Robert duncan.

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Center of the Universe (48)

Center of the Universe (48)



I crossed the Alps today. Except they looked like corn flakes bobbing in a bowl of milk. Nothing Hannibal about it. Not riding elephants. Riding Air Dolimiti, named for the Dolomite mountains on the Alps’ southern edge, where Italy managed to hold the line against Austria-Hungary in WWI, but, a couple millennia earlier, couldn’t keep out a Carthaginian on a pachyderm. A little Drunk History of my own, compliments of a complimentary glass or two of French red. But looking down at that blanket of clouds with the white peaks popping through, I had to tell someone, and my running mate is snoozing.

Is this thing even allowed to travel? This true story of spaghetti and meatballs in a small strange town?

You would think a thing called “Center of the Universe” could travel anywhere it wants. The whole point is that everything, everywhere, points to the unprepossessing corner of Bolinas and Sherman, that all roads lead to Sonia’s lasagna. And you would imagine that a thing called Center of the Universe is damn sure allowed to trace the vectors that prove it is just that. I think the question arises because, at the suggestion of an editor, I’ve spent the last six weeks, at home and away, struggling to make the universe of a book called Loudmouth smaller, quieter, to narrow its scope and tighten its focus. And the salutary effect on that shaggy-dog tale, already five years in the telling, has inspired me to permanently swear off the meta, the epic, the overly dilatory and other favorite indulgences. But I swear off a lot of things — including French red — and here I go again.

You want vectors? This is a man who started in a village in North Korea.

Citizen Kang sent me an email in Florence, a caveman outpost when Hannibal tromped past, en route to taking on the Roman Empire, but later birthplace of the modern world, and where I am celebrating an epic birthday brutally slashing an epic. With clearer eyes, I can see Kang’s note was his present to me. And, with all its unironic, English-as-a-fifth language, 60-point-font embrace of life, love and the laptop his daughters gave him, along with Facebook and Gmail accounts, I received none better:

It was very nice to see your photos on the face book! They are so beautiful... We also like to congratulate your birthday and hope you should feel happy to celebrate it doing such meaningful trip in the trove of artistic treasures.
Here everything is as usual only difference is your absence at Sorella which makes the Saturdays without that jubilant atmosphere! Only yesterday evening was very exciting, with a big crowd of people with scary fantasy of Halloween. I asked a lady waiting on the line “What all that means?” She explained that they are celebrating the feast of dead, pretending dead people were coming out from tombs. I couldn’t be sure if the explanation is correct, but I thought how the way of celebrating the All Saints Day is different from the practice of Brazilians who visit the cemetery on this day. Indeed the American way is more interesting because people could surpass the tragedy of death making fun of it.
We hope you may have a really wonderful vacation and will come back to Fairfax with renewed passion to complete your book. We are missing you so much!

You want vectors? This is a man who started in a village in the northern part of the Korean peninsula, where the crazy Kims have presided for generations, was conscripted into the army and then imprisoned in the south for half-a-decade, and, when, after armistice, the aspiring Presbyterian minister didn’t want to stay in the south, because it would be too painful and too perilous to be so close, while refusing to be repatriated to the north — which had passed from the anti-Christian frying pan of Imperial Japan to the anti-religious fire of the Communist International — when the UN didn’t know what to do with the impossible Christian, was shipped off to India and, a year later, Brazil. And who wound up, after a few more improbable decades in San Anselmo, CA, at the theological seminary, and then hippie Fairfax, in the shadow of the not-quite-Dolomitic Mt. Tamalpais. And, at 87, he’s straining to send an electronic letter six-thousand miles to central Italy. And I’m straining, at 102, with spotty wi-fi and rickety tray-table, to answer from five miles high.

Them’s vectors.

Roni said, Does it make you feel bad? Do you feel guilty about leaving Kang and Maria?

Well, it does. It weirdly does. But I say: Nahhh. Because in order to get myself to go home, I need to keep the escape-hatch open to going away again. But who knows? Shit happens. And the number one number-two that happens is money. It runs out, especially when you spend it — always, everywhere — like a drunken sailor on boot leave. And a couple days ago Roni, who balances the family checkbook, said we gotta talk when we get back. And I forget what euphemism she used or if it was all just done with eye-rolls or head-shakes directed at whatever travel-related scheme I was already starting to hatch. But I knew, by any other name, it meant moolah. Scrilla, fetti, cheese.

Sure puts a big, bad birthday into perspective to prowl alleys and piazzas that have been there eight centuries, but it may yet turn out Dorothy from Kansas was right about home. Or George from Liverpool about away (“The farther you travel/The less you know”). And an email like that from a holy man like that gets me to thinking Sorellas might really be the center of the universe, that — forget Michelangelo’s David or Brunelleschi’s dome — a little Italian trattoria run by Korean-Brazilians, under a dome of California redwoods, with a slightly sour German upright and a stash of good, cheap Sicilian, may be all the universe you ever need — broader than the Alps, thicker than the milky clouds, bigger than the type in Kang’s email.

Center of the Universe (49)

Center of the Universe (49)

Center of the Universe (47)

Center of the Universe (47)