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Epic.

23-Nov-14

The Sera Pelada gold mine of Brazil. From the series "Workers."

A friend recently introduced me to the work of Sebastiao Salgado, who I think can lay claim to being the greatest photographer who has ever lived.  I can say that the show I just saw at the International Center for Photography, Genesis, is the best photography show I’ve ever seen.  In fact, in my mind there’s no clear second.  If you love the epic and the grand, Salgado is your photographer.  His work makes Ansel Adams look like point-and-shoot piffery.

Several years ago he put together a collection of photographs about the most extraordinary things that people are doing on earth – entitled Workers – and throughout he managed to combine the epic with the surreal in a way that is reminiscent of Bosch.  In this latest collection, which is literally hundreds of massive photos, the exhibit itself on a truly epic scale which just about exhausts the little mind, his focus is on nature and man in nature, and it in every way earns its epic title, “Genesis.”  Confronting almost every image you are left with the feeling, “This is the mind of God.  I can’t understand this.  I can’t understand this.”

 

From "Genesis."

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T.E. Lawrence.

23-Nov-14

We all know that something happened to the collective soul of the West during “the Great War”: that somehow or other before the War civilized people were busy making panelled billiard-rooms, velvet dresses, and gilded opera houses; and afterwards they were throwing themselves with humanity-destroying panic into Money or Ideologies, looking to Communism or Eugenics or Materialism or Fascism or Atheism or Racism to solve the Great Problem – whatever it was – that somehow had been pressed to the fore in the war years. Before the War there was Oscar Wilde and lilies and poems about Hellas; afterwards Wilfred Owen and bloated corpses and grinning eye sockets. Before the War Fritz Haber was the greatest scientist the world had ever known, the great technical saint, who had saved the world from starvation by cheaply fixing atmospheric nitrogen and inventing fertilizer; afterwards he was the incarnation of evil, the inventor of chemical weapons, posing so perfectly the problem of the problem-solving brain in all its amorality that it became necessary for an amoral, problem-solving age to forget him.

One of the men of that era who has not been forgotten by us – or at least whose name has not been forgotten – is Thomas Edward Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia.” But why this is so, beyond the fact that one of the most entrancing movies ever made was about him, is not entirely clear. He certainly had his own look, which is a crucial point – it’s hard for us primates to remember anyone who can’t be made into a Halloween costume – and there is something meaningful in the beautiful British face behind the Arab robes which always tugs at the globalized mind. But otherwise, what was he? He was a soldier, but never attained a rank higher than colonel; he was a diplomat, but vanished a few years after the War and had no further role in the development of the Middle East; indeed he very nearly vanished from the world entirely, changing his name and spending the rest of his life as a mechanic in the Air Force (what an unusual man, one must confess). He left a few written works, all to be found in used bookshops but none of them either popular or canonical. One might say, as the figure in the movie, who gestures at St. Paul’s Cathedral, where his bust was erected, “Did he really merit this?”

But his contemporaries chose to put him there, even after a decade and a half where he contributed nothing to public life, and they put him there because in some way they understood him: they knew that what had happened to him in particularly vivid ways, had happened to them all: he was a man who stood in symbolic relation to his age. His case was more acute, because he fought the Great War as a stranger in another’s land, largely alone – the Arabs were by his side, but to them he was a foreigner and a curiosity. He had no true trench-mates. And so he reflected, and agonized, and reflected more. It was not merely that he saw men blown to pieces by bombs, or grow septic from simple wounds in the unmedicined desert, or turn over in their blankets onto a viper and die of the bite, or slip on an icy patch on a trail and plummet to their deaths: he saw also that there was no pattern to it, that the careful or good died while the careless or wicked survived, or vice versa. The dangers could at any moment suddenly claim his life; but the senselessness behind it all, like a good general exploiting an advantage, was more methodical, slowly, with constant meaninglessness, plundering him not of his life but of his will to live.

And it is the character of Lawrence’s book to chronicle this, in one brief narrative conspectus which seems to start nearly from the age of chivalry and end in the horrors of “absolute war.” The Arabs begin as a mounted army of great knights with their retinues, and they come in like Crusaders, “riding in to swear allegiance” to their holy cause, led by Feisal, the golden son of the King of Mecca:

Feisal swore new adherents solemnly on the Koran between his hands, ‘to wait while he waited, march when he marched, to yield obedience to no Turk, to deal kindly with all who spoke Arabic (whether Bagdadi, Aleppine, Syrian, or pure-blooded) and to put independence above life, family, and goods. (175-6)

As he plodded through the wastes making converts to the religion of revolt a still-idealistic Lawrence had time to mentally enlarge on his theme, and justify to himself what he was doing:

The cool of the night was pleasant after the day of checks and discussions which had so dragged at Rabegh. Tafas led on without speaking, and the camels went silently over the soft flat sand. My thoughts as we went were how this was the pilgrim road, down which, for uncounted generations, the people of the north had come to visit the Holy City, bearing with them gifts of faith for the shrine; and it seemed that the Arab revolt might be in a sense a return pilgrimage, to take back to the north, to Syria, an ideal for an ideal, a belief in liberty for their past belief in a revelation. (78)

And everywhere he finds the legendary hospitality of the Beduin tents, “whose owners ran to us when they saw us coming; and, taking our head-stalls with hospitable force, led us in” (184-5), and he passes three years in this life, through weird deserts and blooming oases, where people had lived so long, and by manners so constant, we call them timeless.  All very poetic.

By the end of his chronicle Lawrence is calling in airstrikes onto hapless retreating armies, and is responsible for (along with the sanitation, police, electricity, newspapers, currency, etc.) the Turkish military hospital, where the Turks evacuating Damascus some weeks before had left their dying. There was such chaos that he went to see the place alone, and the resulting confrontation of the solitary individual with the realities of mass society at war is one of the great, strange horrors of all literature:

I stepped in, to meet a sickening stench: and, as my eyes grew open, a sickening sight. The stone floor was covered with dead bodies side by side, some in full uniform, some in underclothing, some stark naked. There might be thirty there, and they crept with rats, who had gnawed wet red galleries into them. A few were corpses nearly fresh, perhaps only a day or two old: others must have been there for long. Of some the flesh, going putrid, was yellow and blue and black. Many were already swollen twice or thrice life-width, their fat heads laughing with black mouth across jaws harsh with stubble. Of others the softer parts were fallen in. A few had burst open, and were liquescent with decay.

Beyond was the vista of a great room, from which I thought there came a groan. I trod over to it, across the soft mat of bodies, whose clothing, yellow with dung, crackled dryly under me. Inside the ward the air was raw and still, and the dressed battalion of filled beds so quiet that I thought these two were dead, each man rigid on his stinking pallet, from which liquid muck had dripped down to stiffen on the cemented floor.

