Fukushima

Fukushima: Gone, just gone

For the children, for everyone, Japan lost on March 11th, 2011

Gone, just gone, replaced by an ever-flowing teardrop.

They’re the bubblegum kids no one is ever going to know,

rotting out their lives in the cold of Mishima’s boiling sea.

There’s grace in the truncheons of justice they may have become.

Continue reading

Disgruntled song

This is the seriously-no-bullshit soup plate,

Where it all falls asunder into metal,

and I don’t mean angry white men playing guitars.

It’s peaceful, the undying here,

and I’m trying to figure out how to make some art out of this monstrous tranquility.

I throw compassionate grenades,

and perform brutally humane triage.

Continue reading

Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Black Thursday

Thanksgiving is now Black Thursday and Black Friday is upon us: what should America not be thankful for?

The nation gives thanks … for what?

I was never a William Burroughs fan, but I nonetheless find myself thinking about his 1986 “Thanksgiving Prayer,” surely one of the most caustic (and insightful) takes on our great American holiday. I’m in this sort of mood for a reason. Or two, or three.

First off, you may have noticed all the static around the news that more and more businesses will be open today, getting a jump on tomorrow’s appalling orgy of consumerism, Black Friday. That term originated in the early 1960s, apparently, with bus drivers and the police, who used it to describe the mayhem surrounding the biggest shopping day of the year. Continue reading

CATEGORY: WordsDay

WordsDay: Trout fishing in one part of America…

Fishing on top of the old Smokies

Smoky Mountain Trout Fishing Guide by Don Kirk (image courtesy Goodreads)

In an entry written not too awfully long ago, I confessed to one of my great passions and pleasures in life: fly fishing for trout here in my native North Carolina mountains. As you might guess, on my bookshelves reside books related to that passion. Some, like The Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide, might reside on the shelves of any serious angler. But some are specific to the sort of trout angling I do here in NC.

Such a one is the book in this review, Don Kirk’s exhaustive look at trout fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (and nearby environs), Smoky Mountain Trout Fishing. Kirk does a fine job of offering suggestions to anglers about where to find trout, stream sizes, casting difficulties that might be faced by anglers (especially important to fly fishers), and the remoteness of streams as well as the strenuousness required of fishers for reaching them. This is all great info for any angler interested in pursuing that beautiful and elusive creature, the Southern Brook trout, affectionately known to mountain natives as the “speck.” Continue reading

Sunset, Dacozy Beach Resort, Moalboal, Philippines

Novel Journey 8: In which the author submits

Sunset, Dacozy Beach Resort, Moalboal, Philippines

Sunset, Dacozy Beach Resort, Moalboal, Philippines

Eventually there comes the moment when any author has to submit what they have written to the jaded palate of agencies. Friends have enjoyed what I’ve written, but one always receives a bit of a free pass from that quarter. Today I started the process of seeking representation. Continue reading

Bonsai Farm, Moalboal, Philippines

Novel Journey 3: In which the author goes snorkeling

Bonsai Farm, Moalboal, Philippines

Bonsai Farm, Moalboal, Philippines

It is a 20 minute walk from Dacozy to Panagsama village through the village where the folks who support the tourist industry actually live.

There is one cluster of small houses where everyone seems to have gone made for bonsai trees. I’m not sure if it is a very enthusiastic hobby or something raised to sell elsewhere. Continue reading

Panagsama Beach, Moalboal

Novel Journey 1: In which the author goes forth

Panagsama Beach, Moalboal

Panagsama Beach, Moalboal

My father passed away three weeks ago.

His cancer returned in May and I flew home for a few weeks to spend time with him and my mom. He had just completed a round of radiation therapy and was recovering his fitness. My mom was retiring early and they were hoping to go travelling together, bringing forward plans originally slated for my mom’s 70th birthday, still two years away.

When I left, only two months ago, all seemed well. But it hangs over everything. Every conversation. Each moment.

My dad’s sister visited from Australia six weeks ago and, again, everything seemed fine. Then the phone call and the hasty trip to South Africa.

I started writing my first novel, Tartarus One, when I was 12 years old on my father’s first computer. It was an IBM clone with a tiny green cathode ray screen. I wrote about 10,000 words before stopping. The story then was about a man who was unjustly imprisoned in a jail in space, who escaped by building a small craft, and crashed in central Africa before returning to exact vengeance.

It was a clever story but I realised quite quickly that the voice and approach I was writing in wasn’t my own. It was Stephen King’s. And I knew that wouldn’t do.

I tried off and on over the years but, unless one has a trust fund or a supportive, wealthy and understanding spouse, writing full-time is too expensive and the returns too insecure. I have always worked and never earned sufficient to give it a go.

Over the years Tartarus One became Tartarus Falls. The story evolved, became more complex, then simpler, then honed. But I never wrote it.

I arrived on Monday afternoon. He was in bed and hadn’t moved for a few days. He was thrilled to see me and my normally physically reserved father held my hand tightly as we spoke that afternoon. Him in short, exhausted bursts. Every word leaving him panting from the effort.

He didn’t look well. His face swollen and blotchy, pale. His skin cold, even though he said he felt warm. He couldn’t lift his arms, so I helped feed him, change him, drop water into his mouth with a syringe.

But he was cheerful. Chatty, even. He wasn’t in pain, except when we moved him.

He seemed to think that he could recover even from this. The nurse who arrived left me in no doubt how serious things were. He hadn’t urinated in days, his kidneys had stopped.

I’ve always worked hard and have taken tremendous risks with my ideas, ambitions and choices. Sometimes that worked, sometimes that didn’t. My life hasn’t been dull.

A year ago, with an awareness that life is shorter than one may hope but still long enough, I contacted a writer mate of mine. Jon Evans has written a few novels and even sold sufficient of them to pay for an expanded life-style, although he does keep a regular software job as well. He travels and writes and works.

Let’s go somewhere with a beach, sufficiently low-cost to keep us there a while, good internet access, and good diving, and let us each write a novel, I suggested. He thought it a good idea and we began hunting though island nations.

Cuba meets most criteria, except for being an evil Stalinist dictatorship. So the internet is crap. Papua New Guinea is just fucking expensive. Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand … either of us have already been.

That left the Philippines. Which consists of several hundred islands. Next question, which one?

