letters from c.

i have been extraordinarily lucky, having evaded, thus far, death and its many variants. life, as EM Forster wrote, is easy to chronicle but bewildering to practise. and yet, we are told, practise makes perfect. ever the ardent practitioner, c.

Category: letters

commuting in foreign lands

my taxi is hurtling through the traffic jam,—driving between the lines is optional here—daring the illegally-operated buses to slam into and kill us, which, apparently, is not that rare.  life is nonchalant about death here.  the radio is blaring in a language i don’t understand, but from the tone i know it’s hyperbole, which means it’s talk radio, uniformly stupid everywhere on earth.  ah, another physical constant to add to the pantheon of greek alphabet-denoted quantities– the stupidity constant, describing inanities broadcast over radio waves: Sr.  there would be other subscripts, of course, for constant S, as quantifiably stupid things abound in our lifetime.  constant S would presumably be the most voluminous constant in the universe, with entire encyclopedias devoted to describing its many forms and incarnations.  but it would be ironically stupid to devote time to studying stupid things, and that must be why no one has bothered.

we stop at a traffic light (only because there are cars blocking the intersection, not because a red light is any impediment), and immediately children press their faces and hands against the window, gesturing for money.  i have not been here long enough to stare stoically away; i cannot help but look into their young faces and wish that i could whisk them off to a basketball game, or sponsor them all to go to harvard.  my taxista, inured to this daily pathos, nudges abruptly forward, loosening the car from the tangle of skinny arms that had enveloped it.  the children surround the car behind; i watch him watching them doing so in the mirror.  finally the intersection clears, and we are off again in formula one racing mode, clipping motorcyclists and riding in the black cone of pollution emanating from aforementioned buses.  an ambulance siren has been growing louder for some time now, it seems to be stuck at fortissimo.  i turn around and see that it is right behind us.  instead of getting out of the way, traffic moves more frantically forward.  we race the ambulance and its emergency package the rest of the trip, until we turn off the highway.

after shouted instructions in several languages, none of which is the right one, i arrive at my destination, heralded by the slamming of brakes and the hurtling of my briefcase into the front seat.  that was my morning commute, the prelude to the rest of the day.


rainbow canyon

years ago i found myself in rainbow canyon, in the mohave desert, about 2 hours east of barstow, california.  i was driven there in the middle of the night by a madman with an acoustic bass, the same bass that jack lemmon played in billy wilder’s ‘some like it hot’.  i had just stepped off a 2 day train ride across the country,  tired and disoriented but relishing it—barstow, the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night.  we drove into the unlit desert, the road was packed sand interrupted by large rocks.  the sight of the road bounded by the thin beams of the headlights was disconcerting.  it was the setting for a documentary about an axe murderer in the desert, or it might have been the beams of a submersible under several kilometers of ocean and thousands of pounds pressure.

spent an uncomfortable night in the frigid desert air, but at the slowly creeping indigo dawn, awakened to discover, wordlessly, how rainbow canyon got its name: as the sun moved with ancient, tactile stealth over the horizon, one could make out striations in the canyon walls, strung out in lovely, uneven parallels and stacked in shades of gray, then purple, then every sparkling color of the spectrum, most too fleeting to name or grasp.  it was a breathtaking sight, as if a young mary cassatt had taken her pastels and raced around the periphery of the rocks before breakfast.  i turned to the madman, and he began to play.

absolute zero

what has happened to my brain is this: it has reached absolute zero, the molecules have stopped moving. i have reached a state that has thus far only been theoretically possible; i should get a nobel prize for this, for being brain dead. in northern maine in the winter it is so cold that a lake a mile wide freezes over 2 feet deep and one can build a cabin on it and cut a hole and go ice fishing. that, perhaps, has happened to my brain. lilliputians are fishing for bounty, for dinner, for pensées of any stripe, but they will go home to their tiny abodes empty-handed, wondering where all the thoughts have gone.


‘no, none of her usual run-on sentences, not even a prepositional phrase’

‘no adverbs, even? she’s usually good for some of those, even late in the day’

‘no, not even a lingering, repetitive song refrain; we shall starve’

my frozen brain has detached from the rest of my body, like a helium balloon that has slipped the grasp of its owner, and is floating away, utterly carefree. i try to wave it back, gesturing for it to come down to earth. my brain, nonchalant, ignores me. unfettered now, and thawing, it jauntily revels in wild, preposterous, illogical, circular, elliptical, insinuating thoughts. ‘damned grey matter’, my reptilian brain stem manages to mutter, but a lingering lilliputian hears it and snags it, triumphantly, for dinner.


