Wednesday, February 27, 2008

In Paths Untrodden

By Pauly
New York City

Last Friday, I experienced one of those rock star moments as I arrived in Copenhagen. It was the fifth city inside of ten day excursion.

Las Vegas. Los Angeles. New York. Amsterdam. Copenhagen.

Inside of a 27 day stretch... I visited five different countries. 11 different airports. Dozens of casinos. Five different currencies. And so many different hotels that I lost count.

Then on Monday, I had one of the magical days that I never thought was possible. Breakfast in Copenhagen with Change100. Lunch in Amsterdam. Dinner in NYC. Three countries. Three meals. One day. Lots of flying in between.

Sometimes, I think this is all a dream... until I see my credit card statement.

During the last two weeks, I spent a lot of time walking around outdoors and aimlessly wandering the streets of five cities. Walking is great exercise for both the mind and body. Most of the time, I'm thinking about life or writing. I try not to dwell too much on the past and try to avoid thinking too much about the future. The primary goal is to be in the moment, in the now, and letting go of all those anxieties and worries and unpleasant thoughts.

Self-knowledge is the path to enlightenment, or what Bruce Lee refers to as "spiritual realization." Over the last couple of years, I have been too busy with work and ordinary life stuff to ponder... myself. I'm fortunate that I finally have the time to wander the streets of cities while wandering through the hallways of my mind attempting to get in touch with the real me. I've also been trying to convince myself that my own way is better for me than the path laid out ahead of me by strangers.

As Bruce Lee said it best, "Formulas can only inhibit freedom, externally dictated prescriptions only squelch creativity and assure mediocrity. Bear in mind that freedom that accrues from self-knowledge cannot be acquired through strict adherence to a formula; we do not suddenly 'become' free. We simply 'are' free."

I know, that sounds like some gibberish that the Oracle from The Matrix would tell Neo. But to me, it makes sense. I have been examining my experiences and I have been trying to absorb the useful ones and reject the negative ones. At the same time, I have been adding what is uniquely my own.

One early morning in Las Vegas, I made my way down the Strip, lost in thought as the sun slowly crept over the mountains and into the Las Vegas valley. I have had such a love-hate relationship with that city. I could have never gotten to where I am today without Las Vegas, but I also strongly feel that a lot of my personal problems and addictions are magnified by the alluring darkness of Sin City.

From one ring of fire to another, I walked around the plastic streets of Hollyweird like a freak since I was the only non-homeless person not inside a car. The random people I saw walking on the street - were simply walking to their parked cars. Hollyweird is the location of the "Big Game" for writers. And I constantly struggle with the reasons that I want to work in that town. My ego is being pulled in all sorts of directions. I know that I'm talented enough to take a shot there, it's more of a question of... will I be ready to produce once I get that long-awaited call?

Two weekends ago, I attempted to organized previously disjointed thoughts on a long run through the rambling hills of Riverdale. I knew that I needed to get back in touch with myself as a person before I could fully immerse myself into any more writing projects.

In Amsterdam, I was overwhelmed by a thick haze of "being in the moment" and instead of working on editing my script, I decided that having fun was more important and I went on a vicious three-day bender. I spent most of my time talking to strangers in coffeeshops about almost every topic imaginable. I spent the rest of my time riding the trams all over Amsterdam and watching people go about their daily business. It was moments like that when I suddenly feel connected to everything on the planet. You know, when you visit a place for the first time, you see things that always existed, but you had no first hand knowledge that it existed. And when you leave that city, any city, life continues on without you.

Realizations like that make me feel so insignificant. Small. Almost nothingness. Humility.

The last couple of weeks (and really, over the last month), I have been blessed with a semblance of happiness. I worked extremely hard the last couple of years and made a ton of sacrifices along the way in order to get to the place I am right now... sitting on a pool of freedom to dictate almost 95% of my schedule. Sure, I had times in my three plus decades of living where I had complete control to do what I wished, but those times were hampered with financial difficulties (i.e. I was dead broke), so although I had the time to do anything, my freedom was restricted financially. Lucky for me, I have arrived at a time and place in my life where there are almost no restrictions.

The only obstacle in my way is the most hindering statement of all time...

