Not Today, Satan

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My therapist felt it would be a good process for me to write about this nightmare(ish) experience. And since the entire comic that I did with my cousin is about opening up the underlying layers to my thought process, I’m deciding to just post it as content for this site.

It had already been a month plus that my wife and kids had left me. Not inasmuch as they wouldn’t be coming back home, but they were on another continent, and it would be an entire month before I could hug them again. Akiko was traveling with her mom and sister in law and niece through Germany and Italy where they would be guests at a wedding in each country. My daughters - for their part - were in Israel with their mom for their summer break with her. It was a tremendous challenge that tested all the mindfulness crap I’ve been trying to adopt.

So the story begins as I was dealing with a business license issue at City Hall that was on account of not removing my ex-wife’s name from the business license. Adding to the frustration, it had been done on the state level, but it didn’t translate to the city bureaucracy. More still, my business was without a license on account of an unpaid parking ticket of hers. I’ve come to call the post-divorce period as the ‘gift that keeps giving’, but this was totally absurd. I mean, everyone goes without paying a parking ticket once in a while, so it wasn’t really fair to be pissed off at her over this. So I was going through a second layer of feeling crappy as a beautiful day off was slowly wasting away outside, and I was lamenting under the fluorescent lighting in the brain dead waiting area of City Hall. You know, the place where sad souls stare back and forth at their ticket tape number every time a new number comes up on the LCD.

Being at work has always been a great place to escape from what is really bothering me, but days off are generally the time when suppressed shit creeps out into the surface of my consciousness. I attribute a lot of this to fatigue, but maybe also because I have nowhere to go hide from reality. Another factor is that my guard is down on account of wanting to unwind. I’m also almost always parenting on my days off too, and that in many ways is harder work than a Michelin starred restaurant. But I digress.

So when the negativity lands, I feel like a fish that’s just been reeled in and is frantically flopping around on the bottom of the boat. Like the flopping fish, I’m looking for a way out of the predicament of my bad emotions. But when it comes to my overpowering feelings of abandonment, no matter how delusional they may be - or even how quickly I recognize my mechanism - I am that fish gasping for air as I come face to face with the hopelessness of my internal mess.

I wound up making it through the day with my positivity intact, and it was very much on account of a t-shirt she saw someone wearing while we were vacationing in Mexico earlier in the year. The shirt was a quote from a famous drag queen that said, “Not today Satan”. And though she thought it was the best thing she had seen in quite some time, I smiled, but didn’t really get the significance or her enthusiasm. But as I was sitting there, flopping around hopelessly on the deck of City Hall’s Business Affairs Office, it dawned on me..

Over and over again, throughout each day, each of us decides how we’re going to let the happenings - for better and worse - affect us internally. Now I’m not saying that being a delusional ray of positivity is the answer, but there comes a point where we all need to mitigate our own sense of suffering. ‘Not today Satan’, is the authority that can prevent negativity from overwhelming a day.

Feeling overwhelmed is one of my most common states of being. It’s a core reason why I’m a good chef. It’s a learned habit - and I believe rooted in not feeling emotionally safe as a young kid. It has been so incredibly challenging for me to reverse these internal thought patterns, but I recognized my habitual tendencies on that given day. By focusing away from my sorrow - and feeling good about myself for not feeling too bad (?!) - I didn’t spiral into the toilet bowl of my anxieties. Not today Satan!!

There were some struggles for sure over the next month, but some really good things happened as well, including instigating the benefit brunch for Ina. So as the days were getting closer to reuniting with the family, I was surprisingly doing pretty fucking good with it all. And I was proud of myself for that.

EL had just finished our last service for summer break, and all was going perfectly to plan. First I would fly to Rome, where I was to spend a few romantic days with Akiko, and then we would fly together to Israel, where we would get the kids from my ex-wife, and then spend a few days with my brother, Sam, who lives there. The anticipation was overwhelming, and all I could think about was putting my arms around Akiko again.

