Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Siege

"Nothing new under the sun," the old saying goes. What Solomon meant, I think, is there are no universally strange experiences, only unfamiliar ones. Anything at all, even the most perverse situation, can become searingly familiar in a few days' time. Welcome to Kiev. My home looks dramatically different these days, but the ancient king's words ring true even when illumined by the hellfire of burning trash. An evil glow has been cast across the city, and this is its epicenter. Here I stand, bathing in the half-light of iniquity. The square is a vast battle-scarred tableau, a Dantesque landscape split by a winding river of fire, which separates us from the police. A greasy black cloud bellows upward, choking the night sky. In the distance I see volunteers feeding the inferno, tossing in anything they are given -- tires, bed frames, broken-down chairs. On the eastern end, the parliament building is in ruins. A massive Rolex advertisement that once covered the structure's facade is burnt through in spots and orange flames adorn some of the window cavities. Here and there, a random firework explodes, showering the square in dazzling sparks, briefly transforming the scene from night to day. A line of protestors are conveying cobblestones -- pried from the plaza via crowbar and sledgehammer -- to the front lines. Silhouetted against the wall of flame, ragtag bunches of anarchists are hurling the stones, hoping to hit the cops on the other side. Some have made Molotov cocktails; others aim bottle rockets through the fire. An impassioned voice is booming from nearby loudspeakers, stirring the crowd. The voice is of a man whom I can tell is from the countryside. His accent is a little thicker, a little more Slavic. The voice hoarsens with each passing hour, yet he continues on, shouting slogans, exhorting us to action. But we mostly just stand around, beneath the portable construction lights, huddling against the biting cold, nervously awaiting the latest casualty report. Occasionally the crowd parts, allowing the wounded to be rushed towards an improvised medic tent. Tolstoy said all men suffer equally. Another man, an American, once wrote, "Each man's struggle is huge in his own estimation. It occupies his entire world; it is more important than any other man's struggle he might encounter. Therefore, for each of us, it is significant, encompassing, total." If this is true, why are we here? Yanukovych's goons, our goons, we are all the same. Yet we must fight. Despite the flames licking at our very souls, we have endless time to contemplate such things. Twenty-three deaths tonight. From where, I have no idea, since from here it appears as if nothing is happening. So this is life inside the Maidan: equal parts dread, boredom and chaos. I realize this is how it must have been for the crusading armies of long ago -- endless days camped outside the castle walls while the inhabitants inside slowly starved. The smell of smoke surrounding you, a continuous muddy filth permeating everything, and, worst of all, the crushing weight of time.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Piso Mojado (2010)

The fabled Scottish Nuff, a thimble-sized dwarf mushroom that grows in the faerie bogs around Inverness, is a powerful sleep-inducing psychedelic that's been used as a folk remedy for ages. It is collected in the cold autumn wilderness, dried and ground into a fine dust, which is then inhaled. It is, among other things, reputed to have aided the reveries of William Shakespeare, and is the likely medicine behind A Midsummer Night's Dream -- as noted in a quarto dating from the early 1600s, where the great bard famously inscribed, "This wond'rous poem I doth dedicate solely to a delicious pygmie powder."

Nowadays, it's an exceedingly rare substance. It was offered to me once during a walking pilgrimage on a mountain in Jalisco, where, at altitude, the effect was appropriately doubled. I understood, as I sat
beneath the glowing darkness of the Mexican twilight, that the restless sediment swirling about our active brains, is, quite simply, the result of life itself. Something beyond our stewardship, something we can only approach, something we can, perhaps, only attempt to wrangle. Something we can't tame. Something both kicked up by and something that propels our endless walking -- the simultaneous source and product of an underlying current, the always-on, fruitfulness-seeking machine. It is the ever-nomadic force of thought.

And yet, continuously, contemptuously even, we try to thwart it. To throttle it. I cannot quite grasp, in the constant half-light of my own awakening, this paradox: the thing that wants to throttle itself. It's an amazing device, the mind, but something somehow stained and wicked. It is an enigmatic, mercurial, curmudgeonly engine that threatens to unravel under its own power. Screws and bolts unthreading themselves as the rumbling choke is released. The fuel coursing wildly through it.

But the drug allowed me to part the silt, to peer deeper into my mind's black pool. There I swam, basking in the state of a semi-shrouded dream for what would be seven full days. During this time, I saw many things: for example, a towering, long-legged figure with a curved spine that roamed the cactus-studded desert. He was spire-shaped, about three feet in diameter, and about as tall as a mature pine tree, with wiry arms that dangled and swung in time with his languorous gait. This monster was known to the locals as the Ghihi, the commander.

