Some photographs of a walk through Ancient Thera in Santorini.

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courtesy of Wake In Fright (dir. T. Kotcheff)

Having left the field a while ago, for reasons that I won’t go into, suffice it to say I no longer have access to the relevant literature, I’ve been drawn quite by accident to consider the recent proposal that the inhibitory junction potential (IJP) recorded in the gastrointestinal smooth muscle has its origin in cells that are not smooth muscle in nature. This challenges the accepted wisdom that IJPs, or more specifically, “fast” IJPs, result from an increase in potassium conductance in smooth muscle cells bearing receptors for ATP released at en passant synapses with enteric inhibitory motor nerves coursing through the muscle layer, and that the attendant hyperpolarization of the membrane potential of the affected smooth muscle cells spreads electrotonically to other coupled smooth muscle cells in the bundle, opposing any concomitant depolarizing inputs and force generation. The new scheme proposed by Sanders et al. posits that non-smooth cells (PDGFα positive) in fact are the transducers of the ATP induced hyperpolarization which is transmitted electrotonically to coupled smooth muscle cells via gap junctions.

The attractiveness of this proposal is that it compartmentalizes the response and obviates the apparent paradox that an inhibitory neurotransmitter that induces muscle relaxation by stimulating the release of stored calcium inside smooth muscle cells to activate a potassium conductance, does so without simultaneously activating contractile proteins. Although this mechanism can be accommodated within the existing framework involving only smooth muscle cells and enteric inhibitory neurons by invoking localized calcium domains affecting membrane channels and not contractile proteins, and different calcium release mechanisms and coupling to calcium entry, the compartmentalization of the electrical component of the inhibitory response effectively insulates the smooth muscle cells from any possible contrary effects of calcium spill over onto the contractile apparatus.

One caveat that comes to mind, however, that may argue against an intermediary cell relay between the inhibitory nerves and smooth muscle cells is the fact that in many types of cells, notably cardiac cells that are also coupled electrically via gap junctions, the increase in intracellular calcium that precedes contraction has the effect of drastically reducing the conductance of gap junction channels (connexins). Therefore, if in the new scheme proposed by Sanders et al. the transducing element for the IJP is the PDGFa positive cell which is electrically coupled to smooth muscle cells, then any increase in intracellular calcium in the former upon activation of P2 purinoreceptors by nerve-released ATP or related molecules, to induce a robust hyperpolarization by activating SK channels; this raises the question of what fraction of the hyperpolarization in the PDGFα positive cells is transmitted to the smooth muscle if the conductance of gap junction channels is blocked or substantially diminished by the rise in intracellular calcium?

In the defence of this new proposal, however, the gap junctional conductance between the PDGFα positive cells and smooth muscle may not be entirely blocked during the rise in intracellular calcium, and although the intercellular resistance may be increased, it may still be sufficiently low for a significant fraction of the hyperpolarization in the PDGFα positive cells to spread to the smooth muscle and hyperpolarize it. In this regard, it has been shown by me that in electrically coupled supporting cells in the olfactory epithelium that when neighboring cells are stimulated with ATP to activate BK channels via intracellular release of calcium, a transjunctional current can be still be recorded from the patch-clamped supporting cell, although the latter needs to be dialyzed internally with an unnaturally high concentration of calcium buffer to prevent a rise in calcium, and has multiple inputs as far as electrotonically conducted events are concerned from the many surrounding supporting cells to which it’s coupled. Thus it remains to be seen whether in the case of PDGFα positive cells coupled to smooth muscle cells, to what extent a rise in intracellular calcium in the former decreases trans-junctional resistance at a time when current flow needs to be uncompromised for the hyperpolarization to spread with minimal decrement to the smooth muscle cells.

So much for electrical coupling between PDGFα positive cells and smooth muscle cells and the role of the former as the effector cell for the IJP response recorded in the smooth muscle. But another issue raised by this new proposal is the role of purinoceptors and SK channels in smooth muscle cells themselves, and the extent of their contribution to the generation of the IJP. Both P2 purinoceptors and apamin-sensitive SK channels are found in smooth muscle cells of the circular muscle layer in a smooth muscle tissue known to generate IJPs, that is, the mouse ileum. But the question is, are they expressed in sufficient abundance, if not to generate the IJP, then to contribute to it? If they were expressed at a sufficient density in smooth muscle cells to generate the IJP then it would seem that the hyperpolarization generated by PDGFα positive cells may not be necessary and could simply be an epiphenomenon that occurs at the same time and has a similar timecourse to the IJP following nerve stimulation, and subserves and entirely different function. This could be to mediate in the release of other substances, given that SK channels are expressed at high densities in many types of secretory cell. Could it be that the large sustained hyperpolarization induced by ATP in PDGFα positive cells underlies capacitative calcium entry to support slow vesicular release of whatever substance(s) these cells secrete?

In circular smooth muscle cells isolated from the mouse ileum, if one extrapolates the magnitude of the ATP-evoked apamin-sensitive current recorded from cell-attached patches to its size over the entire cell membrane, based on rough estimates of patch area and cell surface area from cell capacitance, then there are grounds to believe that a current of sufficient magnitude can indeed be generated to hyperpolarize smooth muscle cells without invoking the mediation of other cells types. But the question is, is the concentration of ATP used experimentally to induce this current a fair mimic of that released from nerves in the IJP response, and is the timecourse of activation of the SK potassium conductance on the timescale of the IJP? Without knowing the answer to these questions, it would be reasonable to conclude that smooth muscle cells, or at least a fraction of circular smooth muscle cells of the mouse ileum that survive enzymatic treatment during the cell isolation, are capable of hyperpolarizing in response to ATP through the opening of SK channels. If these cells do not contribute directly or significantly to the generation of the IJP itself, then they may participate in the overall inhibitory response in a “volume transmission” manner as a result of spill-over of ATP released from enteric inhibitory nerves diffusing to circular smooth muscle cells in the vicinity. This scenario invokes the concept of junctional and extrajunctional receptors as in vascular smooth muscle and elsewhere. In this regard, it was noted in my experiments that a prominent effect of stimulation of the circular smooth muscle cells by exogenous ATP was to enhance the transient outward current component that was activated by calcium current-dependent calcium entry/release and which was sensitive to apamin. Enhancement of this current by extrajunctional ATP alone would suppress the excitability of the circular smooth muscle cells by increasing the interval between bursts of action potentials and contractions in situ. Moreover, the sustained rise in intracellular calcium occasioned by release of stored calcium by extrajunctional ATP would be expected to inactivate voltage-gated calcium channels in smooth muscle cells, thereby adding to a refractoriness of the muscle to further excitation and contraction.

In any case, here’s something to remind us of the physiological relevance of the IJP and its role in gastrointestinal motility broadly speaking.

Fivos Vogalis PhD

Slide 1

 

Pi2

 

 

 Pi3

Tsootsoo lay dozing by the orange glow of the electric fan heater, the one my mother says brings sleep (φέρνει ύπνο), soaking up its warming rays through her big fat pink belly. From the angle of the sun piercing through the curtains onto my eyes, I figured it had to be well after four. My wristwatch said quarter to five, which meant I had slept for close to two solid hours. It was a deep, incapacitating kind of sleep, free of dreams, what my mother calls φυσικό φάρμακο, and now I felt thoroughly rejuvenated. 
    It was also that time in the afternoon when Tsootsoo usually had her dinner, and in case I forgot, she had twisted her head up off the floor and was looking directly at me with her big, brown, beckoning eyes. In anticipation of my getting up, or perhaps to prompt me into action, she propped herself up onto her backside, but sensing I was in no hurry to get up off the couch, she forlornly slumped back down onto the carpet with an audible thump, letting out a deep sigh, before rolling back on her side, while I continued to bask under the blanket in the sweet languorous after-glow of nature’s best medicine.

    With my sister out of the house and not likely to be back for another hour, I knew at some point I would have to get up and make her dinner, because to deny her at her accustomed hour would be sheer cruelty. Why couldn’t she open the refrigerator, I wondered, dice up a portion of dog loaf into her bowl, mix in some dry pellets, and feed herself? Then again, there was no guarantee she wouldn’t eat the entire loaf at once and make herself thoroughly sick. Dogs are like that; they will eat whatever is placed in front of them, to maximize their chances of survival in case of sudden scarcity. And Tsootsoo is no different. She has such a voracious appetite, she eats everything she’s given, to the point of regurgitating what her stomach cannot accommodate.

    She wasn’t always like that, but after she was neutered following the birth of her first and only litter of seven pups, sired by a beady-eyed red heeler-cross from the gas station across the highway in Five Ways where my parents used to have a small farm growing flowers, her gluttonous tendency gradually took hold, and in the ensuing years she gained so much weight that she now has to be lifted onto the couch and the back seat of the car whenever she goes for a ride. But she didn’t attain that portly state all on her own, and some of the blame must lie with my father. With her big, brown, beckoning eyes, she had little trouble seducing him into surrendering to her every nuanced demand, and with a simple bat of her eyes at dinner, he would shove half his plate into her bowl and slip it to her under the table, to the chagrin of my mother who had to watch her fine cooking on which she’d slaved hours in the kitchen preparing, being fed to a dog. But now that he’s gone, she’s turned her beguiling ways to the next available sucker who happens to be me.

    In fact, it was he who came up with the name Tsootsoo. I think it came from a female character in one of those black-and-white film comedies set in Athens in the 1960s, a “κορίτσι του εξήντα,” as they say. That was before the military junta seized power and brought the frivolity and exuberance of the times to an abrupt end. And within a year, my father and mother had immigrated to a strange new country on the other side of the world, and dragged me and my sister off with them. But that’s another story.

    It must be said my father had a particular knack for assigning apt nick-names not only to pets and people, but also to cars and various other inanimate objects. These included our utility bills for electricity and gas, which he named “Βασίλη”, as in “μικρός Βασίλης” and “μεγάλος Βασίλης” depending which was larger, a cross-lingual play on words for the name Bill in Greek, and the English word for the payment owing. But I always thought his choice of name for Tsootsoo was particularly fitting, because it had that coquettish ring to it which perfectly captured her flirtatious disposition, from her dreamy, Greta Garbo eyes, down to her overgrown toenails, and the way she liked to toy with his emotions.

    With her hunger mounting, Tsootso lifted her head up off the floor again, and stared directly into my eyes, this time with added purpose. In that primal mode of communication mutually comprehensible to higher mammals, she was telling me her hunger was becoming insufferable, and she would not stop staring into my eyes until I was so stricken with guilt, I would have no choice than to get up and make her dinner, or else risk falling ill. Now there’s a thought: can guilt actually make one physically sick? What about the pernicious curse of “the evil eye”? There must some truth in it, seeing it’s so deeply embedded in the folklore of so many cultures.

    I guess it’s possible, by suppressing the immune system through the hypophyseal-adrenal axis which mediates the body’s responses to stress, both physical as well as psychological. In fact, there’s quite a large body of literature on the subject, which comes under the general head of “psychosomatic illness”, although serious-minded scientists are still loath to acknowledge its legitimacy. Apparently, a particularly debilitating form of psychological stress whose effects have been well documented in mammals is “subjugation stress.” This results in the suppression of the subservient animal’s immunity, causing it to fall victim to various opportunistic infections, as well as driving it to self-harm. And in terms of psychological impact, it would fair to assume that stress occasioned by guilt and shame would not be all that dissimilar in it’s sequelae, depending, of course, on the degree to which the subject actually “feels” guilt or shame, or any other deeply conscience-troubling emotion. Therefore, in response to Tsootsoo’s imploring, guilt-inducing stare, my own immunological defenses could well be knocked out, and I too fall victim to some opportunistic disease. That’s on top of the neurophysiological effects on my brain to make me more pliant and submissive to her demands in the future, and avoid sickening guilt.

    I guess from an evolutionary perspective, guilt-induced stress may have arisen among social animals to ensure the group’s survival as a self-perpetuating unit. It may do this by acting as a disciplinary mechanism to enforce docility and cooperation among compliant members so they don’t stray from their assigned rôles in the division of labor, thus helping maintain the group’s functional cohesiveness. The present case, however, involved not an extended kin group, but two individuals from different species, albeit sharing a common ancestor in their distant past; that is, a neutered female canine using her wiles to induce an unattached and somewhat weak-willed human male in her eyes, into acting in her favor. This relationship was more akin to parasitism, or perhaps some kind of symbiotic codependence, than anything directed towards hierarchy enforcement, and alludes to advanced cognitive functions in dogs. Or does it?

    Maybe their brains are just wired to respond to sensory cues from humans with behaviors that appear perceptive, but which are nothing more than an elaboration of their in-born instincts for self-preservation within their social group. And conversely, our own brains are wired to recognize behavioral cues in them, as surrogates for human companions in our lives, and to respond accordingly, without any high level cognitive exchange. Nevertheless, perhaps my getting up to feed Tsootsoo had some hidden benefit(s) for me as well, apart from warding off any potential guilt-induced suppression of my immune system, although in her present physical condition, with her refractory obesity and signs of senility setting in, her ability to keep watch on the house and alert me of unwelcome visitors, is not what it once was.

    As I lay there pondering over the behavioral strategies of dogs vis á vis humans, suddenly, something a fellow student once said in my zoology class, came to mind, back when I was an undergraduate at Monash. We were having an informal discussion on the ethics of using animals in scientific research, when girl, I think her name was Cath, declaimed with the unshakeable confidence of a confirmed scientist-in-the-making, that the only reason people felt any empathy towards animals, especially mammals, was simply because they were “anthropomorphic.” She followed this by saying that no-one ever cried over a snake or toad left for dead on the road, and that was because they weren’t soft and cuddly like cats and dogs or guinea-pigs, and then smugly sat back for the rest of us to digest her succinct summary of the central delusion at the core of the animal liberation movement, which was starting to make waves on campus.

    Like the others present, I thought her argument made perfectly logical sense, not least because I couldn’t stand animal liberationists either, with their holier-than-thou sanctimoniousness, and their persecuted herd mentality. Moreover, we were rational scientists, or on the way to becoming ones, and we couldn’t allow such puerile sentimentality to get in the way of our search for knowledge and enlightenment. It was our duty to study nature objectively and dispassionately for what it was, a vast interplay of forces, actions and reactions, governed by immanent laws and relationships which it was our task to identify in the biological context. Purely subjective factors like emotions and feelings for animals had no place in our noble quest, because in the end, as human beings, we were distinguished from them by being uniquely conscious of our own consciousness, whereas they were incapable of reflection, let alone higher concepts like morality and ethics.

    I can’t remember whether I mentioned this to the class, as my contribution to the discussion, but I recall the issue had brought to mind my uncle in Greece, whom I had just visited the previous year, and how he put down tens of cows each day at the abattoirs with a single shot of his stun gun between their eyes, and yet he was the most even-tempered person in the world who would never intentionally harm another human being, or animal for that matter. But there he was slaughtering tens of cows each day, because to him they were just another source food that had to be harvested and processed to supply the people’s needs. Therefore, it was ludicrous to think that scientists who sacrificed animals in the course of their experiments were inherently evil, because it was all done for the greater good of humanity.

    On reflection, however, as I lay there in my cozy post-nap inertia, savoring the attendant clarity of mind, I now wasn’t so sure about this girl’s reasoned defense of animal experimentation. It wasn’t because I had since forsaken meat, with the exception of some fish and poultry, not for any ethical reasons, but simply because I developed a distaste for meat in general. I remembered there was something about her comment that had piqued my sensibilities that day, but because I was so taken by her apparent maturity and her succinct eloquence, like everyone else, I put my reservations aside and voiced my agreement. But some ten years later, I now recognized why I felt that twinge of resentment. It was because her argument was too glib. It was something a naive undergraduate would say, having heard it from others, without fully understanding its philosophical subtleties. It betrayed a firmness of mind in one who had yet to experience the vicissitudes of life’s fortunes, and in the absence of any vitiating self-doubt, she was fully convinced of its surface logic, and content to espouse it for her own self-aggrandizement.

    As for the logic of her argument, that purely emotive factors were at play in people’s objection to animal experimentation, and one could dismiss them as peevish, and their reasoning as false; well, I now questioned that as well, because the term anthropomorphism merely described the condition by which animals and humans shared recognizable physical similarities, and it was wrong and presumptuous to conclude that those similarities were to blame for the distorted views of animal liberationists and their like, simply because they could read in those anthropomorphic features signals that had the power to move. Her dogmatic belief in the truth of her own convictions had prevented her from contemplating the possibility that those signals may be a harbinger or warning of imminent calamity for society on its present course, even if the nature of the threat was not immediately clear. In other words, she had no appreciation of the absurd.

    As to why I might have recalled her comments that afternoon, while musing over my relationship with Tsootsoo, and the extent to which I was her slave, and she mine; I suspect it had to do with the fact that a few weeks earlier, I was looking for the telephone number of someone in the Department of Zoology at Melbourne University to discuss something they’d published, and I came across her name on the list of faculty, not knowing she worked there. And when I saw it, the first thing that came into my head were her comments in our zoology class, which were still floating around in my head just below the surface, on the off-chance they might inform some relevant thought.

    In any case, it appeared she’d found a comfortable niche for herself among fellow mockers of the psychic connectedness between humans and anthropomorphic animals. I say this in all facetiousness, because I’ve always regarded zoologists as these strong-willed, staunchly atheistic dogmatists who eschew mystical contemplation like it was the plague. And like the over-zealous, godless crusaders for nature they like to play, never having outgrown their penchant for cutting up dead animals and pulling the wings off flies and the legs off insects, they seem perpetually obsessed with classifying them down to their minutest details, to discover where they came from, and why they are what they are, and why they live where they live. And something told me she was not different and her views hadn’t changed in the intervening years, not that I knew her that well.

     What I did know, because she had told everyone, as is the wont of proud products of middle-classes everywhere, who draw self-affirming inspiration from their parents’ achievements, and those of their parents’ parents, including heroic exploits in World Wars, was that her father was a retired commercial airline pilot and her mother a teacher of some sort, and that she grew up on a large rural property, surrounded by farm animals and those native to the surrounding bush. Given that background, I assumed she had had a good, thorough education which had instilled in her at an early age a deep fascination for the natural sciences, so that the mere mention of the words “science” and “nature” conjured up a warm and welcoming place, in contrast to the cold “other worldliness” these same words evoked in my own mind.

    And true to her academic calling, and the implicit desideratum in its disciples for ideological constancy and resolute defense of one’s convictions, personal and professional, in all likelihood she still firmly believed that humans and animals could never have true intellectual intercourse. Ergo, like any other natural resource, they were at man’s disposal to be studied and exploited for the greater good of society, regardless of what some bleeding heart animal liberationists believed.

     With my memory jogged, something else she said on another occasion now came to mind, reinforcing my suspicion that her views had fundamentally not changed, given that people’s views in general rarely change, especially if there’s no reason.

