Morocco

I landed in Marrakesh on Thursday.

The customs line is long and chaotic. Some passengers are waved through. Others wait for security officials to check papers and ask questions. The tourists’ movements are calibrated, lips tight. 

My turn. I walk to the customs desk. The official is in a passionate argument with two fellow officers. I wait.

Finally he faces me and takes my landing card. He scans the information and stops at the field marked occupation. I’ve written writer.

“What kind of writer,” he says, speaking to me for the first time. “Journalist?”

My throat tightens. I should have anticipated this. I search for the least threatening thing.

“Fantasy novelist,” I say.

“Fantasy novelist,” he says with a smile. “Welcome!”

He stamps my card and I’m through.

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On the other side of customs is my friend Ian

We’ve both recently had big life changes and haven’t had legit time together since. I proposed a trip to somewhere neither of us have been. So here we are in Morocco.

From the minute we walk out of the airport it’s clear we’re in a different place. A mix of chaos and ease. Your pick which energy to follow.

We spend a day in Marrakesh. The otherworldliness is welcome and our guide is kind and knowledgable, but the mood is not our speed. Every interaction is a hustle. Kindness followed by an ask. Comfort is hard to find. 

Wanting quiet we walk the half hour from our hotel into the Medina. A man stops us. “You know me,” he says. He works at the hotel. He wants to show us something. He is insistent.

We follow him down many streets and alleys until we arrive in a small stone room. We’re met by a woman wearing a white lab coat. She smears oil on our arms. “Argon oil,” she says. “No smell.” We look for the man who brought us. He’s already gone.

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The next day we rent a car and drive to the ocean. 

Before the trip Ian suggested we each make a 60 minute playlist and the whole trip we listen to our mixes and nothing else. We’re lifelong music-heads, between us an incredible passion and knowledge. Time with either risks a potential seminar in deeper and deeper cuts. This constraint was a perfect proposal.

We listen to each mix on its own, then switch to a shuffle of both mixes together. Wires cross and join, new ideas form, the transitions between songs moments of anticipation. The thirty songs create an omnipresent texture. 

After two hours we’re flagged down at a police roadblock. I stand next to the road before a police officer. He sits on a dining chair underneath the shade of a tree. A holstered gun is on his hip. We're in the middle of the desert. There’s nothing else around.

He tells me I was speeding. I owe $150 Moroccan ($15 USD). He fills out a form. I sign and pay cash on the spot. We keep going.
 

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In Essaouira we find our speed. It’s a surf town. We rent an absurdly large villa for the two of us. We fill its rooms with stories, memories, theories of the world. In the end it might be too small.

We’ve both come with the task of writing and remembering. I propose a version of the Henry Rollins workout from The Creative Independent: write for 30 minutes then do 30 push-ups. Repeat.

We spend the day writing, exercising, swimming, and laughing at our good fortune. Two small-town boys from rural America carving an adventure on a new continent. 

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On our last day we head towards Marrakech to the Atlas Mountains.

The area is unlike anything we’ve seen. We climb single-lane roads through tiny villages. We crawl behind mules and bicycles. The land is surprisingly lush.

The road ends. We get out and hike another kilometer up the mountain. We make way for loaded pack mules coming down the trail.

At the top we see stone villages cut into mountain walls. We hear the rush of a waterfall in the distance. We're surrounded by the majesty of the mountains. We breathe and stand in silence.

Maybe fantasy novelist was right after all.

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Time is a flat circle

Today time moved unexpectedly.

It begins with a redeye from NYC to London arriving at 7am at Heathrow. I take the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station, then switch to the Circle line to Liverpool Street. It’s a trip I know well from having made it several dozen times over the years.

The tube is moving slowly. It crawls forward one stop, stays there, then crawls forward again. I am fading in and out of sleep. My eyes open at each stop — oh we’re only at Baker Street — and then close again.

I open my eyes with a start. Something feels wrong. I look. We’re at Baker Street — again. What happened? Did I sleep through the whole train line and it’s now coming back the other way? I look at the train around me. I don’t recognize the passengers. I look at the time: still not yet 9am. What’s happening here?

Something has gone wrong. Before the doors close I get out. The train had been Eastbound and now it’s Westbound. As I leave the station to find a cab I see signs — service is stopping at Kings Cross and going back the other way. So I did sleep through something.