The flight to Rome - through Istanbul - could not have gone more smoothly. It was right on time, comfortable enough, and as there was no line at all at immigration. I said to myself, “Man, that might be the easiest flight over the Atlantic I’ve ever been on.” I entered into the glass enclosed security checkpoint as the final barrier to cross before being reunited with Akiko. I held my passport up to the scanner, but the door didn’t open. The security guard came in to lend me a hand to see if she could get it to buzz me through. No luck. She then escorted me to passport control, where I was told to have a seat.

Quick rewind: Late last summer was my first visit to Japan. In typical ‘Josh’ fashion (Phil would never let this happen), I managed to lose my passport in one of the hotels we had been staying. When the hotel management didn’t find it, we reported it missing to the police, and had to waste two mornings going to the US embassy to have a temporary passport issued. A pain in the ass for my wife, mother in law, and myself for sure, but otherwise a success.

Fast forward now to a few months later, and I’m back in the saddle at home and found had my lost passport and had sent it back through the mail. It was so awesome and thoughtful that someone was kind enough to send it to my home address!! I thought about how the world is still an okay place through all the fucking bullshit it spews, and didn’t think more of it. Kinda obviously, I should’ve thought more of it. Because somehow that passport did not get thrown out. Instead, it was put away into a desk drawer. So it was the first passport I saw, and as the expiration date was valid, I took it without as much as a second thought.

Back to passport control: I was the sole traveler in the room at this point, and though I had by then realized my mistake, I was still filled with hope that this could be worked out by the embassy. It certainly seemed like a simple mistake that could be easily enough remedied. So I was in total disbelief when the Italian immigration officer told me that I would not be able to enter Italy at all. I would have to return back the United States.

So here I was, in another fluorescent lit room, where perfectly good dreams of happy travels go to die and rot. The room reminded me of the different times I had been incarcerated in my youth. There was always fluorescent lighting in those places too; the cold, blue light burned a hole straight through my fantasy of freedom.

I was the only person in the room, and had my head buried deep into my hands in disbelief. My vision of a happy week of connecting with Akiko was crushed. In place of the anticipation, a gloom descended. If this were a preview for a fantasy movie, and there was narration as to what was happening in my mind, the deep voice would say in a scary tone, “… and then a darkness spread over the land”.

On top of the emotional emptiness of not being able to see Akiko, I also had the physical and logistical nightmare of an absurd amount of flying in front of me. Not only was I going to be turning around and flying back to Chicago, I would also need to immediately turn back around once again (with the correct passport!), and fly to Israel to get the kids from their mom. The thought of all of the money this would cost was certainly in the recesses of my mind, but the simple emotional dilemma of what was in front of me was more than enough to keep financial feelings buried deep. I had already been texting with Akiko, who was only a little less distraught than I was... maybe.

Not giving a shit about my pleas to allow me to go to the American embassy to straighten it all out, the Italian officer told me in broken English, “I’m sorry, z’ere iz nussing you can do.” Me too. But if misery loves company, I would soon have others sharing a similar fate as the soon to be crushed passengers started to file in. First there was a family of four from China - a mom with three children. The reason they were going back home was more petty than mine. One of the children had just turned the age where they would no longer be able to enter the country on their mom’s visa, but the kid needed one of his own. The mom didn’t speak any English at all, and it was terribly painful watching the eldest son - who was there to begin studies - struggle to understand before relaying it back to his horror-struck mom. I’m sure she was dying too on the inside, but there was nothing really that changed in her outward persona. She didn’t bury her head in her hands and squirm in agony like I did. A part of me wished I could handle my nightmare so void of expression.

The next passengers that came in were honeymooners from the States. The problem was with the bride’s passport, and I could tell the groom was doing everything in his power not to blow up their marriage before their honeymoon had a proper chance to be destroyed. Their passport - like mine - was good enough to leave the US, but not good enough to enter Rome. They were much more emotional than the Asian mom about their situation. Even more so than me even. But like both of us, they were going to be going back home too. Successful marriage is about dealing with adversity, so hopefully they’ll use this absurdity as a way to bond. I’m not sure I’d be able to see this misfortune as anything other than a bad omen.

