The pleasure of being lost

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During the time I was in the Navy I went on two six-month Mediterranean cruises on the USS Saratoga. Whenever we pulled into a port, no matter where it was, Naples or Malaga or Izmir or wherever, most of my shipmates would immediately head for the nearest bar to get drunk, or seek out the local prostitutes, or both. I wanted to fit in and be just “one of the guys” but I couldn’t bring myself to join them in these banal escapades, which seemed dreary and pointless to me. But I didn’t know what else to do so whenever we were in port, so I went out walking by myself, exploring, mostly at random. I found, strangely enough, that the times when I felt most alive and most at peace were the times when I was keenly aware of being all alone in a strange place, in a foreign culture among people who spoke a language incomprehensible to me. At such times the world was beautiful and strange. As for example walking along a seawall late at night in Majorca, looking out into the dark sea and sky and seeing tiny stitches of distant lightning and feeling an extraordinary sense of peacefulness. Or climbing up a high hill on the outskirts of Barcelona and watching the sun go down. Or wandering the back alleys of Split until late into the night, all alone, unafraid, and feeling content to be simply walking with no destination. I relished the strange feeling of being lost in a world that I didn’t understand, of not belonging anywhere in particular. When you are lost the whole world becomes your home.


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[1973-1977] The ship was monumentally huge but inside it everything, with the exception of the hangar deck (where they stored the aircraft), seemed crowded and cramped. Most of the passageways were narrow and in many of them you had to duck your head to avoid bumping into pipes and conduits that passed overhead. So as soon as I reported on board I started to feel claustrophobic.

Life on the ship consisted of long, long hours of tedious work and crushing boredom. When I was not working there was really nothing to do so I just worked a lot, sometimes even more than the usual 12-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week at-sea work shift. As a neophyte technician in the ship’s data processing division I started out as a card-punch operator, basically just a tedious data-entry job, but was soon promoted to computer operator. Since there was really nothing else to do besides work, to amuse myself in my spare time I learned programming by reading Navy manuals, first assembler language and then COBOL.

When we were at sea the incoming work load for the data processing division was often more than our little group of technicians could handle, even with the 12-hour shifts. I worked extra hours trying to keep up, especially if there was a particularly urgent job in the works, which was often. I became used to functioning on not quite enough sleep and being chronically fatigued. When we were at sea I lost the sense of being a human. Most of the time I was like a machine, focused only on doing the work and not caring about anything else. I felt completely cut off from the world. I was probably suffering the psychological symptoms of prolonged sensory deprivation from working so many long hours for many days (sometimes weeks) without respite, in cramped and crowded conditions without seeing the sun or the sky. There was nothing to look forward to. For me it was all about just trying to get by from one day to the next. The guys I worked with were a very mixed lot. Some of them were pretty smart guys and some of them were appalling, at least at first. There were men who had spent time in prison for armed robbery, there were drug dealers, pimps, and some who seemed to have some serious mental problems. But in time I ceased to make distinctions among them, because there was simply no point in doing so, and I just accepted everyone for what they were.

I complained a lot about shipboard life, all of us did. But there was another side of it for me. I think that in a way it was what I secretly wanted, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I was 19 years old and still suffering from the long-term effects of my father’s bullying and psychological abuse. I was alienated from my father but more importantly I was also alienated from myself. I felt a profound, instinctive urge to try to escape from my own life. Being on the ship was actually an ideal way to do that. I had indeed escaped from my life into something strange and difficult. I was no longer the person I had been, and I wasn’t sure yet who the new person was that I was turning into.

Iceland again, and awe

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I’ve been to Iceland twice, most recently in mid-April of this year. It is a country that made a strong impression on me when I first visited last summer with my wife. We went on a tour that took us all around the country. We spent a good bit of time being taken around in a tour coach in very rural (and even wilderness) areas. The Icelandic landscape is amazing, like nothing I have ever seen anywhere. I doubt there is any land that is like it anywhere else in the world.

Traveling around thus, seeing this wondrous landscape, I experienced a new and profound sense of the awesome enormity, the unimaginable vastness and power, of nature, and of the smallness and pathetic vulnerability of us, we mere humans, in this incredibly vast natural world that is far beyond our capacity to understand. I had a new intuition for our ultimate existential nature, i.e. that we are all lost in a world that we can’t possibly comprehend. I haven’t experienced such a powerful sense of awe in any other place I have ever been. It changed my way of looking at and thinking about the world and our place in it.

