Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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My Brain is Oatmeal

Posted on 3/10/04
Originally composed in early December, 2003

“I knew the gas was gone, but I had to rev the motor.” - From the song “Maybe I’ll Come Down” by Mike Doughty and Soul Coughing

I have been physically exhausted and mentally useless many times over the course of my short life, especially on this particular odyssey, but apart from various emotional traumas, I don’t believe I have ever been as close to being completely destroyed as I am right now.

By the time I drag myself home for a three week break in late December, I will have been on the road for six and a half months straight. Eighteen countries. Almost 60 cities. I have cranked out untold reams of jabbering. Walked hundreds of miles. Drank enough alcohol in various forms to fuel a Homecoming weekend at the University of Minnesota.

I am toast. Pooped. Trashed. Zombiefied. Annihilated.

Friends, family, readers, from here on out, if any of you learns that I am planning to do something of this scale for this length of time without earmarking several, long, mandatory recuperative breaks, you all have my express permission to dump a bucket of ice water on my head and beat me with a bag of quarters until I come to my senses. Until this trip, the longest I had ever been on the road was four months. That was when I was 24 years old. I was much younger, more resilient, quick to recover and not committed to documenting every move in lengthy detail. Even on that seeming carefree, low-impact travel plan, I came home almost 20 pounds lighter, in a state that almost required hospitalization. So when I hatched the idea for this zany voyage last spring, why I thought I could keep up this frenetic pace for such a long period of time is beyond me. Deranged desperation was definitely a factor. Then there’s my irksome selective long term memory which has burned me so many times in the past that you’d think that I’d be able to recognize the signs by now. I also have to consider that I conducted much of the planning stages of this project in various states of drunkenness and temporary insanity, with a crazed desire to erase the prior nine years of my existence and start with a fresh slate, figuratively at age 24. Ultimately, I can’t complain. I got exactly what I had hoped for. I just didn’t factor in the bit about me being human, not to mention being chronologically 33 years old. Many will testify that I have often conducted myself in a manner that could be construe as an unhinged contempt for reality. This is all fine and well on a short term basis, but human beings have limits and at the moment of this writing I am helplessly plummeting over the edge of mine.

The root of my current condition can be traced to my weakened capacity to concentrate on the simplest of tasks. I am used to having superior levels of focus and awareness, being able to process everything from all five senses at a blistering speed. I have enjoyed this heightened level of responsiveness as a direct result of having been a juggling prodigy through the better part of my formative years. Having honed my brain’s processing speed, reflexes, hand-eye coordination, dexterity and concentration during this key part of my mental and physical development, I was fortunate to have the benefits of heightened levels of performance become a regular, innate part of my existence. Look at any person who has enjoyed exceptional development in any discipline during his/her childhood and this person will inevitably have a natural talent and a general accelerated learning speed for anything requiring similar physical or mental skills for the rest of their lives. Quite simply, metaphorically I used to be Batman, but now I’m Sponge Bob.

My former above average mental and physical abilities are gone. Worse than gone. In fact, I suspect that I’m in the hole as far as mental faculties go. I’m easily confused, disoriented and overwhelmed. The feeling of sensory overload dogs me throughout the day. My focus and concentration have dwindled to such a feeble low that I can barely compose a sentence and type it at the same time without profuse typos and then forgetting what I had intended to write while coping with said typos. I can’t take notes fast enough. I’m certain that several weeks of brain-dead lethargy could straighten me out, but my fear is that I have gone far enough into the abyss that I have caused permanent damage, as one might see in recovering hard drug users. Even in the past two weeks, moving at half speed and breaking my workload down to a pathetically tranquil level, I am still unable to keep up.

My exasperating condition has been magnified here in the streets of Naples. Naples is probably the most densely populated and anarchic city in Europe and if you didn’t read that fact in your guidebook before you arrived, you would have learned it quickly enough during your first 15 minutes on the streets. A maddening amount of cars, trucks, motorcycles, scooters, people, animals, various inert obstacles and piles of biological waste from all of the above share outrageously narrow, haphazard, cobblestone streets. In Naples nearly every step requires you to dodge certain injury by a motor vehicle or maneuver around elderly people, children or dog shit. When you compound these challenges with the fact that you are navigating unfamiliar streets and simultaneously suffering from a dangerously low blood-oxygen level from all the pollution, you’ll have a sense of the typical street scene in Naples as seen by a tourist. You have two choices as to how to handle this environment. You can function at a heightened capacity and flourish or have a nervous breakdown and cower in the corner of an alley. Even with the latter option you still have to be moderately vigilant of people, scooters and various small animals.

Crazy, uncanny things happen in the streets of Naples that would confound people from anywhere else, but would likely draw an indifferent shrug and a dismissive solicitation of a cigarette from a local. The day I arrived, a fellow hostel resident walked in and reported that he had nearly been killed by a bag of chocolate chip cookies that fell out of the sky and missed caving in his skull by three inches.

A bag of chocolate chip cookies.

Fell from the sky.

Almost seriously injured him. The hostel clerk’s response was “Can I have one?”

Do you see why I am freaking out? Bizarre things like this would discombobulate me even in top form! Then, because I am a clueless, glutton for mind f*cks, I joined the hostel in the living room the same night for a viewing of the movie “The Ring.” If you’ve seen this movie, you know how it can righteously mess with your head. The movie finished a little after midnight and I laid awake in bed for over two hours trying to eradicate the onslaught of terrifying images from my mind. This was impossible however due to my aforementioned weakened concentration skills and the numerous, ongoing, unsettling sounds that were resounding through the hostel building at the time. I finally found slumber after a maximum dosage of a sleeping aid.

Even after numerous consecutive nights of eight hours of sleep or longer, I still feel as if I am suffering from a slow-motion brain failure. Thinking is strained. Motor skills are shaky. Writing is… Well, you can’t tell because I intend to edit this with all the cognitive capacity that I can muster before letting anyone read it, but just picture, if you will, me poised over the keyboard, slowly and painfully tapping out one word at a time, making typos in every second word, stopping for several minutes to desperately search my brain for every-day words like “desperately.” This is as forced and arduous as writing has ever been for me, nevermind simpler, daily tasks like safely crossing a street or getting the wits together to take a shower.

If I ever fully recover, the obvious lesson that I intend to take away from this monumental blunder is; Don’t bite off more than you can chew, you idiot. Despite what your parents, bosses or coaches might have told you, it most certainly does not build character. On the contrary, it eats it raw.

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