Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Why am I Normal and Everyone Else Isn't?

Why am I normal and everyone else isn’t? Das ist hier die Frage. I don’t mean normal in a self-righteous sense; rather, I’m addressing our inability to climb outside our subjectivity. I know only me. I can make stabs at what people who are not me are thinking, but in the end it’s only educated guess work. I inevitably extrapolate my experience onto others so as to understand where they—namely seven billion strange hominids—are coming from. Unfortunately, I often don’t feel comfortable in my own skin, I suffer from bouts of self-doubt, and I’m susceptible to egocentrism. Whether I even understand myself and have a reliable compass from the get-go is an open question.

And for all I know, the world around me is nothing but an artificial mise-en-scène. Perhaps you, the trees, and my cats are merely stage props designed to keep the illusion of this world alive, only to disappear or be put on some shelf somewhere when the scene changes. Welcome to my solipsistic hell! I don’t want to retread this well-trod path; science fiction novels, songs, and movies—to wit, The Truman Show, The Matrix, and more recently Inception—have sufficiently mined that philosophical query for dramatic purposes. Descartes has plowed through these fields as well. (Ironically, his skepticism was an attempt to prove the reality of the world extra mentem.)

So much for my unoriginal Theory of Props! Let me now turn to Werner Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty (1927). I’m not a scientist. I know that surprises you, given my scientific treatises on vomiting and urinating. I like to apply the principle outside its context of quantum mechanics and use it as a metaphor for life. I’m of course not alone in doing so, to the chagrin of physicists. One of the implications of Heisenberg’s theory is that we cannot properly observe phenomenon because the process of observation gets in the way of that which we are observing. We have a built-in filter through which we see the world.  What we see is our perception of the world, not the world as such.  Being a person who believed until quite recently that little spider monkeys move the pistons that make a car engine work, I’m not the best authority on science and technology. How do they fit in there? Ain’t that something! So take my observations with a grain of salt.

With exceptions here and there, we all think that what we do, how we go about our day, is indeed the right way to go about things.  To be sure, we question ourselves and sometimes change our outlook over time.  We violate our own principles, but we our conscious that we are violating them. You might not think so, especially those of you who fancy yourselves an enlightened soul open to other perspectives, but we carry with us mental rulebooks—precepts and rules of engagement to conduct our lives.  We as individuals see our viewpoint as normal and look upon other viewpoinsts as myopic, strange, or unenlightened.  The only way we’ll ever connect with each other, I suppose, is to realize that we’re all in the same boat…or train. The German poet Erich Kästner gets the last word. In the first stanza of his Eisenbahngleichnis (Railway Metaphor), he writes:

Wir sitzen alle im gleichen Zug
und reisen quer durch die Zeit.
Wir sehen hinaus. Wir sahen genug.
Wir fahren alle im gleichen Zug
Und keiner weiß wie weit.

(My poor English translation)
We’re all sitting in the same train
And traveling through time.
We look out the window. We’ve seen enough.
We’re all riding on this same train
And nobody knows where it’s going.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Love in a Coffee Shop (2/4)


I couldn’t believe I said that. Shit. Did I say that? It was a contraction of Cool! and Great!  I wanted to crawl in a hole and die. I awkwardly corrected it.  “Great!” Her face taking on a whimsical look, we parted: she to her car, and me, well, to sulk in an espresso.

Let me fast-forward five days later. She came up to me! “Can you believe it?” she said excitedly. “He upgraded my paper to a B+. I wanted an A of course, but I’ll take what I can get.”


She looked at my empty cup. “You want a refill? I’ll get you one, on me. It’s the least I can do.”

“Uh, sure, okay. Thanks.”  Hmm.  What’s this about?  Don’t look at her. Could she possibly like you, or is this simply a gesture, a obligation to return a favor? I said not to look at her!  Calm down, dude.  She returned.

“So what do you do, if you don’t mind me asking?” She handed me the coffee.

“Thank you, and no, not at all.  I’m an illustrator.” She sat down in the chair.  To her credit as a conversationalist, she at least pretended to be interested in what I had to say.

“Like a book illustrator or something?”

“Sort of. I do illustrations for political news magazines.”

“Wow, that’s fascinating. So you’re an artist.”

“Well, no. I do freelance work but have a regular gig with a local weekly, Spotlight. Have you heard of it?”

“Oh, yes, of course.”

“It certainly doesn’t pay very well.” I didn’t have to reveal this detail, but so be it. “But I like what I do,” I added.

“And you’re an artist,” she insisted. “My dad was a studio musician back in the eighties. He played bass guitar on albums, or CDs, by…let’s see…Olivia Newton John and Peter Cetera.”

“Really? You can’t be old enough to have a dad playing in 80s bands.”

“O brother. How old do you think I am?” Danger alert! Another make-or-break question like ‘What are your strengths and weaknesses?’

“No older than 26, why?” I mustered the most serious tone I could for my answer. The subjoined why was merely an attempt to disguise the flattery.

“No, I’m thirty-one.”

Bingo! I got it right, more or less.  You see, I was operating under the Subtract-Five Rule. Why five, I’m not sure. Dan, a self-styled expert on women who hasn’t had a serious relationship in ten years, said that when you guess a woman's agesomething not highly recommended in the first placeyou can’t go too far off the mark with the charm and flattery, for you will only expose the feigned genuineness of your response.

For a woman in her 20s and early 30s, you'd need to subtract five in your ballpark estimation of her age. Once a woman gets about 35, he asserts, you'd shift to a Subtract-Six Rule, and increase by one year every five years hence. So, with this calculus in mind, if you told a woman who looks about 45 years what you thought her age was, you would say 38. Building a system on such guess work, in largely unlikely scenarios, and on the advice of a loser, is risky business to be sure.  Let's just say I don't base my life on Dan's teachings.

My answer elicited a slight grin at best. “Do you have any examples of your work?” she asked.

I flipped open to page 39 in Straight from the Wire, probably my best work, which I always keep in my laptop carry case. “See, this illustration has a bus labeled UN,” I explained, trying self-consciously to temper a nerdy exuberance that can get out of hand, I’m told, when I describe my sketches.

“Inside it you see the president and some other world leaders, and it’s about to go off a cliff. On the other side of the chasm...here,” I pointed and she moved in close to me, “is Africa, with Congo, Sudan and piles of bones. The article is about the perilous struggle for world order and humanitarian affairs in the Third World. The editor gave some basic parameters, but this is what I came up with.”

“That’s awful.” She leaned back in her chair. The proximity had caused my heart to beat like a rhesus monkey on steroids.

“Sorry you didn’t like it.”

“No, no. I love it. I just mean the situation is terrible.  Are you a Republican?”

“No.  Why do you ask?”

“Oh, sorry.  I don't mean to put you on the spot.”

“You didn't.”