Later, I went back in April of this year for the Iceland Writers Retreat, and I recall spending an afternoon walking around Rejkjavík with two of my newfound writer-friends. We did some shopping, went to a restaurant and a couple of cafes. Sitting in a crowded cafe with my friends, I saw them with a strange kind of double-vision. I saw them in that warm and cozy cafe, sipping coffee, but I also saw them and myself as tiny beings adrift in a vast, dark, and wild world of nature all around us, extending indefinitely beyond the edges of the city. And I felt that that dark, fierce, and wild world out there was (as the tiny and vulnerable mortals that we are), as much as we would like to imagine otherwise, our real life, our truer and more complete destiny.

The existential pleasures of being lost

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I was in the U.S. Navy from 1973 to 1977. During this time I went on two Mediterranean cruises on the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga. Whenever we pulled into a port, no matter where it was, Naples or Malaga or Izmir or wherever, most of my shipmates would immediately head for the nearest bar to get drunk, or seek out the local prostitutes, or both. I wanted to fit in and be just “one of the guys” but I just couldn’t bring myself to join them in these banal escapades. It was boring. But I didn’t know what to do so I went out walking by myself, exploring. I found, strangely enough, that the times when I felt most alive and most at peace were the times when I was keenly aware of being all alone in a strange place, in a foreign culture among people who spoke a language incomprehensible to me. At such times the world was beautiful and strange to me. As for example walking along a seawall late at night in Majorca, looking out into the dark sea and sky and seeing tiny stitches of distant lightning and feeling an extraordinary sense of peacefulness. Or climbing up a high hill on the outskirts of Barcelona and watching the sun go down. Or wandering the back alleys of Split until late into the night, all alone, unafraid, and feeling content to be simply walking. I loved the feeling of being lost in a world that I didn’t understand. I think sometimes it must be a good thing for us to be lost. Therein may be unforseen opportunities to see the world anew, to renew our spirits.

To the north

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February 1995: I was living in Panama City, Florida and working in the defense contracting industry, which I despised. But after many months of seeking I finally got a job offer that was NOT in the defense biz, in another city. The city was Ithaca, New York. When I told my father, a lifelong devotee of warm places and a hater of cold weather, that I planned to move up north to Ithaca he was at first incredulous, assuming that this was yet another of my crazy impulsive ideas and that I would eventually come to my senses and drop the idea of moving north. But I didn’t drop the idea, and I started making moving plans. When my father eventually saw that I was really serious about it he reluctantly agreed to help me move.

On a cold (well, cold for northern Florida anyway) and sunny day we headed out onto the highway heading north, driving a rented moving van full of my meager belongings and towing my car. My father and I took turns driving. We drove ten hours the first day. We talked little during the long drive, but then we never did have a lot to talk about. He just stared ahead of him at the road with an air of quiet resignation. I supposed that he must have been wondering how he had managed to raise such a crazy son, a son so demonstrably devoid of “common sense.” Why can’t you be like me? He never said it in such words but it was clear from all of my experience with him throughout my life that this was the gist of his relationship with me, his eldest son.  Why can’t you be like me, exactly like me? 

We stopped at a motel in Charlotte, North Carolina the first night.  We bought a six pack of beer and split it between the two of us in the motel room.  The next morning we were up and out on the road early, driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The world rushing past the truck windows started to seem fluid and intangible to me.  Just colors and shapes in motion.  Images of sad small towns, poor and lost-looking places for the most part.  This is America, I thought, a country of poor and lost places.  Maybe it doesn’t matter much where one chooses to live.

I started to become aware of the cold.  I felt that it was a new and different world that I was entering, a world of cold and snow, a world where people were in thrall to the changing of the seasons.  Crossing into Pennsylvania we started to see patches of snow on the ground.  We drove on I-81 through an ice fog, passing several cars that had slid off the road into the ditches.  I got off the highway with a great sense of relief (my nerves being somewhat shaky after my first experience of driving on icy roads) in a small town and found a motel, and we drank another six pack in the room.  We still didn’t have much to talk about.

