Archive | December, 2009

The End of Belonging

Over the last few days I’ve been engaging mainly in two major activities. The first is ingesting as much food and drink as humanly possible at every available opportunity. The second has been explaining to all my visiting expatriate friends whether or not I’m enjoying Beirut. Both activities have their positives and negatives. The former is causing a tightening of my jeans around my waist and an arduous struggle against ever-present hangovers, whilst the former is sending me into deep meditations on the nature of my identity.

I’m not quite sure what to tell people when they ask if I’m enjoying Beirut. My automatic response is to say no, but I’m not convinced it’s the honest answer. It’s usually an answer that is elicited in the wake of a particularly annoying day on the roads or the ludicrously tardy arrival of a plumber. The truth is I don’t really know yet because I’ve only been here a short time. I haven’t really settled into a routine, a proper job and so on. And I’m not prepared to judge the place until I have that sense of normalcy. This brings me onto another point. Beirut is somewhere I have to get used to. I didn’t grow up here, and the only years I lived here (between the ages of 15 and 20) were just enough to give me a solid group of friends and a list of favorite places, but not really enough to give me a sense of belonging. I have always viewed Beirut with certain romanticism, and the time I spent here during those years gives me the same attachment to the city that a New York native would have for Michigan if he happened to go to college there.

Which brings me to a far wider ranging question with almost existential properties. Will I ever really be Lebanese or Beiruti? I have lived in the UK for far longer than I ever expect to live in Beirut, but have never really considered myself entirely British. I had Lebanese flags and posters of Baalbek on my walls as a kid before I even remember setting foot in Lebanon at the age of 11, yet I’ve never really considered myself entirely Lebanese. The struggle to find a definition of who I am has, ironically, become the best approximation of that definition. Then I realized, through my friends in London that this is a pretty widespread phenomenon amongst people in my generation. I had Russian friends in London who grew up in Prague but went to American schools. What would that make them? I had Mexican friends who grew up in Switzerland but now live in France. What would that make them? And I slowly began to realize that everyone I got along with pretty much anywhere in the world had the same deep-rooted crisis towards their identity.

As I was discussing all these elements with a friend of mine the other day, he brought up the subject of Third Culture Kids (TCK). I have to admit I’d never heard of the concept and it sounded a bit like an 80s pop group to me. However, being a serial-Googler, I headed home and started looking for information. What I found was comforting beyond anything I could have imagined. According to my extensive research (i.e. a leisurely perusal of the corresponding Wikipedia page), a TCK “refers to someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture”. Then, going through the piles of research on my desk (scrolling down), I was relieved to learn that TCKs tend to have more in common with one another, regardless of nationality, than they do with non-TCKs from their own country.

It’s so nice to read that someone has the same problem as you, if indeed it’s a problem at all. It’s kind of like discovering you’re not the only person who likes watching reruns of Home Improvement on Sunday nights. You feel part of a community. Because ever since I’ve been back in Lebanon I’ve been having trouble really identifying where I fit in. But maybe that’s the point; maybe I’m not supposed to fit in anywhere. I’ve come to realize that for me the real division in Lebanon isn’t religious, social or economic. The main barrier between people is that between those who’ve lived abroad (by choice or by necessity) and those who never have (by choice or by necessity). And I’m not convinced it’s a surmountable barrier. Whether you’ve lived in Europe, Africa, Asia or the North Pole, you bring back characteristics with you, both positive and negative, which are irreconcilable with the prevailing order of things.

There has been a lot of research conducted recently in the field of existential migration, studying people who migrate for the purpose of self-fulfillment rather than refuge or financial necessity. In the context of the free-flow of people and resources that has accompanied globalization and the opening up of borders; this is a particularly interesting field. People can choose to move about far more freely. They have choices they wouldn’t have had a few decades ago. This excess of choice makes things harder in a sense, because we’re bound to take a few wrong turns along the way. A new book on the subject is entitled “The End of Belonging”, which I think is a poetic title in itself. As well as the new concept of existential migration, the research proposes a new definition of home as interaction; that the ‘feeling of home’ arises from specific interactions with our surroundings that could potentially occur anywhere, at any time. This is almost antithetical to the usual definition of home as a fixed geographical place.