    Anyhow, a few years later, we were reunited as graduate students in the Department of Physiology. And one morning she burst into the common room we all shared looking very excited and full of energy, and began to relate with manic glee how on the way back from a field trip with her colleagues to the koala sanctuary on Phillip Island the night before, they struck and killed a particularly plumb rabbit in their Landrover. She said they stopped and picked up the dead animal, still in one piece, put it in a box, and when they got home, they skinned and cleaned it, and cooked it for dinner, and it was the best free meal they’d ever had. Her story, however, left me annoyed, because I sensed she was using it to assert her superiority by implying that her research was much more important than ours and had wider significance, because it entailed going on extended field trips and studying animals in their natural habitat, whereas the rest of us were largely confined to our laboratories, slaving away on esoteric topics that no-one care about. Moreover I found her vain machismo somewhat repellent in someone who was ostensibly female. It was as if she was still out to prove her imperviousness to puerile anthropomorphic sentimentality, and debunk the perceived mental softness and emotional lability in her gender.

    By now, the animal liberation movement had become more vocal on campus, holding rallies and demonstrations, demanding an end to the use of animals in scientific experiments, especially primates. And as was her wont, Kath didn’t hide her visceral dislike of them, deriding their tactics and threats to sabotage laboratories with plans of her own to derail their efforts; whereas for me, I had grown indifferent to the whole issue. In fact, secretly I wished they would succeed in shutting down all the animal facilities, because I had begun to lose faith in science, and was struggling to maintain an interest in my own research project which entailed recording electrical signals from tissue samples dissected from the intestines of rodents, humanely sacrificed, of course, in accordance with the guidelines set out by the University Animal Ethics Committee. Moreover, with my increasing politicization in regard to the rôle of science in society, and exactly where I fitted in as a product of the immigrant working class, seeking to transcend my station, I figured there were bigger issues on the intellectual horizon to concern myself with, and the ethics of using animals in scientific research didn’t figure prominently.

    In retrospect, perhaps she was just trying to express in the only way she knew, the fact that the anthropomorphic lagomorph they had accidently struck and killed on the highway that night belonged to an introduced species that had done enormous damage to the environment, and had displaced many native animals in the process. Therefore, she or anyone else for that matter need not feel guilty about killing such an animal, when it would likely have been killed by foxes anyway. But as I thought over her story again, I remembered that what had annoyed me more than her dogmatic stance against the animal liberationists and her machismic bravado was what I perceived as her hypocrisy in regard to her views on anthropomorphism and the sentimentality it inspired.

    This had to do with the fact that her research project was concerned with finding a cure for a chlamydia-like infection that was rendering female koalas infertile. As such, it threatened to wipe out the colony on Phillip Island which was a popular tourist attraction, especially among big-spending Japanese tourists who flocked there to see these lovable, furry creatures unique to Australia. Thus, while she could belittle others and arrogantly accuse them of being irrational in their opposition to the exploitation of animals in scientific research, and in whatever other legitimate use sanctioned by society, duped by their anthropomorphic features, she herself, through her research project, had a vested interest in their continued anthropomorphic appeal to gullible tourists.

    I suppose in her mind curing koalas of a devastating disease was fully consistent with her views, because in doing so she wasn’t motivated by any particular anthropomorphic sentimentality inspired by these furry creatures, although she wouldn’t have objected if it came across that way. Her actions were fully in line with her beliefs that animals existed for man to exploit for his own benefit, humanly of course, even in the wild, and in the end, her work was intended for greater economic good of Australia, by ensuring the commercial viability of a key tourist attraction, which benefited everyone, including herself, through the research funds her laboratory received from the government through the taxes it collected from tourists and associated business activity they stimulated.

    Although, seen from this angle there was no contradiction between her beliefs and her actions, I wondered whether in working to save those koalas from dying off didn’t unwittingly betray her own anthropomorphic feelings towards them, given that the diseased animals were females, and as a woman and a future mother, one thinks, her faculty for empathy had driven her to reify that psychic connection between humans and animals, as loath as she would be to admit. Still it bugged me that I never once heard her express any skepticism or doubt about what she was doing, nor did she evince any interest in topics outside the realm of science, like politics, except in a strictly polemic sense, as it pertained to her own field, as per her views on anthropomorphic sentimentality and animal liberationists.

    It was if she was incapable of or didn’t allow herself any degree of deep thought outside her narrow field, lest it might undermine her beliefs and shatter her view of the world, and where she fitted into it. Moreover, since to me she represented the dominant class that underpinned the power structure in Australian society, her seeming arrogance had succeeded in provoking my burgeoning antipathy towards the wider social formation in which I found myself, concerning its historical foundations and the sociopolitical forces that had shaped it. Thus, it followed that I should project onto her my increasing rejection of that society.

    In her I could see glimpses of the conquerious mindset of those who had come before her to take possession of this ungoverned land inhabited by backward savages, and proceed to “improve” it unhindered, and install on it a society created in their own exalted image, based on strict property relations and the pursuit of profit. In her, that plundering spirit of her forebears had been transformed and refined into a desire to take possession of its heart and soul by extracting from it as much knowledge as she and others like her could, about all the resident life-forms, its flora and fauna, its geographical features, and everything else on which the sun shone within its shores, in the name of scientific progress, and thereby make the conquest complete. As such, she and her kind were anathema, and I saw in her proud exaltation of nature and science a sign of the inherited psychopathology and intellectual shallowness of a people too afraid to contemplate their own insignificance.

    If I had to say, in the end, I didn’t much like Cath. Not because she was completely bereft of any endearing qualities, because there was a certain tom-boyish charm about her, and at times she displayed a raw honesty, free of pretension, that was refreshing. But she seemed devoid of any engaging metaphysical bent, which I guess had served her well in her chosen academic field, helping her conform to the accepted archetype of a zoologist. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so critical, because Rosa Luxenburg was also a materialist and a devoted student of nature, and it didn’t affect her commitment to the revolutionary struggle. But she was a naturalist, as opposed to a zoologist. Her view of nature was informed by the material interconnectedness of everything in the physical realm, humans, animals, plants, and everything else, where countries and national boundaries had no place; whereas zoologists, to my mind, are hyper-vigilant narrow-minded philistines who, fearing loss of their fragile identity, under the threat of shame and ostracism by their peers, dare not question or transgress the defining principles of their discipline, whatever they are. Moreover, as academics, they are beholden to the whims and dictates of the state educational apparatus, and their views are necessarily informed by crass nationalism that stifles intellectual exploration and revolutionary thinking.

    On a more personal level, perhaps my dislike of Cath betrays my envy of her success, having secured for herself a tenured academic position, whereas I’m a mere research scientist on a soft-money, back at Monash, I’m embarrassed to admit. Moreover, if I were to be honest, I would also have to admit that at the root of my dislike was my jealousy of her outgoing, self-confident, and apparent freedom from self-doubt, while I was, and still am, constantly tormented by deep skepticism, and crippled by the fear that I didn’t know what I was doing, trapped among people I couldn’t relate to.

    It was different, however, when I first entered university. I was so relieved to be finally rid of the hellish trauma of high school, and took to my classes with enthusiasm to learn as much as I could. Despite not knowing anyone, except for one or two students from high school with whom I was never really friends, I felt I was now part of a privileged group of like-minded young adults who would one day assume the reins of power in society and guide it according to our own collective vision. In retrospect, my optimism was driven by a mixture of naive, post-adolescent pride in my modest scholastic achievements, and oddly enough, in Australia itself, the nation and the society, to which I felt a sense of belonging like never before.

    But after a few months, even though I had made a couple of new friends, I was beset by debilitating alienation and I began to question what I was doing here, not just at university, but in Australia itself. I sensed there was something fundamentally false about my eagerness to assume for myself an identity to which I believed I had a just claim, when the undeniable fact was that I really didn’t belong among these people, and had only fooled myself into believing I did. And once that idea firmly established itself in my mind I became increasingly preoccupied with finding a way of extricating myself from that horribly stifling environment.

    I ended up deferring the year and went to work in a refrigerator factory. I did that for about six months during which time I earned enough money to buy a 35mm SLR camera with wide-angle and zoom lenses, and pay for a trip back to Greece with the aim of discovering my true identity to fill the gaping void. There I stayed for about two months, hosted by my relatives, before returning to Australia, thoroughly dejected and disillusioned by the experience, and the following year I re-enrolled at university to continue my studies. To overcome the conflicting emotions and confused cultural loyalties, I threw myself into my work, determined to finish my degree, and not think about such intractable questions like where I belonged, until I had graduated.

    It paid off because I quickly settled into the routine of university life and started doing fairly well academically. And so long as I continued to mimic my fellow students and conformed to what was expected of me, it was easy to believe that I was expanding my intellectual horizons by participating in such discussions as the ethics of using anthropomorphic animals in scientific experiments, and that everything would turn out well, and I would do my parents proud. But that niggling feeling of being an outsider was always there, lurking below the surface.

    It was starting to get a little nippy and Tsootsoo needed to be fed. A hot cup of coffee would wake me up and warm my insides quite nicely. Pulling the cover aside, I put on my slippers and made my way to the kitchen, with Tsootsoo following, tapping out a pitter patter rhythm on the kitchen floor with her overgrown toenails. As she watched me preparing to grind some coffee, she slumped against the sliding door. Temporarily distracted by a flea on her hind leg, she began grunting and gnawing at it with her front teeth, but stopped and moved when I prodded her so she wouldn’t break the glass panel with the jerky movements of her fat rump. Turning to her, I reassured her in my dog pidgin, a mixture of Greek and English, spoken in a childish tone, in deference to her less advanced intellect, that as soon as I had set up the coffee maker, I would start on her dinner. She seemed to understand and lay down to wait patiently.

    While the coffee brewed, I diced up some dog loaf into her bowl, as Tsootsoo gave out a few plaintive yelps for me to hurry up. To remind her just who was boss, I teased her by lowering the bowl just above her nose and then pretended to take it away, at which she became agitated and let out a low disapproving growl. Then, as if scared into submission, I immediately put down the bowl and she leapt at it, covering it with her head and shoulders, in case I changed my mind. I filled her water bowl and then poured myself a hot cup of black coffee.

    It had to be regular dark roasted “Columbo Supreme.” I liked it straight black, drunk from my white porcelain mug, stained brown, because I rarely washed it, except to rinse out the grounds, since soap residue, even trace amounts, affected the flavor, not to mention my brain. I emphasize regular because of a rather nasty experience I had one time in Reno, where I went to work after I got my doctorate in 1987.

     Unbeknownst to me, I had bought a bag of hazelnut flavored coffee beans. The packaging on the regular and the hazelnut flavored varieties was almost identical, except for the flavor printed at the bottom, which I never bothered to read, having assumed from the label on the shelf that all the bags in that particular row were of the regular, unflavored variety. But when I got home and unpacked the groceries, I could smell a weird but vaguely familiar aroma coming from the coffee beans which I recognized as hazelnut. I assumed the bag must have been stored next to hazelnut flavored coffee somewhere along the way, and the packaging had absorbed some of that aroma.

    As I prepared to make coffee, I noticed the smell of hazelnut got stronger when I snipped open the bag. Ignoring it, I scooped some beans into the grinder and ground them up. But after taking off the lid, realizing the source of that abominable smell was the coffee itself and not the packaging, my heart sank in my chest. And picking up the bag, sure enough, right there at the bottom, the label confirmed its contents: two pounds of hazelnut flavored dark-roasted coffee beans.

    It appeared that someone at the supermarket had deliberately placed it among bags of the regular, unflavored coffee beans so that unsuspecting customers would buy it, since the stock wasn’t moving and they had to sell it somehow; it was the only explanation. I tried to calm down by telling myself that hazelnut flavored coffee wasn’t all that different from regular coffee, and my senses would soon become desensitized to it, and after a few days I won’t be able to tell the difference. So I went ahead and brewed some coffee and reluctantly drank it down.

    Next morning I ground up some more beans and brewed up a fresh pot, and sat down to have breakfast. However, with each sip, that nauseous aroma of sweaty socks was becoming increasingly intolerable. It was nothing like the invigorating coprous stink of regular dark-roasted Colombian coffee beans I was accustomed to. But I persisted, in the expectation that my senses would soon get used to it in the coming days, and in the meantime I just had to endure this minor irritation. But after I had drunk about half the cup, I promptly got up, went straight to the kitchen and poured the remainder down the sink and then emptied the entire pot after it, before thoroughly rinsing out both under hot running water to get rid of that ghastly aroma. In fact, I could only relax after I had taken the bag from the pantry cupboard, sealed it up, and disposed of it in the dumpster outside, so that no hint of that dastardly smell would remain in my apartment, forfeiting the $10 refund had I returned it to the supermarket. I took some solace in the fact that at least it wasn’t vanilla flavored, an even worse abomination I once drank out of curiosity at an airport and spat out all over myself.

    I’m sure there are others like me who abhor flavored coffee. Perhaps with the increasing penetration of chemical additives and flavorings in our food to trick us into eating more than necessary, and help the big food manufacturers increase their profits, we will eventually become extinct, there being nothing for us to eat. Or perhaps, under the mysterious guidance of an evolutionarily stable strategy encoded in our genes, we will organize ourselves into small sequestered communities up in the hills, growing our own food, eschewing all unnatural and chemically modified food products, and breeding among ourselves to preserve our recessive taste and smell alleles, so that when everyone else is dead from all the nice tasting artificial poisons accumulated in their bodies, which they happily consumed thinking they were harmless, we can re-populate the earth with a new breed of human beings, living in harmony with nature, and thus, the meek will finally reap their just rewards.

    I took a few aniseed biscuits from the cupboard and went back to the living room with my coffee. Tsootsoo, having cleaned her bowl had come and planted herself between me and the heater, oblivious of her fat backside sizzling away, as she stared at me imploringly with her big, brown, beckoning eyes. To tease her again would be too patronizing and lead her to question my fidelity and reassess her loyalty. So I promptly broke off half a biscuit finger, dipped it into the coffee, checked it wasn’t scalding and presented it to her supplicating eyes. Delicately, she picked it out of my outstretched fingertips with her front teeth, and in one quick gulp made it disappear.

    After I finished my coffee, it would be time for her constitutional, pausing at her leisure at every tree and telegraph pole on the way to the park to sniff for scent left by others. Somewhere along the way, she would drop her load which I would be obliged to collect into a black plastic bag, in case anyone was watching and reported me to the municipal authorities if I failed to do so. There would be no forgetting it, because she would sit by the door and stare at me until I was so racked with guilt, I had no choice than to get up, fetch her collar and allow her majesty to lead the way.

    Drawing the curtain aside, I could see the shadows getting longer in the low sun. In less than an hour it would be dark. I thought how easy it would be to leave if it weren’t for Tsootsoo. To take her with me at her age would be much too cruel.         

(Melbourne, 1992.  I had just returned from my father’s funeral in Thessaloniki. I was staying at my sister’s house in Chadstone, while my mother remained in Greece. Tsootsoo was now nine years old. But within a few months she’d be dead, from complications of surgery to remove a tumorous growth in her pancreas)

I want to express in words what I feel. But I am only me, there is no other. Meaningless non sequiturs and illogical metaphors follow statements like senescent leaves falling off trees in autumn. It’s now late July 2010, a measure of time, of the months in the year, and a count of the years passed since year zero, the birth of Jesus Christ our savior who died on the cross as a sacrifice to God for all our sins.

Since I last put pen to paper my mind has been subjected to incalculable sensory inputs, discrete to my perception, but in reality continuous and intertwined. It has organized those it can make sense of into recallable memories which obey the rules of cause and effect, or “objective chorality” as my housemate in Reno was wont to pronounce with paternalistic superciliousness, because his father was a physicist, whereas mine was a lowly cheese-maker-cum-factory worker-cum-flower farmer. He was paraphrasing Marshall McLuhan, his compatriot, because being bereft of any original thought he wanted to pass himself off as intellectually superior by associating himself with the ideas of famous others, even though I’d never heard of Marshall McCluhan. As for how well my brain has retained my life’s memories, all I can say is: do memories exist if they can never be recalled?

Last year one Saturday, almost a year to the day my mother died (she died, in fact, on August 23rd 2008), when the antipodean winter reluctantly makes way for spring’s indecisive entrance, I drove to Richmond to see the house we lived in after arriving down in Melbourne from the Bonegilla migrant camp outside Albury, in late February 1969. Like many of the other houses on Wellington Street it has been fixed up. In fact the entire area south ofSwan Street has undergone a rejuvenation of sorts, a makeover if you like, or gentrification. It is now inhabited mainly by young urban professionals with or without small children, content to be part of a medium-to-high-density, sustainable residential community with ready access to public transport and all the amenities and services the nearby central business district has to offer. While not quite bona fide members of the urban elite establishment, they live close enough to be demographically lumped in with them while still retaining a vicarious and ennobling connection with working classdom, albeit in acquired retrospection.

All this may sound like I don’t particularly like yuppies; that’s because I can’t stand them. The main reason they live in places like Richmond is because they’re so lacking in substance, they’re desperate to attach themselves to a historic and somewhat mythic demographic they believe embodies the character they wish to project of themselves, best described as conformist non-conformists, in the hope this will unequivocally establish their socio-political credentials in the wider social formation. This is despite the fact that every opinion they express reflects their fundamental vacuousness, which of course they vigorously and vociferously deny through self-fulfilling argumentation in the various channels of mass communication, electronic and print, and shake their fist with rage at anyone who dares hint that their sanctimonious self-righteousness is merely a bluff for their inner insecurities. Thus, I avoid them.

In any case, the semi-detached two-bedroom house we once lived in is situated towards the far end of Wellington Street, away from Swan Street, on the corner of Blanche Street where there’s a kind of dog-leg to the right, a disjunction if you like, after which Wellington Street continues south for a bit before ending in a cul-de-sac with two narrow blue-stone alleyway running of it in opposite directions. The side of our former house facing south actually borders Blanche Street, which is really a one-way lane, barely wide enough to accommodate one vehicle at a time. But since it’s paved and has a narrow sidewalk with houses that front onto it, I guess it still qualifies as an actual street.

On the side opposite along Blanche Street, running from the corner of Wellington Street to Cremorne Street is a twelve-foot high red brick wall topped with rusted barbed wire, somewhat reminiscent of a Berlin Wall from Victorian times, but on a smaller scale; or else it could be an outer wall of some sort of correctional facility on the other side. Originally it formed the perimeter of a factory the nature of which I’m not sure. But judging from the main building which the wall joins onto, and which sits diagonally across from our former house on the dog-leg corner, my guess is that it was a packing or storage facility of some sort that required goods to be hoisted up from street level, or lowered down to be carted away, by an over-hanging beam and pulley system on the upper level. The rusted beam was still in place when we lived here, sticking out of the boarded up door, but it has since been removed and the door opening has been bricked off.