I picked forward a little between their lines, holding my white skirts about me, not to dip my bare feet in their puddled running: when suddenly I heard a sigh and turned abruptly to meet the open beady eyes of an outstretched man, while ‘Aman, aman’ (pity, pity, pardon) rustled from the twisted lips. There was a brown waver as several tried to lift their hands, and a thin fluttering like withered leaves, as they vainly fell back again upon their beds. (656)

This is Wilfred Owen, but grown to a greatness every bit as great and disgusting as Dante’s. And the spectacle of such sensitivity of soul – how many verses of Shelley and Shakespeare and Arnold had the British schoolboy Lawrence to learn by heart, before he could write like that? – ingenuously, even desirously, stepping into the charnel-chamber to look at the suffering of man – there is nothing quite like it. Nowadays we would know what to expect at the war-hospital and sagely avoid it – we would know, if we wished to enjoy Keats later on in life, to delegate such horrors to other kinds of men. And this world-weary wisdom would stop our hands from composing such prose as Lawrence’s.

It is not clear what kind of wisdom Seven Pillars of Wisdom is supposed to impart – intriguingly enough, he never engages with the title, never producing seven lessons from his experience nor talking very much about wisdom at all. (He does say of one sheikh, quite ingenuously I think, “He was old and wise, which meant tired and disappointed,” which may be the qualities Lawrence wishes to signify when he writes ‘wisdom’).

But it is hard not to take my own disappointment in Lawrence’s silence as his intention: he means to give the reader his experience, which was to delve into life seeking after a promised wisdom, and find nothing, find it not even mentioned in all that experience; to turn around at the end, and look through the rubbish, wondering if the proffered wisdom had been left behind somehow, overlooked when the mind was intent on other things.

And in particular, intent on itself. Those who have no patience for agonized introspection will not enjoy Lawrence. He was capable of going on and on about himself. But the result is something very thorough – a kind of catalogue of the movements of the mind, which will look familiar to all those who spend much time alone (and are of similar composition, as I suspect I am myself) – and the account is, I think, surprisingly honest. Honesty always gives value to our formulations.

I spent hours apart by myself, taking stock of where I stood, mentally, on this my thirtieth birthday. It came to me queerly how, four years ago, I had meant to be a general and knighted, when thirty. Such temporal dignities (if I survived the next four weeks) were now in my grasp – only that my sense of the falsity of the Arab position had cured me of crude ambition: while it left me my craving for good repute among men.

This craving made me profoundly suspect my truthfulness to myself. Only too good an actor could so impress his favourable opinion. Here were the Arabs believing me, Allenby and Clayton trusting me, my bodyguard dying for me: and I began to wonder if all established reputations were founded, like mine, on fraud.

The praise-wages of my acting had now to be accepted. Any protestation of the truth from me was called modesty, self-depreciation; and charming – for men were always fond to believe a romantic tale. It irritated me, this silly confusion of shyness, which was conduct, with modesty, which was a point of view. I was not modest, but ashamed of my awkwardness, of my physical envelope, and of my solitary unlikeness which made me no companion, but an acquaintance, complete, angular, uncomfortable, as a crystal.
With men I had a sense always of being out of depth. This led to elaboration – the vice of amateurs tentative in their arts. As my war was overthought, because I was not a soldier, so my activity was overwrought, because I was not a man of action. They were intensely conscious efforts, with my detached self always eyeing the performance from the wings in criticism. (562)

The “falsity of the Arab position” over which he interminably agonizes was this: the British were encouraging the Arabs to revolt against Turkey because they wished to win their war with Turkey; but they hardly intended to let the Arabs have their independence after the war. By an agreement known to Lawrence, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, France would take Syria and Lebanon and Britain would take the rest: what is now Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, Iraq, and Kuwait (none of which existed as nations; they were parts of the Ottoman Empire). Lawrence’s solution to the problem was one of the best available: he disclosed the Sykes-Picot Agreement to Prince Feisal, and counseled him to take as much as he possibly could for himself, and not let the British “liberate” places. Lawrence apparently made his beliefs somewhat clear to British command, but they did not remove him, probably because he was an effective officer in the field and they felt they could deal quite easily with the Arabs later. The end result was, in fact, something somewhat similar to what Lawrence suggested to Feisal: the British kept Palestine, which they had conquered, and the Arabs kept Arabia, which they had themselves taken from the Turks; the British and French later took Transjordan and Syria. Feisal so trusted Lawrence that he had Lawrence serve as a member of his own delegation – rather than the British delegation – when negotiating the status of Syria in 1920. And yet Lawrence was never treated as a traitor by the British. For a diplomat to be held in such high esteem by both sides is remarkable.

But the British seemed to be losing their heart for empire, and perhaps they agreed with Lawrence’s criticisms of it. Lawrence was the prodrome of an order higher than Empire. This is made clear enough towards the end of the account, as he and the Arabs have to work with British and their cowed Indian troops:

My mind felt in the Indian rank and file something puny and confined; and air of thinking themselves mean; almost a careful, esteemed subservience, unlike the abrupt wholesomeness of the Beduin. The manner of the British officers toward their men struck horror into my bodyguard, who had never seen personal inequality before. (638)

“Had never seen personal inequality before” – what a marvellous thing to say. Would that we were all so innocent, and had never seen such a thing.

When he meets up with General Barrow just outside Damascus:

I had studied Barrow and was ready for him. Years before, he had published his confession of faith in Fear as the common people’s main incentive to action in war and peace. Now I found fear a mean, overrated motive; no deterrent, and, though a stimulant, a poisonous stimulant, whose every injection served to consume more of the system to which it was applied. I could have no alliance with his pedant belief of scaring men into heaven: better that Barrow and I part at once. My instinct with the inevitable was to provoke it. Therefore, I was very spiny and high. (636)

As he keeps Barrow from entering towns, he rushes to establish an Arab civil government:

He [Barrow] had had no orders as to the status of the Arabs. Clayton [the intelligence officer/diplomat played by Claude Reins in the film] did us this service, thinking we should deserve what we could assert: so Barrow, who had come in thinking of them as a conquered people, though dazed at my calm assumption that he was my guest, had no option but to follow the lead of such assurance. My head was working full speed in these minutes, on our joint behalf, to prevent the fatal first steps by which the unimaginative British, with the best will in the world, usually deprived the acquiescent native of the discipline of responsibility, and created a situation which called for years of agitation and successive reforms and riotings to mend. (636)

There is something about this which is impressive, and seems like a genuine achievement – the government he helped set up governed for two years in Syria after the war before it was colonized, and it still exists as the government of Saudi Arabia now, which is something, but Lawrence found it all utterly joyless:

By the charred hangars my guards, fickled-surfaced as the sea, squabbled after their wont; and there to-night for the last time Abdulla brought me cooked rice in the silver bowl. After supping, I tried in the blankness to think forward: but my mind was a blank, my dreams puffed out like candles by the strong wind of success. In front was our too-tangible goal: but behind lay the effort of two years, its misery forgotten or glorified. Names rang through my head, each in imagination a superlative: Rum the magnificent, brilliant Petra, Azrak the remote, Batra the very clean. Yet the men had changed. Death had taken the gentle ones; and the new stridency, of those who were left, hurt me. (638)

This joylessness is one of Lawrence’s hallmarks; and I think it is commonly a quality of those who strive to do good, which is sad to me, but also intriguing. The evil just as much as the simple really do seem capable of enjoying life, as one of the Arab’s stories about Enver Pasha, the Turkish general, serves to show:

He went to see it, in a penny steamer, with Prince Jemil and a gorgeous staff. The Bulgars, when they came, had massacred the Turks; as they retired the Bulgar peasants went too. So the Turks found hardly anyone to kill. A greybeard was led on board for the Commander-in-Chief to bait. At last Enver tired of this. He signed to two of his bravo aides, and throwing open the furnace door, said, ‘Push him in.’ The old man screamed, but the officers were stronger and the door was slammed-to on his jerking body. ‘We turned, feeling sick, to go away, but Enver, his head on one side, listening, halted us. So we listened, till there came a crash within the furnace. He smiled and nodded, saying, ‘Their heads always pop, like that.’ (622)

It is not clear, from almost seven hundred pages of text, what Lawrence would listen for in this world, and smile and nod when he found. Everything seems sad and stained. He quotes poetry as he rides off to battle,

For Lord I was free of all Thy flowers, but I chose the world’s sad roses,
And that is why my feet are torn and mine eyes are blind with sweat. (304)

Not much of a battle-song. Like most good people he wonders about whether altruism is really just self-service, but with Lawrence it rises to a truly pathological brilliance:

To endure for another in simplicity gave a sense of greatness. There was nothing loftier than a cross, from which to contemplate the world. The pride and exhilaration of it were beyond conceit. Yet each cross, occupied, robbed the late-comers of all but the poor part of copying: and the meanest of things were those done by example. The virtue of sacrifice lay within the victim’s soul.

Honest redemption must have been free and child-minded. When the expiator was conscious of the under-motives and the after-glory of his act, both were wasted on him. So the introspective altruist appropriated a share worthless, indeed harmful, to himself, for had he remained passive, his cross might have been granted to an innocent. To rescue simple ones from such evil by paying for them his complicated self would be avaricious in the modern man. He, thought-riddled, could not share their belief in others’ discharge through his agony, and they, looking on him without understanding, might feel the shame which was the manly disciple’s lot: or might fail to feel it, and incur the double punishment of ignorance.

Or was this shame, too, a self-abnegation, to be admitted and admired for its own sake? How was it right to let men die because they did not understand? Blindness and folly aping the way of right were punished more heavily than purposed evil, at least in the present consciousness and remorse of man alive. Complex men who knew how self-sacrifice uplifted the redeemer and cast down the bought, and who held back in his knowledge, might so let a foolish brother take the place of false nobility and its later awakened due of heavier sentence. There seemed no straight walking for us leaders in this crooked lane of conduct, ring within ring of unknown, shamefaced motives cancelling or double-charging their precedents.

Yet I cannot put down my acquiescence in the Arab fraud to weakness of character or native hypocrisy: though of course I must have had some tendency, some aptitude, for deceit, or I would not have deceived men so well, and persisted two years in bringing to success a deceit which others had framed and set afoot. I had had no concern with the Arab Revolt in the beginning. In the end I was responsible for its being an embarrassment to the inventors. Where exactly in the interim my guilt passed from accessory to principal, upon what headings I should be condemned, were not for me to say. Suffice it that since the march to Akaba I bitterly repented my entanglement in the movement, with a bitterness sufficient to corrode my inactive hours, but insufficient to make me cut myself clear of it. Hence the wobbling of my will, and endless, vapid complainings. (551-2)

As I have said, he can go on like this for quite some time. The insistence and self-torment are magnified, I think, by the logical leaps and strange motions of his brain: because you know that at one time these were not leaps, but considered steps, which have become tracks so worn in his guilt-ridden inner dialogue that he lopes in the retelling, making the contortions of his mind difficult to understand. It resembles Augustine.

This is guilt – the inner kind – and it intrigues me. It is often considered a feeling derived from religion, though I am not at all convinced of this; Lawrence does not seem to have any particularly religious thoughts, but he is utterly guilt-ridden. It seems to be an important first step in the creation of an ethical person; but somehow it has to be shed, and a new way of thinking replace it. Of course Lawrence could not be perfect; of course his motives were mixed, and his ego was immense; but one must have faith, to let, as the parable tells us, the weeds grow together with the wheat: to give up on perfection, and proceed, and act. I understand that being in the employ of the British Empire, selling people on a freedom you know your bosses wish to steal in the end, is a particularly difficult situation; and I have no solution for it either. But one must do one’s best and have some trust. Nothing will be good but God alone, in the end.

This is particularly a thought of thoughtful warriors. A friend of mine, who served as an American soldier in Iraq, summed up the problem thus: “‘How do good people do bad things?’ I once asked. By the end of my time in Iraq, I asked, ‘How do people do good things at all?’” When you interrogate your motives, nothing seems very impressive or beautiful. And for a certain sort of person – a person with a well-developed ego and a strong desire to be good – this is agony. In Lawrence it is taken to an extreme. This is what he has to say about marriage and childbirth:

After an hour he excused himself, because he had just married a Shobek wife. We talked of their marriage, whose end was the bearing of children: I withstood it, quoting old Dionysius of Tarsus [not only is this an odd use of ‘withstood,’ I have no idea who Dionysius of Tarsus is]. At his [Dionysius’s?] sixty years without marriage they were shocked, holding procreation and evacuation alike as inevitable movements of the body; they repeated their half of the commandment to honour parents. I asked how they could look with pleasure on children, embodied proofs of their consummated lust? And invited them to picture the minds of the children, seeing crawl wormlike out of the mother that bloody, blinded thing which was themselves! It sounded to him a most excellent joke. (496-7)

If this is the regard in which he holds motherhood, imagine then, what he makes of war. His description of pursuing the retreating Turkish Fourth Army – which was massacred almost to a man as Lawrence watched – is all the more chilling for seeming so logical and unavoidable. It was the simple horror of war, with no one to blame.  The Turks were killing everything in their path: so how could they expect mercy?

The village [Tafas] lay stilly under its slow wreaths of white smoke, as we rode near, on our guard. Some grey heaps seemed to hide in the long grass, embracing the ground in the close way of corpses. We looked away from these, knowing they were dead; but from one a little figure tottered off, as if to escape us. It was a child, three or four years old, whose dirty smock was stained red over one shoulder and side, with blood from a large half-fibrous wound, perhaps a lance thrust, just where neck and body joined.