all i want today is to pick up a pen and write to someone i like.  write anything, doesn’t matter what, as long as it’s guided by tender impulse and meant for an ardent ear.  alas, to whom would i send it?  gmail is blinking at me; the to: slot remains sadly blank.  sadness enshrouds middle age.  i used to scoff at people like me.  scoffing—something else my health demands i give up.

this is the particular shade of desire that colors my days: the desire to settle my thoughts on the memory of a beloved face—one still alive, one that still remembers me, one, indeed, that still likes me… beauty, age, gender, are all peripheral details to this central desire.

across all my experience, everyone i’ve ever met and cared for, is there nobody today whose fond hello would stop me in mid-step, make my heart skip a beat, elicit a genuine smile in the midst of this daily posturing we call life?  even my posturing is slumping on days like today.  who cares about being highly paid?  who cares about ostensibly working for the good guys?  i just want to sit in the sun, holding the hand of this desired one, speaking not a word.


the debauchery of packing for an overseas move cannot be summed in a mere letter.  the weight of the task overwhelms me, even though this is not the first time.  every time, i have done it alone.  and every time, it’s heartbreaking.  getting rid of stuff is always a welcome proposition for a purist like me, but in reality it means deciding which memories to break physical contact with, which gifts to discard, which events or people in life have priority over the rest, which belongings it would kill me to part with.  all this contributes to heartlessness; i’m worried about a cardiac arrest tonight as i write this.  the heart stops, doesn’t it, when large chunks of it have been ripped out.  3 years working in a hospital taught me that much.  but this draconian shredding apart of accumulated life also contributes to fearlessness.  if i can tear apart my life i can reassemble it elsewhere.  take it all with me, in the still accessible corridors of memory.  move that feast, counseled hemingway.  for you will be starving one day again soon.

but heartless debauchery is an apt description for another reason, as i’m in the final days of triage before the charities come to cart off the furniture.  piles of documents, photos, maps, real letters from ages ago when handwriting was a scrutinizable component of personality, shoes, bottles of half-used product, clothing, cds, books, manuals, sheet music, a maelstrom of things thrown into piles of ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘maybe’, but looking admittedly as if a weak landmine had struck.  is it essential? lightweight? available halfway around the world?  these being the only 3 questions on the triage station clipboard hung over my tired conscience.

i never seem to move across town, or merely to another country anymore.  no, if it doesn’t involve crossing at least one ocean basin then i’m not interested. i consume countries for my apéritif; i step over continents in the course of my evening stroll.  my immigrant psyche has resigned itself to a life of constant assimilation in foreign lands.


20 years ago you asked me to keep in touch.

i have, in non-chronological order:

been to sea in 3 ocean basins, experiencing research, seasickness, and food poisoning; flown across switzerland in a cessna and seen its glaciers melting up close; provided lab support for one of the first lung transplant programs in north america and subsequently seen gloved surgeons’ hands cradling newly-harvested organs, pink with the potential of life a second time around; climbed smoking volcanoes in sicily; gotten a phd in oceanography (or as an old professor put it, ‘i didn’t get a phd in oceanography, i took it’); been battered by 8 hurricanes in 2 years; spent heartbroken weeks in a foreign icu waiting for someone to awaken from a coma; become a citizen of hong kong for the second time; swum after sharks and manta rays in cool blue belizean waters; gotten an mba; fallen in then out of love; written endless mathematical programming code for nasa; observed goats climbing trees in the sunshine of the atlas mountains; surprised a buddhist monk, en route from poland to la, who was about to take a vow of silence; settled revolutions in spain, flown around the world in a plane (no…hang on..that was gershwin); nearly fallen, laughing with joy, into the vastness of the grand canyon the first time i stood at its edge; observed the last dying days of a UN world heritage site by helicopter; accumulated a large house filled with stuff (including, regrettably, my second grand piano) then gave it all away; watched the sun move over the mallorcan hills from the balcony of the monastery where george sand and frederic chopin shared their last winter; waded against the relentless, medieval tides of faithful pilgrims in paris during the pope’s visit to notre dame; lived on an ancient road that still, as originally engineered, leads directly to rome; crossed under a zen arch, placed over a deserted path on a quiet island, that read ‘time does not exist/what is memory’ only to miss/forget it completely on the journey back; nearly been stranded in the argentinean alps, 2 kms from the chilean border, on the edge of an opaque emerald lake; idled my car while waiting for a single-file brood of newborn alligators as they hesitantly crossed the road.

i have been extraordinarily lucky, having evaded, thus far, death and its many variants.  life, as EM Forster wrote, is easy to chronicle but bewildering to practise.  and yet, we are told, practise makes perfect.

ever the ardent practitioner, c.

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