Archives for category: Peregrinations

Some photographs of a walk through Ancient Thera in Santorini.

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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

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)

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)

Listening to “The Fall”

I am listening to a CD of the Fall, as I write this.  My typing is very clumsy and I am having to retype many of the words.  This particular CD takes me back to the time I left Reno in 1999 to return to Australia (why or why?).  I had hired a car and drove to the coast in California, over the snow-capped Sierras and through the boringly featureless Sacramento Valley.  I had two days to kill before my flight and I decided to take a trip down along the coast, and I had this same CD playing in the car.  I did not go very far down the coast, about one hundred miles south of San Francisco, along the Pacific Highway and I can’t even remember whether or not I went as far as Monterey.  I think Monterey was in my original tentative plan but I changed my mind on the way there when I realized I couldn’t recreate the fond memories I had of that place from a conference I once attended there, and got drunk and into all kinds of mischief with my colleagues, simply by going there on my own.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed the drive, looking out into the wide blue younder on my right, ten thousand miles or so across which lay that land mass to which I was going to find myself in about three days.

I didn’t pay much attention to the towns on the way, they’re all the same wherever you go, the same suspicious locals who can’t stop looking at you because you’re a stranger to them.  I  felt they were going to follow me as I drove off at the traffic lights and run me off the road or something.  But that never happened, it was never going to happen, because it was just my paranoia. Why would anyone want to waste their time following an idiot like me.  I had no large amount of money on me and the only thing of value in my possession was my $1000 leather jacket.  But you never know.  You hear stories of people killing others for a few dollars, desperate drug-crazed wierdos.

I checked into a hotel in a place whose name I forgot but it might have been called Sunset or something like that.   Actually before I did that, I stopped at a local supermarket to pick up some food for the two days I would spend on the road before I was due to fly out.  It was a southern suburb of greater San Francisco and it struck me as a rather pleasant place to live, down by the sea and all.  It was not an affluent area by any means and the inhabitants I suppose were lower to middle-class.  It seemed many of the residents commuted to the city for work.  At the supermarket, there was a typical collection of people, many with young children, and they didn’t seem too perturbed by my presence.  It felt like a fairly hospitable place and somewhere I could easily fit in, I thought, given a steady job and a family…etc.

In the morning, I pulled on my leather jacket and I strolled down to the beach which was about 100 meters from the hotel.  The whole beachfront area seemed to be some kind of entertainment district with restaurants and night clubs situated nearby.  Being late winter, it was fairly chilly by northern Californian standards and quite windy, just the kind of weather a leather jacket was intended for, and the waves whipped up by the wind were huge, rolling in towards the beach in huge barrels which smashed onto the concrete barriers and sprayed the promenade with foam and water.  There were a few other people out there taking a morning walk and a bunch of fishermen on the sandy part of the beach, standing back from where the waves washed in, with their long fishing lines cast out into the turbulent water.

I was drinking a hot cup of coffee which I was clutching with both hands to warm my palms and relishing the feel of the cold salty sea air blowing onto my face, about my head and through my hair.  I took some deep breaths to replenish my lungs with that fresh and invigorating sea air, while trying to expel the last remaining remnants of the dry dusty air of Reno that had taken residence in the smallest, hidden cul-de-sacs of my lungs over the past year.  This fresh air was something  I always dreamed about in Reno and here I could have as much of it as I wanted.  I thought about where I was going and where I had been, and what the fuck was I doing with my life, as if I had a real say in the matter. Where was home?  It was nowhere, not  here, not where I had been, nor where I was going.  My thoughts went back to the place I was born.  Would I have been happier growing up and staying there to live my life without ever leaving?  Without hesitation, I admitted to myself that Australia, the place I was going to was a place I wished I had never ever known.