Thursday, January 30, 2014

Suffering is Relative, a short story

Another short, short story based on a photograph that a few writer friends and I do to challenge each other...

The window in front of her was clear enough to reflect the valley that reached behind her, the green hills blurring at the edges of her waning eyesight. Momentarily confused, and seeing a green, stenciled side table placed just so next to a brocade topped chair, the old woman reached out her left hand for her brush, only to find her fingertips grasping across the cold of the window’s glass.

"Ridicule." Madame de Florian let out the word in a puff of exasperation and turned away from the reflection in front of her. It was happening more and more these days. Her body had taken its time in deterioration, but her mind! Her mind had stayed with her, intact, until these last few months. It seemed to be slipping faster and faster down some ice-strewn embankment.

There were no more friends left in her life; well, no true friends. Two of her children still lived, and there were the grandchildren who had recently taken it upon themselves to all procreate simultaneously. As a result, a new flurry of young life had descended yet again into her home.

Instead of reviving her interest in the world, the latest generation pulled her slowly back into her memories. When they spoke to her, she heard words that simply did not exist in her vocabulary. New words! She felt outside of their world, these days, and it sometimes frightened her.

But of course, all humans were the same in the end, motivated by the base instincts. There would never be anything new about that. However, it seemed to her that the baser instincts had finally shed the last of their glamour in the last few decades. It was 2010. Imagine, she had more than outlived the new century, but to what end?

To her wizened mind, everything was condensing into the bottom of the universal jug. When her grandchildren had grown into young adults, and started to speak aloud of financial or fertility problems, she had tried to shush them, to explain that speaking of such things was tantamount to showing up for dinner in one’s underwear.

Her attempts to instill in them a bit of discretion only resulted in polite smiles or condescending reminders that "times have changed, Grandmaman" or one strange retort from her youngest granddaughter, Marthe, "we’re only as sick as our secrets so to hide them is to make yourself sick."

Madame de Florian chuckled a bit to herself, remembering that conversation, feeling the mirth vibrate lightly under her upper rib cage. "Mon cher, Marthe, do you know for whom you were named?"

"Oui, Grandmere, Marthe de Florian, demimondaine extraordinaire!"

"As I am your Grandmere, Marthe de Florian was my Grandmere."

Her granddaughter’s face had lit up. Madame de Florian knew that her consistent refusal to speak of this illustrious family descendant was, perhaps, the last bit of true power she held over her brood.

"Grandmere, you must tell me about her. She is my namesake. Someone must know her after-well-"

"After I die, little bird?" Marthe had attempted a demurral, but the gesture required too much subtlety for her generation. "Not to worry, young one, I am old, and being old, I know finally that I will die. It is ok. Not to worry."

"But-" She knew Marthe was not making another attempt to excuse her lack of charity, but was, rather, trying to get the conversation back on her track, back to her great-great grandmother. Of course, this would not end well for the child.

"Marthe, your namesake is already dead, and therefore, her secrets cannot make her sick." At that, she landed her gaze on her elderly son, Alain, and requested that he might pass her the sherry.

Madame de Florian’s ballet slippers fell softly upon the blonde stone that rimmed the Grasse villa, her home for more than 60 years. It had been the war, actually, that gave her this life; a life lived in an abundance of natural beauty and material comfort, not to mention the sincere passion she’d always felt for her Raylen. "May he rest in peace," she whispered into the early morning breeze.

For years, she’d waited for some guilt to arrive; guilt that she’d been wrapped in the silk lining of a time that for most people had been brutal and sad. But it hadn’t. Anyway, suffering is relative, she thought.

The peonies were just past full bloom, their pink petals overflowing over tight-budded centers. There was an anxiety about the peonies that Madame de Florian tried to fluff off with a smoothing of her gray skirts; she even loosened the lavender, silk scarf wound warmly about her neck, daring to expose the soft folds of skin that had lined her throat for the last 10, perhaps 15 years.

She’d left it and never gone back for it.

Why think of this now, so many years later. She turned away from the house and looked out over the pool and down into the valley, toward Nice. The rent was paid in a timely manner by her solicitor and had been for 68 years now. No one had entered the apartment on the ninth arrondissement in all those years. There had been no fires, no floods. All was well in Paris.

Even so, her breath was coming in short gasps. "Suffering is relative," she spoke out, attempting confidence but missing the mark somehow, only recalling where she’d first heard this teaching.

"Ma chere, suffering is relative to the person suffering, oui?" Her grandmother’s voice had been warm enough to play with the sunshine filling the dressing room of her apartment.

The eight year old Madame de Florian had sat in the brocade covered chair by the green, stenciled side table and watched her grandmother’s reflection in the dressing table mirror as Marthe swept her still shining, albeit mostly gray and chestnut waves onto the top of her head.

"Of course, grandmere." This had been her tentative reply. In reality, she hadn’t really understood. She hadn’t understood until she’d closed the door of that same apartment, 15 years later, leaving behind her grandmother’s possessions.

It had been war, the Nazis headed into Paris, as deadly as any epidemic, but the most dangerous moment in her life had come before the Nazis. There had been a night in the apartment that her grandmother had left to her, a night with an older man, an Italian man. She had had a pink, satin gown made and which she wore to the last ball held in Paris society before everyone who could retreat to the South had gone.