Whatever the business of the factory, it had ceased to operate by the time we moved into the area, and the high wall along Blanche Street enclosed the yard of a trucking company that went by the name of “Arthur’s Transport”, while the three-story red brick building on the corner lay disused. This my friends and I confirmed one Sunday after we crawled under the front gate on Cremorne Street to go and collect caterpillars from a native willow tree that grew inside the wall next to it, and then went exploring inside to discover that it was largely empty except for some old rusted machinery covered with layers of dust, with cobwebs entangling the beams and rafters, and all the windows broken and the doors falling off their hinges.

Back then, the street was filled with immigrant families from various countries around the world including Greece, Italy, Turkey and Mauritius, with a few Anglo-Australian families thrown in. I can’t imagine any of them still living here. I assume they or their children moved out to the suburbs long ago, like we did, or returned to their respective countries of origin; or the parents have simply passed away and the children sold off the properties. Having said that I have a strange suspicion the Greek family from whom we rented the house are still living next door at 61 Wellington Street in some capacity, either one or both parents, George and Georgia, on their own, or with one or more of their children and perhaps their own family. I say that because, even back then, as an impressionable eight year-old, they struck me as the type of people who had little desire to venture beyond their immediate surroundings, and despite having arrived in Australia some ten years before us, George didn’t even drive a car.

Perhaps after saving up enough money to buy their own house, and then the one next door which they duly converted into two rental units, they stopped looking beyond the horizon, and except for the occasional trip to Elwood Beach on the train in the summer, they never ventured further afield. It helped that they had close relatives living nearby, up on Richmond Hill north of Swan Street. They also had relatives in Sydney whom they visited once every couple of years. But according to George Melbourne was much better than Sydney by miles because, among other things, the trains here had louder claxons compared to the puny sounding ones on Sydney’s trains. Even though I’d never been to Sydney to compare for myself, it was something that stuck in my head, I guess because I could hear the trains from our house most nights sounding their horn as they pulled away from Richmond station next to Swan Street, and would assure myself they were louder than the ones in Sydney.

George’s vain pride in Melbourne and in Australia, however, left me confused, because like us they were Greek and compared to our own uncertain roots, he always liked to boast of his family’s Spartan heritage. But otherwise he rarely spoke of Greece, and when he did it was mostly in disparaging terms. Whereas for us, Greece was a constant preoccupation, with my mother always reminding us that we would be heading back the following year to be reunited with my aunt and uncle. Nevertheless, thanks to George’s avowed reverence for his adopted city, soon I too was infected with the same parochial pride in my new city, and in geography class I never wasted an opportunity to tell my classmates that Melbourne was much better than Sydney, proof of which was that trains in Melbourne had much louder sounding claxons.

When I look back on those years, sometimes I wonder how determinant my ready acceptance of such illumining disclosures were, however trivial or second hand, in shaping my character. Or was it merely a reflection of it, an expression of something already there, akin to the belief of ancient Greeks that all learning is recollection and knowledge is inhered in the soul? In this regard, was my unqualified adoption of the bombastic views of George and my regurgitation of them without reservation an indication of my nascent elitism and my innate desire to impress my peers with my privileged knowledge? Or was it just a reflection of a natural desire by any newcomer to want to assimilate into their new environment and be accepted by those around them, by ingratiating themselves with them through flattery and imitation? Or was it an early sign that I was starting to identify with my oppressors, something akin to a Stockholm syndrome, of which George had an advanced case, and irredeemably so?

Anyhow, on this particular Saturday I drove to Richmond from my house in Chadstone in the south-eastern suburbs, some ten miles away, and turning left into Wellington Street from Swan Street, I stopped and parked my car just around the corner from the red brick building which was in the process of being converted into loft-style apartments. Through my driver’s side window I had a good view of 63A Wellington Street without having to get out, and took a few photographs using the zoom function on my digital camera.

I could see that the front façade and the wall on the side abutting Blanche Street had been repainted the same color as forty years ago, a washed out lemony green. In addition it had a new corrugated iron roof put on in exactly the same style as the old one. The front picket fence, however, was a new feature, a faded grey of weathered hardwood. It had replaced the rusty waist-high Cyclone fence and the creaky gate of old which I could almost picture myself pushing open, walking the few steps up the narrow concrete path on the side of the patch of grass that was the front lawn, up onto the small veranda and front door.

The street itself was eerily quiet. Not a soul could be seen or heard either outside or in the front yards or verandas of the few residences that didn’t have a six-foot high wall along the front for privacy. This was in stark contrast to how I remembered the neighborhood from forty years earlier when you could see into the front yards of houses and front windows and my friends and I would chase one another up and down the street after school and on weekends, kicking around a plastic football or playing street cricket with the ball often landing on people’s roofs or front doors and windows, sometimes breaking them, while we yelled ununderstood obscenities at cars and their drivers who dared disrupt our games.

As I sat in my car, snippets of all kinds of memories came flooding back in a random stream seamlessly superseding one another. But they evoked little emotion. Perhaps this was because I was overly anxious that some paranoid house owner peering from behind the curtains would come out at any minute and confront this stranger taking photographs of their houses form inside his car. Somehow I didn’t think my explanation that I was only taking pictures of the house I used to live in for my photo album would satisfy them. Nevertheless I remained gazing across at our old house, curious to see just what type of people now lived there.

I doubted they were newly arrived immigrants; for a start, the rent would be prohibitively expensive. From its well-restored condition and the neat and tidy front yard, my guess was that it was owned and occupied by a young professional couple who took pride in their humble Depression-era, semi-detached dwelling. Whoever they happened to be, I felt a strange affinity with them all of a sudden, as if having lived in the same house and in the same neighborhood had imbued us with a like outlook on the world. But our respective circumstances were completely different, I thought, because, whereas we had lived there out of necessity, the present occupants more than likely owned the house and had chosen to live here over other less expensive areas in Melbourne, figuring it was a good long-term investment, given that Richmond was steeped in history and character, and such intangibles accrue with time, adding value to the property. But this was purely conjecture on my part. Maybe they too were compelled to live here, so as not to have far to travel to their workplaces, or because they preferred to walk and use public transport rather than drive everywhere. But I would only be able to confirm that if I actually met them in person, which wasn’t on my agenda that particular afternoon.

The adjoining unit was done up in the same style and was equally well maintained, and as I continued gazing at them and the cars parked on the street at the front, the more I could appreciate the appeal of wanting to live here. For one there was the physical proximity to one’s neighbors that encouraged social interaction and engendered a close sense of community that was so lacking in the alienating sparseness of outer suburbia. However, this was counterbalanced by the fact that the Monash tollway which carried tens of thousands of vehicles each day and well into the night when all the heavy trucks come out like nocturnal beasts was only a block to the south. In fact, by my reckoning, the main outbound tunnel ran more or less right under Wellington Street, if not our old house itself, and the exhaust towers had to be somewhere in the general vicinity. Moreover the area itself was surrounded by roads that carried heavy traffic throughout the day, filling the air with toxic exhaust fumes and fine, sub-microscopic particulates, which couldn’t possibly do one’s health much good.

As I sat in my car, I was also keeping a close eye on 61 Wellington Street. Compared to the well-looked after, semi-detached units next door, the house in which George and Georgia and their three children used to live had fallen into a noticeable state of disrepair. The trees along the side fence and the bushes inside the doubled-fronted Cyclone wire fence now thoroughly rusted were overgrown, as were the grass and the weeds in the front yard. It added to my suspicion that George probably still lived here with his wife, refusing to sell and having nowhere else to go, with no desire of returning to Greece to live out his remaining years. But he was now too frail to cut the grass with his push rotary mower, and she had grown too old to take care of the garden.

I could almost picture him in his dressing gown, with messy grey hair down past his shoulders and a long monastic beard, sitting in his arm chair under the lemon tree in the common concrete-paved back yard we shared with him and the other tenant occupying the adjoining unit, leisurely smoking a cigarette and loftily arguing religion and politics in his terse, laconic manner with my father who courteously obliged. Having arrived in Australia well before us, he probably thought he had something to learn from George about this new country. But if truth be told, he had little time for people like him, and when he had finished his cigarette, he would promptly excuse himself, leaving George to ponder confusedly over some cryptically sarcastic parting remark of his own.

For someone not much older than my father, with three children about the same age as me and my sister, George struck me as a peculiar figure when I first saw him. But there was something about his eccentricity that struck a vague chord. His thin and gaunt appearance, and his detached and unsociable manner must have subconsciously recalled my reclusive uncle back in Greece, that is, my father’s younger brother, from the few times I saw him before we left for Australia. Perhaps this resemblance explained my father’s veiled derision of George, because like his brother, he also shunned people and eschewed the modern world. But George’s unconventional appearance and his unpredictable cantankerous outbursts would strike fear in me, but at other times he seemed quite timid and withdrawn, and I felt more pity than fear when I saw him sitting on his own.

According to my parents, whom I overheard talking about him one Sunday with some visitors to the house, George wasn’t always like that. Apparently he had quit his factory job years earlier, having gone mad, “τρελλάθηκε,” they said. This happened after the family returned from Greece bitterly disappointed at having failed to settle back in their part of Peloponessus, at the height of the junta years. They said he had spent time at “Kew”, which was a reference to the psychiatric hospital situated in that sedate suburb in the leafy outer east of Melbourne, and which I believe is still operating in some capacity. For some reason, that particular institution was well known among Greek immigrants, and the refrain “θα πάς στο Κιού” had passed into the Greek migrant vernacular as a kind of admonition to those who dared stray too far from the approved path laid out for migrant workers in this faraway land, because if they did so, they were apt to go mad and be locked up in “Kew” and given pills to make them forget their woes and stop worrying.

After hearing all this about George, I realized he was in fact what a real-life “mental case” looked like. It was a term I often heard used at school among my new friends, but I had no idea as to who or what it actually referred to. But now I did. It was someone like George, with long hair and a beard, who didn’t work and stayed home all day dressed in his robe, shunning people and mocking whatever they had to say; while his wife looked after the house and went off in the evenings to clean offices in the city to earn enough to make ends meet. Although not all “mental cases” fitted his description, the allusion was clear enough for me to draw a general conclusion, which was that they didn’t look and act like “normal” people. And the fact that they didn’t meant one had to be wary of them. Thus, from then on, I avoided George when I could help it, and made sure he wasn’t sitting outside before I dared go use the shared toilet at the back of their house.

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure why I went to Wellington Street that Saturday. On the surface, I set out on a whim to drive to the city by way of Richmond to relieve my boredom. But on the way there, a more purposeful objective suggested itself. And this was that, by going to see my old neighborhood and house again, this might inspire enough of a sense of belonging to conciliate me with the idea of finally committing myself to this place for the long-term and settling down, as much as I abhorred the notion of having to formally pledge allegiance to a country, any country really, especially a monarchy, after I saw the effect it had .on my father.

He had put it off as long as he could. But when he turned sixty-four, he finally relented and decided to become a naturalized Australian citizen, believing this was a necessary step for him to qualify for his old-age pension when he turned sixty-five the following year. In fact, this wasn’t a strict requirement, but disconnected Greeks of his generation all believed it was, guided by blissful ignorance of government policy, in a country from which they felt largely disenfranchised, feeding a collective indifference to its laws, but at the same time a fear that if they didn’t take out citizenship before they turned sixty-five they would lose all their entitlements, or have to wait another ten years before becoming eligible. But when my father did take out citizenship, along with my mother, I suspect something of him died in the process.

He didn’t become morose or overly depressed, but he assumed a resigned humility which I sensed hid an even bigger inner resignation to whatever fate had in store for him. It was as if, by taking the oath of allegiance to a country which he was never able to adopt as his won, or adapt to, he had betrayed some core character-defining principle, and turned into that person he vowed never to become. And within a year he was dead. It’s not that I truly believe there was a causative link between the two. But in my mind I can’t help but look upon the negation of character and change of identity his conversion signified as death foretold.

On a more emotional plane, something else that brought me to Wellington Street that day was a non-descript nostalgic yearning that had been building up in me over the past year in the wake of my mother’s death. It was a yearning for a period of my life which despite its relatively short span, less than two years, still dominates my past. But sitting there in my car, across from our former house, as hard as I tried to reconcile my memories of growing up here with my present situation, I could feel no abiding affinity with either the house or the neighborhood. It felt like my brain was simply parsing memories and trying to string together coherent storylines that vaguely resonated with truth and meaning in the hope of discovering something deep and insightful about who I was and what I had become. Memories like the time I convinced my mother .to buy a can of a particular brand of air freshener because I wanted to prove to her that it had magical powers.

I was so excited when we came home from the shops with a can of “Air-o-Zone” in our shopping cart, that I grabbed the can, pulled off the cover and ran straight into the living room, spraying it on the mantle piece where an empty vase stood, with the full expectation that flowers would instantly spring up, as they did in the television commercial. But after waiting twenty seconds or so, ample time, the vase on the mantelpiece remained empty. After trying again and again, and the vase still flowerless, I was thoroughly perplexed. I just couldn’t understand why it failed to make flowers appear, when on television they sprang up out of nowhere almost instantly with just a short spray. Desperate to show my mother that it really worked, I went into the kitchen and sprayed some on the table. But again my efforts were in vain. It was as if logic itself had broken down. There was something missing, but I couldn’t figure out what it could be.

Watching me all this while from his arm-chair in the living room with a derisive grin on his face was my father. Breaking his silence, he said in a dismissive tone that the advertisement was a lie and that I was stupid to think that a spray could make flowers appear out of nowhere. As much as I resented his statement, I couldn’t hide my humiliation and I felt a wave of embarrassment sweep over me, because it suddenly dawned on me that, as shattering as it was, his explanation made full sense. Flowers only grew in the ground, or in pots filled with soil. Somehow on television, they had made it look like “Air-o-Zone” made flowers grow out of thin air, when in fact they just couldn’t. The pretty woman in the advertisement was lying; it was as simple as that. But why would someone with such a friendly face deliberately lie? In the end, I don’t know which hurt more; my father’s blunt disillusioning truth, or the fact that I had been fully taken in by the pretty woman on television.

As crushing as this realization was, I think this particular incident marked a turning point in wider education, in as much as it served as a cautionary introduction to the world of deceit and dissimulation on the one hand and my own willingness to go along with it on the other. I suspect the willful duplicity I now recognized in advertizing puffery, still too naive to appreciate its underlying commercial purpose, coupled with my embarrassing gullibility, subconsciously carried over into real life. And from then on, I was wary of believing anything I saw that appeared to be the result of magic, or defied rational explanation. And as for people who smiled a lot and acted friendly, well, they too were apt to be lying and couldn’t be trusted. Thus, when Christmas came round, I took it upon myself to convince my sister that Santa Claus didn’t exist, and that Jesus couldn’t possibly turn water into wine, or come back from the dead, as she’d been led to believe at Catholic Sunday school she used to attend with some of her friends.

This wasn’t the first time I had visited my old neighborhood. I had been back several times over the years, even stopping off at my old primary school around the corner on Cremorne Street to walk around the asphalt playground and relive the cricket matches we used to play at lunchtime, with the wickets painted on the wall of the toilet block still visible; and the tunnel-ball contests in training for the interschool sports games. This time, however, I sensed a finality about my visit. I came to the conclusion that no matter how many times I came back here, I would never feel a genuine affinity with the place, one that was free from that soppy, puerile sentimentality for the apparent simplicity of the past, whenever the confusion of the present and uncertainty of the future weigh on my mind.

Thus, I resolved to give up trying to contrive a sense of attachment for a place to which there exists a flimsy romantic connection only in my mind. And as far as the people who live here were concerned, safely sequestered in the privacy of their single-fronted, semi-detached former workers’ lodgings faithfully restored to their original condition, I had little or nothing in common with them. With that sobering, disillusioning thought, I drove away neither happy nor sad, but sure in the knowledge there was nothing special about the house we once lived in, or the street and neighborhood.

Now that I think about it, having rejected the possibility of discovering any character-defining attachment to my old house and neighborhood, I suspect my repeated attempts to do so over the years were motivated subconsciously by a desire for the exact opposite, that is, to arrive via the occult logic of my subconscious at a plausible reason to distance myself from it, in as much as it represented my doubtful baptism into Australian society, so open and receptive on one level, yet unable to absorb newcomers whole-heartedly and accommodate otherness. As such, it’s a society towards which I feel an irreconcilable mistrust, and still cringe at the sound of my own name in this strange sounding tongue. Perhaps the indifference I now feel was, in fact, what I was looking for all along, because deep down I really have no wish to belong here, simply because I never can.

As I mentioned, it’s now almost two years since my mother died. I must confess, they have been the shortest two years of my life. It’s like time has stood still even though in those two years I feel like I’ve aged five or ten, as the wrinkles and lines on my face attest, and the profusion of grey hair on my head and elsewhere.

In the aftermath of her ceasing to exist, I walked away from my job as a research scientist at the Australian National University in Canberra. I could no longer see the point of sacrificing the lives of small laboratory animals just to figure out how cells in their eyes converted electromagnetic energy into electrical impulses. Up until then I hadn’t given a second thought to the deontological implications of my work as a biomedical research scientist, both in Australia and all my years in various laboratories in the States. By following the ethical guidelines for humanely killing these creatures, as oxymoronic as that sounds, my conscience could be assuaged and I could proceed to perform the necessary experiments on tissue samples extracted from them guilt-free, record and analyze the data with my instruments, and then write up articles for publication in scientific journals, and feel that I was achieving something and contributing to human knowledge.

Now, however, all that’s changed. The idea of consciously terminating the life of an animal whose natural instinct by definition is to want to live and avoid death, all for the sake of scientific research with the aim of discovering something new that will bring me and my colleagues accolades and recognition, as well as promotion, and add to the existing body of scientific knowledge, well, all that just seemed absurd.

After quitting my job in Canberra and selling my apartment there in a panic, spooked by talk of house prices about to collapse with the global financial system on the verge of a major crisis rivaling that of the Great Depression, if you believed the hype, I moved into my mother’s house in Melbourne and devoted myself to looking after the welfare of her pet dog and cat, Max and Timothy, or in her language, “Μέξ καί Τσίμαθι”, while I looked for a new job. I suspect it was also a way of trying to keep alive her memory, in as much as these creatures lived through her and she through them, and in my mind the three of them were inseparable and I felt an obligation to honor her unspoken wish that they be looked after. 

On another level, however, one that straddles humaneness and religiosity, I also saw my commitment as a way of paying penance for having sacrificed the lives of so many animals in the course of my research career. Thus, driven by a vague but overbearing sense of Franciscan piety, I decided to devote myself to the needs of these two mutually cognizant fellow creatures and expiate my guilt for my past sins.