The last dude who came in was a solo traveler, presumably from an Arabic country. Despite that he likely had less travel back home than any of us, he was definitely the least resigned of the four of our parties to his fate. I think he felt he could yell and argue his way out of the problem, and though I thought it refreshing for someone to try a new tactic, he ultimately failed himself and was told to shut up or they were going to arrest him.

Though it may help people suffering to know that there are also other people suffering in similar ways, the mood in that room - defiant of the brightness from those fucking lights - continued to grow more and more gloomy. I decided I preferred not witnessing anymore misery, put on my headphones, closed my eyes, and went into a guided meditation for some excruciating escapism.

I looked down at my phone when I awoke to see that Akiko wasn’t ready to accept the hopelessness. It was already late afternoon, and she said she would go to the embassy in the morning to try and straighten it out. I shared my feelings that they would never give a passport without the actual person being present, but when Akiko is determined about something, I’ve learned the best thing I can do is to give my thoughts and then step out of the way.

A short time later, I was told I would be returning to the States on the same route that got me to Rome. That meant going through Istanbul before heading to Chicago. I was told to come back to the office the next morning at 8am, and was left to my own devices to spend the evening in the airport terminal. Having spent a lot of time traveling over the decades, I am no stranger to uncomfortable nights in airports. At least the Rome airport was thoughtful enough to have some sofa benches in one area, so that’s where I took my slumber for a cold and restless night.

I made it to the office the next morning as instructed, and while waiting for my itinerary back to Chicago (the authorities arrange it all), Akiko called to relay her news from the embassy. As predicted, she had no luck. She broke down in tears with the weight of acceptance, and I did the best to comfort her, albeit from a compromised place. I was in the office for about an hour that morning before learning that I was scheduled out on an 11am flight to Istanbul.

As if I was a dangerous drug trafficker with a great chance of escape, I was personally escorted onto the tarmac and onto the plane by an immigration officer. All the documents to secure my arrival to the States were in a manilla envelope, and that was to stay with the airline team until my ultimate arrival in Chicago. Of further information - should you one day be found in a similar situation - is that passport rejects not only get to be the first on the plane and the last off. they also get personal escorts through airports, and sit in the very last seat, of the very last row of the plane. It reminded me very much of the few times I was incarcerated as a young adult.

The flight to Istanbul was short and quick, but the guy who picked me up from the airplane was way more no-nonsense than the guy I had in Italy. We spoke not a word as we made our way through Istanbul airport. He brought me to the ticketing desk, told me to wait, and then he just disappeared. I wonder what life is like for someone so cold and so seemingly void of any emotion. I wonder if that was what he was like at home, and how awful it must be for his family to sit around the table with him in stone cold silence. I imagine it must be scary as fuck to be a kid and try expressing something with a dad like him. Nothing like the imagination to to help me feel better about my own situation, I guess.

I waited for an awfully long time before I finally broke down and went up to the ticketing desk myself. It took another twenty or so minutes for someone behind the counter to find the all-important, manilla envelope. I was told that the next flight for Chicago would be at 11am the following day, and that I would need to come back to the ticketing desk tomorrow morning. It was then that I realized I wasn’t even in the terminal yet.

I walked up and down the length of the ticketing desks, and realized my options for a place to eat and sleep that night were minimal. I was really feeling the weight of my conundrum when the good side of human nature came to my rescue. The ticketing agent who had finally found my documents, found empathy as he presumably watched me walking up and down the long aisle looking for a place to call home. He came up to me, told me to come back to the desk, and he printed the boarding pass for my flight for the next day. As he handed it to me, he said that at least now I could enter the terminal and have some better options for food and sleep. I didn’t get his name, and I don’t think of him first - or even second or third - when I recall the flight fiasco, but if it wasn’t for his thoughtfulness, the hours I am recalling right now would be WAY more miserably spent. I bet that guy’s family and friends love spending time with him.

