When we were little kids our father was a burgeoning titan of industry. At the ripe age of thirty-one he was given responsibility for the jobs of 3000 people who worked making containers in a glass factory. This factory was in Illinois
, so we had to uproot from our family homestead near the Rahway state prison
in New Jersey
and engage in the 900-mile trek to the suburbs of Chicago. Having never been west of the Appalachians it was the adventure of a lifetime. Dad loaded the luggage on the rack on the roof of the family station wagon and folded down the back seat creating a large flat platform upon which me and three siblings camped for the 15-hour drive. In the days before seat belt laws, with none of us understanding the laws of simple physics the thought we were imperiled by riding unrestrained was as substantial as the breeze from a fluttering bee's wing.
When we grew old time accelerated properly via the invisible laws of nature. Relativity in force, the younger saw our bodies slowing under gravitational influence while we felt the velocity in everything. Time in force was a breeze that held aloft our thinning hairs.
There is a real human theory that at the bottom of the universe, in the Plank-length spaces between gluons and quarks, there is evidence that this reality is a sort of all-encompassing computer code. This is not sci-fi. This is not CGI. This is a feature derived from dense quantum machanics and perplexing mathematics that confounds physicists and mathematicians with stacks of PhDs. Dr. James Gates from University of Maryland was mapping properties of the smallest particles to complex patterns called adrinkas found in art. He was looking for supersymmetry when he found it. A glitch in the math. A code that seemingly stitches things back together when the operation of nature tends to tear it apart at the seams.
He was publishing his work on a blog when someone who was following it mentioned that the math of physics looked like the math of information theory. At its most fundamental level - at its foundation - the math of the universe looks like something. It seems to be constructed. Gates's team discovered a pattern recognizable to computer scientists as error correction. Was this simply the imprint of the hand of man upon an observation? Would Seven Arrows of the Blackfoot or the Crow see the same thing?
Or have they always just known?
I wake up at something AM. Three-oh-whatever. Four. Two. I can't feel it in my gut the way I can feel time in my own bed.
Everything is wrong. The sheets are classic international hotel. Over sanitized for my protection. Sleek, starch feeling. Cold even when baked by blistering star in this foreign sky they call the sun. It's not the sun I grew up under.
I get up because sleep is not in my body's repetoire at this hour of whatever-oh-thirty. At the hermetically sealed, triple-paned window, guaranteed to squash even the most determined suicide - I can look down and see the red taillamps of the cars on the street below stop and start under the neon blaring colors we banned back after the big war: coral, lime, aqua.
The neon forms shapes I cannot read. Same shapes as on the card on the nightstand which explains something undoubtedly courteous now rendered sinister by the reptilian part of my head which seems to be more awake than my higher self. I know my brain is only functioning in pieces so I have to reconstruct the thoughts that flash through my internal hearing.
"These people." I keep thinking, "These people." And then I follow the subject with an unpolite verb and object. I conjure up nuclear warfare. Newly minted college grads on dangerously crowded trains leafing through phone-book sized Manga comics hip-to-hip with the riding public, books paged backward to the western mind, every dark eye sizing up the similarly caged females, who undertstand deep in their souls that at the end, if they can find enough space in this eastern pacific madness to call themselves "alone", that they are prey.
"These people," I think - and forcefully paste the rest of the sentence: "...are my friends...are my brothers...are my customers...bleed like me, hurt like me, laugh like me, are me."
I have closets in my house bigger than this hotel room. And if I were to die in one, an entire block would know. There would be an echo across the telecommunication network.
Here I am anonymous. Here I am a casualty in waiting. An unclad body pulled from the rubble caused by the latest ring of fire temblor. Unidentifiable but for dental records and DNA.
And I want to go home. I don't want to be here in this night that is my daytime. I want to have dinner tonight with my children and warn them to eat their asparagus or no TV. I want to read in my cotton-sheeted bed next to my wife and debate who's going to get up to turn out the light.
And I don't remember what the name of this city is. And I don't understand more than three words of this language.
And the biggest problem with having adventures, is that when you're in the middle of one - it sucks.
Except for the lady at the United Airlines counter who will take my ticket and match my passport to my face - no one knows me for thousands of miles. Not even the salesman I'm supposed to meet in the lobby when daylight hits. Seven-AM. I know that time.
And I will find a way to endure this night, as I have hundreds of times before.
Tomorrow I will don my suit and tie and smile and say useful technical things to engineers in this country who have come to meet me because it was demanded of them by their superiors.
They will deal with another typical American beef-eating asshole who smells of animal products covered in after-shave and who will judge their every move in the light of massive sacred unconnectable cultural differences that seem like godless immoralities - and just smile.
