by Jon Steele, June 1, 2012 12:52 PM
So this is it. The end of a day of sitting on this bench next to Lake Geneva, thinking about stuff and remembering. And just now, I was thinking about sleep. I don't know about you, but this is how I go to sleep... I lay there, imagining places I've been in my life. If I'm lucky, my dreams pick up and I'm carried back in time.
I forgot to say this at the beginning of these blogs.
Which is strange, as it's the entire point.
I think we're capable of time travel, and I think we do it all the time. Not in the manner of the WAYBAC machine from Rocky and Bullwinkle, or Doctor Who's TARDIS. Memory is the vehicle of travel into the past.
I know, it sounds nuts.
But it's only really nuts if you confine the idea of time travel to the literary construct first developed by H. G. Wells. Not in The Time Machine (still one of my favorite stories of all time, as it were), but earlier, by the same writer. In 1888, the Royal College of Sciences published a story by Wells titled, The Chronic Argonauts. It was set in Wales, in a town called Llyddwdd (no, the spelling is correct, and just try saying "Llyddwdd" 10 times real fast after a glass or two). It's the tale of a strange and mysterious inventor named Doctor Moses Nebogiphel (ditto on the spelling and drinking game aspect). It was the first literary use of a machine built by a man to transport his physical form through time.
Thing is, today, we have real machines that make time travel into the past fact. Those machines are called Deep Space Telescopes. Take the Hubble Space Telescope, now reaching the end of its lifespan (you cannot do better on a rainy day than cruising through the NASA website and viewing the archive of Hubble's pictures). The pictures Hubble gathered and continues to gather from deep space aren't pictures of things as they are, they are pictures of things that happened tens of billions of years ago. We are, in fact, looking back in time, watching the expansion of the universe not long after its creation. And the deeper we see into space, the closer we come to the very moment of creation, because space and time are the same bloody thing.
We live in the here and now: me on this bench on the shore of Lake Geneva; you wherever you are. And in that same moment, we co-exist in a cosmic flash of creation that may be no longer than a blink in the eye of the One we imagine to be the creator.
NASA will launch the JWTS Deep Space Telescope in 2014 and park it about one million miles off the coast of planet Earth. It's like Hubble, if Hubble were a superhero sort of telescope. NASA will point the JWTS toward the deepest, darkest corner of space and turn it on. Will we see the moment of creation as it happens? Will we see the eye of the One? Will we know, finally, the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything? (as described in Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). Maybe, maybe not. But if we do, I suspect it'll make as much sense as the answer the late, great Mister Adams revealed in his book... "42." In other words, what's the use of having the bloody answer, if you don't know what the bloody question is in the first place?
Anyway, last night, I'm falling asleep remembering Moscow.
I lived there from '90 to '94. I had a flat across from Patriarch's Pond in the center of Moscow. It was the very same pond that sets the opening scene of Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita (if you've never read it, forget the rest of this blog and go buy it. Your life will never be the same, I promise). Patriarch's Pond is the place where the Devil first appears in Stalinist Moscow and promptly sets in motion a series of events wherein one Russian gentleman named Berlioz slips on a patch of ice and loses his head under the wheels of a passing tram (weirdly, it's a howlingly funny scene. And, I know, "howlingly" isn't a word, but you get the idea), and it's only the beginning of the havoc to be unleashed on Moscow at the Devil's hand, in between scenes of the trial, passion, and death of Jesus Christ. (There's a lot of that in Russian literature; it never sticks with one plot-line when you can cram two into the same book).
Comrade Bulgakov died in 1940, but when he was alive he lived at Ulitsa Bolshaya Sadovaya No. 10, apartment No. 50. It's a Molotov cocktail's throw from my flat. I went there quite often because not only did Bulgakov live there... but in the story the Devil (in the form of Monsieur Woland) takes up residence with his two assistants in Bulgakov's flat.
I first heard about it from a Russian girlfriend.
And no, I'm not going to tell you her name.