I suspect my reasoning, albeit buried in the murkiness of my subconscious, came out of a rather maudlin assessment of my situation at that particular point in my life, and I figured that by affecting outward piety I could justify my retreat from the concerns and demands of my hitherto specious existence where I felt increasingly drawn further and further away from an inner ideal. By adopting such an attitude, I figured I could draw on people’s sympathy, if not pity, and be excused for abandoning my career mid-stream and instead devoting myself to such a seemingly unavailing commitment, because my irrational behavior was understandable for one recently bereaved of the closest of kin, when concerns for the routine of life tends to give way to reflections on the immaterial and other-worldly. 

In any case, these two creatures have now become my closest companions, not just in a material sense but in a cosmic sense as well, and I can’t imagine ever walking away or abandoning them. Our relationship transcends human friendship and in their presence I feel as if I exist in a wholly different dimension. Sometimes I wonder whether my altered perception of time isn’t due to these creatures having drawn me into their own notion of reality.

As fellow co-inhabitants of this realm I am in awe of the way they resolutely and dispassionately go about their lives, dependent on my generosity and welfare on the one hand, while driven by their animal instincts to survive by exploiting my sense of duty towards them for supplying me with needed distraction and acknowledgement of my existence. As silly as it sounds, they embody the meaning of life, the basis of which is the will to maintain the functional integrity of the organism each of us constitutes by all the means at our disposal. Having said that, I get the impression they also possess the ability to willingly succumb to the inevitable when further resistance is futile.

Sometimes when I take Max to the park and let him wander off the leash I can also see my mother’s image in the distance. One instant I see Max sniffing the grass and the next, right there beside him, or in his place, I see my mother throwing me looks in case I take off without him or her. Perhaps I conflate the two because it was rare to see her without Max by her side, whether it was at the beach or at the park, or in the car when they went off shopping together. So now, when I see him on his own, my mind automatically supplies the missing image of my mother and overlays it onto the in-coming visual sense-image of Max, and in this hybrid, interchanging mental percept she appears as real and present as ever.

And it’s not just her image, because sometimes I can hear her voice calling him to quiet down and stop barking at the deliverer of junk mail stuffing leaflets and advertizing brochures into the letter box at the front, as Max watches him intently from his armchair, through the living room curtain, lest he or anyone else make a wrong move and step over the line. As for Timothy she’s naturally more aloof and projecting my mother’s personality onto this detached feline doesn’t seem to work. After all, cats are their own people, so to speak.

But one thing I’m certain of is that something of my mother lives in me, which is not so strange a notion when you think about it, given that more than half of my DNA is derived from her, if one includes mitochondrial DNA. And being a firm believer that, as much as one’s environment, one’s physical attributes define one’s character and personality in equal measure to the extent that they circumscribe one’s ability to interact with human beings around them and be acknowledged by them, or more fundamentally, the ability of others to relate to you, the fact that she and I shared a physical resemblance and had similar temperaments, it would only be expected that she would continue to exist through me in some way. But as far as Max and Timothy are concerned, I feel compelled to subjugate my life to theirs, because in that act of humble servitude I can free myself from my humanoid existence, so tied up as it is with that oppressive existential triumvirate of the past, present and future.

Speaking of time, I recently experienced a revelation of sorts which offered some insight into the nature of the universe, albeit from my own idiotic perspective. By idiotic I mean that it came from my own “private” view of the universe, which is what “idiotic” means in Greek, that is, something derived from my one’s intellectual processes, free from outside scrutiny. 

Specifically, this revelation concerned the nature of light at the conceptual level, that is, unsupported by mathematical reasoning in which I’m not sufficiently grounded to even attempt to provide any proof, although I did study mathematics as well as physics in first year at university and did reasonably well in both. However, I’ve always had an aversion to numbers and symbols with their bold lines standing out from the background, encoding a kind of secrecy and offending an inner esthetic of beauty. In any case, I suspect I suffer from occasional numerical dyslexia, or is it prosopagnosia, whereby at times, numbers and symbols with which I’m familiar seem to defy meaning.

Actually, I’ve come to the conclusion that an inordinate affinity with numbers is akin to a psychosis, or a “numerosis” if you like. What I mean by this is that numbers and their inter-relationships can delude the mind into believing it has the ability to unlock the laws of the universe and crack open the mystery of life. (I don’t know what I mean by this; it just came out) In those possessed of this obsession, or by it, mathematical logic becomes the means by which it spreads and takes hold, a bit like a psychic cancer that grows and spreads uncontrollably until it has subsumed its host’s consciousness, molding and shaping their brain to accommodate the mathematical processing their expanding madness demands, and co-opting the mind to direct the body to serve its expanding needs, at the expense of the myriads of other associations the mind could synthesize from sensory inputs to inform one’s consciousness of the world and harmonize it with one’s desires and fantasies. It’s also a bit like a religion, but instead of a strict belief that everything in the universe is the self-fulfilling work of a supreme deity, the demiurge, in mathematics, the ultimate delusion lies in the self-referential certainty of numbers.

When I say that one plus one equals two, I’m saying that one thing which is identical to another thing, when considered together, are now called two things. That is, when the word “two” or the number “2”, as a phonetic or a visual symbol impinges on my senses and conjures up in my cognitive brain the thought image of the word “two” or the number “2”, I know that it represents abstractly the existence of one thing grasped together with the other thing, both of which now form a new combined entity known as “two” or “2”. Thus when an object which stands out from the background is considered with another object, which doesn’t necessarily have to be identical with the first, but which is similar in the sense that it can be perceived as a separate and unique entity, both of them together now become “one” thing which is represented by the word “two” or symbol “2”.

As idiotically apocalyptic as it sounds, I’m driven to the inescapable conclusion that mathematics and all the scientific knowledge it underpins is nothing but a means to the final end, that is, the annihilation of humanity. That’s because human beings, actuated by a universal cosmic force, channeled through the myriads of cascading chemical actions and reactions within their cells, are driven by the inexorable need to transform their physical environment ad nihilum by whatever means at their disposal. And this includes the use of mathematics, which is but a hallucinatory attempt by the intellect to apprehend in symbolic form the infinite interrelationships between all the elements and forces of nature so as to feed our need for pleasure and sustenance, in the quest to reproduce more of ourselves until we no longer can. I think I’m digressing into the realm of incoherence, so I’ll go back to what I started on.

Well, this minor revelation I experienced happened one evening while I was sitting back in the warmth of my living room having a coffee after dinner, and as I said, it concerned the nature of light. This question had been a source of confusion, a veritable thorn in my intellectual side ever since I came across the idea that under some conditions light was a “wave”, but under others, it was composed of a stream of almost mass-less particles called photons that traveled through space at something like 186,000 miles per second, abbreviated as “c”, which is arguably the most important constant in physics. In high school, to reconcile these two aspects of light, I would try to picture these small particles zipping through space while oscillating about a central axis.

This baffling duality continued to niggle at my intellectual powers of reasoning through university. But driven by an inner need to come up with a unifying concept to account for both the particulate and wave-like nature of light, I couldn’t get past the idea that something with mass can also be a “wave”, and the image of photons oscillating as they traveled through space kept intruding. As a result, I stopped trying to visualize light and simply went along with the received wisdom that under certain conditions it behaved like a stream of particles that reflected off objects at the same angle of incidence, while under others it behaved like a “wave” as in the ocean, whose amplitude and frequency could vary, and so its energy. This enabled me to calculate equations and correctly answer exam questions, and convince my physics tutors that I had a firm grasp of the subject. But I suspect many of my fellow students found themselves at the same cognitive impasse.

I don’t know why a resolution to this niggling incongruity offered itself up on that particular evening. Given that it occurred close to the anniversary of my mother’s death, it’s possible that in my wandering contemplation of her passing and the moment she ceased to exist, which may have had something to do with the fact that I was sitting in the same exact spot on the couch she used to sit in on such cold evenings, and of the related question of whether the instantaneous vanishing of her life force, or anyone else’s for that matter, violated the physical laws pertaining to the conservation of energy and the transformation of energy into matter and vice versa; this stirred up various mysteries to other related physical phenomena, among which was the baffling duality of the nature of light. 

Or perhaps the thought of the instantaneous vanishing of her life-force evoked in my subconscious the extinguishing of a flame as a metaphor for death. And seeing the former event was beyond the reach of my intellect to explain in terms of physical laws, I turned the focus of my late-night inquiry on the more tractable problem of the duality of the nature of light. But before I could address this problem, I realized I needed to arrive at a clearer understanding of the concept of “space,” that is, the medium through which light travelled, either as particles or waves. 

I didn’t have to think very long to realize the word “space” as I had understood it was actually a misnomer. You see, I had always understood the word “space” to signify a three-dimensional emptiness devoid of all substance. This made intuitive sense because I, as an entity possessing mass, exist in three-dimensions, and those same three dimensions would continue to exist in my absence. Therefore “space” would still exist in the absence of all entities of mass and substance. But waves required a physical medium through which to travel, as in the case of waves in the ocean. So how could “space” possibly be empty, that is, a complete void?

As I thought over my hitherto misconception, I could see there was a basic contradiction in my logic. And this was, if “space” was “nothingness” how can it possibly exist? It was a patently absurd proposition, because for anything of a physical character to exist it must possess form and substance, whereas “nothingness” cannot possibly exist. In fact, it’s not even possible to contemplate “nothingness”; one can only account for it by assigning a word to it, like “nothing”, or a numerical symbol like “0”. But “space” existed, because without it light could not exist. Therefore “space” cannot possibly connote “nothingness”; it must constitute a “somethingness”, that is, a physicality that exists in three dimensions.

This then raised the question of what space is made up of, because if it is real and physical it must be composed of something. The inescapable conclusion I came to was that three-dimensional space was composed of indivisible units infinitesimally smaller than atoms which I called “spaceons”. These were its building blocks, as it were, of indeterminate shape, which give space mass-less form and substance. And suspended within this three-dimensionality of spaceons is mass-ful matter composed of coalesced elemental atoms and molecules.

Having demystified the nature of space at the conceptual level, I went back to the issue at hand, which was the dual nature of light itself. Within the framework of my idiotic understanding of space as a substantive medium composed of indivisible mass-less fundamental units called spaceons, I wanted to see if I could reconcile the particulate and wave-like natures of light. In the course of my audible soliloquy and expository gesticulation, with Max asleep in his arm chair, head half-dangling over the edge, his paws and mouth twitching and eyeballs flitting away under closed eyelids; and flea-ridden Timothy curled up like a furry coffee scroll wheezing away; in her padded basket in front of the gas heater, I realized why my hitherto misapprehension of space as a complete void had been so firmly rooted in my mind.

It was tied up with the fact that air was composed of atoms of various gases suspended in space and separated by relatively large distances. Thus, in this rarefied state, it seemed perfectly reasonable to assume that the probability of photons striking any atoms of gas in air and being reflected back to the eye of an observer was infinitely small, and that majority of photons passed through unimpeded, thus rendering air invisible. Therefore, it made intuitive sense to think of the space between the atoms of gas, and of space in general, as being a complete void, since it could not impede the passage of light particles, that is, photons. As for the transparency of solid objects like glass and crystals, this was explained by internal reflection of light particles entering at one surface and being reflected from one atom or molecule to the next internally, until they emerged from another surface into the more transmissive medium like air.

But having now postulated that space was not an emptiness, but a “somethingness” composed of spaceons inter-connected with one another in a three-dimensional lattice, either dynamically or statically, I was led to ponder how light rays composed of streams of photons could possibly be transmitted through this substantive omnipresent medium. The conclusion I came to was that light particles would not get very far at all, or they would burrow their way through for a short distance, rapidly lose all their energy, and come to a complete stop. Thus, it made more sense to think of light purely as a “wave”, that is a pulsatile transfer of force/energy from one spaceon to a neighboring spaceon, and so on, until that force was transferred to a solid, mass-ful object composed of coalesced atoms and molecules which it could be either reflected from, absorbed by, or through which it could pass and be re-transmitted to spaceons on its exit, attenuated in energy.

As I reflected on my new understanding of the nature of light, I was satisfied I had proved to my “idiot savant” self, as my housemate in Reno was wont to refer to me whenever I came up with a novel but simple explanation to a baffling conundrum, because I lacked his scientific pedigree and was therefore unqualified to speculate on matters pertaining to the “hard sciences”; I was satisfied, I say, I had proven to myself that light was composed of pulses of energy that imparted force to objects, and there was no longer any need to invoke the particulate nature of light; waves could explain everything. Light only appeared to be particulate because it required a particulate, albeit mass-less three-dimensionality of spaceons through which to travel, and therefore people had confused the medium with the message.

Emboldened by my revelatory insight into the singular wave-like nature of light, my inquiry now turned to the concept of gravity and how it is that objects composed of atomic matter tend to fall to the ground, and more generally, how planets are attracted towards the sun, and the moons to planets, and such like heavenly phenomena.

To address this question, I first considered the hypothetical case where there was only one atom in existence suspended in the three-dimensionality of spaceons. I postulated that this substance-less space was permeated by an omni-directional, universal cosmic force transmitted through spaceons. In the case where there was only one atom in existence, the cosmic force acting on that atom would be the same from all directions, so that the atom would undergo no displacement and stay put. But if there were two atoms in existence suspended in space, I hypothesized they would undergo net movement and eventually “find” one another and coalesce due to an apparent mutual gravitational attraction.

This would come about because the force acting on each atom would now be unequal over its surface, because each atom would shield the other from a portion of the cosmic force coming from the direction of its neighbor. Thus, the sides of the atoms facing each other would experience a weaker cosmic force, and as a result of this imbalance, the two atoms would undergo displacement and appear to gravitate towards each other. But this attraction is but an illusion because in reality the two atoms are being impelled towards each other by external cosmic forces acting on them non-uniformly. Moreover, the closer they approached each other, the greater this asymmetry would become, thus producing apparent accelerative gravitational attraction.

My line of reasoning raised further questions about the nature of the cosmic force transmitted through spaceons, like: was it simply light energy of an infinitely high pulsatile frequency so as to be continuous; or was it of a very slow frequency, with a period of eons, such that the entire universe was presently subjected to the force exerted by a single multi–dimensional wave which was either peaking or decaying back to nothing, at which point all matter will disintegrate, before the next pulse came along and the material universe can re-constitute itself anew? But where does this cosmic force come from, and how is it produced?

As I pondered over the implications of this co-revelation about the nature of gravity, I realized my ruminations were completely lacking in the scientific rigor necessary for them to ever be taken seriously. For a start, I couldn’t even recall the relationship between potential and kinetic energy, or many other equations I knew by heart at university. I would need to delve into my undergraduate physics text books, which were only introductory anyway, intended for biologists. But I reminded myself that I wasn’t interested in detail, because details were the slaves of concepts, and I would leave that to those with a mathematical obsession for quantifying reality and proving the existence of things with numbers.

As I took another sip of my coffee, still gloating over my powers of explication, I realized my spaceon filled three-dimensionality was nothing new; it was the “ether” of old which Einstein apparently refuted with his discoveries on the photovoltaic effect, although he himself never categorically dismissed the concept. But how can it be wrong when it seemed so right in my head? I thought a little further about my revelation of the singular, wave-like nature of light to see if it could explain various other properties of light such as diffraction, refraction, the change in the speed of light through translucent matter of different density, and the collimate nature of laser beams. On the surface it could, although it would be too tedious to go into here.

In light of my idiotic discoveries about the nature of light and space and gravity, I now turned to a more fundamental question, that being the nature of reality. Was reality simply space and vice versa, because without space, there truly can be nothing, as oxymoronic as that sounds. And where did time fit in, if it did at all? Scientific time was simply a reference to a numerical standard of rhythmic movement of matter in space, like the vibrations of an atom in a crystal, or the movement of the arms of a clock, or the swings of a pendulum. So what is time? Is it simply a human abstraction created out of memories that logically follow one another? Is it like beauty in the sense that you can point to an object embodying beauty and can touch it, but you cannot grasp beauty itself. That’s because it doesn’t exist; it’s the result of a purely mental process. And just like the standard measure of beauty can change depending on prevailing tastes, so can the perception of time.

I concluded there is no such actual thing as time; there is only space and movement of matter therein. Time is an illusion, purely a human mental construct. Take dogs, for example, which bury their bones. You would think on first consideration they too possessed a concept of time because they appear to be planning ahead for future scarcity. But in reality their actions merely reflect a behavioral trait honed by evolution over tens of thousands of years, that is, revolutions of the Earth around the Sun. This drives them to bury bones in places that become fixed in their memories, formed from visual inputs of the shapes and sizes and colors of various other objects in the vicinity of the burial spot, like trees and rocks, as well as from other associated sensory inputs, like smells and sounds.

Thus, when they’re desperate for food, their hunger causes them to recall those places from memory, triggered by some sensory cue, and see if they match incoming sense-images, and if they do, they go and recover the buried bones. They possess this faculty because somewhere in their evolutionary past it was likely that dogs or their precursors that possessed this trait for forming memories survived and passed it on to succeeding generations, while those lacking it starved to death before they could reproduce in numbers, and their kind eventually died out.

All manner of other side questions began to pop up in my head seeking clarification. Questions like, if time didn’t truly exist, then how can one explain time dilation? And how does space and matter fit into it? For example, if a human being were composed of a single indivisible atom, and they were travelling at or close to the speed of a light wave through spaceons, then what would happen? I predicted that light waves from behind would never reach me, and therefore I wouldn’t be able to “see” anything behind me; it will be total darkness. In addition, I wouldn’t experience any cosmic force behind me either. The cosmic force in front of me, however, would be doubled, as would the frequency of light impinging on my eyes as I stared in ahead. But if cosmic forces impart mass to atoms, which are loci where energy is transformed into matter, then in the absence of any cosmic force on my rear, and with my front compressed into a super-solid mass-ful state, wouldn’t I disintegrate or collapse into myself? And what would become of the disintegrated me-atom?

The questions kept coming; some familiar seeking clarification; others less tractable demanding explanation by my newly arrived at conceptual theories. Questions like, are the cosmic forces acting on the sun so immense that atoms are continuously fusing and coalescing into super-solid matter and releasing light/energy back into space as pulses of an infinite number of frequencies through the sea of spaceons? And how is matter converted into energy? And what happens to the sun’s emitted energy? Is it conserved as it must be? Does energy really crystallize into matter and how? And what happens to the entropy of the universe? Is the universe really descending towards disorder, as imbecilic as that sounds?

I sensed my already meager grasp of these concepts weakening. I was way out of my depth and the temptation to refer all unknowns to the omniscience of a supreme power was strong. Or should I take the more laborious approach and systematically study the voluminous extant scientific literature, as overwhelming as it would be for an ageing intellect like mine? I was sinking into a deep bog of confusion and I had no choice than to abandon my quest to understand the nature of the universe and reality if I was to avoid being consumed by its incomprehensibility.

