The Mother of All Fears

Tags

, , ,

Drowned, burned, buried alive, starved, death by thirst, falling off a building, airplane crash, suffocation, are just a few of the truly great fears.  But there is one greater, one that is the source of all others.  It is so insidious we have to bury it deep in our subconscious, push it far away; so heinous we must deny it utterly.  It is in fact so awful, so unimaginable and indescribable that we can’t even conceive of it.

bosch

More Frightening Than Death

And the greatest of all horrors is that we must all face it – that we are all headed straight for this ultimate terror.  It is not death, we know that one.  Death is certain, natural and inevitable.  Many have conquered the fear of death.  It is wise to live well, with intention, because we know it will someday end, will simply go out like the final flicker of a candle.

Humanity staves off the fear of death with religion, science and rationalization.  But we fail to look deeper at the sustained myths of living eternally on a cloud in the sky or being reincarnated.  Even burning in Hell for all eternity is easier to deal with than facing the truth.

alone

One Day We Will Lose Our Self

The consciousness that allows us to comprehend our individuality – our separateness from the billions of other men and women – will absolutely end.  What we call self, that unique person that we spend a lifetime developing and understanding will simple cease to be.  All the money, power, and accomplishments cannot change that.  Worst of all, is that it is inconceivable.  Even the deepest meditation involves mind.  When the mind ends, we end.

What if we could experience that before we die; know what it is like to be a no-mind, a no-self?  Would you try it, travel the unimaginable journey; face this fear and perhaps come back to tell others?

zombie

Zombies as a Metaphor

Zombie stories and movies fascinate our imagination.  We hate these mindless creatures and revel in the men and women who try to survive the cartoonish world of a zombie apocalypse, those brave souls who would bash in the heads of the undead.  But these stories are fairy-tales, unreal, denying nature and physics.  Zombies are just a metaphor for the greater fear.  We use these stories to crack the impossible nature of what we must all face.    It is the no-mind we recoil from.

The development of advanced technology may allow us to experience nothingness, may even force it upon us.  Then the ultimate fear will be realized and the choice will have to be made: eternal life without self or death and the unknown.

cropped-threshold-frontcover
Threshold of the Mind faces the ultimate fear.  Can you?

Available now in print and audiobook – Buy it Today!

My Favorite Poem at 160 Years Old

arachne

Les Fleur du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), a collection of 101 poems by Charles Baudelaire was first published in 1857.  Six of the poems were deemed so perverse and subversive, the French police rounded up and seized all available copies of the book.  Baudelaire and his publisher were arrested and tried on offenses to public decency.  That conviction wasn’t overturned until 1949.

Aren’t you just a little curious?

To the Reader

Folly and error, stinginess and sin
Possess our spirits and fatigue our flesh.
And like a pet we feed our tame remorse
As beggars take to nourishing their lice.

Our sins are stubborn, our contrition lax;
We offer lavishly our vows of faith
And turn back gladly to the path of filth,
Thinking mean tears will wash away our stains.

On evil’s pillow lies the alchemist
Satan Thrice-Great, who lulls our captive soul,
And all the richest metal of our will
Is vaporized by his hermetic arts.

Truly the Devil pulls on all our strings!
In most repugnant objects we find charms;
Each day we’re one step further into Hell,
Content to move across the stinking pit.

As a poor libertine will suck and kiss
The sad, tormented tit of some old whore,
We steal a furtive pleasure as we pass,
A shriveled orange that we squeeze and press.

Close, swarming, like a million writhing worms,
A demon nation riots in our brains,
And when we breathe, death flows into our lungs,
A secret stream of dull, lamenting cries.

If slaughter, or if arson, poison, rape
Have not as yet adorned our fine designs,
The banal canvas of our woeful fates,
It’s only that our spirit lacks the nerve.

But there with all the jackals, panthers, hounds,
The monkeys, scorpions, the vultures, snakes,
Those howling, yelping, grunting, crawling brutes,
The infamous menagerie of vice,

One creature only is most foul and false!
Though making no grand gestures, nor great cries,
He willingly would devastate the earth
And in one yawning swallow all the world;

He is Ennui! -with tear-filled eye he dreams
Of scaffolds, as he puffs his water-pipe.
Reader, you know this dainty monster too;
-Hypocrite reader,-fellowman,-my twin!

Books are Dead – Long Live Stories

Tags

, , , , ,

Long_Room_Interior,_Trinity_College_Dublin,_Ireland_-_Diliff

I love books.  I have hundreds in my library, have read hundreds more.  I get a warm comfortable feeling when I go to a bookstore or public library.  But I also know that the end is near for books.  I’m not sad or nostalgic about any of it.  Things change.