My brother arrived on Tuesday. By then, my father could only speak a word or two before losing consciousness. I called the UK and let my wife speak to him.

They’ve always had a very special relationship, going to see cricket together at Lord’s in the UK. Could it be only a year ago that my wife made my dad run for a bus to get to the grounds?

“I love you dad,” she said.

My mom, my brother and I sat around the bed, playing music, telling stories, laughing, sometimes crying. We remembered.

My story, while being science fiction, happens to be set in Nigeria. Why? Well, when my hero escapes from an orbital jail which uses a space elevator to transfer goods and people, it has to be sited over the equator.

I was fortunate to have spent a month in Nigeria over this year, working on a local data transparency project for the Edo State government. I also took a few days to visit some of the places where the story happens. I found books on Efik culture and cuisine. I did my research, discovering I could make my villains much more terrifying than I had originally imagined.

I worked out the structure of the story, the set-pieces, the characters.

My sister-in-law and nephews arrived on Wednesday. He wasn’t able to speak anymore although, at least in the morning, he was able to acknowledge that he was still listening.

When I helped move him, or dress him, or feed him, I could see the dark splotches under his skin that must be part of the cancer spreading throughout his body. If a thing could be said to be evil, they looked it.

“Wait,” he would gasp. Short, stubby words. Every time we needed to move him.

Through the day, he got weaker.

Even as I booked my plane tickets and reserved accommodation, I was worried. What happens with my dad’s cancer? Would he live long enough for the book to be published? He was never much of a reader and the cancer meant that he couldn’t see very well, but he could know that it was written. That it was done.

I never expected the call to come so soon.

At 16h00 he asked me for peanuts. I put a little peanut butter on a teaspoon and he sucked it. Then he asked for cheese and onion chips. I couldn’t give him that. I placed some water in his mouth with the syringe.

He refused food at 17h00. Clamped his jaws shut and wouldn’t take anything. Then he slept, his mouth open, gasping.

I was already exhausted when I packed for Moalboal. I had just returned from South Africa, spending the night before working through my dad’s documents with my mom, helping her prepare for the accountants so they could settle his estate.

There had been no space to mourn yet and it would be another two weeks before I would get any rest. I still had a conference to prepare for in Geneva, several projects to close out, a number of proposals to write and submit, and a report to finish.

I stayed with him till 23h50. It had been three days since I last snatched more than a few hours of sleep and I left my mom alone with him.

She woke me at 00h28 on Thursday morning. I checked that he was no longer breathing, that his heart had stopped, and I covered him with a sheet.

We called the Chevra Kadisha and we sat quietly together. My brother, my mother, and me.

This morning I woke up with the sound of the ocean against the shore. Two-and-a-half days of travel behind me.

For the next four weeks, a novelist’s journey ahead.

CATEGORY: American Culture

Death, Iowa and being 30 minutes late to an orgy with Marcia Brady and Laurie Partridge: What’s the best time zone in America?

The United States spans six time zones. I have now lived in four of them (Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific), visited a fifth (Hawaiian-Aleutian) and flown over the sixth (Alaskan), so I feel comfortable addressing the question of which one is best with some authority.

Eastern Time Zone

I begin with a certain bias. Like most kids, I hated going to bed. The big reason: I was afraid I’d miss something. I knew that other people were still awake and doing things, and it drove me crazy. Truth is, this is the same thing that bothers me about dying. Death doesn’t scare me, but I think about things like all the Chelsea FC matches that will be played without me and again, it drives me bonkers. And yes, I’m actually serious about this.

During the summer months, especially, I’d have my anxieties confirmed on occasion. Back in the old days we didn’t have the Internet or cable or a 24/7 news cycle or ESPN. All we had was newspapers. Hell, we didn’t even have touchtone and wireless phones. I’d get up in the morning, grab the newspaper and flip to the sports section to see how the Orioles had done. That was the team that had four 20-game winners, Boog Powell, Davey Johnson, Mark Belanger, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, and Earl Weaver at the helm. They were my favorite team. But when they were on the road playing West Coast teams, the games would still be in progress when the East Coast papers went to press (I lived in NC, which was in the Eastern time zone back then; these days it’s lobbying for a move to the 17th century time zone, but that’s another conversation). So there, where the score ought to be, would simply be the word “late.”

DAMMIT! See, I went to bed and something that I care about happened and not only did I miss it, everybody east of Louisville did, too.

I lived the first 27 years of my life alternating between Eastern Standard and Eastern Daylight, the whole time feeling like the kid who got sent to bed early because mom and dad were throwing an orgy downstairs and they’d invited both Marcia Brady and Laurie Partridge.

Verdict: Sucks.

Central Time Zone

Then I marched off to grad school at Iowa State, which sits smack-ass in the middle of the Central time zone. This was a tad better. Going to bed early-wise, anyway. Of course, I was in grad school and club DJing on the side to make ends meet, so it’s not like I went to bed early very often, regardless. The downside was that time zones notwithstanding, if something interesting did actually happen, at any hour of night or day, it highly unlikely to happen in Iowa.

Verdict: A little better but, you know, Iowa.

Mountain Time Zone

In 1993 I moved to Colorado for yet another round of grad school. I know, I know – how much book learnin’ does a simple country boy really need? But it worked out great. Colorado’s tourism motto ought to be Come for the Doctoral Programs, Stay for the Time Zone! Seriously, that beats the hell out of Iowa’s Gateway to Nebraska, don’t you think?

The bottom line is that as time zones go, the MST/MDT combination rocked. Braves games came on at 5pm and were over by 8, which meant I could watch them lose in the playoffs and still have plenty of time to take a shower and head out for a beer by 9:30. When I wasn’t studying, that is. But even when I had to spend the night reading 2000 pages of single spaced, 6-point blather about Semiotics (double sided, no pictures, written in a language that only vaguely approximated English), it was comforting know that I could, in principle, have watched the game and gone out for a beer.

All those losers in the Eastern time zone were going to bed right about the time I was ordering my second pint of stout and settling into SportsCenter (or rereading the same page by motherfucking de Saussure for the 12th time because the first 11 bounced off my brain like a superball off the deck of an aircraft carrier). HAH! Send this to bed early, bitches.

The West Coast was still out there with an hour in hand, but by now we had cable and 100 sports stations and the worst case scenario was an excuse to stay up an extra hour watching the Nuggets in Portland.