The child ran a few steps, then stood and cried to us in a tone of astonishing strength (all else being very silent), ‘Don’t hit me, Baba.’ Abd el Aziz, choking out something – this was his village, and she might be of his family – flung himself off his camel, and stumbled, kneeling, in the grass beside the child. His suddenness frightened her, for she threw up her arms and tried to scream; but, instead, dropped in a little heap, while the blood rushed out again over her clothes; then, I think, she died.

We rode past the other bodies of men and women and four more babies, looking very soiled in the daylight, towards the village; whose loneliness we now knew meant death and horror. By the outskirts were low mud walls, sheepfolds, and on one something red and white. I looked close and saw the body of a woman folded across it, bottom upwards, nailed there by a saw bayonet whose haft stuck hideously into the air from between her naked legs. She had been pregnant, and about her lay others, perhaps twenty in all, variously killed, but set out in accord with an obscene taste.

The Zaagi [one of the other officers] burst into wild peals of laughter, the more desolate for the warm sunshine and clear air of this upland afternoon. I said, ‘The best of you brings me the most Turkish dead,’ and we turned after the fading enemy, on our way shooting down those who had fallen out by the roadside and came imploring our pity. One wounded Turk, half naked, not able to stand, sat and wept to us. Abdulla turned away his camel’s head, but the Zaagi, with curses, crossed his track and whipped three bullets from his automatic through the man’s bare chest. The blood came out with his heart beats, throb, throb, throb, slower and slower.

Tallal [the sheikh of the village] had seen what we had seen. He gave one moan like a hurt animal; then rode to the upper ground and sat there a while on his mare, shivering and looking fixedly after the Turks. I moved near to speak to him, but Auda caught my rein and stayed me. Very slowly Tallal drew his head-cloth about his face; and then he seemed suddenly to take hold of himself, for he dashed his stirrups into the mare’s flanks and galloped headlong, bending low and swaying in the saddle, right at the main body of the enemy.

It was a long ride down a gentle slope and across a hollow. We sat there like stone while he rushed forward, the drumming of his hoofs unnaturally loud in our ears, for we had stopped shooting, and the Turks had stopped. Both armies waited for him; and he rocked on in the hushed evening till only a few lengths from the enemy. Then he sat up in the saddle and cried his war-cry, ‘Tallal, Tallal,’ twice in a tremendous shout. Instantly their rifles and machine-guns crashed out, and he and his mare, riddled through and through with bullets, fell dead among the lance points.

Auda [the warrior played in the film by Anthony Quinn] looked very cold and grim. ‘God give him mercy; we will take his price.’ He shook his rein and moved very slowly after the enemy. We called up the peasants, now drunk with fear and blood, and sent them from this side and that against the retreating column. The old lion of battle waked in Auda’s heart, and made him again our natural, inevitable leader. By a skilful turn he drove the Turks into bad ground and split their formation into three parts…. In a madness born of the horror of Tafas we killed and killed, even blowing in the heads of the fallen and of the animals; as though their death and running blood could slake our agony. (632-3)

The destruction of the Turkish army took all night: “This was one of the nights in which mankind went crazy, when death seemed impossible, however many died to the right and left, and when others’ lives became toys to break and throw away” (634).

What is one to make of this? This is war; can anything good come of it? Yet we are told that much that is beautiful and important in the world was born in precisely this way; and if not born, at least preserved. Lawrence was wracked with guilt for his generalship in a battle, in which a thousand Turks were slaughtered at the loss of just thirty of his own men. This counts as a great success in war, but Lawrence felt he could have avoided battle and forced the enemy to capitulate without firing a shot; but the Turks, superior in numbers, had attacked him.

I thought of the depths between here and Kerak, the ravine of Hesa, with its broken, precipitous paths, the undergrowth, the narrows and defiles of the way. It was going to be a massacre and I should have been crying-sorry for the enemy; but after the angers and exertions of the battle my mind was too tired to care to go down into that awful place and spend the night saving them. By my decision to fight, I had killed twenty or thirty of our six hundred men, and the wounded would be perhaps three times as many. It was one-sixth of our force gone on a verbal triumph, for the destruction of this thousand poor Turks would not affect the issue of the war….As we turned back it began to snow; and only very late, and by a last effort did we get our hurt men in. The Turkish wounded lay out, and were dead the next day. It was indefensible, as was the whole theory of war; but no special reproach lay on us for it. We risked our lives in the blizzard (the chill of victory bowing us down) to save our own fellows; and if our rule was not to lose Arabs to kill even many Turks, still less might we lose them to save Turks. (482)

The war-passages, horrid as they are, are very easy to read: there is something atrociously mesmerizing about war-narratives.  A war is inherently a story, with its own momentum and narrative force, and it is a story where everything matters, from weather to geography to character. It allows for such final statements as “The best of you brings me the most Turkish dead.” But Lawrence wrote not merely a war-narrative. He was also a portraitist. There was the old man mystic Lawrence encountered at a pool in Wadi Rumm, who said before shambling off, “The love is from God, and of God, and to God.” There is the man who tended a garden in an oasis only large enough for one family:

The inhabitant of Kurr, the only sedentary Belluwi, hoary Dhaif-Allah, laboured day and night with his daughters in the little terraced plot which he had received from his ancestors. It was built out of the south edge of the valley in a bay defended against flood by a massive wall of unhewn stone. In its midst opened the well of cold clear water, above which stood a balance-cantilever of mud and rude poles. By this Dhaif-Allah, morning and evening when the sun was low, drew up great bowls of water and spilled them into clay runnels contrived through his garden among the tree roots. He grew low palms, for their spreading leaves shaded his plants from the sun which otherwise might in that stark valley wither them, and raised young tobacco (his most profitable crop); with smaller plots of beans and melons, cucumbers and egg-plants, in due season. The old man lived with his women in a brushwood hut beside the well, and was scornful of our politics, demanding what more to eat or drink these sore efforts and bloody sacrifices would bring…. He was free and wanted nothing for others; and only his garden for himself. Nor did he see why others should not become rich in a like frugality. (231)

Lawrence collected many men on his journey – capturing them as he could with his fine words (he also commissioned artists to make portraits of those who had survived the war). And there is the desert behind it all, which, paradoxically, simultaneously dwarfs human things and makes them precious. It makes Seven Pillars of Wisdom one of the distinguished curiosities, worth one’s attention in one of those interludes of life where not much seems very hopeful, and a companion for the lonely way is looked for.