What am I really doing with myself? And in the end, does it really matter?

I have no more excuses. I eliminated all of those and issued a challenge to myself. I don't have too much time to make my mark, or as we used to say on Wall Street, "We're burning daylight."

* * * * *

I was on my own path, and that path led me to Copenhagen for a holiday at a most unusual time filled with political cartoons, assassination plots, riots, religious fanaticism, and the inklings of freedom of speech. All of a sudden a poker tournament seemed utterly meaningless to the insanity that had spilled over into the streets of Copenhagen. And it all started with a simple cartoon.

If you're not familiar with Kurt Westergaard, then I'm gonna tell you. He's a political cartoonist that created a caricature of Mohamed. It was originally published in Jyllands-Posten (a Danish newspaper) in September of 2005. The image was a lit bomb growing out of Mohammed's turban.

Westerfaard and his newspaper quickly came under attack by Muslims. They thought it was blasphemous to print such an image. Many of them were provoked into participating in anti-Danish protests that erupted in different Muslim countries all over the world. The result? Extensive property damage and dozens of people were killed in the riots.

All from one cartoon.

I wasn't the brightest idea in the world to provoke religious fanatics. However, that's not as important as the notion of freedom of speech. Many of the older Danes recalled what it was like living under Nazi occupation during WWII and have their freedoms suppressed, particularly freedom of speech.

Almost two years after the original cartoon was published, three men were arrested of plotting the murder of Kurt Westergaard on February 12. PET, the Danish domestic intelligence service, arrested three men, two of whom were Tunisian nationals. They were deported on suspicion of endangering Danish national security.

In a gesture of solidarity, on February 13th, 17 daily Danish newspapers reprinted the controversial Mohamed cartoon when they discovered the news of the assassination plot against Westergaard. The editors felt it was their right to reassert freedom of speech.

The appearance of the cartoon sparked riots once again. The riots lasted over a week and spilled over into several Danish cities.

There had been an original incident in the Norrebro district in Copenhagen. More riots broke out in different immigrant neighborhoods in Copenhagen and in several Danish cities such as Arhus, Brabrand, Gellerup, Bellerup, and Bagsvaerd. Most of the rioting was done by youths aged 13-19. They burned cars, dumpsters, and school buildings.

Some of the youths said that the riots were less about Mohamed and more about police harassment. Danish police recently introduced a stop-and-search policy, where police are allowed to randomly search people for weapons. However, the mainstream media were quick to say that a large amount of rioters lashed out over the cartoons.

Muslim community leaders were quick to admonish the behavior of their youngest members. Their message was clear, "Mohamed did not teach you to burn schools, cars and public buildings. He taught you to behave in a civilised manner."

The Muslim leaders were also critical about the recent reprinting of the Mohamed cartoon. They felt that the move did more harm than good, since it provoked the recent binges of riots.

By the time I arrived in Copenhagen, the fires were out and most of the rioting had dulled down. Over 50 youths were arrested and the police appeared to have regained control.

As I dug deeper into the story, I tried to figure out the cause of the riots. Were they sparked by the cartoons like the majority of the media said? Or where they part of a protest of police harassment and racism against immigrants in Denmark? Or was it a lot of bored youths joining an angry mob as they set Copenhagen and other cities in Denmark ablaze every night for a week?

I was unable to get any answers during my short time in Copenhagen. Getting to the heart would take me months, maybe even a year. Maybe it's a worthy pursuit?

I originally flew to Copenhagen to hang out with friends, take advantage of my girlfriend's free hotel room, and dig up a story for my On the Road column in Bluff. In the end, I stumbled upon a different and more significant story, as poker became suddenly meaningless for me.

It's one thing if I lived in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia and I wrote so nice things about the government or local religious leaders. I expected to have a fahtwah issued from a mullah that allows me to be killed under Islamic law. But Denmark, one of the more dour places in the bleakness of Scandinavia, the streets of Copenhagen were the last place I expected to be the flash point of a Holy War.

Deep down, I know that what happened in Copenhagen was just the beginning of a series of drastic events that will plunge all of us under a veil of darkness.

Original content written and provided by Pauly from Tao of Poker at All rights reserved. RSS feeds are for non-commercial use only.

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