Nevertheless, I felt pleased I had at least come to a clearer understanding, however idiotic, of the singular wave-like nature of light, and that space is not in fact an emptiness, and that I myself am a collection of atoms, apparently mutually attracted towards one another to form a corporeal entity surrounded by spaceons, indeed infiltrated by them, enabling my mind/body to be subjected to the three-dimensionality of cosmic forces which are distilled by the cells in my body to drive the myriads of chemical reactions therein. However, I am not a rock but a living creature, driven by a self-sustaining will that emerged from this agglomeration of atomic matter, just like in all the other life forms around me, including Max dozing away, with the tip of his pink tongue sticking out between his little front teeth. But what is this thing, “the will”? Is it the cosmic force internalized through the mind/body conduit down to its constituent elements, and finding expression in the “life force” which continuously drives the organism to seek sustenance by depriving other living matter of their own “life force”? And what are feelings and sensations? 

Only I can see and smell and taste what I see, smell and taste. Are sensations possible without the disposition to act on them? In other words, would I be able to see anything if I didn’t have a motor cortex in my brain connected to and driven by my visual processing centers? Do I “see” an object for what it is because that object evokes a neurophysiological response organized within my brain which in turn “thinks” of ways to implement an appropriate motor action? Thus, when I perceive the color red, is it “red” because my brain, having recalled all manner of images of objects colored red stored in my memory, albeit below the level of consciousness, is preparing my body via the motor centers in my cortex to lift an imaginary red candy apple in my hand up to my mouth, this being the dominant “red” object-image drawn from my memory at that particular instant, informed by the particular combination of incoming sensory inputs, from which I will take a bite with my teeth and chew it with my jaws, anticipating its taste and texture? 

Is “red” the sum total of these preparatory actions involving the act of eating a red candy apple, as well as the anticipated gustatory sensations thereof, in endlessly spiraling subliminal loops of potential action and anticipatory sensation? Is this what we understand by consciousness, a massively interconnected, sensory-premotor ying-yang formed of silent memories competing for dominance, triggered and gated by a waking flood of sensory inputs most of which completely bypass perception? And what is the soul? A living creature is ephemeral and can cease to be a living creature, whereas the universe is perpetual and eternal, a collection of bits each composed of smaller bits, and so on and so on.

My now late-night intellectual meanderings had all but exhausted my reserves of mental stamina. I was rambling and asking questions that were silly and profound, frivolous and profound. I decided to call it quits for the night and prepared to go to bed, but not before letting Max out for a pee. Timothy could come and go as it liked through the cat-flap in the kitchen door, although generally in winter she slept inside in her basket through the night and was first up at daybreak, sitting next to my pillow with Sphinx like patience, paws tucked under her, waiting for me to get up and feed her.

As I mentioned, it’s now two years since my mother died. But it could well have been yesterday. On the night I bid her farewell she lay narcotized in her hospital bed breathing in short gasps through her dry open mouth as PVC tubes hooked up to her nose delivered pure oxygen into her nostrils. She was oblivious of the beads of perspiration continuously forming on her forehead and my efforts to wipe them away and stop them flooding her flickering eyes. 

Irreversible ascites had set in due to an infection in her abdomen, probably contracted from the botched emergency surgery she underwent to try and restore her rapidly failing biliary and pancreatic functions. These had been severely compromised by aberrant cells that had abandoned their normal behavior and abode and turned into uncontrollable self-replicating freaks that knew no bounds. And now her abdomen was so swollen she could barely contract her diaphragmatic muscles to draw air into her lungs. And with the attendant decrease in blood volume, her heart was required to beat faster and stronger, causing the sheets above her chest to visibly quiver with each pulse.

In a weak voice she mumbled for a sip of apple juice. Obligingly I picked up the carton on the bedside table, bent the straw and placed the tip next to her mouth. Lifting her head up to the side she managed to suck up some juice, licking her lips ever so feebly to savor the sugary taste. But realizing it only dried her mouth even more she mustered a half-hearted frown and waved it away with her hand down by her side on the bed. She tried taking a deep breath, as deep as her distended abdomen would allow, perhaps it was a sigh of self-pity, before mentally collapsing back onto herself, opening her glazed eyes just a little to glance at the bare walls and ceiling, and then at me with a look that conveyed confused oblivion. I noticed her irises were a peculiar purple bluish-green; very different from their usual agate greenish-brown with blue edges. I assumed they reflected the altered chemistry of her blood and body fluids, from all the intravenous drips and antibiotics and narcotics she had been on for the past two weeks since the surgery.

As she lay there falling into and out of attempted sleep, closing her eyes and then wearily reopening them to focus on some object in the room while trying to moisten her parched lips with her tongue, I asked if she preferred some plain water. She motioned with a mock-angry nod of her head that she didn’t want any, and then tried to adjust herself on the bed so as to sit up a little more vertically. When she couldn’t manage she mumbled for me to help, and lifting her head and shoulders forward, I slipped another pillow behind her upper back and shoulders and lowered her onto it, as she tried again to take in a few deep half-breaths to express relief from the soreness.

For the past two hours I had been keeping her company in her private room on the second floor at Dandenong Hospital, just like yesterday and the day before. She had been transferred here from her bed in the public ward down the hallway, where she was brought to recover immediately after her emergency surgery at Monash Medical Centre. Apparently there was a shortage of beds there, and while still in excruciating pain, with drainage tubes coming out of her abdomen, she was loaded onto an ambulance and brought to Dandenong Hospital some fifteen kilometers away during the afternoon rush hour. I sat next to her all the way in the back, trying to reassure her that we would soon be there, as her moans got louder with each bump and turn in the road, until we finally arrived.

To pass the time, I flicked through the channels on the television up on the wall with the sound turned off; but it was all shit. But she insisted it be left on, even though she wasn’t watching. It was approaching nine-thirty and from the window I could see the hospital staff walking back to their cars in the lit-up parking lot having finished their shifts. The visitors in the public ward down the hallway had left hours ago in accordance with hospital regulations, but there was a tacit understanding between me and the nursing staff that I could stay for as long as I wished, although I had a feeling they didn’t like me hanging around too late.

My mother continued to fall into and out of short spells of light sleep, shifting her head while sighing and mumbling through half-hearted moans. I looked up at the message board above her bed, but I noticed something different about it. It had her surname on it as before, and the medication she was receiving, which was morphine. But in the very top slot, next to her name, there was a curious black square.

I recalled in the public ward, while she was still undergoing tests, that symbol had been a red diamond. I also noticed the intravenous line connected to the needle on the back of her left hand had been switched off; there was no fluid dripping in the chamber. I didn’t have to think hard to know what it all meant. I wondered if she had figured out what was going on; or were her perceptive faculties so clouded by the morphine infusing into her bloodstream, sapping her of any will to think or fight, that she no longer cared that people had given up trying to save her?

I decided to wait around till the nurse arrived to check on her condition before I left for the night; she usually came round just after ten. As I sat quietly watching the images on the television screen to the sound of her rapid half-breathing, I tried to imagine how it would feel to be without a mother. But her mumbled entreaties nudged me out of my thoughts and I turned to listen to what she was trying to say.

As she held out her arm and motioned to give her my hand, she was demanding my full attention. I obliged, and as she clasped it tight into her clammy palms I could feel how cold her fingers were, even though the room was quite warm and she was perspiring. It was an indication that her body was on the verge of irreversible shock. Despite the efforts of her heart beating furiously inside her chest, blood was being diverted from the periphery in a futile attempt to maintain her blood pressure, while at the same time sweat glands on her face and head were being activated to cool down her elevated core body temperature from the growing mass inside her, and the last ditch effort of her immune system to fight off the infection that had set in, in her peritoneal cavity. She squeezed my hand as strongly as she could and then attempted to lift it to her face, but lacked the necessary strength. I moved closer, and raising my hand in hers, she guided it to her face and held it there, squeezing it as tight as she could, and then pressed it onto her mouth to kiss with her dry lips.

I can’t remember exactly what thoughts were running through my head at that particular moment. Her actions brought up memories of her kissing and hugging me at the airport as I was about to fly out. She was sad to see me go on the one hand, but happy that I was returning to my job in the States, because as she always liked to remind me, “there is no shame in work,” as if there was no higher human virtue, even if it meant leaving one’s friends and family behind. But presently she was bidding me goodbye from her sickbed without the usual excitement, and there was no job for me to head back to overseas. I struggled to comprehend the poignancy of the moment. Why was she doing this now, when she hadn’t done so on previous nights? Did she already know, I wondered?

Abruptly she pushed away my hand and trying to affect that admonishing look she usually assumed whenever she wanted to exercise her maternal authority, she mumbled that I should go home at once and feed Max and Timothy, because they would be waiting in the dark, all hungry and cold. In her own mind, she still held sway over me, and with renewed though pained fervor, she demanded I do as she said. For a brief moment she seemed back to her normal self and the thought crossed my mind that perhaps her condition wasn’t as serious as it appeared, and she would soon be back home to resume her daily chores.

I said I would wait another ten minutes until the nurse arrived. But she was adamant I should leave at once and wait no longer. She said the nurse was going to come much later, probably close to midnight, and I should leave because she wanted to get some sleep. Obeying her order, I packed into my bag a book and some paperwork I’d brought but never resorted to, and before leaving, I made sure she was comfortable, adjusting the pillows and covers. As I did so, she held my hand up to her face once more, and then began nodding her head up and down while staring down at the sheets covering her bloated abdomen, conveying her bitter disappointment at how things had turned out. She knew what the score was and she could do nothing but submit to her fate. Not even Αγία Βαρβάρα could now save her. Her miracle-working icon remained safe in the drawer next to her bed at home, awaiting her anticipated return, because the cold heathen surrounds of the departure room of Dandenong Hospital was no place for saints or martyrs.

As I looked down at her weary face, eyes flickering, I realized she had given me the signal. She no longer needed to sustain the pretence that she would soon be well enough to resume her domestic duties, like cooking, gardening, feeding Max and Timothy, going shopping, or sneaking off to join her so-called friends, worthless hags if truth be told, at the hotel-casino down by Holmesglen to try and win the jackpot on the slot machines, only to lose all her money and self-respect in the process. It was no longer necessary because the simple truth was all around. It filled every corner of that bare cold antechamber. She was to undergo an abrupt and irreversible change, and our mutual awareness was about to come to an end. I was going to leave her and she was going to leave me, forever.

My eyes began to moisten and well up as I felt a sudden release from my present concerns. Tears rolled down the side of my face and dripped off my chin. Perhaps she saw them, I don’t know, but she ordered me to leave at once. “Go now, quickly!” she said. “Go and get some sleep, and feed Max and Timothy. I’ll be all right. I want to get some sleep. Go!” She seemed pleased when I got to the door, having asserted her maternal authority over me, her disconsolate, contrarian, misanthropic son. Before I walked out of the room, I turned around to look at her lying up in bed for the last time as she mumbled for me to leave.

On my way out of the ward I passed the nurses’ bay and bade them good night. When I got downstairs, I wasn’t quite ready to get in my car and drive home, and I stopped at the chapel just inside the main entrance. Posted on framed plaques on the walls were quotations pertaining to death as well as to life, for this was also a maternity hospital. They were drawn from the scriptures of various religions, reflecting the multi-ethnic diversity of patients at Dandenong Hospital and the outer suburbs in general which it served. They were so trite, I thought, that they could have written by a ten year-old. They left me none the wiser about the meaning of death, nor did I find anything comforting in their words. I made my way around the rest of the displays intended to console the grieved, and stopped at a small fountain in the middle of the chapel trickling water into a bowl. According to the inscription on the plaque, it said it depicted death as absence among other abstractions.

I was wasting my time, I thought, because the only emotion I could feel was the lack of one. I decided it was time to head back home to be with Max and Timothy. They were sure to be patiently waiting for me in the living room in the dark, looking out for headlights coming up the driveway, united by their shared expectation that someone, I or my mother, would arrive at any minute to reward their patience and feed them. But all the way home on the freeway, all I could think about was that soon I would be left without a mother.

Early next morning, just after eight o’clock, the phone rang next to my bed. It was a nurse from Dandenong Hospital, one I hadn’t talked to before. She wanted to let me know that my mother had fallen into a coma overnight and was not responding to external stimuli. She said they didn’t know how long she would remain in that state; it could be hours or longer. I said I would try and get there in the next hour and after hanging up I phoned my sister to pass on the news.

When I got there, I found her and her husband, as well as my older cousin sitting around my mother’s bed. She was in a coma all right, eyes shut, oblivious of anyone and anything, breathing very rapidly in short shallow gasps, interrupted every half a minute or so by an attempt to inspire more deeply, as if she were drowning and trying to take in a big gulp of air before sinking back under.

I don’t know what came over me, perhaps the non-descript anger I felt which had been building up inside me since I received the call in the morning had relieved me of my usual inhibitions and decorum, and I got up and, standing by her bed, reached down to feel her ashen face and hands. They were as cold as the metal bed frame. Then without any hesitation, I pried open her eyelids with my fingers to see that her pupils were fully dilated and she failed to blink at all when I lightly touched their purplish blue corneas with the tip of my finger. As I looked into her deathened eyes which once supplied her with a view of the world and which for whoever knew her served as a window into her soul, there was something alluring about the detached serenity they conveyed.

To all intents and purposes, save for her short, shallow irregular breathing, she was already dead. As I took a seat next to the others, I felt my anger growing. I was angry at myself for being in this situation, and angry at the fact that my mother was going to die a cold death in a foreign land, of an illness that seemed to come out of nowhere. I tried to conceal my rage, although I suspect the obviously manic state I was in had already alarmed the others into a fearful silence, not daring to say anything lest I be provoked into loud outbursts, or worse.

A nurse walked in to check the syringe in the infusion pump under the sheets, and in response to a question from my older cousin, which I thought, perhaps somewhat hypocritically on my part, betrayed a lack of respect for the solemnity of the circumstances, she said she had no idea when my mother would stop breathing altogether. “It could be minutes or it could be hours,” she said. With that, we all decided to go down to the cafeteria for a coffee, after which I drove back home, while my sister along with her husband and my cousin Rania went back up to the room to keep vigil.

Just as I arrived at the house, I heard the phone ringing inside. I rushed in to answer it and it was my sister. She told me that when they returned to my mother’s room she had already stopped breathing and the doctor had pronounced her dead.

By the time I got back to the hospital again, my mother’s face was as dry as chalk and had begun to take on a pale sallow hue. The morphine line had been removed from her arm and as I looked down at the sheets covering her bloated abdomen and at her swollen arms by her side I needed no explanation for what had happened. I kept my thoughts to myself, but my anger now returned. It was directed at the doctors and nurses, two of whom, both Philippinos, who, judging by their ready show of compassion with their sober countenances and demeanor, seemed accustomed to dealing with the relatives of the just deceased, had come in as if on cue to offer their condolences, saying how much they would like to attend the funeral. 

They were accompanied by one of the doctors, a junior resident, balding with glasses, who stood at the door affecting blank sympathy, looking down at the floor and saying nothing. He had been looking after my mother for the past few days in the absence of the senior doctor who was not much older than him and had mysteriously vanished after my mother was transferred out of the public ward to this room. And the tall fat senior nurse who’d checked the morphine pump in the morning, and who rarely spoke and showed no emotion, she wasn’t anywhere to be seen either. “How could she show her face,” I thought, “after what she’d done, when no one was here to see.” And given the mood I was in, it was just as well.

There was nothing more for us to do except pack up my mother’s personal belongings and bedclothes from the cupboard and leave. The body that was once my mother, her mortal corporeal shell, lay there cold and still on the bed, eyes closed. The nurses assured us they would take care of it and contact us the next day or Monday about picking it up for funeral arrangements. We all then stood up and left, going our separate ways, I back home to Max and Timothy, trying to put on a brave face, which was nothing more than a cover for the altogether novel sensation I was feeling of being without a father and now without a mother, a middle-aged orphan with no-one to scold me and tell me what to do.

The following day one of the doctors called. It was the young female doctor with an annoyingly grating Australian accent whom I caught flirting with her bald-headed fellow resident at the end of my mother’s bed one day in the public ward, while their senior colleague was looking over the charts and trying to explain in layman’s terms somewhat condescendingly the course of action available to us. I gave them both a stern look to convey my disgust, after which they stopped like a pair of clueless horny imbeciles.

In an arrogant, imperious tone, she said she called to ask me if I could go to the city morgue in South Melbourne where my mother’s body had been transferred, and identify her. Well that did it, and I exploded in anger down the phone. I let fly such a barrage of expletives at her and her colleagues for their incompetence in handling the necessary paperwork, threatening to sue them and the hospital, when they had assured us they required nothing more from us, that she had to cut short the call, her voice trembling with fear, while I took satisfaction from having made her seriously consider changing careers and opening up a hair salon.

I once had a mother, and before that I also had a father. But now those from whom I came are no more, and there is only me.

(Melbourne, 2010)

When I had had enough of America, after four years in Reno, I packed my bags and headed to Australia. It could have been anywhere really, but the rest of my family was there, my mother and sister, and I needed to be among kin, and escape from a situation in which my grip on reality had been severely tested.On the day of my departure my connecting flight from Reno to San Francisco which was due to leave just after six in the morning was delayed by about and hour and a half because a storm over Wyoming had prevented the pilot from flying in on his Cessna in time for our scheduled departure window. Then when he arrived and we boarded the small jet for the forty minute hop to San Francisco, we were taxiing out for take-off when it came to a sudden stop. There were no planes in front of us, nor were there any coming in to land, leaving the dozen or so passengers on board thoroughly perplexed. About five minutes later the low murmur in the cabin was interrupted by the captain who came on to inform us there was going to be a short delay because a light had come on on the instrument panel and he was trying to get in touch with the engineers on the ground to determine how serious it was.

The passenger sitting next to me who looked like he’d jumped straight out of bed and into his business suit turned to confide that the airline was just looking for an excuse to cancel the flight, seeing it was less than half full, and put us on the afternoon one so as to save fuel and avoid the gate fees. I nodded in agreement with a faint “Yeah” in my best American accent, figuring this wasn’t the time or place to draw people’s attention to the fact that I was a foreigner. Then just as we had lost all hope of flying out that morning the captain announced he’d been advised the red light didn’t signal any major problem and we could take off as soon as we were given clearance. This was followed by a collective sigh of relief and an ironic round of applause, after which the plane proceeded down the taxi-way, turned onto the runway, powered up its engines, and promptly took off in a south-westerly direction, climbing over the still snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevadas, bound for San Franscisco International Airport, with the morning sun piercing through the windows across the aisle.