I’ll never be fully Lebanese because I love Fawlty Towers too much. I love the feeling of a cold drizzle in South Kensington. I love dunking a Chocolate Bourbon into a mug of PG tips. I love complaining about the weather. I love queuing. I love living in a city where there are people from the four corners of the Earth, and plenty of ‘em. And I never lived through the Lebanese civil war, which I feel guilty for and will never allow me to fully participate in the nation’s collective consciousness. But then again I’ll never be fully British. I love the sun too much. I love waving my hands around and raising my voice when I’m trying to make a point. I love Kibbeh Nayyeh. I love the gentle breeze in the shadow of a pine tree. I love smiling old men selling Chiclets on street corners. Oh, and I’ve got a hairy face and a funny name.

So I’m neither here nor there. I’m somewhere in between and that’s where I have to really settle in. And I think I can make my peace with that. Ubi bene, ibi patria!*

*Where I am at ease, that shall be my homeland.

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Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone! May your stockings be filled with easily exchangeable gifts and your bellies be filled with undercooked turkey! Bah Humbug!

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Pony Pony Run Run

Hello everybody! It would seem the swarm of expats is upon us and we’re destined to fester in our cars in traffic jam after traffic jam for the next couple of weeks. I’m actually getting physical cramps in my leg from sitting around with my foot on the brake for half an hour at a […]

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Culture Club

I haven’t written anything in about a week because I’ve been in a particularly visceral “hater” mood. Since most people complain that I’m turning into a grumpy old man, I figured it was probably best not to write anything during this period of pronounced negativity. One friend told me I was slowly turning into a version of Peter Griffin from the “What Grinds my Gears” episode of Family Guy. However I’ve just had one of the most enjoyable weekends I’ve had anywhere in a while, so I think it’s time to write again.

Being the grumpy serial-complainer that I am, one of my favorite pet peeves about Beirut is that there’s very little culture to be savored year-round (besides the obvious summer festivals). However I now realize that I’m very much mistaken in this assumption. The major difference is that whilst culture assails you incessantly in Europe, here in Beirut you have to proactively seek it out.

And on this point, I’m afraid most of us are inexcusably lazy. Anytime I suggest anything remotely cultural to any of my friends I’m met with either a pronounced sense of apathy or a geographical/sectarian disdain for the region where the particular event is taking place.

However this weekend a good friend of mine was over from abroad. He didn’t come from the snowstorms of Paris or London. He didn’t come from the newly-bankrupt sandstorms of Dubai. He drove two and a half hours from Damascus. We’re friends from London, and transcend the confessional, national, blablabla divides that often punctuate friendships in the region. I poke fun at the nasty looks his Syrian number plate must elicit in Beirut and that’s about it.

So imagine my personal shame when this friend was the first to take me on a cultural tour of Beirut in a while. On Friday night we headed to the Madina Theater in Hamra. I’d heard a lot about the play “Sar Lezim Nihke”, a follow up to the wildly successful “Hakke Niswen” itself a Middle Eastern take on the worldwide success of the Vagina Monologues. The whole theater-going experience in Beirut is a bit of a novelty for me.

I have one major handicap when it comes to culture in this city; I dress like a hardcore capitalist/off duty banker. I have a self-imposed uniform of White Shirt, Black blazer, jeans and loafers. This shouldn’t pose a problem in and of itself. However both ends of the stupidity spectrum are equally represented here. The capitalists are caricatures of themselves, as are the hippies. So one party doesn’t accept me because I don’t embrace their apocalyptic perception of the “Dollar rules all”, and the other rejects me because I don’t wear socks with sandals and reject all earthly possessions. It’s a tricky catch 22, but I deal with it. Maybe I should get a t-shirt made: “No One Knows I’m a Hippie”.

So back to our theater. I was delighted to see some new faces, filled with anticipation at this new play. People started congregating in the hall of the theater, itself a self-knowing throwback to the 70s. A few people sipped on wine and vodka as they waited for the tardy start of the play. Everyone respectfully switched their phones off before walking into the auditorium. It was a welcome reminder of what civility looked like.