I cannot close this review without noting my admiration for the David Lean film about Lawrence, and the Robert Bolt screenplay which captures so much of the man. Many of the most impressive scenes in the movie are to be found in Lawrence’s book almost precisely as they were shot on film. Some others may come from the journalistic accounts of Lawrence which had appeared in the press, but I suspect several scenes in the movie which are not found in the book are Bolt’s inventions. These inventions are almost always impressive artistically. For example, Lawrence did indeed ride back through the desert to save a man who had been lost; and Lawrence did execute a man to prevent a blood-feud from arising in the army. In the movie these are (inaccurately) made the same man. The result, of course, is to distill into narrative form all Lawrence’s questions as to his own role: whether he was really doing anything good, whether all his “nobility” amounted to anything, whether he was really making a difference or not. Bolt appears to have added the question of fate versus free will, which serves as a functional narrative device to contrast Lawrence’s anguish (as one too free) versus the other characters’ blithe acquiescence in fatalism. Lawrence never specifically mentions such a tension, but it is a compact mode of presenting the problem. Other alterations are similarly effective without ever seeming to betray the film’s efforts at portraiture.

Back at the Cabin.

23-Nov-14

Back to a place where you can’t just come home and get cooking: you come home, start the fire, put the olive oil by the fire for a half hour, and once it’s liquid enough to pour, then you can start cooking.  Gotta love it.

Cicero, Latin, Ted Cruz, & Google.

21-Nov-14

A friend posted on Facebook the following rant after the idiocy of Ted Cruz, who rather obviously never reads Cicero and is full of it, quoting the First Catilinarian against Obama:

A friend posted this about Ted Cruz invoking the 1st Catilinarian:

sponte sua mihi in mentem maledictio illa subit, quae apud Plautum legitur: ‘abi in malam crucem.’ uereor autem ne posthac id melius decentiusque dicatur, ‘in malum Crucem,’ ob istum scilicet μωρόσοφον Texanum, senatus nostri, ordinis reuerendissimi, magnum dedecus, quippe qui hodie orationem apud patres conscriptos habuerit, in qua personam Tullianam induxit et Praesidem Obamam cum Catilina comparauit. di melius! hoc salsum esse putas? fugit te, inepte: quamuis sordida res et inuenusta est.

Which is beautifully said.  And Googletranslate did the following to it:

‘to me of their own accord into the mind of the curse that comes up, which are among the Plautus to read: ” go hang the cross. ‘ I fear , however , that hereafter it is even better decentiusque it is said : “In the Cross of evil , ‘ that is, μωρόσοφον Texanum on account of this , the Senate of us, of the order of most reverend , a big disgrace , inasmuch as he has had this day been composed with the prayer in the Senate , and President Obama has introduced in which the person of the Ciceronian compared with Catiline . di better ! This is witty? It escapes you , foolish man , although the thing is as dirty and unattractive’

T.E. Lawrence on Sherif Ali ibn El Hussein.

08-Nov-14

“The greatest asset of Feisal’s cause in this work up North was Sherif Ali ibn el Hussein.  The lunatic competitor of all the wilder tribesmen in their wildest feats was now turning all his force to greater ends.  The mixed natures in him made of his face and body powerful pleadings, carnal, perhaps, except in so far as they were transfused by character.  No one could see him without the desire to see him again; especially when he smiled, as he did rarely, with both mouth and eyes at once.  His beauty was a conscious weapon.  He dressed spotlessly, all in black or all in white; and he studied gesture.

“Fortune had added physical perfection and unusual grace, but these qualities were only the just expression of his powers.  They made obvious the pluck which never yielded, which would have let him be cut to pieces, holding on.  His pride broke out in his war-cry, ‘I am of the Harith’, the two-thousand-year-old clan of freebooters; while the huge eyes, white with large black pupils slowly turning in them, emphasized the frozen dignity which was his ideal carriage, and to which he was always striving to still himself.  But as ever the bubbling laugh would shriek out of him unawares; and the youth, boyish or girlish, of him, the fire and deviltry would break through his night like a sunrise.

“Yet, despite this richness, there was a constant depression with him, the unknown longing of simple, restless people for abstract thought beyond their minds’ supply.  His bodily strength grew day by day, and hatefully fleshed over this humble something which he wanted more.  These besetting strangers underlined his detachment, his unwilling detachment, from his fellows.  Despite his great instinct for confession and company, he could find no intimates.  Yet he could not be alone.  If he had no guests, Khazen, the servant, must serve his meals, while Ali and his slaves ate together.”  - T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, p. 437-8

The Devil Is In The Details.

02-Nov-14


“Opinions,” said T.E. Lawrence in one of his more clear-sighted, depressive moods, “are arguable, but convictions need shooting to be cured.”  Reason is not one of the more obvious human capacities, and as we know well, a certain amount of unreason lends tenor and piquancy to belief.  But as a plantsman I found the screenshot of this video quite amusing: a man uses botany to debunk the Book of Mormon, noting that it contains references to Old World plants but not native ones.  The text’s plant vocabulary is “wheat, barley, corn [an ambiguous word, as in British English it means all grains], flax, grapes, olives, mustard trees, etc.,” none of which are part of the North American flora in similar ways, while distinctively North American plants are omitted.  The same with fauna, where elephants, donkeys, cows, goats, and the like are mentioned, but not llamas or bison.  The Book of Mormon is an obvious imposture, but this is just a pleasant reminder.

The video is a bit snarky and long.

The Outsourcerers.

24-Sep-14

Travelling with my mother in Quebec, we saw the statue of Champlain that stands outside the Chateau Frontenac.  ”People dressed so strangely in those days,” she said.  I let her continue the thought.  ”A lot of times they had people dress them – can you imagine?  Needing someone to dress you?”

She continued: “You know, when I was a kid, I felt sorry for rich people.  As a kid all I really saw of them was when they walked from their cars to their apartment buildings.  And I felt they must be sick, something had to be wrong with them: they were so weak they needed people to open the doors for them.”

This is actually a profound insight, one so profound only a child could have it.  And I can see how much of my life has been built around this one insight into life which my mother had as a child and passed on to me as a kind of unconscious inheritance.  Don’t have someone do your living for you.   

Stage Two.

13-Aug-14

Coming down Oak Street, New Orleans blew me one last kiss: a glimpse of Jacque-imo’s and its famous gator-painted pickup truck. Every time I see something interesting in New Orleans, I realize how unimaginative and boring everyplace else is. I’ve seen pickup trucks and restaurants all over America, but only in New Orleans have I seen this: a pickup – wildly painted – parked in front of a restaurant, with a table in the pickup’s bed, with tablecloth, silverware, and everything, the server coming out and taking orders leaning over the side of the pickup-bed. It’s not a terrible idea for a fun date, pulling this off somewhere else, making an arrangement beforehand with the server.