My departure on June 1st 1991 took place in the aftermath of the Gulf War. For the first time since the Vietnam War the militaristic appetite of the American psyche had been seriously awakened by the prospect of a full-scale conflict, not like one of those boy scout exercises in the Caribbean to rescue American students from off-shore medical schools. American patriotism enjoyed a brief though ambivalent resurgence as people tried to comprehend the realistic threat posed by a vastly out-gunned enemy and the duration of a likely conflict, since there was little doubt over the outcome, and not long afterwards, they reflected on the implications of such a swift and decisive victory. But when the war actually kicked off at the start of 1991, I was half a world away and watched events unfold in far-off Australia.

Over there, the news media, both government-run and commercial, were unwaveringly supportive of the American-led U.N. action. This was not surprising since Australia and the U.S., along with New Zealand, are signatories to the ANZUS military alliance, a formal declaration of their “special relationship” based on the shared Anglo-Saxon heritage of their founding settlers, and the common interests of their ruling elites. Whether this grudging acceptance of American influence is seen as a unavoidable consequence of American imperium, or is a sign of weakness in Australia’s national psyche, or some strategic ploy on is part to always side with the strong regardless, depends on one’s point of view. But I was reminded of that “special relationship” by something I came across in Alice Springs on my way back from a trip to Ayers Rock.

I went there more or less on a whim. Having arrived in Australia just after Chistmas of 1990 for some badly needed rest and quiet contemplation, I was sitting around my parents’ farm in Five Ways, weighing up whether I should seriously consider returning to Australia and accept the job at Monash University, or remain in the U.S. and pursue an academic career back there, when I was seized by a feeling of utter disgust and impotence as I watched a televized debate in the Australian Parliament on whether Australia should send arms and troops in support of the American-led military action in the Gulf. I was disgusted because the country where I’d spent the last three and half years of my life and which had opened my eyes to the world and freed me from the odium of a “migrant background”, was going to bomb a smaller and weaker nation which had not directly attacked it, and in the process thousands of innocent people were going to be killed. Moreover it was bullying Australia, the “sheriff of the South Pacific”, to join in and send troops and arms to help remove the Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait, and there was nothing either I or anyone else could do about it; not the bleeding heart members of the left-wing faction of the Australian Labor Party passionately arguing against Australia’s kowtowing to America and for diplomacy to be given a chance; or the daily protests outside the U.S. consulates in the major capital cities and Parliament House itself. Bar the shouting, it appeared the Australian government was going to cave in, as if there was ever any doubt.

Thus, to take my mind off these developments and calm my rage I decided to go on a three day trip to the Red Centre, driven by a rather maudlin notion that away from all the infuriating hubbub, I would find peace and inspiration in the fabled timeless landscape of the Australian outback and perhaps even reconcile myself with calling Australia home for good, on the back of my deep disillusionment with America.

To get there, I took a flight from Melbourne to Adelaide, and then another from there to Alice Springs, all in one day. I had booked accommodation in a tourist resort near Ayers Rock which I got to by rental car. It took much longer than I expected, some five hours of solid driving across the prepossessing, rust-red Martian landscape dotted with spinifex and other hardy desert flora, set against a blue sky with just a few high clouds, under a hot blazing sun. The drive was not without its anxious moments, like when I realized half-way there that there would not be enough gas in the tank of the Suzuki hatch-back. With no sign of human habitation anywhere around, my mind was in a frenzy as to whether I should stop and wave down a passing car or truck for assistance, or keep driving in the hope of getting to the next town before I used up the remaining gas. I decided to keep going, and to my huge relief, ten kilometers or so down the road, I came upon a sign for a gas station, the only one between Alice Springs and Ayers Rock.

I should not have been surprised gas cost twice as much as in Alice Springs, and I was lucky I had enough cash on me because that was the only acceptable form of payment. The proprietor was tall and lean, somewhere in his fifties, with a weather-beaten, leathery complexion and squinting eyes, and didn’t have much to say. The gas station and the house-cum-office next to it, with a shed or out-house behind, were the only structures visible apart from the two pumps. Gathered nearby was a group of about five Aboriginal women, some older than others, dressed in loose clothing. They were sitting on the ground in a circle, partly in the shade, talking among themselves, waving away flies buzzing around their faces and drawing patterns in the sand, and seemed oblivious of me when I walked past. As I drove off, I wondered where they all lived; probably some nearby settlement, of which only they knew the directions how to get there. But a complete stranger, disoriented by the sun and the seeming sameness of the terrain would no doubt die quickly from dehydration trying to find it.

I arrived at the resort late in the afternoon and went straight to my room and switched on the air-conditioner, forgoing a dip in the pool. After a light dinner and a beer in the restaurant, I went back to my room and fell fast asleep, completely exhausted. As a result, next morning I got up rather late and against the advice of the desk clerk, I decided to drive out to Ayers Rock, or Ularu as it’s now officially called, in deference to its Aboriginal custodians, and climb to the top. He said it was best to start just after daybreak, because it takes a couple of hours to get to the top and back down again, and by midday it’s much too hot to be out in the sun – in fact, he said it was dangerous. However, considering myself a fairly fit thirty-one year-old with only a mild smoking habit, I decided to give it a go anyway and drove the short distance to the parking lot at the base of the rock, and after locking my car, I donned my wide-brimmed hat and followed the signs to the start of the climbing trail.

Some fifteen minutes later, having made my way up the fairly steep boulders to the first level where the posts and guide ropes start, I was already feeling quite exhausted as I greeted a group of tourists, most likely German, making their way down, looking exhausted themselves and expressing relief to be coming out of the sun. Seeing I had already drunk half the bottle of water I had brought with me, I figured I would quickly become dehydrated in the scorching heat and collapse before I got anywhere near the top. Thus with some embarrassment and humility, I waited for the Germans to make their way down before turning around myself, thoroughly disappointed that I had come all that way and failed so dismally in my attempt to fulfil this rite of passage into Australiandom.

I planned to try again the following morning but changed my mind when I got up late again. Instead I decided to drive out to the Olgas before returning to Ularu on the way back to explore the water holes and caves around the base. It seemed the rock itself, which rises some hundreds of feet above the desert plain, generates its own microclimate because despite the dry sandy terrain all around, water could be seen dripping down the rock face and collecting in the many shaded pools which no doubt provided fresh water for animals in the area, and perhaps humans as well. I didn’t venture into any of t he caves, but paintings and etchings were evident around their entrances. I assumed they held some deep significance in Aboriginal folklore, either as appeals to the spirits for a bountiful hunt, or expressions of gratitude, or they were simply the work of an artist or artists who liked to decorate drab bare rock faces with semi-abstract works depicting hunters bearing spears and kangaroos, and thereby leave their mark for posterity.

 Whatever the case, I just couldn’t relate to them, except in vague appreciation of the fact that they were probably “thousands of years old” and were the conscious creations of human beings who likely had a different relationship with the landscape than a tourist like me. Unlike the Aborigines who once lived in the area, and still do, albeit corralled into settlements outised Alice Springs which, although providing basic food and shelter, have corrupted if not destroyed their self-esteem and their instinct for survival in a habitat they once roamed over freely, my own consciousness, and the collective consciousness inherited from my forbears, has not been shaped by the unique landscape and the flora and fauna. My genes don’t bear their imprint, wrought in over hundreds of generations. Therefore, the landscape, its features, and the artistic expression it inspired, could not but appear alien, and were impossible to assimilate on a personal or, dare I say, a spiritual level.

By late afternoon, I was back at the resort in the comfort of my air-conditioned room, out of the heat and the flies, ready to return to civilization, so to speak. I had seen enough of the Red Centre, and as I drove away the next morning, the over-riding feeling I had was that the experience had failed to inspire me any, and I couldn’t even boast of having climbed Ayer’s Rock, which was just as well because as I later discovered, even though there was no formal restriction, climbing it was considered immeasurably more sacrilegious to Aborigines than any reference to it by the name of its European “discoverer,” and rumor had it, brought on a curse.

After dropping off my car at the rental office at Alice Springs airport, I was enjoying a cold beer at the bar, waiting for the plane to Melbourne to come in, when I recognized a television news reporter entering the terminal with her entourage in tow, two men and another woman. She affected an air of superiority as she walked past in a leisurely gait, head raised, like someone whose presence in the public eye had given her an inflated sense of self-importance, avoiding looking at anyone, knowing they were looking at her, as she and her retinue made their way to the bar. She was the last person I expected to see there, and wondered what she was doing in Alice Springs. Suddenly there was an announcement over the public address system ordering everyone to evacuate the terminal and assemble in the car park, without any explanation. Like everyone else, I picked up my bags and my stubby of beer and calmly headed outside, wandering what could possibly be the reason. A bomb scare? In Alice Springs?

As I waited in the shade, it was obvious the evacuation had something to do with the huge U.S. Airforce Galaxy parked on the tarmac whose engines could be heard whining away and its huge tail fin with horizontal aerofoils seen protruding above the roof of the terminal building. I figured its presence there was related to the nearby U.S. spy base at Pine Gap. This was probably the reason the television news team was there too; to cover the protests outside the gates of the base by an umbrella of left-wing groups which had converged there in the past week from the major cities to generate publicity for their anti-war stance, as I saw on television in my hotel. But still, why would a commercial television network which was mainly interested in selling products through advertising send a news reporter to cover a protest against war in the Outback, unless it made a nice contrast to the other more mundane stories, and engaged viewers emotionally and kept then watching, but not enough change their beliefs.

I figured the plane was probably carrying sensitive intelligence back to the U.S. pertaining to the imminent war, or had brought in equipment and supplies and a change of personnel, and was now heading back. And sure enough, the pilots and crew dressed in their regulation khaki green jumpsuits appeared inside the empty terminal from a side-entrance, and could be seen through the glass plate windows purposefully strutting towards the gate leading out to the tarmac. Not long afterwards the high-pitched whine of the engines got louder and the plane taxied out to the end of the single runway where it did a 180-degree turn and then promptly took off in a thundering roar, still booming after it had disappeared into the sky.

Without any further announcement, everyone wandered back into the terminal, as if it was all part of some tired routine, including the television reporter who seemed to take it all in her stride. But for some reason, perhaps my mouth had been loosened by the two beers I had had on an empty stomach, and the presence of the television news team had aroused the exhibitionist in me, my conscience had been pricked, and as I made my way back inside, I began to mouth off some unflattering remarks for the benefit of all and sundry regarding Australia’s subordinate role and its sycophantic relationship with the U.S., as evidenced by the presence of the American military in the middle of a supposedly sovereign country, and their deferential treatment by Australia. Judging by people’s reactions, however, the indifferent ones probably thought I was an idiot for stating the obvious, while the ones staring scornfully probably thought I was “mad bastard”, one of the commie rat-bags protesters.

Back in Melbourne, although there was daily coverage of the impending war, compared to their American counterparts, the Australian news media’s approach was generally low key. Other stories dominated the news, mostly related to sport. When it came to the war itself, they liked to put their own mildly equivocal slant on Australia’s likely involvement, to propagate the notion and pander to the popular belief that, despite their shared heritage and values, and the fact they were both “first-world” countries, Australia was not an American colony and therefore didn’t automatically toe the American line. When it did, it was only after considered deliberation, and only if it was in its national interest. And this war just happened to be, because after a long, drawn out, and in the end, perfunctory debate, the Australian Parliament voted in the majority for Australia to send troops and arms in support of the American-led U.N. action, over the tearful resignations of the members of the left-wing faction of the Australian Labor Party which caved in and voted in favor.

Within a week the war and bombing had commenced. But before one even had time to adjust the volume and picture on one’s television set, it was all but over, lasting only a few days, as the Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait surrendered, and the remainder beat a hasty retreat back to Baghdad. Personally, this was a huge relief because it meant I could now return to Reno with a calm mind, free from the debilitating paranoia that had set in, in the months leading up to the war, stirred up by the unremitting and unrelenting propaganda with which my brain was bombarded from all directions on a daily basis.

Military action had been debated for months by the hawks and doves in Washington, and by the members of the United Nations Security Council, with countries lining up behind the superpowers as per their existing alliances, arguing for or against the passing of a binding resolution to enjoin Iraq to quit Kuwait. But as the summer of 1990 came and went, and fall was heading towards winter, an unusual eerie and somber atmospher descended upon Reno, as the resolution for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait looked more and more likely to be passed. Meanwhile, the anti-Iraq propaganda in the news media was steadily being ramped up, and I witnessed the transformation of the local population from laid-back, hedonistic drop-outs, to vigilant though somewhat hesitant patriots. My American friends and colleagues began to tone down their usual joviality, and when it appeared war was all but certain, with the Iraqi forces refusing to budge, and the bulk of the American forces already assembled in Saudi Arabia, their speech assumed a grim and weighty seriousness and their words were now measured, as if they were wary the enemy may be listening.

American flags began to pop up everywhere spontaneously, like mushrooms after the rain. There were red, white and blue star-spangled banners of all sizes up flagpoles in parks and public places and in people’s front yards, and on electronic billboards outside the casinos; they were pasted on store windows and hung outside people’s office doors at work, on lapel pins, on posters that covered entire windows of houses visible from the street, on car bumper bars; they were attached to car aerials flapping in the wind, and emblazoned on t-shirts and baseball caps and other types of clothing. To say the least, it was unnerving to witness such an overwhelming display of mass patriotism. It took me back to my childhood in Greece, in the days following the coup d’etat by the military junta on April 21st 1967, when all their zealous supporters thronged the streets of Tirnavos to rejoice in the fact that Greece had been rescued from the edge of the Communist abyss, and Greek flags were everywhere, Royal seal removed, for the coup was also against the monarchy.

But in Reno it was different. There was no army patrolling the streets and the American government was in no danger of being overthrown. Moreover the supposed enemy had no express desire to invade the U.S. and most Americans didn’t even know where to find Iraq or Kuwait on the map. Nevertheless, by putting a halt on the operation of American and Western oil companies in Kuwait, that enemy had threatened America’s vital national interests, and that was more than sufficient reason to go to war. Although I knew that the possibility of war would not directly affect me, being a “Foreign Exchange Scholar”, nevertheless, it was extremely disconcerting to find myself amidst such open displays of nationalism and patriotism. And as the propaganda gained in momentum and was relayed around the clock through all forms of media, I had to cease watching television and listening to the radio and stop reading newspapers, just to calm my growing anxiety.

Deep down, however, I was caught in a moral dilemma, because on the one hand, my Australian identity, as evidenced by my accent and my general manners and attitude, meant that I was seen as a “ally”, given the open support of the Australian government for the American-sponsored U.N. resolution, and thus I felt pressured to conform to people’s expectations, and express my support in some form. But it was also known I was of Greek descent, in fact, I was a citizen of Greece, which had voted against the resolution, and this must have raised questions about my outward neutrality, which wasn’t helped by my openly leftist views. 

As attested on my on my U.S. Immigration form, I had never been a member of the “Communist Party.” However, my leftist views were no secret and among my friends and colleagues I was jokingly referred to as the token “pinko Commie” of the department. And true to form, as the Eastern bloc began to dismantle their “socialist” infrastructures in the late 1980’s and their unabashed red-baiting came thick and fast, I would hold up Albania and Cuba as staunch defenders of communism, steadfastly resisting the depredations of capitalism, keeping the fires burning, so that one day communism can rise up from the ashes and liberate human kind from the tyranny of the market. It was all said in jest, done more so to ingratiate myself with my colleagues by playing my assigned role, than in any belief that my predictions would come true. But I’m sure many saw me as a naive idealist for envisaging a world without borders, where equality reigned supreme. And I can’t say I didn’t entirely disbelieve it myself.

I tried putting the matter out of my mind by trying to convince myself that I was there to do a job, and so long as I turned up to the laboratory each day on time, performed my experiments, analyzed the data, wrote my reports and manuscripts, and respected my American colleagues’ solemnity, and kept my mouth shut, then I had nothing to worry about. Besides, if the workshop technician was to be believed, a somewhat laconic and philosophical Air Force veteran from the Korean War, if there was going to be a war, it would be over within weeks if not sooner, and things would return to normal.

Despite all these reassurances, it became increasingly difficult to pretend I had nothing to worry about. I was very apprehensive that my taciturnity would be interpreted as criticism of America, and I would be ostracized and everyone would start talking about me behind my back, spreading all kinds of rumors. Moreover I began to feel inadequate to the trust they had placed in me, they being everyone from the university, my boss, the chairman of the department, my colleagues, the secretaries and laboratory technicians, right up to the U.S. government itself and the Department of Health and Human Services which funded the grant that paid my salary. I felt like an impostor and at the same time I was wracked with guilt over the fact that I was paid by the same American nation-state that was gearing up for war, while I remained passive and non-committal on the side-lines, like some shameless, hypocritical free-loader. But I kept reminding myself I had nothing to feel guilty about because I was simply fulfilling my end of the contract, and so long as I did what was required, I had nothing to fear, and it was perfectly within my rights to reserve any judgment on the morality of this war, or any other.

There were times when I wished I could simply abandon my half-baked Marxist rhetoric and reinvent myself, just like everyone else did who came to America. The problem was not so much a lack of desire, but an ignorance of how to properly immerse myself into the American consumerist culture and take advantage of all the opportunities for leisure and self-advancement it afforded, without appearing aimlessly prodigal or hypocritical. Thus, to save myself the embarrassment of revealing my inherent backwardness in terms of my lack of acculturation to the social stratum to which I aspired, as well as the shame of selling out, I continued to expound my leftist views whenever called on, at the risk of parodying myself. Nevertheless, I could take some comfort in the fact that I remained true to my political beliefs on a personal intellectual level at least, because in a practical sense I was now completely uninvolved in politics.

As the days to the ultimatum for Iraq to pull out of Kuwait counted down, a generalized fear, a prelude to paranoia, crept into my consciousness. It was the type of fear you feel when you discover a sinister side to a person whom up until then you thought you understood and trusted implicitly. So it was with some of my American friends and colleagues. I could now see more clearly how different they were from me in terms of their own self-perception. Unlike me, they belonged to a country which, by virtue of its cultural, political, economic and military hegemony on a global scale, had inculcated into them a deep belief in its inherent invincibility and in the ideals on which it was founded, however specious and grandiose. As such, I couldn’t relate to them. I sensed an invisible barrier now separated them from foreigners like me. I also realized their friendliness and welcoming attitude which I’d been treated to up until then had reached its limits, and it was now time for them to drop such pretences and get serious.

At the same time there was something different about their nationalism and the patriotism it inspired. As reactionary as it seemed, it didn’t quite conform to the fiercely nationalistic fascism founded on doctrines of racial purity and superiority with model citizens, and a strong central state apparatus. I figured this had to do with the fact that America was avowedly a nation of immigrants, and the notion of an American archetype in a phenomenological sense, in the late 20th century, was ridiculous, notwithstanding the efforts of the advertizing industry. More than anything, America was a supra-nation defined by a shared belief, an ethos, in a common set of values centered around the freedom to pursue eternal happiness, not just in the abstract, but through material wealth generated by the market system.