The play itself was a mixed bag. It was refreshing to see “taboo” subjects treated in colloquial Lebanese meters away from a mosque. Female characters were complaining about their male counterparts’ lack of geographic orientation skills with regard to their G-spot and so on. However for someone with exposure to plays and comedy the world round, some of the jokes sounded tired (read Plagiarized) and some of the dialogue was straight out of Sex and the City. But I guess, placed within the context of the local theatrical scene, this stuff is groundbreaking. And that’s the important part. So that was success number one.

Then on Saturday came two eagerly awaited cultural happenings. The first one took place at the Paper Cup Bookshop in Mar Mikhael. The Lebanese photographer Rhea Karam, who I was supremely chuffed to meet on my last trip to New York, was signing copies of her self-published book detailing the evolution of Beirut’s walls. It’s a seminal work in the analysis of self-expression in the Lebanese capital and I recommend you all grab a copy.

Shortly after getting the book, I headed over to Barometre off Bliss Street for a quick beer and some chicken wings before moving onto the main event on the musical calendar for the week, the Mashrou3 Leila CD launch and concert. These guys had been brought to my attention a few months ago, and I’ve been listening to a handful of their tracks on MySpace and some shaky YouTube handheld camera footage from some of their appearances around town. The concert took place at the Demco Steel Warehouse in Bourj Hammoud. The venue was great, even if it was something of a Health & Safety nightmare. Hundreds of kids hoped up on cheap Vodka and foul beer in a steel factory? What could possibly go wrong?

The band played all hits like Shimm El Yasmine and Batenjein, as well as a few improvised bits here and there. The front man exhibited a fragility and dexterity onstage which was mesmerizing. He skipped about as if he were alone with 6 friends, forgetting that there were hundreds upon hundreds of people there cheering them on. From time to time he and the band would look out over the crowd and say: “fuck there’s a lot of people here tonight” and indulge in a fit of nervous giggles. I’ve been listening to their CD (which they were giving away with the tickets at the door) on loop in the car. It’s a truly solid work, exploring themes we can all identify with. From the overbearing parents to the abrupt and intimidating security forces. They even brought out a male belly dancer at one point, which greatly angered a raging homophobe standing next to me, but I thought was a brave (if slightly pointless) addition to their whole rejection of established Lebanese societal morals. My personal favorite song is Latlateh, mocking gossipy Aunties Who Lunch.

So, overall, I can say I was a very happy camper in Beirut this weekend. I bumped into lots of old friends and made a few new ones. I even discovered this blog has some fans, and that they’re badgering me to keep it going because they’re happy someone is voicing what’s happening in their minds. The constant question, should I be here or should I be somewhere else. Should I be a banker or a writer? Should I go to the theater or to a pompous bar? I say do whatever makes you happy. And do it well. And keep doing it. And when it stops making you happy, move on. Which brings me to my next anecdote.

I really wanted this post to be entirely positive. However, on my way home tonight, I was confronted with the kind of bozo that makes life here just unbearable. Driving down a quiet one way street in Achrafieh, I see a set of oncoming headlights heading towards me at speed (the wrong way down a one-way street, if you’re following closely). So I responded with flashing lights of my own, this being the preferred method of communication along with the horn amongst the cabal of inbred retards that occupy the nation’s asphalt surfaces. The guy persisted in driving up the road, and squeezed in next to me at the entrance of a parking lot (still facing the wrong way, obviously). He rolled down his window, and I had to hear what this fine specimen of a human being had to say so I rolled down mine.

Then came the dumbest sentence of the week, in the world’s most efeminate voice: “ma shifet 3am dawilak w itfilak yaane?”. I responded in an equally camp tone to make the situation even more absurd: “eno mat koun jayye b3aks il sayr 3ayoune”. The effeminate man, who by the way I think I’ve met in London (ironic, I know), the responded with “ma tit3a2ad” which sent me into a protracted bout of existential solipsism. I took a hard look at this pitiful little man sitting atop one of those huge American SUVs, the kind that looks good when it shows up on in a scene on CSI Miami, but makes you look like you’re overcompensating for shortcomings in the size department in real life. Then I responded with a barrage of highly expressive Lebanese expletives (the best in the world in my opinion, I’ll let you imagine what I came up with) and sped off. What I really should have said was “mate you should get laid and go to a concert from time to time. You’ll be happier and be a better driver.”

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Breathing Walls

Anyone in Beirut should head down to Paper Cup Bookshop in Mar Mikhael between 6pm and 8pm today. New York-based Lebanese photographer Rhea Karam will be signing her new book “Breathing Walls”.

BREATHING WALLS is a 168-page hard cover fine art photography book documenting the story of Lebanon through the walls of it’s streets.

Here’s what Rhea wrote about her project on her website while it was still in development:

“By definition, walls are barriers. They can also act as windows to the conflicts engulfing their surroundings. In times of strife walls offer a means of communication and self-expression for members of all social and religious communities. They have proven themselves an effective tool in establishing dialogue between suppressed voices and opinions by offering a canvas or soapbox for the oppressed. The Berlin Wall and The Peace Lines Walls of Northern Ireland are but just two examples. They are storytellers–absorbing and reflecting their surroundings–and becoming silent witnesses to our lives and battles.

When I roam through the city of Beirut and its neighboring villages I cannot help but feel these murals of cement speak to me. Shouting, aggressing my line of sight, sometimes making me smile, prompting a thought, creating an emotion, definitely engaging me in some way; forcing a reaction. I am not able to ignore their imposing presence. Their silence -deafening at times- echoes the city’s many suffocated voices and draws out an undercurrent of tension.

It is perhaps because I have not grown up in Lebanon that they affect me in this way. The local population, familiar to the point of obliviousness, do not often notice them, moving them to the back of their minds with all of the other mundane objects of everyday life. Whether it be political propaganda posters, stencils of young graffiti artists, textures of walls still carrying memories of the war, people have become immune, or perhaps they have chosen to move on.

I am often asked why I photograph Beirut as a ghost town and have omitted human form from my images. Today, urban landscape has made walls part of our natural habitat. They represent as much life as a tree or a flower and have become just as important a presence in our everyday life. They define where we walk, the directions we take, the spaces we choose; they protect us and provide us with shelter and privacy. They lead a double life, sharing our most intimate secrets on the inside and being exposed to the world on the outside. They are life: they breathe, they interact, they evolve.

As a photographer I felt the necessity to document these ephemeral testimonies of life as a record of an important period in Lebanon’s modern history (2007-2009). Only through my lens could I reproduce the reality of these transient walls. My hope is that these images evoke emotions in my viewers, and speak to them about the importance of observing their surroundings with a critical eye. In Lebanon, to find beauty in a cracked wall is to understand history; to see beauty in a graffiti wall is to understand the power of self-expression; and to see beauty in a wall that tells a tale is to understand the power of the brushstroke. I hope this series of images will one day stand as an archive illuminating a story of progress.”

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Thank You For Smoking

There’s been talk recently of Lebanon joining the ranks of civilized countries and banning smoking in public places. Although I think there’s a litany of more important issues to legislate, no harm could come of this. But I’m still highly skeptical they’ll have any success in enforcing any laws that come into effect. I’ve seen […]

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Get Married Or Die Tryin’

The wedding invites are piling up on the mantel piece. “Save the Date!” they shout out every day as I walk past them. It seems everyone and their mother is on the road to wedded bliss. I mean in one sense its normal. I’ve just turned 27, so it’s hardly surprising that friends around my age are tying the knot. But I’m sometimes alarmed by the absolute necessity which marriage seems to be in Lebanon.

I’m a guy, so it’s actually quite bearable for me. I get a few questions here and there about the existence or not of an unlucky lady in my life. But being a woman must be an absolute horror. Girls get molded into aspiring wives when they’re still potty-training. Two thirds of the female population grow into aggressive husband-hunters, whilst the rest actively reject this social imperative and try and delay things by a couple of years.

God forbid a woman would want something as unattractive as a career! She instantly becomes the conversational fodder of bored Aunties Who Lunch during their rendezvous’ at Paul Gemmayze in between hair and nail appointments. As the smell of hairspray hangs in the air and the 5th layer of foundation on their formerly wrinkled face (thank you Botox) begins to melt, they bring up the subject of poor Maya! “Yvette, you know I don’t laike to talk yaane. I’m very discreet, bta3rfineh. Bass cette Maya, she’ll never find a husband like zis. She wants to be a banker 2al. Haram her parents, 3an jad. Bass ca reste between us!”

The worst environment for a woman in her 20s to show up unaccompanied is undoubtedly someone else’s wedding. There she is showered with compliments and fake smiles, and asked when her “happy day” is due. People asking this tend to neglect that a wedding does not a marriage make, and that the “happy day” isn’t really what one should be planning for. The people egging this young girl on towards marriage are often themselves standing a few meters away from an alcoholic husband they’ve come to despise. Maybe they want to drag the young and the beautiful down with them into the realm of the Desperate Housewife.

Weddings themselves have become ridiculously lavish. I was invited to one last summer, and when I asked how many people would be there I got the most ludicrous response I’ve ever heard: “it’s a small wedding. 650 people.” Really? That’s a small wedding? That’s entire population of some island states in the South Pacific. The bride and groom probably get repetitive strain injury just thinking of all the hands they have to shake and the sweaty cheeks they have to kiss.

Then there are the less intimate weddings. The one’s with 1500 guests. The ones with a succession of Z-list Arab pop stars belting out their latest lip-synched tune. The ones with pyrotechnics worthy of the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. The ones with vast untouched buffets and rapidly depleted bars. Weddings so gargantuan that they go beyond the realm of the fairytale and get lodged somewhere between the grotesque and the decadent.

I feel sorry for people from my generation who don’t realize that a marriage isn’t about the wedding. That after the sparklers have faded, the champagne has been drunk and the cake has been digested, there’s a real life full of ups and downs to envisage. When you look at someone you’re about to marry, don’t think of the good times you’ve had, think of the worst thing you’ve ever been through together. And think of that moment happening 50 times over the next 50 years.

I’m lucky I have a healthy example to look towards at home; my parents have been together for 39 years. When I look at pictures of their wedding it never fails to make me smile. Twenty impeccably dressed and impossibly glamorous people in small village church. My dad in a dapper suit brought back from New York where he was covering a story for his paper, my mum in a short white dress and big white hat like Audrey Hepburn on the poster for Breakfast at Tiffany’s. No pop stars. No papier mache center pieces. No ice sculptures. Just two people willing to face the future together. I hope I find that someday, and that you will too.

(PS: Please don’t dis-invite me from any weddings. I’m really looking forward to drinking your booze and hitting on your bridesmaids)

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Lebanon is a Dream

Rayess Bek, also known as Wael Koudaih, is a pioneering Lebanese rap artist. He started off with the group Aks’ser back in the mid-nineties, in a series of cringe-worthy videos of wannabe rap that I remember watching as a kid during holidays in Lebanon. His raps and slams in Arabic and French, are filled with […]

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Rudolph and the Multicoloured Roundabout

It’s that time of year again. The faint drone of Jingle Bells slowly emanates from the supermarket speaker system. Ghastly multicolor lights blink incessantly on every other balcony. Plastic coniferous trees propped up in storefronts are festooned with plastic decorations of all shapes, sizes and levels of aesthetic garishness. Papier mache caves featuring improbably blonde baby Jesus’ and donkeys and farmyard animals galore. It’s almost Christmas folks!

Soon the advertising banners will go up: “Stolichnaya wishes you a Merry Christmas”. It’s sure to be merry if they’re involved in any fashion. Then will come the incessant and pain-inducing replays of “Last Christmas” by Wham on every radio station. It’ll assault your senses so relentlessly that you’ll actually be happy to hear “Christmas Coco Jumbo” by Mr. President. And if you happen to have the good sense to switch off the radio during the month of December, roaming Range Rovers with booming speakers strapped to their roof will drive through your neighborhood assaulting your ears with the worst of Christmas cheese.

Television stations, terrestrial and otherwise, will begin to play Home Alone, where a pre-rehab Macaulay Culkin defeats amateur crooks with plenty of cheer whilst rockin’ around the Christmas tree. Back on the streets, the headrests on VW Golfs from the 1980s will adorn Santa hats on the driver and passenger seats. The more festive amongst them will even ensure the hats have flashing bulbs instead of a white furry ball at the end. The excessively festive will show up at work one day with a Christmas hat, and people like me will want to smack them.

