Give Em an Inch, They Take a Foot

I had been kidnapped, I thought, as the old truck bounced along the deserted road. My captors, or my newfound friends (depending on how you looked at it), gave furtive smiles at each other, communicating in some kind of Dutch-Creole, of which I understood nothing. It wasn’t the foreign language that made me uneasy, it was the bursts of laughter in between their bantering gibberish combined with their sidelong glances down at my lower legs. The joke, it seemed, was at my expense. How do I get myself into these things?

Thirty minutes before I had been sitting in the Mona Lisa bar on the main promenade of a tiny Dutch island called Bonaire, situated about fifty miles off the coast of Venezuela. It is a desolate jewel of a sleepy South Caribbean seaport ringed with coral reef in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by electric blue waters. I had stepped out that afternoon after about a week of non-stop scuba diving in order to sample some of the local culture, which, because I am only interested in a certain, very specific type of culture, namely the kind that gets me drunk, consisted of Amstel beer and a harsh Venezuelan rum called Cacique (pronounced ka-CEE-kay). The only other people sitting around me were Dutch natives, as was the barkeep, a thin, ruddy-faced chainsmoker named Hans who probably had to flee the Netherlands after his underground slave chamber was discovered in his otherwise unassuming cottage outside of Rotterdam. I don’t know for sure. Something about Hans suggested he had plenty of secrets. That’s okay. As Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick, “We are all killers on land and on sea, man and shark alike.”

And anyway I appreciated the fresh air. I had been underwater for twenty hours, and, contrary to what most people might think, it is very boring underwater. Not much happens. The sea creatures have developed complex camouflaging techniques because, like most humans, they don’t particularly care for humans. On top of that a marine predator can eat a foolish diver in under forty-five seconds, which means you really have to be paying attention to see some carnage. By the time the blood clears, and you are wondering what happened to your dive buddy as a tooth-marked snorkel and a half-eaten mask float by, the engorged Makos and White Tips will be miles away. Being a hundred feet underwater is a lot like war. Long stretches of nothing punctuated by moments of sheer, fascinating terror.

At the Mona Lisa bar the Dutch folks warmed up to me, dumb American, and told me they were on their way to the greatest bar ever, the bar at the edge of the world, they called it. They suggested I tag along. I said, “Sure.”

But then things got weird. The driver was careening like a torpedo down a street about as wide as a sidewalk and there was nothing to see except for a gaggle of pink flamingoes and a range of fifty-foot piles of salt next to an old processing pier. As we hooked around to the windward side of the island, I noticed some rather primitive rock piles at the edge of the shore, man-made, and beyond that a vast and unforgiving blue sea, and not a person or building in sight. Certainly no saloon. Then it dawned on me. This part of the world was the same murderous stomping ground of Joran Van Der Sloot for many years, and although he was rotting in some South American prison, it didn’t mean there weren’t others from his crew carrying on his tradition of killing tourists. Like Natalee Holloway I believed in the inherent decency of people, and this could’ve been both our undoing. As we cruised along my fellow passengers had been telling me, in broken English, about the legend of Captain Don Stewart, a feisty swashbuckler who had come to the island of Bonaire and had risen to prominence as a reef expert and diamond-eyed Lothario. He was highly revered, Captain Don was, even after losing his foot after it had become pinned under an old wooden boat wreck. They had amputated his dead foot and buried it in the Kralendijk Cemetery with all the pomp and circumstance of a National Hero. Old Don himself went to his glory a few years later, and my new Dutch friends insisted, while eyeing my own two feet, that his ghost still haunted these coral landscapes in search of his missing foot. Beware of praising famous men, I cautioned, as my right foot started to tingle. It would be entirely customary for these ruddy Europeans to drag me out of the truck, weak as I was from a bellyful of Cacique, to a stone altar where these wild acolytes would cut my foot off in deference to Captain Don, their messiah, and then toss my body into the boundless blue ocean for the moray eels and whatever else. Resistance was out of the question. I awaited my fate.
Out of nowhere a little oasis materialized. Our driver parked the truck and we went walking (I suddenly appreciated my feet more than I had in a while) into a little row of cabanas shrouded by palm trees. At the end of the path we stepped through a tiny garden and emerged at a wooden bar called Sorobon at the edge of an immaculate, baby blue beach shelf that ran five hundred feet out to the darker cobalt of the first reef drop.
The bartender was Edwin, a gray-haired and bronzed sage who spent most of his time staring out at the horizon, cracking a knowing smile.
“This is always this,” he said, motioning toward the sun and the sky and the sea. “It never grows up.”
I knew what he meant. Most of us who are cramped on the continent feel the years passing because of all the change. Days, weeks, months, lines in the face. Hot, hotter, cold, colder, rain, snow, clouds, bad news, traffic, other people’s business, the same succession of holidays, tragedies both minor and major, the struggle for whatever it is we are fighting for—no grand epic battles but trivial, almost meaningless ones. Existential malaise piled up high, the failure of the system to deliver what it has promised, and all of that everything so far away and here is Edwin, surrounded by his old wooden bar, with the sun overhead and 80 degrees Fahrenheit year-round and the simple understanding that this was it, and it was no secret. If you couldn’t figure it out you didn’t belong there and if you did there wasn’t any reason to explain it. I told Edwin and my Dutch friends I’d be back. They shrugged. If they saw me when I returned they’d know that I had. And that was it.
More Alembics to come.

