Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ghosts of Bull Run (part I) - the Greater Jihad

How quickly things can change. A year ago I fell in battle, and lay helpless on a muddy and icy trail in North Virginia. A confident trail runner suddenly turned into a struggling mass of bone and flesh. The sun was at the end of its downward arc, and as I rounded a muddy embankment my ankle snapped like a dried branch. Sweat processed through the outer layer of skin faster than the base layer could wick it away. The temperature was in the mid 30s and dropping. An eerie mist swirled up from the Occoquan river, at the exact spot where a century and a half earlier a defining battle of the American Civil War was fought, leaving thousands strewn across the battlefield dead and dying. 

The vivid image of civil war carnage played out in my mind as I rolled around in the icy mud trying to assess the damage. I finally gave up and told the 911 dispatcher the ankle was too swollen and deformed to tell if bone was poking through or not. I stayed on the phone dutifully for 2 hours as the dispatcher coached my breathing. I was in shock, pre-hypothermic and worse of all facing the severe disappointment of not being able to run again for a long time.

Running gave me a way to rise above it all while living in the Capitol, it was a means to defeat the anxieties and uncertainties. It was part of the Greater Jihad, the jihad waged on one's own personal demons that prevent him or her from transcending. There's never a shortage of personal demons to fight. Complacency, and the feeling that they have been vanquished is just an invitation for them to return en mass. In an instant running was stolen away, and with that, those demons would soon line up to beat down my ramparts. This was a huge defeat.

Omens and bad juju littered the trail from the outset, intimations that venturing deeper into the woods and farther from civilization could be disastrous. Signposts heralded former Civil War artillery emplacements. Slippery patches of mud caused me to break stride several times, forcing me to slog on with morale dipping after each slip up. Then 3 miles from the trail head, an unsettling creature mysteriously emerged on the path, marching my direction with the cold, unflinching confidence of a General commanding soldiers on the battlefield. A wild mustache sat on his lip betraying an unpredictable, fiery temperament and an aura of cold cunning and calculating wisdom. Surely this was a phantom in my own mind. His voice and mannerisms were ghostly remnants of another era, a darker one, a time when humans were bought and sold like farm equipment, and young Americans died in droves on the battlefield, a time when the soul of America was being fought for with the blood of her youth. A war whose death toll reached it's height in the Battle of Antietam September 16, 1862, where 23,000 of our sons died fighting each other. Still the bloodiest single day in American military history.

As he approached, I recoiled, exhaling a quick and polite, "hi, how ya doing today?" The ghostly figure overlooked the trail etiquette, and instead peered directly into my soul, speaking with authority and  premonition, "gettin' a bit of a late start aren't we?" I struggled with the implications of the words, but persevered up the trail as it weaved away from the river. The encounter was weighing on me. Mist continued to pour upwards from the Occoquan like an upside down spigot.

On July 21, 1861, the day the first Battle of Bull Run was fought, America's soil had hardly been stained with the blood of her own sons. With strong public support, the North believed it could defeat the South and end its ambitions of secession by marching on Richmond, VA. However, the North was dead wrong in its assessment of the South's defensive capabilities and willpower. The Battle of Bull Run was the North's wake up call.  It was an important early battleground for the soul of America.

General Beauregard barked orders as gunpowder exploded around him and muskets and cannons ripped apart flesh. His left flank was threatened by advancing Union soldiers. He rode out among his men, brandishing regimental colors, and giving inspirational speeches, infusing fearful young boys with courage, and wielding their eager and malleable youth against the fierce onslaught of muskets, bayonets and cannons from the North. Beauregard was a battle hardened veteran of the Mexican-American war and was instrumental in the Confederate Army taking Fort Sumter in the first military strike of the American Civil War. He now led the Confederates along with General Johnston in the Battle of Bull Run.

Under his command that day, the Confederate line held up against the onslaught from the North. A counterattack succeeded in routing the Union Army, forcing them to flee in disorder toward Washington. Beauregard was promoted from Brigadier General to full General as a result. Five thousand American casualties were littered across the battle field in the aftermath, and the North's hope for an early end to the war were grounded. The blood letting would grind on for four more years.

