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First of all, the ship didn’t sink. It would have probably made the papers, but no one reads anymore, and CNN only covers royal weddings, so it is possible that no one in the world would have known if the Carnival Tragic went out in a titanic blaze of glory on its maiden voyage.  But for those of you who were concerned by my short literary hiatus (if we are loosening our standards enough to call a blog “literature”), fear not. I’m still here, floating and rambling on the placid sheets of the Mediterranean.  My sanity is less intact, although that is not breaking news to anyone vaguely familiar with my oceanic adventures and perennial neuroses.

I have come up for air after four weeks of pure madness during the inaugural cruises of the Carnival Magic and have surfaced in a lonely café outside of Rome. The sea is within spitting distance and the air is filled with murmurs of unintelligible Italian and the smell of seafood bubbling in the kitchen.  A stale glass of beer and a mounting pile of cigarette ruins are my only companions today, which is exactly what I needed after 26 days of cruising. It is impossible to escape people onboard, particularly with a roommate and a seemingly endless to do list. The lethargic schedule during my pre-cruising stint in Trieste is a faint memory now, left behind along with regular meals and sleep.

But this is not meant as a recap of my life and times, because despite how interesting my life might be to other people, it bores the hell out of me most of the time. And, as usual, I have a bone to pick with the universe, and I’m hoping that I have a captive audience. Perhaps not as captive as those pitiable souls who sit down before me at my art seminars, but close. I have a list of complaints, and I think we should all weigh in, regardless of creed, color, sex, age, or addiction. The short list is as follows, in order of anger that it arises in me.

-Smokers becoming criminals in the eyes of the world.

-The disappearance of intelligence and awareness in the world.

It’s a short list, but it is a veritable powder keg of debate. Which could be interesting if anyone could manage to pull their pedantic head out of their ass and hold a conversation for more than five minutes. I direct your attention to that second infuriating point which I’ll be covering shortly.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. And yes, this is going to be a rant. So buckle up, because I’m deep enough in the beer count to be livid, irrational, and hyperbolic. But I’m banking on those being the qualities you gentle readers find so irresistible in these scribblings.

This first topic has been a brewing point of contention in my life for a long time, but I have held back the full force of my ire until now. Being relatively young, I don’t have the memory of people cheerfully lighting up cigarettes in airplanes or removing their oxygen masks in the hospital for a quick drag, but I remember enough. I remember having smoking areas in every restaurant, and a time before the “more than 10 feet away from a doorway”. My first cigarette was smoked inside a hotel, and my second was in a bar. Weren’t those the good old days? Wasn’t it nice when you weren’t treated as a second class citizen for participating in a completely legal activity of your own volition?  These days, you would be drawn and quartered for lighting up inside a “family” restaurant. You would be forbidden from entering an IHOP for the rest of your natural life if you even considered sparking a single cigarette inside those hallowed halls. Thirty years ago, you were allowed to chain smoke to your heart’s content on an airplane, but now you can’t even smoke outside the airport doors, for fear that some of that terrible gray matter may be sucked back in to the pure and precious oxygen of the terminal.  Please smoke across two lanes of taxi traffic so we make sure everyone is protected from your dastardly habit.

Now for those non-smoking readers, let me interrupt the wheels spinning in your head as they generate arguments I have heard a thousand times before.  Let me guess, they go something like this…

”It affects other people besides the person smoking”

“I don’t want to inhale second hand smoke”

“People should be discouraged from killing themselves”

Those are the main arguments that people have, and if we remove all personal/emotional connection to the topic of smoking, those arguments fall apart like a hand-rolled cigarette in a tropical storm.

Does it affect other people besides the smoker? Of course, so use those legs of yours and don’t stand next to them. Walk away from the ashtray at the bar. Or hell, go to a different bar! You don’t hear the smokers complaining when you get too wasted and belligerent while drinking alcohol, speaking/shouting your inane stories to a bored and annoyed crowd of people waiting for a drink. And we don’t force you to park your car a mile away so you’ll be less tempted to drunk drive your way into an early grave because you’re too smashed to get behind the wheel. There are not pictures of rotten livers on the front of every 24 pack as a threat against the purchaser. The surgeon general doesn’t write his two cents in on a handle of whiskey that could kill you in one evening if drunk from start to finish. Medical professionals may correct me, but I don’t think anyone has ever died from an evening of binge smoking.

I’m not suggesting that we bring back smoking in all areas of life, because there would certainly be an element of discomfort sitting next to someone with a perpetual Lucky Strike in their lips during a transatlantic flight. I get it. My rant is not necessarily irrational. But don’t build a cage and isolate us as though we are wild beasts who may force a cigarette into a child’s mouth and light the fuse. Let’s remember that there are many types of cancer in the world, shall we? No one seems to be on the international warpath to ban grocery stores with genetically engineered food, or refuse to open public beaches and pools on particularly fierce days of sunshine to stop the spread of skin cancer. What is the real reason? Why has the general public been brainwashed to look at smokers as criminals, relegated to the back of the societal bus when it comes to our personal life?  Why are we as happy as freshly blown sailors at the cultural devolution that is swamping our lives, but completely opposed to a legal practice that began as one of the basic economic booms of our entire nation? (See, here comes the hyperbolic bit).

When you go to other countries of the world, smoking is the least of their worries. Other issues like putting food on the table, or not being massacred by genocidal armies take precedence over their slightly unhealthy habits. And yes, many of us are fortunate to not have those concerns, but look at the unemployment rate. Look at how many people’s homes have been lost. Or the complete collapse of our economy and the fragile existence of our “power” in the world.  Just thinking about it makes me want to have a smoke. And I am not even dealing with those issues directly. In fact, I think I’ll have one. Good thing I am outside and out of throwing distance of another soul or potentially open doorway. Whew! In times such as these, perhaps a focus on the big picture is a bit more appropriate.

The reason this is such a fresh wound of fury for me is that as a crew member on a cruise ship, there aren’t many things to do. Some people drink heavily, others dedicate six months to the gym, while others simply sleep around with as many willing and witless souls as they can. A small percentage read, (that figure being measurable on one person’s fingers and toes on a ship of 1400 crew members), and some people blindly work and sleep, already dreaming of their sign off day the moment they come aboard. One common denominator that breaks down certain boundaries is the huge amount of smokers onboard, usually around 30% of the crew. That is approximately 400 people that crave that nicotine fix on a daily, if not hourly basis. And these are the individuals responsible for serving food to thousands of guests, cleaning shit out of thousands of toilets, and making sure the ship actually gets from Port A to Port B. These are not people that should be angry, pissed off, or distracted because their cigarette release has been denied. But two days ago, the wise men with countless stripes closed off our smoking section onboard and have now limited us to the very front of the ship, in an unlit section of empty space without seating. When I say unlit, I mean it’s a massive space that is pitch black in the middle of the ocean. I walked in last night and the only evidence of life was the dimming and glowing cycle of twenty cigarettes in the darkness. After a 14 hour shift of washing dishes and mopping perpetually filthy floors, that crew member now has to take an elevator four decks up and walk into a pitch black roped off area so he can enjoy a well-deserved cigarette along with his beer before he passes out only to wake up and do it all over again at 6 am. I call bullshit. As I said earlier, approach the subject without the immediate emotional response of most people who are miserable to have conversations with. I don’t know many people who would pick a drunk driver on their way home from work over an occasional cloud of smoke in their general vicinity. Think about it.