The next day we crossed into New York state and went on up to Ithaca.  We returned the van and drove in my car to a hotel.  The next morning I drove my father to the bus station so he could take the bus back to his home in Seagrove Beach, Florida.  It started snowing as we were on our way to the bus station.  He muttered and griped abut the snow as we walked into the station.  I saw him off on the bus.

Several months later, in the summer, he drove back to Ithaca and I got a chance to take him around and show him how beautiful the countryside is in the summer.  I recall taking him on hiking trails and showing him spectacular waterfalls, gorges, forests, lakes, rivers, and valleys.  I think he was impressed, in spite of himself.  I think he realized that this really was a good place to live after all.  He stayed a few days and drove back to Florida.  That was the last time I ever saw him.  The times I tried to call him he would usually be drunk and so I became reluctant to call him.  A year later, in the middle of summer, he died of a heart attack.  He would be eternally in summer from then on.

Misadventure in Mexico

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Back in 1994 I was working as a programmer/analyst in the defense contracting industry in Panama City Florida and for a variety of reasons I was getting desperate to get out of the defense business.  I started looking about for job opportunities all over the country and I was willing to consider almost any job as long as it wasn’t in defense contracting.  A guy contacted me who had seen my resume and was interested.  He was head of the testing department for a major company (I’d rather not say which one) that manufactured electronic circuit boards, and whose main manufacturing plant was located in Reynosa, Mexico.  Reynosa is located just across the Rio Grande from McAllen Texas.  I talked with the testing manager on the phone.  He wanted to bring me out to their plant for an interview.  I said I would do it.  He arranged for a plane ticket for me from Panama City to McAllen.

I got to the Panama City airport and the first problem I noticed was that there was no Continental terminal at that airport.  My flight was supposed to be on Continental.  I checked with an agent for another airline who checked my flight number and told me that I was booked on a flight from Panama City Canal Zone to McAllen, not from Panama City Florida!  So I went home and called my contact and told him the problem.  He did some checking and found that their travel agent had in fact screwed up and made the airline booking from the wrong city.  He arranged for the correct booking and I went back to the airport and flew to McAllen.  I was picked up at the airport and taken to a hotel.  I was supposed to be picked up next morning at 6:30 AM to be driven across the border to the plant for a day-long round of interviews with various people at the plant.

Next morning the day started off badly because the hotel’s restaurant didn’t open for breakfast until 7:00 and I had to be ready to be picked up at 6:30, so I missed breakfast.  Missing breakfast is usually kind of bad for me because, due to my quirky metabolism, I have to eat fairly regularly or else I don’t feel right at all.  If I go for a few hours without eating I get very dizzy and fuzzy-headed.  So anyway I’m picked up by the testing manager in a little van and we go on to the company’s McAllen offices and I’m greeted by one of the managers who asks me, “So you brought your birth certificate, right?”  Uh, no.  I did not know I needed to bring my birth certificate.  He said that I was told I needed to bring my birth certificate for the security check at the border crossing.  I was certain I’d been told no such thing but I didn’t want to get into an argument with the guy.  I tried to be tactful in my response but made it clear that I had no birth certificate because I didn’t know one was needed.  He sighed and shook his head and said, OK maybe we will be alright without it.

We went around in this van picking up the various American managers who live in McAllen and who work at the plant in Reynosa.  They were all middle-aged white guys.  They struck me as all being rather sophomoric and boorish.  This initial impression was confirmed as we continued on and they made a lot of racist and sexist jokes about all the Mexican women who we passed along the way.  I was thinking, these bozos are the managers of the plant?  They talked like frat boys at a keg party.

At the plant I was interviewed by the head plant manager, the testing manager, and several other managers, basically all of the jerks who I rode over in the van with.  The management team consisted of about 9 guys, and all but one of these managers was from the USA.  None of them, except the one manager who was a Mexican, impressed me as having much intelligence.  Then the testing manager told me he wanted me to meet with the testing engineering team he was in charge of, although he warned me that those guys were “not very smart” and “almost useless.”  I met with the test engineers, all of whom were Mexicans.  Contrary to the manager’s pessimistic assessment, I found all of these Mexican engineers to be smart and knowledgeable.  They were also very clear communicators and did a great job of explaining to me how the automated testing of the circuit boards worked.  I got the impression that it was the testing manager himself who was out of touch with what was going on (he certainly didn’t seem very technically knowledgeable himself).  The engineers who worked for him seemed like they knew what they were doing.