“It's just that I associate foreign policy with Republican-types, for whatever reason.”

“Well, I assure you, I'm not a Republican.  I don't really like politics too much...”

“Really?  I mean, I'm not a political person either.  But you...you do work for political magazines....”

“Yes, but what I mean is that I'm not really partisan, you know?  People in power (and I don't mean to sound fatalistic) are going to do what they're going to do, regardless of constituencies on the left or right.”

“Yep.  I agree.  I'm not partisan.  That's what I mean when I say I'm not a political person.”

I opted to change the subject at this point. “You said that you work for a non-profit organization. What exactly?”

“Well, nothing having to do with world affairs. I work for the Green Polis Project, basically an environmental protection agency, but it’s grass-roots, which I like….Oh, Kim, you’re here. Good.”

Kate turned her head upward, and my eyes followed the direction, as a woman in her mid thirties (I’m guessing cold without the Subtract rule) and with sandy blonde hair walked up to the table.  She had a pleasant demeanor, yet she seemed taken aback by my presence. Who is this guy?

“Kim, this is _______, an illustrator.”

Kim made a favorable face. “Oh? Neat! Nice to meet you.” She extended her hand, friendly but business-like. I guess my formal introduction to Kate, the one that Dan made so much fun of, wasn’t so peculiar after all.

“Kim’s my housemate and came to pick me up today,” Kate explained. “My car’s in the shop.  A gasket or something fell off, my dad says.”

Kim noticed my Pamuk novel on the table and tapped it. “Is this good? I saw it in the bookstore the other day. Looked interesting.”

I appreciated her attempt at small talk. We exchanged a few pleasantries. “Well, I should be going too,” I said. I had nowhere to go, but I didn’t want to look like the Nowheresville loser that I am. I’m currently rooming with Dan and his goofy sister Janis, and it’s not a pleasant situation. For the record, this is a temporary deal, until I can get a condo in West Palisades.

When I got to Dan’s place that evening I of course wanted to talk about my third real meeting with Kate. Dan and I have what I call high-silence-tolerance levels. We can be sitting at his kitchen table sometimes in complete silence for minutes on end. It drives his sister crazy. We have stuff to say, but feel no compunction to get it out quickly. But my interest in Kate insured a lively discussion, and such talk about females inevitably led Dan to lament his own loveless plight.

“Why can’t I find a woman?”


“No, seriously. Tell me.”

“No idea, Dan. Look, maybe you need to shave a little or something, and, I dunno, diversify your interests a bit?”

“Excuse me. I didn’t realize this is first-century Palestine that you would crucify me so!  Geez.”

I shrugged, rolled my eyes, and pondered a third body language of disapproval but the moment came and went. Don’t be an idiot, Dan.

“It’s not just about sex for me, okay? I want that emotional connection; at least that’s what I crave from afar. The problem is once you get to know them, spend time with them, they get annoying, what with their gossiping, wanting to talk about stuff, and demanding constant attention. You won’t get me to watch a chick flick, not in public at a theater, you won’t!”

“Dude, that is so sexist, you have no idea.”

“Wha-at?” Dan elongated the word and made it two syllables. His tone suggested he knew he was being an ass.

“Please don’t. You’re quite the romantic,” I remarked sarcastically.  “Let’s leave it at that.”

“Maybe I should start hanging out at Hazel’s if that’s where all the hotties are congregating, huh?”

I ignored the comment. I realized at that moment, if not years ago, that I’ve been looking for an interlocutor who is, let us say, more ethereal and sophisticated than Dan. I might have been presumptuous at this point, but I already thought I had found one in Kate, and perhaps more besides. Why I hang with Dan is beyond me.  Of course I feel an obligation to shoot the breeze with him lately, since I'm staying at his house.

For a time I had developed a friendship, an acquaintance really, with Roger Zobeck, one of the contributing writers of Spotlight. I’m not completely an ignoramus, but I was a bit out of my league when he would talk about U.S. foreign diplomacy.  We also went to a rock concert and hockey game. That was fun, but then he met his future wife, his Yoko Ono, and that was that.

Dan and I have had lots of conversations, but they usually revolve around bodily functions, sexual innuendos, or the latest horror flick. Like the old lady at Costco holding out salami-cheese balls on toothpicks, I’ll give you another sampling.

“No, I mean it. Maybe I can get hooked up. Does she have a friend?”

“Her housemate’s kinda hot, I guess,” I volunteered.  Dan grinned like a fiend. “But you can forget it.” Dan frowned like a clown. “I’m not looking for a date, okay? This isn’t about hanging out with some chicks.”

“I know that.” Our high silence-tolerant level kicked in for almost a minute before Dan followed up with, “What’s it about then?”

“I just want a sense of wholeness?” That was a statement with a question tone. “I don’t need much, but something’s missing.”

“That’s your problem, my man. You gotta stop drawing cartoons and reading novels and see the world.” Why, yes, by all means, I should listen to an overweight 36-year-old man who works in the basement for a hole-in-the-wall software firm, still has his mother cut the crust off when preparing his peanut butter sandwiches, and drinks Mountain Dew as if his life depended on it. And what’s with the ‘my man’ stuff. Are you in the hood chillin’ with ya homies back at the crib? Needless to say, I didn’t voice these thoughts. Dan’s quite sensitive, on the receiving, not the giving, end at any rate.

“Don’t let your meatloaf, bro,” he had to add.

“Dan, come on!”


“That’s getting old, and it’s not original.”

“But it’s what I do.”

“It’s what you do, is it?” I mocked.

“To guys I say, Don’t let your meat loaf. To the ladies I say, Don’t get your panties in a wad.”

“You say that to women? You do not!”

“Well, no, but I’ve thought about it.”

“I don’t doubt that.”

“They’d think it’s funny. Who uses that one anymore?”

“Just don’t.” Dan’s infectious stupidity was rubbing off on me yet again; when around him, I’m like a dog who regularly returns to his vomit. “But I wonder if you could combine them.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, getting excited.  Dan and _____ back in business!

“Don’t let your panties loaf. No. Makes no sense. Hmm. How about, Don’t get your meat in a wad?”

“Hey, that actually works!” Dan laughed ghoulishly. “It’s an unpleasant image, but it works, my friend.”

So much for Dan and our riveting discussion. I’d love to tell you about the conversation between Kate and Kim regarding me, but that would require an omniscient narrator. If you think I can afford one, you must be joking! However, I’ll make a stab at it. As they left Hazel’s and got in the car, it probably went something like this:

Kim: What a looker, Kate! He’s a keeper, and if you don’t want him, send him my way.

Kate: Nope. He’s mine. I’m just waiting for him to make his move and I’m all his. He’s so smart and has a certain je ne sais quoi.

Kim: If by that you mean he’s a dreamy hunkster, I’m with you.