Tens of thousands of years ago, long before speech, man told each other stories through pantomime and play acting.  They acted out their hunting adventures or mishaps, probably laughed when Grog hit his head on a rock.  You can feel the truth in this, have this genetic memory as I do.

tapestry_design_apollo_in_his_chariot_led_by_aurora

Thousands of years after that, our brains developed speech and the stories got more sophisticated, more detailed.  They were passed around, embellished, exaggerated until they became myths and legends.  Really exaggerated, like Atlas holding the world on his shoulders and Apollo pulling the sun across the sky.

Mankind lived on the earth for hundreds of thousands of years telling stories without books.  Then some clever fellow in Mesopotamia scratched symbols in the dirt and invented writing.  Someone else smeared these symbols onto parchment (no fun for the lamb by the way) and presto we have scrolls, and if they are long enough, are really just rolled up books.

parchment

Thousands of years after that, Gutenberg figured out a way to make multiple copies of the bible and by the 20th Century, we’re neck deep in books.  Millions and millions of them.  Even Hitler couldn’t burn enough to make a dent in the growing pile.

But if you look at the bigger picture, the history of humankind at approximately 500,000 years, books are still pretty new.  Writing is barely 5,000 years old, printed books only about 600 and the novel as we know it, less than 300.  And sad, though it may appear, books are going to disappear, are already disappearing, or more accurately, evolving.

Do you have children?  If not, have you ever seen one?  They love video.  In my day it was TV, “Gilligan’s island, Lost in Space.”  Horrible stuff.  Now it’s six second vines.  Amazing really, that you can tell a story in only six seconds.  YouTube, Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, Vimeo, Facebook, video is king.  We love them, devour them like chocolate on Easter.  They’re stories.

shutterstock_146935070

Oh I know the argument, video and movies do the imagining for us.  Books make us create the pictures in our own head.  “The movie was pretty good, but the book was great.”  But someone had to create those stories, imagine them and how to present them.  Grog didn’t worry about that when he acted out a good hunt in front of the fire half a million years ago.  Plays are high art and movies are not?  Nonsense.  It’s all just human beings telling stories to each other.  And that’s what matters.

shutterstock_30799201

Not long from now, we’ll agonize over the displacement of video and movies too.  We’ll watch and interact with Virtual Reality or maybe someday images will be beamed directly into our minds.  We can’t live without stories.  Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “The medium is the message.”  I think it misses the point.  We are not that different from Grog in front of the fire, maybe no different at all.  I think we’re all just kids begging dad to tell us a goodnight story and don’t really care how it gets into our heads.

Threshold of the Mind by Jay Magidson

Threshold of the Mind by Jay Magidson a novel about  mankind addicted to Virtual Reality in the near future.

Available on Amazon.com in print, kindle and audiobook.  Buy it today!

The Light Shines Brightest in the Dark

Tags

, , , ,

My friends are sometimes surprised by the darkness of my writing.  I guess I seem reasonably happy and modestly well-adjusted in person (which seems very strange to me).  But I love the darkness, gloom, and sometimes hopelessness, of the best fiction and poetry.  As a child, I loved reading Edgar Allan Poe.  I was often disappointed by the happy Hollywood endings of the movies my parents took me to.  The characters in the Tale Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado didn’t have happy endings.  They died miserably and got what they deserved.  Dark, I know, but oh so satisfying.

Image result for gates of hell by rodin

So I asked myself, why is that.  Certainly, I can’t be alone.  Dante, Poe, Lovecraft, King, etc. have been writing tales that millions of people love and keep loving.  Many, like Poe and Lovecraft don’t give much, if any hope in their stories.  The darkness overwhelms the reader, yet he plods on through the dim corridors, deeper and deeper into the impenetrable mist.  Perhaps it’s like a roller coaster, the controlled fear, knowing we are basically safe, but scared into gratitude that we are alive, heart pounding in our chest, but alive. Maybe it’s schadenfreude, sharing someone else’s misery, but happy that they have it worse.  Or maybe it’s something deeper, something fundamental.

Why we Fear and Love the Dark

It is primal to fear the unknown, the darkness that shrouds the dense forest.  Do you have a pet, a cat or dog?  Why do they put their noses into dark holes in the ground?  They might smell an animal down there, but could just as easily get an eye poked or worse.  They’re curious.  And so are we.  It’s built into our DNA; we have to know what’s under that log (rattle snake, probably), in that cave (rabid wolf, most definitely), or in the abandoned mental institution (vindictive ghosts, of course).

