The Lizard Feud

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In the part of west Africa where I’ve been living this past year, there are a lot of wild animals, some of them dangerous. Toads are potentially poisonous. Snakes are a real hazard in the bush. The commonplace “champion bug” releases a venom that leaves welts on skin. Mosquitoes carry malaria, and spiders tend to be the size of an adult male hand. But lizards are ubiquitous all over and most people seem to find them benign, even charming.

Not me. My feud with lizards started in the back veranda of my residence. I would pass through a screened area to reach my kitchen. Lizards would lie in wait clinging to the screen, unbeknownst to me. When I passed by on the way to the kitchen, they for no apparent reason would kamikaze off the screen onto my neck or my bare feet, making me shriek and bringing the guards running.

Then, they found ways to gain entry into various rooms of my house. One took up residence behind my bathroom mirror, and as I washed my face, jumped out from behind the mirror. The last straw was the droppings. I found lizard poop deposits appearing, bizarrely like clockwork, on my stash of soaps and face washes in the bathroom, dangerously close to my toothbrush.

I decided on a long-term but time-honored counter measure: fight prey with a predator. I adopted a 1-month old kitten from the street, raised him, fed him fish, and let him sleep curled up on my neck night after night. He practiced chasing houseflies and fighting praying mantises. When he grew big enough, I marched my cat around my compound, familiarizing him with the layout and pointing at lizards. He’d chase after them eagerly but fruitlessly on his small legs and delicate kitten pads.

In time he got bigger and stronger and bolder. Finally, the time came. My cat spotted a lizard, chased it down, and caught it. He batted the lizard. The lizard ejected its wiggling tail as a diversion. The cat swatted the lizard some more.

“Finish it off!” I told my cat.

The cat didn’t; he continued batting the lizard around.

“Fine, I’ll do it myself.” I stood above the creature, poised to beat it to death with my slipper.

But I just looked at the lizard’s small breathing frame. Its lungs expanding, contracting against its rib cage. Neither of us moved.

The cat couldn’t kill it. I couldn’t kill it. Neither of us could bring ourselves to do it.

My cat and I exchanged what I imagined was a chagrined look. I picked up the battered, tail-less, shell-shocked, but still alive lizard and tossed it over the wall of my compound.

Apparently, the lizard feud was never really about the lizards.

Image: Photo of my cat very much not hunting a lizard.

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The Highlands of Peru and Reverse Sensory Shock

Like many frequent travelers, I stopped regularly experiencing “culture shock,” or reverse culture shock, a long time ago.

That’s why, on of my recent returns to New York City, it was unusual that I felt noticeably more disoriented and challenged than before I had left. This city is never easy, but everything about it seemed harder than ever to parse and absorb and digest and cope with. Inside, my Manhattan apartment was a sensory deprivation box. Outside, crowds were overwhelming. When crossing a street in Midtown, or navigating a sidewalk, the pedestrian flow came at me in a bewildering onslaught. The subway was intolerably claustrophobic. I felt hemmed in by other people’s proximity, assaulted by the discrete sights, sounds, shape of their presence. I interrogated friends: Is something going on? Isn’t New York more crowded than usual? I questioned myself: Why do we live this way, crammed together in a suffocating mass?

I had to admit that it wasn’t New York, it was me: I was undergoing a kind of reverse culture shock— or more accurately, sensory shock. Just prior to this episode, we had spent a week in highland Peru. It was a short but intense period. We were in the Andean altiplanos, in some of the highest-altitude regions and settlements in the world, where the distances are strikingly vast and apparently empty. You can look across a valley or field and see what seems like nothing, for miles. After a while, on a hillside in the distance, you notice some specks of white. Are they flowers? Alpacas? Sheep? Houses? Rocks? The distances are so vast, austere, and featureless, that scale or depth is no help, and it takes effort and the rallying of all your senses to form a guess. Driving through passes in the highlands, you often don’t see a single person for hours. Or, think again: straining your eyes, you may spot a small figure engulfed in the vastness of the landscape.

After acculturating and sensitizing yourself to this environment, you come to know it’s not empty. It’s full of life and spirit. Condors ascend miles out of the blue depths of the Colca Canyon and you squint and strain your eyes to see their form take shape out of the stark blue sky. Vicuña flicker in and out of vision against the craggy background. You are led to a sacred place where the apu is said to live. From a distance, it looks like a pile of pebbles, or a small hill, but as you move closer, it becomes a massive volcanic formation towering high above. Climbing inside, you find an intimate plateau carpeted with soft greenery and tiny orange flowers. From that vantage, soft white llamas extend and blur into the soft white clouds in the horizon.

In the process of opening your senses to perceive all that lives in the stark landscape, the landscape comes into you, and opens you.