Kate: I can’t figure out what I love most about him: his wit, his sensual masculinity, his Roman nose, his keen mind.

Kim: It’s all good.

Kate: Yeah, I suppose you’re right. No, you are right.

I concede that I’ve taken some liberties in my effort as omniscient narrator to piece together their dialogue, which happens to work highly in my favor. I suspect their chat went more along these lines.

Kim: That guy’s kind of freaky. He makes illustrations? Does he have a real job?

Kate: He helped me with my test, but I hope he doesn’t think I like him.

Kim: Be careful, Kate.

Kate: Yeah, though I must admit he’s a mountain of manhood and has quite a unit on him.

Kim: I’ll grant you that, girlfriend.

I couldn’t resist at the end.  Sorry.  Of course it is quite possible that they didn’t discuss me at all, but I shan’t entertain that possibility.

Once Thanksgiving was over, theythe ubiquitous and ominous theystarted playing Christmas music ad nauseum.  Yes, in November it seemd that the world was careening out of control and humanity was running amok. Work had been stressful. Thanks to my mocha café, and Kate too, I opted not to kill myself in light of such realities.

I swear to you I’m not a stalker, but by happenstance we bumped into each other; she was coming out of Manuela’s Mexican Restaurant with some work colleagues and I was making a beeline from my car toward Best Buy intent on getting my brother a headset for his new iPod system. She spotted me first. I tried to say something witty but was caught off guard.

“Hey, you!  We should get together at Hazel’s.  Been a while.”

“What time,” I said, as nonchalantly as possible.  I’ll fit you in if I can, but it doesn’t matter to me.

“Thursday, okay?”

“Yeah, sure, whatever works.” The powers of hell will not prevail against it, I thought to myself.

When I got back to work, the pressure of deadlines and a rattled editorial manager on my case sent me into a funk. I had to deliver a presentation to the board on Monday regarding Spotlight’s February issue.  They commissioned me to design the cover of the magazine. I’ve just illustrated articles and whatnot, never the cover. It was a great opportunity, and it would certainly look good on my resume.

On the downside, I don’t have any artistic freedom whatsoever. There are so many specifications for this piece. The issue will be thematic and feature articles and essays related to consensus-building in the community. Lame, if you ask me. One article will deal with gang-banging and poverty on the south side. Another is about the new community pool center. Anyway, they wanted me to depict significant members of the community—the mayor, the police chief, news anchorman—cartoon-like, smiling and holding hands. I would prefer to sketch out something more symbolic.

I turn 33 in December. Aren’t I supposed to usher in world peace or something? Raise the dead? Heal the sick? Something? Where is my life going? As I get older, I find myself becoming more and more existential. I need to carve out meaning for my life. Next Thursday was the only positive thing in my life.  On a late November evening, the one after I met Kate and her friends by chance in the parking lot, I decided to leave work early. Usually I'd go to the coffee shop to do my thinking and sketching, only to end up absorbed in a novel. This time I felt like driving...driving somewhere.  Well, not really, it's about the ride and not the destination.

Honestly, I’ve been virtually living in my car for about a week now. Dan and Janis got into a spat and it’s been ugly. It erupted when Dan had locked Genevieve, Janis’s cat, outside all day in the rain. When Janis got home she had a shit fit. I don’t know what Dan has against Genevieve; we’ve always gotten along well.

Was Thursday a setback or advancement in my “relationship” with Kate? I’ll let you decide. It started out well. We talked for about an hour. She learned some things about me; I learned some things about her. Where was this going? I guess it doesn’t matter. Does it have to go somewhere? I mean, I’m having a good time being in her company. Does she like me? Again, it’s of no consequence. It’s not about liking or not liking someone, it’s about…filling in the existential void and giving the illusion that we have purpose. At any rate, that’s what Genevieve told me one day when I was scratching her belly.

So what did we talk about exactly? Appropriately enough, we had a rather banal discussion about coffee in a coffee shop, and yet it seemed like something else was going on a deeper level.

“So have you always liked coffee?” she asked.

Just answer the question and don’t overcompensate nervousness with stupidity. “Pretty much. I’ve been a coffee-fiend since the womb.” I pantomimed a fetus sipping from a coffee mug. Quickly gloss over infantile comment with a serious response. “Actually, I didn’t really start drinking coffee until college. It came in handy when pulling those all-nighters for the term paper.”

“I had many of those too,” she responded.  “Still do!”

“Tell me about it!”

“I guess Procrastinator is my middle name.”

“Procrastinatrix, yeah.” I shot her an exaggerated pedantic face.


“Sorry, just being stupid again.”

“No, I mean, I know you’re joking, but what does it mean?”

“It’s the female version in Latin, I think. You know, like dominatrix.”

“Oh, right. Interesting. Where do you get this stuff?”

“I took Latin in college.”

“Why? Was that your major before you went into illustration and graphic design?” Jose Feliciano was wishing us a merry Christmas on the speaker over our table.

“Oh gosh, no. And I think the job market’s tough now!  What do you have to offer our software firm, Joe the Applicant? Well, I can tell people to fuck off in Latin. But seriously, I suppose I wanted some cultural depth to my life.  I dunno. Really, I wanted to impress guests at a kaffeeklatsch with such erudite references.”

“Mission accomplished!”  Kate's face lit up and melted my soul in the process.

“Here’s to pretentious no-name illustrators living a life of anomie in suburban America!”

“Don’t sell yourself short,” she said as she knocked her coffee cup against mine. I appreciated the sentiment.

“Tell me, smarty pants.” She looked at her cup. “Where does coffee come from? Kim says it came from the Dutch. Not that they invented it, but they brought it to America.”

“Well, not exactly.  A guy named....Guido was selling it at a stand and, lo and behold, a Dutch merchant vessel happens by.”

She rolled her eyes and humored me, “Where’s this Guido?”

“He’s on…uh…Frappuchino Island. Somewhere on the other side of the globe, I’m told.”

“Frappuchino Island, huh?  Sounds delicious.  Yum!”

“Well now, you say ‘yum,’ but be informed that they behead people there…”

“Do their necks ooze that delicious blend of steamed milk and mocha?”

“Nice!” I knew beyond a doubt at that moment what I already had known for weeks: I found a partner in crime.  A partner in crime much better looking than Dan.  Wait.  That didn’t come out right.  I’m not gay.

“So why doesn’t Kim ever come here?” I asked.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Love in a Coffee Shop (1/4)

Have you ever formed homicidal thoughts while sipping that dark roast panacea at Starbucks? Me neither, I guess. I do get conflicting thoughts about the human condition, however, as I sit there gazing at the cappuccino freaks, espresso geeks, and caffeine fiends lining up to nudge their snout in the trough. I alternately feel like Dr. Albert Hoffmann on a bike and Mr. Kurtz at the innermost station. In one moment I’m bedazzled by the kaleidoscope of absurd, featherless biped mammals who parade before me indulging in the latest office gossip. In the next minute I’m a deranged Marlon Brando wanting to decorate my sanctuary with their dangling, rotting corpses. It must be something in my drink.

