were stories of Hawaii’s population decreasing because it is increasingly too expensive to live there.  One afternoon on the way back from meetings, and stuck in Honolulu’s traffic, I listened to a conversation on a local radio station with Larry Bertlemann, a man I had never heard of, but an apparent legend in Hawaii’s surfing scene in the 1970s and 80s. Larry took phone calls, including from friends he had not heard from in years, and pulled memories and details from 20 years prior. He spoke a surfing language peppered with a foreign vocabulary of lines and maneuvers, and spoke of connections to people and figures from the past as if the listeners were seated around a table telling stories at a funeral.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

If you haven’t known trepidation (a disquieting fear, not the terror found in a book like The Shining) while reading, then you might want to pick up a copy of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. Normally I wouldn’t write about a book while only halfway through it, but I am reading it so slowly that I’m not sure I’ll even finish anytime soon.

I’m not even sure it’s a novel. It is, rather, a meditation on inner and outer decay, on decline, loss, memory, and the gradual effacement of even the most extraordinary of things. I half expect the book itself to vanish or crumble between my fingers while I’m reading. Certainly it reminds me of a book I read earlier this year — Teju Cole’s Open City. Published a decade earlier, Austerlitz (so far) greets us in Belgium as Cole’s novel does, and also in Wales and in London. The settings are intensely and intimately described, yet the novel also seems to take place within Sebald’s memory. There’s a term I’m reminded of: “umwelt” — a German word often translated as “a self-centered world”. Weirdly, I began a short story titled “Umwelt”, also set in London, which has dragged on and on…

And it’s the passages about the inner workings of our selves that seem most familiar. Here, at length, is Austerlitz describing the process of writing and reading:

But now I found writing such hard going that it often took me a whole day to compose a single sentence, and no sooner had I thought such a sentence out, with the greatest effort, and written it down, than I saw the awkward falsity of my constructions and the inadequacy of all the words I had employed….However much or little I had written, on a subsequent reading it always seemed so fundamentally flawed that I had to destroy it immediately and begin again.

As always, things seem connected. Between readings I’ve been listening repeatedly to the first track on what I think what may end up being one of 2011’s more under-appreciated break-up records. The same disquiet stirs.

Go ahead and be my world, and everything will be ok. Just hide there in plain sight, too big to see.

A Last Walk in Firenze

Quiero hacer contigo lo que la primavera hace a loz cerezos.

This is what is written slightly above eye-level in a narrow street in Firenze.  Pablo Neruda.  All quiet and cobblestone in the dark winter months here, a city of trapezoids and rectangles and of course, Brunelleschi.  Warmth and spring seem distant.  I wish to do with you what Spring does to the cherry trees.

Behind the desk at the hotel, as I gather myself for the walk, is Gurpreet.  From the country.  Hair well-oiled and pulled back, but no turban.  Maybe they are not ready for that here, yet.   I look at him and want to ask, are you that guy from — ?  He looks at me the same way.  Neither of us is that guy.

In the Piazza della Signoria Cellini’s Perseus raises Medusa’s head.  In the darkness the bronze contrasts sharply with the larger, reflective, marble statues, most of large men, uncircumcised, with power contained elsewhere in their thighs, fingers, and torsos.

Near the Uffizi, a young American with a guitar, a voice like Jackson Browne, and a girlfriend.  A folk song.  Had he chosen a better location, he would not need the amplifier.  Back to a night over a decade gone, at a corner of an empty piazza in Venezia, listening to two young students of jazz, one holding an upright bass and the other a saxophone.  Such music under the same blue-black sky!

Portraits of the baby Jesus always with an aged face, often a likeness of a patron or person of prestige.  Not symbolism nor enlightenment, but man’s narcissism, characterizes the Italian Renaissance.

In a modern lounge bar called Oibo, the realization it is time to put the modern lounge bar to death.  With a flourish, the bartender (“save water, drink champagne” says his t-shirt) shows off a long, triangular bottle.  A boutique vodka.  He says it is called Pinky and that it is very strong.

It is the freshness of the pasta and the mannered, acceptable portions.  All pasta should be eaten in a room with dark wooden beams that complement the color of wine barrels.

Modernity is seeing the portals high up on the Duomo and thinking instantly of the Death Star.

This will be the last visit.  A 2009 dirge.  Listen here.