Returning from this context, back to the city, was jarring. The close quarters of small apartments and restaurants felt stifling and sensorily deprived. Crowds and commerce were overwhelming and abrasive. My senses, adapted as they were to the Peruvian highlands, were a liability here. It took some time to recalibrate to the urban environment, and I did, but the question has remained in my mind.

Why do we live this way?

Pedestrian Walkways of New York

My delighted obsession with the pedestrian walkways of New York actually got its start far away from the Big Apple.

When I lived in Turkey’s big city, Istanbul, a sore point was the constant encroachment of construction onto places where I had to walk. Construction sites would spill over onto the sidewalk, sparks flying, pushing me into the street to squeeze anxiously alongside the hot, greasy, unpredictable tide of cars and taxis and motorbikes.

Each time this happened, it was a small reminder that—although the point of a city is human habitation—this city, this place, was in some ways not made for or meant for people. The needs and feelings of actual human inhabitants was not the point here; we were just an inconvenient annoyance hindering other purposes.

This is why I am so fixated on the pedestrian walkways of New York. In as dense and valuable place as Manhattan, there is also a constant rhythm of deconstruction, construction, development. But here, when the construction overflows onto sidewalks, they build elaborate tunnels of wood planking, fencing, and other barriers that protect pedestrians from both onslaughts of construction and cars. These “pedestrian walkways” are scrupulously labeled and marked with arrows guiding you along the designated path, scooping you into their dark forest-green plywood corridors and depositing you safely on the other side.

Some of the walkways are so thoroughly encompassing, insulated, winding, and mysterious that I like to imagine I will walk in and come out somewhere else, like Narnia or Middle Earth.

It is a nice fantasy because, even if you do not end up in another world, you’re not too disappointed: on the other side, you’re still in New York City, a kind of magical place that does its best to hold a genuine regard for the people who live here.

Gratitude is not a Virtue

Mauerpark, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, 1996, Deutschland#Mauerpark, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, 1996, Germany

It is often said that gratitude is a virtue, and being grateful for what we have is a precondition for happiness. Besides that gratitude is often invoked in moments of preachiness and attempts to exert social control—”be grateful, young lady”—I have been skeptical of gratitude as an idea. I don’t mean the linguistic politeness formula of saying “thank you” in response to courtesy—I mean the idea that one should exist in a constant state of being actively thankful for every little blessing, and that if you are not, you are an “ingrate” and you will not be happy.

For me, I don’t associate being “grateful” with being happy. I associate happiness with the opposite of gratitude—with taking for granted. I am happiest in those moments, or during those periods of life, when the things I love and want and need seem so abundant and secure that I do not have to be actively grateful for them. You know what I’m referring to—the times when you choose not to spend time with a loved one, because you know your loved one will be with you forever. The times when you don’t watch the sunset on the lake, because you know you can watch it any day. The times you don’t eat until you’re stuffed, because you know there will still be enough to eat the next day. Gratitude forces you to think about all the bad things that can happen, but happiness is about forgetting about the bad possibilities—or perhaps happiness is a world where bad things don’t happen as much.

In other words, there is something better than gratitude. There is the feeling of being so secure in what you have that you do not need to be “grateful” for it. There is the feeling that what you want or need is so abundant, or so accessible, or so equitably distributed, that you can afford to take it for granted. There is the feeling of giving to others for its own sake, and not expecting any prescribed attitude in return. There is the possibility of a world where compassion and generosity are so commonplace, mutual, and so freely given, that they would not have to be met with gratitude.

Gratitude, in short, is not a virtue. Gratitude is an adaption to a world of scarcity.

I’m not absolutely against gratitude as a mindset. There are realities that we cannot change—tragedy, death—and gratitude is a tool to inoculate ourselves against those “whips and scorns of time.” It is also an appropriate response to the real charity, generosity, and love that does happen in our world as it currently exists. But why do we valorize and celebrate gratitude so much? Isn’t gratitude just a reflection of the default state of the world and life—unjust and cruel? Wouldn’t it be a better world if it were one where none of us had to be grateful for having our reasonable needs and wants met?

I, for one, live for those moments when I don’t have to be explicitly grateful—and I strive for a world where no one has to be grateful.

Image: Mauerpark, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, 1996, Deutschland

This place could be beautiful

Shanghai Falling (Fuxing Lu Demolition) 2002, Greg Girard

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

— “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith in Waxwing via Hannah Rosefield

Photo: Shanghai Falling (Fuxing Lu Demolition) 2002, Greg Girard

Routine Life as Adventure

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There are always flowers for those who want to see them.