When I woke, I had somehow been transported off the mountain and found myself, mouth parched with dehydration, crumpled on the valley floor. My face was caked with grit; my beard was completely infused with dirt. I squinted upward and saw a distant winged figure in the dazzling midday sky -- a hawk of some sort, circling above me. My possessions had vanished entirely, but my cracked hand contained a crushed piece of paper -- a note, which simply read: "Thanks for the memories, you stark raving lunatic."

Friday, July 26, 2013

Star Hunter (21st Anniversary Edition)

They descended via jetpack through the forest of tall towers that encrusts the sprawling cityscape of Gastroux VII, the thrumming financial heart of the Wxx Sector.

The buildings -- most of them 300 stories tall, each populated with thousands of workers -- were a kaleidoscope of green polished windows, image upon image reflecting on their glassy exteriors. And if you were to look closely, you might have spied within the bristling spires the distorted sight of the two men as they piloted slowly downward.

"War," Callous intoned. "What's it good for? Quite a lot, actually."

He was explaining to his cohort, the ridiculously strapping William Walkman IX, how the Staccano clans' legendary internecine conflict had given birth to such wonderful innovations as Phaserous Energy, Liquified Missile Gelatin, and Granulated Thermonuclear Dust Particulate.

"All of that sounds bad," remarked William.

"Oh, it most definitely is, replied Callous. "What I meant to say is that war has been good to me."

This highlighted the fundamental difference between the two men. William, who descended from a long and prestigious line of space heroes, had time after time exhibited courage, valor -- and, yes, violence -- to clear the galaxy of rotten scum. Callous, meanwhile, was a mercenary creature. For him, violence was the whole point. It's what got him out of bed in the morning, sometimes literally.

William frowned. His relationship with a guy like Callous was an uneasy one -- but he didn't have much of a choice. He needed Callous to lead him to Jin-Wang-Deluxe, a notoriously ruthless triad boss who was rigging the immense money markets in Gastroux.

The problem is that Callous, in previous times, had actually been in Jin-Wang's employ -- first as an assassin and then as a security specialist. In fact, Callous designed the incredibly sophisticated defense perimeter that surrounded Jin-Wang-Deluxe's residence. This was the same apparatus that William was now asking Callous to disarm.

"Jin-Wang," said Callous, with a mixture of fear and respect, "is a real badass. He has developed a high tolerance for mercury vapor, which he pumps into his ventilation system. He bathes in a highly-charged halide soup. He eats a rare crystalline form of astatine."

William was unfazed. "Just take me to him," he responded simply.

They landed in the middle of an empty street and powered down their jetpacks. "I will," Callous said. "But first..." Callous trailed off as he looked down the street.

"First?" William inquired.

"First and most importantly" said Callous, "there's a great shredded beef joint around here somewhere. Let's get some lunch."

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Devil's Discourse (Parts 1-3)

The Kalamazoo Spice Extraction Company (KalSEC) is the reason I now find myself at the conversational end of a Kalashnakov. At least I think it's a Kalashnakov. It has that sort of resemblance, but who knows? It's a stupid thing to think, I bet. A real gun expert would cluck disapprovingly at my ignorance.

The guy in front of me -- he's no expert either. But he is a criminal. I'm not a criminal, although I have spent substantial time in a South American prison. What I am is something far more mundane -- a businessman, an importer -- but how I got here isn't so mundane at all.


Allow me to explain. It all started with a bottle of wine. Vacqueyras -- that was the name of it, or rather the origin. It's a wine I can still smell and taste, almost three decades on. If I go to that quiet place, if I close my eyes and concentrate, the flavors begin to emerge, like silent fireworks. My mind goes dark -- like the wine itself -- and, after a pause: an opening salvo of cassis and peppercorn; a blast of tart cherry zing; a rich layer of fatty smoked pancetta; a finish of candied orange, vanilla, honey and tobacco.

This was the wine that changed my life. I was 33 at the time, restless, resentful and despondent, loathing my lot as an overpaid, soulless middle manager at a middling media company. I wallowed in the west coast malaise.

Ungrateful? Sure. Maybe things weren't so bad back then. In the intervening years I've witnessed worse. I've seen the most thoroughly squalid conditions in my travels, and I've experienced despair the likes of which you've never imagined. Worst of all, I've watched the slow, inexorable corruption of the human spirit.

But I must admit, I've never felt more like a rat in a trap than I did at that time, 33 years old, staring down an eternity of lifeless inconsequentiality. And there was that wine, sitting on my boss' desk for month -- a gift from some person or another. It tempted me. So I decided to steal it.