The Istanbul airport is truly magnificent, at least from an architectural standpoint. Despite the reality of the politics and suffering populace, if you were just to walk back and forth for countless hours in the terminal - which I don’t really recommend - you would think Turkey was one of the most prosperous countries in the world.

Very gratefully, they had a hotel right in the terminal, and I overpaid for the luxury of being able to stretch out on a mattress and not have to carry an overloaded backpack everywhere. It was only mid-afternoon in Turkey, so I took a shower and facetime’d Akiko for the first time since this debacle began. I still see her sadface looking at me, and I still feel the way my sadface must’ve looked to her. They don’t have an emoji that could express the mutual disappointment.. There she was in Rome, in a beautiful and romantic spa with nobody to enjoy it with, and here I was experiencing a traveling nightmare akin to Dante’s, Inferno.

I wisely chose not to conflate our dilemmas with whose was more preferable, and feeling badly that Akiko was feeling badly did nothing to make me feel better. In many ways, this part of the trip may have been the most painful. I’ve dealt with my own futility all of my life, but the worst is when my actions also hurt the people I love. I feel that is where I turn on myself in full force, and true misery takes over. If I focused on everything going on in my brain I would melt down… Not today Satan… I’d been riding that mantra for a month now, but this may have been the hardest he’d knocked yet. I found a meditation focused on positivity on Youtube, and went into it shortly after hanging up with Akiko. Escapism has rarely let me down.

Since I now knew when I would be landing in Chicago, I was able to book my next flight to Israel. Working out the logistics with Akiko, I was scheduled to land at 4pm Chicago time. Our friend, Alex Fields, was thoughtful enough to go to our house and get the right passport, and she would meet me at O’hare to give it to me. There were several hours in-between the two flights and it seemed safe enough for any possible mishaps. Sure, 28 hours of almost continuous flying sounds absolutely miserable, but by this point discomfort and inconvenience were the thesis of my entire trip so far.

The rest of that evening was spent walking around the airport and biding time. I love playing chess, but lost a game online as I was getting ready for sleep. I lose a lot of games to be sure, and after nearly every one I’m mad at myself for playing badly. As I didn’t have it in me to feel worse than I already did, I decided that would be the last game I’d play that night. It turned out to be a month before I felt it in me to be compete again.

I went to sleep, and since I was jet lagged and there were no windows in the room, I nearly overslept for my flight. As it was, the all-important manilla envelope didn’t make it to the gate, and there was another half hour or so of sheer panic as the airline team struggled to find it. They eventually found it and rushed it to the gate, and I went through the same boarding procedure as Rome. It was not too long before we were in the air.

When the nightmare first took place, I tried blaming Akiko for my lost passport being put away in the desk. Unfortunately, she was having nothing of it and said she didn’t even know it was returned in the first place. Then I tried blaming our cleaning lady. I even tried blaming the nice person who returned it. But once the well of denial ran dry - somewhere over the Atlantic - I realized I had nobody to blame but myself. So I knew I needed to be very careful not to get caught in the cyclone of regretting my own existence. I’m about as lucky as a dude that there is in many ways, but man, can my devices ensnare me like a mouse innocently walking over a trap for some scrumptious peanut butter. On that flight I meditated quite a bit, but after three days of nothing but that awful fluorescent lighting, physical discomfort, self pity, a squashed ego, and loneliness more profound than I had felt in a long, long time, the positivity I was feeding myself was not very convincing.