My second issue with the world at large is one that I have had for years, but after a particularly engrossing conversation with one of oldest friends a few days ago in Venice, it brought the matter back to the front of my mind. I realized that my stance as a strict anti-Kindle/Nook/Zoomba/Tweeter/ iPad/WHATEVER is well-established, but it deserves revisiting on further review.  There are two things which have changed the world more than anything else in history, the written word and independent thought. I will defend that point until I am blue in the face and three days in the grave. Try me.  Nothing has ever moved forward in this world until someone was inspired to think differently. And the way that those new ideas were expressed, spread, and popularized was through the written word. I was spending a day in Venice with the particularly articulate and enlightened mind of Stacy Coyne, and after months aboard a cruise ship where the cultural depth is far closer to a kiddie pool than the ocean, it was a much needed breath of fresh air. The specific conversation that arose centered on new media, and the growing fear of a “paperless” world. I am not going to rehash the discussion blow by blow, but one of the most interesting points was the line between freedom of information and the argument for monetizing knowledge. Allow me to explain.

When newspapers began emerging online and publishing their stories in the digital media, it was free. The New york Times website was my home page for a long time, because it allowed me to have an immediate awareness of the world around me, and a constant reminder that things were happening all over. It forced me to open my eyes, whether I wanted to or not. I would start a lot of my days by surfing the website, just as I would skim a newspaper over a morning coffee. There was always a charge if I wanted to go into archived news stories and some other notable exceptions, but for the most part, it was free. That knowledge, so vital to any populace that is conscious of more than their narrow sphere, was for everyone. Unfortunately, the potential for turning a profit was too attractive to pencil pushers and numbers crunchers, so there is now a limit to the amount of news stories can be accessed before you have to pay. At first, it barely surprised me, but as we delved deeper into the repercussions of this, my blood began to slowly boil.  Tens of thousands of people who normally waste the first half hour of work waking themselves up at their desk as they skim through the news of the day will surely reject the idea of paying for their slacking. They will return to the old standard of free solitaire rather than ever pay a cent to read the news. Now, my argument is multi-faceted, because the reason the newspapers are beginning to monetize their websites is because they aren’t producing the cash in hand revenue from news stands, because we are moving away from that means of knowledge dissemination. And the great irony is that things like environmental awareness were spurred on by popular culture movements which used to spread through things like newspapers and magazines. That same environmental awareness is a big reason why we are moving into a paperless world to spare the waste associated with printing. That paperless world is why the news is now being digitized, and the reason why newspapers are losing money. Since they are losing money, they must now put a price tag on previously free information, which will greatly reduce the willingness of people to seek out that knowledge.

So in effect, greater awareness has gradually led to a lesser amount of awareness, and yet the profit margin of big business and the movers and shakers remain. A naïve mind would wonder why those who make decisions and “rule” want to decrease awareness or intelligence of the general public. But the cynics in the crowd, myself included, see the endgame. Information can now be divided not by access, but a price tag. And the vast majority of people will allow themselves to be spoon fed ideas if it costs nothing.  In one fell swoop, the masses are once again under control. Listen to this. Believe this. Take the news we give you. It’s free. Don’t question. Just read the six news stories we allow per day and we’ll take care of the rest. Don’t worry your pretty little heads about what is really going on in the world….

Now, I am not saying that online newspapers are the only culprit, that is just my prime example. Where will the line be drawn?  Perhaps a service charge outside the polling booths? The State of the Union Address on Pay Per View? A cover charge for entering a library? What I do know is that when people know less, they ask less questions. It doesn’t make logical sense, but unfortunately, curiosity is a dying art form. People become comfortable in their place, situated and unshaken in their ignorance. Routine becomes the norm, change becomes the enemy. Enlightenment turns into a dirty word associated with troublemakers and rabble rousers. Here’s a joke for you, “Why is the general public like mushrooms?” Because you feed them shit and keep them in the dark. Think about it.

Now, after that sizeable rant, perhaps you wish I had simply stuck to the autobiographical rendition of the past two months, and I surely will in the near future. I am in London now, killing four days in typical British style with my old loves, before slipping down to the coast to join yet another ship, the Regent Voyager. The tales from the past two months are epic indeed, but they will have to wait for now. My memories will keep. In summary, it was another stretch of highs and lows, stress and success, hope and heartache. Seems like that pattern will be the story of my life, no consistency, but no boredom either. I suppose things could be worse.

So, keep your eye on the horizon, because somewhere out there I’m wandering and wondering, as always.

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The bedraggled citizens of Trieste, Italy are swarming around me in their typical lackadaisical stroll of afternoon sunset wanderings and I am once more consumed by familiar desires. Generalizations rarely make for good writing, but there is an overwhelming sense of satisfaction here, of contentment for the present, of static bliss in the midst of a barely admonished tourist town on the Italian coast. For almost two weeks, I have walked among the lanes of Monfalcone (the suburb of Trieste where the shipyard is, although the division between the downtown area and the “suburb” is nearly impossible to distinguish) and the pace of not only my life, but of my surroundings, is undeniably slowed. I don’t mean to roll into one of my well-worn rants about my passion for speed and progress, excitement at every turn and an adventure on every street corner, but this toenail of a town on the Mediterranean has again stirred my roaming loins.  I realize that sounds quite ridiculous, as I am already halfway across the world, and for those destined to a life five minutes from birth and five miles from the grave, being stuck in a country where no one knows your name may sound ideal, but whether it is Hoboken or Hong Kong, the mentality that one adopts when trapped is the same. Let me paint the picture a bit more fully for those catching up with my rambles.

Thirteen days ago, I began another saga of sea-bound life, flying from Miami to Italy via Munich. My newest luxurious steel tube is the Carnival Magic, freshly built and itching to test it’s buoyancy on the high seas, but there are a few weeks of preparation before the captain is willing to risk the lives of 4,000 passengers. Painting hulls, testing fire alarms, stringing electrical cables and other jobs of similar expertise are not penciled in my job description, so my presence in the shipyard has been met with some surprise, not the least of which is my own. Loading our more than 1,000 works of art is certainly a sizeable job, but one which will take a matter of days, not weeks, and the majority of my time has (dangerously) become my own. An exploration of the humble town built up solely through the seasonally sporadic shipyard at its center was assumed, and within 24 hours of landing in the town of Monfalcone, I had found an internet café, a hole in the wall diner that served prosciutto fresh off the bone, and an authentic pizza parlor with constant coverage of football games (and I do mean actual football games for my less culturally enlightened and Amerocentric readers). The internet café proved to be a small bit of salt in my self-inflicted wound, as I was without a computer up until I began writing this very autobiographical update. That is a story in itself, which due to the reunion with my beloved Mac, can now be retold in jest and celebration of my perpetual luck, rather than remaining as a black subject never to be discussed again had it not been placed in my hands mere days ago.

What follows is a cautionary tale. The first and perhaps most important lesson is to never trust airport security. They are not employed to protect your well being or national security. They exist to fuck up your lives. They are destroyers of worlds. That is a fact from which I shall never waver, and I very well may die with that sentiment on my lips. (If that is the case, I truly hope that literary scholars will invent a far more profound epithet for my death rattle that might stand stronger against the test of time). But as always, I digress.

I called a taxi to haul my bags and my aching body to the airport after an exhaustingly boring two weeks in Miami Lakes, more eager than ever to embark on something vaguely resembling a journey. I quickly discovered that the money I had put toward a Seaman’s Booklet did not get me nearly as much leeway as I had hoped when it came to luggage or overage charges, so after arguing with a very rude and unattractive German employee of Lufthansa, I handed over my credit card to the tune of $300 to fly my three checked bags (2 overweight) to Italy. Of course, with ironically impotent German efficiency, both of their credit card machines were broken, so they basically made me a charcoal drawing of my receipt and sent me on my way a half hour later. I hurried to security, anxious to at least whet my whistle before the ten-hour flight, since I didn’t have enough time to completely drown myself into a semi-blind airline bliss. At security, due to my perennial travel appearance of a drug dealer/homeless vagrant/sloppily dressed trouble-making miscreant, I was stopped and searched, and my carry-on was scanned twice. It was in this standard hassle of my traveling habits that my fate was sealed. Frustrated as I was with the exorbitant luggage fees and my one track desire to get the hell out of Miami, I neglected to take my laptop out of my carry on bag. When the security agent told me he had to re-check my satchel, I quickly acknowledged him without a second thought. As it emerged for a second time from the scanner, the agent reminded me to always take my laptop out before putting it through the X-ray machine. I apologized with whatever patient tact I had left between my gritted teeth, picked up my CLOSED BAG, along with my belongings, and stormed to my gate, necessary phone calls, essential beverages, and long-awaited departure.