Many people who travel the river treat New Orleans as its southern terminus, and now that I was going north it seemed like the trip was really beginning. I had ridden 110 miles to reach New Orleans, a brief trial run to see if I could handle such a long trip. Since arriving in the Big Easy I had ridden 49 further miles, and had been all over the city from the Lower Ninth Ward to Carrollton. I had been in terrible physical condition when I started, but I was rapidly getting better. My spine was slowly resuming its proper shape, and though all the muscles of my lower back were still sore, the numbness had left my right leg. The numbness had been replaced by pain, particularly at the hip. In fact the pain was so bad I wondered if my femur was actually in its socket, and occasionally I would punch my hip repeatedly hoping to drive the bone back in. – I don’t know if there’s any way to avoid a certain amount of hypochondria. I’ve never had any patently serious ailments – no broken bones or trips to the hospital – and I could probably calculate pretty accurately the number of pills I’ve taken in my entire life (including painkillers like aspirin) because the number is so small (certainly less than three hundred in thirty-eight years). But sometimes I wonder – is this because I’m lucky or because I have a masochistic indifference to my body’s comfort? Maybe I’m terribly sick somewhere inside, and have ground all the inner gears in my body to stubs, and don’t know it because I’ve never been to a doctor to be tested. So even though I rarely let my body serve as an excuse for not doing something, I still fear my body’s fragility, and sometimes also its silence. I presume my body will tell me if I am doing something wrong, but who knows – perhaps these daily aches and pains are its messages, and I have learned to ignore them at my own peril. A long trip like this makes you wonder just how in tune with your body you really are. Was I really going to be able to bike over two thousand five hundred miles without any training beforehand? I hadn’t ridden thirty miles on a bike in the previous three years.

I had divided the trip up into five segments, to be punctuated by long breaks at each of the river’s major cities. The first leg was from the Gulf to New Orleans; then New Orleans to Memphis; Memphis to St. Louis; St. Louis to Minneapolis; and Minneapolis to Lake Itasca. The first leg was short, just a test-run, really. The second leg was long: 850 miles to Memphis. Not only was it a long way, it was probably the most dangerous part of the trip. It was a mighty river below Memphis, and the flat ground here had always been prone to floods; the river had been too dangerous to build near. The hot, muggy climate discouraged development, and the alluvial soils offered no mineral wealth save in farming. The farms had long ago been latifundia where slaves worked beneath the lash of the overseer, but I didn’t know what was there now. On the map I saw few towns, and most of them small: this was the most deserted, wild part of the river. And one of the most feared areas of the country: this was the Deep South, and it was not clear that everyone was welcome there. I was a Yankee, on a bicycle, one of the most vulnerable forms of transportation, going through the poorest, most poorly educated part of one of the most violent countries in the world.

Before I arrived in Venice I got an email from my friend Tommy. He had lived in Louisiana most of his life, and he cautioned me about this trip, and in particular the stretch between Baton Rouge and Memphis. After telling me how horrific the bugs can be, he wrote:

Also note that much of this kind of trip will take you through some very remote areas, so be careful of the locals. Also note the location of Angola Prison along the Mississippi river in Louisiana. You do not, I repeat, you do not want to wander anywhere near the boundaries of this prison, as you will be arrested. It is in a remote area, look it up, and keep your distance. You will be traveling through the Delta, which has some of the most poor villages and towns in the South. Be careful to tread lightly, and not draw alot of attention to yourself, as you will be encountering folks of all stations in life, i.e. outlaws. These are the kind of places that you can come up missing, and not even the X-files can find trace of you or your bike.

I didn’t think it was that bad. I treated the fears of other people as I treated the pain in my body: I recognized that I could get into trouble, and that I needed to be cautious and needed to be aware, but ultimately I felt that neither fear nor pain was going to stop me. The river-levee was at the end of Oak Street, and I climbed up onto the levee and headed upstream. I was hoping to make Vacherie, sixty-five miles away, by nightfall.

On Anger.

08-Aug-14

A friend who is going through some difficulties told me that she was outside her house recently, sitting in her car, and she realized she had been angry for a long time: and all of a sudden that she was not angry anymore: it was all dissolving, and it was just turning to sadness – a great, terrible sadness. I am a believer in practicing the religious wisdom we have inherited, and so I told her what I had heard from my religious teachers: that this was good, that anger and sadness were the same thing, but that sadness was pliable, it could be let off as tears, it could be discussed, it was social and so could be healed: but anger was brittle, it was rigid, it was hard to work with and ultimately solitary.

Now whether all this is true is a good question. There is certainly some received wisdom of a secular sort which counsels precisely the opposite, that we should not be sad, but get mad instead. Preferring sadness to anger sounds like it could be the age-old Christian idolization of the doormat. But I was reading a book by the Dalai Lama, and he too preached against anger, saying quite simply that his religion sought peace and happiness, and the angry person is never happy and at peace, and so he felt it was always better to avoid anger.

I thought it was worth exploring. I began by asking the question: what might the evolutionary purpose of anger be? I thought the answer was bipartite. First of all, anger increases our energy level, and is designed to help us through times particularly when great strength is required, for example self-defense. In modern times this is only rarely useful; sometimes when doing demolition work or something similar a little bit of anger makes the work go more quickly. But more commonly anger is a social emotion, and its basic function appears to be to discourage certain behavior in others. A juvenile ape keeps poking the silverback with a stick, and after bearing as much as he is going to bear, the silverback erupts in anger, shows his teeth and whacks the little one in the side of the head: the juvenile never does that again. I think most of us can remember incurring the wrath of our parents or teacher for some misdeed or other, and thinking, “I never, ever, ever want to have to experience this ever again and I will never, ever, ever do that again.” Besides its initial purpose of deterring certain behaviors, for us primates with memory anger is also instructive: it burns the lesson into the memory. The anger of others is often particularly memorable, even years after the fact.

When I explained this inchoate theory to a friend – who is prone to anger and has been recently trying to reform – he said, “But that’s really not true. Anger doesn’t actually deter other people from doing things. It’s not effective. When people have to work with someone who gets angry, they don’t stop doing whatever angers that person: they just start working on ways to get rid of that person, or at least do stuff without telling that person. Anger is just a dumb social obstacle, and in the end the work that has to get done just goes around it.”

He then added a slight modification: “If a person is really powerful – like the silverback you spoke about – yes, you can push people around with your anger. But if you don’t have that power, then it always backfires. It makes you less powerful – it makes other people start scheming to cut you out entirely.”

I think everything he said was true, and I will add that people start scheming to cut powerful angry people out of the loop too: they just have to wait longer, to amass the resources necessary to get rid of the powerful person. “No one robs the house of the strong man, without first tying up the strong man.”

This was a decent start to what I felt was the problem: anger is natural, and sometimes useful, and so I am loth to simply label it a “deadly sin” and seek to get rid of it. But it is more ineffective than effective, especially as we age, and in particular it causes problems for the people around us. And the problems we cause others have a way of coming back to us.