Image result for dore adam and eve snake

We go into the dark to shine our light into it, to expand our lives by testing our fear, pushing our own boundaries a tiny bit.  The worst thing God did for Adam and Eve was to make life too easy.  So he gave them a talking snake, pretty scary, right.

The Gift of Darkness

All decent stories have a problem, a challenge for the protagonist to overcome.  The darkest stories make that challenge insurmountable, tearing the fool’s eyes out for sticking his face into the fox hole.  One of my favorite books of all time is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.  It’s written with such mastery that the reader is drawn inexorably into the deepest gloom imaginable, unable to pull free until its black conclusion and Kurtz’s dying words: “The horror, the horror.”

Image result for heart of darkness kurtz

Is it hopeless?  I don’t think so, at least that’s not the message I get from these stories or the ones I think of in my own writing.  We need the dark so we have a place to put the light.  Shine your flashlight on a summer day – nothing.  Then do it in a subterranean cave.  Fear is a limitation, a doorway into the unknown, and the only way to expand is to cross the threshold.  Otherwise, we stay on this side of the Garden of Eden, naked and stupid.

Image result for thx 1138 final scene

The Case for Anarchy

Most people scoff at the virtues of anarchy.  We have no problem shouting to the heavens about the importance of freedom.  But complete freedom is the complete absence of control after all, and that can turn to chaos, horror like the final scene in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” (or the movie “The Purge” if the classics aren’t your thing).  Few of us want that, and it certainly isn’t the way to a civil society.

Image result for anarchism

Like all political extremes, way too far and everyone loses.   Take Socialism:  A measured amount gives us weekends, child labor laws, unemployment insurance, Social Security; too much and we get limited production, unmotivated workers, endless strikes and ultimately…tyranny.   What about Capitalism: a certain amount gives us easy access to capital to expand business, entrepreneurship, class mobility, opportunity for personal wealth; a lot gives us the robber barons of the 19th Century, low wages, severe income inequality, class warfare, and of course…tyranny.

Related image

Anarchy is not Synonymous with Chaos

So why has anarchy become such a loaded word?  Let’s go back to the original meaning of the political idea and not the misunderstood concept that it is today.  The word itself comes from the ancient Greek word, anarchia, which loosely translates to “without leaders.”  In the mid-19th Century, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon codified the word into the political and philosophical concept of Anarchism, a leaderless state, or more simply, one without government.  The idealized version of Anarchism is simply that the individual is free to do whatever he wants as long as he doesn’t interfere in another’s right to do the same.

But it’s not so simple.  Unfortunately, a society without government, rules, property or laws likely devolves into chaos, as we’ve seen so many times around the world.  And anarchy at its extreme becomes synonymous with chaos, horror and ultimately…tyranny.  But what happens if we introduce a bit of anarchy into our lives?  Let’s call it personal anarchy.

Image result for personal growth

Personal Anarchy

Let’s say you quit that shitty job, start your own business, home school your kids, throw away your smart phone, grow some lettuce on the windowsill, write those memoirs in the dead of night or just get a nose ring?  Personal change and expression occur and perhaps if you’re lucky, comes with a little spark of happiness.

Image result for iphone in blender

This is an ancient idea, one which many people have discovered on their own.  For the creative spirit, society’s rules suck and its narrow vision of what’s right for the individual sucks too.  So many have decided to do things slightly, or completely different.  Where do you think art comes from?  Certainly not from robot-like abeyance to the rules.  Nature teaches us that life is change, exploration and curiosity the norm; that stability and predictability bring about stagnation and death.

Image result for off the grid

We call it many things, personal exploration, introspection, individual liberty, creative expression, but all of this is really letting go of just a little personal control and introducing a bit of uncertainty into our ordered lives.  A little bit of the unknown, like fairy dust shakes things up.  I call it personal anarchy; you can call it anything you like.  But the goal is the same, personal growth, and hopefully, a moment or two of freedom, even happiness.

Back in the Director’s Chair

Tags

, , , , , , ,

Januarys Foal_

January can be cold and dark in Aspen, and so it was when I said goodbye to my gallery for the last time 7 years ago.  I had been there 19 years,  I knew I would miss it, the wonderful collectors, meeting new people, helping them find art they would love.  Simply put, it was time.  But in a quiet way, I knew I would be back, some day in a different experience.  I can never do the same thing twice, I’m just built that way.

So when artist, Nancy Noel contacted me in early August about running her new gallery, I had mixed feelings, not realizing I was ready to come back to directing a gallery. I knew she needed a director, I had been contact by no fewer than three different acquaintances to this fact. And apparently, several people had given her my name as well. I wasn’t really thinking of running a gallery again, not really. But life does present surprises and I do love surprises.

Interfearing with Time

Interfearing with Time, 91×134 (yes, almost 8 x 12 feet!)

