Pigeon Stew

Let me start by saying that I am in a low level civil war with the pigeons. The pigeons and I inhabit the same city. In many ways they are privileged. They survive on my and others waste (free-eats), they inhabit the highest floors, with the views that they choose, the breeze or sunshine flowing over them as they wish. A short jaunt out to sea does not involve taking the north-bound ‘autostrade’ or facing the south-bound return beach traffic. I suspect they visit the higher, cleaner winds, distant from the diesel-particulate-laced air I and my children breathe. 

I do not really envy them. They are not respected by the respectable. Those who do associate with them are condemned by us men as dubious, untrustworthy, dirty perhaps.* They are not gracious, they are not majestic, they are not particularly proud looking animals. And they have no control over their bowels. I would accept their occasional presence on my balcony, their sipping at my flower-pot water-dishes and their cleaning up of my spilt meal-crumbs if they did not shit everywhere. I am not asking that they be clean like cats, carefully hiding the traces of their animal-ness. But do they need to shotgun guano all over the place? Despicable devil may care things.

So the war is over shit. It’s a reasonable reason to be at war in my view. The battles have made me something of an expert on pigeon spikes, Korean herbal repellents (they both work), poisoning, harassment and more. I’ve realized that it is not killing them that does anything. The others just multiply faster. It is a question of making my place less friendly than others. Kind of like what we have to do with terrorists. Pigeon: winged shit-for-bombs terrorists.

This morning I was having coffee on the terrace among the noise of the city, human pollution I have learned to ignore. I noticed a lot more bird turd than usual. I went to scrubbing and hosing and worried about whether this intense shit-fest might be a warning of some new trend I would have to be vigilant against.

It turns out there were two flightless young pigeons behind a wall on my balcony. I took a long bamboo pole from the garden and started poking them and making noise until, after a lot of to and fro the damned things were in individual plastic shopping bags. The kind that usually float out to sea and kill gulls.

The two bagged pigeons were sent down to the parking garage where I intended to load them into my car and drop them off far away. I did not have the coldness of heart to kill them with my hands.

I had an errand to do and left the building for a while. On my way back I concluded that I did, in fact, need to do away with them. Their highly evolved homing sense scared me. I knew the bastards would be back and they’d lay more eggs and thanks to the power of compound interest I’d soon be living in a Hitchockian nightmare of bird mess.

Jack London makes a convincing case that death by freezing is not a bad way to go. The more I pondered the idea, the more freezing the two juvenile birds seemed like the best case scenario-for me. I decided to put them into nested bags (not wanting their grossness to infect my frozen goods) and pop them in my freezer. A few hours and they would be numbed into permanent oblivion. 

But, on my return the bags were missing. “Odd,” I thought. I asked the Doorman where they were. He said that he gave them to a couple of Bangladeshi friends. They were planning some kind of casserole. I didn’t believe in the wholesomeness of the winged rats and was skeptical about the amount of nourishment that might be gained from them. I expressed those thoughts to the Doorman. He made it clear that small and young was a delicacy.

This story, meaningless though it might have been, has settled a long standing uncertainty for me, namely whether I should eat meat or not. While I was in the process of capturing the little pigeons, my emotion swung from hatred, a hatred that encompassed their whole species, to tenderness borne of the sight of them as helpless individual chicks. When the hatred was strong, I felt a temptation to impale them with my bamboo pole, when tenderness came to the fore, my stick was simply a noise maker. Finally, having gotten them both out intact, I could not kill them and discard them. That just felt plain wrong. And when I did decide to kill them, it was only the fact that I had come upon the freezing death that made the whole idea acceptable. But, once I found out they had been used for food, I was relieved, satisfied internally and not only because I was no longer obliged to bloody my hands. It was because I could feel that things were in their right places. I felt, and thus believe, that these birds which had been treated with respect and consideration (I mean their destiny was the result of me considering the possible outcomes with their suffering in mind) and then eaten as nourishment is somehow fulfilling an acceptable destiny.

To be clear I reject, and this story does not justify, Tyson Food’s or Hawa Chicken’s mass torture and execution of animals, and it specifically excludes the wasteful approach to food and the commoditisation of flesh that has become commonplace. Period.