One thing very pronounced about mid-life, is that if you look close enough, almost all the traumatic experiences you went through as a kid come back at you in unseen ways. So if there’s anything I’ve becoming more aware of on account of therapy and meditation, it’s just that… awareness. So it was at about this time in the flight that I realized I had actually felt this kind of isolation and lived under this kind of lighting before;. It was during in-patient drug treatment in a psychiatric hospital in Milwaukee back as a teenager. Knowing that I had already been through worse, allowed me to revert to that place in my psyche. In a sad, yet profound way, this helped me find some comfort in my immense discomfort. But fuck that fucking blue fluorescent lighting for fucking ever.

I watched some movies and finished reading Ron Chernow’s biography on George Washington. I’ve been on a big kick lately reading books about our revolution. The way people suffered back then makes our suffering nowadays seem totally trivial. Almost everyone lost someone in their immediate families to one ailment or another, and let’s not even get into the trials of the Revolutionary soldiers themselves. If our ancestors could see what we modern folks stress over today, I feel they would say something like, “We suffered like that, so you can suffer like this?!” I’m pretty sure they would find our worries ridiculous to say the least. When put into perspective with other forms of suffering, the flight fiasco I was on seemed a little more tolerable.

While I was in the air during this horrific start to my summer vacation from EL, some absolutely surreal drama was going on with my immediate family. I learned of it while I was in the airport hotel in Istanbul, and I was in way too self-pitiful of a state to help anyone else out of their dilemmas. I’m not going to get at all into the details of the drama, but there was a side of me that was really grateful to be unable to interfere.

I care so much about all of the people involved, that it’s literally impossible for me not to be shredded to pieces when they are suffering. I wish and hope there is something I can do about the amount of other people’s burdens I feel I absorb. In many ways, to be there for others is why I feel I am alive at all. Actually, on the good days I feel like that. The bad days are the days I feel resentful or abandoned for that. And that feeling of abandonment can and does come in many forms. But this was only a time for reflection, as there was not one fucking thing I could do to be there for anyone,. This time, for better and for worse, I was on my own… and so were they. May the Almighty Alba* help us all.

All was going as well as anything since the first flight to Rome. The plane was over Lake Michigan and was so close to our final destination of O’hare airport, that I could taste the trip turning around for the better. It seemed no sooner than I had this thought, however, that the pilot came on over the PA telling us we were in a holding pattern on account of a weather front passing through Chicago. I gave a disgruntled sigh, and there were some moans throughout the plane.

Twenty minutes later he came back on saying there had been no breaks in the weather front, and the plane was going to need to divert 90 miles north to Milwaukee to refuel. As soon as the pilot said that, I heard the flight attendant behind me state to her colleague, “Oh my. That’s the first time this has ever happened.” The entire plane broke into a collective disgruntled sigh, but I let out a terrifying gasp as my mind quickly started to race through scenarios that would get me back to O’hare as fast as possible so I could make the flight back to Israel. Any way you looked at it, the chances were slim and surreal in complexity, but a ray of hope came when the pilot said it would only take about twenty minutes to refuel.

I felt then that this was idyllic, and sure enough, in about 30 minutes he came back on to say the fueling had yet to begin and to expect it to be another 20 minutes. I knew deep down that was bullshit too. As we were to learn about 40 minutes after the second 20 minute notice, was that under federal law, for a plane to be refueled with passengers on it, a firetruck needed to be present and at the ready in case something went wrong. To make matters worse, because Milwaukee was such a small airport, we would need to sit on the runway until the local fire department would be able to make it to the plane. I knew without a doubt that this would ruin any chance of making the flight that night, and that was all the more bitter knowing I had just paid nearly $1000 to be on it.

I called our friend Alex and thanked her for all the trouble she had gone through to get and bring my passport, but I would not be needing it that night after all. For a second I considered calling my family who lives in Milwaukee, but decided against it as I was in no place to speak to anyone. How ironic, I thought, that my home town of Milwaukee would play a role in this traveling tragedy. The people around me were up in arms and complaining about their own situation, but I stayed calm, even though I felt like bitch slapping the other passengers into being grateful their experience was not nearly as awful as mine.