She was a stunt double in Russian films and did things like jump off bridges into the Moscow River or fall out of speeding cars on the Ring Road. She was raven-haired, blue-eyed, vodka-swilling, and barking mad. Everything you want in a Russian girlfriend. She spoke no English when I met her; I spoke no Russian. We met on a plane from Saint Petersburg, and it was one of those things where the eyes rule all. We landed in Moscow, went straight to my flat, and spent a breathless weekend (most of it anyway) in bed having a three-way with a pocket-sized Russian/English-English/Russian dictionary. She quoted entire passages of Master and Margarita from memory, whilst smoking dope and lounging in the tub. She acted out scenes of Margarita's entrance at the Devil's Spring Ball of the Full Moon whilst cooking the most delicious and sensual Borscht soup. She was from Saint Petersburg, and there was one memory of the weekend that still burns. I was looking for bread to serve with dinner. I had some in the bread box, a bit of which was stale. I tossed it in the bin. She saw me do it and began to wail. I mean, as if someone had died.
"Kleb! Kelb!" [Bread! Bread!]
She took it from the bin, dusted it off, and broke it into pieces and dropped it in the soup as if she was a high priestess performing an holy act of transubstantiation. I thought about it. She was the child of a child of the thousand day Nazi siege of Saint Petersburg (then called Leningrad). Millions of men, women, and children staved to death. I've never thrown stale bread away since. More than the priests and nuns of my 12 year imprisonment in Catholic schools, my Russian girlfriend taught me the smallest crumb of bread is a holy sacrament of God.
These days, I keep scraps of bread in a bag, and once a week I walk down to the lake and toss it to the ducks and the swans. And I always say, "This is from an old friend."
Monday morning, this divine woman (I'm sure she was an angel come to slap me around) left for Rostov, where she was going to be turned into a human torch and then fall out of a burning building.
I took a
by Jon Steele, May 31, 2012 12:39 PM
There are a lot of memories seeping up through the hidden folds of my neocortex (the most highly evolved part of the human brain where consciousness dwells) and going, "Boo!" or "Howdy!"
I'm obsessed with memories.
Not mine, so much.
It's the concept of memories.
What the hell are they?
We may contemplate memories and analyze them in the neocortex and come up with swell ideas like Cartesian Skepticism or Cheeseburgers, but memories themselves are stored in the limbic system, in the hippocampus region to be precise. They call the limbic system "old mammalian brain." Meaning, it's what humans had for brains 100 million years ago, before evolution kicked in big time. They also called it "emotional brain," because it's where emotions are generated, in the amygdala region. There's other bits in the limbic system, bits that tell your body all's well; but contemplating (up here in the neocortex) that things like spontaneity and creativity dwell side by side with emotions and memories (down there in the limbic system), well... it doth make old mammalians of us all.
But I can't help thinking there isn't more to memories. I can't help imagining we share a common, ancient memory... older than dreams, older than the universe.
Deep in each and every one of our heads is the Reptilian Brain. This was scientifically proven by Ridley Scott in the first Alien movie when John Hunt thought he had a tummy ache. Turned out it was his inner reptilian trying to get out. In terms of evolution, the reptilian part of our brain is hundreds and hundreds of millions of years old.
I was walking through the vineyards above Cully yesterday, and I saw a lizard sunning itself in a stone wall. Hit me that me and it share the same brain. We've both got a spinal cord, pons, cerebellum, and a medulla oblongata. I could've dissected the critter then and there just to make sure, but it wouldn't have been nice. I mean, it's been a long cold winter, and the lizard was having a fine time working on its tan. Besides, I didn't have a knife. And watching the lizard just then, I realized (way up in my neocortex) that the reptilian part of my brain (and the only brain the lizard had) were both telling us, respectively, the same things at the same time... "Must breathe now," "Heart must beat now," "Run away now," and so on. The two of us were being told these things because in the deepest, most ancient part of our lizard brains, there exists a sense of instinct that drives all else... "Must not die."
And, watching the lizard (who was watching me with beady eyes), I was thinking, how does it have a survival instinct without a memory of death? I mean, I have memories of death. I've seen it, smelled it, knew with all my being it was coming to me in the next second. And, though I've been lucky enough to cheat death more times than I care to remember, I know, one day, the bastard will hunt me down and nail my ass to the wall. Memories of death (and, in my case, video images of merciless death that burn in the hippocampus region of my brain still) cause me to conceive of nothingness, or at least no-more-ness, and it scares the hell out of me.