Nancy and I met on the Saturday before the Monday she was planning to return to her home in Indiana. I met with her mostly out of curiosity. Nancy and her two sons sort of interviewed me. I say sort of, because I was never asked for a resume or anything like that. We just spoke about her new gallery and what I might suggest. The more we spoke, the more intrigued I became. It was clear the gallery needed a director and the director need a gallery. We met again on Sunday evening; I suspect both of us had already decided what we would do. And I started the next day.

In every way this was going to be a different gallery experience. N.A. Noel Gallery carries only Nancy’s work. This is new for me. There are many successful one person galleries in the world, but it requires a different approach. I’m used to presenting various one-person exhibitions and finding new artists and promoting their art and career.  Nancy’s career is well established. She also paints from a unique vantage point, driven only by her spiritual guides. Nancy might paint an angel one day, and an Amish girl the next, or an enormous clock laden with crows the next. Each has a rich story to tell.

Touch, 68 x 92"

Touch, 68 x 92″

Nancy’s skill with a brush is unquestionable and you can feel the emotional passion behind each stroke. This is the work of an artist driven to express what is welling up in her soul. Throughout her career she has drawn spectacular collectors to her work, people like Oprah Winfrey, Robert Redford and Nelson Mandela. But more importantly, her work is passionate.  In the short time I’ve been running the gallery, I’ve seen viewers become overwhelmed with emotion, some crying, others expressing long buried stories about loved ones. She calls her gallery in Indiana a sanctuary. I think that’s the right word here too. Nancy’s work draws out those deeply buried feeling locked inside each of us.

N.A. Noel Preschool, Kenya

N.A. Noel Preschool, Kenya

I was also intrigued by Nancy’s personal story. She is modest and it takes some tugging, but eventually some of her story came out. She is passionate about her work with children, animals and the planet. And she does something about it. Nancy has built a preschool in Kenya, helping hundreds of children learn and get basic health care. It is a great success story, which touched me deeply and helped me make my decision to work with someone this compassionate.

The N.A. Noel Gallery

The N.A. Noel Gallery

Everything about the Aspen gallery is unique, the art, the artist, the collectors, the way we present the work, the way viewers approach the art. All of it is different. I love to learn and I love the expansive experience it offers. For example, last week we invited the Tibetan Monks of Gadan Shartse to do a blessing ceremony in the gallery. After an hour of chanting and prayer, the room glowed with spiritual light. Not exactly your typical art gallery, right? Good, because I don’t want ordinary, I want extraordinary.

Monks Blessing the Gallery

Monks Blessing the Gallery

When you are visiting Aspen, please stop in and say hello. I’m glad to be directing again and honored to be presenting art that touches people’s souls in a magnificent gallery.

 

 

Through the Blackness of Fear – Origins of a Short Story

Tags

, , , , ,

Colors by Jay Magidson is now available in print

Colors by Jay Magidson

Sometimes an idea builds inside like a kind of spiritual pressure, threatening to overwhelm the holder, even consume him. This happened to me about ten years ago. I had been writing short stories over the past year. There was no thought to what they might be used for or why I was writing them, just when they came up, I would commit them to paper. It was only recently that I even understood their purpose, and their power in my life.

Each story had a single color as its title. The first was Gray, the Kafkaesque tale of a man lost in a featureless city. Another was Yellow, about an antique’s dealer consumed slowly each night by a dead cat representing his contradictory life.

The story that began to overwhelm me, I later called Black. It started as only a seed of a feeling, a bit of undefined anxiety. I would wake at night with a deep, unexplainable fear. Everything was going well in my life and I had no reason to feel this way. I pushed it aside, ignoring it as just general anxiety about life. But it grew stronger until it began to consume me, holding a kind of opaque fabric in front of my vision.

I lost quite a bit of sleep, lying there, desperately trying to push the horrible feelings away, running from this undefinable dark fog. Out of desperation on the third night, I got up, my stomach in a deeply clenched knot and sat in front of my computer and began to write. Without thinking about it, the words began to pour out of my fingers and instead of feeling relief and peace, the way I usually do when I sit down to write, the fear grew worse. I realized there was no way around this feeling, that the only way out, was through the blackness. I was terrified.

With a deep breath, I dove into the bleak feeling and for the first time, touched it. The best I can describe it, was like a kind of river flowing beneath the surface of my life, a river of unexplored pain. I dipped my hand into that river, touching its icy thickness. The fear and anxiety only grew worse, and I knew what I must do in that moment. I had to jump in.

The story began to flow like nothing else I had ever written before, nothing related to my life, as if I were a completely different person releasing this horrible and dark crime that had been eating at me, consuming me with guilt until I couldn’t bear it anymore.