12 Years a Slave

Around 3am this morning I woke up slightly, a sliver of a crack of consciousness cleft my sleep. Into that sliver the thin end of thinking slipped, and the image that came to mind was the scene of 12 Years a Slave where a mother and her children are separated in a slave market. And the hint of that image forced its way deeper and deeper into my mind, widening the crack in my sleep and now I am awake, and suffering. 

At the moment that I watched the scene itself, I remember clearly thinking that I should feel more sadness, more outrage than what I was feeling. Something about the way the scene was filmed or its context left me unmoved. In fact something about the whole film seemed to operate more on my intellect than on my emotion. But, I am realizing now, the whole film was simply secreting itself into some part of my mind from where it could launch a surprise attack.

The film in an unrelenting grind of evil, leavened only by the dubious decency of one slave owner, Ford, who sees and treats the individual slaves as humans but somehow does not or will not see the system as detestable. There are no heroes, no respite from the misery, no hope for redemption. I know the Civil War came and ended slavery, but in this film, hope as I did for that to be the ending, hope as I did to see the plantation owners and their rotten wives killed, maimed and worse, we are awarded no gratification.

So Solomon Northup, from beyond the grave, woke me up at 3am this morning and forced me to think about the poor woman who is separated from her children, themselves separated from each other, each to live unspeakable things at the hands of these filthy southerners. And her end, as far as the film is concerned is to be forcibly removed from the plantation of the “good” slave owner Ford because she cries to much, and to be cast out into some kind of oblivion.

But the person who really encapsulates the oppression, the real meaning of what it is to be property and at the same time human, is Patsy, owned by Fassbender’s character Epps. She is raped on a regular basis, raped and subject to his weird sexual appetites and, at the same time, worked, worked hard. And beaten, beaten and savaged by the jealous wife of Epps, beaten by Epps too when he is cornered, although at first he can’t do it and has Solomon do it. She says to Solomon “I have no comfort in this world” as she begs him to end her life, to drown her. But he doesn’t, it would have been too easy. Too easy on us, the people forced to think about the never ending suffering, suffering undiluted by even a crumb of joy, suffering that makes death look not appealing but like paradise.

How can someone make a film with no heroes, with no climactic scene of rescue, where the sword of righteousness smites the bad guys? I had the strongest urge to watch Django Unchained and savor the revenge, the hand of justice making things right, to enjoy in a deeper way the line where Django tells Schultz in answer to his question about whether he’d like to be a bounty hunter: “Killwhite people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?”

Surprisingly, those two films have a slightly surreal point of contact in their dialogue and one which links them together in the way I wish they were linked, the way I wish one could flow into the other so that I could sleep at night. When Solomon is lying in the hall of Ford’s house after having been hanging in a noose on the verge of strangulation all day and pleas for Ford to help him gain his freedom, Ford says to him ““You are an exceptional nigger, Platt, But I fear no good can come of it.” In Django, Calvin Candie, the fictional mandingo fighting aficionado gives a lecture about phrenology in which he uses the phrase “Say, one nigger that just pops up in ten thousand, the exceptional nigger.” Later on, when Django is laying waste to Candie Land and all its inhabitants, he tells Stephen, the black ‘Capo’ that “Every single word that came outta Calvin Candie’s mouth was nothin’ but horseshit but he was right about one thing. I am that one nigger in ten thousand.” So the exceptional, truly exceptional, from one film, who can do nothing, in the end, but save himself after 12 years in captivity with the help of a Canadian, is avenged by Tarantino’s 1 in 10,000.

But let me leave my little justice fantasy, and go back to the matter of 12 Years a Slave. The problem, for me, with the movie is that it resembles real life too much. A few days ago, I was driving in a slightly unfamiliar part of Beirut and I saw a family-a man, his wife and at least 4 or 5 children, crouching under a highway overpass. They were not doing anything, not begging, not selling Chiclets, not really engaging with the traffic or passersby in any way. It was as if I had stumbled across them in their domestic life, and I had. I was and still am shaken. It’s rare to come across the clearly needy who are not asking for something or hawking something. It is rare to come across such deep and authentic misery in full face, at least it is for me. By the time I had absorbed the scene, I was probably already a couple of kilometers away. I thought I should go back and look for them and try to help them. But I did not. Partly, I was not sure how to get back there, but that was a minor hurdle, and partly its because the immensity of what was needed was somehow be overwhelming to me. Not only could I not materially help these people, this single family, but they were the tip of a million person iceberg: A million destitute people.

