Thursday, January 29, 2009

My Homage: An Updike Pastiche

John Updike died last week of lung cancer. He’d always been my favorite “American” writer. I place American in quotes because most often Updike reported to us the view of the Bewildered Generation—a label I’ve given to my parent’s generation--too young to remember much about the Great Depression, too young to have fought in World War Two, too old to fully (or willingly) comprehend the social/sexual upheavals of the post-Beat generation (but not too old to indulge in much of its imprudence--especially the sex).

Updike wrote most often about the world he came from, the muddled white American Protestant middle-class, its ambivalence toward its increasingly outmoded role of worldwide taskmaster and supervisor, its baffled reactions to the rise of the hi-tech age and the grand tsunami of multi-culturalism and globalization.

He had a graceful command of poetry and prose which he customarily fused into rude, tactless vulgarities along with the lyric of angels.

In my parody/pastiche I tried to stuff my elegy with as many Updikesque themes, metaphors, indulgent speech patterns and other imagery stuff, including basketball.

I met him 20 something years ago in Houston when he came to give a reading and a one-off workshop in a creative writing course I was enrolled in (but hardly attended). A friend of mine countered with her Updike sighting—at a jazz concert when she saw him bolting out of the hall for a cigarette. That sighting provided the inspiration for what follows.

He didn’t begin smoking to impact his teenhood friends-those boys in leather who wanted to be James Dean with their mussed hair, their porcelain skin, and sunken cheeks. He didn’t smoke to better his image, to mask the uneasiness of a life not yet lived well nor lived unwell nor lived at all. His would only be a life that was simply lived, and that life would be as a smoker.

At rest on his dying bed, a flipped turtle, a forgotten, frayed rag doll, aware that in next to no time, he will become as extinct as a flesh colored crayon—and like the banning of that jaundiced tone which once suggested rosy cheeks, white flesh, then later emblematized the unjustice supremacy of Euro-Aryan old boys' club prescience, the white man's burdens--he'd soon become as obsolete as white's only southern drinking fountain laws. Like the absence of the paraffin wax and the weightlessness of allibaster pigment (all now surrendered to the broader needs of the innumerable laissez-faire mutinies of this new-fangled America) he would disappear from the indulgence of the shifting hues and cries of a new nation, moving ahead without him, the new Elysium, the newest of the newer new world.

Was it really only some minute moments ago that he could say, without a loss of the promise of paradise or his renowned God-fearing innocence: “white people” "blacks" "Japs" "broads" "midgets" even "Eskimos"?; it was nothing more than an acceptable means of identifying oneself and telling us all apart, we Americans, proud of our heritage sublime; it was our way, just that, "nothing but a thing" (when had he first heard this? from Oprah Winfrey? from one of those 1980's Vietnam war movies showing us that the war had little to do with the domino theory but was really all about the brotherhood of blacks and white blue collar kids, bonded together by soulful handshakes, hand held camera carnage and the greatest hits of the 1960s? or was it a throw away adolescent motto like "whatever" or "oh, my God", something he'd passively been overhearing for years around the country club pool from one of the lovely troubled daughters of the old crowd?).
Color. It was how we used to separate ourselves, one from the other. Growing up, the red Indians were proud baseball team mascots, pure and simple noble warriors. Were those day (his days) now taught as blighted days in American history classes? And what about the negro, the black man, the spade cat--didn't he take pride in his ability to shoot and score from one end of the court to the other, no matter how well guarded? Was his own a sickness of the soul, of his and others like him who simply had always venerated Asian women for their magnificent need to be fucked just to get closer to their furtive, catlike secrets, held behind their slanted, felidaen eyes? Could he still call them women? No, maybe, probably not a good idea, not women; the word has “men” in it. No doubt as unwelcome as a phrase like "what a set of gams."

Now, however, in recent years, like his perfidious remembrance of a stiff, inelastic America, and his erratic, fly-by-night erections, the impenetrable, asymmetrical confusion over color made sense. At first it had begun to frustrate his most unevolved makeup, like the way his spurts of jism once hungered for the nearness of the amity or the enmity of the women he knew he stood no chance of screwing, but now, it didn't matter; it was as though he no longer cared if he would ever achieve the goal of coaching his own basketball team--this something, this one thing, he was taking to his grave.