On the street I hail a black cab. The driver and I immediately engage in conversation, talking about New York, London, and how to find the single-block street in Hackney that I’m heading to. 

He brings up Harvey Weinstein — what do I think? I say even though I’m on the periphery of the movie industry, I’ve heard many stories about him over the years. Everyone has. This was not a secret, but the risk any individual faced in going public was high. It was only now that everyone was speaking out was it possible for anyone to speak out.

“Do you think he’ll go to jail?” the cabbie asks.

“I think he should kill himself,” I say.

The cabbie slows down the car and turns around and looks at me. 

“If he had any guts he would,” he says. “You know, that’s the third time you and I have had the same thought this morning.”

“We’re meant to be,” I respond.

I spend the morning and early afternoon in London. I walk down Brick Lane, visit the Whitechapel Gallery, and go to an art book store in Shoreditch. But time is short. I’m stopping in London very briefly. In a few hours I’m flying to Norway. 

The trip to Gatwick Airport is white-knuckled. The Gatwick Express is down. Then the train to Blackfriars where there’s another Gatwick train is also down. I finally get to the station but a long line for the ticket machines snakes through the terminal. I make my flight by a hair.

The flight to Norway, while only two hours, feels like the longest flight I’ve ever taken. I fade in and out of sleep, trying to will time forward so my long day and a half of travel can peacefully end.

My eyes open to look out the window. Outside I see only blackness and the silhouette of rain illuminated by the interior lights. And then, somehow, out of nowhere, I feel the plane wheels touch down. We’ve gone from the blackness of the night sky to ground what seems instantaneously.

The plane briefly taxis and stops. We’re sitting in the middle of the tarmac. Outside it is raining. A bell rings to announce we can now disembark.

I’m one of the last to leave. As I step out I see a long line of people walking a couple hundred meters to the terminal. A long customs line is forming in the rain. 

I take my place, a cold rain coming down over me. I look around. No one seems bothered by it so I decide not to be bothered either. Hello Norway.

Chinatown

A fire truck makes a left onto Broome into three lanes of oncoming traffic, lights flashing. Sirens light up from every direction.

On Grand I feel a shift in the air like it's about to rain. I see a woman half-keeled over a fruit stand. Another woman, a stranger, touches her and looks concerned. On the ground by her feet is what looks like a busted tomato. The woman holds her nose. She pulls her hand away. Nosebleed. 

On Franklin three men shove the sideview mirrors of a Time Warner Cable truck, yelling “scab.” The man inside writes on a clipboard pretending not to hear.

On Crosby a cop car sits behind a pulled over Uber. The bald white cop stands half out of his door arguing with a bystander. The guy thinks the cops harassed the Uber driver. The cop has his phone out, filming. “This man is harassing me,” the cop says for the camera.

On Walker it’s late and I’m walking the dog. Nearby a black man rolls a joint. Peeking out from around the corner is an unmarked car with two cops watching. My dog and I stand between them. 

Does the man see? How do I warn him? I kick a can. No reaction. 

I walk in front of the cop car to go. They don't take their eyes off him. Just then he gets up and follows me. The cops don’t move. 

The man walks next to me on the sidewalk. I tell him: “Those cops were watching you. Keep moving.” He slows down and looks at me: “Shit man, I know.”

Kamakura

Late morning we take a train from Tokyo to Kamakura an hour away on the coast.

J’s aunt meets us at the station. We go for a traditional lunch. The restaurant is a clean and blinding white. The patrons are at least 70 years old. We’re in Boca Raton, Japan.

After lunch she takes us around Kamakura. We visit the small farmer’s market. She tells the vendors we are from New York. They like this.

We stop at a small bread shop. It’s the place of an artist. We order coffee. Behind the counter the man makes stovetop espresso, filling up the metal coffeemaker from an aging water cooler. Around us is thick and fluffy Japanese white bread, loaves of focaccia. Bread sketched with seascapes of white flour hang on the walls.

We walk 15 minutes to the coast. Japanese men and women in wetsuits ride their bikes holding surfboards. Small shops sell flip-flops and bathing suits.

The oceanfront is far from beautiful. There’s not much development, but what there is feels haphazard. In the water dozens of surfers await the waves. Above us giant birds coast and soar. Aunt warns they will dive down and take a sandwich out of your hand. I track their prehistoric outlines from the corner of my eye.