A million people who were poor before the war in Syria drove them out of their homes and forced them to leave behind the little they had. The war that sent them to Lebanon, which, to its credit has been as generous as a country like this can, beautiful country to offer some kind of shelter to over a million people when we can barely house and water our own. They came to Lebanon and here they are doubly poor because not only have they lost the little status and little wealth they had at home, but they have come to a place where even that little is would be completely worthless if they had it, and of course they do not.

And in slaves, I see that family. They are people who have no control over their destiny, people who do not choose where to eat, what to eat, when to eat. They do not have a bed that is dirty only with their own dirt. And beyond that, they are people for whom there is no end in sight. How will they educate their children? What is their route to a decent life? They may be free, but what freedom is theirs when their only remaining choice is to huddle under a highway bridge? Tell me!

Now it is after 5 am. That movie has carried me from deepest night to dawn. Soon I’ll have some coffee and start another day in my world, so disconnected from their world.

What Gets Left Behind

As my plane left the ground in Beirut I stared at the engine just outside my window and waited for it to explode sending a piece of titanium fan blade through the protective sheath of the cowling and into my face. I imagined this event, which I know intellectually is extremely unlikely to occur, as something imminent and wondered what I was leaving behind me?

I had sent a very loving message to my daughter who I dropped off at school on my way to the airport. My son had the day off so she crossed the school gates alone. I felt her vulnerability, her potential for aloneness even though her stride communicated a determination and strength that I know she possesses deep down in her bones. I told her how beautiful, intelligent, funny and loveable she was.

To my son, who was home still sleeping, I sent a short note telling him my feelings about seeing his sister alone and asking him to look after her. I told him “she needs you.” I signed off by telling him I loved him too.

My woman I had left with a final conversation in which she told me she felt loved and she felt happy about that.

So I stared at the engine and, while desiring to reach London and continue my life, strongly desiring it, I also felt that the worst-case scenario-instant obliteration by high speed Rolls Royce fragment was okay.

It also made me think again about all the time wasting we do with jobs, careers and chasing after irrelevant stuff we don’t need. What’s important is to leave behind love, to beautify one little part of existence, more if possible, and accept that it isn’t within the grasp of most people to achieve anything of greater value.

Of course to the lucky few, opportunities for vast ripples of love present themselves. How awesome that Bill Gates stopped trying to make money and dominate the world and started instead to try to do the most good for the most people. He may not have made the world’s best computer, but he is truly a role model for humanity, especially the elite of humanity who tend to be so selfish. Spread ripples of love. Try it. Make it a habit. It is rewarding, relaxing, right.

Why Live

For a while I have been meaning to write about the reason I keep this blog. But right now I feel like noting down a thought that occurred to me as I debated whether to watch a movie tonight or read a book instead, namely: “What is the point of life.” I don’t mean that to be read in a suicidal tone at all. I am really enjoying life today. It is more something melancholic along the lines of the observation that Alain de Botton made in his writing on Work.

At some point he is in the jungle watching preparations for the Ariane rocket to take off. On its tip is a satellite being put into orbit by a Japanese broadcaster. It will be used to propagate television signals carrying primarily manga content.

He is struck by the majesty and complexity, the sheer brilliance of man being able to send a little box of metal and semiconductor into a precise orbit around the earth. The mastery of so many types of science and engineering. I was struck by that too. But his sense of marvel gives way to a pang of loss at the idea that all of this brilliance was being put to the service of letting more people watch cartoons.

And that is what I mean. And I think he captures the point brilliantly when he analyses work, how meaningless most work is in its aims. If you think about it, most of us live, die, reproduce and stir up all kinds of drama and that’s about it. For millennia we did not deplete the earth doing this, but now we do. We are like a plankton bloom that has gotten out of control fed by the discovery of oil, coal and how to inject them into the process for making food and extending life spans.