I thought of the slight delay as yet another in a lengthy string of airline hassles that has made me detest the letters TSA more than any other, including CIA, FBI, and even DEA. I slid quickly onto a barstool outside my destined gate for a final courage-builder, phoned the loves in my life, bidding them a final adieu from American soil, and shuffled yet again onto a plane bound for stranger shores. Three hours into the flight, somewhere between Angelina Jolie innocuously befriending Johnny Depp in The Tourist and the ignorant captain of the French Snoring Team falling asleep two seats over, I decided to retrieve some John Clellon Holmes from my carry on and spend some quality time with my nose between parched pages, now that most of the plane had quieted down and the bestial infants on board had somehow been sedated. To my initially pleasant surprise, pulling my bag from the overhead compartment was easier than usual, lighter in a way. My keen sense of perception betrayed my keen lack of awareness from hours earlier, and for the next five hours of the flight, I let my imagination run away with me as I detailed the catastrophe of my life sans laptop.  The security agent in Miami must have removed my laptop from my bag, without telling me, sent it through separately, and then reclosed my bag. And he had not said a single word to me. Perhaps now you understand my new fury and unbridled disgust for airport security. That computer had all the seminars I had created for my next ship, all the pictures from the past 4 years of my life, all my writing, my cruise ship marketing, sales stats, and countless other irreplaceable documents I hadn’t even thought of…the phrase “you never know what you have until its gone” had never been more true for me.

Upon landing in Munich, I tried and failed to learn the German language in one afternoon, resigned myself to my fate and retired to a bar in which to drown my mounting sorrows. Four hours later, I stumbled disconsolately to my connecting flight and jetted off to Trieste, disconnected from the world and somewhat detached from reality.

Signing onto the cruise ship with a mountain of luggage was a blur of frustration and broken elevators, because as I previously mentioned, the ship is brand new, and is in a horrible state of disrepair (or as yet unbuilt). The logistics of signing onto a new ship bore even me, so I won’t force the experience on you, but the next few days were rife with trainings, standing in lines, paperwork and general bullshit. Credit must be given where it’s due, and my legendary parents certainly deserve a tip of the cap. They spearheaded the mission to find my laptop back in Miami, have it sent to Chicago and then shipped 6,000 miles to Venice. A more convenient reason to spend a day in Venice has ne’er been created, so some of my time in recent weeks has been spent on that achingly beautiful train ride through the Italian countryside to Venice, eager to reclaim my defenseless laptop. The long spring afternoons in the city that launched a thousand books were probably memorable, but photos will have to tell the final tale. I suppose the existence of this electronic update somewhat ruins the denouement of my computer-less saga, because I did eventually clutch my precious Macbook to my chest, and for the first time in a long career of despising modern technology, I praised the gods of misplaced computers.

What have I learned from this most recent chapter? This question must always be answered in order to further the justification for this self-indulgent record of my own life, but the wisdom has become more difficult to pinpoint in recent months. My immediate reaction is to reiterate the mistrust we must always have for airline security agents; that much has been made clear. But there must be more beneath my recent life and times than that. I have to return to my original sentiment that has been swept beneath the carpet of exposition, interesting or numbing as it may be to you, gentle readers. Being existentially jailed in another contract, cabin, city, and lifestyle incur the initial reaction of frustration from one who perpetually proclaims a destiny of endless horizons. My mind immediately wrestles with my senses, clamoring through my slumbering hours with dreams of highways and road trips, a complete absence of deadlines and an intense longing for the open road of unemployment and languid luxury in increasingly strange lands. The healthy influx of suggestive literature during my unavoidable downtime has not helped this urge, as Hemingway’s African safaris and Kerouac’s mid-sentence cross-country exoduses tend to shove me into a fervent freedom-seeking mentality. Yet I stay in this paradoxically free and wild life, boxed in with schedules and alarm clocks. It is hard to describe the emotions of being restricted and liberated at the same time, it is the sort of thing which could make a mess of one’s head (unless it is already in tragic disarray). Embracing this dialectic is essential for me, however, if only for another month, and I suppose I’ll find my strands of pleasure as they come.

I am once again peeking over the fence surrounding my life, and seeing the grass on the other side through emerald-tinted glasses, but that is a flaw of my character that I am well aware of. Pure satisfaction is not something I honestly find, and wherever I’m not is often where I wish to be. Maybe I am genuinely unhappy, or maybe I just can’t be content unless I am looking forward, peering into the darkness of the future. Or maybe I am an ungrateful fool who doesn’t know how to appreciate what he has, and I should stop seeking perfection because it will only end in maddening disappointment.

All I know is, I have my laptop back, my horseshoe of luck has apparently been returned to me, and the ship sails in 8 days.  But that departure can’t come soon enough, because killing time somewhere, no matter how exotic the locale, can start to weary the soul. So I trust Stephen King to make my point clear and extend one last shred of advice, as my roundabout words tend to pale before the greats.

“Get busy living, or get busy dying”

So here I am once again, with a door slamming behind me and an awkwardly placed window looming ahead. It has been nearly a month since I’ve been able to organize what passes for coherent thoughts and share them with an over-saturated world, but like any STD worth it’s name, I’m rearing my ugly head with unwarranted wisdom.  My wanderings in the deep South seem strangely foreign now, as I plunge into another stretch of adventure on the high seas. But as always, the route of my life, no matter how circuitous it may appear, has unforeseen twists to add flavor and uncertainty to an already unpredictable life.

A phone call woke me from my suburban slumber, and the proposal on the other end was met with mixed emotions. It was my capo di tutti capi, asking for another favor from my perpetually willing self. My old stomping grounds, the NCL Sun, which I had just finished a six month contract on before escaping to the relative peace of Chicago, was without a captain.  In reality, the art team was without a captain/auctioneer, so my boss asked if I would mind filling in for a quick seven days. Now, I had planned on slipping down to Miami for a few days of advanced training before my next long-term assignment, but the prospect of making a surprise visit to my favorite crew of miscreants was too tempting for my thirsty soul, so I agreed. Three days later, weighed down by the inevitable baggage of a prospective six month contract, I flew back down to the sticky embrace of Florida and the welcome embrace of friends. Going back so soon, though, to a ship filled with memories and goodbyes, filled me with a strange sort of excited dread. My inherent self-deprecation came to the front of my mind; what if things would be different? What if our old jokes were now stale memories left behind? Would our intimacy as devoted companions on a wild Caribbean fling be muted by time? So, I played my cards close to the chest, only telling a select few about my unexpected return to the Sun, and approached the gangway with genuine uncertainty.

For those of you familiar with my periodic pride, celebrating being wrong about something is not in my normal oeuvre, but in this case, I couldn’t have been farther from the mark. I was met like the prodigal son, welcomed back into the twisted family that one develops in the middle of the ocean. Hugs were had, glasses were emptied, and by midnight on the first evening back, it was as though I’d never left. The transition back into my actual job onboard was not as smooth, since I had a brand new team that was also relatively new and successful cruises in the months since my departure had been few and far between. I saw my week onboard in somewhat unprofessional terms, a chance to blow off some seriously overdue steam in the comfort of old friends, and if I made some money along the way, than I’d consider it a bonus. Falling back into the old verbiage of art dealing was harder than I imagined, and my stumbling tongue took a dive or two while recounting the artistic exploits of Rembrandt and Picasso. But like any child with skinned knees toppled beside a Huffy, I quickly found my feet again, and managed to squeeze out an acceptable revenue total. Not acceptable in my standards, but good enough to secure my own employment with Park West and keep the ship smiling as well.