By the time we had finally arrived at O’hare, made it through immigration, and then found out my baggage had not made the flight back, the four hours I had in between flights had disappeared. I dejectedly took a cab home and lamented what had transpired in the last three days since I departed with so much anticipation. The spirit I had left with had been crushed and compressed in a similar way to the way my arthritic joints felt after so much flying. My heart was caving in too, and there was no meditating positivity into it this time. Satan had come to do his thing, and there was nothing I was going to do about it. He had me at last. At least it felt good and safe to go to sleep in my own bed.

I woke up the next morning to the darkest and greyest sky I had seen in some time. I felt the weight of their gloom not only in my already foul mood, but also in my arthritis, as a high barometer causes the pain to be more pronounced. Once I booked and paid for yet another flight, I spent almost the entire day in guided meditations. The less my mind would be left to its own device, the better chance I would have to turn my mood around. Actual thoughts about the event were destructive, so I let almost all thoughts drift by. What I felt was that the left side of my brain is where most of the thoughts come to life, and then my right side of the brain is left for feeling emotions. As my emotions were about in the same place as my thoughts (go figure!), all I really did was force bright and vivid colors into my right side, and tried to ignore everything else.

It sounds strange, bit surprisingly, after several hours, I had more or less put my bad mood behind me. As my flight to Tel Aviv was scheduled in the early evening, I wisely used the extra time to get a massage and work the compressed feeling out of my lower back. There was a ton of traffic as I started the Uber ride back to O’hare, and I decided to do yet another guided meditation. When I opened up my eyes, I looked out the window and saw magnificent rays of sunshine burning through some clouds up ahead in the distance. I texted Akiko that I was taking it as a good omen that this time all would go according to plan. Very gratefully, it did. And this time the fluorescent lighting did not bother me so much. But fuck all that airplane food.

My story here is only half of the story, as Akiko had her own demons to battle on her end. She had booked us a romantic spa outside of Rome, and she said when she arrived they had a bottle of Champagne on ice and two glasses set up next to it. Seeing it untouched, the next night they refreshed the ice and left the two glasses again. The third night, they refreshed the ice and removed one of the glasses. A small gesture, but one that crushed her experience with the futility that defined it. She spa’d it up there with a bunch of couples who were enjoying each other’s company, and she said people either empathized or pitied her for her situation. Either or, it only emphasized her loneliness.

A good sense of humor about misfortune can have a profound effect to turning moods around, and it made me laugh to see Akiko had gone around Rome by herself taking sadface selfies in front of all of the places she visited. Scroll right for sadface Akiko’s Rome experience -——>

Reuniting in Israel with my wife and kids - not to mention my beloved brother, Sam and his family who live in Israel - was wonderful, if not a little anti-climatic. We spent some quality time together and had a great stay in the Dead Sea with him and his family.

It ‘s taken me weeks to get out most of the suppressed emotions I swallowed during my quasi-incarceration, and a part of me will never be the same again. As Akiko is going back to school for nursing this fall. it’s hard to tell when we’ll get another chance to take a romantic getaway. The debacle is in the rearview mirror now, but it’s still a real bummer it turned out like it did.

I think her mom may have said it best in regards to my folly as a human being: “So many passports, so many wives.” It’s hard to disagree with that observation. In fact, if it hurts, there must be some truth inside there I just don’t like. I don’t really care if I have to get a new passport again, but I really hope Akiko will be my last wife.

The stress from the family mess continued as soon as I got back and brought the summer vacation to kind of a brutal conclusion. I had never been so happy to get back from a vacation to work, and I don’t think I’ve ever more appreciated the safety net I have when I’m working in EL. It’s a total duality that stressful kitchens with sharp knives, hot pans, and flammable emotions are where I feel safe, but I’ve come to believe that most things are just that; a duality. Looking at it that way, there must be something positive that came from this disaster of a summer vacation.

xo,
philjosh

p.s. more pictures from Israel trip are below



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