Verdict: Rocks!

Pacific Time Zone

Now I live in the Pacific Time Zone and by god nothing happens before I go to bed. Or, you know, before I would be going to bed if I had a mind to stay up. I have a job and am approaching middle age, so I go to bed earlier than I used to. But not because I have to. No, it’s because I choose to.

The upside of PST/PDT is obvious – you don’t miss anything. If you’re back east, you’re thinking about bed right about the time I’m thinking about dinner. You’ll be snorking into a drool-soaked pillow for three hours by the time the orgy gets started out here. Advantage: me.

The downside is that if you aren’t careful, you can miss things because they happen too soon. Take Thursday night. The Broncos game was timed for a nationwide viewing audience: 8pm Eastern. Which, if you do a little math, you’ll realize is right about the time those of us in the Emerald City are getting off work. Holy fuckstockings. I had to bus home, then go pick up Ronan MacScottie from daycare, then get home, walk him, feed him, grab a bite to eat, and it’s gonna be halftime before I can tune in.

Fortunately there was a lightning storm in Denver that held the game up, and I flipped on the game just as whoever she was got thoroughly into her enhanced interrogation of the national anthem. But this was what’s known as an “exception.” The “rule” is that things used to be too late for me and now sometimes they’re going to be too early.

Back in Denver I’d sometimes have to get up at ungodly hours on the weekends because Chelsea, sitting over there in Cockney Standard Time, had the early game. On multiple occasions I was down at the Bulldog for a 5:30am kick on Saturday or Sunday (heck, there were two 3:30am kicks when they were playing in the World Club Championships in Japan). Which means I might be looking at 4:30am starts out here on the left coast.

Yow.

Verdict: Can we change Pacific Time so that it’s only 30 minutes behind Mountain instead of a whole hour? Because that’d be great.

Those Other Time Zones

I haven’t spent a lot of time in the Hawaiian zone, but boy howdy, let me say that there was nothing wrong with Kauai that I could find.

Verdict: More research needed.

Never been to Alaska. I hear it’s pretty. Also, cold and devoid of single women.

From what I could tell looking out the airplane window, the Alaskan zone is mostly water. (This, by the way, is known as dramatic license. In reality I was nowhere near a window. The way this jet was laid out you had a section on either side with a window seat and an aisle seat, then you had the middle section which featured an aisle seat on either end and 16 seats in between. 16 very narrow seats. I had my ex-wife, who was mostly zonked on Dramamine to deal with her terror of flying on one side and a sweaty guy who was only able to get into his seat with the help of butter and large shoehorn on the other. At one point I had to fight my way out to go to the lavatory and by the time I got back I’d missed three episodes of Friends. Also, the big guy had slumped over and drooled on my seat. I spent the rest of the flight feeling like I was sitting in an inflatable kiddie pool.

Verdict: Sarah Palin.

To sum up, then:

Eastern: Everything interesting happens while you’re asleep.

Central: Iowa.

Mountain: Theoretically makes even de Saussure okay.

Pacific: You’re 30 minutes late to the orgy with Marcia Brady and Laurie Partridge.

Alaskan: Sausagefest.

Hawaiian: Poipu, Brennecke’s Beach Broiler.

Have a nice Sunday.

CATEGORY: EnvironmentNature

Six snake stories

It’s the dog days of summer, the time when it becomes hard to blog. Dedicated and serious bloggers push through it and write brilliant, meaty pieces on the new constitution or nuanced and warm offerings about choral singing and fly fishing or whimsical asides about larping. The less dedicated among us stare at the list of blog topics we intend to tackle, heavy duty pieces about entitlements or the positive role of corporations in politics, then turn away and go back to playing poker on our cellphones.

Better something than nothing, I figure, so today’s blog is about snakes, inspired by the comment thread on Booth’s recent post on fly fishing.

I don’t like snakes, but I don’t dislike them either. We have snakes here on our farm in Indiana and when I see one, I walk around it. Occasionally we’ll have to shoo an aggressive black snake away from the garage with a broom, and I suppose if we found a copperhead or rattler too close to the house I’d probably kill it, but for the most part they go their way and we go ours.

However, I’ve lived much of my life in places where there were snakes, poisonous ones, and have accumulated some stories. Growing up in south Georgia it was massive diamondbacks, huge snakes as thick as your arm that would stretch across the narrow, sandy roads as they sunned themselves. In West Africa, it was mostly cobras and green mambas. In Louisiana, it was water moccasins and in Australia tiger snakes.

1973—West Africa I

Peace Corps training was based in Kenema, where we were housed in a low cinder-block dorm, just a long row of concrete cubicles, each with a cot and a door that was nothing more than a thin piece of cloth on a string. We were playing cards when someone stuck their head in the door and yelled “Snake charmer.” Three of us jumped up and flip flopped across the compound to the street where the snake charmer was performing in front of a crowd of about thirty people.

Snake charmers traveled from village to village performing for tips. They wore black, pajama-like outfits and fluffy headdresses made from black-dyed rags. They carried their snakes in burlap sacks. There was no anti-venin available so locals were terrified of snakes and snake charmers. Snake charmers could handle snakes with impunity because they had “medicine,” what we would call black magic. In other words, they were evil men who’d made a bargain with the devil. If a snake charmer loaded his writhing sacks onto a local jitney bus, called a lorry, everyone else got off. If he came to a village and needed a place to sleep, he got not a room but a house, and afterwards the medicine man performed elaborate rites before anyone would sleep in it again.

This snake charmer was a scraggly man, with brown teeth and the faint odor of palm wine. His act consisted of pulling a snake from a bag, throwing it on the ground so that it faced the crowd, who immediately jumped backwards and screamed, “Wayah!” He’d then reach out, snag it by the tail and return it to the bag. We got there just in time for the spitting cobra. He reached into the bag, pulled the snake out, and threw it to the ground. It took off toward the crowd, who immediately bolted, except for me. I stood where I was and grinned at the snake. Behind me people screamed, “Wayah! Wayah!”