The week back onboard, in the unprofessional sense, was a bit more exciting. Now, as a wandering vagrant on cruise ships, certain things like logistics and rules often slip through the cracks, and this week was no exception. There are certain responsibilities that one has to fulfill when you live onboard, especially as the manager of a department. I managed to miss all of them. First was boat drill, the weekly torturous exercise by the safety department consisting of standing for 45 minutes in the hot sun while an engine worker shouts unintelligible streams of numbers at a sweaty and bored crowd of crew members.  The reason behind this is that if some sort of disastrous maritime emergency should occur, the crew will be responsible for saving the passengers. Fair enough. But my skills as an art dealer don’t exactly overlap with those of a Special Ops Coast Guard team. And should a true tragedy strike my vessel, I would do all I could to save the women and children, but when the chips are down, I’d probably be the guy in the three piece suit with a Picasso over his head, treading water and hoping for rescue. So, on that particular morning, exhausted from travel and my first day on board, I overslept. When I had been on The Sun before, such an oversight was usually met with a roll of the eyes and little else, but apparently a new sheriff is in town, and I was the only person out of more than 700 crew members without an excuse for not being at boat drill. Strike One. Cheers.  The next big night out was in honor of the juggler extraordinaire and my best mate onboard’s birthday, and we celebrated in typically overindulgent style. I also was eager to erase any memory of the fact that my application to Columbia for grad school had just been rejected that evening. Suffice to say, I rolled out of bed around eleven o’clock, and had successfully missed the Hotel Director’s Meeting and was well over an hour late to crew Immigration. Strike 2 and 3. Luckily, baseball is an American game and the majority of people onboard play cricket. So I was still safe at home. I am not trying to make excuses, but I don’t want my gentle readers to assume my absences were pure laziness. My piece de resistance came on the final day, mere hours before I said my final goodbyes to the good ol’ Sun.  The last night before sign off is always fraught with peril, drinks flow like Bacchus is the bartender and the sunrise is always “just one more beer” away. So, not wanting to ruin my reputation of being the last to sign off the ship, I was late to my second immigration of the week. I do believe that is some sort of record.

So, as eleven o’clock rolled around, I trundled down the gangway under the disapproving stares of Security, secure in the knowledge that I had once again pissed off a small fraction of Nepal. But that’s life, right? Rules are made to be broken, red tape is meant to be slipped through, and as long as I can keep up this facade of a sophisticated gentleman, I just might get away with this life of mine.

Twenty minutes later I was in my rental car, flooring it for Miami Lakes and the advanced training session I had been invited to before I slipped onto another unsuspecting cruise ship. Advanced training is sort of a stepping stone for most auctioneers before they get called up to the big leagues. It is a check up to make sure the months at sea haven’t rotted our brains and we are still clever enough to be given a shot at the top.  So I went with high expectations, knowing that I was in the top running for the Regent Voyager and a contract that included a world cruise spanning three continents and more than 30 countries, along with guest status, a balcony suite, and absolutely no charge for booze. Ridiculous. I know. And they wanted ME to do it. What I found once I dumped my bags and got into the mix of things was not exactly what I expected.

16 months ago, when I first went to training, it was basically a ten day job interview. People were weeded out as the days went by, the challenges got tougher, and mistakes were tolerated less and less. Apparently, in the interim, something had shifted in the mentality. First of all, the majority of the class were new hires, fresh recruits to fill out the ranks of art dealers out on international waters. The senior auctioneers that were there all knew where they were going, and acted more as objective observers to the class, rather than participants vying for position on coveted ships. I was the most junior invitee by far, with the exception of the fresh meat, but I still had little to no individual attention that might improve my abilities as an auctioneer. It was basically a repetition, word for word at times, of the training from that fateful autumn when I began. I understand that the fundamentals don’t change too much, but a flawless re-telling, complete with stale yet seemingly off the cuff anecdotes, was tedious to say the least. I had to find other ways to amuse myself, so I appointed myself as the Himalayan Peak sitting Buddha of the class. I made my free time available to all the new hires, so if they wanted to use me for any sort of resource, they could. Our evenings were our own, so I would sit in the courtyard like a chain-smoking sage and dole out seminars, presentations, stories, and advice for their eager ears. I took some trainees out to the city, shouting the intricacies of Impressionism over the howling roar of the wind as we drove into South Beach. Still others did their best learning in the wee hours of the morning, so I detailed the benefits of collecting Picassos over pints of Guinness at the local pool hall. I have always approached learning about art dealing the same way I looked at my own college education. The classroom can only go so far, and people tend to listen when they have to lean in to hear over the pounding bass at an afterhours club. I learned more about Critical Literary Theory on bar crawls than I did in any stuffy third floor lecture hall in the middle of a sweltering September. I’m not saying this style is for everyone, obviously. But as Hunter S. Thompson famously said, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” Sometimes you have to think outside the box, and realize that there is no such thing as a “good” limitation.

So, despite the eight hours of boredom I endured for five days, I enjoyed watching the more open-minded associates excel in their final days, even hearing direct snippets of my own rambling recitations in their presentations during class. It gave me something to point to and see as a positive result of my presence in Miami, because a refresher course is nice, but living through an artistically themed version of Groundhog Day is cruel and unusual punishment.

But I digress. I could continue on with a blow by blow of all the gory details which would eventually illuminate my present plight, but I fear I have already lost some with an easily distracted mind, and more of you may not be far behind. I was given the Regent Voyager as my ship, and was set to fly out to Hong Kong on March 30th. I was pleased, already reveling in the prospect of a world cruise to exotic ports I may never visit again. And then the other shoe fell. I had to get a Chinese Visa to fly into Hong Kong and I needed to start working on acquiring it…..yesterday. So, I flew through the paperwork, paid exorbitant fees to Fed Ex to expedite the process and patiently waited for it to arrive. And I waited. I had a few drinks and waited some more. Six hours before my scheduled departure, while waiting with bated breath for the package containing my visa and my passport, I decided to do some sleuthing, so I called the Chinese Consulate, only to find out that Hong Kong is part of Taiwan, not mainland China, and I did not need a visa. They had explained all of this in an explicit voicemail left on the Park West voicemail system three days earlier. Obviously, the message had not been relayed to yours truly. Contingency plans began to swirl like mad, new flights were planned, and then Regent Cruise Lines informed Park West that they thought bringing a new auctioneer on in the midst of a world cruise might disrupt the delicate sensibilities of their wealthy clientele who may have been working with the current auctioneer for months, and would be finalizing their deals before they departed on May 24th.  Despite the best attempts at reason by the higher-ups at Park West, Regent remained solid in their decision, and I was once again hung out to dry.

The moral of the story is this, since I am sure many of you were just waiting for the nougat of wisdom that I usually wrap in my lengthy tales of woe. Don’t plan. Don’t think ahead. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch, and don’t save your pennies. You can’t take it with you, and you certainly can’t stay one step ahead of fate. In the past four weeks, I have had my vacation cut short, gained and lost an extremely lucrative contract, been rejected from the grad school of my dreams, abandoned my life plan for this fall, got a tattoo, unnecessarily spent thousands of dollars, and booked a flight to Italy.  Every single one of those things occurred because of events or decisions that were entirely out of my control (Even the tattoo, long story). The bottom line is that in times such as these, a “5 year plan” is a bad joke. I have whittled down my fortune telling to a 5-month plan, approximately the length of a contract on a cruise line.  Because unless something disastrous happens to me professionally or facially/physically, I can be relatively secure in my place for that chunk of time. Outside of that, however, it’s a crap shoot. Everything else is a roll of the dice.  As long as the Mayans weren’t completely spun on jungle drugs, the world is supposed to end in 2012, anyways, so why plan for the afterlife? I seem to remember from my days as a God-fearing man that someone else calls the shots after we take our final bows.

The one thing we can control is ourselves, not flights or jobs or weather patterns. Natural disasters and financial crises are out of our hands, but our minds will always be ours. In this ridiculous game of life, through all the pain and uncertainty, it is the small victories that let us know that we’ll be alright in the end. Little by little, those victories add up to something. It is different for each one of us, every battle is unique, and every bump in the road is custom made to challenge us as individuals. But as long as we hold onto those little bits of ourselves, we’ll get not where we think we should be, but where we needed to be all along. And there, we’ll find what we’re looking for. Everyone’s great white whale is out there somewhere.

So skip school. Buy something you don’t need. Learn Italian. Pick up the tab for your friends. Kiss a stranger in a bar. Drive off the map.

And don’t look back.

 

The last few years of my life have taken me to dozens of countries and hundreds of memories, but most of those adventures have taken place outside the borders of the motherland.  While I was in the throes of wild youth, however, my summers were usually filled with mainland wanderings with my family. I suppose I have them to thank for actual memories of purple mountain majesty and the strange beauty of America.  We went from coast to coast, sea to shining sea, on winding road trips that would split the school years so perfectly, a distraction even in those young years from the interminable string of semesters that seemed to fill every season but summer.  I have memories of Classic Rock on the radio in our own classic, a massive, pink, Ford Econoline van, complete with a fold down full-size bed, and overhead red track lighting. I know what you’re thinking, and yes, it was an amazing piece of automotive brilliance.

But that was years ago, and the snapshots I have from those trips, captured by both camera and mind have faded over time.  So, when the opportunity presented itself to take a literal stroll down memory lane, I bought the ticket, and thought I’d take the ride.  One of the road trips foggiest in my mind from those days of yore was the one to the South, swinging from Florida over to Texas, cutting a swath through the Deep Country.  I couldn’t have been more than twelve years old, however, and most of those memories are more invented than inventoried by my brain.  I remember the sweltering heat, and the noticeable lack of air conditioning in our pink chariot, along with vast stretches of burnt hills, one-road towns, and other stereotypes of the South that once again may stem more from Faulkner than family trips.

So, in the midst of my vacation in this vicious winter of Chicago, I flew to Alabama, to begin the resuscitation of my Confederate memories. I began in Birmingham, then went to Tuscaloosa, followed by Montgomery, and then New Orleans for a relaxing five days in the Big Easy.  Now, I can imagine the curiosity from the proverbial peanut gallery, particularly since I am from the North, a city boy by birth and by choice, who is far more likely to spend a vacation in the pubs of London than the wilds of Alabama.  At first, I was similarly uncertain about my trip, anxious for a number of reasons, but as it moved along, I began to approach it as a sociological inquiry. Not an experiment, per se, but just a self-aware wander through an often misunderstood area of the country.  There have been more broad assumptions and misguided assertions about the South than almost any other part of the nation, and some might say with good reason, but I have begun to disagree.

If I had to sum up the South and it’s inhabitants in one word, I’d have to say grounded.  The people are tied to tradition, their roots, the land, the culture, the food, and the very dirt beneath their boots.  In Tuscaloosa, I went on a walking tour of a garden in the middle of winter, and heard the passionate oration of what would be there, or what used to grow there.  I had home cooking so good that I finally realized what that phrase even meant.  There is a resounding pride in everything that they do, and everything they believe in.  Very little is superfluous, and time is enjoyed, not measured and shaved off in deadlines.  Sipping on a glass of wine in a warm Alabama sunset was suddenly the most attractive and best use of my time that I could imagine, and not because I was passing time until the next thing came along.  Perhaps it is only in my life, but I feel that in the North, people are often waiting for the next big thing, allowing the present to slip away in perpetual anticipation of the future. I never felt rushed on my trip, but similarly, never lazy. I felt like Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings, even though I am not a magical/fictional character, “A wizard is never late, nor is he early, he arrives precisely when he means to.”  Despite whatever schedule I may have been trying to maintain, it was as though my mind and legs were surrounded in pleasant and welcome molasses.  Plans were flexible, while afternoons could wax or wane as I pleased.

Now, as any objective stranger in a strange land, I can’t pretend that there weren’t certain….idiosyncrasies, that struck me as a tad unusual.  I did have the bizarre fortune to attend a debutante ball in Montgomery, and shocking as this may be, I have never been to one of those before. I had, however, seen them in movies and television, a presentation of young women into society and all that jazz. But they do it a bit differently in the South.  As I said before, tradition is extremely important below the Mason-Dixon Line, and their balls are no exception (Keep that in context, all of you who just giggled).  Secret societies were very prominent back in the heyday of the south, some stick out in the national memory more than others, but many still remain in place to this day.  Cloak and dagger ceremonies and widespread secrecy still affect the business and the social scene in many places, and this particular debutante ball I experienced was no different.  We were ushered into an auditorium while the history of the society was read, followed by a series of processions, chants, and presentations.  I won’t go into all the explicit details, but there were masks and hoods of varying color involved in the elaborate costumes.  I don’t make that comment or this entire description in jest, or as an offhand comment meant to elicit an immediate response from my readers.  It was decidedly interesting, and something I had never experienced before, but at it’s core, it was innocent.

I won’t act like I was immediately at ease with the proceedings, realizing and avoiding my own stereotypical judgments. I wasn’t. It has only been through a time of honest reflection since my experiences that I have seen the error of my initial reactions.  We are quick to judge that which we do not understand, it is an elemental part of our nature, normally sequestered as we are through our childhood to one cultural or geographic range. I would experience a similar emotional confusion if I had never been to a dance club in a major city, jam-packed with sweaty, half-clothed, drug-addled twenty-somethings. Particularly if my upbringing had been sheltered in a remote country locale where a honky-tonk bar five miles out of town was the closest thing to a wild time. We are narrow in our vision, and far too prone to face value assessments.

After the ceremony, I mingled with masked members and delicate debutantes at the open bar, smirking at times with other denizens of the community who had similarly open-minded yet thoughtfully aware consciences.  I wasn’t treated as an outsider, just like my other experiences in the South. I was welcomed as a “friend they hadn’t met yet”, which was a phrase that cropped up more than once during my travels.  The word stranger doesn’t have the same connotation down there.  Here, a stranger is a man in a windowless van or a lurking shadow in an alley that makes us clutch our bags a little tighter. In the South, a stranger is simply someone new, a guest that creates a stir of excitement, and invokes a curiosity that comes across as a welcoming embrace of a long-lost family.  Overly sentimental as that may seem to be, it is appropriate. For those of you who have not taken a genuine visit to the South, (something besides a layover in Atlanta), it will be hard for you to understand. So go there.  You’ll get it.

Now, Alabama was intriguing to my always inquisitive mind, but New Orleans was a horse of a different color. Mainly purple, green, and gold.  I had heard quite a bit about NOLA from friends and advice-givers, and it had been a decade since I last stepped foot in that debaucherous bayou, but nothing could have prepared me for the time I had.  The city itself was beautiful and rich, with colors, lights and banners as far as my eyes could see. I stayed in the middle of the French Quarter, in a converted mansion stocked with antiques, art, sculptures, and every other odd collectible that would fit.  Every morning began with coffee and cigarettes in the private courtyard, followed perhaps by a cheeky cocktail, as this was New Orleans, and I wanted to maintain a similar level of sobriety to the general population.  The day would then be filled with strolls through the streets, art gallery hopping and at least 5 meals at some of the countless restaurants NOLA had to offer.  At times, their was as much life flooding through the streets as can be found on a Friday night on Sin City’s Strip, but in signature Southern style, it wasn’t waves of madness flowing between the buildings, but those of pure, laid back ecstasy.  The bartenders never stopped smiling and the drawls never sped up. If it was worth them saying, it was worth waiting around to hear it.