But the lizard doesn't have a hippocampus region to store memories. And even if it did, it sure as hell didn't have a neocortex to contemplate nothingness. But on the level of "Must not die," me and the lizard were exactly the same. And that same instinct to survive no matter what, runs all the way down the evolutionary chain to the single cell amoebae.
I read, somewhere, instinct was a behavior performed without benefit of experience or learning, and therefore an expression of innate biological factors. In other words, whilst instinct can be observed, it can't be explained.
It's like the universe itself.
Quantum mechanics tells us the universe is nothing more than the cosmic dust of the Big Bang, born of a point of singularity 13.5 billion years ago. To my ears, point of singularity sounds an awful lot like innate biological factors. In other words, they're both science-speak for, "Terribly sorry, but that's all we seem to know at the moment."
Which is fine. Gives a writer like me the room to imagine, to create my own universe. It also keeps things like religion in business. Which is a whole other story, so forget I mentioned it. Thing is, in my universe that point of singularity wasn't a thing, it was a alive. It was a form of life from which both me and the lizard evolved. In my universe, the instinct of survival isn't an expression of innate biological factors; instinct is a cosmic memory, passed down to us through the stuff of the universe. Hydrogen, helium, and some other stuff, but mostly hydrogen and helium. The cosmic memory is this: Life is defined by nothingness.
(like I said, whiplash)
So sitting on this bench in Cully, watching the late afternoon light sparkle on Lake Geneva whilst the shadows of mountains on the far shore creep ever closer to chase the light away, I'm thinking about a line from The Watchers spoken by a morphine addicted tramp named Monsieur Gabriel. He stands on the altar of Lausanne Cathedral, in need of a fix and scratching his arms... "We are creatures of the unremembered beginning. We do not know where we come from, all we know is we are here."
Philosophy 101, courtesy of my inner
by Jon Steele, May 30, 2012 11:52 AM
More thoughts from the bench...
Sometimes, this one flashes through my eyes so clearly I think I'm there again. It's the first memory I have of my life. Looking back, I'm pretty sure I was three years old. It's funny. Like setting the WAYBAC Machine (from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show) to 1953, the furthest point in time my imagination can travel.
I'm standing at the screen door of our house in Spokane, Washington, and I'm watching my older brother playing with his friends in the front yard. My older brother's name was Robert Dallas Price (it still is).
I should explain a couple things...
One: Robert (my older brother by four years) and I had different fathers. He never knew his father, as the man (an Air Force captain and charming drunk) chose to disappear rather than marry our mother. Robert always enjoyed explaining to little old ladies who inquired after our differing names with, "Well, you see, madam, I am a bastard child." My father (an Air Force sergeant and another charming drunk) did marry my mother after she discovered she was three months pregnant with me.
Two: My mother (who grew up in an orphanage on the south side of Chicago with her brother Buzzy... who may or may not have been her real brother) had a habit of using the geographical location of where each of her four boys (no girls) were conceived as a middle name. Robert got "Dallas," for you-know-where, Texas. Younger brother number one, Kenneth, got "Kane" for Spokane, Washington. Younger brother number two, Jeffery, got "Allen" for some town that had an Allen in it. Mother never said which one. It was a secret, and she took it to the grave. I don't know why; she just did. I got "Lynn" for that industrial, melting-pot of a town just north of Boston, Massachusetts. (Famous along the North Shore as "Lynn, Lynn, the city of sin.")
All this makes me think that my brothers and I didn't grow up in a family, we grew up in a Tennessee Williams play. Much aided by the fact that Mother would've been perfect for the role of Blanche Dubois. Not that Mother ever said, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." But she did say, "I work and I slave, and this is the thanks I get." Lots. Each time delivering the line to great dramatic effect.
Back to the first thing I remember in my life...