As his past flashed before him like scenes from a next-week's episode, he remembered his first wife's legs, and the way her calf muscles tensed when she came in muffled yelps and sighs. Next, he began to feel the phantom of an erection, like the phantom pain felt by an amputee. Then somewhere outside a motorcycle revved its engine and he was certain he could feel it wilting, this flagrant, ignominious slackening in his dick, acutely aware that this indeed was the collapsing of his lungs. As his breathing became thinner, less engaged, he mulled over praying for five more minutes, just five minutes to take pleasure in one last unification with a tiny phallic concoction of paper and tobacco and cotton so he could gaze one last time at the smoke as it drifted up and up and up from the end of the slim object glowing red at its tip. The smoke would float heavenward much the same as he would soon leave this world and begin his journey upward, as his body would leave one incarnation and prepare for its next.

On his dying bed, now breathing like a goldfish too long out of his water bowl, he couldn’t prevent the question from being asked. "And is this it?" The question itself soared into the air, in his final breath, a whisper dying in a fractured, final moment as a dagger plunged into his heart. He entered a porthole into the emptiness that now felt just right, just so right.

He. Ran. No. Longer.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Stand up, stand up for your rights!

Lobuche--4,900 meters, where HAPE kicked my ass and I had to make a quick descent.

I'm going to backtrack now and try to decode my journal.

December 29, 2008

Bourbon Street and the French Quarter can be a lot fun if you don’t live in New Orleans. The Thamel tourist district in Kathmandu, more than any touristy hustler districts, has always reminded me of the French Quarter, and if you haven’t been there a lot but have only been there but one or two times, it can still have that old world charm.

Basically, Thamel is your run-of-the-mill touristy place to hang around after dark, where you can push through swarming crowds of drunks or stoned tourists and locals who jostle with one another to sell or buy hash, trade in women of all ages--mostly underages, all on the narrow streets lined with souvenir shops selling sweat shop curios where in front of the shops kids in rags beg you for a few rupees on narrow streets lined with bars playing loud music.

Thamel is a lot like Bourbon Street and the French Quarter but with less jazz and jocularity, more gloom and a whole lot more poverty.

Most people give themselves 16 days or more to do the Everest base camp trek. I didn’t have that much time off from work—with pay—so I had to squeeze it into ten, which is doable, if you trim away the days spent in Thamel coming and going which are part of the itinerary most tour packages offer--and you travel alone and hustle up those hills. I’ve probably spent as much time relying on my well rehearsed choreographic drunken crowd maneuvering in Thamel than I have on Bourbon Street. I used to live in New Orleans, and like I said, Bourbon Street can be a lot of fun—if you don’t live there. If you do, you avoid it, you side step it, drive blocks out of your way to not have to deal with it. It is much harder to avoid Thamel if you’re in Nepal to leave the city's party ghetto behind. It’s where the hotels and guest houses are. It’s fifteen minutes from the airport, and it’s safe because after your first visit, you know where to go and where not to go, depending on the depravity of your tastes.

Travel books try to sell you on the quaintness that Thamel can be for people who haven’t lost their Nepalese touristy virginity. It’s often pointed out that all of Kathmandu can remind you of a picturesque medieval village, potholed, unimproved roads, teeming with people, mangy dogs, cows, the dissonant sounds of a guild class and castes working out of their 6 by 10 cinder block stalls, the blacksmiths, tailors, cobblers, the whores.

I had to visit a few outfitters to pick up some gear like windbreaker chaps, a collapsible walking pole, and a poncho, assemble a first aid kit for my trek. So I had to venture out into Thamel. Anyway, there is a rolling black-out in Kathmandu that leaves you two choices between 2 – 8 —-sit in your candle lit room and get stoned waiting for the power to come back on. Or you can do the stroll.

Not far from my hotel I was lured into the "Raggay Club" which had a loud, live reggae band on the fifth floor. The electricity was powered by a generator. Upstairs in the club, fifth generation hippies swayed to “No woman no cry”—that third world anthem you hear in clubs from Bangkok to Vientiane and all points in between. I sat and ordered a beer and before the beer arrived, a hash dealer and his female companion joined me, offering me a sample—no need to buy, just try. When he went to scrounge up a pipe, I sat across from an unhappy Nepalette, her hair cut short. She was unable to look me in the eyes. I poured her a beer. We talked. Rather, I initiated a conversation with that third world starter upper—have any children?