The snake crawled toward me. When it got about eighteen inches away, it rose and hooded, its head level with my bare knees. It swayed back and forth, deciding. The snake charmer looked at me as if I was crazy, then reached out and grabbed the snake by its tail, tugging it back and dropping it into the sack. He tied the top. We stood, legs akimbo and hands on hips, staring at each other. I am sure he was wondering, “Who is this smart ass ruining my act?” I was thinking that these snakes had to be defanged. With exactly the same hubris as a thousand white men in Africa before me, I refused to yield to silly native superstition. Instead of shorts and sandals, I should’ve worn starched khakis and a pith helmet.

After a moment he turned and walked back. Grunting, he lifted his biggest sack, and untied it. He walked over to me. By now I stood on my own little island because the crowd had retreated six feet or so behind me. Looking at me appraisingly, he untied the sack and dumped a cranky, fat Gaboon viper with a head the size of my fist into the dust. It crawled a few inches, felt the heat from my bare foot and coiled into striking position. The snake charmer watched me. I looked at him and smiled.

The crowd was going crazy behind me. Children buried their heads into their parents’ legs and wept. Adults slapped each others’ shoulders and whispered. Wayah! Wayah! The snake charmer looked back and forth from the snake to me. Finally, apparently resigning himself to the reality that I was now part of the act, he shook his head, reached down and grabbed the snake behind the jaws.

Another Volunteer snapped pictures like a photographer at a fashion shoot, racing around, kneeling, turning his camera sideways. Klick, klick, klick, klick. My fans cheered me on. The “wayah’s” of surprise morphed into “wayah’s” of encouragement. Wayah! Wayah! Wayah! The snake charmer hung the heavy snake around my neck and released his hands. He hugged me. He smiled for the camera. I smiled for the camera. The viper smiled for the camera. Klick. Wayah! Klick.

Then came the money shot. The charmer grabbed the snake, held it between us, flipped it over, pried its jaws open and using a small stick raised up a fang fully an inch long. A crystal drop of poison glistened on its tip. I stared at that hypodermic-sharp fang that had been less than an inch from my carotid artery and felt the blood rush down from my head. I felt my knees soften and struggled to hold myself upright. The world went silent. I no longer heard the klicks or the cheers. I couldn’t stop looking at that fang. My tongue was made of dust.

And then I did the single bravest thing I have ever done in my life: I smiled, waved to the crowd and calmly walked back to the dorm.

1973—West Africa II

After training we did visits in the villages of Volunteers who’d been there awhile. In Joe’s village, I went to the latrine. When I came out, I looked down and there, perfectly parallel between my two feet in their plastic sandals, was a short, flat arrow-shaped snake. I didn’t move. Nor did he. We remained like that for what seemed like a very long time. Finally, he slowly turned, his flickering tongue almost touching my bare foot, and crawled away.

Back inside the house, we looked up the snake in Joe’s book. It was a death adder—the same snake that killed Cleopatra.

“Why didn’t you kill it?” asked Joe.

I shook my head. “You kill it. Me and that snake had a deal. I wouldn’t kill it and it wouldn’t kill me. A deal is a deal.”

1974—West Africa

Since it was always warm in West Africa, some Volunteers slept on waterbeds they’d brought from home. Ray was sitting in his living room one day when out of the corner of his eye he saw a small black cobra slide around the corner and into his bedroom. Without thinking he jumped up and yelled, “Kalii!” which means snake. Instantly every adult male in the village poured through his front door, each with a machete. Ray tried to yell stop, but before he could get the words out his mouth a stream of pinkish water poured through the doorway. Inside his bedroom, the dead cobra lay in pieces on his shredded water bed.

1977-Louisiana

We were laying pipe through the Atchafalaya Basin. My job was to follow the excavator digging the ditch in a small aluminum boat. Once or twice a day I’d fuel the machine or lubricate something, but mostly I sat in the boat and watched, there more for safety than for anything else. Every day I’d wash my boat, prepare lunch for the operator of the machine, read and in the middle of the day when it got hot, slip into the bayou for a swim.

This drove the operator and the supervisor crazy, because they rightly thought swimming alone by yourself in a deep black-water bayou with snakes, strong current and the occasional alligator was unsafe. The supervisor would try to talk me out of it by telling me stories like the old urban legend where a man jumps into a river and comes out with fifty snakes hanging on him. I’d just laugh and say that was nonsense, that snakes couldn’t open their mouths underwater or they’d drown.

One day we were sitting on the tracks of the machine and a cottonmouth swam by. A cottonmouth is a very bulky snake and swims very high in the water. Instead of its head poking out of the water at an angle like most water snakes, they form a sort of “S,” almost like a camel’s neck with the top of its head parallel to the surface. This one held a fish in its mouth. The supervisor looked at me, but didn’t say anything. I never swam alone in the bayou again.

1989—Australia

Australia has 6 or 7 of the ten most poisonous snakes in the world, depending on how you count. (You’d think it would be straightforward, but it’s not. Some snakes have very toxic venom, like the sea snake, but have small fangs and rarely bite. Some have venom that is less toxic, like the tai pan, but are quick to bite and inject larger amounts, and whose bites are often fatal.)

A friend was burnt out from work. Another friend offered the use of his country retreat near Melbourne. The first friend went down at night and settled in. The next morning he got up, took his coffee out to the back veranda, and there sunning themselves on the stone path leading into the garden, were half a dozen fat black tiger snakes. Tiger snakes are very poisonous, very agro, and very dangerous. He took his coffee, slowly retreated into the house and went out to the front to sit and have his coffee, where there, laying on the welcome mat was another tiger snake. He quickly packed and left.

2013—Indiana

The other day I was running along Woodall Road and I saw a black snake, actually a Southern Black Racer, dart across the road. I stopped to look at it. It was about three feet long, as thin as a ribbon, and like most Racers, aggressive as all get out. This one coiled up in the leaves, hissed at me and then put his tail up against a dry leaf and began shaking it furiously. It was a pretty good imitation of a rattlesnake. I’m a believer in evolution, but it’s still amazing that behavior this specific could occur through natural selection.

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (TSR)

HobbyWeek: ShadowRun, Rifts, and Dungeons & Dragons – oh my!

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (TSR)

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (TSR)

I started playing role-playing games (RPGs) when I was in 4th or 5th grade. It was the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set pictured here, actually, complete with crappy plastic dice that turned to powder in the sun. I don’t remember where I got it, whether it was a gift from my high school-aged sister (who was playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons [AD&D] at the time) in order to get me to stop watching her game all the time or if I saved up my allowance or what. At this point it hardly matters, because that basic set that I only barely played was a gateway to worlds ranging from classic Tolkien-based fantasy to cyberpunk to space opera.