I was standing at that screen door in Spokane, Washington, in 1953. My older brother, Robert, was playing with three boys from the neighborhood. The game they played involved him and two pals standing in a Radio Red Flyer wagon parked on the grass in the front yard, while a fourth kid came racing down the sidewalk on a bicycle, cut into the yard, and rammed into the wagon. My big brother (who I already held in awe) went flying.
I giggled or burped or made some other bodily noise that caught my brother's attention.
"I know! Let's put Denny in the wagon!" he cried.
I should explain something else...
My actual name is "Denis," not "Jon." And let me tell you, it was hell growing up with the constant taunt: "Oh, look, look! There goes Dennis the Menace! There goes Dennis the Menace!" My well-reasoned retort, "Oh, yeah, smarty pants? He's got two n's, and I only got one, so there!" did little to alleviate my suffering.
So, the wagon. In the front yard...
Robert ran to the door and took my hand and led me onto the grass. I was wearing cloth diapers and T-shirt with my breakfast still on it, and I was barefoot. Robert lifted me into the Red Flyer. It felt like I'd been lifted a million feet into the air. Robert put me in front of him, in the dead center of the wagon, like a human shield, which was OK because it would take me another 47 years to find out what a human shield was. My brother's two pals jumped in the wagon with us, and the fourth kid peeled away on his bicycle and spun around to a screeching stop a billion miles up the sidewalk.
'OK?!" the bicyclist shouted from the other side of the universe.
'OK!!' my brother and his pals shouted back.
The bicyclist stomped on the pedals and raced our way.
I remember my brother's hands on my shoulders, holding me tight. I remember his voice, "It's gonna be OK, Denny, It's gonna be OK." I remember the bicycle coming closer and closer, getting bigger and bigger, then it slammed into the wagon... wham!
I went flying.
Mother came running out of the house in a tent-like, flowered dress called a muumuu. (My Air Force father brought a few from Hawaii.) She was pregnant with younger brother number one, then, and found such garb both exotic and comfy. Anyway, Mother is running out of the house and she's yelling, "Jesus H. Christ! What are you boys doing?! Trying to kill yourselves?!"
Mother shooed away the neighborhood boys and told Robert, "You just stay in the damn yard!" as punishment for being so reckless. Mom picked me up, carried me into the living room of the house, and dropped me in my play pen. She went back to the kitchen, where she drank coffee, smoked cigarettes, and listened to Opera on the radio. I escaped from the pen (again) and waddled across the living room and watched my older brother Robert from the screen door (again).
First he lay on his back, watching the clouds, saying things like, "Hey Denny, there goes a big snake!" and "There goes an elephant, Denny!" Then he got bored watching clouds and rolled over onto his belly. He picked through the grass looking for ladybugs and four-leafed clovers. That's what he said
by Jon Steele, May 29, 2012 11:08 AM
Sometimes you can sit next to the lake and see the strangest things. Actually, it's what you can't see. Sometimes fog swallows the entire lake and the mountains on the far shore and all the sky. There's nothing beyond the shore but a swirling mass of etheral looking stuff where the world used to be. You can still hear the water lapping against the stone jetty. You can still hear the ducks swimming about, quacking as they bump into each other. The world's out there, you just can't see it.
I remember, once, I watched the fog from dawn till late afternoon. This was a couple years after I'd quit TV news and was suffering from PTSD in a bad way. Fog watching was all the excitement I could handle. Even so, I had to take a lunch break. I walked to the centre of Cully, where two doors from l'Auberge de Rasin there's a place called Café de la Poste.
One thing I discovered after coming to hide in Switzerland (after a year of hiding in the Cathar country of the south of France for a year) is that every village and town along the Lake Geneva has a Café de la Poste. I think it's the law in Switzerland. They have lots of laws in this country we don't have in the United States. My favorite is "No laundry on Sunday." If you think I'm kidding, move here and try it. A policeman will show up at your door and give you a ticket, payable at any post office. Which, by the way, is how you pay your bills in Switzerland. You add them up at the end of each month, draw the cash, go to the post office, say "Bon jour" to the nice lady in the yellow shirt and give her your bills (rent, insurance, car payments, fines for doing laundry on Sunday). She adds them up to make sure your math is right, then you give her the cash and she gives you a handful of receipts with official stamps certifying "Paid."