Let us take a look at this social aspect of anger. Even to speak of an emotion with a purpose sounds odd, and anger I think is particularly paradoxical: is an inner emotion but its deterrent effect is generally elsewhere. Inside of us it feels like a reflex reaction, like something we can’t even help – we speak of someone else making us angry, as if we had no control over it – but to others it feels manipulative, because the anger is directed at changing their behavior. Hence one person’s anger often sparks another’s: when a person is angry with you, it feels like they are infringing on your freedom. They are not dealing with you as a mature, thoughtful person to whom appeal can be made. They are just trying to stop you from doing what you just did by making life unpleasant for everyone.
Anger has another social aspect – also aimed at changing the behavior of others – as a cry for help. We all know the situation: a group of people – perhaps a family – are working on a project together, and one person, unable to complete his or her task, starts getting frustrated and starts making angry sounds. The fact that anger tends to be vocal, even if it has no words, is a sign of its social nature. The others in the group hear these sounds of frustration, and the person in charge of the project either gives instruction as to how to do the job more effectively, or relieves the person of the duty of this particular task. In instances where the job requires extraordinary physical strength, the anger might make the job easier, but usually the anger is designed to manipulate the other people engaged in the task. Typically it is designed to reveal our hope that our job will be done by someone else. If we didn’t believe it was worth doing, we might just abandon it. But instead we get angry, publicly angry, and hope that someone will come to the rescue. It is more than anything else a kind of wish: a wish with a certain amount of manipulation built in to help it come true. “I hope whoever hears this is made uncomfortable enough to come to the rescue and do this for me.”

Other times people get angry at things which in themselves cannot be changed – like death or weather or something similar – and here anger becomes most problematic. The anger has a physical effect on the person who feels it – causing blood pressure to rise, adrenaline to flow, and so forth – and it also causes discomfort to everyone who knows it is happening, but the wish that is expressed – “I wish I weren’t going through this” – cannot be granted. And here I think the received religious wisdom I spoke of at the beginning of this essay becomes relevant, even necessary. Here we have to translate our anger into its actual content – the wish – and acknowledge that the wish cannot come true. The closest we can get to its fulfilment is the comfort and consolation of the people around us. But anger – which puts other people on edge, and often makes them angry themselves – is not a good welcome mat to invite in the consolation of others. Sadness, however, is. Tears are far more likely to bring consolation than anger.

But of course there is a difference, a social difference, between anger and tears. Anger is lordly, it dictates to others, while tears acknowledge weakness. But when confronted with the things we cannot change, tears are more true. And for this reason we must, for our spiritual health, know when to convert our anger back into sadness. When news had to be rought to King David of his rebel son Absalom’s death, the messenger must have quaked with fear: the king loved his son, and never wanted any of what he experienced – first his son’s rebellion, and then his death. Would this desire be expressed as anger – “Cursed be you who bring this news to me” – or sadness? Anger, in traditional terms, is the more regal feeling: it expresses power not weakness. In countless Middle Eastern tales, the lordly king executes the messenger who brings bad news – that’s almost how you know he’s a king. But David wept for his dead son Absalom. This is the higher path with all we cannot change. There is a humiliation in grief and sadness, but it is the truth, and we must bow to it in the end. Ultimately you cannot have peace and happiness – and cannot help bring peace and happiness to the people you love – without acknowledgement, before them, of your own powerlessness. Each individual ego controls so very little of the universe – even so very little of his or her own life.

But David probably reacted to Absalom’s death honestly and instinctively – he was sad, rather than angry. It was not a choice. If he had been angry – could he have done anything? Is our anger really controllable? It feels so much like a reflex reaction, like the shape of our selves, like something we cannot change. You cannot stop your leg from kicking up, when your knee is struck in the right place. And similarly, the logic goes, certain things, or certain people, just make you angry: so those topics should be avoided, or those people need to stop coming to your social events. I know one woman who, it is true, can make me angry faster than any other person I know. She can do it just about every time. Shouldn’t I just avoid her?

Of course for a time the answer might be yes. But when you are ready to gain self-knowledge, and ready to grow as a person, then that is precisely the person to go to. All vehement reactions are doors into self-knowledge. The word-association experiments done by the early psychologists were all done with a stopwatch, because they found that people had more complicated reactions to certain words – whatever the word might be, “mother” or “pregnant” or “wrist” or “money” – and those words could typically be discerned with a stopwatch: the word-response would be slightly slower – or slightly faster! – for such words. The brain had more to process for such words – the reaction was a little more vehement – which could be perceived as a slowing or quickening of speech. The reaction was “complex” – the term we now use as a noun, a complex. A person or thing who can make you angry is touching on a complex – a bundle of associations which can be untangled, and dealt with thread by thread. A deeply unhappy person is often terribly knotted up in these complexes, and makes the people around him unhappy as well, because he is so brittle and vehement and unpredictable, having overblown reactions to small stimuli. This drives other people away, making the angry person even less happy. Unraveling these complexes is often the key to the peace and happiness the Dalai Lama spoke of as the goal of the spiritual life.

Sometimes anger can be unknotted very quickly, because beneath it there is often simply a frustrated desire. I think I know why that one woman gets me so angry: I want her to love me and be my girlfriend – you can’t be more demanding of another person’s behavior than that! – and when confronted with her unwillingness, my body resorts to anger to try to establish some kind of control over her. It doesn’t work, of course – which gets me angrier. This sounds terrible as I write it – and it is – but I think it is a normal dynamic of relationships. A person who feels less loved than they desire often responds with anger. But it is exceptionally rare that such anger really makes the other person respond with more love: when it does happen, it is because that other person senses or knows what the other person wants – which might just as easily have been sincerely explained. With a less sensitive lover, the situation often merely gets worse.

We also typically see anger in people who are discussing politics. This is normal enough, because politics ultimately is about control, and so is anger, so there is a natural harmony between the two of them. But in politics we see how brittle anger is – how difficult to work with, and how liable it is to defeat its own purposes. Even the victories it achieves often insult and demean the opposition so much that they are sure to persist in their opposition, and try to undo what has been done. And in the simple conversations people have about politics, an angry tone is generally a sign that the conversation cannot go anywhere productive. That’s the time to excuse yourself on grounds of needing to get up early the next day. The only way to save the conversation is to switch there from politics to psychology: “Why are you so angry? What do you wish would happen? What would your ideal solution be?” Sometimes if a person explains himself in this way, he can hear how irrational and petulant he is being with the world – sometimes.

