Doing good when the game is rigged

When I was 25 I paid a lot of money to have my fortune read from a palm leaf. Turns out a wise man way back when in the depths of Eastern India scratched down on palm leaves the destiny of every soul who was to incarnate on the earth.

So I tracked down this stash of leaves and had the custodians find my leaf. They translated it from ancient Tamil and two days later had transcribed it into a book for me.

They read the book to me in one sitting. They told me my past life, my yet to be fully lived current life, and my next life.

There is something deeply profound about seeing a person’s destiny encapsulated so concisely, like seeing it from gods view above. It touched me deeply.

It made me wonder what our purpose is on earth, my purpose at least. We, I, strive so hard. Yet what if our destiny is already written on a tablet somewhere?

Eco Brooklyn is a construction company who caters to clients who want to do good in this world by using their renovation money intelligently. The clients are partners in helping to turn NY, and thus the world, green.

But what if we are destined to destroy the planet? Or maybe we are destined to almost destroy and then save it? But what if it is destined already?

Sometimes I wonder what Eco Brooklyn’s moral endeavors really do. Humans are so full of themselves and maybe Eco Brooklyn is just a tool to make us feel good about our sorry little selves. Saving the world my ass, my cynical self sometimes feels. We’re just helping rich people feel good about spending money.

We seem to ride a swing of self important arrogance to depressed lack of worth. We surge out with a cause or we lay back in apathy. One day we are supporting the Occupy Wall Street protesters. Another day we are letting the city wipe their existence away like garbage under a street cleaning truck.

What really gets me is what my role in all this is. I know it is all predestined. I know my souls trajectory is already burned into a DNA CD somewhere. I know I’m just a small variation on a human model that has been born a thousand times already. I’m an archetype. I’m a white male with creative talent, two kids, a wife and a wandering eye. Human Variation number 200,103,133.

I understand that life is exactly as it should be.

And yet I can’t help but strive anyway. I can’t help but be like Jesus, another archetype of humanity, and try to save the world. I’m convinced Jesus knew from the get go that he was screwed. And yet, like a movie you are watching for the second time, he laughed, cried and lived.

Unlike him, I am a lot more tormented and doubtful.

And I guess that is his secret. To live life without fear despite the knowledge that we are ultimately screwed, and to end it by sliding into home base, tired and breathing hard saying, “Man what a ride!”

I guess that is why I carry on. I have no illusions that the cards have been dealt long before I decided to even play the game. I have no illusion that me saving the world is a self centered act based in genetics inside me that I will never understand.

But its like a roller coaster. We all know the path is fixed. We all know you pay your ticket, take the ride and everyone gets off at the end. Yet we keep getting on it for the ride, no matter how predictable it is.

The fact that our lives are predestined is not the point. The act of living is the purpose. Not what we do or what we don’t do – there is a palm leaf somewhere that has taken care of that part for us.

Pick a lane, any lane and drive. Don’t worry too much. You are responsible for experiencing it. The path, well, that is gods work.

So I carry on with Eco Brooklyn. Despite the cynicism, the stress, the many reasons not to do it. Running a green building business at a time when the destiny of the planet seems to hang on the passion of ecologically minded people is a real rush for me.

For others it might be accounting that gets them off. That is not the point. The point is the act of living.

The rush of life. I’m alive! Who knows why I got into green building, whether is it good, bad, important or not. The point is that it makes me feel alive. For now. And this too shall change. Life if what happens between.

There are days when the drudgery of being alive is worse than the deepest torment of hell. Then there are days when god grabs me by the collar and kisses me. And then there are days when nothing much happens at all.

And yet every night I can go to sleep having lived. Until the day I won’t wake up and it will be over. I see now that day is a lot closer than I had thought when I was 25.

And that is ok. It makes the experience of life all the sweeter. I’ve seen my destiny. Now it is up to me to live it.