And the post office doesn't take credit cards or checks, cash only.
And if you don't pay your bills on time, that same lady in the yellow shirt drives a yellow truck to where you live. She knocks at your door and presents you with a commandement de payer. It happened to me once, but it was a mix-up. Really, it was. My health insurance had been shifted from one company to another, and my payment records were lost.
I showed the nice lady in the yellow shirt my receipts, certified as "Paid." I called my Swiss banker (everyone has one in Switzerland; they're like pets) and I put him on the phone with the nice lady in the yellow shirt, and he tried to explain it was a mistake. Didn't matter. I had to sign the official document informing me my bills were "PAST DUE." In Switzerland, that's right up there with "MURDER MOST FOUL." Luckily, my Swiss banker sorted it out (Good Swiss banker, good boy. Here's a treat), and a week later the same nice lady came round in her truck with another registered letter from the health insurance company. This time apologizing for the mistake and wishing me bonne sante!
Oh, here's an election year mind blower from Switzerland...
President Obama's mandated health insurance was fashioned after the Swiss system. Every Swiss resident is mandated by law to have health insurance through private insurance companies. There are a hundred companies competing with each other so the rates stay affordable. All I can tell you is Forbes (April, 2011) declared Switzerland had the best health care system in the world. No lifetime limit, worldwide coverage, no kicking me off or jacking up my rates if I get sick... So stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Republicans. And speaking of pipes and smoking (this time, Mister President, I'm talking to you), I can legally grow my own marijuana over here. Two plants per adult. Between me and the wife, that's four. Which makes paying all those bills OK.
What was I talking about? Café de la Poste, and how come every village along the lake has one. Got it.
These were the places horse-drawn carriages stopped to drop-off and pick-up passengers and stuff. Café de la Poste in Cully hasn't changed much from those days. It's run by a Swiss guy named Daniel who was born and raised in the village, like his parents and their parents; and so it goes, back to the time of the Neolithic tribes who settled here from somewhere else. There's a lot of that here. Not the Neolithic tribes, but families who've been here ever since. I live in a small village up the hill from Cully. It's called Grandvaux. My next door neighbor, a winemaker named Bernard, lives in a house built by his ancestors 600 years ago. Same goes with his neighbor, and the next one... In fact, it's the same for the whole village. Me, my Jordanian-born wife and the two cats we found in an Amman road, stick out like sore thumbs. But one of the nice things about being an expat writer in Switzerland is, expat writers are welcome. When Bernard (my winemaker neighbor) heard The Watchers was to be published in the United States, he presented me with a case of his best Villette as congratulations.
Anyway, Daniel (the guy with the café) is good to know for two reasons. One: his lunch special (and dinner special come to think of it) is fresh perch from the lake (caught by the fisherman with the shop around the corner) avec pommes frites. And Daniel always recommends a demi of the local white (made by my neighbor, Bernard) and you drink the wine from a shot glass. Two: Daniel loves American blues and has it playing most of the day in the café. Not terribly loud, as the locals like to talk about the vineyards and this year's vintage as compared to last year, and the strange way the fog rolls in sometimes and swallows the world, as it did that day.
I had my perch and drank my wine, listening to the conversation.
French Swiss speak much slower than Parisians, slow enough to pick up a phrase here and there. A few months of that, and you're ready to join in the conversation. Only problem is, you go to Pairs and the Parisians shrug and pretend they can't understand, telling you, "You speak French like a Swiss winemaker!" Which I always accept as high compliment.
Anyway, that day, the day of the fog, I finished my lunch and left my money on the table and said "Au revoir, bonne après midi!" on my way out the door, loud enough for Daniel and all the café patrons to hear. It's one of the first things I noticed about Switzerland when I came to stay. Everyone says "goodbye'"and "good day" or "good afternoon" or "good evening" upon leaving a café. It's their custom, and it's important to adhere to such things.
Back at the bench, the fog still had the world by the throat. So I watched for a couple more hours. Then...