Lunch time came and went and no one offered me anything for lunch.  By afternoon I was definitely feeling dizzy from the lack of food and it was getting harder for me to think clearly.  We toured the factory floor, where a couple of thousand young Mexican women (no men worked on the factory floor for some reason) worked on assembly lines.  We met and talked with some other people.  I’m not sure that I was fully conscious of who I was meeting with.  Things started to get very hazy for me.  I was losing track of where I was.  It took all of the concentration I could summon just to stand, walk, talk and do other ordinary movements.  I was so dizzy I had no idea what I was saying to people and I just hoped I was saying things that were somewhat coherent.  Finally at the end of the day the group got back in the van and drove back to McAllen.  The testing manager took me out to dinner at a Japanese restaurant.  I got something to eat just in time because I thought I might actually keel over if I went any longer without food.  Over dinner it became clear that he wanted to hire me.  He sensed I was reluctant and tried to talk up the job opportunity.  I was non-committal.

When I finally got back home I was left with a bad feeling about the whole experience.  This was mainly because of the appalling arrogance, stupidity and bigotry of all of the American managers I’d encountered.   There were approximately 3,000 people working in that plant, all but about 8 of whom were Mexicans.  And those 8 men were the top-level management of the plant, and they were all fools.  It also did not speak well of them that nobody seemed the least bit concerned that I had to go almost a whole day without eating anything and that I was in some distress on that account.

And from a more existential point of view I was bothered by the fact that this company’s plant is in Reynosa at all, because of course the only reason it’s south of the Rio Grande instead of north of it is because they can get away with paying the workers a lot less money there.  Which implies that the Mexicans are somehow worth less than the Americans, and this implication bothers me.  I know that from a practical point of view, locating this plant in Mexico is probably a very good thing for the Mexicans because it brings a lot of additional job opportunities that they otherwise wouldn’t have, but on an impractical, idealistic level I’m still bothered by America’s longstanding assumption that Mexicans are worth less than we are.

I declined the job offer, and a year later I found myself in Ithaca, New York, which is another story.

A few things I learned about Japan

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1. There is very little crime there.  Why this is no one seems to know.  It just seems to be a very orderly society for some reason.  Nobody even jaywalks in Japan.  Our guide Ronnie often told us not to be afraid to leave our luggage unattended, because “nobody steals stuff in Japan.”

2. The cab drivers are awesome.  Many of them make a point of trying to make the interiors of their cabs look elegant, sometimes even with fresh-cut flowers! and most of the drivers themselves wear white gloves, white dress shirts and uniform caps.  They will not accept tips.  If you try to tip them they’ll refuse it, saying you have made a mistake.  Most of them drive with great skill.  I came to have a lot of respect for these guys.  They are real professionals.

3.  The Japanese people in general are very patient. courteous, and seem to be possessed of a natural inclination to be helpful.  It’s very rare to see anyone become impatient or lose their cool over something.  People do their work with a calm and methodical attention to detail.

4. The climate is very humid.  You just have to get used to it.

5. There are drink vending machines located on almost every street corner in the cities.  They contain a bewildering but very appealing variety of soft drinks, flavored waters, and all kinds of exotic cold coffee drinks, most of which were quite delicious.  My wife and I became fond of these drink machines and got into the habit of looking for them every time we went out walking.

6. A lot of people in Japan ride bicycles, and most of those who ride bicycles ride them on the sidewalks, not on the streets (I suppose this is necessary because most have of the streets have only very narrow lanes).  As a pedestrian it took me while to get used to the idea that I had to keep alert for folks on bicycles coming up behind me and wanting to pass me.   Most bicyclists have a little bell on their bikes that they ring when they want to get around you.

7. Food preparation in Japan is a fine art.  Everywhere we went in Japan whether it was a restaurant or somebody’s home, all the food was prepared with consummate artistry and elegance.  It’s like the culinary equivalent of a Bach partita.

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