Roundabouts will be decorated with fake reindeer, grazing on bottles of Almaza and cigarette butts. Mechanical Santas with improbable facial expressions (made in China) will scare the bejesus out of children. “Real” Santas in shopping malls, their fake bellies and beards making 20 bucks an hour, will listen patiently as spoilt children read out their reasonable Christmas wish lists. Hmm, a PS3, a Learjet and a Porsche Cayenne like mummy’s. Giant “trees” made of sheets of green felt plastered onto a metallic frame will tower above the traffic in some squares of the city. Families will park their cars awkwardly, stumble out onto the damp streets and take happy snapshots with the twinkling lights. Which is nice, I guess.

On the plus side it’s refreshing to see that the paraphernalia associated with Christmas is present amongst all religious communities. I’m not remotely religious, and find it charming that everyone can agree on something. Kitsch Christmas decorations are a must! And if I stop being a grumpy old bastard for a second, the decorations, the music, the gifts and so on do bring joy to lots of kids.

But for me Christmas is going to mean answering questions about what I’m up to these days to a bunch of friends I haven’t seen in years and who all converge on Beirut for a week. We should all stop asking this question I think, since if we’re not up to speed, we probably aren’t a very important part of that person’s life. Christmas also means more traffic jams. Nice rain-soaked traffic jams. And saturated cellphone networks that can’t deal with the confluence of mortal souls upon the city.

But maybe, just maybe, I’m angry at Christmas because I haven’t felt anything at this time of year for well over a decade. I think I’m jealous of people who still muster a childlike wonder when faced with twinkling lights and Rudolph’s red nose. There is hope though. Someone has just asked me to be Santa at their Xmas party. After assuaging initial concerns that it might be a hint at some sort of protruding belly, I was told that my selection was due to my occasionally bellowing laugh. I was immediately reminded of a friend who used to say I laughed like Santa Claus when we were in high school, and I’m suddenly in a festive mood. Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fralalalala lala la laaaaa.

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Let there be light!

The electricity generator in my building is undergoing maintenance for a couple of days, which means I’m at the mercy of Electricite du Liban’s rationing of power to the Lebanese population. As I was driving past their headquarters the other day and noticed half the letters on their neon sign were extinct (Eltric du Lbn, anyone?), this doesn’t bode well for my chances of getting much work done online or getting through the stack of Almodovar films I’ve promised myself I’d finally watch.

So, I’ve been spending the last three hours of this Saturday morning skipping from one laptop to the next, milking their power supplies for all they’re worth. It’s amazing how having your power cut is a reminder of how absolutely dependent you are on technology. The electric shutters on my windows are almost all rolled down, which means I’m sitting in pitch darkness although it’s nice and bright outside, I suppose. The battery on my Blackberry is drained, which means I have no access to Google for a few hours. My heart sinks at the thought of all the unanswered questions! I can’t switch on the television, so there’s no soothing background noise to fill the flat. Just eerie silence. I prop myself up against the one window whose shutters I’d left open during the night, and finish a book I’m reading. It’s exceedingly tedious, and isn’t helping me forget I can’t use a microwave for the foreseeable future.

It’s pretty shameful that we live in a country that doesn’t have 24 hour electricity. Some days I’ll be driving down the street, and I notice none of the traffic lights I’m so chuffed about are actually working (see previous posts). Then I look at the time, and realize the power must be out. They should put a sign up: “The 21st century will be suspended between the hours of 11am-2pm and again between 10pm -midnight. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause. Enjoy the dark ages.”

Who needs a time machine when all you need to do is have everything you use drained of its usefulness. On the plus side, it means my teenage neighbor, who seems to have just discovered Metallica, can’t practice on his Fender Stratocaster. And, I have to say it’s nice to be isolated from the world for a few hours. Alone with your thoughts, you have to entertain yourself. Much like a bored child.

Oh, hang on. The power’s back on. I can stop thinking now, and switch on every appliance in the house. So soothing, no need for cerebral activity whatsoever. Let there be light!

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