It’s mid-afternoon. We meet our friend C. He’s a writer and photographer who recently moved to Kamakura. We made plans to hike together.

We start on the backstreets, peaceful and cozy. Children head home from school. A caterpillar crawls across the road and creates a traffic jam. We’re wrapped in conversation and just miss stepping on it.

We walk up a steep road and through a tunnel into the mountain. On the other side is a little square with a money washing shrine. We bend into the shallow cavern, put 1000 yen into a woven basket, and pour a metal spoonful of water over it. The water helps the money multiply. Others wait their turn.

Outside we walk up three stairs to give a prayer at a shrine. C teaches us. Pull the rope twice. Ring the bell twice. Bow twice. Clap twice. Say your prayer. Bow again and walk away. 

I pray for good health and a good walk.

We’re climbing a mountain trail. We are alone. 

The path is beautiful. The woods are thick. My whole life dreaming of walking through Asian jungles. This is a jungle, I think. My first. I soak it in.

In a womb-like canopy a moth flies around me. I stop and bow to it. It lands eye level on a leaf a few meters away. I bow again. It continues to sit. I bow once more and move on. I turn back. It’s still there.

There are spiders everywhere. The biggest, legs included, are the size of the palm of my hand.  Above the path is a massive, intricate web with several large spiders. I am moved by the size and coordination of the construction.

I bow twice to the spiders and do a soft clap. “Thank you for allowing me to pass through your forest,” I say. “I pay respects to your strength.” As I keep walking I stop at each web and make this prayer. I do this three or four times.

I’ve spent so much time honoring the forest that I can no longer hear C and J’s voices. Have they disappeared into the forest? I will follow them and disappear too.

I hear my wife’s voice.

“Hai!” I call back.


We are in a small clearing. The left goes back into town. The right goes up some steep steps to another village and, eventually, an onsen — hot and cold baths. We go right. 

At the top is another small clearing with a better view. There are two tables. We stop to catch our breath. We drink water and eat almonds. 

J suddenly exclaims and points up.

We look up to see a rocket — yes a rocket, it is unmistakeable — streaking across the sky. Just that morning North Korea launched a missile over northern Japan. Is this another one?

The rocket and its smoke trail burn above us. It is terrifying. A summer disaster movie come to life. We watch it disappear over the horizon. No mushroom cloud. All is quiet. Phew?

Five minutes later two US military helicopters fly very low from that direction. They go directly over us. I can feel deep thumping pockets of air. Looking up the rotors move at slightly different speeds. It’s hypnotic.

“This is what happens when you lose a war,” C says. 


After a long time walking we are standing on the beach. The sand is black and cool. A father and son are coming back in from surfing. The last to leave. It’s dark. 

I sit in the sand. I listen to the waves and watch them burst into static. Down the coast there’s an island with a tall lighthouse turning around and around. 

Facing the ocean is the onsen. We buy tickets and towels from a vending machine. We separate into the men’s and women’s baths. We undress and sit on small plastic stools and use a hand shower to wash and rinse. A dozen men are here. 

The onsen has just opened after a renovation. In the sauna C discusses it in Japanese with two older men. Everyone agrees the old version was much better.

“We’ll just have to forget our feelings for the old one,” C says.

We finish with a dip in the cold tub. Sounds come out of my mouth that start in parts of my chest that haven’t felt air in a long time. I feel myself beaming.

What a day. Let’s eat. C suggests a place and calls ahead, dropping the name of the owner. A cab is on its way.

We eat a big meal. Fried potatoes, a celery dish, a beet salad, and three pizzas — tuna, margarita, and marinara. J and I have wine, C has non-alcoholic beer.

Outside the air has chilled. A harvest festival parade of lanterns, traditional garments, and a giant idol dance down the street. Fifty people jostling together. Many smiles.

C takes us to the station. Two bows, two claps, and a prayer. It’s time to return to Tokyo.

Izakaya

I’m sitting in southern Japan in an izakaya restaurant run by my wife's aunt. The village is called Aso. We are surrounded by mountains. Sixteen months ago there was an earthquake and still the devastation remains. Open scabs of earth streak the mountain sides. A waterfall pours from what had been a highway. The campus of an agricultural university sits abandoned, half its buildings erased.

It's raining outside. A hard drizzle. The greenery is rich and deep. Rice fields are across the road. A Japanese woman in a white hat dips beneath the rice’s yellow tops.