There was never a large enough group of people in junior high and high school to actually get a game established, and I knew that adding RPGs to the mix would have made me even more of an outcast than I already was. So I didn’t play much from the time I got that basic set until I got to college. Penn State main campus is so large that there is a critical mass of people for just about any hobby you can imagine, including tabletop gaming. And so it came to pass that I started playing RPGs in my freshman year of college. I’ve been playing more or less constantly ever since, through grad school, dating, marriage, a career, and two kids (who are starting to show some interest in tabletop gaming themselves). And at this point most of my closest friends are guys whom I met when I advertised in a Boulder, Colorado game store in 1996 that I was starting a ShadowRun campaign.

Over the course of the last 21 years of gaming I’ve done it all – player, game master, built my own fantasy and cyberpunk worlds, and even homebrewed up a semi-custom system based on the 2nd Edition ShadowRun rules for one of my worlds. I initially created those homebrew rules as way to define some rules for an alternate cyberpunk Earth in which I was (and still am) planning to write SF short stories and novels.

If you asked me whether I liked playing or running the game (game mastering, or GMing for short) more, I’d have to say GMing. There’s something addictive about matching my wits against five to eight very smart people, and it’s an amazing feeling when I can craft some adventure that they enjoy and yet still find challenging. It’s fun to watch a player’s jaw drop when something totally unexpected happens (for my gaming friends who I know are reading this, “He got up”). But I’ve come to really appreciate those moments when my gamers outthink me and throw me such a curveball that I have to toss all my planning out the window as a result. In my group we call that “filing a flight plan” for reasons that will become apparent in a moment.

I GMed a multi-year long campaign in the magic-meets-cyberpunk game ShadowRun. The game was largely set in Seattle after the United States had broken up and Seattle had essentially become a city-state. The party (group of player characters, or PCs) had been hired as bodyguards for a woman who needed to make it to Denver safely several days later. The party got attacked several times by my bad guys and had successfully kept the woman safe, but I had planned a major ambush at the Seattle-Tacoma airport for when the party delivered the woman to her scheduled flight to Denver.

One of the PCs owned a small jet that he kept at a small area airport and I had previously established that he could fly the plane around Seattle without filing a flight plan so long as he wasn’t planning on flying outside the borders of city. I had guessed that they might try to fly the woman from the area airport to Sea-Tac airport and had prepared for that, but after privately discussing how best to get the woman to Denver, they called me back into the room and informed me that they needed to file a flight plan. I reminded them that they didn’t need to file one to fly inside the city of Seattle, and they said “We know – we need to file a flight plan.” And that’s when it hit me that they were going to fly her directly to Denver, bypassing entirely my carefully planned ambush.

I remember looking down at my pile of maps and NPCs and saying something along the lines of “Well, I guess I don’t need these anymore.”

Moments like that are why I love GMing so much. Sure, GMing can be frustrating sometimes. The way I run my games is a major time commitment for me. And given I run multi-year campaigns, decisions I make during character creation have been known to come back and bite me in the ass months or even years later. But those inevitable frustrations are worth it every time the party files a flight plan or they tell me “you suck” because of the green slime I hid in the mine tunnels (underwater where they can’t see it or burn it off, of course).

While GMing games is the most fun for me, even I get burned out and need a break from time to time. When that happens one of the players steps up and offers to run a game and I get to play. At this point I’ve mostly played D&D, but I’ve also played some ShadowRun in college, In Nominae, Champions, Rifts, and a little GURPS cyberpunk. I’ve been a Star Wars cyborg (pre-Episode 1, thankyouverymuch), an angel, a hacker, a Macross Valkyrie pilot, and more wizards, clerics, and monks of different D&D races than I can even count. I’ve also had my character’s gender changed via reincarnation or other magic so many times that it’s become a running gag.

Playing is a lot less time consuming than GMing and it’s easier to do while raising kids. But it also gives me an opportunity to create characters in one world that I can then re-purpose for my own world. For example, I took a female monk I played in one of my friends’ games and imported her into my own D&D world. And sometimes I’ve taken major NPCs I created for a game I was GMing and played a version of them in another. It’s fun to be able to pretend to be something I’m not, or to take some part of my own personality and build a character around it to see just what happens.

Over the years I’ve had lots of hobbies. But only a few have been important enough for me to stick with them through hell and high water. Science fiction is one, collecting and building LEGO (especially Star Wars LEGO) is another. Blogging is a third. But the one that I’ve stuck with the longest, and quite possibly enjoyed the most, is role-playing games.

CATEGORY: CATEGORY: ArtSunday

ArtSunday: What to see, where it is, how to get there…

Cover, Lighthouses of the Carolinas, 2nd ed. (courtesy, terrancezepke.com)

The review for my most recent  completed book from the 2013 reading list has been giving me fits. I finished this book several days ago – but it’s not, as my wife Lea commented, the sort of book one generally reads straight through. But I did, so here I am.

In a typically whimsical moment, I put a guidebook on my reading list. Lighthouses of the Carolinas by Terrance Zepke is one of those books travelers buy to help them find and learn about certain “sites to see” (in this case, lighthouses of note in NC and SC).

Like any good guidebook, Lighthouses of the Carolinas gives some brief historical information  about each lighthouse or “light station” (a term used for less permanent structures that either supplemented or stood in for a lighthouse at various points in this region’s maritime history). It also gives directions for reaching each point of interest (as well as explaining which of these various lighthouses or stations simply can’t be viewed (either because they are out to sea as some light stations are) or because they are on private property (as most, it seems, of SC’s lighthouses are, thanks to corporate control of one sort or another).

Some of the lighthouses have colorful histories and some are world renowned either in the maritime history of lighthouses (Hatteras in NC, the nation’s tallest light) or in pop culture (Harbour Town, a developer-built addition to the Harbour Town Links golf course, home to a PGA tournament each year but a functioning lighthouse, nonetheless). As with all guidebooks, there are long lists of “other points of interest,” contact information for chambers of commerce and other sources of information, and the occasional sidebar featuring a historical anecdote, local folklore, or a brief biography of, for example, a noted lighthouse keeper.