At other times I fancy myself a safari hunter espying the wildebeests, rhinos, and zebras at the waterhole. Take for example the snooty, handsome, middle-aged woman in the pantsuit eyeballing the young barista, barely concealing an austere face with an obligatory and condescending smile, and making sure the poor girl does not deviate from the specific instructions regarding her caffeine beverage—all the while, I might add, conspicuously glancing at her watch. “No, no, no, sweetheart. I said I wanted only one extra shot and skim milk with just a splash of sugar-free vanilla syrup, not two shots and 2%. And I wanted a Grande in a Venti cup. Obviously I don’t want room for cream. I don’t understand what’s so difficult here, sweetie!”

Then there’s the small group of men and women who commandeer the sofa chairs to hold their human resources conference session and brainstorm ways to make this year’s corporate party a bigger smash. How about the geezer patrol who take about an hour to order their drinks? Did I mention the weird hirsute fellow sporting eighties-style turquoise-colored parachute pants? He always looks like pain incarnate, but pain incarnate with a unibrow and an unpleasant squint. Trust me, you don’t want to watch him scarf down his oatmeal muffin in wild abandon. Comparatively, it would make a naked AARP convention, our aforementioned geezer patrol perhaps, seem like a pleasant experience. And yet I can’t look away.

Why must employers of one stripe or another ruin my bliss and decide to interview applicants always at a table next to me? I find it quite distracting. Hapless job seekers squirm in answering the inevitable “strengths and weaknesses” question, or variations thereof. Interviewers word it differently but it amounts to the same thing: What are some areas that you find challenging, Bill?  Tell me, Johann, could you share with me some of your life goals and how they might not have been conducive for the work place? These interviewers might as well ask what’s really on their mind, because they’re not going to get a straight answer anyway. Say, Mr. Thomas, are you by chance a whack job? How about an anti-social, high-maintenance prima donna who lacks motivation, a work ethic, and the ability to work well with others? Can you please give us a reason to cross you off our list, because we already have the position filled by the CEO’s son-in-law and we’re just going through the motions for the sake of something philistines call the “law”?

And the answers are always variations on a theme as well, for each applicant, of course, speaks not truthfully, but strategically. I heard someone applying for a bank job answer thus: “Weakness?  I suppose I’m a workaholic and overly zealous in my loyalty to management. It’s kind of weird actually.” Even an obtuse interviewer can pick up on this BS, no? I always figured that I’d just say something unexpected, yet not too outlandish. “What are my weaknesses, you ask Mr. Bank Manager Guy? I’m a selfish person.” Use honesty, offer some introspection, get mildly spiritual, and throw them off guard. Unless it’s the owner of the business, though, they won’t care.

These business-types are such revolting creatures. If I were in an ornery mood and sensed the interview was leading nowhere, I’d like to think that I’d say something like, “Weakness? I really don’t like to talk about it since going off the medication, but I do have a tendency to fall in love with interviewers; they’re like an aphrodisiac that only intensifies when I’m literally wearing their skin in my backyard shed. It’s kind of weird actually. Anyway, you were saying about the accountant position?”

Finally, in this coffeehouse catalogue of horrors, there’s the soccer mom or effeminate guy in a sweater (or just about anyone) who can’t seem to sit still without gluing her Blackberry to the ear. How blessed I am to be privy to this woman’s conversations, in all its minutiae, whether I want to be or not. Why should I finish off my Orhan Pamuk novel when I can learn about her sister’s pituitary gland or the fun she had in spraying various shower gels on her arms and face at Bath & Body Works? I also assume that she was trying to break a Guinness world record on the number of words she could stuff into a ten-minute phone conversation. Once in a while she would start whispering loudly, evidently about something she construed to be more personal, like Jerrold’s internet porn addiction. As her non-mellifluous voice resonated throughout the coffee shop, all I could think about was whether Jare-Bear was her son or husband.

If I were to draw up a sketch of this place, it would depict darkened figures and triangular faces with tortured, Munch-like expressions, awash in bluish-grey hues. The caption would read: Dante’s Tenth Circle of Hell: Coffee Shop Patrons.

Stone drunk at a house party, I was once shared with my friend Dan a theory about this strange place, and I’ll try to remember it here, minus the slurred speech and scatological interjections. The ubiquitous Starbucks’ logo has in a way replaced the double arches as the cultural symbol of the American imperium. More fundamentally, the coffee franchise has become the priestly tent wherein the central rite of our secular religion takes place. To the propitious gods of materialism, prosperity, success, debt, and good intentions we pour libations over the altar, the barista counter, and make our sacrifices. We utter our Italic mantras: Venti, Grande, Espresso in nomine sanctu pecuniae. I bring forth tears of joy just thinking about it.

What are we sacrificing? We’re offering up our self-cognizance and historical perspective, liberals and conservatives alike, and thereby gaining smug insularity or jingoistic self-righteousness. The heavenly aroma seals our communal solidarity. I confess that I’ve had more time to refine my theory, but sometimes the original genius can only come when you’re jumping into the next-door-neighbor’s pool in a makeshift cowboy outfit.

I am exempt of course from these morose musings, for I am the Enlightened One traversing the narrow road. You might conclude that I’m a caffeine addict like the rest of them; instead, I’m more like a bodhisattva who has temporarily relinquished paradise to bring other souls along the path. That’s not entirely true. Actually, I fell asleep in the sofa chair again and, in a new version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, have awakened as another benumbed automaton of contemporary bourgeois culture in America. True, it’s easy to be melancholic, negative, critical and cynical. I have in fact mastered these disciplines. But it’s coffee beans, “free trade” naturally, that have seduced me, and not a large seedpod forming an alien version of me.

I have often practiced the black art of caffeinomancy, awaiting some epiphany, some kind of transcendent guidance in each gulp. Alas! Those beans—handpicked by the poor Colombian peasant woman whose hut was destroyed by FARC or the Rwandan banana-peddler whose family was slaughtered over a decade ago—give me only a nervous twitch and high blood pressure. Sometimes they cause me to hallucinate. For example, as I watched the girl plop the mocha syrup into the innocent cup, I swear I actually saw drops of blood from a staggering U.S. marine fall onto the dirt road between Jalalabad and the Khyber Pass after a pressure point IED took out his Humvee.

Wow!  Where it did that come from?  I think I'm still chewing on some of the work I've been doing for a foreign policy news magazine.  Let me just finish my thought.

