Friday, August 28, 2009

Flying Home

October and November tend to be weird months for me. Early October, 2006 saw the publication of my book: "Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder: What Your Doctor Doesn't Tell You That You Need to Know."

The book represented a major personal triumph for me, but life is seldom simple. It's amazing, in hindsight, how I didn't see it coming, but we never do. One day I was winding down from a round of book-related speaking engagements and radio interviews, making a mental note to pick up a Thanksgiving turkey, the next my marriage broke up.

I had been married (for the second time) for nearly three years, living in central New Jersey. On December 1, ten days after my break-up, I boarded a one-way flight to San Diego, wanting to sleep and never wake up.

I collected my bags and stepped outside the terminal. In the dark, I made out cruise boats in the brightly lit harbor and the silhouettes of palms. Under the circumstances, I could be forgiven for thinking I had set down in the middle of a holiday resort rather than waiting for my ride in an ugly airport. The balmy temperature lent to the illusion.

Paul drove up and I got in. San Diego Airport is located in the heart of the city. If this were New York, you would literally have planes taking off and landing in Central Park. I recall thinking how convenient this would be for me, that is until Paul got driving.

We got onto Interstate 8 going east and kept going. And going. Then civilization literally ceased. No lights no buildings, nothing. Surely, this had to be some kind of anomaly, I thought. Surely, some kind of satellite city would materialize, a St Paul, a Fort Worth, a Newark, even.

Meanwhile, I had the strange sensation of being airborne. Our wheels were on the ground, but we had gone from sea level to above 2,000 feet in the space of 30 minutes. Oh crap, I could only think, what have I gotten myself into?

At 3,500 feet we got off at an exit that could have featured in a slasher movie. Then we were in total darkness. My worst fears were realized. We were in the country. The country! Probably completely off the grid in a void where zip codes don't exist.

We got out of the car and I gazed up at the unfamiliar sight of stars in the sky, unbelievably bright stars, pristine in the mountain air, with nothing standing in the way of me and something billions of light years away, maybe only millions.

I woke up the next morning to a searing Van Gogh sun against a brilliant cobalt blue sky. Where there should have been a Walmart was a valley surrounded by 4,000-foot peaks. Time to check out my new neighborhood.

All the houses appeared to have be built out of box kite material, only not nearly so sturdy, seemingly wind-tossed at crazy angles. Oddly, though, the overall effect was harmonious, blending in with the rocky and hilly terrain. A straight line or level surface would have stuck out like a sore thumb.

A short walk and the houses gave way to horse farms. In contrast to the sky, the hues of the landscape were muted. The trees and vegetation here are testimonies to perseverance rather than abundance. Water is scarce, exceedingly so. Only the rocks flourish – boulders, outcrops, summits. The wind was blowing in from the desert and had a decidedly flinty tang.

Back in the old days, a wrong turn on a mule wagon spelled certain death. The Mexican border is about 10 or 15 miles away. These days, those seeking the American Dream are prepared to risk everything negotiating this treacherous northern passage.

I rounded a curve and suddenly I was the only person on this planet. Just me and splendid desolation. Any second, I expected to come across Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the stiff breeze. Perhaps a wise Indian shaman who could tell me why the hell I was here.

Talk to me, land, I found myself saying. I felt a spiritual tug, but I was confused and out of sorts. I was badly missing the life I had just left behind, but I knew in my heart this was the place I needed to be. If any healing were to occur, it would happen here, in these mountains, where I could clear my head, establish a sense of perspective, and slowly come to terms.

But I had a major shock in store when I came back from my walk and inspected the pantry.

Hmm. Cans of refried beans (is there an air raid shelter out back?). Soup in packets (desiccated chemical nodules that no amount of super-heated water could ever satisfactorily dissolve). I mopped some beaded sweat from my brow. Rice-a-Roni, I read on one box. Something salty that claimed to be food on another. The type of cans you only see in food drives.

I already knew what was coming next. I’ve seen grown men cry over the sight, but my reaction is always one of anger and disbelief. How is such a thing possible in a world that gave us Shakespeare and Sophia Loren? I could only think. Why? But there is no logical answer to explain man’s inhumanity to man. Just the inscrutable wording on the box:

Ramen noodles!

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

But I’m a highly-trained professional and it was time to take charge. In a calm and authoritative voice I told Paul and my other housemate: “Put your hands to your sides and slowly step back from the pantry.”

Don’t worry, I assured them, demonstrating to them that the skillet I had in my hand would be used for cooking real food, assuming I could locate some. But hey, I love a challenge. It's the one thing I have in common with Jesus - I've got the loaves and fishes thing down pat.

Life is about the little things. Several days later, seven FedEx cartons containing my life arrived at my door. By now, I had the food situation under control and was preparing a chili. Priorities are priorities. I ripped open the carton containing my kitchen gear and dived in for my zester. A minute later, I was in business. Zest-zest-zest – one peel to a lime into the pot, plus the juice. Now my chili had the missing zing and zap. Now I had a real chili going. A simple kitchen implement and suddenly I felt at home. My non-zester possessions could wait for later.

To be continued ...

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