But like I said, I'm no criminal. And this petty act of rebellion was committed without the foreknowledge of the fabulous, chaotic adventure that would succeed it. I don't have the constitution for crime, but I do for mischief.


The French appellation of Vacqueyras is named for the town that sits near the end of a string of villages in the southern Rhone valley. It's a hot, dry and dusty place, closer to Spain or Italy than Paris. The dilapidated Mediterranean port of Marseille isn't too far away.

The local product -- this magical wine -- is a blend of the Grenache, Syrah and Mouvedre varietals. In its youth, straight out of the barrel, it's rocket fuel (such is potency of its alcohol profile). The mere scent will punch you in the nose. Like all good wines it needs to mellow and age, to breathe, to develop character in the long hours and commune with the cosmos.

What results is a meaty, structured and faceted thing. Not stiff but supple -- like a firm handshake. The tannins are silky, the byproduct of letting those Grenache skins sit in contact with the juice. This is the backbone.

It's the Syrah, though, that really makes the difference. It adds that layer of exoticism, of mystique. At the right moments it feels as if the spice trade routes of India are traveling across your tongue. Most of the flavors in there are just out of reach.

But the thing about Vacqueyras, the reason you've never heard of it, is that the town and the wine -- like everything else in the southern Rhone -- exists within the long shadow of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Châteauneuf is the regional star, the member of the family that made a name for itself while the others labored in obscurity. The eponymous town is a few miles down the road fromVacqueyras, with a gloriously ruined castle overlooking it. And the wines that come from Châteauneuf's vineyards -- well, if you didn't know any better, you'd say they bore a distinct resemblance to their less-heralded cousins down the road. The primary difference is this: Châteauneuf sells for hundreds of dollars a bottle; Vacqueyras is a tenth of that. This little detail will become important, as we shall soon see.

To really understand Vacqueyras, though, and the things it caused me to do, we must go there.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

I'm the Dragon King

Lay down your thoughts; surrender to the void. Those words bounced around my head as we blasted down a winding passage in the deep Georgia swamplands. We'd lost the path again; now we were meandering somewhere down highway 13, a two-lane, sun-dappled honky-tonk backroad that winds through a string of handsomely dilapidated southern towns -- Camelia, Pelham, Ochlocknee.

On the bright side -- I had a full dose of salvation in my bloodstream.

Salvation. The promise of it began to consume me a few days back. By the time we reached Atlanta, I was hell-bent on mind-expanding psychedelics. I was hoping they might warp me like a prism -- maybe let some sort of light in. Perhaps they'd unlock some answers.

My desperate earnestness went unacknowledged by my companion. Still, he seemed happy to join me for the ride.

We'd ingested the tabs at a rest stop ten miles back and washed them down with cold soda and chips produced from the local vending machine. The only other visitor there on this weekday afternoon was the occasional trucker with a schedule to keep. They paid us no mind.

We sat in the car, top down, and inhaled the sultry air. I stared out and tuned into the hypnotic whine of katydids in the nearby brush.

"People don't do this anymore," said Thompson, assessing the now empty baggie.

"I can't understand why. It's perfectly safe." He glanced at me for a moment and cackled wildly.

He was right, it did seem like we were somehow communing with the past, like we were performing a lost ritual. I weighed Lennon's words in that moment, cribbed in a burst of naive sixties exoticism from a similarly ancient source.

"Well," said Thompson nonchalantly, "see you on the other side." He turned the key, the Corniche purred to life, and we were off.

Now, as he piloted the 4,000-pound convertible at god knows what speed, I felt the distinctive effervescence creep down my spine, and the dark willows, whizzing by, gradually became positively impressionistic, a living Van Gogh painting. Wisps of airborne dandelion acquired a glowing, charged state -- dancing white-hot embers that sizzled and popped as they passed.

Thomson was chattering as he drove -- rehashing the story of how he sixty-nined that hot Auburn co-ed last week -- but his words gurgled and buzzed crunchily into oblivion, and suddenly I pictured myself no longer in our copper-hued Rolls, but instead straddling a dragon's back as it swooped lowly through this swampy forest -- a lost scene out of Space Harrier. All of this was scored to some intergalactic bebop music. Infinitely complex and intertwined, a brambling orgy of horns and hi-hats.

Somehow, then and there, I realized my brain is -- and always will be -- the antithesis of its own happiness. A double-agent conspiring against itself. Throughout my life, it promised various forms of lasting contentment only to then steal it away. Now, in this moment, it was exposed for what it had been all along: a miserly, squirreling, treasonous, conniving traitor.