Above all America was an idea, and to identify oneself as an American was to acknowledge the manifold manifestations of America in all its contradictions, and the fact that its message was universal. And like the concept of freedom itself, it touched people differently, according to their capacity to grasp its meaning and bear the responsibility of being American. That’s why it was one’s duty to unequivocally support the American government regardless of the immediate consequences of its actions, because it expressed the will of not just the American people, but of the universal American ideal. Its mission was to spread and protect freedom and was divinely ordained. That’s why America deferred only to God and no-one else.

As the country geared up for war, I was struck by the absence of any protests on campus. Given that Wilhelm von Humboldt saw universities as factories that produced miniature nation-states, I had always assumed that, because of their intellectual exposure and familiarity to that guiding ideology, university students were endowed with a greater awareness than the average person of the means of mass indoctrination carried out by the nation-state through various other estates, like the news media. And being of an age where cynicism has yet to set in and displace their more romantic views of the world, including ideals of equality and social justice, I assumed they would be more disposed to resist any blatant manipulation of popular opinion by the news media and other sources of disinformation clamouring for war.

But in Reno there was only a hushed continuation of “business as usual”, as students went about their classes apparently unconcerned by the prospect of war. Perhaps the fact that the U.S. military was now made up of professional soldiers, students no longer felt the need to protest, since they wouldn’t be called up to fight. But I also wondered whether another reason for their apparent apathy was that the narrative for this particular conflict lacked a clear, dichotomous ideological dimension, one which intellectuals and students could readily seize upon.

Ostensibly, it was to be an intervention by the United Nations forces led by the United States to remove the armed forces of Iraq that had gone in to occupy the neighboring sovereign state of Kuwait, in violation of international law. Iraq, however, claimed its occupation was provoked because Kuwait had been using a pipeline that ran under Iraqi territory to get its oil shipments to port, and had refused to desist when discovered. The twist here was that the U.S. had been a staunch supporter of the Iraqi regime in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and had sold it tons of military equipment and supplies that were used to kill tens of thousands of people in that incredibly bloody conflict portrayed as a sectarian one between fellow Muslims. Thus, a plausible narrative to engage Americans’ consciences was missing. A simple story was required, a good-versus-evil plot to justify the billions of dollars that were going to be expended, and provide clear signals to the market.

In the end, Hollywood came to the rescue with a Western-cum-Shakespearian tragic spin on events in which America, the “sheriff of the World” rounded up a posse of allies to chase off the bad guys, and if need be, lynch them, and thereby liberate the Kuwaiti ranch from the Iraqi outlaws, and thereby bring back peace to the region. There was no need to invoke the evils of Communism; this was about teaching a lesson to a bunch of renegades who once were in the Americans’ good books, but were corrupted by power and wealth because of an intrinsic character flaw of their leader, and needed to be put back in their place. And to do this required a massive and asymmetrical show of military force to set an unequivocal example for others who might have thought of invoking their own tragic destinies.

There was one slightly positive aspect, however, to the solemn mood that now pervaded my department at work. And that was that I no longer needed to play the contrarian leftist buffoon. But the downside was that it served as a constant reminder of how isolated I was in a strange place, fueling my paranoia, as all manner of pro-American and anti-Iraqi graffiti started to appear everywhere, along with all the flags. It was chalked on sidewalks on my way to work in the morning, and scrawled on placards in shop windows, lauding “U.S.A. #1” and ridiculing the Iraqi President with a play on his name: “So Damn Insane.” At first I couldn’t figure out who this was aimed at, because as far I could tell, there were no supporters of Saddam Hussein anywhere in Reno, and the only Iraqi I came across was an engineering professor a colleague and I went to visit in his laboratory to discuss a collaborative project.

His face bore the appearance of one condemned, gaunt and shriveled up, his eyes wearied by fear. In a tremulous voice he confessed up front his opposition to the Iraqi regime, but stopped short of supporting any military action. I figured this was because his family still lived in Baghdad and he feared for their safety, not only because they might be punished by the regime for having family in the U.S., but because there was every likelihood they would be seriously hurt or killed if the Americans and their allies were to bomb Baghdad itself.

It then hit me. The purpose of all this propaganda, although directed against an enemy without a visible presence in Reno, was to whip up patriotic fervor and stop people from thinking about the real reasons behind this war, like the corporations and industries who were going to profit from it. Or perhaps they already knew all that and tacitly supported it, expecting by the trickle-down theory of economics they too would benefit in someway. In either case, it was just as easy to ride the wave of propaganda which incited people to conjure up in their own heads anyone in their midst who could pass for an enemy, thereby lending substance to their hatred and galvanizing their support for the war. That enemy was anyone who vaguely passed for “Iraqi” and who hadn’t derided Saddam Hussein loudly enough and hadn’t openly shown their support for America. This was also the reason I felt so anxious and paranoid; it was because I was that “Middle-Eastern-looking” enemy, and so long as I refused to wave the flag, the more suspect I felt, and the more paranoid I became.

Within the department, there were exceptions to the muted vigilantism that had taken hold among the staff and faculty. Like the chairman, my boss. He was relatively young for someone in his position, in his early forties, and being a product of a privileged middle-class upbringing in Orange County, Californian, he considered himself above the average American in terms of what he was allowed to do and say. However, he was old enough to remember the student protest movement during the Vietnam War, and word had it he joined the hippies and dodged the draft. Given this background, I assumed he saw through all the propaganda and rhetoric, and that’s why he didn’t bother with a flag on his door or anywhere in his office, although in keeping with the subdued atmosphere, he had toned down his usual upbeat disposition. Still, I wasn’t sure about his stance because he once told me he was Republican on Federal issues but Democrat in State and local politics. And since George H. Bush, the then President, was a Republican, and had pushed for war, I assumed he was tacitly in favor of it, which would not have been all that surprising given that many a merry prankster had sold out and become money-grabbing conservatives.

But from a conversation we had in his office one day, while working on a manuscript, I was surprised by his apparent scepticism and cynicism about the war. In fact, I was a little taken aback when he broke off from our scientific discussion to ask if I thought Saddam Hussein and George Bush and his oil company buddies in Texas were in cahoots in staging the war to create a panic in the oil market over supplies, and thus drive up the price, given there was a glut with the economic downturn, and prices had stagnated to record lows. I didn’t know how to respond, since it was more of a comment than a question, but he seemed to be seeking affirmation.

I raised my eyebrows and screwed up my mouth to convey bemused surprise at his cynicism, and then nodded my head to indicate that what he was suggesting was not entirely implausible. For a split second I thought about opening up the discussion by putting forward my own take. And this was that the war presented an opportunity for the American military to empty its stockpiles of arms and bombs, so that the arms industries which contribute to 70% of the American economy through government contracts could start production anew and help the U.S. dig itself out of the slump it had fallen into after the stock-market crash of 1987. But I said nothing of the sort and waited for him to change the subject, as I pondered what lay behind his apparent candor, given that he was a highly placed tenured academic at a university in a city and a State where the economy was underpinned by the gaming industry which dominated politics and had direct financial ties to the university, neither of which were known for their liberal views.

If there was anyone I was wary of, however, it was his personal secretary. She was in her mid-to-late forties, married with adult children, and had this whiny voice with a hint of a Southern accent softened by years in the California sun, that was both comical and creepy. And like the proud white-trash Republican she was, she loved NASCAR and boasted of never having missed a Superbowl since she first went after she got married. She always wore these very short, pastel colored skirts fashionable in the ‘70s that showed off her corpulent thighs and ample overhanging ass without any hint of modesty, and had a habit of greeting me with this penetrating stare up from her desk as if to gauge what I was thinking while reminding me she had me in her sights, as if I was some kind of foreign spy or something. I gathered she was pro-war, having a flag on her desk and yellow ribbons tied around the coat rack behind it, but otherwise she had no interest in international affairs, although she said she’d been to Mexico and didn’t like it. Strangely enough, despite her annoying ways, I didn’t dislike her because at least she made her beliefs known.

Amidst all this confusion of anger, hypocrisy, guilt, self-doubt, paranoia, and a longing for the comfort of family and the safety and distance of Australia, along with my increasing isolation from human interaction on a physical as well on an emotional and intellectual plane, my anxiety had reached the point where I was oblivious of its insidious effects on my decision making process, as well as on my perception of reality. There were days when I would lapse into a schmalzy sentimentality, followed by deep introspection and despair over my foolish contrariness, and for passing scornful judgment on people who were simply expressing their attachment to the country where they were born and grew up. I felt ashamed at my ingratitude and hated myself for being so inconsiderate and naive as to see them as my sworn ideological enemies, when I would do exactly the same in their shoes. Such was my increasing dissociation from my hitherto ordered life, on some evenings, I would get in my car and drive round and around for hours, sometimes ending up at Lake Tahoe, or Virginia City, or out in the desert, listening to some soppy pop songs on my car cassette player. Songs like “Life During War Time” by Talking Heads, which I would play over and over. I had no idea what the song was about, but its mere title and some of the lyrics I could discern which referred to war, as well as the paranoia and fear in the singer’s quavering voice, seemed to capture so eloquently the shallowness and confusion of my own emotions.

Then one day, on the spur of the moment, I decided I would head back to Australia. I didn’t care what others thought, or how much of a step backwards it would be for my career; I had had enough and I just wanted out. Initially, I kept my decision as secret, not telling any of my friends or housemate, and I began writing to people in Australia about job openings. To my surprise I got a reply from someone at my old university who expressed some sympathy for my situation, and said there might a short-term position available in a few months. For me this was as good as a yes, and I immediately booked a flight so that I would be in Australia in the New Year in the hope of securing the job.

However, people soon found out and as much as I tried to pass off my trip as a Christmas vacation to see my family, my boss suspected I was planning to flee for good and leave him short of a key person in his laboratory at a critical juncture in the grant funding cycle. To my surprise, as the day of my departure drew nearer, which was just after Christmas in 1990, he offered me his brand new laptop computer with 100 megabyte hard-drive to take with me to Australia so I could work on our manuscript. I felt somewhat embarrassed by his generosity, but I could also see that his ploy was a sign that he didn’t really trust my word that I’d be coming back. Thus by offering me his expensive computer, he was raising the ante, to ensure that I did return, unless I wanted to be labeled a common thief and have a crime recorded against my name, and never be allowed into the U.S. ever again. Nevertheless, to show him I was a person of my word, I took him up on his offer, and let him worry about whether or not I would return with his computer.

On the Sunday before my departure, I drove to San Francisco for the day. A large anti-war demonstration was due to take place there and I figured this would take my mind off the coming trip, and also be welcome antidote to the dearth of opposition in Reno, and all the propaganda inundating my brain. The deadline for Iraq to comply with the U.N. ultimatum was less than two weeks away, and seeing Saddam Hussein remained intransigent, it now looked certain war would be declared. So off I went in the hope of hearing some dissenting voices and have my faith restored in the open-mindedness of Americans, and see that freedom of expression and association were still the inalienable rights guaranteed by the Constitution. At the back of my mind, I also held out faint hope I might run into a particular member of the San Francisco branch of the International Socialists, someone I’d met when I first arrived in the U.S. in 1987, and, even though I hadn’t seen her again, I had never been able to put her out of my mind.

Before leaving Australia to take up my job in Reno, I had resigned as provisional member of the Melbourne branch of I.S., somewhat at odds with the organization and its politics. But having settled in Reno, after a few months I realized I still had a hunger for leftist politics and discussions with like-minded people. And having just bought myself a used, iridescent azure blue, 1983 Honda Civic hatch-back, I decided to give someone called David a call about attending a meeting of the San Francisco branch of I.S., whose name was on a list of contacts I had brought with me. I was hoping the American organization would be less of a sham and not be dominated by a bunch of Anglo-centric Australian crypto- nationalists with no clue how to connect to the fabled “workers” of their pipe-dreams. Instead of David, a woman answered the phone and after I explained that I had recently relocated to the U.S. from Melbourne and wanted to maintain my involvement with the organization, but there was no such group in Reno, she invited me to a meeting at an address in San Francisco the following weekend.

Not being familiar with the city, I went along a colleague of mine from Reno, himself a foreign exchange scholar from Northern Ireland, and we had little trouble finding the place. The house was quite modest, built in the Victorian style common in San Francisco, somewhere south of Market, and the woman I talked to on the phone greeted us at the door. She looked to be in her mid-twenties, a student of some sort, and I must confess, I was instantly taken not only by her young, fresh looks, but her poise and self-assurance and her voice which made me feel instantly at ease, to the extent that I can still picture her smiling face as she opened the door.

Inside, she introduced us to the others present, five in all, including a rather arrogant and condescending English man from London in his thirties who couldn’t get over my “funny” Australian accent as he sat listening with a dumb smirk on his face while I gave a brief description of myself. Floating around the room was a wiry, somewhat cantankerous graduate student from Scotland studying nuclear physics at Berkeley. He was wearing a pair of very wide, loose shorts buttoned very high, which I figured was for effect because I could see no reason why they couldn’t be worn lower on his waist, like a normal person. Perhaps he was used to wearing kilts, I don’t know, but he went to fetch me a cup of coffee and a cup of tea for himself and my friend. His deadly serious demeanor, accentuated by his emphatic rhotic Scottish accent, contrasted with the conceited self-importance and the toney measured delivery of the Englishman who had also begun to piss off my Irish friend. They both struck me as caricatures, and between them, I couldn’t decide who was the more irritating. The others present were an older gentleman with a beard, a soft-spoken American who looked like an ex-academic; a young union official, also bearded, who worked on the docks and had come dressed in his dark blue work clothes; as well as a male Chinese-American undergraduate from Berkeley with shoulder-length hair who was extremely articulate.

The meeting soon got underway, chaired by this only woman present. As my friend and I sat listening to them with interest discussing and analyzing various events in the news from a Marxist perspective, it seemed the more she spoke, the more captivated I became by her maturity and her ability to express herself so clearly in a voice that struck a deep chord. It was all music to my ears, hearing all the familiar words and phrases again. But at the same time, I was reminded of my ambivalence towards the organization as a whole, because from what I could discern, fundamentally there was no difference in the strategy and politics of this small nucleus of a group from the branch in Melbourne. It was like consuming a product that one expected to taste different in another country, but which tasted the same, leaving you disappointed and empty.

The meeting lasted about an hour and half, during which we had some more coffee, tea and biscuits, and when it finished, we said our goodbyes and after promising the woman, whose name I just cannot remember (it was simple, like Jane or Mary), I’d be in touch, my friend and I took off for the drive back to Reno. Over the next few days, I couldn’t get her image out of my head. I was convinced I’d met her before, or else, she was the physical manifestation of her pre-existence somewhere inside my head in a primordial and undifferentiated form. I figured she probably had the same effect on others, and that’s why she seemed to command such attention in the group, as small as it was.

After thinking it over a bit more, however, I questioned whether it was worth driving 500 miles round-trip every three weeks to attend their meetings, in the hope of keeping alive my interest in Marxism when I would always be at odds with their politics, and of getting to know better this alluring female expounding revolutionary socialism in her clear, somewhat affected mid-Atlantic accent. I also realized I was overlooking something disingenuous I sensed about her and the group, and I had been down that path before. Thus, after driving to the following meeting by myself, I never went again, and although I would stop by their bookstall on the corner of Market and Powell on occasions on my irregular weekend visits to San Franscisco, she was never there, nor did I enquire about her. Still, I always imagined I would one day run into her again.

With the start of winter not far, it had been snowing in the valley for the past two days, and the unpredictability of the weather in the mountains meant that I could well be stranded for hours by a sudden blizzard. Nevertheless, undaunted, I took off bright and early on Sunday morning, having packed ample food and water and a few blankets, with a full set of tire chains in the trunk, just in case. In the end I didn’t need them, because Donner Pass was open without restrictions and I-80 all the way down to Sacramento was clear. In San Francisco itself, the weather resembled spring, warm and sunny with blue skies all around. After parking my car in the usual spot under the Bay Bridge, near the Y.M.C.A., I made my way to Union Square where the march was due to commence. 

As I turned the corner at the entrance to Chinatown, I could see in front of me that the streets were filled with masses of people holding up all kinds of banners and signs, representing all manner of groups and interests, all one way or another opposed to the war. I was looking forward to marching among a large crowd of like-minded people. But at the same time, I was under no illusion that mass protests of this kind could influence U.S. government policy especially at this late stage. As far as I was concerned, walking up and down the streets, shouting slogans and waving placards merely created the illusion one had the power to force change. For many people this sufficed to placate their guilt over doing nothing, but in the end, such mass demonstrations were tolerated by the powers that be because they were a safe means of channeling people’s rage into something that was essentially theatrical in nature and helped defuse any potential for rebellion. For such an event to challenge the existing capitalist power structure, it had to be tied to a mass workers’ movement that questioned such fundamental tenets and the ownership of the means of production. And this just didn’t. Nevertheless, it had to the potential to radicalize people and get to feel their collective strength, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time.

A more cynical view would be they were merely forums organized by and for the middle-classes and the conceited intelligentsia they revered, to project their collective elitism onto the less enlightened masses, while irritating those above them, ostensibly by exercising their constitutional right to free speech, as befits a class occupying that shifting middle ground between those who wield power and those who create wealth. In the process, whether they knew it or not, they were validating the machinery of state which, through the compliant and complicit mass media, promulgated the lies that had provoked them to expose and mock, in this public manner. In the end, it was all a self-fulfilling game which on the one hand, strengthened the legitimacy and power of the all-embracing Republic, while reifying the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution, so that everyone went home happy, believing they’d exercised their democratic right and done their bit for world peace.

Despite these dissenting voices of reaction in my head, I felt drawn in by the large crowd, as if my own deontological conflict reflected the contradictions and chaos inherent in the logic of the impending war itself. It was as if in being there, I, along with everyone else, was appealing to the gods of war and peace to arrive at an understanding and avert destruction and needless loss of life, while at the same time, in some dark corner of my mind, I desired for that destruction and loss of life to proceed, and thereby dispel any beliefs in such false gods.

As I made my way through the crowd, it started moving towards the main thoroughfare with people generally obeying the exhortations of the various ringleaders wielding megaphones and shouting out in unison their slogans and chants demanding there be no war and that money be spent on food for the poor and needy instead. As the march slowly advanced along Market Street, I couldn’t help being caught up in the euphoria of the carnival atmosphere, and listen to all the amusing profanities directed at the President and the U.N., amidst the blaring cacophony of megaphones, the banging of bass drums, and the kazoos of a group of doctors from S.F. General playing kletzmer music behind their own “NO WAR” banner. And there I was, alone in the masses, swept along in this tide of protest, shouting out slogans with everyone, a complete stranger and yet I felt a sense of being at one with them, contributing with my voice and physical presence to this mass of humanity moving as one large organism down the main street of this large metropolis famed for its spirit dissent and defiance of authoritarianism.