But we are about as useless or useful as plankton. In the end  look around, most of us (and I include myself, sad as it makes me) are basically just wasting time here, doing nothing useful. Some of us are kinder, some of us are meaner, some of us are full of love, others hate. Some people live lives of such total desperation that I can’t conceive of wanting their life, and yet they will fight and cling to it just like I would to mine.

It is deeply important to me at this juncture in my life to realise that nothing any of us does really matters much. I hasten to add that I am not promoting nihilism, I am trying to free myself and others from the ridiculous stresses that we willingly endure or even adopt out of mimetic instinct or some such biological invention. I often find myself prey to these stresses, the idea that I am wasting my life. But sometimes I am just happy with the freedom I have and am able in those moments to be truly self sufficient. It’s not quite bliss but it is nice.


The Physical and the Spirit

The red curls of the widow were splayed out over one side of the coffin’s dark wood. Despite the amplified voice of some unseen singer, the widow’s sobs carried clearly across the church. On top of the coffin, a framed photo of a young man, T, 44 years old, his grey, slightly thinning hair combed back slick, a deep, warm smile breaking out through his short beard.

The sobs sounded, oceanic, like the sound of a swell at the mouth of a cavern.

His body was there, a few inches from her curls. It was intact. T had died of a heart attack not even a couple of days ago, and he was probably wearing a nice suit as he lay, indifferent, dead, a corpse, in the padded box. A dead person reminds me of a car without gas. Superficially identical, fundamentally a different proposition.

And yet, I could feel why she laid her head on that box. The physical presence, the person who had, no doubt, laid next to her in bed two nights ago, whose odors and twitches and warmth, physical warmth, 37 degrees Celsius, had been next to her, and had come and gone, and had contained a “soul” and whose soul had loved her, whose mind or heart had chosen her, who may even have needed her, that physical entity was going to leave a hole in her life. A very solid absence. And whatever the priests impersonal droning may have been trying to  suggest to the contrary, she was not going to feel Tom looking down on her and their son.

And whatever that idiot priest says about “a better place” did not provide consolation. Real consolation, maybe, she could have momentarily if she could tear the top off of the goddamned box and hold him, one last time, kiss him, tousle his hair, or do whatever it is that she did to show her physical love for him.

Let’s cut through the bullshit for a moment. We are, underneath it all, animals. Whatever our brains may tell us about better place, looking down on us and so on, we need that physical presence. When my girlfriend took her kids skiing last week, she was in a better place. Megeve, that’s a goddamned nice place-compared to the car-bomb ridden capital of Lebanon. And you know what? I could call her on the phone, or video-phone her. And still, I was not satisfied, I was not happy, I was not comfortable in my skin. I wanted her physically here. And when she is physically here, I don’t need to touch her, I don’t need to talk to her. I can simply sit and read my book while she wanders around doing whatever and I feel peaceful. I feel that the connection I need has been made.

So, S, suffering widow of T, I know why you put your head on that casket and wept. Even I felt like saying goodbye to him one last time, opening the top and maybe giving him a hug. And, even knowing that he is a car out of gas, even knowing that the hug is nothing for him, that last physical contact would have had meaning.

Death’s Reminders

This morning I prepared my double espresso, watched the coffee trickle out in a fine stream, form its thick crema and start to gently exhale that amazing roast-bean aroma. I carried the small cup out to the terrace where the Jasmine bushes are in their two-weeks per year of bloom pouring forth waves of sweetness that a perfume maker can only dream of capturing. The bright sunshine and the light cool breeze combined to create a womblike level of comfort. And, this being sunday, the city was blanketed in quiet, the birds singing could actually be heard.

Intruded into this blissful situation the horrifying news that a friend, not a dear friend, nor a childhood friend, but someone whose presence I enjoyed, someone who lived a considered life and did things differently enough to pay attention to, had been killed in a motorcycle accident last night at 1.30am on his way home. He did not go to sleep, he did not wake up to this glorious morning on earth.

I felt sad that I would not see him on tuesday as we had agreed friday. I felt angry that he had persisted in driving a motorcycle in this country of aggressive drivers and bad roads, I felt worried for the people whom he had left behind and who would be devastated.