And then, as the lunar jazz gave way to a crescendo of tribal drums, it became perfectly obvious that this was my chance, my opportunity to change things. A euphoric Cheshire grin stretched itself across my face, and I, with great calm, reached ever so slowly into the console and firmly grasped the revolver we kept in there.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Your Money or Your Life

Between the sundry and ever-expanding political conflagrations of our modern time; between the ever-accelerating news cycle; between the social chaos; between systemic shocks and aftershocks; between the flashes of light and darkness; between the discord and cry -- two old men sat in a quiet bar. A familiar story that has played out a million times, and here it plays out again.

They sat, cocooned in the the darkened ribcage of the Raffles Singapore, a halo of light around them. The bar was a landmark of British imperialism, which bore a certain residual stuffiness. The ghosts of old mustachioed colonels drinking single malt between military campaigns haunted the place. Hemmingway sat here. So did Rudyard Kipling, his feverish, drunken imagination spinning with jungle lore.

The two men were of a similar age. The elder ordered a Singapore Sling, the younger a gin and tonic. "Listen," says the elder: "Everything we do is transactional. There is always buyer and seller, guest and host."

The elder had learned this in his youth from a mercurial and evanescent mentor -- a man named Dirty Fabulous. This figure, a sage-like party animal, was the type who liked to take women home and have rough sex on his shag carpet. "I like seeing the rug burns all over their back," Dirty Fabulous would say.

Anyway, it was as the elder was saying this that he lit a twisted black cigarette of suspicious origin, a cigarette called the Thousand Breaths. It was a bracing smoke. Greenish in color, with a slight, sweet pungent spiciness on the nose. Anise and caraway seed? Black licorice? Whatever. He smoked as he told a story about himself and his mentor -- the one known as Dirty Fabulous.

One day, he said, the two decided to drive out to the barren nuclear wastelands of Nevada, all the way down a winding, lonely two-lane highway to foot of the White Range, a collection of ancient hills that owe their name to their distinctly pale appearance. It was, he remarked, one of the driest and most abandoned places on earth, having not received a single drop of rain from the cruel sky in over a thousand years. Here, the land was dirt and that was that. Even the most brazen flora couldn't thrust its roots in the hardscrabble ground here. Nor would the most enterprising, opportunistic animal -- save the lofty hawks and buzzards that occasionally drifted past -- dare to spy this stretch of godforsaken criminal earth, which appeared from the heavens as white crinkles in the otherwise beige blanket of the smooth desert floor.

The two men parked their car at the side of the highway and proceeded to march into the vicious, atavistic landscape. They carried with them three liters of purified water, a bag of salty snacks and some strands of peyote known as Saro Djablo. There, at the top of the range, looking out onto an ancient world, they consumed the drug. From there they fell into a flashing alien universe of psychedelic visions, backed by the throbbing, pulsating beat of their bloodstreams.

What they witnessed cannot be adequately described here, for there are no words yet invented that capture the nature of it. But you should be aware that they were, in that fateful moment, exposed to something uniquely visceral -- an entire substrate of reality, a secondary stream that is converging upon our own: a stream of conflict. "There is nothing in our nominal lives that is accomplished without conflict," said the elder man to the younger. "And what I mean by transactional is this: one person gives, the other receives. Always."

"This is the most fundamental piece of knowledge I can offer, and it has influenced everything I've done since that day. It's why I am so immensely successful now, and why you see all these succulent hundred-dollar bills spilling out of these pockets even as I speak. Since that day on the mountain, I have treated every person in my life, even my closest friends, as they rightfully are: an adversary to be dominated and mastered."

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


In my dream last night, I experienced one of these moments. She was in the form of a local girl, Andalucia, a woman I've lusted after for as long as I can remember. She came to me in my dream like Guadalupe -- a sheath of white gossamer gown flowing behind her, the warm night window at her back. I pulled her to me, rapturous whispered spanish emerging from my lips. I kissed her mouth deeply, savoring her tongue. Her aroma was redolent of hyacinth and and pressed rosemary; each soft hair on her arm brushed against my fingers, a charged electric current thrilling straight down my spine.

I spread her legs and licked her like an animal, placing my hands beneath her soft buttocks and lifting her moistness to my mouth. Ravenously slurping and sucking like a parched desert traveler lapping at an oasis fountain. I pawed and snarled furiously. She, in turn, moaned and clawed at my hair, a goddess transformed to beast.

But here's the strange part. After a few minutes, I pulled my head from her molten feminine crucible. I looked into those eyes and said, "Consolidated Repropizza."

Then, suddenly: awake. A bull grunting outside. Darkness.