Here is a little story I wrote about my trip to find my destiny on a palm leaf:

Gone to India, back in five minutes

I don’t suppose you’ve ever found yourself in London with lots of money and nothing to do, a pause in your life with no direction but the thrust of a bulging wallet. Maybe not, but maybe something similar. So when my friend Ben asked me to go to India, knowing I had the freedom to go if I only knew where, I’m sure you’ll understand the feeling of my saying, “What the hell.” I had never thought of going to India but since my life had come to a punctuation mark of some sort, like a comma or momentary full stop, just enough to take a breath but too long to be reassuring, I was glad to get moving again. London had a feeling of uneasy calm that irked me, like the calm before a storm, and I wanted to get out before the storm hit. Ben’s invitation was just my chance, giving me that feeling that maybe I’ll just ride this wave and see where it takes me.

A week later I was following Ben around the beaches of Goa with the same lack of direction as when I was in London, and since Ben wasn’t really the direction type, we fit just fine; two beach bums looking for shells in an off hand way, but no worries if we didn’t find any.

Being British, Ben had been pulled to India by unseen ropes that his grandparents wove from tales about the Raj and British colonialism. They had tied these stories around Ben during his childhood as they sat by the fire in England, weaving them tighter and tighter around Ben’s neck, until he was gasping for this exotic land that was so far away yet so much part of his history.

As for me, I had gone on a whim. So actually I had traveled three thousand miles to do what I was doing in London, vaguely searching and vaguely lost, only now I had more money since the Pound Sterling in India is backed by a long history of colonialism; elephant caravans hunting tigers and Queen Victoria back in England writing to say, “The tea is just fine, boys, send some more.” I’m sure you’ve had that experience of wealth before, like putting unspent money back in your coat pocket and finding the coat already held some bills that you had forgotten about, and suddenly you are richer, yet you were always that rich and just didn’t know it.

But as I sat on the beach, so far from that brooding London storm, I began to get the same uneasy feeling and realized that it does not matter how far you travel, your baggage always catches up to you. Not that Ben minded, his blond hair and beautiful torso adapted well to lunghis wrapped around his waist, and he took a tan better than any ex-pat. The coconuts chopped for us on the spot and quaint Hindi lessons at sunset with the local boys, who’s friendliness was genuine, despite their uncle’s business down the beach, kept him nicely entertained. But I still felt suspended in limbo, my life a bated breath. Just how many coconuts can you eat before you get a call saying your baggage has arrived, so deal with it. In my case, the baggage was a yearning, an inner buzzing that couldn’t be pinned down and wasn’t going away no matter how many coconuts I drank.

Sensing my restlessness, like a sentence wanting to start but held back by a word that refused to come, Ben tossed me a book one day, Travels in India or something. It was a collection of short stories about different people’s travels in the continent I had now decided to call home. One day I had simply told Ben that I had decided to cease being a visitor and was going to call India home, not because it said “home” to me, but because I had nowhere else to go and felt like calling somewhere home. He laughed when I told him and asked if I minded he join me. I moved over, patted my towel and said, “No, not at all, welcome home. Care for a coconut?” He accepted and we moved in together on the Goa beach. It seemed like a good enough place to settle down. But as I said, he sensed my restlessness and as if playing matchmaker between me and destiny, tossed me the book called something like Travels in India.

The first story was about the foothills of an area called Salem, little Swiss-like villages where the rich Indians spend their summers, away from the heat of a dry Southern India. Interesting but nothing to start a sentence with. The second was about Bangalore’s silicon valley, little companies that fix computer glitches while the West is asleep, being a twelve-hour time difference. Cyber world has no borders. Silicon Valley in California and Bangalore have many things in common that you or I wouldn’t even understand. They speak frequently. Yet, I wasn’t pulled in and, while entertained, the full stop that my life had taken still remained.

However, the third story changed all this. Somewhere in a little village south of Pondicherri in the state of Tamil Nadu is your life story, including your last incarnation and your next. Two thousand years ago, a yogi channeled the lives of all the archetypal people in the world; past, present and future. He spent his whole life reciting our destinies to scribes who etched his words into palm leaves. Called Nadi Leaves, they still exist in an unnamed village south of Pondicherri. As I read this, I felt my life creak, the vowels of a word forming, the blurry vision of another sentence starting.