Among the various emotions, though, one I did not run across was loss. Strangely, I felt the same way about his leaving us as I would have if he had left to live in another country. The idea that he is gone does not ring true. He is there, just not here nearby. One day, I will see him again, and in the meantime it’s a question of patience.

I have seen people breakdown in sobs when someone they care for leaves to another city. But I don’t understand that at all. The person is still here, we can call them, go visit them. I feel an advance nostalgia for people I am not close to when I know that I wont make the effort to stay in touch, then I actually feel loss. But when they are people I can’t live without, I know they will remain in my life one way or another and so I am not sad at all.

I might be abnormal. Perhaps it is a loss when people depart geographically. Maybe it’s a permanent tragedy when a friend dies. But it all feels temporary and natural.

Inequality…is it really increasing?

These days, it seems, every morning brings news that some far right party in Europe is making electoral gains. In Britain, there is a similar swing towards isolationism or anti-foreignerism but it is more focussed on the European Union and the desire of many to be shot of it. In the US there is, of course, a long standing political debate about immigration, especially from Mexico, and I wouldn’t claim it is worse now that it has been, but no one objects to the wall being built between Mexico and the US.
The right-thinkers of the world, of course, deplore all this as racism and intolerance while worrying vocally about a return of fascism, especially in Europe. Now, I would not like to see a return to fascism, and while I worry that integration of immigrants, especially in Europe, is failing, I would not want a world in which the huddled masses are excluded from the shores of wealthy nations-for many reasons. Nevertheless, these people who are helping Marine Le Pen and her ilk progress are all onto something, just not exactly the right thing.
About 15 years ago, I read a piece of economic analysis that had to do with the benefits of open economies and the results of the integration of places like Korea and Taiwan into the Western system back in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The basic thrust of what I read was that the Western system, which at that point comprised about 650 million people in the US and Europe had gained by integrating economies like South Korea and the absorbed economies, South Korea here, had gained even more. The idea was that the integration was resulting in overall gains, the whole yielded total GDP higher than the sum of the original parts. There would, of course, be a convergence of wages between the two areas, but given the huge size of the West, that would be negligible effect on Western wages. But by bringing in cheaper Korean labor, and applying cheaper Western capital, the theory (and practice) was that while huge gains could be had in Korea, the West would benefit from new markets and source of cheaper goods. A true win-win with nary a loser in sight.
Moreover, when it came to distribution, everyone was a winner too. For example say a country of 20 million people with a per capita GDP of 5000 USD was to be absorbed into the Western system of 650 million people and a per-capita GDP of 30000 USD. If the net gain to the combination was 0.5% of the original GDP, even if all of the gain went to Korea, their GDP per capital would roughly double, while the West would see no change but would still benefit from cheaper production.
The thing about this approach is that if you try the same thing with China, which is what has been happening for almost 20 years now, it does not give at all the same results. To be clear, there have been huge economic gains overall, GDP growth of the combined West+China, has been massive. However when it comes to sharing, it is the Chinese poor moving up to become middle class that will take not only the lions share of the gains, but in fact may take more than all the gains. We’d expect to see a convergence in wages (adjusted for productivity) between Chinese and Western workers. That process is clearly well underway and will continue for some time. Because the Chinese labor force is larger, perhaps double, that of the West, those gains will have come not only from the growth in the overall pie but also at the expense of Western workers.
That effect will exacerbate perceived national inequality in another direction, namely by making the rewards of success in many domains even larger. Quite simply, for the maker of a successful product, the market is now at least 3 times what it was in the 1980’s. So Apple has access to more iPhone buyers, google to more searchers, pop stars to more audience and so forth. Even national sports teams have flourished due to this effect-Machester United has a huge Chinese fan base who pay satellite subscriptions to watch them. (Let’s be realistic, I am not saying that there are as many high income buyers of products in China as in the US, but if you include India, Russia and the emerging markets, the markets, even at relatively high incomes are huge. Also, there is the fact that many products and services are purchased even by the relatively poor-music and entertainment generally fall into this category. So naturally the success stories, the top 0.1% or whatever they are called, are even more sparkling today than in the past and even further away from the middle class than ever.
So there is a reason why Western wages are stagnant, why Western living standards are not rising any longer. There is a reason why the wealthy are much wealthier. And so, clearly there is a reason for massive disenchantment among the masses in the wealthy West today. But it is not the Turkish in Germany or the EU regulations that apply in the UK that are causing the problem, it is simple trade and globalisation. In fact, I posit that global inequality including all the world’s population has decreased markedly since 1990, even though it is increasing in the individual Western countries simply because so many previously extremely poor people in China, India and other places have become much, much richer.
So now the problem is one of politics. How long can this perdure without the masses electing protectionists? How long with the elites benefitting form this arrangement be able to influence events so as to keep it going? Not that it is bad. If we look at it form the point of view of the whole human race, things have likely never been fairer. As John Gray points out, it is not likely that a European form of social capitalism can continue to exist in a world go globalised free trade, they will either have to accept convergence towards poorer countries or build strong barriers against the free market.