The izakaya was built by my wife's aunt and her husband three years ago. The construction is basic but the finishings shabby-funky-artisanal. Metal spirals made by the husband are affixed to every surface. In the corner is a display of Japanese antiques — a calculator that looks like a miniature cash register. 

Time moves slowly. The women sit and speak in Japanese while the husband holds the five week old baby, silently staring at it for over an hour. I imagine a movie where the world is ending, disaster everywhere, and this content Japanese man walks through it all, immune, staring pridefully at his young granddaughter. 

I sit quietly in the corner watching the rain. Watching the giant spider in the window. Imagining if this were my life. 

Would I be the same man if I lived here? Better? Worse? What would my worries be? Is there such thing as loneliness in a place this quiet and determined to be itself?

This morning my wife and I were in Tokyo. It already feels a continent away. Yesterday we were shopping in Shibuya debating which Comme de Garcon piece my wife should get. Sitting here now, knowing tonight we go back and tomorrow I begin a three day sprint of media and pr, I can only ask why?

That life is so far from this one and I can feel as I sit here that this is actual life. This is the truth of each breath we inhale and exhale. The families that connect us. The natural world of which we are but one small part. 

What does it mean to live the life of distraction so far from this? Is it taking advantage of mankind's incredible creativity or is it taking us away from nature's?

It’s time to stop thinking. And so I put down this notepad and sit. Ahhh…

Lower East Side

In the Lower East Side there’s a pothole so big it’s become a tourist attraction. It’s a black, bare-gummed chasm that gapes from the asphalt. It appeared this week after the street began melting from six straight days of temperatures above 100 degrees.

From my apartment I’ve tracked the pothole’s growth by the sounds of cars scraping over it. The first couple of days it was a rough *scrape*, bumpers dipping into the hole and dragging their nails as they pulled out. As the hole has gotten deeper the scrape has become a more alarming *thunk*, and then the pull of the accelerator as the driver escapes.

When the hole first appeared someone put an orange traffic cone on top of it, and drivers inched their way around. This wasn’t always easy, as it’s a small street with parking on either side. As the pothole has gotten bigger the cone has gotten smaller, sinking further. Now only the top two inches of the cone stick out like a shark’s fin warning the most diligent of the danger below.

The pothole’s growth has accelerated. At first it sat astride the “O” in “STOP” that’s painted in white letters on the street. As the hole has stretched it’s overtaken and finally anthropomorphized the “O.” It’s a clever camouflage.

With the orange cone’s usefulness fading, two men today decided to protect traffic from the pothole on their own. One man was in his 50s, Latino, and wearing a visor and a white golf shirt. The other was about the same age, Asian, and wearing khakis and a striped golf shirt. The men tried to ward off traffic with the cone from inside the hole and a second one that had appeared.

The men mostly made things worse. Soon a block of cars stretched toward Grand Street while the Latino man barked  (“WAIT! STOP! WAIT!”) and the Asian man shuffled the cones in various unhelpful configurations to guide the cars. With each car the dance repeated itself. Finally the cars gave up on the whole situation and the line began to slowly reverse. Eventually the men gave up too.

Right now traffic outside is light and the two men and one of the cones are gone. The original cone has returned to its watch in the street, and nearby a pair of tourists take a picture. Just wait until everyone back home hears about the potholes in New York City.

Portland

Several coworkers and I were in Portland for an event this weekend, and late on Saturday night the day was winding down. I had rented a car, and I offered to drive people home. Hayley, Liz, and Luke raised their hands, and off we went.

As we got into the car I warned everyone that I was going to make them ride around and listen to Kanye with me (more accurately, they would listen to me enthusiastically rap along to Kanye) before taking them home. “We’re going to drive across every bridge in Portland,” I said. There are a lot of bridges in Portland. Everyone liked this idea.

Liz piped up from the backseat: “You know, the ocean is about two hours away…”

I slowed the car. It was 2am. It was rainy. It was cold. It had been a very long day. I was wearing a suit.

“Let’s do it,” I said.

“I’m in,” Liz said.

“I’m in,” Luke said.

“I’m in,” Hayley said.

“So how do we get there?”

We turned left and headed West — music blasting and windows down, rain be damned. I drove, Hayley navigated, and Liz and Luke invented dance moves in the backseat. We marveled at the austerity of Oregon’s road signs: “Trucks,” “Rocks,” “Fresh water,” “Speed 50.” Cannon Beach was 80 miles away.

We climbed mountains in the darkness. We could just make out the silhouettes of the giant pines surrounding us. As we climbed higher we were doused in fog, and it became almost impossible to see. Very few cars were on the road.

Finally we arrived at Cannon Beach. It was very late — 3:30am — and the town was silent. We took a left, drove two blocks to the road’s end, and bounded out of the car. There it was: the Pacific.

The beach was long and wide. It was low tide, and the waves were breaking 100 yards from the water’s edge. From the waves to us was a shallow skim of water many yards long and many miles wide. We danced along it. Hayley shot a video of her hand touching the Pacific Ocean for the first time.

The moon was full and the sky was overcast. The world was a muffled shade of grey. To our left in the distance we could make out the beach’s giant iconic rocks jutting from the ocean. They looked like sleeping monsters. We laughed and shivered and walked in their direction.

We passed two small bonfires with a few people huddled around. We kept moving and eventually came across an unattended fire. We stopped. The fire was bright with blue and green flames. We warmed our hands and I warmed my bare feet.

Giant black birds stood in the waves nearby, and Liz and I walked into the water towards them. The shallow surf stretched from our feet to the big rocks hunched in the haze ahead. Moonlight glimmered on the wet sand. Everything was moving and perfectly still. It was a desert of grey. The world was infinite.

“This feels like death,” I said. I meant it in the best possible way.

My eyes were locked on the big rocks, and they drew me ahead of the group. Even though I was freezing I walked with my feet in the water. I had to be immersed. Even the suit I was wearing was grey.

I reached the rocks and stood before them. Minutes later the others joined me, and the four of us stood and stared. They were beautiful, staccato silhouettes. Luke offered words of thanks to Poseidon. Immediately a wave burst from the ocean and rushed at our feet. We backpedaled with gratitude and laughter.

It was time to head back. The night hadn’t gotten any warmer, and we stopped again at our fire. We warmed ourselves before starting the walk back. I walked most of it with my eyes shut. The drive home would be a long one.

We piled back into the car and I took the wheel. It was almost 5am. Hayley and Liz dropped off into sleep, and soon it was just Luke and I talking. After a half-hour I pulled over and asked Luke to drive. The others woke to keep Luke company, and I dozed off in the backseat.

An hour later I opened my eyes to see the outskirts of Portland. It was after 6am and the Eastern sky ahead was beginning to fill with light. It was morning, and we were home.

Japan

We are in the mountains south of Tokyo in a place called Yudanaka. It’s all nature, climbing mountains thick with trees. A big stream runs through a small valley where about four old structures sit. One of them is where we’re staying.

To get here we took a train for an hour, then another train for an hour, then a 20 minute car ride up into the mountains, then a 20 minute hike to where we are now.

There are snow monkeys here. The first two things the owner said were “monkeys everywhere” and “don’t look monkey in the eye.”

We went out to the spring, a small rock pool above the stream. There were two old naked Japanese men but no monkeys. Then suddenly a monkey walked right by me from behind, startling me. And then we saw them everywhere. Most languidly walk but others gallop. There were babies. None paid us any attention. Most were about 100 yards away.

Dinner was a small burner in the middle of our table and a huge spread of dishes. A fried trout from the stream. Catfish sashimi. Duck to boil on the burner. Leaves from the forest in tempura. Grasshoppers sweet like syrup.

The two older Japanese men from earlier shared their sake with us. We toasted. Through the man who runs the inn they ask the same two questions everyone asks us: Have you been to Japan before? Do you like it? First time and yes, very much.

The inn is a maze of halls and doors. It’s not a large building by any means but it hooks and nestles in infinite ways. A cardboard sign sitting on the floor says “TV Room.” Another says “Ping Pong Room 3rd floor.”

There are snow monkey photos and paintings everywhere. It’s as if this is their home and we are their guests. I guess that’s right.

My room is very traditional. A small table and bed roll on a straw mat floor. In a glass case there is an enormous old hornet’s nest still attached to a tree branch. All rooms have a bucket with a long yellow rope for climbing out the window. We wonder why.

It’s the middle of the night, and the rain is tapping on the roof. There’s a warbling bird call that fills the air.

In the morning we’ll walk through the woods and sit in the springs once more. After, we’ll hike down the trail once again and begin winding our way back to Tokyo, gleaming in the light.