And that’s pretty much it. There’s not much to say about the writing – it’s functional and occasionally the author musters a tad of enthusiasm for some sight that shouldn’t be missed or bit of trivia – but this is a guidebook. It’s function is to tell the reader what to see, where it is, and how to get there.

And so it does.

(I should note that I read the first edition of this book. The 2nd edition seems to edit out some places, especially those lighthouses/stations “difficult or impossible to see.” That seems a shame, since they were often quite interesting historically. But this is a guidebook – and I guess you can’t guide people to places they can’t get to, now can you? Oh, and she’s demoted Harbour Town from the SC list of lighthouses. But it was pretty Disney anyway, so maybe she went for a kind of authenticity. Or maybe lighthouse buffs complained about its inclusion. Oh, the politics of guidebook writing….)

XPOST: The New Southern Gentleman

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Traveling to Istanbul (III)–In the heart of the country?

Thursday started out in a bit of frustration, but turned out okay after all. The plan was to head out by tram to the Naval Museum, then double back to one of the university museums to see a map show, and then wander around the Galata area. The first two were a bust, sadly. First up, the Naval Museum was closed for renovations until July. You would think that this would be noted in the appropriate places. I love maritime museums, and this sounds as if it would be a good one. I remember the one in Barcelona being fantastic. And I was all set to buy a T-shirt too. Maybe next time.

Then we spent, or rather wasted, some time looking for the museum associated with the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, where they were having a large map show featuring the Piri Reis map of 1513, the first map to show anything from the Americas. But we kept being told that was closed too, even though the website said the show would run until May. Well, that turned out to be my mistake—I got my museums confused. We did, however, get some nice pictures of Barbarossa’s statue:
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And one with Barley, the travel totem. It’s remarkable how any picture is enhanced by the addition of a small bear:
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So instead we ended up taking the funicular up to the top of Galata and walking down, great fun in the windy streets. Lunch was some pide at a place recommended by Istanbul Eats, which has turned into our go-to place for real food. It was a lovely day to amble down the hill. Here’s me in my tourist disguise:
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We ended up getting a bit off course on our way to the Galata bridge, and wandered through what seemed to be the hardware part of town. Really, this was great—here’s the guy who sells chainsaws (with many brands I’ve never heard of); here’s the guy who sells wheels; here’s the guy who sells used wheels; here’s the guy who sells springs; here’s the guy who sells hammers, and only hammers; and so on. This was a true market (although not in a market square, just along the streets), with shoppers wandering around looking for stuff, and sellers selling them stuff. I felt like I was in my element here, and if I only needed something at that exact moment, I could find it. As opposed to London, where I can never find anything—I usually have to wait for the next trip back to the US to get whatever hardware stuff I need.

Then a quick tram trip back to the hotel, a dip in the whirlpool for tired muscles, and a late kebab dinner. And I finished re-reading Ian Mcdonald’s wonderful The Dervish House, about Istanbul in 2027—a great book, highly recommended. Although I can’t imagine it was published here—there’s still a certain level of censorship. I can’t get Gawker online, for example—what I get instead is a message in Turkish with a big red X on it, so it’s hard to miss the point. I can just imagine what else I can’t get online. Turkey is one of three finalists for the 2020 Olympics, and I wonder if Internet censorship is a positive or negative screen. It didn’t hurt China’s chances, obviously. The other two finalists are Spain, who is broke now and will probably still be broke by 2020, and Japan, who has had the Olympics about 17 times already, if I remember correctly. Maybe it just seems that way. So I would think Turkey’s chances aren’t bad. This would be the first Olympics in a Muslim country, which would be interesting.

So today we did a couple of smaller museums, both worth the admission. First up was the correct museum for the map show, which was kind of interesting, since the show didn’t actually contain any real maps—just pictures of them. Lovely, large pictures, to be sure, but still—not even the original of the great map that’s the centrepiece of the show. Islamic mapmaking was extraordinary, though—as in so many other areas, principally science and mathematics, they set the standard for a number of centuries.

Then a short walk straight uphill to Orhan Pamuk’s real Museum of Innocence, named after his novel The Museum of Innocence. This was great. If you’re a fan of Joseph Cornell or Barbara Hodgson, this is the museum for you. Pamuk has created, quite attentively and lovingly, various little boxes, each containing found everyday objects that embody each chapter of the book itself. There are 83 chapters, so now you know how many boxes there are. He hasn’t quite got them all filled, but the vast majority are lovingly full of the detritus of daily life, the kind that brings back and preserves memories. Which is what the museum is all about—how we preserve memories, and why we need to do that. Pamuk has written a companion book to the museum—The Innocence of Objects—discussing why and how he put the museum together; it’s been something he’s had in mind for decades, as it turns out.

Pamuk is not the most popular figure in Turkey, irrespective of his Nobel Prize for Literature. Several years ago he was put on trial out in Anatolia somewhere for insulting Turkishness or something, but—to the great relief of the national government—the trial was halted. But he embodies the European side of Turkey, at a time when much of Asian Turkey seems unconvinced of the benefits of being European. Maybe it’s the ease with which Turks seem to deal with each other that suggests a more placid, culturally integrated nation than is really the case. It’s clearly a multi-ethnic culture—you can see this just wandering around. The surprising thing to me is the sheer number, even here in Istanbul, of women wearing scarves, or even the full hijab. And raincoats—women wear raincoats everywhere, including a large number of younger women. Men wear whatever they want, of course.

Turkey still wants to be in the EU, but a number of EU nations remain to be convinced, and you can sort of understand the hesitance. Maybe it’s all those raincoats. As we’ve noted before, the EU has had a host of issues with Poland and Hungary over the past several years, and is still trying to figure out what sort of financial system it needs to have—it’s not clear to me that it’s ready yet for Turkey, or that Turkey is ready for Europe. This is not a new issue, of course—Turkey has been straddling these tensions for centuries. Much of Pamuk’s autobiographical Istanbul: Memories and the City is caught up with this tension. Still, Istanbul was a European Capital of Culture in 2010, along with Essen in Germany and Pécs in Hungary, so they’re making their move.

There’s no question it’s a great walking city—Mrs. W has been having a great time posting her daily shoots. I’ve been a bit remiss, but we’re sharing the laptop—I’m not about to start posting on an iPad Mini. But the location is a photographer’s dream, and there’s a shot anywhere you point your camera at.

Here’s a shot of the interior of the Şehzade Camii, which I believe is my favorite. Like a good cathedral, the larger mosques pull your vision straight up, which is sort of the point. And this is what you’re likely to see:
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Here’s another one:
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Notice the designs are of three things only—flora, words from the Koran, or geometry. Yet within those constraints, what a riot of variance. Compare the above with the interior of the Blue Mosque:
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The difference in tone is largely accounted for by the fact that the Blue Mosque interior is all tiles, so the light is different. Here’s the Hagia Sophia at night (taken with the phone, so it’s not great):
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The markets were a hoot—exactly the amalgam of color, aroma and bustle that you would expect. Here’s the Grand Bazaar:
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And the Spice Bazaar—where we actually parted with some currency. Some goodies to look forward to upon our return.
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And only one more day, then back to London! Where, I gather, it’s been snowing. Great.

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Traveling to Istanbul (II)–the Harem and other delights

IMG_0058Whenever I want to learn about a place, or a different time, I usually go the mystery route—find some good mysteries about whatever I want to know about, and read them. Sometimes this is more a happy accident than by design. Such was the case with Jason Goodwin’s series about Istanbul in the 1830s, with their protagonist Yashim the eunuch. I picked the first one up one day, and have been hooked ever since. There are four now, all excellent. And one reason they’re excellent is what you learn about the place and the time—in the 1830s, the Ottoman Empire was under intense pressure from both the north, in the form of Russia, and the south, in the form of Egypt. There’s lots of politics, since Yashim essentially functions as an intelligence operative for the Palace. And a lot of the Palace politics gets clarified and elucidated by Yashim’s visits to the Harem. Well, he’s a eunuch (from particularly tragic circumstances), remember—he can go there.

And so can you or I, now—just queue up inside Topkapi Palace for the Harem—yes, the real Harem—and you’re in. It’s great. Talk about a warren of rooms—there are rooms and rooms, and alcoves, and passageways, and cul-de-sacs, and fountains and baths, and everything a harem is supposed to have. The day we went was bright and sunny, so there was plenty of light, always a help. It’s still easy to forget that most of the world’s historic architecture and buildings were built when the world was still, in William Manchester’s wonderful phrase, lit only by fire.

We start out in the entrance hallway here, which gives a pretty good flavor of the whole place, even though it’s an outdoors area:
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As we move along through the nooks and crannies, we see why the mythology of this place was so shrouded—because there’s not a single straight line in the place that goes anywhere. On the other hand, there are some stunning rooms and details:
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With this as well—one of many corners you want to peer around, just to see what’s there. And it’s probably just another corner:
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So that was great. Imagine, the real Harem. If a magic carpet had swooped down, it wouldn’t have surprised me one bit. And it fits with most of what else we’ve seen—mostly mosques, and mostly those designed by Sinan, mentioned yesterday as the dean of mosque architecture. Two in particular stand out. The first, Şehzadi Camii, was commissioned by Suleyman following the death of his son. The second was the mosque named for Suleyman, the Süleymaniye Mosque, which is the grandest mosque compex in Istanbul. When I say complex, that’s because that’s what they were. These large complexes contained a bit of everything—the mosque, of course, but also a whole lot else: tombs (türbes); the schools, including the college for religious instruction (the medrese); the kitchens (usually for feeding not just the residents of the schools and the priests, but also the poor of the neighborhood); a hamam for public bathing; a ceşme, or public fountain; a library, stables and a han (business center). These were often large and costly to erect, but there are many of them, largely as a result of Islamic inheritance laws, which prevented leaving one’s entire estate to one’s children. We have some pictures of these two mosques in the next post.

We had another stunningly lovely day today, which we put to good effect by taking a ferry over to the Asian side. We then got to wander around a bit, noticing that the Asian side looks pretty much exactly like the European side. So we ambled north to the little town of Kuzguncuk (which is still in Istanbul, so our transport pass still worked.) This is worth mentioning because of the lunch we had, at a place called Ismet Baba Restaurant.

Like every place that gets overrun with tourists, there are two kinds of Turkish food in Istanbul—there’s Turkish food for tourists, and then there’s Turkish food. We’ve mostly been eating the former, but with just a tiny bit of effort you can easily find the latter. The lunch we had yesterday, for example, where we went back in the kitchen and picked stuff out. Not a word of English was uttered in any of these exchanges. Today there was a little bit of English, but it didn’t really matter. This was a fish restaurant, so we had bluefish (which we picked out,) lightly battered and cooked in olive oil, with some yoghurt and aubergine salad on the side. Perfection, that’s what it was. The great meals are always the ones you didn’t really expect, aren’t they? Eating that meal, sipping a beer and gazing over the Bosporus, I felt we could get into this sort of lifestyle.

That’s a fantasy, of course—I’d go nuts after a couple of weeks. But, still, it’s nice to have these breaks. At the moment I’m sitting on the roof patio of the hotel, staring at the busy Bosporus and Golden Horn, with dozens of ferries scooting around, and the larger ships and tankers heading up to or down from the Black Sea. It’s not what it was in the 19th century, of course, but it’s a lot busier than London. There’s a whole lot of life here. Tomorrow, up the Bosporus again!

Mosaics, Hagia Sofia

Traveling to Istanbul (I)

Dome, The New Mosque

Dome, The New Mosque

This is farther east and still in Europe than I’ve ever been, outside of Moscow—farther than Bucharest, farther than Athens. A lot like both, though—even though the place has been Islamic for five hundred years, it still feels pretty Orthodox as well—you can’t just disappear that 1,300 years of Christianity. What it mainly feels like, though, is bustling. This is one busy city. Thank god for the excellent tram system. I’m a big fan of cities with trams anyway, and this one is superb. It makes Boston’s system look like the medieval relic it really is. And the traffic makes Boston’s look positively care-free.

Our hotel, though, is nicely located, a couple of blocks from just about everything, right in the middle of the Eminönü area. So we’re a block from the train station, the relevant tram stop, the ferries up the Bosporus and into the Golden Horn, and no more than a fifteen minute walk to the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace. Lots of good restaurants nearby as well, with the only thing lacking being a place to get recent (i.e., since last Wednesday) English newspapers. But we’re fully wired—isn’t everyone these days, including what appears to be every resident of Istanbul, each and every one of whom apparently has a mobile phone? Packing for trips these days has become an exercise in wire management—we have the iPad charger, the laptop charger, the charger for the phone, which fortunately is the same as for my Blackberry from work, the battery chargers for the two cameras, the little box for uploading photos from cameras and phones and iPads onto laptops…what could I possibly have left off this list?