Is a Soul-Mate the Sole Mate?

Pondering romantic love it would seem to be in retreat from the lives of people around me-I note the disappearance of romantic love within established marriages and the lack of aspiration for romantic love among the unmarried. I have been thinking a lot about how increasingly untenable belief in “the one” has become. Aside from the simple mathematics of each of us only having one soul mate, there is the reasonably high probability that if true, she would speak Chinese or a dialect native to India.
It’s interesting to think about speed dating, internet dating and other forms of systematic  meeting and then realise that people are, more and more, making disciplined efforts to make wise “choices” when it comes to mates.
Going back say 300 years, it seems unlikely that many people believed in a coupling other than within one’s narrow class and physical environment for both practical and social reasons. A member of the aristocracy pairing off with a working man was not likely. A resident of Grasse would not easily encounter a citizen of Birmingham. Even within a group, there were many proscribed potential couplings. It seems that Romeo and Juliet is a dramatic story in part because of its rarity.
So, does that mean that we are on a book-end of a relatively short period where romantic love had such an important and unquestioned role in our lives and aspirations? Have we gone in the span of a few centuries from unimaginative marriages of practical value, driven in large part by the economics of complementary skills and fiscal necessity, to an enlightenment ideal built around romantic love, individual qualities and the underlying equality and nobility of all people and now, back to something completely different, a return to the practical for sure, but no longer partnerships of economic synergy but partnerships of consumption? It seems to me that what people are doing now is electronically narrowing down the choices and then shooting for the best. It’s a different distance away, a different direction away from romantic love, but it feels even more cynical to me, more self centred than even the old fashioned marriage of necessity. It may make people happy.
It seems that in this new world one cannot but see, and clearly, that there are many potential mates just as there are many models of car, and that we could be more or less happy with quite a number of them, even if we fail to pick the ideal.
And what does it mean to a relationship or a couple if somewhere, in the back of your mind, you know that while the relationship in question may be unique, your possibility for being equally happy with someone else is not? Doesn’t that deflate, at least a little, the depth and power of the relationship? The way any rare thing is diminished by nothing other than a little more supply?
Would you, Juliet-like kill yourself after the loss of a true love? Isn’t it a tad harder to listen to love songs, especially the 60’s and 80’s ones?

Can I Imagine How a Beggar Sees Me?

The subject of this post is difficult for me to write about touching, as it does, on so many aspects of my thinking about life, poverty, joy and nihilism.

A few days ago, while I was walking along the far end of the main road of Mar Mikhael, my attention was drawn to a beggar. My memory of him as a physical entity is indistinct. My emotional memory of him however is clear.

Let’s start with the physical: he may as well have been a pile of discarded rags animated by unseen forces. The colour of the mound that he presented was the khaki-brown blur that all dirty cloth seems to eventually attain. Anyone who has ever seen Pig-Pen in the Peanuts cartoon strip will know the colour even though Charles Schulz captured the effect in pen and ink as a cloud of dust. At some level of filth, everything is the same colour-it must be a kind of entropic effect and in the case of this beggar, his skin had even taken on the same hue. He was a mound of rags, his face just part of the pile.

The movement of the rag-pile could as easily have been caused by hidden rodents rummaging around underneath as by a human being.