In those rare moments of moral clarity I damn Starbucks. I curse its five-dollar coffee, its pastry poisons, and the morally complacent middle-class environment that it enables. Perhaps customers will die of cancer from their cell phones or of high blood pressure from their red-eye mochas. Such hopes give only small consolation. I guess I lied about homicidal thoughts. Barista, pour me another cup and set sail this lost soul on a sea of dark brown oblivion before I contemplate the sweet release of death.  Sorry.  I have a strange tendency to get morbid when I'm actually feeling happy about life, and vice-versa.

Truth be told, the real reason why I decided to put off self-slaughter and the netherworld is because of what happened the other evening, December 16 to be exact. If we’re going for precision, let’s say from about 8 to 9:37ish pm. That’s when I talked from the heart with Kate. I shared with her, well, what I had been thinking for weeks, possibly months.

It was at Hazel’s, a coffeehouse I have been frequenting this past year, located across the street from the university administration building. We had been meeting there throughout the semester. In truth, we hadn’t really been “meeting,” but sort of coexisting there, or doing our own thing there independently, but together. It’s hard to explain.

I’d be buried in my book and she’d be working on her laptop. We hadn’t really been communicating with each other, at least beyond an occasional “Hi” or “Are you in line?” or “Oh, are you using this chair?” Eventually we graduated to “Could you watch my stuff while I go to the loo?” But these intermittent exchanges of pleasantries eventually, gradually, wonderfully, transformed into something more meaningful, at least for me. I’ll explain this happy (and complicated) development in due time. Right now, to be honest, I’m simply ecstatic about that December evening. Pardon my euphoria. As a relatively self-cognizant person of a melancholy disposition, I realize it won’t last, but let me enjoy it for now.

It all started many weeks earliertwelve and a half, actuallywhen we both went up to the condiment counter, me with my mocha, and she with her soymilk latte. You’d think this would have happened earlier. We both reached for the yellow packet of sweetener and chuckled.

“Hi, my name’s Kate by the way.” She smiled. “It looks like we have the same schedule more or less, huh?”

“Hi.” I extended my hand and instantly felt foolish beyond belief for doing so. My friend Dan got endless mileage out of this one when I told him about it later. Good evening, ma’am, he mocked, with a stiff manner and in a curt business-like tone. He then started to strut around his townhouse like a Prussian officer.

I told her my name and added, “This is fun, isn’t it? It’s like arts and crafts, putting together our coffee. Here, you want the yellow one? I’ll take one myself, plus a blue and pink packet. Now I take the stir stick and blend all the colors together!”

“I know, right! That’s funny. I think that way too.”

“But I take it quite seriously. Sure, to the untrained eye I’m simply over-sweetening my beverage. To the esoteric initiates—and I’m sure you’re one of them—I’m creating world harmony and celebrating the racial rainbow of the world.”

I made her laugh. That’s a good thing. That's a real good thing.  When I get nervous I immediately kick into a silly mode and start quipping inanities, and it’s a hit and miss as to whether anyone gets it or not. But that’s largely beside the point in a way, because I’m usually just aiming to amuse myself. I’m also not immune from feeling my way towards a punch line heedless of propriety. I confess, though, that I wanted to make a good impression.

Afterwards I reflected on her positive reaction to my shenanigans. Had she been weirded out (and I guess I wouldn’t have blamed her), it would have all been over. Honestly, despite our earlier non-consequential exchanges, it wasn’t until now that I thought of her as the mother of my children. Not really. I said that for dramatic effect. But for some reason I felt drawn to her. Dan would say, Duh. She’s a hottie! I’m not sure that explains it, not entirely. So, I decided to capitalize on this success by serving up a more delicately refined witticism, something urbane that would evince some intelligence and cultural literacy, lest she think I’m just a Dufus McSnort. I had the perfect rejoinder and was about to utter it when…

“Excuse me!” came a nasally voice. It was Unibrow interposing himself and grabbing greedily for a napkin and cinnamon shaker, spilling crumbs everywhere. What is this demon-spawn doing here? When the barista called out his drink from the counter, he brushed us aside and yelled obnoxiously, “That’s mine! That’s mine!” This spectacle was enough to ruin the moment. Kate was walking out the door, but not before our eyes met as if to say, This guy’s a nut job, huh?

I hadn’t seen her for almost a week thereafter, not that I had been looking. One time she was getting in her car as I was pulling into the lot. I already knew she drives a royal blue Volkswagen Jetta, nice but not too flashy. It’s not like I’m stalking her, but I do feel bad for overturning one of her potted plants as I was maneuvering for a better view into her window from the back patio. No, I’m just kidding! Fortunately we talked at more length on Tuesday, the day that she stays over an hour to plunk around on her laptopnot that I notice such things.

“Kate, right?” I ventured, as I passed her on my way to order a coffee at the counter. Not wanting to seem like an indulgent slob, I ordered—horror of horrors—just a regular coffee. She lifted her head up from her computer and gave a flustered, but cute, look.

Aware of her facial expression, she explained, “Sorry. I’m just…”

“No, that’s okay.” I was hoping she would say my name back, but no such luck.

“I didn’t get the grade I was expecting for my paper.”


“This instructor says I overuse the passive voice. I don’t even know what the passive voice is! He even took off points for stylistic issues! Can you believe that?” She shot me an incredulous look that soon melted into self-consciousness. “Oh, I’m sorry, enjoy your coffee.”

“Well, I don’t know if I can now, frankly.” She chuckled.

Her chuckling emboldened me to continue.  “I am shocked by that. Yikes, passive voice. That shocks me, I should say,” I said with a grin, proud of my off-the-cuff quip, albeit too subtle for her to appreciate. “So that’s what you do on your laptop? You’re taking classes. How cool!” Did this statement make me sound like I stare at her all the time?

“Yeah, I guess I’m not the most social person in the world. Always got my nose in my course textbooks or stressing over work for my job. Hey, you seem like you’re smart. Can you tell me what this means?” She slid her Dell laptop around to face me. She wanted me to decipher comments for her and no doubt agree that the instructor is either a buffoon or miscreant—my words, not hers.

“Let’s see here,” I said, looking into the screen and stroking my goatee. “You mind?” I gestured to the chair.


“Something, something about something,” I muttered, feigning heavy concentration in a comically pedantic manner.

“Stupid or what?”

“He’s alleging that you did not sufficiently provide analysis but simply summarized the contents of the book.”

“But I did! That’s stupid, don’t you think?”

“Yes, indeed. You got a C+? Rubbish. This is…well, let me scroll down to your concluding paragraph….uh huh…okay…indeed…I see.  Hmmm.  Dotted ‘i’s, crossed ‘t’s…yes…clarity of expression…active voice…good. This is an A paper, as far as I’m concerned.” Kate nodded her head in jocular approval.  “But seriously, you should talk to the instructor about this grade. Explain your case.”

“Yeah? I don’t want him to think…”

“No, you should. Definitely. So what’s your major anyway?”

