Once in a lifetime

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1wg1DNHbNU

And you may ask yourself, Well, how did I get here? …
And you may tell yourself,
This is not my beautiful house.
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife.

And you may ask yourself, Well, how did I get here? …
And you may tell yourself,
This is not my beautiful house.
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife.

As you can see I am all prepared now and there is nothing to do but to post strange 80’s pop videos. I currently live in a beautiful house in Chelsea, Manhattan. It is not my beautiful house, it is my Godmother’s.

I have lived here for a year and a half now and I am no nearer to having a beautiful wife.

I often forget what a strange vivid place Manhattan is. A distillation of humanity in 34 sq miles – all the good and the bad that American civilisation has to offer in walking distance. Walking across town tonight I found beauty in the hideous, normality in the strange. It was 97° today, hot enough to squeeze the city and push it’s inhabitants into a lulling stupor. Manhattan is a visceral place most of the time but through the haze of extreme heat it somehow shimmys into focus. Everyone becomes more of a New Yorker, as though by surviving in this concrete heat everybody deserves further ownership over their surroundings, that only if you experience Manhattan in the heat can you really say that you love and hate New York.

I say all this with a beautiful house in an air conditioned nightmare to return to. Whilst air conditioning is an appreciable temptation it distorts and distances you from the city. I don’t want to be a grumpy old man but much of what Henry Miller writes in The Air Conditioned Nightmare resonates.

“The earth is not a lair, neither is it a prison. The earth is a Paradise, the only one we’ll ever know. We will realize it the moment we open our eyes. We don’t have to make it a Paradise-it is one. We have only to make ourselves fit to inhabit it. The man with the gun, the man with murder in his heart, cannot possibly recognize Paradise even when he is shown it.”

Another Miller – this time Arthur – writes beautifully about what New York was like pre-air conditioning. Although it slightly dismisses my view that heat creates a camaraderie it shows a city of refreshing strength. http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1998/06/22/1998_06_22_144_TNY_LIBRY_000015831?currentPage=1

Packing my mind

My Dad bought me a Kindle to take to The Gambia. I was apprehensive and had pretensions of being a Luddite. I like books, I like treating them with mild disrespect – throwing them, bending them, wiping my mucky hands on them – and making them my own. Whilst you can’t do this with a kindle you can carry a library in it’s 170grams. Also the amount of books you can download for free is friggin amazing.

Books I have downloaded for free and have every intention of reading in The Gambia

  • Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
  • Pygmalion – Bernard Shaw
  • The Problems of Philosophy – Bertrand Russell
  • Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
  • Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
  • Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
  • Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
  • Crime and Punishment -Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • A Room with a View – E.M Forster
  • Middlemarch – George Eliot
  • The Great Gatsby – Francis Scott Fitgerald
  • Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
  • Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
  • Thus Spake Zarathustra – Friedrich Nietzsche
  • War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
  • Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
  • Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse
  • Ulysses – James Joyce
  • Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
  • Swann’s Way – Marcel Proust
  • Moby Dick – Herman Melville
  • The Prince – Niccolo Machiavelli
  • The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton
  • To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

You can find most of these on these sites http://www.openculture.com/free_ebooks 
                                                                   http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page

I have aspirations that reading all this will mean on my return to America post Peace Corps I will arrive an erudite intellectual. Realistically if I read all of those in two years I’m probably going to come back a little weird.

This reminds me of another great resource which I have been using prodigiously –

http://www.openculture.com/freeonlinecourses

It’s a list of links to the best 400 free online university courses on the web – most available through itunes. You can download entire lecture series from Ivy League and Oxbridge Professors on varied subjects from Hannibal to Game Theory. I don’t know if my workload will give me time to listen to 40 hour lecture series on the history of American economics but it can’t hurt to have it on my hard drive just in case.

Useless?

‘We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.’ The Picture of Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde.

So I will let you know that currently I admire this – this thing here that you are reading – greatly. I hope that I have the perseverance and potential to make it more useful and dim my admiration.

I was just a little sick in my mouth after realising I was quoting Oscar Wilde on the internet.

Pre-departure reading

How can you prepare for going to a land quite unlike your own for two years? How can you prepare your mind? You read.

The main recommendation from Peace Corps to better understand The Gambian way of life is a book written by a young Englishman named Mark Hudson in 1991, called Our Grandmothers’ Drums: A Portrait of Rural African Life & Culture. Although out of print I strongly recommend this as an introduction into the strangeness and beauty of Gambian village life. I’m not yet able to say if it’s an accurate representation but Mr Hudson undoubtedly entwined himself in village life for his 14 month stay, in particular with the women of the village, which by the sounds of it is no mean feat.