Despite the beautiful chaos the French Quarter had to offer, one of the best evenings I spent in New Orleans was anything but a mash up. It was spent in the courtyard with a table full of red wine and a head full of conversation.  The assembled was a motley crew, each with our own curious aspects to bring to the table (pardon the pun).  The figure that remains in my mind was the man who owned the house we were staying in, a retired sea boat pilot and a collector of all things strange and wonderful from around the world.  And after a bottle or two of red wine, he comes strolling out of his house with a hand-signed March Chagall lithograph, a piece from the Exodus Series which I was familiar with.  Suffice to say, I was surprised.  He then proceeded to tell me about his art collection, full of Dalis and Rembrandts, and showed me some of the pieces.  He had almost no idea the value of what he owned; his interest was purely aesthetic. He was even disinterested in my estimates on appraised value, as he said that he would never sell them. I’ve floated around the whole globe for the past 14 months selling art, and then I run into pieces that could easily fit in my collection at the bottom of the proverbial bottle, safely in the hands of a benevolent wino.

Oh the difference between what we think and what we later know! That change is perhaps the greatest part of the human experience.  In ten more years, I will have still another idea of that great city, another perspective on the lives of others.  It is a lesson we should all remember; ideas are meant to be changed, but that does not necessarily change our ideals.  Working to understand the people we encounter in our lives broadens our mind, and expands what we think we know. We have a responsibility to always keep our eyes wide, and our ears open. It is when we shut down into the safe comforts of our own conformity that the trouble begins. My Dixie jaunt will forever remind me of that fact.

Yet here I am, once again tucked into the warm bubble of my suburban basement, punching my thoughts into a keyboard.  But it is with a smile that I can write that, because I am lucky enough to see where my next leap will be, a blessing I have not always had, even in this past year.  I know that the unknown stretches even deeper on the other wide of the world, and that there is so much more to see. So much more to learn.

So many more stories to tell.

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not trying to cause a panic, but apparently, we are on the verge of the Apocalypse. I know, we were all waiting with bated breath for 2012, but I think the Mayans may have erred in their astrological assumptions.  For those of you who live anywhere east of the Mississippi, this may be the last week you enjoy on this earth. Or at least that is what the weather channels would have you believe. The storm of the century has arrived, and we’ll all be lucky to see the dawn break on Thursday.  But on the eve of such wintry devastation, as the flakes begin to accumulate on the driveways, questions begin to roll around in my mind, as they always do.

Imagine this scenario, a blizzard on the way in bleak midwinter, but turn the clocks back 40 years, or to be more precise, 44.  The year is 1967.  The Beatles released the Magical Mystery Tour, Che Guevara had just been executed, and Evil Knievel jumped over the Caesar’s Palace fountains in Las Vegas. For Chicagoans, however, 1967 marked one of the most paralyzing blizzards in recorded history.  I doubt many of you, gentle readers, were alive in the late sixties, but if you were, I hope you enjoyed them.  The blizzard of ’67 is talked about with quite a bit of odd reverence for those old enough to remember, and I for one have heard quite a few embellished yarns about that winter.  I think that is where the classic story that starts, “I used to walk to school through two feet of snow in the winter, uphill…..both ways”, actually came from.  Now, for years, I always laughed at those stories, thinking that I knew better, that I had seen some crazy storms in my lifetime as well, but as I grow older, and hopefully wiser, I’ve widened my perspective.

Let’s all think about life for a moment, life how it happened 44 years ago.  First of all, you wouldn’t be reading the rambled mumblings of my mind in this blog.  That is because the internet hadn’t been invented, (by Al Gore or anyone else), therefore no one thought blogs were cool (the jury is still out), and I wasn’t even a twinkle in my father’s 17-year old eye.  Out of those three things, the internet is certainly the largest change between then and now, although in my opinion, my existence has weighed heavily on the global scales.  Without this World Wide Web, the universe would not only be denied this blog, but also instant weather updates, winter storm survival tips, and those perpetual facebook status updates warning the world that snow is coming, just in case we hadn’t been paying attention. Add to that list iPhones, Twitter, text messaging, e-mails, radar, satellite television, heated driveways, and car heaters that don’t leak toxic fumes into the passenger seats.  What does all this mean?

Well, 44 years ago, when the blizzard was sweeping it’s way across the country, the only warnings anyone had in the Windy City were the words of wisdom from the Farmer’s Almanac, and if that tome said that it hadn’t snowed that exact day in 1915, 1942, and 1955, then there was a gosh darn good chance that the skies would be clear in ’67 as well.  Four inches were predicted, whereas 23 fell, and it became the greatest single snowfall in this city’s history.  But did we crumble? Did the skyscrapers tumble into the snowdrifts to be forgotten among the natural disasters of the planet? Of course not, and this was with no warning. The skies simply emptied themselves on the city and no one saw it coming.  Their response to the surprise consisted of saying, “Shit, guess we’re gonna get more than 4 inches”, whereas our response includes the National Guard and garbage trucks equipped with snow plows. They didn’t have a 72-hour buildup of around the clock updates, live feeds from other states being hammered by the coming onslaught, or Tom Skilling urging them to stock up food and water like we were preparing for a nuclear Holocaust. The shelves in grocery stores weren’t raided, at least not until the storm hit. At that point there was extensive looting and a number of people were killed, but I Digress. The bottom line is that for the past two days, I have watched the “last great American city” pre-emptively shut itself down in the year 2011, and it makes me wonder.

What has all of our “progress” done for us?

We are at the height of our technological abilities, and all around us, some of the greatest breakthroughs regarding our planet, our bodies, and our limitations as humans are occurring.  We can connect with anyone around the globe at a moment’s notice, see one another’s face in a cell phone screen, and find a single cancerous cell in the breadth of a human body.  In a world such as the one we live in, one would think that a meteorological crisis wouldn’t take over the national spotlight. Our around the clock news channels are now dedicated to the disaster in the Midwest, the winter storm which will affect more than 100 million people.  School closings for Wednesday started being announced on Monday night, before a flake even fell.  Perhaps it is crass of me to say this, but aren’t there other things going on in the world? Last I heard, Egypt was having a rough week, and there are still a number of hungry people in Africa. After the weathermen say, “This storm is going to be pretty bad” in a hundred different ways, all we can do is hunker down, shovel our driveways, and wait for the skies to clear.  But as a society, there is nothing we like more than a story.  Perhaps some people need a bit of drama to escape the streak of dogmatic routine and the doldrums of daily life.  We are a culture obsessed with hype, paparazzi photos, and overblown press coverage. People are “worried” about this epic storm, about school closings, slippery roads, and how many inches we’re really going to get, but at the core of this concern, it’s all just a turn on.  It gets us high, and trust me, I get that. We’re always looking forward to the summer blockbuster, or in this case, the winter roofbuster.  But why are we always looking for the next big thing? The next child star? The next American Idol?

The answer is simple, we all want to have been there.  Who doesn’t remember where they were when they heard about 9/11? What older generation reader doesn’t remember what they were doing when they heard that JFK got shot? Or that Pearl Harbor was bombed? I’m not comparing any of those earth-shaking events with this “inclement weather episode”, but the emotions may run similar.  This might be one of the stories we tell our grandchildren, the dramatic tale of our survival through the harrowing Blizzard of 2011.  In fifty years, when we’re flying six inches above the mounting snow drifts in our hovering hydrogen-fueled cars, we’ll be able to spin tall tales into eager ears about the old days of shovels and salt trucks.  Our grandchildren won’t believe it when we tell them how cities used to shut down when weather turned bad, because by then, who knows, the surface of every street, building and car might be heated and they won’t know understand what accumulation even means.  They’ll smile and say how strange that is, and we’ll reminisce fondly about the good old days amidst our grandchildren’s laughter.  But that’s all that we’re looking forward to, being a part of our own legend.  We’re obsessed with immortality, and just like my parents in 1967, being a part of something that might last longer than us is important, even if it is something as seemingly superficial as a snowstorm.  So we’ll brace for the worst in the next 24 hours, dreaming of impassable roads and impossible heights of snow, because we are safe inside with a king’s ransom of food, booze, technological distractions, and the knowledge that in the end, the snow will melt, but we’ll always be left with the memory.