The entire story came out that night, in one marathon sitting. And when I laid done the final period I was free. The fear had left me, replaced with a deep sense of gratitude and wonder at life. I had dove through that river of pain and had been cleansed by its fire, rising up on the other side a different, better person.

I’ve put the short story online here, if you would like to read it. It is surreal and personal, without any reference in my life. I read it now, still wondering where it can from, or why I wrote it, not really sure what it means. I only know that I had to write it, had to release it, or would have been consumed by it.

I think we misunderstand fear, shying away from it, avoiding the pain it represents. And when that suggests bodily injury, that’s probably wise, a mechanism for keeping us safe, built into our DNA. But there is another kind of fear, that which we need to embrace. It holds a deep kind of meaning on the other side of its invisible veil; we must leap the chasm with only our faith to keep us aloft. And on the other side is peace, growth, understanding, and maybe if we are lucky, a bit of wisdom.

 

One Second from Drowning and Other Stupid Ideas

Tags

, , , , , ,

The best things to write about are those which are most difficult, the ones that make your palms sweat remembering them. For me it was 30 years ago when a foolish decision found me holding my breath in a dark underwater cave without a way out.

I was living on Maui in the mid-80s; things were simple, no responsibilities, few bills and good friends. We loved to hike and explore the beautiful tropical island. Maui was different then, still relatively unspoiled by strip malls and traffic. We’d often meet at a place called “Paradise Fruit” on Kihei Road, a funky place with dirt floors and picnic benches, where they sold fresh fruit and smoothies to the locals. You could feel the moist ocean breeze and hear the surf just beyond the small parking lot filled with rusting junkers, surfboards strapped to their roofs.

800px-Waianapanapa_lava_tube_2A group of us decided to go to Wai’anapanapa caves, a state park near Hana. It is and was a very touristy spot, but a place none of us had been to. Hana is a tiny, remote town at the far end of Maui, about a three hour drive along a windy, mostly single lane road. Wai’anapanapa caves are a maze of ancient lava tubes that formed hundreds of thousands of years ago when the volcano was active. They have since filled with fresh water, which eventually empties into the ocean nearby. It is a spectacularly beautiful place, and like all areas that are overrun with tourists, if you explore just a little further than most people, you will find the truly magical part.

And that’s what we did. Most visitors jump into the first cave pool which is exposed to the outside and leave. The water is cold and that pretty much completes it for most people. But the caves don’t end there, not even close, they go on for miles into the bowels of the mountain, hundreds of large and small caves, connecting like Swiss cheese. The problem is the water is cold, and it is pitch black once you go even a short way into the maze.

cave poolOne of my friends brought a waterproof flashlight and another brought a pair of swim-goggles, those little ones that just cover your eyes for swimming laps. But just one of each, and there were four of us, so we had to stay together. Which was probably a good idea, one which I should have heeded.

We followed the first large cave into the dimness until we reached a dead-end. We had been told there was another large cave on the other side only accessible by an underwater tunnel. OK, scary and challenging. Andrew, my crazy friend, took the light and swim-goggles and disappeared under the water. He was back in a few seconds. “It’s easy, down a little, straight ahead and up, there is another cave with a large air pocket.” One by one we went through. It was not deep, only about four or five feet under the water, then up the other side. Now we were in a separate cave about 10 or 15 feet in diameter, with about five feet of airspace overhead.

It was fun to turn off the light and enjoy the intense blackness of the interior cave. But we couldn’t linger here very long. The water was cold and we were treading water, the bottom far below us. The wise thing would have been to go back. The wise thing…

It was Andrew again who dove down and looked for another path. He went down, this time without the light. He came back a few seconds later. “Hey there is an opening or tunnel and it is glowing with light.” We took turns looking, sharing the one pair of swim goggles to see what he was talking about. When it was my turn, I took the goggles, a deep breath and dove down.

underwaterMy hands get clammy and my heart tightens as I remember what came next. This was thirty years ago and it feels like yesterday. I am sure I’m not alone in feeling a terrible fear of drowning, that burning desire to breathe, but not being able to. It still haunts me.

I have never been afraid of the water and am a great swimmer; was on the swim and water polo teams in high school. I swam in the ocean in Maui regularly, was young and in good shape. But confidence can be our enemy, pushing us to take foolish risks with our lives.

I dove under. It was dark at first, away from the glowing flashlight in the cave above, and my eyes grew sensitive to the gloom. I spotted the glow of light that Andrew had seen about 15 feet below. It grew larger as I approached, the pressure of the depth causing my ears to pop. Once upon it, I realized it was indeed an opening, which must be another cave open to the sky.

