Whoosh! Zoom! Vroom! Yes, that indeed was another year of your life flying by without so much as a tip of the hat! Not at all as you and your best friend imagined it as you sat in a bar in Soho/le Grand Place/St. Germain/Adams-Morgan/South Beach or wherever you hung out when you were 19 years old and solved all the world’s problems together over a glass or three of Scotland’s finest or Brooklyn’s reasonably good back in whatever decade it was before you became jaded, cynical and calculating. But, here you are. And I am here with you, and I have no regrets about that.
We give up our delusions so reluctantly – in San Francisco, in 1979, I needed an ID photo for some visa application or something, so I did as we all did in those days and went to some crappy Chinese photo studio (“Cable Car Camera”) and got some Polaroid® instant photos done, which were delivered to me in a little cardboard wallet. I handed one over to my travel agent for the visa application, and kept the other one for future use – you never know when you’ll need another ID photo.
I only tossed this photo out last year, finally coming to terms with the fact that no government agency anywhere in the world would ever accept this image of a fresh-faced, long-haired, clear-skinned, bright-eyed youth as a valid and honest representation of my current self for identification purposes. This, for me, is life’s inherently tragic quality – we are never given looks, wisdom and experience at the same time, except perhaps for one fleeting afternoon in our late 30s. This is why we get tattoos – they are a message our younger selves send to our more mature, responsible selves – “Hey, you! Yes, you in the expensive suit! Remember the day you got this? Well, neither do I, but when I woke up with this tattoo on one arm and a naked, pale-skinned brunette on the other, I thought, ‘hey, must have been a good night’! So keep that in mind!” If only our future selves could message back to us as young people, warn us not to hesitate, not to fear, not to doubt, and above all, buy some Apple shares. But Einstein’s theories aside, time as we experience it flows only one way.
But here we are. My abs have absconded, my biceps gone bye-bye, and my glutes have headed south for the winter. Hair is mostly gone, except in my ears. But so is the doubt, the hesitancy, the fear, the ambiguity, the confusion, and the uniquely Democratic Party-ish urge to respect other people’s stupid opinions. I now fully embrace my understanding that Tea Partiers are complete and total morons, so bring it on – I am ready. Except for the duck heads and eel testicles and whale penis or anything else Anthony Bourdain has eaten on television, I am ready to take on anything. As I said, I have nothing left to prove, and I am NOT putting that thing in my mouth! It is important to say “yes,” to Life, but sometimes, yes, you need to need to follow Nancy Reagan’s advice and “just say no”.
I did not let life entirely slip through my fingers this year, and I sincerely hope you didn’t either. I did let another year go by without driving the Land Rover to Oman (I’m working on it!), but did manage to tick a few boxes on the proverbial bucket list. No sheep were harmed in any of these endeavours, I assure you. I moved a little closer to my goal of retiring in Prague by establishing a company there, and through that company, acquiring some investment properties. I got back to Stockholm, and indulged myself in the comfortable and familiar, hanging out with old friends in places with warm memories and cold artisanal beers. Kim and I went to London for about the 85th time, and -- unlike some previous visits -- being surrounded by Englishmen didn’t inspire her to test the limits of her ability to consume alcohol so unfortunately I don’t have another unique and memorable story involving her and Soho, Jazz bars, transvestites, night buses, or defending American honour with Tequila to add to the extensive existing anthology, but as always she was a warm and entertaining travel companion nonetheless. After London, we rented a car and headed north to the Yorkshire Dales, a first for both of us, where we indulged in all of our favourite activities – walking in the countryside, eating and drinking fireside in ancient, cosy pubs, and, course, shopping at Boots. Actually, that was more Kim than me, but I did get myself a new blister kit while I was there. Kim, I believe, bought one of just about everything else they sell.
