Walid's Wanderings

Reflections on life, good-and-evil, family, humanity, and anything else that occurs to me, usually when I travel. Right now I am on a 6-year trip through Lebanon, the homeland I had never really lived in before.

Friday, May 09, 2003

28-Dec-1997 - 9:30 pm
Dear Diary-

It's the end of my first day in Lebanon. Amber street lights dominate the constellation on the mountain slope across from the valley outside the balcony. In fact, I can probably see electric lights form at least three mountain ranges, one behind the other, Twinkling traces of finally electrified civilization. Pinpoints of light on a mountain slope always remind me of home, and here I am at home.

We had had a nice cozy family lunch for 22 and I ate so

[So I start a diary ...]

I imagine the mind as an imperial court in ancient Rome, with a palace full of potential intriguers, some of whom have the emperor's ear, and some of whom are in the dungeons. Each person in that court has an ambition. Each tries to elicit any actions by the emperor which bring them closer to achieving that ambition. Sometimes, this is done by convincing the emperor. Sometimes, it is done by waiting for chance actions that unbeknownst to the emperor do advance that aim of the court denizen. But very often, it is done by presenting a new aim from the mouth of someone in favor, which has the effect of inducing imperial action that clandestinely furthers the aim of the imprisoned ex-wife or detained general or out-of-favor courtesan who encouraged that putative aim. The goal of any sufficiently aware human being should be to inform the emperor of their conscious thought about all the aims of all the court, visible and invisible, so as to see which actions will lead to furthering the goals of the undesirables, and which will not; which desirable companions turn out to be no more that mouthpieces for the out-of-favor and which have their own legitimate and worthwhile aims.

FLASHBACK: 25 December 1997; Christmas Day

I'm taking my first snow-boarding lesson at Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe

I put my legs through the drills of controlling the snowboard: first in slip-sliding
with the edge of the board like a butter knife, both facing up and facing down. Then swaying the butter-knife board by weigh-shifting, up through complete surfboard-style turns. Throughout, a weird discipline is involved in keeping the board balanced: only the uphill edge is allowed to bite the snow. With that edge firmly weighed down, the board slows down. Lifting some weight off that edge makes you go faster. Tricky enough already: if you are facing downhill, then the uphill edge is where your heels are, whereas if you are sliding backwards with your face uphill, then the toes are what control that all-important uphill edge. But the exciting and frustrating thing is this: if you lean away from that ambidextrous edge, your board becomes more level with the slope, friction goes down, and you slide more quickly and stop spreading butter. But right when that happens, you feel most free but you are really most constrained because now, novelty, forgetfulness or muscle fatigue may shift a tiny bit more of your weight away from the uphill edge. When that happens, the same action that was propelling you faster for the past few seconds will cause the DOWNHILL edge to bite the snow. That edge is at the opposite angle from the uphill edge, and all it does when it bites is make motion completely impossible. The board stops and you fall over, luckily before you have gathered enough momentum to make the inevitable spill a painful one.

I must have fallen over two dozen times in that exact same way, but only two left bruises. Those were both after partial competence had made me faster and fatigue had partially dissociated my leg muscles from my more confident brain.

29 December 1997 - 9:00 am

This morning, I woke up hungry and had my fill of the myriad treats lying around the house. Turkey sandwich in the oven, chocolate cake in the dining room, tangerines on the kitchen console, dried peaches on the counter and pies on the kitchen table. A piece of Godiva chocolate from the bookshelf in the library. I need energy for the skiing trip later today, but it is looking as if the trip will be sacrificed to premature forecasts of the day's weather based on the heavy pre-dawn rain we got. Walking around the sleepy house munching, I remembered the scene half a day ago in the entrance hallway. A light bulb had burned out and the sun was going down. The fold-out ladder we had was only 8 feet high and the bulb was suspended from the two-storey ceiling.

FLASHBACK to the 28th: My brother teeters on the top of a concrete cinderblock places over the top rung of the ladder. Adel is on the third step from the top, his shoulders providing a platform for Samer's hands. I'm three steps down from him, supporting Adel's back with my hand. Two or three teenage cousins hold the ladder from various angles. My sister May flashes away with her camera, and we all manage to keep our balance despite fits of laughter that the tension spontaneously keeps generating. Mom scurries around trying to convince someone older to talk some sense into us. "Give it up before someone gets hurt; we can always pay someone to do this!" A constant voice from my childhood which I resist, but whose influence sometimes sets me apart from the average American. In any case, the 40-minute project does eventually culminate in a successful light bulb change, and we can see again. I hope May's photos turn out well.