“That’s a long story. But I won’t bore you….” She paused but sensed I wasn’t going anywhere. “Okay, so I started out as a sociology major, and realized there’s no jobs in that field; but then I thought I’d eventually go to graduate school and teach at a university, so I transferred to literature. I know. The same problem. I guess I didn’t really know what I wanted. Anyway, I now do HR for a non-profit organization here in San Cappiola, but I’m trying to get a degree in organizational management. I’m a business major, basically.”

Business. Hmm. I don’t want to give the impression that I wasn’t paying attention, but, being a multi-tasker extraordinaire, I also couldn’t help but admire the powder blue shirt and lavender sweater she was wearing. She got up for a moment to get a napkin and I watched her backside, but not in a sexual manner. Honest. She looked so good, in a natty, handsome way. When she walked, for that matter, she moved her body with a sort of regal gait—not arrogant but almost prissy and self-assured.

Her cell phone “rang” with the opening to Abba’s “Dancing Queen.” “Shit, sorry, I’ll get it!” She smiled nervously. By the time she dug the phone out of her purse the vocals were kicking in: Oooh, you can dance, you can jive... I shook my shoulders, as if to say, Don’t worry about it. I’m fine.

Even the way she said shit was cute. Do you know how awkward it is to sit there, barely knowing a person, while the person, especially an attractive member of the opposite sex, is talking on the phone. Should I get up and leave? Should I pull out my book and read? I felt like Dufus again.

“Well, I gotta go. Shit.” She glanced at her watch. “Let’s definitely talk next time.”

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Elixir (2/4)

Only when I was making my way from the baggage claim of Narita International Airport to the ground transportation area, where an impeccably dressed Mr. Junichero Matsui stood waiting for me next to his minivan, did it hit me: What the hell am I doing here?

The basic facts are easy for me to explain. I’m seeking information about the elixir and also hoping I can get more of the precious stuff. How this particular set of circumstances came about—that is to say, how I got here, takes a bit more explanation, however. Let me retrace my steps so that you can understand how I ended up in Japan and, well, so that I can reflect on this strange odyssey.  Perhaps I'll come up with some answers for myself!

Trish, a lesbian friend of mine who used to be into the occult, recommended that I see an elixirologist. (My use of the appositional phrase lesbian is an inside joke; she hates when people make such references.) I didn’t know what she was talking about until I consulted a dictionary later. Elixirology is the study of elixirs. An elixirologist, then, is evidently someone who knows a lot about elixirs. Why didn’t I think of that before? I had tried in vain to decipher the writing on the label, having exhausted my Armenian connections, namely Vince—that asshole! I was skeptical but desperate. Despite my misgivings, I let Trish hook me up with an old friend of hers, Roger, a self-styled spiritualist.

I met Roger at his apartment the next day. Two things put me off from the get-go. He’s obese as all get out! I have no problem with fatness; I could stand to lose 15 or 20 pounds myself. Roger, though, was disgustingly obese. I mean, didn’t he have any elixirs that could help with his obesity? Second, what’s with all the Marilyn Manson posters everywhere? I don’t hate the guy, but wall-to-wall posters strikes me as a bit excessive? And who listens to him anymore, anyway?

Despite my misgivings, Roger proved to be quite knowledgeable on the subject. He told me that the Mesopotamians first made elixirs to help them get through the day. Given the constant invasions and dry climate, they would have not have created civilization and invented writing without such a concoction.

I showed him a photo of the elixir, for I didn't trust anybody—especially him, someone who understands the value of elixirs.  I  could easily imagine him snatching the bottle from my hands and guzzling it down. He didn’t recognize the bottle or my description of its effects, but he started flipping through various dusty tomes that filled shelves next to his big oak desk. Apart from the Marilyn Manson posters and Snickers wrappers all over the place, his office looked like something out of Harry Potter—probably intentionally so.

As he had his nose in the book, I took the opportunity to look around. On a file cabinet next to his desk I spotted a frothy, foamy substance in a glass goblet. I was intrigued.

“What kind of elixir is that?”


“The glass there.” I gestured toward it.

“Oh, that’s a Coke-Oreo float. I like to wait until the ice cream melts a little.”

“I see,” I replied, trying hard to hide my disappointment.

“Ah hah! There it is!” Roger stabbed the page with his sausage finger. “The elixir you’re looking for: Nishishinjuku.”

“Doesn’t sound Armenian to me.  Indian?”

“Nope. Japanese. This green and black stuff was made in Japan.” He started to laugh obnoxiously.

“Japanese? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. I’ll be damned. Are you sure about that?”

“Yes. It says here….wait, where was that….” As Roger was trying to find the relevant passage on the page, I had to witness the unpleasant site of him shaking his head in frustration and his chins following suit. “A company in Nagoya, Japan….named Nishishinjuku, or however you say it, makes the stuff and bottles it…”

“But I bought this bottle in Turkey from an Armenian…”

“Let me finish! They send the bottles to various countries—Korea, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Turkey….”

“What does this mean?”

“It means you need to go to Japan if you want answers and more of the elixir.”

I looked at Roger with dismay.

“I’m just sayin’,” he responded lamely. “I’ll write you a check so you can pick up some for me too. Three bottles should cover your fee, but I want more than that, if what you say about the elixir is true.”

“What’s the fee for? I didn’t know there was a fee.”

“There’s a fee.”

“How am I supposed to go to Japan?”

“I don’t know.”

I found myself staring at him in disgust as he opened up another Snickers and tore off a bite. He didn’t seem to care that I was staring.

An hour later I’m on the phone with Trish, lamenting the situation: the impossibility of going to Japan and, more to the point, the imminent emptying of the elixir bottle.  Moreover, I had no connections whatsoever in this country, and I figured that I would need them.  You don't go traipsing through a country whose language you don't understand and which has a highly ritualized way of doing things.  Well, as it turned out, Trish came through like a champ.

“Do you know Edward Litke?” she asked.

“Vaguely. Wasn’t he that guy who crashed your party a few years ago?”

“True. But we’ve become acquaintances since….”

“What does he have to do with Japan?”

“I remember him talking about a certain…Katrina, who worked in Japan. She know lots of big wigs over there.”


“Yeah. She’s like a corporate exec for Mitsubishi or something like that.”

“You still….or does Ed still know her?”

“Maybe. I’ll see what’s up and get back to you. Got your back, Der.”

“I like lesbians,” I joked with a grin.

“Me too.”  Trish nearly broke my eardrums laughing at her own comeback.  “Say hi to the wife and kids for me.” 

“Will do.”