A strange sense of peace and calm came over me as I waited for rescue on the battlefield. Night was fast approaching. The DC area was experiencing an unusually cold winter that year and these long trail runs were the front lines of my own internal struggles. I had been gaining the upper hand, but on this day, disregard for the sanctity of the Bull Run battlefield left me a casualty. I awaited the arrival of the emergency team in silent reverence and acceptance, taking it all in, reflecting on the cold, hard lessons of defeat. (to be continued)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving, life-saving power naps and feverish dreams in a desert kingdom

My arrival coincided with the arrival of a group of comics from the states. Badly jet lagged and delirious, I slept through it all...thankfully, because my attendance might have set off a chain reaction possibly altering the universe as we know it, and not for the better...(I'll explain later).

Roughly the same time I was making my way across the world, so was a merry band of B-List comics, whose achievements included appearances on HBO. I'm glad I succumbed to feverish dreams in my tent rather than listening to jokes. In addition to the shock to my system from unpacking and getting acclimated to living in a tent in a desert faraway from all the creature comforts of the states, the sensory overload from listening to American stand-up would have been a supernova explosion inside my brain.

The next morning I wandered about my new surroundings, disoriented, with long unkempt hair undulating in the desert breeze. My newly acquired facial scruff was an eyeful for the uniformed men and women. I felt stares from the multitudes cast in my direction, making me feel like an unwanted drifter passing through a frontier town. Then, unexpected and awkward smiles would sometimes accompany the ostracizing looks. I was at a loss. A couple days later people worked up the nerve to congratulate me on my performance. I was asked why I hadn't left yet. "I just got here," I said, "what's the hurry to get rid of me?" I gave awkward and vague responses like this, then sensing the awkwardness I walked away awkwardly. After a few more bizarre encounters like this, it dawned on me I was being mistaken for Tom Vrab, one of the comics on the USO tour. Prior to this trip I lived in a universe devoid of any Tom Vrab. It was a huge revelation to discover I had a clone spawned in another universe where I'm well-known for comedy... If only I'd stayed awake to watch his set that first night, I could have confirmed the likeness and the possibility we were one and the same person, and maybe after buying him a beer and engaging in some sharp-witted banter, he could've gotten me a gig in the entertainment industry and out of this tent in the desert... On second thought, with all joking aside, there was something rather discomforting about all this! It's possible, I suppose, that we are the same person from separate parallel universes, whose meeting, because of a space-time anomaly, would have triggered a violent chain reaction tearing a gaping hole in the fabric of space-time, and unleashing a super massive black hole ultimately capable of destroying existence as we know it... and America, which would be in line with al-Qaeda's plans. The whole purpose of the USO tour was in fact to support the troops by making them laugh, so that would have really looked bad if they brought about unparalleled destruction that night instead of spreading joy to our heroes in uniform. What a relief I slept through the act and didn't meet Tom that night. I heard he killed, but in the "funny" sense, not in the "terrorist" sense. I'm no conspiracy theorist, but maybe this was all an elaborate al-Qaeda plot, utilizing the latest theories in string theory and astrophysics to cause parallel universes to collide, and unleash unknown cosmic forces in order to undermine American foreign policy. My nap might have saved us from this terror. Suck it al-Qaeda!

I don't see the resemblance personally, other than
the long hair and the scruff (and choice of head gear), but I do have a working hypothesis that neatly explains all of the confusion. For now we'll just refer to it as the "hybrid-sasquatch" hypothesis. To the untrained eye of a civilian, people in uniform can be hard to tell apart. A point brought home early on when I was supposed to meet a sergeant for lunch in the chow hall, and failed to find him in the sea of uniforms and short hair. It's amazing how much someone's hair length and hair style sets them apart from their fellow humans. This situation was never a problem while serving in the military of course, because you familiarize yourself with a myriad other traits to distinguish your brothers (and sisters)-in-arms. To compensate for reduced powers of sensory discernment, your retina develops a finer sense for subtle physical protrusions accentuated by shorter hair length, like flaring nostrils, dangling nose hair, droopy ear lobes and the cranial fingerprint itself, a person's unique misshapen skull (we all have malformed craniums as it turns out, only exposed by a shaved head, and kept well hidden by a thick mane). Three years on as a civilian, my skills of detection are dulled. I was ashamed of my lack of perceptiveness in the chow hall, and instead had to content myself with eating alone in the office.