His focus on the women of the village, and his own libido, is the only drawback of the book. Men are pretty much ignored and this obviously hinders the books ability to give a rounded view of village life, whilst the repeated musing of the author of strategies of getting desirable female members of the village into bed verges on misogyny. His constant worries about his attempts to initiate sexual liaisons can seem like the musings of a horny pubescent in a situation where he is out of his depth. Having said that it had not been an issue I had given much thought about. If you’re living in a village for a long duration what is the etiquette for developing relations with the opposite sex? Is it an abuse of power to contemplate anything sexual happening with a local? Is it abusive to say that you would never have relations with any local? I don’t know the answer and I don’t think I’m going to over-think this one.

The Prince and the Magician

Let me tell you a story…

Once upon a time there was a young prince, who believed in all things but three. He did not believe in princesses, he did not believe in islands, he did not believe in God. his father, the king,told him that such things did not exist. As there were no princesses or islands in his father’s domaines, and no sign of God, the young prince believed his father.

But then one day, the prince ran away from his palace. he came to the next lad. There, to his astonishment, from every coast he saw islands, and on these islands, strange and troubling craetures whom he dared not name. As he was searching for a boat, a man in full evening dress approached him along the shore.

‘Are those real islands?’ asked the young prince.

‘Of course they are real islands,’ said the man in evening dress.

‘And those strange and troubling creatures?’

‘They are all genuine and authentic princesses.’

‘Then God must also exist!’ cried the prince.

‘I am God,’ replies the man in full evening dress, with a bow.

The young prince returned home as quickly as he could.

‘So you are back,’ said his father, the king.

‘I have seen islands, I have seen princesses, I have seen God,’ said the prince reproachfully.

The king was unmoved.

‘Neither real islands, nor real princesses, nor a real God exist.’

‘I saw them!’

‘Tell me how God was dressed.’

‘God was in full evening dress.’

‘Were the sleeves of his coat rolled back?’

The prince remembered that they had been. The king smiles.

‘That is the uniform of a magician. you have been decieved.’

At this, the prince returned to the next land, and went to the same shore, where once again he came upon the man in full evening dress.

‘My father the king has told me who you are,’ said the young prince indignantly. ‘You deceived me last time, but not again. Now I know that those are not real islands and real princesses, because you are a magician.’

The man on the shore smiled.

‘It is you who are deceived, my boy. In your father’s kingdom there are many islands and many princesses. But you are under your father’s spell, so you cannot see them.’

The prince returned pensively home. When he saw his father, he looked him in the eyes.

‘Father, is it true you are not a real king, but only a magician?’

The king smiled, and rolled back his sleeves.

‘Yes, my son, I am only a magician.’

‘Then the man on the shore was God.’

‘The man on the shore was another magician.’

I must know the real truth, the truth beyond magic.’

‘There is no truth beyond magic,’ said the king.

The prince was full of sadness.

He said, ‘I will kill myself.’

The king by magic caused death to appear. Death stood in the door and beckoned to the prince. The prince shuddered. he remembered the beautiful but unreal islands and the unreal but beautiful princesses.

‘Very well,’ he said. ‘I can bear it.’

‘You see, my son,’ said the king, ‘you too now begin to be a magician.’

Taken from The Magus by John Fowles

Ear should have married mosquito.

3 am and I slapped myself in the face for second time. I pulled the covers up and around me and directed all my energy to my ears so they could pierce the darkness and identify the location of the culprit which had inflicted my self-harm. Nothing. Not even my imagination could conjure up a distant buzzing that would indicate that a mosquito, that still harbored designs on my blood, was lurking in the room. I had  began to drift back to the peace of sleep when it landed on my ear. The droning buzzing enraged me. I tried to free my arms from the duvet as quickly as possible and began beating my ear with the knowledge that the assailant had long since buzzed off. Why did it have to land on the ear? I could have happily carried on with my slumber had it concentrated its efforts on my one exposed foot, but no, it had to ensure maximum dissatisfaction for its victim.

There is an old wives tale from Nigeria which explains it. Mosquito, they say, had asked Ear to marry him, whereupon Ear fell on the floor in uncontrollable laughter.

‘How much longer do you think you will live?’ she asked. ‘You are already a skeleton.’

Mosquito went away humiliated, and any time he passed her way he told Ear that he was still alive.

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