I looked at him, he caught my eye and I wondered: “What does he see?”

When I thought about him as I walked away from him, I wondered about his life, the details of his life. Where does he sleep? I imagined him exhausted lying on an infested mattress in an arrangement of stacked bedding, not bunk beds, but many beds stacked prison camp stlye. I imagined that the mattress was so stained as to be uniform-a big stain roughly the colour of shit. A threadbare sheet spastically covered the mattress, not really enveloping it, but splayed across it. He lay in the underwear version of his begging clothes, dirty hair and beard, dirty skin touching the mattress, which was striped like prison garb, and his feet were cantilevered off the edge of the bed with dirty toes splayed wide. His toenails were a blackened green and seemed much thicker and rougher than mine. As he slept.

“What did he eat?” I wondered. I imagined him at a table, like one of the refectory tables the Grande Dames of Achrafieh like, but this one made out of planks recovered from concrete moulding at a building site. Being roughly finished and therefore un-wipeable it had gained a smooth sheen, a putty-like layer of food grease, sweat and food crumbs. At that table I imagined several people like him, dirty and tired, but also, like him, enjoying his food, using his hands and bread to eat.

But back to the first question. “What does he see?” I have procrastinated in answering because I don’t know. I sit in front of this keyboard at a total loss.

It seems unlikely that he would have any conception of the worries I have. It might seem to him that my life would be wrought in some kind of gilt. It seems like at his distance that the details, that I consider so important close-up would be irrelevant. It could be that the only features he would make out would be things I’d have in common with almost everyone else walking on the sidewalk: a home, a refrigerator, money to pay for food, hot water, a safe place to sleep, a warm place to stay on a cold day. 

Would his imagination of my life be any better than the projections I wrote above about his life?

If we go a step deeper, into his inner life, what is his emotional reaction to the world? I see him, I feel pity, I feel sad for him and for all of us. As I wrote the image of him in bed, I felt that I was writing about Jesus, that in his misery, he was somehow closer to God than the rest of us. Or maybe he brought me closer to God.

But what does he feel? How could he not be enraged by the injustice of life or, otherwise, saddened by what has befallen him? How could he bear the constant humiliation? Or does he not see it.

In the end, I am on a hillside looking at him in the valley, and he in the valley looking back at me. Neither of us can know what the other sees.

Matthew 25: 35-40 “‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ 37 “Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 ‘And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 ‘When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 “The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’ “

The Digital Deluge and the Crowding Out of History

Listening to myself complain about the lack of precipitation that we have experienced here in Lebanon this year, made me realise that I, personally, have very little data to go one when it comes to figuring out whether this is normal, catastrophic, a bit odd or a sign of the imminent global climate apocalypse. Not only do I have very little information from personal experience given my youthfulness and the few years I have lived here, but I’ve come to realise that no one seems to have much personal data. My friend the mountain guide who spends almost every day hiking the snowy slopes, does not recall that last year saw extremely heavy snowfall (I have photographic evidence myself). He told me that this was the second year with a dry winter in a row. Nor do historical databases help all that much. Outside of a few advanced countries, weather records are sparsely populated.

I’ve also noticed that, due to the internet, Facebook and my globally located family, I now have an unreasonably large awareness of the fact that Brooklyn is extremely cold with a lot of snow, London has been rainy but not very cold, Megeve had poor snowfall in December, there is a huge drought in the Western United States…and that is just the trivia bubbling on the top of my mind right now.

It dawned on me that in the dense cloud of so called “information” that we are surrounded by, that we inhale and exhale whether we are aware of it or not, all the weather reporting is basically, like almost everything on social media or in the daily news, just entertainment and distraction. After all, I would wager that 90% of what is written in the New York times has little or no impact on the lives of most New Yorkers, and even less of an impact on those of its 224,000 international readers. Yet, we read, yes I do too, and are driven to read by some part of our brains that must have evolved to look at rare and strange events in order to glean information that would aid in our survival at some point in the future. I expect that it must be useful for an animal to take a strong imprint in his mind of some unusual or dangerous situation and keep mental notes of how to survive it. A fascination with bad outcomes in the interest of survival might explain why people rubberneck at road accidents.