From the Dales we drove to Heysham, caught the ferry to the Isle of Man and did more walking. I really loved the place – not least because its four main public transportation systems really haven’t changed in 200 years. Getting there, we took the Isle of Man Steam Packet company ferry, which claims to be the oldest continuously operated scheduled steamship line in the world. Within Douglas, the capital, you travel up and down its gracious seaside promenade by a horse-drawn tram that has been operating almost since the 18th century. To go to the southern part of the island, you take the miniature steam train that was the inspiration for “Thomas the Tank Engine”, and to go north, you take the electric railway that has been in operation since electricity was first invented or something. Both of these railways are operated using equipment that is at least a century old, and works just fine, thank you very much. Why mess with success?
From Douglas, another ferry took us to Dublin, Ireland’s elegant capital city, which was even more incredible than I remembered it being from my last visit 34 years ago. We had some good moments in Dublin, but the Irish countryside was by far the more enjoyable part of our visit, with green fields, sparkling waters and rainbows dominating the experience, with the afternoon Guinness buzz of course just enhancing it just that extra little bit. So I will add Ireland to my very short list of places (Paris, New Orleans, Jerusalem, St. Petersburg) that actually measure up to the over-the-top hype you hear about them.
Not long after I returned to Doha, however, I received some troubling news about my Mom, whom I learned has a malignant tumour in her lung. This was unexpected news on two levels – first, there is very little cancer in my very large extended family, and second, she comes from very long-lived stock. People in her family do not die in hospitals of extended illnesses. Typically, they expire in the course of a morning’s work at some point in their late 90s, usually in an incident involving stubborn in-laws and/or recalcitrant husbands or farm animals (in south-eastern Poland, where my mother’s family is from, these two terms are largely interchangeable).
Having barely been able to recover from this news, I got a text from my brother a couple weeks later saying that now my Dad been diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer, and not the Steve Jobs kind, which can linger for decades and cannot spread to Windows users. No apparently, this was the more common, and more virulent, variety that has a 95% mortality rate. My parents are not spring chickens by any means, but they’re really not that old – today, in fact, is my Mother’s 80th birthday, and my Dad is a few weeks younger.
Contemplating their mortality, I boggle my own mind (I believe the Catholic Church still considers self-boggling to be a sin) by considering the changes this world has gone through in their lifetimes. I’m not thinking about relatively recent stuff, such as the internet, which didn’t arrive until 80% of their current life spans were already lived, but more basic stuff. Think of all the stuff that didn’t exist in 1934 – not esoteric, exotic, or unusual stuff that most of us will never use, such as nuclear weapons. I mean the everyday stuff that is probably is within a few meters of you as you sit reading this: Epoxy cement. Plastic grocery bags. Nylon stockings Flea collars. Turbo-charged engines. McDonalds. Petrol stations that sell food. Drug stores that sell food. Grocery stores that sell condoms. Motorways. Gortex. Scotch-guard. Hair conditioner. Ferguson? Black people were still being strung up from trees in 1934 Missouri. I am one of the stubborn hold-outs who still gets a printed newspaper (Google it, young people) delivered to my front door every morning, and reading that paper some mornings it’s a bit depressing. I read about ISIS and the CIA and Ebola and Ukraine and the NYPD and it sometimes feels like we aren’t getting anywhere. But we are. We are having debates and discussions unthinkable just 2 decades ago. We are a gay-marrying, negro-electing, legal marijuana-smoking, bicycle lane-supporting, abusive cop-rejecting and female-clergy-enabling society very different from the one my parents were born into.
I spent Thanksgiving with my parents for the first time in over two decades, flying back to a Mid-west United States that was, to be honest, depressingly different than the one I left in 1966. It was impossible to avoid mentally comparing my parents’ illnesses with the malignant blight of unconstrained commercialism that the capitalist system has smeared across the once-beautiful State of Michigan, turning verdant fields into tarmac-paved shopping “malls” (a perversion of an English term -- which originally referred to a green urban park -- if there ever was one), whist at the same time turning once-vibrant urban neighbourhoods filled with family-run businesses into economically hollowed-out shadows of what they had once been, all the families they once respectfully supported now turned into Wal-Mart wage slaves.
My brother came as well, with his two awesome kids, and the two of us cooked Thanksgiving dinner. I did the turkey and the stuffing and the mashed potatoes and the gravy, and he did the Brussels sprouts and the cranberry chutney. My Mom made an incredible pumpkin flan for dessert, and my Dad opened a special bottle of wine, a vintage Margaux, I forget the year, but still can close my eyes and experience the taste.