As the march turned into the Tenderloin, it drew out patrons and proprietors of the brothels and strip clubs, as well as residents of the homeless shelters onto the street, looking jaded and bewildered. For some reason, I expected waves and cheers of support, but as my section of the march went past a rundown tenement building, a man with a heavy build sitting on the front steps suddenly shot up to his feet and began heckling us and threatening physical violence. He was joined by some others and I thought for a moment they were going to attack, but they held back, increasing the volume of their abuse instead. What surprised me most about them, however, was the fact that they were African-American, most likely pimps, judging from their loud sports jackets and slacks. They followed the march from the sidewalk for about half a block, continuing to shout their own counter slogans to drown out the marchers, like “God Bless America” and the like, between obscene threats.

As I walked along with the crowd, I was reminded of my naivety about American society, and my presumptuousness in thinking I understood the nature of its racial and socio-economic divisions. As these people showed, it was a fallacy to believe all African-Americans were instinctively opposed to whatever the American government did because of its historic role in enslaving them, and its continuing systematic oppression by all manner of discrimination and violence. Here was evidence of how wrong I was, because these supposed victims were lauding America and its right to wage war as it saw fit. I realized how stupid I was to regard African-Americans as a single homogeneous bloc with common political views and interests, simply because they were of the same race, which was highly contentious anyway. Those pimps and all the other fringe elements of society who were hurling abuse at us, and exulting in the fact they were more American than the protesters and proud of it, were part of a parallel social dynamic whose opposing views were just as legitimate, if not more so, than those of the protesters.

The hecklers were hurling abuse at the demonstrators for flaunting in their faces the luxury they enjoyed to protest about something they had no realistic influence over, and in the process mock people like themselves who had never tasted privilege and had to scrounge for a living all their lives, nor had they a safety net underneath to allow them to indulge in such frivolous actions. To them, the protesters were nothing more than white spoilt brats acting out against their rich parents, seized by sudden and passing pangs of conscience for living off the sweat and blood of fellow human beings below them. But at the same time, they were wary of severing their connections to inherited privilege lest they be left as destitute as those whose cause they purported to champion. It was a strange dynamic on show, at one level an elaboration of the fundamental forces acting on human social formations, tending to draw contending classes closer to one another, but only enough to make visible their irreconcilable differences so as to pull back.

 As we drew away from these fired up hecklers, I came to the conclusion that African-Americans were no different from any other Americans, because in the end, one has to look after his or her own interests, regardless of race or ethnicity, based on a assessment of the risks and pay offs. Ideological convictions played a minor role, and if so, only a tactical one, when it was a matter of survival.

The march ended at the Civic Center which was filled with a sea of people gathered to listen to speeches and browse through the stalls and booths selling leftist literature, tie-dyed t-shirts and Buddha sticks, among other counter-culture paraphernalia. I managed to find the I.S. bookstall, and as much as I loathed the organization as a whole for its obstinate academicism against lingering questions over just who was really was behind them, I felt a twinge of nostalgia as I approached the table arrayed with all the familiar books and pamphlets explaining why they were the true prophets of socialism and heirs of Lenin and Marx. I looked around, but alas, there was no sign of that woman anywhere, nor could I recognize anyone else present. More of out of curiosity than any need for a Marxist perspective on the war, I bought a copy of their newspaper, and as I handed over the quarter, one of the senior members began asking about my interest in Marxism and my thoughts on the war.

At first I made out I knew very little about Marxism and I said the war was mainly for the benefit of the oil companies, and then listened with feigned interest to the familiar refrains of how socialism cannot exist in one country and that the collapse of the Eastern block vindicated their analysis of the state-capitalist nature of the Soviet Union and its allies, and that was why an entirely new socialist organization like theirs was needed, one that was faithful to the analysis of Marx and Lenin of the moribund nature of capitalism, before the world descended into barbarism. He said the war itself signaled a geopolitical realignment of forces under the New World Order which the collapse of the Eastern bloc had precipitated, and would likely trigger the collapse of more regimes and fragile governments across Europe, like in Greece, after I told him I was originally from there, after he was piqued by my Australian accent.

When he seemed like he had finished, I confessed somewhat sheepishly that I was already acquainted with their politics, having attended meetings of their sister organization in Melbourne. But I was quick to add that I didn’t agree with their analysis of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc countries as irreparably flawed worker’s states. He seemed surprised at my admission and I was immediately besieged by two other members who wanted to know who I was and what I was doing in San Francisco. I told them I worked at the University of Nevada in Reno and had come for the day to march in the demonstration. They then wanted to know why I disagreed with them on the question of the Soviet Union when its collapse proved what they had been saying all along.

I countered that, although its economy may have been run along state-capitalist lines, their condemnation of it was wrong because by relentlessly portraying the Soviet Union as an anti-socialist dystopia, they had painted themselves into a corner as apologists for the West, in whose interest it was for the Eastern bloc to collapse so it could be opened up for capitalist exploitation, under the Pax Americana doctrine of American imperialism. Besides, I continued, the Socialist Workers Party didn’t have a monopoly on Marxism, and there were many highly knowledgeable socialists who supported the Soviet Union not because they were under any illusion it was a workers’ paradise, but because they didn’t want to discredit themselves by siding with all the reactionary scumbags for whom the Soviet Union was a whipping boy to be demonized in order to demoralize and intimidate their own populations into submission by reminding them there was no alternative to the capitalist system, so they better behave and keep working. Moreover, I said, their strategy not only played into the hands of their enemies, it smacked of treachery, because they were sowing discord within the Left and thereby weakening the movement as a whole.

One of them who seemed offended by my criticism argued back with the same hackneyed lines about the Soviet Union being state-capitalist, and that as Marxists they had a duty to expose the fallacy that it was in any way socialist, because workers should not be fooled by those purporting to represent their interests given the precarious state that capitalism was in at present, and polital clarity was of utmost importance. We argued along these lines for several minutes and after I had nothing more to say other than I didn’t agree with them, but stopped short of accusing them of being nothing more than a front organization, I bid them goodbye, declining an invitation to a meeting after the rally, saying that I had to be back in Reno that evening.

As I was walking away, I could see over my shoulder they were talking among themselves while glancing in my direction. I was about about thirty feet from their stall when I noticed a thin jumpy man brandishing some newspapers and pamphlets was following me through the crowd. He caught up and then started circling me like a court jester, dodging people while telling me I was dead wrong about the Eastern bloc and that their organization had predicted long ago the Soviet Union would implode under the weight of its socio-economic contradictions, because socialism cannot exist in one country, surrounded by a sea of capitalism. He was urging me to come to their meeting that evening and I stopped dead in my tracks as if to consider his invitation. But actually, I was so annoyed at his silly antics and his persistence, I felt compelled to tell him to his face that they were the ones who were wrong and they were wasting their time because they had no legitimacy among the people they purported to represent.

It seemed my comments had touched a raw nerve and he stopped jumping around, looked straight into my eyes and began uttering something to contradict what I had just said, but which I was too incensed to take in. At that moment, I felt a strange connection with this young over-zealous devotee, because underneath his punkish appearance, with rings through his ears and nose and oddly cut hair dyed purple, I could see something of myself in the self-assuredness with which he spat out those stock phrases and arguments. I doubted he had ever reflected on what he was saying, and was probably still in that phase of his political education where, having found sanctuary and apparent comradeship in the organization, with his once desultory and disjointed radical views now clarified and given coherence by Marx’s unifying theory of human society, he was still reveling in the joy and liberation that comes from being able to articulate his beliefs in a manner that made perfect sense and appeared irrefutable. When he had finished what he wanted to say, having realized I was a lost cause, he stormed off like a regular jilted little bitch.

I kept walking, picking up literature from various kooks, including one expounding a conspiracy theory that the U.S. government and World Zionism were at root of all world conflicts, as well as from New Age hippies offering invitations to alternative lifestyle settlements in the Sierra foothills. I then wandered over to join the crowd gathered in front of the main stage to listen to a speech by an American soldier. He was introduced as a deserter who had been spirited down from Canada, and after bursting onto the stage, he launched into an angry harangue against the American government. He was accusing it of lying to the American people about the reasons for the war, saying many people, soldiers and civilians alike, were going to be killed for the sake of profits for the arms manufacturers, oil companies and contractors and construction companies who were poised to go in and rebuild. He urged everyone to continue their protests and vote Bush out, to the sound of loud wooing and general applause.

He sounded credible enough and although I didn’t doubt the veracity of his claims, I got the feeling that his accusations merely re-affirmed what most people there already knew. But what struck me as odd about this supposed deserter was, how it was possible for someone in his situation to surface in the middle of San Francisco with cops stationed all around, and not be apprehended, because when he finished his frenetic speech, he was hurried off the stage and disappeared, presumably back to Canada.

Having seen and heard enough of the other speakers, I decided to head back to my car through Chinatown, by way of North Beach where I stopped off at the City Lights bookstore. I wanted to pick up something to take back with me to read on the plane, and went straight to the non-fiction section, looking for something on the theme of the decay of Western civilization or signs of cracks in the American Empire. As I was looking through the titles my attention was drawn to about half a dozen men gathered around the sales counter. They were engaged in a rather loud and boisterous conversation with the proprietor with whom they seemed very familiar. They were all about my age, in their early thirties, quite tall and trim with chiseled good looks, like magazine models, and I couldn’t help but listen in as one of them explained in rapturous tones a medical procedure he was due to undergo, and how his surgeon had pronounced “centimetres” with an French accent while explaining it to him, at which the others burst out in unrestrained laughter. Their loudness and irritating affectedness, however, soon got on my nerves, and when it looked like they had much more to talk about and would not be dispersing anytime soon, I put the book I had a good mind to buy back on the shelf and surreptitiously headed for the door which they had partly blocked off, so that I drew some curious and disapproving looks when I politely asked if I could squeeze behind them.

Figuring it was still early to head back to Reno, and with my appetite for contained dissent satiated, like the regular atomized little consumer that I am, I walked back through Chinatown and headed for Macy’s on Union Square. It was still open, and as if fate had ordained it, as I walked into the store, on a display table just to my right, I saw a shirt in a color that was just made for me, light olive with a fine, grey checked pattern, and found one to my exact size, neck and arms. After paying for it and validating my existence as a member of a society based on commodity production and exchange, I happily made my way back to my car under the Bay Bridge. 

With the streets now largely in shadows, it had started to cool down, and the cable-car terminus at the end of California on Market was all but deserted. The resident schizophrenic I passed in the morning, perched atop his park bench, bellowing out incomprehensible commands at random, like a marine sergeant, above the heads of curious and wary tourists waiting for the cable car, he was nowhere to be seen. I figured he had retired to a homeless shelter for the night, the Y.M.C.A. perhaps, or he was back home, because he didn’t strike me as particularly destitute, just crazy with a need to give vent to his inner demons.

After getting into my car, I switched on the heater, and then took off across the Bay Bridge headed for Reno. When I got to Richmond, I lit up a Marlboro, rolled down the window a little bit and reflected on what lay ahead, and whether or not I should leave for good and walk away from an academic career in the U.S.

True to my word, I returned to Reno from my month-long sojourn in Australia, in late January 1991, along with my boss’s fancy laptop computer. The war had come and gone, just as the workshop technician had predicted. But it was with some embarrassment that I had to inform my boss that I had decided to take up a job offer back in Australia. At first he seemed to think I was bluffing and trying to negotiate for a promotion. But I assured him that I had no interest in staying beyond June, when I was due to take up my new job. When he realized I was serious, he didn’t seem pleased but accepted my decision, since I would not be leaving immediately and I could train someone to take my place.

In the intervening months, I tried to remain optimistic, but my outward contentment couldn’t mask an inner resignation that my return to Australia was nothing more than a pusillanimous retreat. I was convinced my colleagues thought the same, and that I was a fool for leaving when everything was going so well for me, and for not being mature enough to look beyond the contradiction that one could “support the troops and the President but be opposed to the war” whose horrors I was reminded of at Corrigan’s one evening, an Irish bar we frequented on Friday nights after work.

We were sitting around a table, talking and sipping our beers while watching two men playing billiards. They seemed quite good at it, probably hustlers, and then when the game finished, the shorter one who was somewhere in this mid to late thirties, started shouting something at the top of his voice while setting the balls in the rack for a new game. He didn’t seem drunk, unless he was high on something, and it wasn’t clear what he was angry about. His partner just stood there, holding his cue, unperturbed, while he began to circle the table, shouting out what sounded like military orders. Then in hushed tones, word spread that he had just returned from Iraq where he was part of an army contingent that had to go in and assess the damage after American planes strafed the retreating Iraqi army out of Kuwait. His friend said it had been a turkey shoot, and thousands of bodies of Iraqi soldiers had been left charred beyond recognition in their vehicles and tanks, and part of this man’s job was to recover them for burial in mass graves. That’s why he was shouting, and no-one dared tell him to quiet down.

There was now no turning back, I told myself. There was no need to apologize to my colleagues for abandoning them, or feel guilty about taking the money and running away. It was all strictly business. I was merely a little cog in a huge machine which neither knew nor cared that I existed, so long as that cog turned and kept the machine running. Who was I kidding? Is there anything more oxymoronic than “American socialism?” After all, Amerigo Vespucci, after whom America is named, although that’s now disputed, (apparently “America” is derived from the name of an early Scottish settler named Merick), this Amerigo Vespucci, I say, went to find a new passage to the East for the purpose of shortening travel times with business in mind, not to found a socialist utopia. (“But capitalism lays the foundations for socialism; it’s the “stages theory”, don’t you remember?” Who said that?)

Wars were nothing more than an extension of the capitalist economic cycle, and since war is the mother of everything, this one was also particularly good for business. Iraq’s port facilities in the Gulf had been all but destroyed so it could no longer pose a threat to the profits of Bush’s Texas and Saudi oil buddies, who would quickly move in and take up the slack in production, with oil prices restored. Questions of morality and ethics were irrelevant, and if I could not see the good in war, then it was just as well I left.

Having bid my boss and my friends and colleagues a fond farewell over lunch the previous day, with a promise to come back and visit them in the future, I finally left Reno on 1st June 1991, on a one-way trip, bound for Melbourne, leaving my housemate enough money to take care of the utility bills, which were in my name. 

After arriving in San Francisco mid-morning on my delayed flight, I stored my luggage in an airport locker and caught the shuttle bus to downtown. With the sun shining and the fragrant smell of spring in the air, I spent the day walking around the city with the idea of tiring myself out, so I could more easily fall asleep on the long flight across the Pacific, which wasn’t due to depart till late that evening. I walked everywhere, more than I had ever done before in a single day. I went up Coit Tower, strolled through Chinatown mingling with the tourists, walked from North Beach all along the waterfront to Fisherman’s Wharf, and then up Columbus Avenue, back through North Beach and Chinatown again where I had a lunch, a walnut rice risotto, imbibing as much as I could of the atmosphere of this most insouciant of sea-bound cities, not knowing when I would return.

By mid-afternoon, I was thoroughly exhausted and my feet were aching and hurting from the unburst blisters on my toes. As I waited in front of the Marriot on Union Square for the shuttle bus to arrive, doubts began to resurface in my head about the wisdom of my decision to head back to a place which was home only in a nominal sense. I reflected how much I liked San Francisco and the mystical attraction I felt towards it, and at my lack of emotion about returning to Australia. As I gazed at the traffic and the people walking past, everything seemed so normal, as if the Gulf War which had precipitated my panic to leave had never happened. My attention was then drawn to a short figure of a man walking towards me. He was African-American, with a straggly pepper-colored beard. He looked quite disheveled, dressed in old, ill-fitting clothes. I knew immediately he was going to ask for change, so, as he approached, I reached into my pocket and pulled out whatever change I had left. It didn’t amount to more than two dollars, but he gratefully accepted it into his cupped palm. He then sat down next to me on the bench, as if he had all the time in the world.

He was close enough for me to smell the alcohol on his breath and the rest of him gave off a musty odor, not that he cared. Seeing I was heading to the airport, he asked me where I was going. I said I was heading back to Australia which prompted him to come out with the by now irritating line of less well-travelled though well-meaning Americans, “I’ve always wanted to go there; I’ve heard it’s a nice country.” I bore his remark with a polite smile and a nod, and then he started to reminisce about San Francisco and what it was like when he first moved there from New Jersey in the sixties, with all the protests and demonstrations in the streets against the Vietnam War.

“They used to call it Little New York back then,” he said. Looking around, I nodded in agreement because San Franscisco also reminded me of New York City, but on a smaller scale, where the pace wasn’t quite as hectic and the people not quite as cold or cut-throat. There were the same narrow streets and sidewalks, the grid-like layout of downtown, the turn-of-the-century architecture of the multi-story office buildings and apartment blocks and hotels with their semi-ornate facades and fire stairs down the front. Not to mention the multi-ethnic melting-pot atmosphere and the openness and tolerance of the people.

To make conversation, I commented how disappointing it was there had been so little opposition to the war that just happened by students, and how the student movement as a whole had lost its radicalism since the Vietnam War years. He gave me a sideways look as if not expecting that from an Australian tourist, but didn’t say anything. I don’t know what he really made of my glib assessment of San Franscisco and the anti-war movement. Maybe he was hiding his resentment for patronizing him by assuming that because he was a homeless vagrant, and an African-American at that, he was naturally opposed to the war and the U.S. government for all the wrongs it had perpetrated against his people.

But he seemed different from those hecklers at the anti-war march six months earlier, because beneath that defeated exterior, he gave one the impression he had an intimate and thorough understanding of how American society functioned. In fact, he probably knew too well, and that’s why he had ended up on the streets, because to make it in this world, one needs to be born with a strong level of ignorance of how society really functions, or if not, then one has to cultivate one. That way one is never troubled by that annoying faculty called conscience, and can go forth and screw people without fear or shame, in the pursuit of wealth and happiness.

As I glanced back at him, he didn’t seem at all perturbed by my off-hand comment. He might be a homeless beggar, I thought, but he wanted to tell his story in the hope of convincing whoever he happened to sit next to, of the fact that he wasn’t always like that. He had seen better times and his life could well have turned out different, but for some misfortune which he might have divulged had I more time. He wasn’t interested in politics or in discussing the morality of war, because he was above all that petty intellectual drivel. The shuttle bus arrived, and I shook his hand, said goodbye and got on board for the ride back to the airport.

       

                                                          *******

       

Some ten years have passed since that “First Gulf War”, and the “Second Gulf War” has been officially over now for more than a year. By comparison, the “First Gulf War” seemed like a frenzied military adventure, a practice exercise more than an actual war. It’s funny how they occur almost with the regularity of economic cycles. But is that so unusual? After all, war is business.
(Boston, 1998; Melbourne,2003)