29 December, 12 noon:

We went up to the slopes and found that the rain down here was drizzle up there. Only the "baby" ski lift was operating, so we turned back, making do for the day with a nice drive and a "man'ouchee" (thyme & sesame thingy) baked on a "saj" (a dome-shaped hot plate) by a woman who according to my sister always wears a short-sleeved shirt even in the bitterest snowstorm. Winding narrow roads with half-assed new asphalt jobs offer views of miraculous limestone formations too often encroached upon by some ugly cinderblock building. Less often, it is a rather eye-catching stone and red terracotta cottage or chalet or a modern-day 5-storey equivalent thereof. Getting back down to the 700 meter altitude of home brought us in to a dense rainy fog bank which still shows from the window as I write this. Had a little tiff with mom over my polypropylene underwear: I wanted to wash it in cold water and mild detergent to avoid losing it to the customary boiling-water laundry practices of our live-in maid, but mom insisted that washing anything in her house was none of my business. I moped around the kitchen until I saw the pants soaking in a tub of cold water, then came up here to finish the account of the day. The fog is so thick that the
balcony railing right behind my computer screen is the furthest I can see: it might as well be the balcony at the edge of the earth.


Finally got my email to work. Had to locate a CD-ROM drive on someone else's computer, read some new software, load it on the Pilot...- anyway it finally worked and that's what matters.

Also today was the first day of Ramadan, prompting last-minute cancellations from half the people who were supposed to come to the afternoon party May had organized at our house. The remaining 12 of us mingled and sampled mom's supposedly last-minute snacks until we could not hold any more.

After all that, it was 2am when the phone lines were finally clear enough for the email to be received. The things we do for love....

31 Dec 97

Snowboarding was the order of the day. It was finally clear after days of rain, and I spent the day on the "school" slope working on my left turns and right turns and accidental somersaults. The sun quickly burned through the early-morning fog and my sisters and their friend, all of whom had skis on, went all the way up to the top and could see Beirut 60 miles away. I stuck to the training slope and drilled myself in simple turns. Every other skier up there had a cellular phone in a pocket somewhere; even among the four of us there were two. Did I ever tell you how ostentatious the Lebanese can be? In this case, the total inadequacy of ground phone lines following 20 years of wartime neglect combined with the unusually low rates negotiated by the government with the providers to reinforce the natural Lebanese yen for the latest little gadget. In effect, the cell-phone is our new national symbol. "You'll never guess where I am" was probably the most frequently transmitted greeting over the cell phone lines from that ski slope that day!

I napped in the afternoon and had some interesting discussions around the New Year's Eve dining table. Among them, I got a good lecture on how to stop putting my foot in my mouth, and how to avoid picking the "wrong" woman...

1 Jan 98

Skiing today. I used my brother's skis, and got to go all the way up. The fog persisted this time, and skiing from the high slope was a wispy dreamy all-white experience which dizzies some and confuses others. It was only in the afternoon that we got some sun. The snow had the beauty of the desert (think "The English Patient") and the brilliance of the Alps. One of our companions that day was from Switzerland and she could not stop enthusing about the beauty of the gently rolling mounds and the wave-like ripples in it and the contrast of slope between the windward and leeward sides of the snow dunes. We surmised that the wind we get here must have the same speed and distribution as what blows over the Sahara - probably comes from the same place.

In the evening we eat out in honor of May's departure tomorrow.

2 Jan 98

A cool air mass dominates Lebanon's airspace today.

That's meteorologese for "I can see for miles and miles and miles!" I made the 20-mile drive down to Beirut three times, and every trip was a pleasant series of clear postcard-perfect landscape views. The sea was three or four darker shades of blue with green tinges, the sky was a uniform pastel, and the distant mountains were various shades of pearl-grey. Coming down to the coast, at one turn, one could see two or three coves much like Big Sur, only here every one was a major city. In Beirut, I'm taken by the novelty of the brand-new underground tunnels that get you into and out of the same areas that I had spent hundreds of hours trying to penetrate when I used to commute here in 95. Not too different from any tunnels you already know, they shine only be contrast to the dilapidated alleys that you need to take to get to the mouth of the tunnel.

Anyway, I get all my chores done, shop for presents on the way back from the third trip (when the traffic finally became heavy enough to remind me of where I was.) Exhausted by all the car-time I can hardly stay awake past 9 pm.

3 Jan 98

: having had my full 9 hours of sleep for the first time all week, I'm up at 6:30 watching the sun rise behind the mountain. The distant amber road lights on the opposite mountain are still going on strong on the right side of my windowpane, almost matching the shade of the first glimmers of daylight all the way to the left. The sky in between gently leaks mauve from the hidden sun into a background of baby blue. It's hard to tell if the blue is a cloud or clear sky. As I write these lines, everything shifts, first to a blush pink on the left and a more distinct pattern of blue-grey cirrus clouds separated by the palest of blues. As the still invisible sun gets higher behind our mountain, the pink first suffuses almost a quarter of the sky, then fades back to orange then mauve again, and I realize the skiing will be good today again.