Andrew had speculated the glow came from a cave with an open roof, a chimney he called it. Now looking at the dull green glow, I thought of that theory and decided to go in a few feet, take a look up as best I could and return to the others with my observation. We could decide if we wanted to do this together, perhaps holding hands, with a single leader as we only had the one pair of goggles.

I eased through the wide opening. The water immediately grew much lighter. Looking up at that depth through 10 or 15 feet of water gave me no clue to what was overhead. It was just blurry and brighter. I turned around to return to my friends, but my night vision was gone. I couldn’t see the opening in the darkness below and ran into the side wall. I had to make a decision quickly, fumble around for the opening, the right opening, or continue up into the light.

If there was light, surely there was air, right? So onward it was, into the unknown. The water was cold and we had been treading water in the cave, so the single gulp of air I had taken was nearly out. I had that awful feeling of needing to take a breath. I headed toward the bright green light, only it wasn’t up, but sideways. It was clearly a tunnel now that I moved forward, the semi-smooth walls of the watery lava tube visible on all sides of me. Gratefully it finally curved up, growing brighter and brighter, but also narrower and narrower, until my shoulders bumped first on one side, then the other and it became too cramped to pull with my arms.

My lungs screamed for air, and my mind raced in panic. The tunnel surely went to the surface to the light and air, but what if it was too narrow for me to swim through? Should I go back now, while I could still manage to turn my body around, force myself to swim into the darkness, all the while running out of air, feeling for an opening I hoped I could find; or risk going on only to be wedged into the narrow tunnel, quickly drowning when my body got stuck. With no time to waste on decisions, I went on.

The tunnel scraped my shoulders on both sides now, my arms ahead of me were now forced to stay this way as the tunnel was too narrow for me to bring them down to my sides. I was only able to swim on from the short strokes of my barely kicking legs.
I was out of air. I can’t know what it’s like for other people when they face the possibility of death. For me in that moment it was peaceful, an inevitability that removed fear. I was going to die and there was nothing I could do about it. The single breath of cold damp air from the dark cavern far behind me was long used up and I was going to drown because of one stupid decision. I thought of my friends waiting behind, not knowing what happened to me, hoping they wouldn’t follow. I thought of my family and my brief life, was it really supposed to be this short. Oh well, better luck next time.

Warm air and blinding sunshine slapped my face; blessed sweet air that I gulped in great spasms. I had blasted through to the outside of the entire cave system, to the park and trails that surround it. A young couple who had been walking by, stared at me in surprise and wonder, a swamp monster who had suddenly burst out of a tiny pool of rotting leaves barely two feet across. What the hell.

escher puddleI stood there shivering and panting, realizing how close I had come to the end. Air and warmth soon refilled my lungs and damaged psyche. I was alive – am alive. I thought briefly of going back into the tunnel to warn my friends not to follow. But the thought of diving blindly through the rotting leaves into the cold darkness below overwhelmed me and I couldn’t do it.

Time is a strange thing, expanding and contracting at the same time. The whole experience was surely less than a single minute. I have no idea. It was an infinity in my mind, stretching and stretching into hours. I would never willing repeat the experience, but I’m glad it happened. I’m a little less afraid of death and a lot more in love with life because of it.

My Time Machine is Late Again

Tags

, , , , ,

Time MachineWe love the concept of the time machine, going back in time and fixing things or warning our younger selves of imminent danger. Since H.G. Wells wrote his classic story, science fiction writers have been absolutely fascinated with the possibilities and tried hundreds of ways to make it work. They seem to always get in trouble and never seem to have all that much fun with them, however. So with that in mind, I came up with a short list of:

Fun things to do with your time machine:

  • Go 5 minutes back in time and destroy your time machine before you get in just to see what happens.
  • Go back in time and ruin your parent’s marriage before you were born.
  • Go back in time 1 minute and greet yourself. There are now two of you. Do this 999 times more, so that there are 1000 of you. If you have the patience, fill the whole earth with yourself.
  • Go back in time one minute so there are two of you. Then zoom 20 years into the future and get all your old you’s memories and experiences and kill your old self. Repeat and continue until you are 1 million years old.
  • Go back in time with you and your time machine 1 minute, so there are 2 yous and 2 time machines. Each of you repeats this until there are 7 billion time machines. Give one to each person on earth, sit back and enjoy the show.
  • Go back to 1933 and kick Hitler in the balls, go back one minute before that and do it again. Repeat.
  • Take your girlfriend to the top of the Empire State Building. Tell her you’ll be right back. Take your time machine to earlier that evening and rearrange the CitiCorp sign so it lights up with her name on the tower. Return one minute after you said you’d be gone, point out the sign and reap the rewards.
  • Go back in time one billionth of a second over and over so you are invisible.
  • Go back to the Cretaceous (not Jurassic) period and take photographs and videos of velociraptors. Bring the photos to Steven Spielberg and explain to him once-and-for-all that they had brains the size of a pea, and were not smarter than people.
  • Find someone with a “WWJD” (what would Jesus do?) sticker. Send him back 2000 years so he can ask in person (I didn’t say anything about bringing him back).
  • Climb to the top of Mt. Everest with your time machine. Open a parachute just as you travel 10 million years into the future. Then float down onto the eroded hill below.
  • Go one year into the future and find out all the new fashions. Bring some back and wear them in your own time, then constantly brag about how you are always ahead of your time.
  • And finally, get the winning lottery numbers, horse race winner, stock market successes, and get yourself very rich indeed.