She looked up at me and shook her head. She muttered, “I’m not married.” “Why not?” I asked. They always pester you with the same questions. I suspected the answer right away--she was in her mid-20s, and I had an inkling she might want to talk about “it.”

“I’m tomboy”, she said, breaking into a half smile.

“Oh, then do you have a girlfriend?” I asked as naturally as one might ask someone for the time. She broke into a deep smile and her eyes sparkled. Being a dyke in a Hindu kingdom is probably a very underground experience. “Yes, yes I do—but don’t tell my friend. My girl friend is his sister-in-law.”

“You know what,” she went on with a story she'd probably been holding in for years and finally had someone to share it with. “One time, my mother caught me and her kissing.”

OK. That was borderline too much information, but what the hell. I’m a seen it all, done it all nice guy. I’m wasn't going to offer her money to watch a performance and or ask how much would it cost to throw me into the mix. She knew this intuitively. So she opened up.

“So what happened?” I asked.

“Nothing,” she said. “My mother loves me." Say no more.

"But don’t tell my brother-in-law, though” I made the my mouth is buttoned move. It would be our little secret. After the beer, after the sample smoke, after two or three more Bob Marley standards, I finished my beer, bought them a round, looked them both in the eyes, smiling and said, thanks and goodnight. I searched my brain for something profound to say, something that would keep the tom boy from caving into pressures for an arranged marriage or some such, but the best I could come up with was a hand shake and “remember, just be true to yourself.” I felt like what I was, what I am, a condescending American schmuck. Be true to yourself. What a wad.

I made my way back up the alley to my hotel wondering if there isn’t some Dyke NGO out there that helps to sponsor lesbians from Hindu countries, rescue them, refugees or at least provide them with battery operated gizmos.

If there isn’t one, there should be. The UN should form a steering committee.

I returned to my room. Took a couple of valiums, did a quick equipment check, then doused my candle. I had a 5:30 start.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

May your feet always be swift, May you have a strong foundation,When the winds of changes shift.

(metaphor alert)

I had the movie function turned on by accident. Before deleting the two - four second snippets, I decided to drag them all into Movie Maker. Act One--flying there. Act Two--what's next? Act Three--death marching up hills, passing one of thousands of rocks with Om Mani Padni Om carved into it--take a good long look at those fucking rocks; they define life. . . fade to black.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

My senses have been stripped, my hands can't feel to grip,

Although there wasn't a piano bar with happy hour cocktail franks at this Holiday Inn, there was a club sammich on the menu.

That little piggy toe on my left foot never made any significant contributions to my dreams and aspirations. If it doesn't thaw out soon and it peels away, it will not be missed by the other toes that have shouldered its share of work for far too long. Little piggy toe on the right foot--this is your wake up call.

Monday, January 05, 2009

We'll climb that hill No matter how steep/ When we get up to it!

The views are breathtaking. The altitude won't let me have enough air to have my breath taken away. I met a Sherpa Inn owner yesterday who wore an Obama for Prez campaign button. Her sister lives in Santa Barbara, used to work for some CNN-famous talking head lawyer, Jesse something.

There are many off-the-beaten path villages I have envied and dreamt of one day retiring to, a Gauguin-like "love-them-locals" in search of my own Picairn Island.

Here, in the Himilayas, just across the border from China, in the shadow of Everest, is not a place I envy. I can find an Internet cafe obviously. What I really really want is a hot shower.

Friday, January 02, 2009

if i die on top of the hill and if i dont make it you know my baby will

Sherpa Pilot Babe

The morning fog kept us grounded for three hours before we were clear to fly from Kathmandu to Lukla. Once in the air, a flight attendant brought me a caramel candy and a cup of water. I specifically ordered the kosher meal. I suggest one double checks these things next time you fly Yeti Air.
Once we buffeted our way into the Lukla airport, Dawa and I took off for Phanding--a four hour hike, half up, half flat terrain. That's where I spent New Years Eve with a coffee and a brandy.

We left the next day, New Years Day, early, about 7. My bottled water had blocks of ice floating in it. The hump to Namche is mostly up and curvy then up and more curviness, on and on for about 2000 meters.
Namche is at 3,500 meters. We're sticking around here today to acclimatize--well, I'm the one acclimatizing. Dawa is happy I haven't slowed him down too much.

Miss my wife. Miss my cats. Miss the dog. Miss a hot shower at the end of each day. I don't miss my mobile.