Similarly, for those in uniform, long haired, care-free hippies from the west coast are such a rare sighting, that the section of the brain responsible for storing and recalling facial data hasn't fully developed to make sense of the facial features inherent to our particular, sasquatch-hybrid, sub-species of homo-sapiens.

The same principle would be at work if you were fortunate enough to experience two or more sasquatch sightings in your lifetime. For instance, one in the Cascades and one in the Rockies (a geographic distance far enough away that two sasquatch phenotypes, like fur thickness, are different). Although, to the untrained eye, even sasquatch gender would be totally indistinguishable.

Not to get too sidetracked, but have you ever wondered why the legendary Bigfoot is just assumed to be male? Has the same gender bias in the English language, whereby masculine pronouns and constructs are the default (as in "man"kind), already infiltrated objective thinking in the burgeoning field of cryptozoology? Such a misogynistic bias could set the field back a hundred years or more, much in the same way dinosaurs were long thought to be fat, lethargic lizards lumbering about the Mesozoic era for 250 million years instead of the awesome stealthy bird-like raptors with large brain cavities capable of higher order thinking for savagely bringing down their prey in packs; an awesome scientific fact that inspires and terrifies 6 year olds the world over with its awesomeness. What would we do without scientific truths like this. Come on scientists, get this stuff right the first time! Logic dictates that 50% of the breath taking sasquatch sightings are of females. Where does this gender bias come from? The same bias applies to sasquatch's interstellar cousin, the wookie, whom we rarely, if ever, think of as female! Is it the body hair? In an era of increased gender equality awareness, our daughters are in dire need of such uplifting affirmations of feminine awesomeness that come from knowing Sasquatch's legendary greatness equally applies to them.

As if my first week here could be anymore spooky, (if you're keeping count, it already involves the crossing of parallel universes, cryptozoology, and terrorists utilizing obscure predictions made by string theory and sci-fi novels to undo the very fabric of the universe and America) Tom Vrab also resembles Pau Gasol of the Los Angeles Lakers. So, by extension, I must also look like Pau Gasol, minus the height. Is Pau from the same sub-species as me and Tom? Tom even works it into his routine:

The most unnerving, and at the same time hilarious bit is Tom's impersonation of a heart-broken Chewbacca. It had me laughing out loud longer than the bit itself, then crying hysterically like a little girl for hours because the profound truths it spoke about the human condition shined brighter than the sun:

Anyone who's had their heart broken can relate to the agonizing cries emanating from deep within the mighty Chewbacca's soul; they transcend comprehensible syllables, conveying existential pangs of annihilation and despair. This is the immortal sound of a wookie that didn't get closure. His female wookie counterpart did not tell him the truth, and we all know honesty and openness is necessary for closure...even Chewbacca, a sentient being capable of ripping the limbs off his foes, got his spirit crushed by a woman. Female wookies are fearsome beyond reckoning to be able to inflict so much pain on the Mighty Chewbacca. I hope I don't negate all the high minded talk of gender equality, but if I were to add to the bit, Han Solo would give Chewie the following words of solace, "I know, I know fuzzball, she was a bitch, you deserved honesty from her all along, but try having a princess confess her love to you shortly before being frozen in carbonite and then getting sped across the galaxy only to be a wall ornament for Jabba the Hut's perverse amusement! Then you'll know the meaning of heartache!" As it turns out, being treated insincerely by a woman is a close second to being frozen in carbonite and then getting sped across the galaxy in that humiliating state, only to be put on display and jeered at by Jabba and his henchmen (Just look at the frozen Solo's facial expression to better understand Chewie's anguish).

So, there you go, there's no other good explanation for all these events that have transpired other than the hippie-sasquatch, hybrid hypothesis. It explains just about everything! There exists a wanderlust creature resembling sasquatch (or a wookie), that engages in activities like basketball, comedy, and running and is endemic to the west coast of the United States. This noble creature is known to universe hop on occasion.

The only thing the hypothesis fails to adequately explain is why I'm living in a tent in a desert on the edge of the planet. I'm a long ways from the lush natural habitat of Oregon. Less than a month ago I was hunting mushrooms in a forest.

As one more order of business, I'd like to wish everyone who happens to read this blog a happy thanksgiving, and especially to Tom, my other self from a parallel universe. I wish I could cross over into your universe to see what it's like... keep up the good fight with your comedy. Together we'll defeat the terrorists and their nefarious goals. Who knows, maybe someday we'll stumble upon an anomaly in the fabric of space-time allowing us to grab a beer together without bringing destruction to the universe, and then we can swap tales of all this weirdness.

(Pics of the hybrid-sasquatch in its natural habitat along the west coast engaging in its various activities i.e. performing, sports, and generally looking like a scruffy dork)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Dubai, Jet fuel, and Coffee

I left Portland this past week, and then soon after leaving Portland I left America. I had half a week to pack up my entire existence, except for the existence I could carry across the globe for a new job assignment in Oman. A red-eye flight from PDX to Reagan Int'l in DC, and on from there to a land of frankincense, desert palms, and uncertainty. Overtones of uncertainty surrounded this trip from the beginning... but I was certain I needed to go.

I think it was last night I left Baltimore Airport...but that doesn't seem quite right. Baltimore, London-Heathrow and Dubai blurred together in a single tired memory. Was it this morning I had left America!? or was it another state of mind in another region of space time!? I couldn't be sure with all the timezones crossed, and all the crossed eyes that looked so lost en route to somewhere else. I left the states with even more questions unanswered about where I was going, both in the immediate sense and with life in general, but I also left with an overwhelming desire for freedom from those nagging, anxiety-ridden questions.

I'm jet lagged to the extreme as I write. Normal contemplative thoughts can bend quickly from the physical and warp into the metaphysical. I'm running on the fumes of my soul's jet fuel and in the middle of an 8 hr layover in Dubai, a surreal, and idiosyncratic port of entry into an alternate reality called the Arab world. I've been here before, but through a different portal, and on a different mission.

Dubai airport must have been inspired by an Escher painting, with its never-ending series of escalators that criss-cross in directions that defy reason, traversing vast spaces under a majestic glass dome firmament etched with mosaic pattern constellations. Gardens and fountains stretch before the wary eye of the intercontinental bedouin, like an oasis in the desert after days of sleepless travel. An electric dream-palace, a sunrise glowing at the edge of the airport's carapace, warming the soul in an otherwise cold, dreary, restive night of uncertain travel. A shopping mecca rises up as the airport's crown jewel, a pantheon of materialism beaming life into the Bedouin spirit that aimlessly wanders through Dubai to their destination. The spectacle offers a welcomed retreat on the long journey. Space and time are condensed in this crowded hustle-and-bustle of merchants and consumers swapping currencies for gold, i-pods, tobacco and whiskey. I have to convince my eyes that this is real and not a mirage, I'm in a sheikhdom that left the solitude of the desert long ago.

Cacaphonous chatter is heard from all directions, a human zoo with speakers of diverse tongues, their speech dancing and vying for dominance in the otherwise sterile ether. As soundwaves of human utterance pass and collide, the languages herald the arrival of businessmen from different continents, of indentured servants from the subcontinent, and the groaning lingua franca of the incontinent, intercontinental, modern-day nomad slow-cooked in economy class for hours on end, en route to a place that cannot be properly located on any continent. It's the Jazirah, the Arabian Peninsula, betwixt Africa, Europe and Asia. A crossroads of cultures and North Americana capitalism pumped full of steroids and oil.

I ordered a cup of Turkish coffee at 3 am local time, asking if I could pay in American. The Phillipino barista nodded, and rang up an overpriced Cafe Americano... it was just the same to me. So I sat, contemplating, sipping at a drink with vestiges of an American military campaign fought deep in the heart of Europe. American GI's in WW2 watered down their coffee to match the strength of a cup back home. Their drink took the familiar name Cafe Americano. Hmmm...maybe the Barista knew what she was doing. I needed to drink up and embrace my heritage. Turkish coffee would have gotten me through the night, if it really was night. Bio-rhythms argued that it was still daytime. The activity of the airport and the dazzling lights agreed, while the rotation of the earth did not. The concept of time takes on a dramatically different feel when living a nomadic existence. I felt like a nomad, enduring a long, sleepless journey taken on faith. It had been a solid week since my life had been overturned, when I accepted an assignment in Oman. I had been running at full speed ever since, and the adrenaline keeping me going was nearly spent, fast depleted fumes of jet fuel were all that was left. Dubai was an oasis, a bubble in the fabric of space-time, a welcomed relief on the journey before continuing onward to Muscat.