Goa is on the west coast of India, Pondicherri is three thousand miles across the continent on the east coast. I sat on the Goa beach, my home with Ben and a few foraging cows and coconut sellers, the end of the earth as we had found it, and I looked towards Pondicherri, out of sight, hidden behind old trucks, potholes, (hang in there reader, I’m about to describe a quest of epic proportions), twisty jungle roads, monkeys, fruit vendors, concrete floors, sleeping bags head level with cockroaches that had names, and food, oh food that I was told had more in its ingredients than just assorted chili’s but I wasn’t convinced. Not that I could eat that often- where did all this diarrhea come from? -from my flesh, my very bones, until I was skinny and weak like so many others around me, only I was white and rich and they were not. Yet at that point of physical exhaustion money matters much less than God, and they knew God more than I did, maybe by another name, but still they knew God. And despite the religion that surrounded me, my days were spent dealing with money: how much for this or that? Too much. Too little. The guilt, the rage. They cheat me, I rob them. If they only knew the prices in London for a taxi ride. But they do know and are robbing me silly- a day’s wage for them. And it’s still only a subway ticket for me, yet it all matters. And none of it matters- the moment you have a theory that puts it all in perspective, they raise the price on you with a whimpering sneer or give it for free with stoic kindness- wham, your moral reality is shattered again, but who cares since before you know it you’re on your back once more shitting your insides out and nothing matters but God again…

This is what lay between me and those mysterious and distant Nadi Leaves. As I sat on the Goa beach envisioning it, I felt the divine pen being raised and the unfinished sentence in my life’s book began to unravel once more.

I left Ben the symbolic keys to our home: a towel and some suntan lotion, and told him to feed the cows regularly. He was sad to see me go, but I didn’t care. Oh, I forgot! Did I not tell you that I was going crazy?

Yes, I was. I arrived in Goa with warm feelings towards my mother in San Francisco, my friends who had come all the way from Spain to visit me at my new Goa beachfront home. I liked my friends, said nice things in their direction. But then the nagging full stop in my life began to cloud my vision. The break, the new direction that my life was taking, took up all my energy, and after two weeks in Goa I was unable to even hold a conversation. They would say nice things in my direction like I had once done, and I would look behind me, surprised, annoyed, that they should be speaking to me, bother me as I desperately groped for that word that was on the tip of my tongue, which was not directed at them but towards the next sentence in my life. I’m sure you’ve had a similar experience. Perhaps something close? Anyway, I had gone crazy, unable to speak, especially to people who knew I had once spoken, so I left Ben and our towel house on the beach with silent relief. He said he’d tell my friends when they got back from the market and I nodded. He understood. I didn’t want to see him again, nor my friends, nor my mother. What for…

But then I got a pang of remorse for my mother. Maybe I should just leave a note with a hotel number or something so she doesn’t worry. But my friends might want to find me, speak to me, point out that my judgment at this time wasn’t exactly crystal clear. They might try to stop me! Fuck them. Before going, I wrote in the sand, “Gone crazy, back in five minutes.” By the time they realized I wasn’t coming back, I thought with glee, I’d be far too gone to be found. And who cared anyway, the tide was quickly coming in.

That’s what I noticed myself remembering several miles into the wilderness half way into India a month and a half later. But I couldn’t remember if that was me who left Goa or if it was a character from a book. I argued to myself about this but figured it didn’t matter much anyway since either way it seemed to have brought somebody to where I was. I raised my head and peered at myself lying naked on a rock, alone in my craziness, in a landscape full of similar rocks, huge flat boulders the size of houses, tossed onto the earth, or thrust out of the earth by a random giant some time ago. I had been there several days, lying, too weak to even crap, not that I had anything left inside me, too weak to drink from my canister until I looked over and saw there was nothing left to drink in my canister anyway. I had been fitful the whole time, dreamy, almost a pleasant state if it weren’t for the dry heaves. Night had chopped into dawn, dawn into morning, and each time I awoke, the light cut brighter into the opal sky. The sun’s edge scraped across my rock and in a few hours it was full on me. Lying there alone on the slab, I fancied myself a little morsel of food on a frying pan. I chuckled deliriously, and thought, rather calmly, that if I did not get up and walk back to the village, I would die. Life had never been so simple. I pondered this a little while. I had disowned my friends and family long ago, so that was no pull on my life strings. I had no reason to live, but then again, I had no reason to die. Somewhere between Goa and here, the sentence that had revived so grandly had stopped again, and I had again been told to take a deep breath, full of momentous pause, or a comma, or even a full stop, and to just go with the very slow and cloudy flow once more. Here I was again, contemplating my next word, the next syllable that would restart me on my life story (or end it), indifferently looking at my choices: die or not, die or not, die or not. Hmmm… and then, from a distant memory of why I had left Goa in the first place, I remembered the Nadi Leaves.
Somehow this gave me the impetus to get up and drag my frail body across the boulders those few miles to the nearest village, fainting, pulled on by a palm leaf with my life story on it that some yogi held captive in an unknown village somewhere south of Pondicherri in the state of Tamil Nadu. Funny how the world works.

