“Open my eyes to another reality.” — Fernando Pessoa

Life sucks. A lot of people say it sucks way too much. People like Voltaire and David Foster Wallace and most modern philosophers. Our time on Earth is hellish at worst, problematic at best, say the experts.

The humans appear to have excellent grounds for self-pity. So why struggle to rescue a planet where the inhabitants are born to misery?


Marrakech, July 11, 2014: Despite warnings and entreaties, my wife likes to walk alone in the tangled passageways of the huge Arab market, without the company of a male relative. Her name is Liming (“Lee Ming”). Even when I am with her, she has a tendency to walk ahead of me, rather than trail meekly behind. And she does not wear the chador. These behaviors, continued over a period of six weeks, increasingly irritated some of the Muslim men in the medina, the marketplace, where we lived. At length, their antagonism boiled over. Twice, strong young men offered to fight her, raising their fists to her. Another man came up to her and presented a big knife, urging her to buy it, while his companions snickered. Men in the narrow alleys often grabbed their crotches as she passed. I’m a vile old man who can go ballistic.

Yesterday, at the upscale mall two miles from the ancient medina, Liming at last told me what was happening. Just an hour previous, a young man unknown to her had accosted her with raised fists, shouting “Let’s fight!” As she related her story, Liming started to tremble and cry. Suddenly I could see on the human race only their pustules and open sores. I wanted to act. I made the next bus back to the medina ten seconds before it left.


Nearly all the humans nearly all the time feel interest in our lives. Some of us do well and some of us do poorly, but all of us get to play an interesting game. 

As the game of chess has a loser for every winner, so the game we play has a pervasive balance between loss and gain: the same ratio of unhappiness to happiness obtains in Han Dynasty China, in the Roman Empire, in the modern world, and in the Stone-Age Pleistocene. 

If humans lived in the best possible world, 50 percent of our collective experience would still fall below average and we would still be afflicted by the same persistent ratio of unhappiness to happiness. 

What’s so desirable about happiness and unhappiness equally balanced?


The bus came to my stop. The day was hot. I started walking across the medina’s big central square, ubiquitous cane in hand, thinking about my terminal responsibilitites at age 67.

Modern philosophers have erred in formal logic and convinced most of humanity to believe a demoralizing falsehood: that for no good reason, human life has too much evil, and for no good reason, human life always will have too much evil. Bad logic and bad timing, with the planet burning and all. American and British professors of philosophy answered my correspondence with: if your logic is correct, why hasn’t someone thought of it before, philosophy has not had a major new idea in forty years, your arrogance merits no serious consideration, and a lot of other nonsense. I was amazed. These professional philosophers resembled High Priests, parsing the received doctrines and putting down heresy.

Dying is the moral privilege of heretics.

What other issues remained? My aggressive siblings have given up on shaking bequests out of me. Other aggressive relatives have fallen under the shadow of censure. I would prefer to hear nothing more from cousins or siblings. My children have reached adulthood. Whatever they still need to learn about themselves, life will surely teach them. Liming, nine years my junior, will have to grieve over my passing sooner or later. Then she will move on, she will be happy, she will always know I loved her.

And there it was. I felt free to shuffle off the coil.

Nearing the central square’s far edge, I reviewed where on the hip or the neck I would strike. Being ambidextrous, I would shift the knife to the left hand just before closing with the other man, so that neither of us could use a free arm for defense. On this oppressive day in July, I felt no fear of dying. I only wanted to die honorably and well while making sure to kill my antagonist. My head started to empty of thought, as if everything nonessential was shutting down. A way out was at hand.

Liming had told me where “Let’s fight” had gone down. In that particular alley, some 70 men sell junk to tourists. They sit on stools crowded together in front of their shops. A big awning stretches down the alley, providing shade but trapping heat. All day long, the Arab men in that hot alley call out loudly and ceaselessly to passersby, mocking them and urging them to buy their wares. I was in a dream. Somehow, I knew exactly which man was the closest ally of the man who had threatened my wife. I strode over to him. He smiled evilly. He was about 45, with a modest layer of fat evenly distributed on the body and face.

“Do you speak English?”

“Very well,” he said. His first mistake.

I sat down on the stool closest to his stool, just over two feet away, never taking my eyes off his.

“Someone here wants to fight my wife. You know who he is.”

“Je sais [I know],” he said, still smiling. His second mistake: I understood his French.

“Bring this man here. I want to meet him.”

He laughed with evil scorn. I laughed in sarcastic imitation of his laugh.

“This man who wants to fight my wife. Bring him here to me.”

“And if I do not?”

“Then you and I will fight. With knives.” My voice was level.

“That would be dangerous.”

“I don’t have to live. But you will die, also.”

His evil smile vanished. He made no reply. His colleague now said in a hard voice, “Pardon, monsieur,” trying to get me to look away from the first man. Without taking my eyes away from the first man’s eyes, I held up my right hand like a stop sign and said to the second man, “Butt out.” He didn’t speak again.

“This man who wants to fight my wife. He is not a man. He is a dirty pig. Un cochon sal,” I said, revealing my knowledge of French.

“I don’t know this man.” But he had already told me in French that he did know.

“Liar! Thief! Coward! Pig!” I rolled each word around in my mouth, as if it were fine port.

No verbal reply. But he waved his large matted fan, attached to a sturdy, four-foot wooden pole, close to my face. His third mistake. I’m a vile old man with uncommonly swift reflexes. Moreover, my right arm and right hand have grown strong during the last year from supporting almost my entire weight on my cane, every other step, for hours every day. And I was in a dream with nothing to lose. Immediately, with one sudden, excessively violent swipe, I knocked the heavy pole right out of his grip. It went sailing through the door of his shop, all the way to the back, and clattered with lots of noise on the cement floor. I never took my eyes away from his. The flicker therein was almost imperceptible.

“This man who wants to fight my wife. He has the courage to fight a woman. Let’s see if he has the courage to fight a man. You know who he is. Bring him here to me.”

Now, the man in front of me put a stupid look on his face and pointed behind himself down the alley, indicating that I would find the other man somewhere down there.

“You know who he is. You know where he is. Bring him to me.”

No reply.

“If he will not fight me, then you will fight me.”

“I will not fight you. I am a gentleman.”

“A gentleman would give me satisfaction.” No reply. “You are dishonorable. You are a liar, a thief and a coward.” (He sells cheap crap to tourists and tries to overcharge them.) “You are not a man. You are a filthy pig.”

He was silent for six or seven seconds. Then suddenly he said, “I believe in God!” He pointed to the sky and tried to look righteous.

“God looks down on you,” I said, also pointing to the sky and then curving my finger down at him. No reply. I waited. Still no reply. Our eyes remained locked.

“I will be back in 20 minutes. Bring this man here. Then we will go somewhere private. Let’s find out if he has the courage to fight a man.”

Back in the alley 20 minutes later, still in a dream, everything nonessential still shut down, I walked toward the same empty stool opposite the cowardly man. He urged several of his friends to occupy the stool ahead of me, but none of them moved. Without hurry, I sat down. He said several times, “Leave! Go away!” Each time, I said “no.” His friends did not support him.

“Where is he? I’m waiting for him.”

“Go away. Leave!”

Then I started repeating over and over, “He has the courage to fight a woman. Does he have the courage to fight a man?”

My antagonist got more and more agitated. He could not stand to hear me repeat those two sentences, but he tried to keep quiet. Then, for the fifth time in a row, I said:

“He has the courage to fight a woman. Does he have the courage to fight a man?”

“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” He was shouting.

“Go fuck yourself.”

“Shut up!”

“Go fuck yourself.”

“Shut up!”

“Go fuck yourself.”

Abruptly, he leaped from his stool and strode rapidly away in the direction he had pointed earlier. He was off to fetch the man who wanted to fight my wife. I waited on my stool. None of the men around me spoke. I looked at no one. After fully half an hour, he came back, walking slowly, his shoulders slumped. He was alone. He sat down on his stool next to mine. I didn’t look at him, he didn’t look at me, and neither of us spoke. I waited another half hour. The day was more oppressive than ever, but the way out was vanishing. Finally, I got up and said, in a tired voice without rancor, “I guess he only fights women.” He said, “Okay.” As I walked away alive without looking back, he said something in a tone too low for me to make out the words.


Postscript on July 14: The cowardly man has been present at his usual post only once in the last three days. Liming and I avoided that alley when we could, but our ancient hotel was close by. We passed through eight times in the last three days. Each time, some 70 men left off their incessant catcalling and fell silent.

Yesterday, in a distant backwater of the labyrinthine medina, I bought a long knife with scabbard, the most clinical knife I could find, and had it sharpened to a deadly edge. I felt better armed. After bargaining with me and selling me the knife, the artisan who had fashioned it put both hands on my cheeks, then held my hand in his, looked into my eyes, and finally embraced me. Other men went out of their way to call Liming “Lady.” It was not enough.

This morning, we boarded the train for Rabat. I was quarrelsome with one of the other passengers. In Rabat, Liming expressed her gratitude. “Clumsy, stupid egg!” she said. “Why do you pity yourself?” I had no response. After a pause, she spoke again. “Do you want our lives to be a picnic in the park? Nothing more than a picnic? I need you alive.”

The gods begin to boo us off the Earth. Everyone can hear them. Why save a planet where life unduly sucks? as many people appear to believe. The last of the vigorous years descend doubly upon a vile old man.