And, since it’s Easter, I had to bring along The Book of Common Prayer, to compensate for the fact that we haven’t been to an Easter service for years, and here we are, in a country where the Orthodox Easter won’t come around until May. Plus we spent the entirety of Easter visiting mosques. These cultural markers do mean something after all.

The mosques are quite neat, and not quite what I expected, at least the larger ones. These are large palaces of light, really, designed to be as open and as bright as possible. I’m still trying to sort out Islamic aesthetics, which I imagine will tell me why many of the interiors we’ve seen—especially at Topkapi—seem designed to not blend with each other—to just be, as Mrs. W put it, bright and shiny, with no sense of overall room design. Well, that’s probably just us—and it certainly isn’t a criticism that could be made of the mosques that we’ve been in. These are big and airy, with high domes (every one literally trying to outdo Hagia Sophia, apparently), lots of windows, and sublimely tasteful settings of verses from the Koran.

So far we’ve done most of the major mosques, including some designed by the master architect of mosques, Koca Mimar Sinan (“Great Architect Sinan”). Sinan was appointed Chief Imperial Architect by Suleyman and held the post for more than half a century. His output was astonishing, including 81 large mosques, more than half of which were in Istanbul. The major ones are the Süleymaniye, probably the largest and best known of Istanbul’s mosque complexes, and the Şehzade Camii (“Camii” is Turkish for “mosque”), which Suleyman had built in memory of his son, who died at 21. These are grand constructions. I would have to say that if I had a favorite, it was this one—the nicest balance of light and space of all of them. But this is subjective, obviously.

They are also interesting socially. This is a patriarchal culture and religion, so no surprise that there is a separate prayer area for women. Still, people are wandering around everywhere—except at our last mosque, where they asked visitors to stay in the back. But this wasn’t the case at other mosques, and people were just wandering around at most of them. Men were praying, yes. But men were also chatting up a storm, talking on their mobiles, and taking pictures of each other. Families were sitting around talking—not loudly, but certainly not whispering either. Children were running around all over the place. Maybe it’s because it was Sunday, and that’s a social day—you meet the neighbors at the mosque, have a nice chat, and move on. But what it most reminded me of is what medieval cathedrals were supposed to be like—large spaces where everyone got together regularly, and lots of stuff happened, not just services.

And Turkey is certainly a family place. There are kids everywhere. When we were visiting Topkapi Palace on Friday, it seemed as if every school group in Istanbul was there as well, not to mention about ten thousand mothers with strollers. What is lacking is lots of Disney stuff—we haven’t exactly been looking for it, but so far no kids in Little Princess outfits. However, there do seem to be LOTS of Burger Kings and McDonalds, which I suppose is inescapable these days. Still, plenty of good food pretty much everywhere. We’ve already had some excellent real meals, and some terrific light fare from the kebab shop down the street. This a city of 12 million people or however many it is, so you can get pretty much whatever you want here, so long as it’s lamb. But not just the lamb—Turkish cuisine is full of nuts and seeds, and not only do they spice everything up nicely, it’s also good for you. Forget all that crap about the Mediterranean diet. It’s what they eat here that’s good for you—olive oil, dates, figs, olives, and lots of seeds and nuts. I could eat this stuff forever.

Anyway, according to David Macaulay’s excellent <em>Mosque, the ideal proportions for a mosque are a perfect cube, covered by a half hemisphere. The perfect cube comes from the Kaaba at Mecca. The dome comes from, of all things, Hagia Sophia: when Mehmed II finally conquered Constantinople in 1453, he began a mosque building campaign. Hagia Sophia itself was turned into a mosque (it is no longer a mosque—it was turned into a museum in 1935). But it was also the impetus for a new model of mosque—one that emulated the Sophia, and, in particular, one that outdid its magnificent dome. It became a model for a number of mosques designed by Sinan, including Süleymaniye and Şehzade.

Hagia Sophia, from the Gallery

Hagia Sophia, from the Gallery

So one of the first things you do here is head over to Hagia Sophia, which is what we did on Thursday, along with, apparently, everyone who happened to be in Istanbul that day. And it’s worth it—it’s one of the most impressive buildings ever. It’s very large, and yes, the dome is gigantic—that’s 182 feet straight up. There was scaffolding along one of the walls in the nave, and some complaints on TripAdvisor about that, but really, you’re going to complain because your fifteen minutes in this marvelous building was ruined by scaffolding? Americans, go home. There is some great mosaic work throughout, especially in the narthex, and upstairs in the Gallery. The columns are magnificent, carved from marble, and supporting a U-shaped first-floor gallery that itself can obviously hold thousands. It is filled, just filled, with light—Byzantine architecture made some amazing innovations in this regard. But then you realize that this is simply what was left following two ruinous sackings—by the Fourth Crusaders in 1204, and by the Conqueror’s troops in 1453. Some of the Sophia’s treasures can still be seen in Venice, interestingly enough.

Dome, Hagia Sophia

Dome, Hagia Sophia

It was an inspiring visit. I felt sort of the way I felt after my first visit to The Baptistry in Florence: here was a building that not only encapsulated an age—the entire history of Byzantium—but it also provided a foundation for much of what followed. It’s a trip everyone should make. It’s not until you’re here, really, that you start to appreciate what the Byzantines did—they kept it all going when Rome collapsed and was overrun by Vandals, and when what eventually became Europe disappeared into several centuries of fear, suppression and constant warfare. For ages this was the Roman empire, extended—except run by Greeks. The Turks didn’t get here until the 15th century, an Islamic tribe coming out of the steppes.

Mosaics, Hagia Sophia

Mosaics, Hagia Sophia

It’s theoretically a secular culture now—this is Atatürk’s legacy. But it doesn’t feel that way. Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, which is basically an autobiography, reminds us that this is a city of ruins from many different civilizations and periods, and it still has that flavor of mixed failed empires, from which a new one has yet to take shape. But the ingredients are all here.