And then I found myself on the Eastern coast of the Indian continent, looking onto the Bay of Bengal, where I picked up this Danish woman my age, twenty-five, in a nice turn of the century hotel that used to be the servants’ quarters for the Raj of Madras. It made me wonder what his house looked like. Her name was Rikke and she was very logical, something she inherited from her ancestors, all of whom were also blond with glasses and khaki shorts, the type who traipse around in the tropics with butterfly nets and Ph. D’s. I never asked why she was there. It had something to do with getting a Ph. D. She had a boyfriend in Denmark who later dumped her, but then she didn’t know this and so she was being faithful, which was fine by me because I was way too crazy and weak to consider sex. We made a good team, my tendency to have misfiring brain cells was something she could understand scientifically, loosening her up, and her logical ancestors gave me something to lean on, keeping me standing. Without each other, we probably wouldn’t have survived. She would have cracked and I would have cracked, but for the exact opposite reasons. We bonded when she took me to her small apartment in Pondicherri and I lay sick on her kitchen floor, head level with some cockroaches whose names I knew at the time but couldn’t remember once the delirium passed. She took care of me for a week, forcing me to take medicine over my cries that only God and the Nadi Leaves could help now. For her it was a religious education, for me I got antibiotics. After that experience, she too wanted to see these Nadi Leaves that kept bringing me back from the dead.

This all happened several months after I had left Goa, I had lost count exactly, and we were now on India’s East coast, bumping in crowded spice and sweat buses down the spring roads south towards an unknown village that fate had heard about, fate being a little old man we ran into on the street, or a name we read in a hotel register, or the similarity of the surrounding hills to the ones I had read about in the book, Travels Through India or something. But I could only remember the book’s story since I had sold it to a Goa book merchant so many months ago. Perhaps it is in the hands of some other person whose life has hit a comma, or maybe even a full stop. What did that person do with the book? Did he follow the second story and go to Bangalore to start a computer company, cyber-talking to Californian geeks in Silicon Valley? Why not?

Rikke and I looked good as a couple. Are we married, people would ask. And I’d reply, No, not exactly but we are to you, since you just want to get her in bed and feel like you’re taking advantage of her. I said this to one Indian guy who was interested in Rikke, or at least in using her body for a few spurtful moments. Why not? His reality of us is now different from our reality of us. I never married her and never will. I’m sure my Nadi Leaf will attest to that. But in his Leaf, he meets two foreigners who are married. Same people, different reality. Why not?

With this attitude we arrived at that unknown village south of Pondicherri in the state of Tamil Nadu, two thousand miles and three months from Goa, five thousand miles from London and its subway, where one token from Bayswater to Paddington, a five minute ride, costs one day’s wages in this village. To those who saw us get off the bus and walk down the street, we were a respectably married European couple arriving late, the blue moon lighting the one street and wrestling with the kerosene lights of the little food stalls, projecting multiple gray shadows on the dirt road like several negatives of life sloppily placed on top of each other in the same place at the same time. The dirt road was spotted black by the tobacco or beetle nut or whatever the locals chewed with hardworking fervor and spit, speckling the land with bloody red dots, now black in the light of the moon, the dirt road a huge canvas of multiple realities painted with people’s own spit and shadows.

But wait! That’s all nice and fucking poetic, but what about the Nadi Leaves? Yea, they were there. The street had maybe five places advertising Nadi Leaves, each one claiming to have copies of the originals, each one willing to show me pictures of Japanese tourists who had come and spent thousands of dollars to have their leaves read, each one willing to do the same for me. Indians were there too, drawn by their superstition and the truth of a palm font with their destiny etched on it, willing to pay a year’s wages to hear it read to them, sitting before the reader with trusting, anxious eyes.

