The Five Corners of Love

#adventure, America, China, Hong Kong, Life, love, Meaning, San Francisco, thoughts, Travel

Part VI

The Going

Travelling the better part of 7,000 miles only to fall in love is not something that happens everyday. Where X marks the spot right where the heart is, when you find treasure you’re supposed to keep it. That’s the whole point, right? Trouble was, I was booked on a flight to KaiTak Airport, Hong Kong, the day of the ’94 World Cup Final, which by my reckoning was two weeks away. So, it begged the question, how does a guy pack twenty-one years of holding back that lovin’ feeling into two weeks of consolidated passion’? More’s the point, how does a lovestruck Romeo duck out of his promise to board that plane with his best friend? After all, that was always the plan. We stopped short of a blood handshake, but nevertheless a mate’s word is his bond. It was an irrevocable decision that only a selfish, lovelorn bastard would go back on. We boys were betrothed in the sense that we vowed to go to Hong Kong together come what may. Batman can’t take on Gotham without his sidekick, Robin. But who was who and which was which? Was I his sidekick, or he mine?

We would hit the ground running in the continental United States before jetting west 6,000 miles across the Pacific to integrate into the Sinitic world of strange vocal tones and even stranger aromas. Still a British colony, we’d flounce through Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport like colonial masters of old, waving that black post-imperial passport whilst speaking the queen’s own. Immediately thereafter we’d walk into a well-paid position by virtue of the power vested in each of us as crown subjects, beneficiaries of masterful British naval blockades of the Opium Wars against a decrepit Qing Dynasty, circa 1840. We’d save our easily-earned Hong Kong dollars before moving on to the sweat-spangled delights of Indonesia.

Except, she walked into my life in a down-at-heel bar in San Francisco. That wasn’t part of the bargain.

The more time I spent with her, the more I had to borrow from from elsewhere to keep spending on her. I was free-falling into a love that knew no ground. I was helpless and powerless and as I divested that ego-protecting power away from me and into her, I reckoned I had never been so upwardly mobile as then.

It was the little things that stayed with me. The minutiae that had me swooning over her every move. She invited my friend and I to her shared house on Webster St, off Haight Ashbury. An old Victorian clapboard house, an American icon, she rented the front room. We sat down in there on an old mattress lain over a stained redwood floor. She played a cassette of Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. As the opening bars of In the Light came on, she passed me a joint made with Humboldt County kind bud. Two puffs and I was floored. Pretending there was nothing amiss, I picked up one of her art pens and clumsily proceeded to snap the nib, letting black ink soak into the desk on which was laid out the makings of an impressive illustration that depicted the fantasy world of the Shire. If the sketch was supposed to be England, it was like no England i had ever seen. On her bureau, an illustrated book of H.R. Giger. He was the creator of xenomorphs, hideous hybrids – part man, part praying mantis – that would go on to inspire Ridley Scott to make the Alien look, well, more alien. Xeno, i knew, meant foreign in Greek. And morph meaning shape/form. In a roomful of outsiders all cast together, who was the real xenomorph among us now?

Next thing I was coming around from a brief bout of unconsciousness. So wipeout strong was the joint, she had fallen into the arms of Morpheus, too, her head at my feet, my head at hers. Topping and tailing, we could have been coochy-coo twins. I noticed the fit was right. No superfluous limbs splayed over the mattress edge. Some things interlock while other things, try as we might, just don’t fit right. Geometry had sealed our fate and no amount of cramped bed space was going to stop us from – excuse the cliche – fusing together as one. I watched her sleep for a moment. I studied her perfect black eyebrows until seeing her eyes open i tried wrenching my gaze away. But it was no use. Her dark eyes were fixed on me. And that as they say, was that.

How was I going elude my obligations and cancel that onward flight? California was beginning to grow on me and i don’t mean like a callus. I was falling in love not just with her, but with the final frontier of the great American trek, too. There is light throughout the world, unevenly distributed. But this was the first time I bathed in a daylight so pure. No, in that moment, sharing an old crumpled mattress under a bay window on the first floor of an old Victorian house off Haight Ashbury, I resolved to give this infatuation time to deepen. I had to find an excuse not to go without alienating my best friend in the process. I tried to empathise, to put myself in his shoes. What if it were him welching on a deal and not me? Would i resent the love that had found him? Would I have boarded that onward flight to Taipei, then HK without him, flush with the confidence that at the tender age of 22 years and 40 days I could face the enormity of falling on my feet in such an expanse of plain weirdness that was the Chinese hemisphere? Doubtful. With that sense of obligation that solidifies where friendships are at stake, I knew i had to make that 16hr flight west across the impossibly wide Pacific with him, my friend, and not stay with her, my lover to be.

Question remained: how would i find her again now i had resolved to lose her? Remember, this was the age of airmail letters, postcards and the telephone locutorio/cabin. Leaving meant leaving, unlike today where we never really go anywhere other than into a virtual world contained on the screen of a small electronic device that fits snugly into the back pocket of a pair of jeans. Airmail letters signified something deeply profound and deeply, deeply thoughtful; more of a complex whale song than a simple tweet. Anyone who can cast their minds back to that antediluvian world of cursive calligraphy , exotic forwarding addresses, and that personal signature of saliva on the back of the affixed stamp will understand how so. Trouble was, she had no forwarding address and nor did I. Not even a dedicated carrier pigeon with a sixth sense would do. For all intents and purposes, boarding that one-way flight across the Pacific I might as well have been boarding the Mars Express on a never-to-return voyage.

The plane lifting into the endless blue, ahead nothing but deep, black ocean. A moat as wide as any. As i turned to look through the aircraft porthole at the crimped, golden hillsides of California beneath me recede, I turned to my friend for something, support maybe. But his head was reclined backwards and his eyes were closed in quiet contemplation. I saw in him that he was already at his destination, whereas me I had not left my place of departure, and nor would i for months to come. Unwilling as I am to declare it: I really did leave my heart in San Francisco. In the words of Paul Simon, I walked off to look for America. And what did I find at the end of the rainbow? For the first time in life, a true romance cut tragically short.

The Five Corners of Love

#adventure, America, California, Travel, United States


California, I’m Coming Home.

Mono Lake lies far from the major urban centres of America’s most powerful and populous state, California. Economists reckon that standing alone on the world stage California would be nudging Britain for the fifth spot in the league of wealthiest nations. But unlike Britain with its Lake District, Mono Lake is no Lake Windermere. It’s mono, and not stereo lake, for a reason. Unlike the collegiate system of lakes dotting England’s northern Lake District, this ancient body of water is geology’s orphan. Isolated in a parched landscape, with no outlet for water to either drain and replenish, the lake long ago turned to bicarbonate of soda. What would the Lake District’s very own poet-laureate, William Wordsworth, have made of Mono Lake had he been there during a lifetime that coincided with one of the greatest movements of humanity in search of treasure without the traditional mayhem, piracy, plunder and pillage: the California Gold Rush of 1849? I’ll tell you what he would’ve done. He would have wandered lonely as a cloud, imitating the desert sky above, until standing there on the lake’s edge he would have muttered to himself – and I mean himself for there would have been no one around for miles and miles – what in God’s name is this i see before me? For once, words fail me.

Once Wordsworth had beheld these alien surroundings he would have shifted his emphasis. From aghast to agog, he would have repeated the sentiment that living in England’s Lake District had instilled in him: that Nature never did betray the heart that loved her. But it’s hard to love nature’s jagged edges. Romantic love of nature here is forsaken. Here on Highway 395, Eastern California, nature is elemental. Here the planet is as troubled as a teenager. Lifted, folded, exposed, hidden, the geology of Mono Lake is akin to that little blister on the skin of the Earth that, to heal itself, seeps clear serum from deep in the interior. Up from the deep interior superheated water fills the lake, changing the water chemistry and that of the rocks on which the lake rests. Not unlike what you see in the Apennines of Italy, cracks in the mantle let groundwater settle down deep before being pressurised by geothermal heat and pushed up to the surface where it does something to the limestone, spewing out carbonates that form towers of tufa in the centre of the lake. You’d think you were on top of Ol Doinyo Lengai, the mud volcano in East Africa. To look at it, you’d think Mono Lake was a volcanic caldera with whiteish scabrous deposits revealing its true Hadean nature broiling away beneath waters that above it appear so innocuous.

It is here we decide to remain for a couple of days. Finding a hostel not too far away, we sense magic in the air. Dave, the guy who lives in an annexe beside the hostel, quickly establishes his credentials as the most sardonic Californian you’ve never met. I’m thinking he’s learned the ropes from spending too much time in Northern pubs until he tells us he’s never been to Britain. Why then the phlegmatic humour? What comes out your mouth is too dark, too barbed, to be Californian with all that floodlit optimism that doesn’t lend itself well to cynicism. The enigma, which is Dave, then decides to take us to the lake for a hot bath.

Once there in nature’s open-air spa we form a circle of cynics. Dave says bathers have been scalded to death by moving all of 6-feet into what they thought was a harmless wet and warm zone when in fact the lake had undetectable hotspots where the water gushes up at over 70 degrees celsius, very possibly higher. I stay rooted to the spot afraid of turning my already burned skin into a whole new level of heat damage. Never before have i bathed in geothermal springs. The experience is unforgettable as it is unforgivable. The sun comes on like a thousand-watt bulb in a cubby hole. The sky is deeply blue. Not a single cloud wanders by high over. Never before have I felt nature burning me from beneath as from above. I have found home away from a home that failed to feel like a home. As my life will one day end, I know for a fact I’m going to like California. Sitting there in an open-air jacuzzi ringed by mountains the thought hits me: I feel good here. After waiting a lifetime to visit, the reality exceeds the expectations. And that doesn’t happen with everywhere we dream of travelling to. This state might just be golden, after all.

With the soda rinsed off our radiant bodies it’s time to move ever west to the world’s best-situated city, San Francisco. But not before climbing up and over America’s last barrier of rock and permafrost: the Sierra Nevadas. ‘Frisco is a Mecca for the godless. It’s where Steve McQueen just about drove his 1968 Ford Mustang off the brow of a hill and into the stratosphere. It’s where Dirty Harry cleaned the mean streets of limping serial killers. It’s where the Age of Aquarius was first entered. In short, it’s where the West ends and new promises begin. And for that reason alone it was worth the pilgrimage.

On Interstate 80, a Half-Life is Better Than No Life at all

Life, Reflections, Travel

What better way to compare key stages in the evolution of a single human lifetime than with the strange life of the atom. The radioisotope of uranium-238 has a half-life of about 4.5 billion years, the current age of the Earth. Put in laymen’s terms, half-life refers to the amount of time taken for half the atoms contained within that radioactive material to decay (capture and lose their subatomic particles, and the likes) and through that process transform into some other element. Uranium-238 into lead-206, you and me into a likeness of our former selves. We are the same but not. A brass rubbing of our younger selves. Like the isotopic decay of a uranium atom, in the course of a whole life we too reach cardinal points which I suppose could be called a half-life. In decaying, we gain and we lose. Most we carry forth but some details are left in the impression made by the rubbing.

To emphasize the quirkiness of the half-life, take the whole life of the woman who would go down as the first to win a Nobel Prize. Marie Curie died discovering it, never living long enough to see half the atoms in radium-226 decay into radon gas over a period of 1600 years. To put chemistry on a scale of civilisation we can all appreciate, a half-life of 1,600 years is the equivalent age of Islam. The life of the prophet Mohammed unto the present day, the life of the prophet-metal radium unto the gas radon.

Marie Curie did some of her most exciting research on radioactive decay half way to a death ascribed to over-exposure to radioactive decay, aged 71. That gave the Warsaw-born scientist, in one sense, a half–life of about 35 years, for it was in those middle years that she hit a key stage in her own intellectual development. It was then she made breakthroughs that would have ramifications on both herself and the wider world. Those cardinal points we talked of were reached on the trajectory of Curie’s life in a chronology of major life and death events clearly divisible by two: 35 years of age and the year of her death, aged 71. This point needs elucidating.

I decayed into being 44 last week, affording me a half-life of 22 years since I embarked on the first of many physical (not to mention metaphysical) journeys that have come to characterise my life hitherto. All have been life-changing and atom-smashing in their own right, yet still this first was a paradigm-shift in the manner in which I started looking into the interior and onto the exterior world. In the time-space of 22 years I have undergone fundamental atomic change. Half of me has turned into something else elemental, I’m damned sure of it. What that element is and in what form – gas, liquid or solid – it takes is something yet undefined. Notwithstanding the elemental decay and reform that a human life takes between its halfway stage and now, it pays not to forget that for all the radioactive decay that time gives to human life, halfway to total change signifies that the other half of what we once were still remains.

I remember being that young man, a stable isotope of 22 years old, with the whole world at his feet. A road trip across the continental United States – destination San Francisco – had been on the cards since the second year of undergrad. Doing it had become the king of obsessions among a realm of princelings. Wearing flowers in one’s hair was optional when dressing for the big trip-cum-pilgrimage, but wearing a badge of free thought and experimentalism was mandatory. In the year that Rwanda and Bosnia were being ethnically cleansed, driving from DC to San Francisco was a spiritual cleansing, a means to salvage precious hippie cargo from the wreckage of anti-capitalism libertarianism. And that 3,500-mile road trip across a dozen states to California was the least that could be done on that salvage mission.

While the old reminisced about their lost youth and the remorseful lamented the opportunities squandered when age was still on their side, we lucky few, who were anaemic enough to want enlightening and curious enough to override the instinct to disappear in plain sight of a world numbingly familiar, grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns and rode the fucker past the Pennsylvania turnpike and into the great wide open. Crossing the great divide to edge closer to uniting oneself was a feat of natural engineering. To be able to make our own minor contribution to the mythologizing of the West was like engraving your own name on Arlington Cemetery wall to join the ever-expanding pantheon of American heroes by virtue of simply being there to retrace the footsteps of Lewis & Clark. And so we wrote our glorious epitaphs before we had even learned to live.

Now 44 I am hostage to the desert half a world and three decades away, decades in which the substance of things, even the great God Zeitgeist himself, has transformed utterly (and frankly not for the betterment of what it is to be sentient and self-aware). So far from the hippiedom yet so near to being able to afford the back-to-nature dream of the Sixties, with a 21-century spin, I look around and out ahead. The next time i can take a chronological leap by a multiple of two, fate-permitting I will be 88 and frail growing frailer.

As I take my dying breath the year will be 2060. The Earth is busted flush. The thermostat gone haywire, the half-life of all wild things has brought biodiversity to a point where half of all things have decayed and disappeared forever due in no small part to the destructive path left by man. Our once beautiful Earth is neurotically trying to cool itself with ocean-bearing storms of such magnitude that half the coastlines of the world have been wholesale abandoned. The interior too has turned infertile from the nutrient-depleting process of a failed global agriculture where not even a world governing oligarchy run by the board of Monsanto can succeed in feeding a human population consisting of more mouths than spoonfuls to feed them. Remaining populations subsist on semi-coastal strip at the high latitudes between 50-100 kms inland. Human population has gone into irreversible decline. Boom populations (Bangladesh for one) have gone boom in an implosion. Negative growth populations like Denmark weather the weather change that bit better.

Hardest hit is the Persian Gulf. So long the chief benefactor of the economic system that landed us in this terrible morass in the first place, the region is now practically uninhabitable. What were unbearably hot midsummer days in 2016 are by 2060 normal winter’s day. Only a few super-wealthy elites from families who got the best from oil, who saw the writing on the wall while all others had their faces turned to Mecca and car showrooms, survive in subterranean networks and domed city-states. Thermally-adapted aircraft whisk them off to cooler climes in northern Europe when the post-catastrophe sheikhs and sheikhas are not busy lording and ladying it over the captives of their desert city-states. Now all that exists outside the dome are a few hardy brigands, sandmen from Tatooine, and their genetically freakish camels that can walk on burning coals. Only the suicidal exit the airtight gates of the Dubai city-state. Those, and the old who are expected to end it gracefully so that others may occupy their bed space. Naturally, realty is even more premium sought after than it is in 2016.

In 2016 the media was ablaze with stories of ancient city-settlements lost and found. Thanks to aerial laser mapping, archaeologists revealed buried platforms belonging to the Nabateans of Petra. Raised mounds and embankments, barely visible under a mop of vegetation, hinted at a Khmer super-city adjoining the ruins of Angkor. They flourished and then were no more. Unlike the postmodern city-state on the firing line of global environmental catastrophe it helped to foment, at least the lost and found ruins submerged under the sands of Petra lasted a good few hundred years.

Who would have thought it would be so short-lived? In this early 21st century civilisation built on the riches of 20th century oil, what now from my 18th floor window seems tranquil and permanent has been wholesale abandoned by 2060. The grid pattern of the coastal city has been reduced to geometric outlines visible from the air that draw a faint outline over a lifeless and skeletal coastline. Even the toughest, savviest survivalist, the stray dog, no longer barks his woes in the night. For hundreds, even thousands, of square miles all that remains of what once was are these domes. They are what used to be the caravansarais of yore, except only the wealthiest traders are now welcomed in. A vast acrylic parasol glimmering from far, distant dunes, Dubai is one such haven of life. Abu Dhabi another. Life holds on because the closed climate system is powered by huge air-conditioned units that, were they to fail, would result in the slow cooking of every last inhabitant, as the interior of the dome succumbs to an equalizing of temperature with that of the outside. There is no escaping the unremitting sun, nor the dust that coats the exterior, for which the criminal class pay with their condemned lives by facing the outside to dust and hose the acrylic clean.

22-44-88. The years multiply. The physical decay that started aged 22 will continue. Life experience will transform us all, into what state only slow and inexorable decay will decide. Still, a half-life is better than no life at all.