I’ll admit to a healthy interest in the grotesque and the unusual, a normal amount of fascination. I walked over to the site of the bomb that killed Mohammed Chatah. It was striking how much less dramatic the scene was in real life than on TV. On TV the camera magnified the flames, the traces of human injury (blood on the sidewalk for example) and, by constantly panning and zooming, the television camera man imparted a dynamism and action to the images of destruction that, in reality were absent. If anything, the scene of the crime was preternaturally calm. The whole neighbourhood had been barred to cars. The few pedestrians and onlookers were silent in what may have been reverence for the dead or awe at the amount of broken things. The security services moved in a slow and methodical fashion, the last of the injured, dying or dead had long departed the area. There was no longer any urgency. In fact by being at the scene I intuitively knew that there was not much to learn. I suppose the most one could have concluded is that it is good to have laminated glass in Beirut.

Watching the same scene on television, I had reached different conclusions. Honda CRVs, especially if gold coloured, signal danger. One should sit far away from windows. Try not to be around politicians. Instead of the inherent unpredictability and randomness coming to the fore of my thoughts, instead of that scene of calm teaching me that the explosion was a tiny, momentary disturbance, I learned those false lessons.

What does this have to do with weather or the news. There is, to start, the difference between the lived event and the news portrayal. For most people the dramatic floods of Southern England have amounted to a long series of rainy days. Nothing more dramatic than that. For most people the explosion that killed Chatah was absolutely a non-event as directly experienced. Less of an event than the even the almost unnoticeable rainy day.

Moreover, what is the significance of the flood or the bomb? What lessons can we learn? I would posit that we can learn nothing whatsoever. In fact we can unlearn, that is, crowd out real lessons and intelligence with noise.

Before the days of the printing press, stories were kept alive either through manual reproduction or the oral tradition. In all cases, the only way for a story to enter the culture and spread was for it to crowd out another story on the storyteller’s calendar or, likewise, to take the scribe’s priority away from something he deemed less interesting. Is it any wonder that what survives from the Greeks, the Romans and the Arabs of millennia ago are only a few works of such essential importance that we our culture still refers to them? Who has not heard of Plato, Archimedes, Ibn Sina, Homer or Pythagorus? Who, in 1000 years, will even know that Harry Potter existed? There was, I suppose, much more attention for far fewer entertainment resources. There was, undoubtedly, a lot more boredom. A world not only devoid of television, but of books was normal for most of human civilisation.

Today we are not bored, but overwhelmed. There is  no possibility of keeping up. Think that until 1500 it was possible for a single person to have read every book ever published. It was literally possible for one person to have at least browsed all recorded human thought.Today there are 2.2 MILLION books published annually. But even without reading a single one, I could spend my life distracted on Facebook or youtube. What are the implications?

Many I guess, but the one that really struck me was that we, individual humans, are losing touch with reality. Perhaps two hundred years ago, weather related cataclysms would have been recounted in stories told from one generation to the next. The story of Noah’s ark and the great flood probably started that way. A person might be told about some enormous event that happened three or four generations ago where he lived. But he would never hear anything about the places he did not live. And so he would have a flawed, impressionistic but somehow reasonable frame of reference for the place he lived, a set of guidelines for what was extreme and what was not. Today, I know about all the extreme things happening all around the world right now but I know zilch about where I live. Why would I want to listen to a story about some snowstorm in 1920, 1942 or 1950 (that is when Wikipedia says Lebanon had it’s worst snowstorms, however it also says ‘reference needed’) when I can hear about some actual thing happening right now in Baluchistan, or even better, a place I care about like New York! And told with a lot of explanation points and zoom shots, and dramatic voice overs!

Does it matter? Ask the (ex) residents of Fukushima. Despite local lore that mentioned at least three catastrophic Tsunamis, and despite records detailing many facts about those tsunamis and the damage caused, the site at Fukushima was chosen, lowered (yes, they dug 20m down to site the reactor closer to the sea) and then designed to withstand a 3-6m wave even though the stories all told of 10-15m waves.Of course how seriously should the designers of the plant taken the locals: their story was about something that happened in 1677.