–Henri Matisse

On a recent weekday, I was feeling too anxious and antsy to work, so I got up from my desk to take a cathartic walk. My walking led me into a secluded, wooded city park. I thought I was alone, but sensed movement. I look backward and spot a small, petite, furry brown creature transversing the trail. Then, another one emerges. The little mammals seem unaware or unperturbed by my presence. They waddle across the path, sniff the air non-committally, and then amble, disappearing, into the brush. Were they groundhogs? Beavers heading to the East River? Wombats escaped from the Bronx Zoo? Were they half-baked Pikachus that got loose while Nintendo was still working out the kinks on PókemonGO? The true identity of the small brown creatures is yet to be conclusively determined.

On a Friday night, I rolled into a party 2 hours late and breathlessly spilled to my date, “I spent all evening following the news of the coup in Turkey and making sure my friends were all alive. When I had had enough of that, I headed to Brooklyn. But when I got to Brooklyn I put the wrong address into Google Maps, so I ended up at a construction site. I wandered around the construction site for 15 minutes until I realized my mistake. Then I made it here.” The party host then handed me a mug with a hot liquid, which was either a revolting drink or a flavorful soup, and it occurred to me that priming and perception have a lot to do with taste.

The Saturday after that, at a beach in South Jersey, I collapsed, again breathless, onto my towel. Where were you? my friends asked. “I was on an adventure,” I announced. I explained that I had swum far away from the shore, away from most of the other swimmers on the clothing-optional beach. Then I floated onto my back and closed my eyes. When I opened them, I didn’t know where I was and didn’t see anyone around–the shore nearest to me was an empty strand. I put it together that I had floated out of the clothing-optional area, into and then past the clothed beach, and into some closed-off section of the beach. In order not to get in trouble–possibly excommunicated?–from the beach, I needed to swim against the current, back into the clothing-optional section, without landing on the clothed beach or being sighted by clothed swimmers. Thus ensued a desperate, existential swim against the inexorable Atlantic tide, with each stroke seeming to send me reeling further away from my destination–my destination being the bright white sign announcing “Beyond This Point You May Encounter Nude Bathers.” But I reached this sign made it back to tell the tale.

For most of my 20s, I have moved to a different city every year, traveling extensively and having the typically adventurous adventures that I have been writing about over the past 6 years: being tear-gassed, fleeing police, sneaking into castles and abandoned hotels, climbing a mountain on the border of Russia and seeing the moon closer and brighter than you’ve ever seen it. Now that I have been living in the same city for almost two years, and I don’t have immediate plans to move abroad, I have begun to worry that my life is going to become routine, quotidian, banal–in short, I will stop having adventures.

Looking back on my past 2 weeks, though, it occurs that adventure might be more of an attitude, or choice, or state of mind, than an external reality.

Age is Not a Number

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“The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.”

— Sheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things

I’ve always suspected that age is a flexible construct.

When I was 12 years old, I knew with certainty I was not a teenager, and did not want to be a teen, yet. Therefore, on what would have been my 13th birthday, I resolved that I was not turning 13. I announced that everyone around me continue to regard me as 12 years old. I didn’t have many friends my age, and the adults around me obliged. I still consider myself as never having been 13.

It’s not just me. Others have this intuition. When I later agreed to turn 14–as I did in the end–I was such a serious, stoical kid that people started saying of me, “She’s 14 going on 40.” There are other related formulations, including “I’m 54 years young,” or “I’m a grandma on the inside.” You can see it in this interview with Maurice Sendak (“I’ll never turn 10”) or this interview with Kanye West (“forever the 5-year-old of something”). We all are in our own ways trying to manipulate, subvert the rules of numerical age, to escape stereotypes of our empirical age group, our generation, or to try to represent some deeper truth of our selves and our personal identities.

But the rule-bending, I suspect, is indicative of a deeper problem: age is not a number. Of course, there are exceptions if, let’s say, you are a medical doctor examining a person’s physiology. But the truths that most of us seek when we ask someone their age, or that we communicate through the construct of our age, cannot be encapsulated in a digit.

Therefore, I believe the whole idea and practice of communicating age has to be deconstructed and redesigned.

What if instead of “I’m 26 years old,” I could say, “I am 23 countries, 3 major heartbreaks, 2 higher educational degrees, 3 emergency room visits, 5 tear-gassings, 1 house explosion, 5 internships, 1 near-death experience, 10 jobs, 3 divorces and 3 step-parents, 20 house moves, 60 students, 3 languages, 9 memorized poems” old? What if our age wasn’t a single, dry number? What if our age were the essence of our experiences and worldview? What if ever time we said our age, it was a story, an oral history, an epic poem, a song, a dance, a word?  What if our age were tied to something else, anything else more idiosyncratic or meaningful than a 1 – 3 digit number that represents a psychologically arbitrary number of planetary orbits around the sun?

If age were not a number–how old would you be?

Top image source here. Bottom image mine, taken in Jodhpur.