That’s a nice sentiment to end with, but I’m not in the mood for a warm fuzzy conclusion.  Perhaps it is the abundance of fear-mongering that I’ve had to sit through over the past 48 hours.  I started this rant because it started snowing, and everyone seemed so overly concerned. I thought I would put in my two cents, submit my own opinion about this nearly unwanted winter wonderland.  But as I’ve waded through the issues at hand, a deeper idea has become uncovered by the proverbial snowplow.  For all the progress we are making as a people, all the advances that are raising our quality of life and the safety of the world and blah blah blah, does anything think we are embracing irony and actually taking steps backwards? This is a theory I have bounced around more than one circle of friends in more than one late-night bar, but I have never properly fleshed it out.

The majority of the progress we have made as a species has been to make our lives easier.  Medicine keeps us healthy, houses keep us warm, anti-lock brakes keep us safe, nuclear weapons keep us protected (?), and so on and so forth. Every advancement we make shields us from the real world, blocks us from the elements which have defined life on this planet since time immemorial.  Most of us consider ourselves the most highly evolved species on earth; we are able to think logically, appraise ourselves analytically, while conquering the globe in new and more comprehensive ways with every successive generation. Think about it….

Rafts – Boats – Railroads – Cars – Planes – Spaceships

Morse Code – Telegraphs – Telephones – Internet – 13G iPhone (whatever)

Human history is dotted with such progression, and we call it social evolution, but I think we are using a misnomer for the changes we have witnessed.  By creating all of this “stuff” which we find absolutely necessary to own or continue producing, we’ve become dependent on it.  We are less able to deal with the real world without something else, without a crutch.  In the 1700’s people survived just fine without railroads, but after they were created, they were necessary for our economy and our society.  No one knew what an airplane was in 1776, but where would international relations or business be today without more than 50,000 flights per day globally?  In 1850, life in America moved along swimmingly without being able to call England on the telephone, but look at us now! Our lives would be completely shut down if every phone suddenly vanished from our family rooms. And even as recently as 1970, the cell phone was still a laughable dream, but today, the majority of society don’t even have a hard line, and most people ages 5-35 wouldn’t be able to function for more than a day if their cell phones were taken away.

My point is, over our history, we have developed a complex infrastructure of crap that makes our survival as easy as possible. But the law is called survival of the Fittest, not survival of the laziest, or most creative. Take away our toys, and we’d be lost in the wilderness. Strip us of our cars or our homes, bare us to the elements, and most species on the planet would look at us and pity us. We’re basically large mammals with hundreds of vulnerabilities, but we are unaware of them because for centuries, if not millennia, our main goal has been making it unnecessary for us to evolve in a real way. The things we have created to help us survive have actually distanced us from what survival is all about.  Granted, our minds have evolved, but in every other respect, we’re falling far short of Darwin’s ideal.  We are a species which survives because we are clever, cruel, and selfish, as well as the self-proclaimed masters of the planet.  We are the single greatest destructive force on earth, not global warming, nuclear war, or even Chicago blizzards. But take us away from the central heating and the grocery stores, and we’d be easy pickings and fresh meat for species which still have an appreciation for what evolution is, even if they only use 2% of their brain.

So maybe that is why we are so scared of these storms, why we huddle in front of our electric fireplaces and check our weather updates on our Blackberrys as often as we can.  This is the reason we are so grateful that 53 of the 425 channels on satellite cable are featuring stories about this terrible storm. Maybe deep down, we know that this is the kind of thing that really would destroy us. If by some bizarre event, we were ever deprived of all the “stuff” that make us “what” we are, then 20 inches of snow really would be apocalyptic. A blizzard would be to us what the asteroid was to the dinosaurs.  It wouldn’t take us long to figure out what was wrong with our style of evolution, and even a North Face fleece wouldn’t  be able to save us.

So during this horrific blizzard, don’t drive or think unless you absolutely have to.  And make sure you stay warm. I suggest whiskey.

Start a warm fire if you can, burn books if you must, although most of you probably have Kindles, so you’re pretty much screwed.

 

So, here I am once again, peacefully nestled in the comfortable embrace of the Chicago suburbs, as though the past 14 months have been nought but a passing fancy I dreamed up during a languid nap in my basement.  And furthermore, in my own classic tradition, I have chosen to fully revert into my past life by tackling the mighty trilogy, the cinematic masterpiece by which I have measured almost every vacation or extended stay in my childhood home. I am referring to the Lord of the Rings, obviously.  There is something unflaggingly nostalgic about viewing the epic 13-hour extended edition saga in one go.  I can count the times I have succeeded in the valiant attempt on one hand, while the failed tries number considerably higher.  But why the perennial return to this classic tale?  Is it the sweeping cinematography and the grandiose battle scenes? Am I drawn back to the suspiciously homoerotic relationships between the little hobbits? Or do I simply crave half a day of effortless entertainment while wallowing happily in laziness and snacks? Actually, to all those questions, I must say no.

Over the course of those three films, I can watch an honest and profound development of fascinating characters in a completely fictional landscape, yet still find some point of relativity for myself in the real world.  Call it escapism, but there is something about Tolkien’s words, Peter Jackson’s vision, or scores of dramatic voiceovers that give my soul some peace.  The stories, no matter how reliant they are on a world of magic, inspire hope for the future.  No matter how difficult the journey gets, or how unlikely success may seem, I know how the movie ends.  And although in an allegorical sense, I have only written two or three hours of my own Midwest-Earth saga, I like to think that by the 11th hour, so to speak, things will be well on their way to my truly legendary existence.

The first movie, which I have just finished with great pleasure, is marked in my mind by one very memorable adage from the bearded sage himself, Gandalf.  After listening to Frodo whine about the burden he must bear and how unfortunate it is that such a task has fallen to him, Gandalf answers in simultaneously simplistic and deep reply, saying “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us”.  I might say that no truer words were e’er spoke.  Not that I have many burdens to bear now that I have left the ship and am enjoying the leisure of vacation, but the sentiment rings true.

Being at home has brought me back to reality, the world of cars and rules, $8 packs of cigarettes, and stores that sell DVD’s legally.  Home is always a snapshot of an older life, seemingly so distant, and yet preserved here.  It is a museum of me, and I float through galleries as a ghost, down streets and relationships that I left behind.  But the museum is always changing within its own stasis.  The people I care about remain and move forward, but there are always the memories.  I have been driving past restaurants and street corners where I’ve shared laughter, tears, kisses, and goodbyes. And for the first time in six months, I don’t have much on my mind, so it is easy to be swamped by memories at the slightest hint of my past.  The smallest detail of history will do, a scent of burning wood from my neighbors yard, the colorful blur of familiar storefronts, or the series of right and left turns that take me from place to place as they have a hundred times before.  It was during one of these flashbacks to different times that I first heard this quote…

“Once I stood in Grand Central Station to say goodbye to a pretty girl. I was wild about her. In fact, we decided we couldn’t live without each other, and we were to be married. When we came to say goodbye we knew we wouldn’t see each other for almost a year. I thought I couldn’t live through it – and she stood there crying. Well, I don’t even know where she lives now, or if she is living. If she ever thinks of me at all, she probably imagines I’m still dancing in some ballroom somewhere… Life and money both behave like quicksilver in a nest of cracks. And when they’re gone we can’t tell where – or what the devil we did with ’em…”

Many of the moments which have defined my life have in fact slipped through the cracks, and it is only when I roam old streets that they come back to me, blindsiding me as I walk down the driveway of my childhood home.  I have had to bid adieu one too many times to one too many friends, yet I continue to pursue a life where perpetual goodbyes are part of the gig.  So I rely on these flashback sentiments to keep me stable, to counter the harder aspects of this job. As long as I know that some of my goodbyes are not permanent, and if they are that I will have some vestige of memories remain.