I want to go home. Please god. I know I asked for this job.
I know I did this to myself.
A car horn blares on the city street below. People walk down the hall outside my hotel room door. A couple. Giddy drunk and colliding shoulders periodically into walls, whispering laughing words I will not decypher in this lifetime. A door to a room opens and slams closed. Muffled laughs and moans - how similar it is to any other country I where I have been alone, observing. How foreign the lungs and throats of men and woman together in this country. We don't make noises like that where I come from. Everything here smells of steam and oil and fish.
I don't care what a great experience this is. How cosmopolitan I have become.
I want to go home.
When we were little kids our father was transferred from the safe haven of the New York/New Jersey megalopolis to the wild outback of the Chicagoland area.
We might as well have been transferred to Mars.
My father would say that we had been "banished to the Pointless Forest," after a cartoon we saw once, called "The Point." He was Oblio. Round headed kid in a world of coneheads.
Everything was wrong in Chicago. The trees were not elegant. They seemed to have come straight from a horror-movie set. He called the cottonwoods "Scrag Trees". They seemed to attract lightning.
The Chicago suburbs were full of tornadoes, and cornfields, and Central Time - which meant all our shows were on an hour eariler and so coming home from work late - he missed them all.
But to us little kids, Chicago was just another place we lived. Some of the kids here came from places we'd only heard of before - Wisconsin, Tennessee, St. Louis.
They were allowed to go out to the back barn and shoot cans off the fence with BB guns. Sometimes with real guns.
They rode ponies when their parents weren't around.
Some of the kids had country accents we'd only heard on western movies, and my brother's teacher caused a parent-teacher conference to occur when in her thick Arkansas drawl she told my brother he spoke "like he had marbles in his mouth" and she couldn't understand a word he said.
Undoubtedly, she couldn't understand my parents, either. And so my brother was moved to a different 3rd grade class.
I learned to climb to the rafters in the hay barn and jump off into the piles below. I played football and learned to be a defensive end. I fell in love with a high-school girl and spent a month working up the nerve to ask her to the Homecoming dance. And then never recovered from her refusal.
This was my life. It was home.
But it wasn't to my father. He was wracked with nightmares and visited by ghosts. He'd wake up screaming, rousing the house, over and over, until I found myself doing the same.
I heard him crying, one night, into my mother's arms.
"I want to go home. I have to get us home."
What home? This was home? Was he an alien who needed to go back to his home planet?
What the hell was he talking about?
My mother thought my father's problem was that he wasn't spending enough time with his kids. He worked late at the glass bottle factory most days, and half-days on weekends. They never stopped making bottles. For the boss, there was never a day off.
So she got him to take us with him on weekends, figuring that with three kids in tow on a Saturday morning he couldn't become utterly engrossed in his job. And with us up there, close to the city, maybe he'd take us to a museum, or out to lunch, at least.
He'd stash us in his office - which was the biggest in the area. He'd give us pencils and yellow pads to draw on. And then he'd take off into the factory.
When he was going to be there a really long time or when I was there alone with him, he'd take me into the factory with him so I could watch the process. He had his managers and foremen explain the machinery and process of bottle making, from melting sand down to blowing hot glass and air into a mold.
After years of scribbling on the yellow paper and watching molten gobs drop in utter precision from the ceiling into a waiting mayonnaise-jar molds below - we grew bored of the Saturday routine. When dad was in the factory we'd strike out into the office area proper. We sit at random desks and open the drawers. I took special glee in playing with the mechanical adding machines and asking them to divide 10,000 by seven, and listening to the gears whine while the machine heated up trying to answer something it was never made to do.
My dad would return with a retinue of glum managers (who also had been yanked in on their weekend) and find us building towers out of 3"x5" index cards or drawing on some poor worker's blotter.
And he'd always say the same thing:
"You kids stop that! This is not a playground. This is a place of business. Now sit where I told you. We'll be out of here in a second."
Now I know how he felt. Why he did what he did. The stress of the challenge he was under - to be the youngest and most successful glass bottle factory manager in history. And the apologies he'd dole out on Monday morning to his employees who would simply have to accept graciously, but then later mutter their own judgements in hushed tones. How the boss's kids were running rampant in the office, destroying precisely organized paper piles and burning the insulation off the calculator windings with senseless calculation.
We knew there wasn't going to be a trip to the museum at the end of the day. No lunch with dad.
By the time Dad's managers convinced him to get the hell out - most likely so they could, too - all anyone wanted was to go home.