Before I continue with the story, I should probably explain in a little more detail my experience with the elixir as the weeks rolled on.  I had been conserving the wonderful liquid, even measuring one teaspoon out per week.  I considered refraining from taking it altogether, at least until l I secured more of it; however, I couldn’t resist its charms.  It’s not addictive like a drug.  No.  But imagine going to heaven, milling around for a while there, walking down the golden streets, hanging with Abraham Lincoln or Mother Theresa, and then having to return to pain-ridden earth.  Imagine being filled with such comfort and joy, not having a care in the world.

Even when I was off the stuff, it had lingering effects on me.  I was more responsible as a husband and father.  Family and friends certainly enjoyed my company.  My days of being a sourpuss, it seemed, were nothing but a dim memory.  I used to come home from work and sit in my car listening to death metal, angry at the world, feeling sorry for myself.  Now I hang out at coffee shops, listen to Josh Groban CDs, network on Facebook, and encourage people to be who they are.

I didn’t think Trish would follow through, but she did. She calls me about a week later, telling me that I’ll have to come up with the plane ticket, but she’s arranged, through this Katrina, to hook me up with some Japanese officials who can help me once I get there. They’ll in fact meet me at Narita International Airport.

How was I going to pay for this trip?  Unfortunately, I ended up selling my daughter's Jetta, the one my parents-in-law gave her.  She only agreed to it because I told her I would buy her a brand new vintage 1975 Corvette Stingray, which she had been talking about ever since she saw it in some chick flick.  Why would I promise such a thing?  This is one instance in which I'll blame the elixir.  I had just taken a gulp and was feeling euphoric.

I later learned that Katrina wasn't a corporate exec for Mitsubishi.  In fact, she never worked for the company, nor any respectable business.  Lisa Liebowitz, Katrina's real name, was a stripper who gained a reputation for her "White Devil Geisha" act in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo.  She had "connections," as it were, with Mr. Matsui and some of his colleagues.  In the end, it didn't matter, as long as I had someone waiting for me at Narita Airport who could help me negotiate the foreign culture and customs.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Black Friday

November is a special month, perhaps my favorite, after October and April. First of all, two of my daughters celebrate their birthdays in November, one of them occurring on a holiday that’s special to me, Veterans Day. My sister also has a birthday in this month.  But most of all there’s Thanksgiving and Black Friday, back to back celebrations of America’s cultural diversity. Let me address Black Friday specifically.

I’m a huge advocate for recognizing the achievements of our African American brothers and sisters, and I always have been. I’m not saying bigotry and prejudice no longer rear their ugly heads; to the contrary, I recognize that these evils still occur in our country on a daily basis. Even so, we live in the greatest country on earth, one that rectifies its wrongs over time. Armed with the U.S. Constitution and an intrepid spirit, a small number of brave souls, both black and white reformers, have overturned centuries of slavery and racism. I suspect our wealth and prosperity are also factors in overcoming the dark aspects of our national past. And talk about prosperity! I must have seen thousands of shoppers at the mall running around like chickens without a head when I was at T.J. Maxx this morning returning a sweater. I’m big on capitalism, mind you, but let us not forget the "reason for the season."  While all these white people are chasing after clearance sales at Nordstrom and Victoria’s Secret with Starbucks cup in hand, they should take at least a moment, as I do, to reflect on the meaning of Black Friday. I’m sure that’s what Dr. King would want.

I’m not a racist, never have been and never will be. When I’m not otherwise preoccupied, my sole pursuit in life is social justice. If anything, I’m actually racist against racists and racism, not to mention racial profiling, which really makes my gorge rise. At the same time, I’ve been wondering why February, Black History Month, wouldn’t suffice to commemorate famous African Americans and their accomplishments. I figured that the government added Black Friday in November in an effort to avoid the touchy (and costly) issue of restitution for slavery. That is, those old white men who run our country wanted to placate restitution activists by offering another day of commemoration in lieu of financial compensation. They’re not completely without justification. We’re talking forty million descendents of slaves who would receive reparations! February, a month in the god-awful throes of winter, just wasn’t going to cut it in celebrating black history.

Now, being an ardent antiracist—a flaming antiracist, if not flaming arch-antiracist—I’m ambivalent about an additional African American-oriented holiday. However, after thinking long and hard about whether Black Friday was indeed superfluous, I eventually concluded it’s only right that we celebrate our nation’s rich African American heritage twice a year. After all, we recognize Native American culture on two separate occasions: Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. It’s my understanding that the former commemorates the salvation of our Indian friends with the fortuitous arrival of European Christendom, while the latter recalls the moment when erstwhile savages expressed their gratitude for civilization by offering the pilgrims a sumptuous meal. Please excuse my fascination with historical details. That’s what an Idaho public education will do for you!

It’s also fitting that these days follow one upon the other: Thursday and Friday. As a nation, we can honor minority groups in one fell swoop, a good long weekend of food and drink. I have no doubt the racists who desecrate our country will oppose the idea, but I propose a Brown Saturday and even a Yellow Sunday. Admittedly, America might not be ready for these gestures of tolerance. I can get too exuberant in my concern for racial reconciliation and often need to bridle my zeal. One day a time sweet Jesus.

Starting the Christmas Shopping Season

I slugged a guy at Target early this morning.  He was reaching for the last Samsung 80-inch HD LCD television significantly marked down, and I wasn't about to let that happen.  I'm not proud of what I did, yet at the same time I had run into the store before he did and felt a certain degree of entitlement.  Moreover, the UFC bout between Velasquez and Rodriguez next weekend, I knew, was going to be spectacular on this screen.  (I'd also like to point out, for what's worth, that I cut my knuckles on his glasses; so in a way I've already paid for my sin.)  I suppose I should make another confession, and this one's more embarrassing.  The guy's wife bit me on the calf, and even managed to get her teeth through my jeans.  Reeling from the pain and without much thought, I thwacked her hard on the head with my wife's purse.  Stunned, she whirled around and around until she fell back into a cardboard display advertising kodak cameras.  She's okay, I think.  Why did I have my wife's purse?  She tossed it to me, bless her heart, while blocking off an aisle in the electronics section so that my daughter could have first crack at the Xbox consoles.

I sensed a lot of tension even before the doors opened, as people were jockeying for position.  You could feel the electricity in the air, yet I had no clue that this shopping experience would turn into a struggle for Darwinian survival.  I saw an elderly lady with demon-like eyes literally yanking a sweater out of the hands of a young child.  I witnessed a father and his son kicking over a young woman's cart just because she made the mistake of stopping between them and the checkout counter to nurse her infant.  I saw a family of five cursing to hell a store clerk because he had the audacity to tell them the DVD players were limited one per family.  A security guard tried to intervene, but he slipped on a puddle of coffee that was created when a patron tossed the contents of her Starbucks cup in another woman's face, adamant as she was to secure an entire stack of toilet seat covers.  Why she wanted so many of them I will never know.  This awful experience taught me a few things about myself and the spirit of Christmas.  First, if that little voice inside you tells you not to leave your combat knife in the car, listen to it.  Second, some things in life are just worth fighting for.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Reflections on Thanksgiving Dinner

I can’t believe this wonderful month has almost come to an end! When I reflect back on all the late Novembers in my life, I’m confronted with the vicissitudes of the human condition: the joy of living, the pangs of regret, the comfort of companionship, the fear of failure, the exhilaration of romance—you name it. In more recent years I recall a bloated belly stuffed with the Mother of All Meals and having to slip into those larger pair of trousers I had discarded in the basement during more joyous days of moderation and self-restraint.

