Tales from Nowhere
Unexpected  Stories from
Unexpected Places

Don George, Editor
(Lonely Planet)
In his Forward, Tim Cahill tells us how much terror contributes to the craft of writing. Eighteen hours of traversing Pigeon Mountain cave in Georgia. Or piloting a hot-air balloon over Pikes Peak (even though a pilot predicted it would be disaster with the contrary winds). Paragliding,

    the senseless but exhilarating process of running real fast down steep hills and hoping that the parachute laid on the hillside behind you will, in fact, inflate so that your descent will be something less than a freefall.

And at the end of all these scrotum-tightening adventures: the regret that it was "all over too soon."

Why do it? The addiction to risk (and denial): I'm not doing this. This is nuts! I could die. "Just get me out of this one and I'll never . . . "

    And then, two weeks later, there I'd be, in the water diving with great white sharks. Later, I'd find myself sharing the resultant euphoria with my fellow shark divers, all of whom were, no doubt, born two drinks short of par, or at least several cans short of a six pack.

It's not pleasure, he avers. It's pure euphoria. He quotes a scholar by the name of Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi - - - try typing that mother - - - "who has found that people are most content when they are experiencing what he calls the flow . . . the state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one's abilities."

Cahill compares these adventures to the adventure of being author. Hallo? Really. He says that the flow induced by writing might be compared to Eastern meditative states. Tapping into the flow, what Cahill calls (his word) "Flowbee." Coupled with the element of fear.

We can see (and feel) the terror of rapelling on Everest. But writing?

Yes, because it is survival. "If this piece isn't good enough, I don't get paid. Consequently, the mortgage doesn't get paid, the house gets sold at auction, my spouse leaves me and I'm out on the street, just another has-been, exposed for the fraudulent poseur I've always been."

Poseur? That did touch home with this writer. That chill that creeps into the soul when one embarks on getting stuff on paper - - - or in the computer - - - that one will successfully be able to sell to some editor some time down the line.

And what feeds it? Yes, the deadline. "Which is the reason," he contines, that "so many writers and artists are 'deadline junkies.' It is only when the fear becomes overwhelming that we commence our work."

On of his friends says you start one morning and all that turns up on the page or the screen is a loathsome crap. Leading to questions: "Jesus, where did that come from?" "What's wrong with me?" "How in God's name did I ever think I could write." "I shudda been a taxidermist, a catchpole, a thimblerigger. Anything is better than this ridiculous pretense, sophistry, show-off put-on. Let me out!"

But then . . . then . . . .

Cahill says, it quickly turns into something. And that it is like - - - great image - - - pumping water out of a long unused well." Out comes the brackish, smelly, rust-color, toad-infested stink water, and underneath it all starts in to flowing the water that begins to flow clear. The flow. "Ideas I didn't know I had materialize on the page; humorous or dramatic situations arise and are documented."

    Connections I didn't know connected tie themselves into neat little knots. I'm not aware of how this happens and have been able to tell writing students only that it seems to come from the great and physically nonexistent Kingdom of Flowbee. Three or four hours pass by in thirty minutes, or so it seems.

§   §   §

Perhaps this single splendid essay makes all of Tales from Nowhere worth it. And then we plowed into the thirty stories of sometimes wonderful, sometimes horrible adventures in, for example, Jeffrey Tayler's time in Valdai, Russia, where a volume from 1796 describes a paradise on earth, where "berouged maidens" fling themselves on you, where now, two-hundred years later, you find yourself in a drinking saloon filled with women, dancing with each other, or occasionally with you, where you find yourself being pushed to take on some Posadskaya - - - two beers and a shot of vodka - - - demands that you respond Za vstrechu! A familiar tale, one finding oneself in a place where you become, at least for a short while, at one with the locals.

Or with James Hamilton, in Death Valley, by himself in a place where - - - if you get lost, and if it is the worst of the summer - - - you are doomed. Yet he takes his car into Badwater, "almost 300 feet below sea level, the hottest, driest, lowest place in the western hemisphere." He opens all four of the car doors, cranks up a tape of Beethoven: "The acoustical dynamics of the walled valley, with mountains rising straight up on all sides and as high as 11,000 feet, had created a perfect amphitheater."

    I walked back out onto the desert and paced back and forth, "conducting" the orchestra myself, waving my baton. The concerto poured up and into and across the valley, and the fusion of the triumphant, combative music with the forbidding landscape left me shaken.

We've been there, too, out in the wilderness, letting loose with a volley of Bach, or Verdi - - - his Requiem would be perfect there; would leave us (and the desert) shaken, no?

But it was finally when I got to Simon Winchester's "The Worst Country in the World" that I knew where I was. I was with journalists who had been "about everywhere, covering wars and insurrections and famines and goodness knows what from Aden to Zanzibar." And what were they doing there in the Blue Lion, on Gray's Inn Road. Trying to come up with the name of the worst place in the world. Baghdad? Luanda? Kolkata? Iraq? North Korea? Dallas? Sudbury, Ontario?

Nope. None of these. It was Equatorial Guinea. Who?

§   §   §

The editor of the Sunday Times magazine hears about the confabulation, and two days later, Winchester was on his way. To the capital, Malabo, where

    there was a scattering of markets, and a restaurant that served us an unremitting diet of bananas and stewed rat - - - except for one golden day when we were given a plate of a darker and marginally more succulent meat that, after we had eaten it, was said to have been cat. The streets were lonely places, populated only by slack-jawed youths and suspicious looking thugs and a scattering of very large Algerian soldiers, and with the occasional East German spy to add a bit of sparkle to the social scene.

Wait a minute! I've been there too.

No no, not to Malabo. I'm not that dumb. To hear of the grand grotesque fearful ghastliness of the worst in the whole world. Spare me that vacation in guttersville.

No, what I mean is: I've read all this before. And in the very same book. Named Tales from Nowhere. With thirty writers. And a dynamite Forward by Tim Cahill. It was . . . when? . . . a dozen years ago.

I once read all this, and wrote a loving review. For this RALPH. Even complaining about Winchester's line, "And at night all was quiet, except for the intermittent rattle of gunfire and the hooting of vultures out in the abandoned cacao plantations." I think I offered a quote from The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology:

    Vultures are silent most of the time. They make raspy, drawn-out hissing sounds while feeding and fighting, along with grunting noises that can sound like hungry pigs or dogs barking in the distance.

Got that? What he heard (like all his adventure) may have been a hoot. But it ain't no vulture.

All this vulture talk was familiar to my rackety old mind. But that was from yesterday's hot book. We look on the "Library of Congress" page of this volume, and what does it tell us? "Published in 2016 by Lonely Planet Global Limited." And six lines down: "10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1."

To anyone in the trade, this means that this is the first edition. In other words, to an innocent, this is a brand new volume, hot off the press, a new title from Lonely Planet! O yeah?

Then where in hell did my 2006 review come from? Are these Lonely Planet peeps up to some mischief? Like rewriting the past into the present?

--- Carlos Amantea
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