These floods of memory threaten to drown me at times, but I know those feelings, both painful and cherished, are only shadows of old certainties.  I have drained some of those places and people to the dregs, and the prospect of returning in any way is impossible.  But there are others who will never dissipate or fade from the depths of my memory, like bars that never close, where my cup continues to be filled, only to be drained once more.  I am lucky to have those people in my life, blessed really, and some don’t even know how important they really are.  They fill my thoughts when I’m away, and spending time with them after months have passed is done with an ease seldom matched between two people.  I don’t know what I’d do without them. I often joke with a few, “We’re not done. Not by a longshot”. I know who I will continue to make memories with as the years wear on and I move in one of a thousand intriguing directions.

To bring it round full circle, as I try my best to do, this is what I’m doing with the time I have. I can take my mind somewhere else, away from business deals and marketing, signed invoices and credit limits. The time I have now has nothing to do with my line of work. They call it vacation for a reason, a time to escape from your troubles, and relax.  I call them troubles or burdens or stressors, but in fact it is just the nature of the beast. Plato once said, “Be Kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”, and it took me a long time to understand that at the end of the day I am no different from anyone else. My job may be bizarre, my travels extreme, and my lifestyle excessive, but somebody has to do it. And when I’m on contract, I am happy to fill those shoes. But now, I literally have a get out of jail free card for a month or so, and I plan to enjoy it. If anyone gives you a chance to escape from worry, for a year or a day, don’t refuse. Take my advice, if you have a chance to come up for air, do it. Close your eyes, take a hit, rest your mind, and turn down the volume of the world for a while.  You never know when you’ll have to take the next plunge, so breathe deep.

Before we go any further, two questions must be asked about the past year…..Are you older? The answer to this is quite simple, unless Benjamin Button is an ardent reader of my sporadic missives. The second question is not as easy to wave off as rhetorical nonsense. Are you wiser?  Ahhhh….silence settles over the crowd. Don’t be alarmed, I have been asking myself that same question for weeks, ever since I realized that it has been a year since I first stepped on a cruise ship as an art dealer.  The holidays are sometimes our only reminder of time passing, the ugly sweaters from one Christmas to the next somehow last as trail markers in our memory.  And as the Christmas decorations began to appear around the Norwegian Sun last week, I remembered a similar scene in Chicago last year, watching trees and lights pop up all around me as I prepared to leap into the tangled universe of cruise ships.  On December 20th, I arrived in South America and began this wild journey that has taken me to 5 continents and more than 30 countries.  Some of you have been with me every step of the way, whispering your words of wisdom across the oceans, encouraging me in my lowest moments, and congratulating me in my successes. It can be called nothing other than a bizarre road I’ve wandered, but I have managed (through some miracle) not to lose my way.

But the holidays have indeed arrived, and with them comes the difficult trials of separation.  The cruise ship life which I have both praised and bemoaned can be particularly bizarre when holidays get thrown into the equation. I spent last Christmas in a similar fashion, but perhaps there was an element of novelty last year, a brand new experience to sharpen my teeth on.  Being away from the family can be a tremendous burden, something I haven’t experienced in my life to this point. So we try to create a different kind of family, one based on joint experience and a shared struggle. Would this be my typical group of friends back on land? Absolutely not. But you adjust, you grow, and you learn to deal with whatever life serves up.  I have had to find my own way of coping, trying to recreate new memories and moments that will be remembered as fondly as those from my old life.  We all end up spending some parts of our lives in places we never expected, with people we couldn’t have predicted. The randomness of that can be a beautiful thing, embracing pure entropy while everyone around you works to create order and harmony. Does this process of change mean that I’m wiser? Possibly, although I am more likely to say it is just natural development. We are not built to be static, every instant of our life leads us forward, progressing, evolving.  It may not always be the five year plan we’ve made in our minds, but we can learn a lot along the way.

My only fear, and one that I have voiced before, is that when I finally come back to that “old life”, will it still be there? That world is changing just as much as mine, with friends moving house and moving on, pushing in directions where I can’t hope to follow. Phone calls and e-mails are poor replacements for the real thing, and as the months stretch on, I feel distance not measured in miles growing between people in my life.  I am not so naive to think that all friendships flourish and last forever, but I am also not so cynical to expect my relationships to weaken and fail.  Do we become only memories to certain people? Once we reach a certain distance, is it ever possible to truly reconnect in an old way? I always looked at this job as a fantastic way to delay the “real world”, traveling the globe on a cruise ship. I would enjoy the time off, write, plan my next few steps, and make some money along the way. I never expected to fit so comfortably in these shoes, or to be coming back for a third contract. Yet here I am, facing exactly that. The question remains, when I am finally finished with this chapter of my life, will I still have a niche to fit in? Will the landlubbers I have left behind still see me the same way, be invested in my life in any capacity, or will it be easier to keep me as a pleasant memory from years past?  Time, as always, will do the telling.

I am staring down the barrel of 18 more days at sea, and then a long, much-needed vacation.  London calls, and I will answer once again, to remind myself where my second family lives, but some quality time in Chicago is much needed.  Idle hands are definitely the devil’s workplace, but for the moment, being idle sounds wildly exciting.  The exhausting promotion to Principal Auctioneer has wiped me clean, and if my vacation was further delayed, I might begin to go a bit mad.  As it is, my moods have been swinging wildly, horrible bouts of homesickness followed swiftly by frustration or irritability. But two hours later, I am relaxed and at ease, ready to tackle whatever challenges are thrown my way.  I can’t put my finger on any one cause for my increasingly erratic moods, but it’s nothing that a few lazy evenings bundled in front of a fire in the isolation of the Chicago suburbs can’t fix.  My bank account could also use a vacation, because despite the monetary benefits of being the PA, my itchy fingers for new toys is going get me in trouble soon. I already gave myself a Christmas present in the form of an etching by Francisco Goya from 1819.  I am well pleased with it, but Rembrandts are calling my name.  So, I will escape on January 13th before temptation grabs be by the hand and helps me sign on another dotted line.  At that point, I’ll just have to see how this all plays out.  The Norwegian Star is a tempting offer next contract, spending another summer in the wilds of Alaska, but this experience as the PA has given me the confidence to run my own program. I will be the first to admit it, I could have flopped as an auctioneer. Through a mix of good training, timing, and a healthy dose of blind luck, I’ve ended up being very successful this first month as the boss (touch wood), and the company might choose to keep me in the top position into my next contract.  Passion for art certainly drives much of what I do, but the bottom line must be discussed. No matter how much I enjoy working with Kris, it would make better business sense to run the show, call the shots, and reap the rewards.

See, even there, in my most honest and fair appraisals of my life, my perception has changed. Am I becoming money hungry, forgetting what’s important? This experience of a lifetime is the reward, the opportunity to add culture and enjoyment to people’s lives through fine art is my payout, no? Naive once more? It is hard to have an objective opinion of your own life, you tend to be a bit biased. Faults and failings are more difficult to admit than victories.  Maybe you can all be the judge. When I come home in three weeks, perhaps we’ll spend time together, dinners out or nights with friends at local bars. Maybe we’ll catch a football game or play beer pong till the wee hours of the morning. I’ve sometimes considered myself a square peg in a round hole, but let me know if I’ve still got a spot. My past is so vital to me, such a rock that I base all my future adventures on. No matter how far I go, I can’t imagine not being able to find my way back. Thomas Wolfe once wrote, “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time-back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”  I wouldn’t want to tell Thomas his business, but I hope, for my sake, that he was wrong.

So what was the point of this latest musing?  I was deciding whether this year abroad has brought me wisdom. But that is a difficult answer to find, and wisdom comes in many forms. At the end of the day, I am irreparably changed, but perhaps I can feign idealism for a moment, and imagine that evolution is standard.  As much as I am different, I hope the rest of the pieces in my life have moved forward as well, adapting to still keep a place for me. If that’s the case, then no matter what Thomas Wolfe may say, I’ll always be able to go home again. Merry Christmas to you all. And to all, a good night.