Got any more? Add them in the comments, and they had better be good. Don’t make me go back in time and break up your grandparents’ marriage.

When There was an East Berlin

Tags

, , , , , , ,

berlin wall- wireThe dark sky overhead threatens snow as I walk the nearly deserted streets. Ominous gray buildings with their unlit windows reflect the steely sky, glowering down at me. Out of nowhere, a lone man rushes by, I can’t see what he looks like, the collar of his long wool coat pulled up to hide his face.  He moves close enough that I hear his accented whisper, “Go home, this place is not for you.”

That was winter 1980 in a city that no longer exists today. Well, it does exist, but not its name, East Berlin. This is the real story of how I found myself in a city surrounded by razor wire and land mines.

Copenhagen

Copenhagen

I spent my final year of college in Copenhagen, Denmark, a fantastically beautiful city, full of charm and history. In between semesters, many of the foreign students traveled, bought ridiculously affordable Eurail passes and used them to go as far and as wide a possible during the two week break. I went with a friend to Germany, along the Rhine visiting castles and breweries. We parted ways to travel alone and increase the adventure. You meet people when you travel alone; you have to, or you go crazy. I learned quickly that language isn’t the biggest barrier to communication, fear is. I found that if you try to talk to someone, whether you know their language or not, you can communicate pretty well.

So somewhere in Western Germany at a youth hostel on my winter break, I decided to go to Berlin. Sounded good, why not. After World War II, Germany was divided into two countries, West Germany and the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), or East Germany, as everyone outside of the country called it. They were still divided in 1980 and I wanted to see the scary half. West Germany was like the rest of Europe, easy travel, friendly people and they honored my Eurail passes. But East Germany was verboten, off limits, a Soviet state, unknown and tempting. So crazy 20 year-old me had to go.

By this point in my European travels, I had been to Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia, also Soviet block countries. I didn’t know it at the time, but I think I had a sense all of this would disappear in time, the separateness, the old countries held onto with the iron grip of the USSR. And I wanted to see it before it went away.

Berlin

Berlin

Berlin, the giant decadent German metropolis, was also split into East and West, a city arbitrarily cut in half. The strange thing about this arrangement was that West Berlin being in the Eastern part of Germany was surrounded by East Germany, essentially an island in another country. So when I and my fellow travelers took the train from Western Germany to West Berlin, we traveled through miles and miles of East Germany. The train was like a space craft, rushing through the forbidden void, where we were allowed to breathe the air, look out the window, but nothing more.

The train stopped just before entering Berlin in a kind of special security station. The doors were not opened and no one was allowed off the train. Soon, black uniformed police officers and dogs (yes, German Shepherds) worked their way through the compartments, inspecting bags, lifting seats and pulling parts of the ceiling down looking for illegal and smuggled substances, drugs I assumed, since I didn’t speak any German.

leaving sectorAfter an hour or so of this unnerving experience, the train continued on to Berlin. It was about 4 in the afternoon, in late December, and like most of Central Europe in the winter, dreary and cold, but it wasn’t dark. Berlin was brilliantly lit and lively. That was a long time ago, but I assume it is even more so today. A big lively, energetic city in the middle of this other country. It was a strange feeling, like they were trying to make up for their oppressed brethren by being even livelier than they had to be. “Party like it’s 1999” and all that.

I didn’t have much money, so I stayed in some youth hostel or cheap hotel. The next day, I went to the American Embassy to get a visa to visit East Berlin, that’s why I came all this way after all. The young woman at the window asked me why I wanted to do that, did I have family, business, diplomatic interests? Nope, I just wanted to see it. “Are you sure?” She asked. “Yeah, I’m sure.” I replied, not at all sure. I gave them the $25 and got a huge colorful stamp in my passport that allowed me 24 hours in East Germany. “Be sure to be back before your visa expires.” She warned me. “What happens if I don’t make it in time?” I asked. “Just be back.” She said seriously.

Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall

Of course, I didn’t have a car and you can’t exactly hitch-hike across a mine field, so I walked. This part of my travels was worth the entire trip. Forget East Germany, Berlin, lights, and whatever was on the other side of that high cinder-block wall, just walking through a military check point will satisfy almost any travel junky.

If you are under 40 years old, you may have no idea what I’m talking about, but try to understand, West Berlin was big and exciting, tall buildings, music, food, beer, you know, a modern energetic city. And East Berlin was the complete opposite, gray and dark, no lights, low rise, oppressive Soviet style buildings and probably (just to torture the Germans) bad beer. Berlin is built on a slight hill, West Berlin was on the upper slope, so those in the Eastern half could see it, look up at all that shiny fun, they just couldn’t get there. That was just cruel.

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

Friedrichstrasse or Checkpoint Charlie was one of the pathways from West to East. That’s what it was called before they pulled it all down and rejoined the two German halves back together in 1990.  The two cities were divided by a tall, ugly cinder-block wall covered in graffiti on the eastern side. It was topped with razor wire and broken glass.   After that, a wide, dead stretch of land filled with land mines ended in a tall chain-link fence, and also topped with razor wire, and you were on the western side of the city.  Every 100 feet or so, a tower rose along the fence, each housed with soldiers armed with search lights and automatic rifles, and probably heavier weapons. Imagine guards in a prison tower and multiply that by 10. Checkpoint Charlie was the route through this dead zone. It was designed for vehicles, zigzagging, so you couldn’t force your way through. As I walked through this maze of soldiers and concrete, my visa and passport was checked three times. I was frisked, smelled by dogs, asked several times what my business in East Berlin was, and reluctantly allowed into the other side.

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

Suddenly, and anti-climatically, I found myself in East Berlin with no plan, and no idea that my American passport with its current and legitimate visa was probably worth killing for. Only looking back now, do I realize how foolish and dangerous my actions had been. That scary wall and field of landmines was there for a reason, and people died regularly trying to cross it into West Berlin. But God protects children and stupid tourists.

East Berlin

East Berlin

They made me convert 100 of my precious US dollars into East German Marks. Two problems with that, 1) nothing to buy, and 2) you couldn’t take the currency out when you left. This was becoming an expensive trip for a poor college student. But I plunged on, there must be something to do here, it was a pretty big city after all. I walked into the bleak streets of East Berlin, heavy dark buildings greeted me on the wide boulevards, but there are no shops or restaurants, and more strange than that, no people. Everyone must be inside hiding from the KGB or something. I walked on, but the landscape didn’t change much and it was cold. No benches, no cafes or bookstores, no castles or even churches. This is where bad tourists go after they die, those who didn’t lead a good enough life to get into Paris. I looked back and there was West Berlin rising above on its hill, all lights and fun, and more importantly right now, food.berlin wallA little bored, but not ready to give up, I walked on. That’s when the stranger passed me. “Go home, this place is not for you.” He said in a thick German accent, gone before I even understood what he had told me.

In that moment, I realized where I was and what danger I might be in. This stranger, too afraid to even slow down and talk to me, had warned me. It was like a scene out of a Cold War spy novel. I immediately turned around and walked back toward the transfer building, constantly looking over my shoulder, starting at shadows or any stray movement. An hour later, I arrived, relatively safe in the eastern check point building . There were lots of soldiers, and thankfully a diner. I spent as much of my play money on the food as I could. Unfortunately, it was as cheap as it was terrible. I gave up and went back through Check Point Charlie, somewhat disappointed and tired.

The thing about travel adventures is that they are always better in remembrance than at the time. I didn’t really give the experience much thought in my two days in Berlin, but only later when I saw myself standing in that empty bleak city with the gray sky. Everything about it was oppressive, as if it were designed to crush the spirit of all who lived there. I’ll never forget the feeling of that city, or the man’s voice who warned me.

Colors by Jay Magidson - Now Available in Print

Colors, the book

Prologue:

I told you this story so I could explain where ideas come from. This experience gave me the idea for a short story I titled, Gray, which I wrote 30 years later. While writing it, I hadn’t realized where I had seen the gray city or the steel sky of my story. But it had stayed in my consciousness, all those years, like a seed waiting patiently to germinate. That year, I wrote eight more short stories and combined them into a book called Colors.  Only looking back now, as I write this, do I realize that all of it, the experience, the stories, even this essay is an attempt to understand and describe the feeling of East Berlin on that winter day, so long ago.