On the weekend we put the kids in the car (the key to getting them in the car is to toss their iPhones in first) and drove into Detroit, first to see the Henry Ford museum, visiting which in 1965 is one of the earliest of my many fond memories of my father. On Sunday it was on to Hamtramck, the little Polish city on the edge of Detroit where my Mom grew up. We had planned to start with Polish mass at St. Ladlslas church, the church where my grandparents and parents were married, and my sister and grandmother and grandfather had their funerals, but arrived at the posted Mass time to find the car park empty and the doors locked. A car-load of Poles showed up, asking in Polish about the mass. No one knew anything, and after waiting until 10:15 we gave up, and had a wander around the neighbourhood, showing the kids the house where their grandmother grew up, and visiting some of the many businesses that had managed to survive there since her childhood. There was also a fancy new Polish grocery, where we stocked up on pickles and kiełbasa and mustard and ham and all the foods necessary to maintain one’s Polish identity.
We had some further identity reinforcement planned for lunchtime – we headed to the Polonia restaurant, one of two awesome Polish restaurants in the city. We started with smalec (spiced pork fat, basically clogged arteries in a tub) and bread and pickles, and then moved on to żurek and pierogis and finally roast pork and chicken and potatoes and of course plenty of Okocim beer to wash it all down.
If all of this isn’t inspiring you to start planning your next holiday in Detroit, then our afternoon experience almost certainly will be – I have three words for you: DIA. Yes, the Detroit Institute of Art. Of course, part of our motivation for going was the on-going threat of the breakup of this incredible collection in order to satisfy Detroit’s creditors, an act which can only be legitimately compared to the rape of Detroit’s inert corpse by the capitalist scum that have brought this once incredible city to its current state, and whom already have focussed most of their attentions on their next round of victims. But even if its future was 100% secure, this was still a visit worth making, and I say that as someone who has seen most, if not all, of the world’s great museums. This was really one of the great Art experiences of my life – it has everything – Pre-Columbian American, ancient Mediterranean, Chinese, Islamic, Medieval, Renaissance, Modern, Impressionist, Pop, Futurist, Romanticist, Primitive, etc. An absolutely stunning Diego Rivera Mural. All in an in incredibly elegant, urban setting that the network cameras never seem to rest on whenever they do a “Detroit” story, which according to guidelines originally developed by “Fox” news, must always contain images of overweight black people (See? Welfare Queens, just like I told you!”) and abandoned buildings, but which of course must never identify the Capitalist system as the source of the problem. And unlike many other American museums, such as the Boston Museum of Science and MoMA in New York, they haven’t let the MBAs come in and do a “yield management” (i.e., fleece the public for as much as possible) study for them – residents of Detroit and Wayne County get free entry, because this is a museum still living up to the ideal of bringing art, culture and enlightenment to the masses. No wonder the Koch brothers and their Tea Party supporters hate the place so much – their agenda depends on keeping everyone stupid.
We finished the day at my Aunt Helen’s, my mother’s elder sister. At one time, she could barely speak English, but now, trying to communicate with her in her native Polish was hopeless – she had completely lost her natal tongue. Nonetheless, she gratefully accepted the delicacies we brought her from the Polish market in Hamtramck, and then served us home-made pierogi made from her mother’s recipe, which she graciously shared with us.
I do of course, feel sadness about the fact that I will likely be losing so many of these people, people like my Aunt who still lives in the same house she did when I visited as a 12-year old. Most of all, of course, I am sad about expecting to lose my parents. But this sadness is not paralysing, it is energising. My lifelong sense of needing to make the most of my time here is reinforced and reinvigorated. I step out of my front door in the morning and the Land Rover looks more ready than ever for a drive around the world.
The world beckons. I have things left to do. I have plans, places left to see, and successes left to celebrate. I have ambitions. I no longer have hopes, as much as I have intentions. I intend to keep doing this on my terms, and I intend to see each and every one of you in the years ahead.
Happy New Year and God Bless.
Peace and Love