Someone once asked Einstein for a layman's definition of the Special Theory of Relativity. Einstein was pretty good at simpifying things - but his abstractions didn't always ring true with the newspaper reporters who covered him.
One young reporter who had been sent to interview the great physicist had done his homework. Instead of the usual line of questioning he began by approaching Einstein as he would have his own teacher.
He said, "Maybe I have it. Tell me if this is it. No matter where you go, no matter what you do, it always takes some time to go a distance. Is that it?"
Einstein didn't even pause for an answer. In a fraction of a second he complimented the young man and said, "Yes. Exactly. You understand my theory perfectly."
It is midnight at L'Albert Premier in Chamonix, France. We have just finished a dinner which had started four hours ago and I am back in my room. Figuring out how to flick on the lights in this place. Unbuttoning my collar, unwinding my tie, I walk to the window. Wooden glazing. Single pane. Crystal alpine air bleeds through the spaces between the wall and the frame. Invisible blades of flowing ice.
Outside Mt. Blanc glows blue-white in the moonlight. It is present. Ice encrusted. Reachable. Significant. It makes a sound like sub-sonic earth rumble you could never convince anyone you actually heard.
And you can read by the light of the moon off the ice - and I can see the street sign which suggests the way to the ski slopes. To Aiguille du Midi, the needle, not so far away. The glacier.
There is a wooden split rail fence and a field of snow that in my mind's eye is rich in wildflowers. And though I have never been here in spring - heck, it's only my second time, ever - I know what it feels like to wake up in the early morning and cross that field holding a wooden handle - an axe, a hoe, a bucket.
The deja vu is so thick it feels like then has become now.
I know what is around the corner on that road. I know what it feels like to be young here.
In the morning I am up before my colleagues and think I should satisfy my curiousity. I need to get to that bend in the road I can see from my window and validate what I know in my mind is true. What I am going to see is the picture in my head, and I have to prove it.
Cold katabatics are drifting down the mountain and the breeze instantly freezes my ears as I cross the parking area and makes me wish I'd worn a hat. One of the workers at the Auberge has just arrived. He says "Good morning," as he gets out of his car and asks me where I'm going and do I need a ride?
I tell him "good morning" and "thanks, but no. I'm looking around while I wait for my friends." And I am saying this in French - which quite fairly I have been studying, but to date haven't had the nerve to try on anyone.
Then he says something to me in German, and I answer in French that I don't speak German.
And he says in English, "For an American you look German and I think you speak French with a German accent."
I shrug. Look at the ice covered Alps and the snowy fields. "Si beau..."
"Are you sure you are not German?" says the guy. He pulls some clothing from the trunk of his small car. "I think I have seen you here before?"
"Only once before. And Italian," I say. "Not a German drop of blood in me."
"Peut etre," he says. "Bonjour."
My colleagues are now loading the rental car. "Did you get any breakfast? Well, too late now. Come on, get your shit. We have to be in Milan in three hours and we have to get through the tunnel."
"It's the Italians," I say as I head back to my room and collect my stuff. "They're never on time."
I get in the car, riding shotgun. Charlie fires up the engine and pulls us onto the highway. "They're never on time for dinners or movies. But this is business. They're like Germans when they're on the job."
And for a moment, I think how lucky I am to be doing business through Europe and Asia. When father was my age he was stuck in Dolton, Illinois and here I am eating duck and quaffing grand cru on expense account.
As we approach the Mt. Blanc tunnel Charlie makes sure we all have our passports handy. Then he asks, "What were you talking about to Thierry?"
"You know him?"
"Sure, he's assistant manager. What was he asking you?"
"Nothing. He thought I was some German he had seen here before."
"Been here before?"
"You should know. Only once. The first time we stopped here between Grenoble and Milan, last year."
"That's not what I mean."
"Ok. What do you mean, then?"
"No, I don't think I do," is what I have to say. I have to say because we are in a business car, on a business trip, and so wherever we are is a place of business. No fooling around allowed. No stacking the file cards. No rigging the adding machines.
Charlie has a way of smiling that looks like he's grimacing from a severe tooth ache.
"You've been here before," he says, and at first I think he's confused, but from the look in his eye I see he's not. And he's not going to say what's on his mind but he's going to keep smiling that painful way.
And I feel in my heart that all of this roaming and flying and traversing the globe in the name of technology has been some kind of weird meta-project.
"Why does this feel like home, Charlie?" I say. "Tell me why I feel that."
Bob and Ron are in the back seat, and in the mirror I can see them looking bored and confused.
"What the hell are you guys talking about?" Bob asks.
"Yeah, Joe, what are we talking about?" Charlie asks.
And then we never say anything about it again. For the rest of our lives.