My wife, bless her heart, keeps the seasonal baked goods coming.  While most people have begun to put the Thanksgiving feasting behind them, I saunter back into the kitchen with a wandering eye for yet another slice of pumpkin pie at the top and bottom of each hour—not to mention the segments of time in between. In my defense, I’m not alone. A day or two after Thanksgiving proper, the whole family’s still going at it with the leftovers. Behind closed doors, we all put on our feedbags, just as we had the day before, always careful to tie them loosely enough in case a neighbor stops over for a chit-chat.  Should a visitor have the audacity to knock on our door and interrupt our gorging, we then take off the bags quickly (and temporarily) to give the allusion that we’re a normal family with at least a semblance of decorum at the dining table. We even place eating utensils next to our plates to make the ruse that much more convincing. Once we get rid of the intruder, we continue to let the gastronomical barges flow into our alimentary canals.

I've mentioned in past blog entries that my studies and trip to Istanbul turned me into a Turcophile.  Truth is, I'm much more a Turkeyfile, because daddy likes to file that bird right down the "cabinet" of his gullet.  Keep the apple and pumpkin pies coming, I say!  A regular subscriber to the "more is more" philosophy of life, I seriously considered undergoing an operation that would extend my piehole so that I could throw not slices, but entire pies, down the hatch.  (The exit hole seems to augment of its own accord in time.)  My insurance wouldn't cover the expenses for such a surgery, however.  To be clear, though, Thanksgiving isn't about the food.  It's about gratitude for the blessings we've received.  In the spirit of Thanksgiving, then, I'd like to express my gratitude first and foremost for that turkey and gravy, plus biscuits with butter and scrumptious pies.  Yum!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Médecins Sans Frontières and Some Gratuitous Comments about France (2/2)

Given my research interests and teaching responsibilities, I particularly enjoyed the chapter on genocide. Bortolotti devotes a few pages to the debacle of humanitarian relief in Rwanda, namely the refugee camps in Goma and Bukavu (Congo) where Hutu killers walked with impunity to continue their murder spree. It's a story I know well from readings on the genocide, most notably Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families, a book I highly recommend for those of you interested in this tragic event.

To its credit, MSF, including members of the original French branch, criticized the cozy relationship between President Mitterand and the Hutu regime. The genocide certainly tested the organization’s resolve to remain impartial in a conflict. Sometimes MSFers resort to témoignage when the international community is oblivious to such evil. Témoignage refers to MSF’s right to speak out when governments violate human rights and nobody otherwise would know. Medical assistance is obviously MSF’s focus, but it’s not averse to advocacy, especially during the Rwanda genocide of 1994, which marked a watershed in international aid. “If humanitarian agencies ever felt that their presence among people in crisis was an uncomplicated act of goodness,” writes Bortolotti, “that notion died in Rwanda.” MSF-France felt compelled to do something it had never done before or since: call for a military intervention.

The refugee camps became a base of operations for Hutu killers. Perpetrators used relief money to fund their murderous objectives. One thinks of Bosnian Serbs commandeering UN buses to transport Muslim males from Srebrenica to various killing sites. In Zaire (the former name for the Democratic Republic of the Congo) the génocidaires were able to regroup so that they could ultimately return to Rwanda and finish the job. It’s bad enough dealing with the medical crisis, let alone MSFers wondering whether the patients they’re treating for cholera or dysentery will take up a machete again once they’re back on their feet. One doctor working with MSF-Holland commented that he had to put aside this knowledge and just operate under the Hippocratic oath.

Bartolotti describes a heartwrenching scene that brings to mind the movie “The Killing Fields,” which depicts international reporters trying in vain to secure a passport for Dith Pran as the Khmer Rouge have surrounded the French embassy.  MSF-France staff decided it was getting too dangerous to carry out their work in Rwanda, so they headed for the border.  The expats couldn’t bring the Tutsis on their team with them, so they had to leave them in Rwanda to their fate.  Later the expats would argue vehemently with each other whether this was the right decision.  In another grim scenario, MSF personnel at a hospital witnessed to their horror Hutu militants pulling patients out of their beds and butchering them.

MSF has also been critical of the United States for blurring the lines between military interests and humanitarian aid, a dangerous combination that jeopardizes the lives of relief workers.  Insurgents will be more apt to kill humanitarian workers if they appear to be an arm of the U.S. military.  Also, food drops in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, can have the opposite effect than what the military intend.  Civilians sometimes cross into dangerous areas to pick up the food; at other times they mistake bombs for food packages.  Besides, warlords usually seize this aid and sell it for a profit.  One thinks of the warlords who seized humanitarian aid in Somalia, thus turning a UN relief effort into a U.S. military intervention and bloody battle in Mogadishu.  This “co-optation of humanitarian action,” as Bortolotti calls it, has pros and cons, for aid that U.S. and NATO forces are able to bring to suffering and impoverished people is considerable.  In the long-term, though, the dangers might outweigh the benefits.  The ability of a relief organization to maneuver with and make an impact upon murderous regimes hinges on their reputation for impartiality and independence.

I admire MSF’s stance on the Iraq War.  Though individuals might have had objections to the invasion, the organization as a whole remained true to its principle of neutrality.  After some organizations opposed the Iraq War by claiming that the loss of life would be catastrophic, MSF, though no defender of U.S. interests, countered “by asking how these NGOs knew that a US invasion would be worse than Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship.” Humanitarian NGOs should not be in the business of either war or peace; rather, they ought to focus solely on assistance, medical or otherwise.

It hasn’t been my intention to review Bartolotti’s Hope in Hell: Inside the World of Doctors Without Borders; instead, I wanted to ruminate on the challenges and pitfalls of humanitarian aid, especially given the upcoming course I’ll be teaching.  Notwithstanding my critical remarks on at least certain aspects of French history, those gaunt-faced wine-drinking Franks, all things considered, have made the world a better place, and MSF is one example thereof.  If you’re looking for a good cause for charity and you’re more interested in humanitarian work abroad than in our own country like me, consider Médecins Sans Frontières.  “Its doctors and nurses accept the limits of the aid they deliver, and they constantly question their own work,” writes Bartolotti at the end of his book.  “Yet they do not dither in a crisis.”  What more could one ask of such an organization?