Did I have mine read? Yes. I paid a very large sum. Refused to pay the Japanese tourist rate and settled for what the Indian tourists paid, still a huge sum for all involved. Rikke, a scientist, was more skeptical. I was both religious and crazy, a good alibi when you need to justify spending fortunes to get your destiny from a palm leaf, so for me there was no problem, but she came from a family of scientists, respectable Europeans who believed in the virtues of logic. Palm leaves with your destiny went against what her ancestors had fought and died for. Who exactly did they fight, I asked, but she dismissed me, and I suspected even the Indians’ dark skin would seem illogical to her ancestors. Logic. Being somebody whose life story stopped and started regularly, I couldn’t relate. Logic seemed so shallow in the face of a good life-threatening stomach virus, or a leper, or a heated argument over ten rupees, three meals to my Indian opponent but not enough to buy a pack of gum in London. Yet, I argue over the ten rupees nonetheless, for the absurdity of it, for the logic of it, for the logical absurdity. Stop. I’m making my point too clearly.
So, Rikke compromised and got the abbreviated version of her life for half price. No past or future life, just a short overview of this one.

They located our palm fonts by elimination. Do I have four brothers, they asked. If yes, the leaf could be amongst all the destinies with four brothers over here, if no, all those. Is my father alive, divorced, is my moon in Scorpio, Mercury in Pisces….and so forth. Eventually, they found the leaf with my destiny. I saw it, crisp and dusty, filled with tiny etchings. Come back in two days and they’ll have it copied into a book, they said.

We came back. They told Rikke she came from a family of logical scientists, her current boyfriend would dump her but she’d eventually also marry a scientist and have two children etc. Pretty boring life if you ask me. The half-price destiny. My destiny was much more exciting, but then I paid twice as much for it. I was a temple garden keeper in my last life but in the face of great scandal, I ran away with a girl. This life I’m a photographer to become famous, will marry at such an age, two children…they went through my life year for year…will retire to such ashram and die at such a date as a guru to a small gathering of disciples. Next life I’ll be born into the religious life and become a famous guru. Sounded interesting. They said nothing of me going crazy. Shame, I was so enjoying being crazy. Yet apparently it wasn’t part of the plan, so I stopped. But then, I think I gave them the wrong astrological data. I don’t know if my Mercury is really in Pisces. Maybe it was somebody else’s life. Why not?

Just to be on the safe side I decided to call my mother and tell her I was fine and that the rumors about me going crazy and disappearing into the Indian subcontinent were absolutely fraudulent. In fact I hadn’t disappeared at all. Here, I have a witness, her name’s Rik…No she’s not my girlfriend. No I don’t have sex with her! I’m perfectly happy without one…look, if it makes you feel better, you can pretend we’re married, we pretend all the time. I told Rikke to assure my mother that I still existed and that every one here was actually of the opinion that I had a wonderful future as a photographer and guru, and that craziness was not even on the leaf, as long as, that is, my Mercury is in Pisces. Again, Rikke dismissed me and, drawing upon her ancestors, laid out a perfectly rational argument about something or other. Why not, I thought, she has a right to her destiny too. Besides, my mother bought it. I then tried to call my friends in Goa but I was told they had all trickled back to Europe with death-threatening illnesses. Wimps!

Keeping with the rules of a quest (go into the wilderness, return from the wilderness), I returned to Goa nonetheless, trekking across the continent with death-defying stubbornness, but when I arrived, I found it barren. The monsoon had come and my home on the beach was washed away, a huge mountain of black seaweed in its place. No more coconut vendors even. Hmmm…I noticed my life’s sentence amble to a stop once more and immediately called Ben in London. Life was good, he said, come.

I was on a plane the next day, wondering who was ahead of whom, me or my destiny, the two of us twisting, stuttering, creating each other, and all the while a scribe in an unnamed village south of Pondicherri in the state of Tamil Nadu frantically scribbling it all down on a palm leaf so that in my next life I can come by with my Danish wife (who’s not really my wife) and pay outrageous amounts of money to hear my destiny read back to me, all the while wondering if it’s actually my destiny being read, since I won’t really be sure if my Mercury is really in Pisces.

Gennaro and Ben in Goa 1996

Similar Posts:

Posted in All Posts, Ethics Tagged with:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *