Swimming with Sharks

My first shark dive, over a decade ago, our group encountered half a dozen reef sharks in the Red Sea. The big monsters circled the coral an hour offshore. The sight stole my breath, my aqualung pumping furiously—not the best reaction at minus 30 ft.

The white tip is a predator, though not likely to charge across open water for a taste of human. Still, they were massive. We sent bubbles to the surface in thick veils. We watched and photographed for long minutes.

This was a side adventure during a dangerous time in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. We’d escaped the very real threat of terrorism on shore in pursuit of terrifying thrills at sea. There was purity in the experience. The vast blue surrounded us. Our dive team numbered the same as the sharks. We had the cameras; they had the advantage.

Months later, we would be hit hard by the terrorists (more). The sharks never bothered.

This comes to mind all these years later after taking up the snorkel once again, this time with my youngest son. Our charter from Big Pine Key brought us 30 minutes out, to Looe Key reef. The wind was big and the waves bigger. They rocked the boat as we climbed down the ladder and pushed away, the six-year-old in my lap. Continue reading Swimming with Sharks

Poisonwood

A nightmare tree grows in the hammock jungle along Route One of Fat Deer Key. Poisonwood. Its touch will boil the skin; its toxin, when burned, will sear the lungs; its berries, if ingested, will sour the gut.

At mile 56 the Poisonwood grows alongside its antidote, the Gumbo Limbo. Folk medicine has it the remedy should be sipped as tea. Gumbo Limbo’s nicknamed here tourist tree: its peeling red bark reminds locals of sunburned visitors.

For a time today we hiked among these opposing forces. I had the Gumbo Limbo for the Poisonwood. Gumbo’s monstrous appearance—deep, iridescent red amid the gentle green of the trail’s dominant thatch palm—seemed the very incarnation of evil. The Gumbo Limbo grew in clusters, trunks twisting and sinister as they climbed among the subtle, grey Poisonwood. Who wouldn’t think the former evil?

Stranger still along the coral-lined trail: tokens and small treasures lay about at odd intervals. Silver tokens here, blue-and-white marbles there, a tin marked ‘Fun Fun Fun’ in the crook of one tree, a twenty and some baubles in the opening of another. At one point we found an Easter egg, this Monday before Good Friday. Continue reading Poisonwood

33 Inches for Kerouac

At CVS today I bought one item. One. Doesn’t matter what. When the purchase was finalized, the cashier handed me the receipt.

Guess how long that sucker was.

Some of this is necessary, perhaps. Now I know I was served by a person named Reina. Hi Reina. Phone number, store address, price paid plus taxes (the total came to $9.32).

If I were a modern day Jack Kerouac I suppose I’d cook my Sudaphedrine into something more exciting, wind the fresh 33 inches of scroll into my portable Underwood Royal Standard and bang out the next great road-novel-as-jazz-symphony, then die an early death wrinkled, fat, and forgotten ’til years hence.

I’m not Jack. Instead I scrutinized this fascinating 3-foot evidence of my purchase. Turns out its a list of admonitions and rules:

Pick up your Easter Essentials!
Returns with receipt before 6/5/17.
Try this gentle mist for powerful allergy relief today.
$12 off your next $60 purchase (pseudo ephedrine and milk excluded).
$1 of $7 coffee & tea (excludes beverages)????!
Extra Care card required.
$1.50 off Greeting Cards—make someone’s day!

Holy shit.

At Giant next door I bought 3 items and the receipt was only 22 inches long.

Pass the typewriter. I’ve got work to do. The world’s gone mad and there’s only one way to escape.

House of Cards, Sleight of Hand

Think the opening credits for House of Cards is just some anodyne tour around the nation’s capital? Not so.

One minute into the 90 second clip the camera pans desolate tracks. It’s night. All is still, the music foreboding. A locomotive blows through timed to a sudden guitar chord—sound and vision merged for a dramatic second before the tracks go empty again. The music pulses low and ominous.

Soon after a horn peels in martial tone, saluting the statue of General Grant high up on his horse. The horn and military man work in concert unifying sound and image.

The audio buzzes in hellish frenzy. The screen zeroes on a shadowy demon (the statue is Thales, a philosopher-electrician, not the devil but demonic nonetheless). Sound and vision subtly collude in these final seconds, producing certainty that what follows will be the cold calculations of evil minds, deceptions making an inhuman city a place of dread. Continue reading House of Cards, Sleight of Hand

Between No Ferns

The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) included this discussion of  Two Pumps for the Body Man in their new Digital Exclusives series. Unlike the great programming by Zach Galifianakis, the AFSA studio had no ferns and only one bamboo.

AFSA writes:

Foreign Service Officer Ben East brings to the table a satirical look at diplomatic service in the Middle East in his neo-noir, Two Pumps for the Body Man. The novel follows Jeff Mutton, a diplomatic security agent who must deal with an outlandish boss, hidden government agendas, deadly threats, and a unique personal affliction. East also takes time to explain how parts of the book were heavily informed by his own harrowing experience in Saudi Arabia as his consulate was attacked.

Transition Brief

With another POTUS valedictory in the books & just a week to inauguration, it’s a good time to dust off The Transition Brief: a look at how an outgoing Administration briefs an incoming Administration how the outgoing administration was briefed by the outgoing administration before that…

President-elect Barack Obama is welcomed by President George W. Bush for a meeting at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2009, with former presidents, from left, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) 04032013xMETRO
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

“Good morning and thank you for coming. Let me begin with a clear statement of what we do and why we do it. Our objectives are clear because they have to be, and to achieve this clarity we did many things. We went around in circles looking at our objectives and we came to one conclusion: someone had to do something.

Read the full brief