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Melville Had It

Even whales can overdo it….Bartleby, Mersault and others…Bad sequels…The Modern Pandora….

Flipping through the world’s news stories over a cup of extremely strong coffee, I happened upon some video footage of a scientist, a cetology researcher perhaps, from the Faroe Islands who for either scientific reasons or just for the jackass fun of it cut open the belly of a sperm whale. Hilarity ensues.

I gave it a good four or five viewings, in real time and slow motion, and other than the keen anticipation and squeamish explosion, I began to suspect there was some deeper, more fundamental understanding of the human mind within this rather simple yet abrupt demonstration.

First off I threw away my coffee, since the mug was sitting to the right of my computer screen, precisely in the line of this bloody blast of entrails shooting from the left, to the right, and somehow contaminating my precious morning brew. Then I went and dug through my library to find my copy of “Moby Dick”. After an extended waste of time wading through my book room I gave up in defeat. I have no formal filing system, other than reckless flinging and stacking. It occurred to me, though, that I had given the book away which is basically what you do when you loan books out and so I would have to just coast through this blog entry with a patchy recollection of the mighty novel.

I have always enjoyed Herman Melville. “Bartleby The Scrivener” is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read, I guess because I can identify with him, much the way I remember identifying with Mersault from “The Stranger”, which along with Ivan Ilyich and Lord Henry from “Dorian Gray” are the folks you end up ‘hanging’ with when you utter the fool words, “I think I’d like to switch my major to philosophy.”

I pictured this scientist from the video, with his whale shears and his trendy red slicker, trying to make Bartleby cut this dead whale’s belly open and the hallowed anti-hero just standing there, issuing his famous line, “I’d prefer not to.”

“But it’s your job, man. You signed up for this. Cut this monster’s belly open.”

“I’d prefer not to.”

“But we’re paying you.”

“I’d prefer not to.”

“What would happen if everyone stopped cutting whales‘ bellies open?”

“I’d prefer not to.”

“Confound it all. Hand me those shears. I’ll do it.”

I hadn’t realized that the sperm whale’s primary diet consisted of American fast food. Either that or Fukushima sushi. I’ve actually seen worse at El Azteca, which is a popular Atlanta mexican restaurant for thrill seekers and man versus microbe types.

I defer to the scientist in the red slicker again, the Modern Pandora as I like to call him, who seems rather surprised and moves out of the line of fire damn fast. What did he expect? Jonah (for all my bible friends out there), thrown twenty feet through the air, gasping for breath, yelling about what took so long?  The shock-rock band Gwar, perhaps, emerging to the opening chords of their newest chart-topper. (If any members of Gwar happen to be reading this, I think we may have found the opening effect for the next world tour.)

Back to Herman Melville. He believed there was something mystic and profound in the whale species. Graceful, powerful, and with a preternatural level of intelligence, they are both beauty and peril, obstacle and ally. We rule the land. They rule the sea. We attack each other for bargain deals at the mall and yell at each other during sporting events, they disappear for extended periods of time for unknown reasons only to reappear seasonally, following intricate migratory patterns, which is probably just about the same thing.

This footage seems to be the big letdown sequel to the American classic. I want Ahab in mad pursuit of the unattainable. I want the crew to be swallowed into the vast unknown as is the fate of all mankind, sooner or later. I want the redemption of Ishmael, the silent wisdom of Queequeg, the wages of obsession as divine spark and ultimate betrayal.

I want all that, but after I watch this grotesque film clip one more time.

More Alembics to come.