The village bells rang for four o'clock and the ethereal looking fog, swirling all day over the lake, became still... Slowly, the fog began to lift. First came the vast expanse of water, then came the snow-capped mountains on the far shore, then came a blue, cloudless sky. It was like watching the Good Lord re-enact the third day of creation, right before my eyes.
"Wow," I mumbled to
by Jon Steele, May 28, 2012 10:21 AM
There's a bench in Cully, Switzerland. It's in a little park tucked up against the shore of Lake Geneva. I go there a lot to just sit and think, or not think. I've been doing it for 13 years. I'm sitting on that bench now, writing these words.
First time I came here... Christ, it was a long time ago... spring 2001. I was still a news cameraman for ITN (the Brit independent TV network) and had been working the Intifada for eight months straight. I'd already seen hundreds of people shot dead or blown apart.
I'd already been hit once and nearly killed twice. I'd been targeted by both Israeli and Palestinian snipers. One shot nearly tore off my leg; another shot almost took off my head. A centimeter either way, I'd be dead.
Then there was the night I was having dinner in Jerusalem and the street blew up (Palestinian suicide bomber). Then there was the night in Bethlehem when another street blew up (Israeli missile strike).
Then there was the night a suicide bomber walked into a bar. He had a bomb strapped to his chest, under his coat. I was at the bar drinking a beer. He looked around, saw there weren't enough people to kill (there was me and six Japanese businessmen) and he left. I know he was a bomber because two days later, I saw his head in the aftermath of a bomb blast in downtown Jerusalem. It was sitting in the middle of the road. The rest of him was somewhere else.
What was I talking about?
Right, a bench in Cully, nowtimes.
See, after eight straight months of war in the Holy Land, my foreign desk in London ordered me to take a break. By then my nerves were somewhat rattled, and I had no idea where to go. A friend hooked me up with a guy named J. J. Gauer. He ran a few hotels in Switzerland. Good places, quiet places. So I went. J. J. was great. He first gave me a room in the Lausanne Palace. It had a balcony overlooking Lake Geneva. Évian was parked on the far shore, and snowcapped Alps rose above the town. There was a blue sky and lazy clouds drifted by in all kinds of weird shapes. It didn't feel right. There were no guns popping off and nothing went boom. J. J. took me to dinner that night. At the chef's table in the kitchen of a one star Michelin Guide joint in his hotel. The food was good. I got very drunk.
Next afternoon, J. J. had a limo take me to Cully.
Cully's a village. It's tucked up against the lake (I know, I said that once, but, hey, it's a blig. I mean a blog). The village is surrounded by steep hills. The hills were sculpted into stone terraces to plant vineyards in the Middle Ages. It's been a wine-making region ever since. J. J. has an inn in Cully. It's called Auberge de Raisin. I checked in, dropped my bag, and went for a walk in the village. I went straight to see the lake. I walked down a narrow village street. Along the way I passed a guy pushing a cart. The cart was full of fresh-caught perch from the lake. He had a small shop in Cully. I didn't speak French, then, but I told him his fish looked good. He offered me a glass of the local white wine in his shop. It's called Villette. (Charlotte Brontë wrote a book with the same word as a title. But the book isn't about Swiss wine; it's about a mad nun in an attic.)
"Sure," I said to the guy with the fish.
A spent the afternoon in the shop listening to the guy talk about catching perch in the lake. He showed me how to clean them, how they should be cooked. I didn't understand a word of it, but the guy kept pouring glasses, so I kept listening. Come six, it was time to close the shop and I said goodbye and continued my walk to the lake. Didn't take long. You can do the length and breadth of Cully in three minutes. But I wasn't in a hurry. The buildings are five and six hundred years old, and they're fun to look at. The street soon ended and there was this park. I told you about it before, it's where the bench is. The one I'm sitting on now, writing these words.
Point is, that day, 13 years ago, I sat on this bench. And the sun was sinking over the lake to the west and it set afire the ice peaks of the Alps and a gentle breeze rolled over the lake and there were ripples and streaks on the water and it was... so quiet... I was afraid to breathe.
After eight months of watching people kill and be killed in the name of God (in a place they called the Holy Land), and then finding myself sitting on a bench in Cully, Switzerland, I was very sure I'd discovered all that was left of