Watching the way people behave, I think it is fair to say that anger is not one of the things the world typically needs more of. But this is not to say it does not have a limited role. People notice anger. Sometimes a person can be taken for granted for years and years and years, building up resentment but never expressing anything, and then suddenly there is an explosion of anger – and suddenly people notice that person as they never had before. Aquinas treats of anger when discussing justice, and in this context, anger can be effective. I remember one time in grade school I was part of a group of kids who were making fun of another kid whose last name was Schnorr. “Hey Phil do you SCHNORR when you sleep?” My father publicly exploded at me, telling me I was “stupid” and “bush league.” “You never,” he said, “make fun of someone’s name. They didn’t give themselves that name.” My father didn’t really get angry at me very much, and almost every time he did it was for a reason like this: it was because I was doing something that he felt was cruel, and hence below me. I’ve never forgotten this rule of his.

Anger, then, to correct injustice may be useful, but again we should be careful, because almost everyone who is angry believes he is being unjustly treated: a child can say “it’s not fair!” to just about anything. But the process of interrogating your anger, and understanding the wish which is causing it, is the first step. Once you have determined what you really desire, it can be discussed with others, and if you involve enough honest people you can probably find out if your desire really is fair or not. But always we can presume that an angry person has some need or other which is not being met. Desire in general is a connective feeling, and even a shared unfulfilled desire can be a bond between people. Sometimes the need may be a need for acknowledged grief – that conversion into tears of which I spoke. Grief is somehow far easier to bear when it is public and acknowledged, and even better when it is truly shared. You understand then that your loss is the world’s loss, and not merely your own; your grief is not merely your own. This is a consolation, as are all the things which bridge our individual boundaries and bind us back to the people around us. Wendell Berry notes that one of the reasons Mark Twain’s successful career was ultimately an embittering journey was that he took all of the deaths of his family around him – his brother, his wife, his daughters – as personal affronts, injustices to him. Nothing embitters us quite so quickly as selfishness. Attachment to a community redeems our grief, in a mysterious way. It becomes part of the pattern. Everyone born in the Nineteenth Century is dead now, just as everyone born before then is dead too. Yet the community goes on: it bears all this, and keeps going. Without this perspective, we remain forever infantile, and unadapted to life in this world. Christians painted crucifixion after crucifixion to hammer home this point: we do not get out alive, we suffer and die and are buried, and the living have to watch it, over and over and over again. Some of us suffer terribly, as God himself suffered, and the woman God chose above all women suffered, watching her son die, “with a sword through her heart,” as the hymns say. Twain might have found this depressing. I think it a necessary realism.

If we do not start this transformation of anger somewhere around the middle of our life, I think there is significant danger that we will head off on the same embittering journey Twain went on – no matter how great our talents or success may be. Ultimately most of our anger as we age is maladaptive – it seems nature did not really plan for our living past thirty-five or so – and we need to learn to manage it. This becomes one of the most loving, caring things we can do for the people around us. Our anger affects them, and our anger is highly prone to error. But if we recognize what we desire, and use that desire in us to connect with other people, we have some chance of putting our anger into its proper place, and making our little corner of the world more peaceful and happy.

The Young Beautiful Hobos of New Orleans.

26-Jul-14

The next morning I left Johnny Angel’s house and headed for the river. I went down Carrollton Avenue to Oak, and stopped at the old bank there, which has now been converted into a coffee shop. On line waiting to pick up a few muffins, a young woman turned and asked me, “So where are you headed?”

“Minnesota,” I said flatly.  ”I’m biking up the Mississippi River.”

“I could tell it was something cool,” she said. “I saw your bike out there.”

“Wanna come?” Everyone always says no, so I don’t know if it’s worth asking, but it’s fun to ask, I suppose.

“I’m finishing up college,” she said. “Got a month and a half more to go. But once I’m done, we’re all looking to break out and see the continent. You can’t believe it, everyone’s looking to hitch-hike or ride freight trains to get out there.”

“Freight trains? For real?” And then I turned to the scruffy-bearded man behind the counter and said, “Two blueberry muffins, please.”

“That’s like the new thing,” she said. “Young people are going back to it.”

“You know two years ago here in New Orleans I met a fella – maybe eighteen – who had come down to New Orleans on a freight train. I couldn’t believe that stuff still existed.”

“Oh, it totally does. I know all sorts of people who are riding freight trains, and they all end up here, because trains come here from all directions.”

The scruffy-bearded young man said, “That’s three-twenty-four.”

I took some money out and said to her, “Aren’t there guards who beat people up?”

“The bulls. They’re legendary but I don’t think it’s like that anymore. You can’t just beat somebody up anymore, they’ll sue. You can kick riders off but you can’t hurt them.”

“Amazing,” I said to her. “Though I’m not sure that’s the way I would go. I love my bicycle. I like being under my own steam – I’m not dependent on the train’s power and I don’t have to just follow the rails to wherever they go. And you see everything. Just coming up here I had all kinds of experiences that were amazing – just within the first week. On a train I think it’s all just blur America rolling by. On a bike you interact with people – people like you, for instance. I’m John, by the way.”

“I’m Haley,” she said. She looked like the sort of woman who was going to be perennially about to hike across the Himalayas to reach some new age ashram: blond unwashed hair pulled back into a ponytail; a face that was beautiful but slightly hard around the edges – the flow of testosterone in her blood revealed in a strong chin; a small stone set in her left nostril; shorts and flip-flops on her legs and a shirt hanging on her neck by a strap; the shirt was almost backless and made clear what was obvious anyway, that she was not wearing a bra. “Do you have a blog? Are you writing about your trip?”

“Yes,” I said. I wrote it down on a piece of paper and gave it to her. “I think it’s time for me to get on the road. But get out there yourself and have some adventures. It’s amazing.”

“I can’t wait,” she said.

As I walked to my bike I felt a little pang of regret: I hadn’t gotten her number, and while she could find me if she wanted to, I knew that she never would: women never do. I could use a friend like her: adventurous people of either gender were underrepresented among the Latin teachers and responsible contributors to society that I knew. But I remembered a conversation I had with a nineteen-year-old several years ago. This young woman said, when discussing the roundabout pathway a friend of mine was taking, “Well, I guess in the end we all get to where we’re supposed to go.” And the comment struck me with great force: at nineteen perhaps I had thought that. And now, at age thirty-eight, it seemed nearly absurd: to me the oddest, most unusual thing in the world was a person who actually got to where he was supposed to go. It almost never happened: we were all curtailed, deformed, malnourished, astray, and in the end so little of what we could be. And I thought of how sacred and beautiful this faithful innocence of youth was; and how many long years separated me from it. So many years, in fact, that, beautiful as it was, it held little charm for me. My friends were the ones who knew how difficult it was to be what we could be, who realized life was sacred even in its brokenness and imperfection. They weren’t the college kids. The college kids should be allowed to go run around and see the world, without all of our mature gloom and doom. But I wondered what Haley would find out there, riding the rails of the world. Would she find that the rails were safe in the age of legal liability, and that they always brought you where you were supposed to go, or did life have something else in store for her?

But as for me, I was back on my bike, and heading upstream.