Other pleasant thoughts go through my head too but I'll save them for later.

Enough light has now leaked into my scene to show that there really are white clouds behind the wispy grey ones but they're all too high and too bright to be rainy. As good a time as any to fill in the gaps in my accounts of the past few days.

4 Jan 98

The first thing that catches my eye today is the red splotch to the right of my right eye, a bruise from where the sunglasses made an impact on their way off my face as I was rolling down a hillside yesterday. Yes, we did go skiing again.

FLASHBACK to 3 Jan 98

Suddenly everything turns white and I don't know which way is up. "This must be death" I thought, "which means it can't be that scary." True, I am screaming like a kamikaze but it's more to attract attention in case no one can see beyond that hill with the icy leeward side which just seconds ago had seemed so inviting. But I guess it's not that easy - I start to slow down as the powder gets thicker beneath me, and I see that I'm still holding one ski pole and wearing one ski boot. And, miracle of miracle, not a finger was broken or dislocated. I stretch every limb to double-check, then I see my sister's friend sliding down behind me. He's much more scared that I was, having seen me fall, followed me with intent to rescue, and fallen himself, and also escaped being hurt. He whips out the cell-phone to tell my sister we are OK. As we go about retrieving the bits and pieces that flew off of us while falling: my other ski boot, our four skis, the three pieces of sunglasses, the two poles and my chapstick! All found. He continues to shake and quake with fear of what might have been, and I cannot stop laughing.


I visit the church and say hi to the whole village, and the day passes by with family visits and tidying up around this house which I still have not decided whether to call home.

5 Jan 98

We have fog and drizzle again this morning, so I stay home and read a book. "Betty Blue", ever heard of it or the movie they made out of it? On this first Monday I had resolved to get back to work on my research. I hope [Mora] sees more sunshine today in Santa Rosa that I do here: the dark really does flow into your blood and your soul. I got an email from a guy in the department at Stanford offering to fly anyone anywhere in his 4-seater plane for the price of gas. I guess that, besides being a nice fellow, he must need the flight hours. It crosses my mind that taking plane ride might be really neat....

6 Jan 98

My worries somehow manage to manifest themselves in a weird dream:

I imagine I am charged with drawing a perfect straight line in black ink over a billowing downy blanket. It's impossible. I wake up and make my first New Year's resolution. My general resolution from the 31st was to make myself biweekly goals and try and meet them, and for these two weeks my goal is to grind away at my research.

8 Jan 98

I've done a bit of work on my research while it rained, but yesterday was too good to pass up skiing. Enough had melted that the white mountain face was showing a blond and orange five o'clock shadow of crags and shrubs. Up higher, the duney slopes also exhibit tufts of something akin to the third day of shaving. Beautiful.

In the afternoon, I take a 4-hour drive up the coastal highway and manage to watch the sun sink into the Mediterranean for the first time in over a decade of pollution and life near the congested city. My mind is more troubled than usual over where I'll wind up a year from now. I'm scared. I go to sleep early.

10 Jan 98

I feel like making some major progress on my research, and I do not mean just reading. Time to put this diary to rest and thereby keep it small enough to be readable.

For the first time this trip, I turn down an offer to go skiing with Becca.

12 January 1998

This won't be a regular diary anymore, but today is noteworthy because we woke up to over 2 feet of snow right outside out house! We had had three separate snowstorms in the past day, and it was still snowing, albeit slowly, when I woke up this morning.
Without any shovels in the house, we are snowed in until our reduced to squeegee mops can clear a path to the road that may get ploughed if the snow clearing equipment ever makes it here from six towns uphill.

Telegrammatic portion of diary:
11 - The unbanned TV interview with General Aoun lasted until 1 am.
12 - After shoveling snow in the morning, went down to Beirut to
visit Nicole, an old ex from the 80's.
13 - Went down to Beirut and managed five visits, between noon and
14 - Snow-boarding and learning to turn the board be swaying my hips
back and forth. Postponed my flight.
15 - First day of living on borrowed time. Finally got a good
installation of Becca's Pilot software on the desktop.
16 - Beirut. Arranged for the get-together tomorrow.
17 - Had my pre-birthday "gathering". The two couples and the two
single men cancelled, but the single women showed with their
chaperoning couples.
18 - Rainy Sunday, stayed home and read. Saw an excellent musical comedy
production in the evening.
19 - Beirut for some errands. None of the prospective lunch partenrs
was free. Chess in the afternoon and fortune-telling at night.
20 - Finished the book I had started - by Bibi Netanyahu! Local
visits in the evening.
21 - I start scanning my Game Theory text at a higher rate. It is
really more applicable to my research than I had thought.
Maybe I'll finish my dissertation soon after all. It's my last day
here as well as my Birthday, but otherwise pretty calm (so far)
22 - Flying all day.


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