The 23-year old Madame de Florian stood in front of the dressing room’s fireplace so that the man she had invited inside would gaze both at her and at the portrait of Marthe, a portrait made of the politician's lover, the artist's muse, at 24 years of age. The man had done just that, and she'd watched his lose its social smile as he remarked on their resemblance, moving closer and closer to her until she felt her body arch into his, her arms wrapping around his shoulders and neck, his arms drawing her against him.

It was the first time she had felt the heat of a mans skin against her own; the first time that the smell of another human being became so intoxicating that she’d lost all thought. There had been a little pain, and then a great deal of pleasure passed between them during that long night, and the morning that followed. He'd left her, finally, as the sun was becoming hot, whispering into her ear, "I will miss you."

A rather sharp pain erupted suddenly down her left arm and Madame found herself hobbling to her knees in the grass before the overstuffed, pink peonies. The air had become thinner, somehow, and the pain was less discrete in its attention. Her whole chest appeared to be compressed by something heavier than anything she could adequately describe.

I’m dying, she thought. Maybe her granddaughter had been right after all; maybe the secrets she’d locked behind the door of her grandmother’s apartment were finally finding their way out. Falling into the grass, she caught what little air she could through the cement that had seemed to fill her lungs.

She had been pregnant after her night with the Italian, who had already left France, but the baby had not stayed. She’d bled through another night, some eight weeks later, and the tears that accompanied were more relief than anything else. When her family determined it was their time to escape to the South, she had quite easily left everything behind, locked in that apartment.

Suffering is relative, Madame de Florian thought, and then realized she would not be able to take another breath.




Monday, December 9, 2013

On The Road Again: First Stop,Taiwan!

                                                          Hong Kong Airport, 12/4/13
My flight to Hong Kong, en route to Taiwan, is about 90% Chinese – at least back here in the cheap seats.

Cathay Pacific has these great, staggered personal spaces in the upper classes of tickets. As I walked by them on my way to the back, I realized that I have never grown into the type of person who can afford to buy the first class, or even the business class plane tickets. I felt like an untouchable by the time I made it to my seat in economy - of course, the sort of untouchable who can afford to fly across the world just for fun.

Class consciousness aside, the seats on this plane are actually comfortable, have nice back support, and don’t just tip back, but sort of slide more open in both directions – both the back and the seat move. There are plenty of movies on offer, and the leg room is better than a United flight from Newark to SFO.
I spent my first three hours of the flight sleeping - trying to mimic Taipei time so that jet lag doesn't completely kick my 46-year old ass. My initial nap was interrupted twice:  the nice male steward asked if I wanted brunch; and then, sometime after breakfast was all cleaned up, my fellow travelers had a social gathering around my seat. The man behind me was talking to a woman leaning over the middle seat in front of our row; there were several people behind and in the aisles just talking away. They seemed to be having a very nice time, and because I couldn’t understand any little bit of it, I found that their voices were like an eccentric white noise machine.

I am going to arrive in a city where English is not spoken by many people. I read in another blog that the waitresses at restaurants in Taipei will literally start to giggle and laugh when they realize that a customer cannot speak Chinese – Mandarin to be more specific. All the signs will be in what looks to me like strings of pretty cuneiform-like pictures littering bus station placards and street signs.

India was a bit like that – but English is remarkably alive and kicking, especially in the larger and medium sized cities I visited there. Their written language is also quite different from ours, and I enjoyed its graceful appearance without ever understanding it.

I know that Taiwan and Burma (I am stubbornly refusing to acquiesce to the military government’s order to call Burma Myanmar) will be a challenge when it comes to communicating and getting around, finding the right bus, etc. I think that is, above all else, feeling the most daunting part of this trip right now.
Then again, I only had to make a few pantomime gestures for the gentlemen stuck in the middle seat to understand that I was going to pull a few things from my daypack before getting up again to stash it overheard. He understood so well, he grunted in irritation – that is a universal look! He very graciously, or perhaps impatiently took my bag when I was done, and put it up himself.

Then, before we took off, he and his wife (I’m assuming based on age and behavior) took out some buns and basket-weave Styrofoam wrapped pears. He very quickly nibbled off every last bit of skin from one of the pears until it was as naked as a baby’s butt, and handed it to his wife so that she could enjoy the juicy pulp sans that nasty skin – so sweet, don’t you think?


That flight was very long; about 16 hours. I had about 45 minutes in Hong Kong between flights, and then was off on my quick 1.5 hour hop to Taiwan. My whole body felt swollen, and my hands were prickly - that in between state right after a limb falls asleep. My feet were like sausages, my eyes bloodshot from lack of proper sleep, and my skin had that post-frostbite sheen. All and all, my body was in a pretty horrible and uncomfortable state of being.
Even so, my mind was remarkably light and open, a happy state of affairs given how worried I was that I might not enjoy my trip at all.

Once I decided that I would go on another great travel adventure (my last being two months in India in 2006), it took several months just to figure out where I would go. After those decisions were made, it was a frenzy of figuring out the details – cities, sites, hotels, transportation, visas, etc. I was pretty much done by the end of October, both with the planning part and the interest part.
Then, I spent about 6 weeks doing next to nothing. I took our dog Sami to the park; went to my writing group; did some cooking and a little cleaning. I also read books and watched a lot of television – and played Candy Crush up to the 91st level.

On the other hand, I must give myself kudos for submitting a short story to a journal contest, and applying for a writing fellowship. I also knitted more than a third of an afghan I’m making my girlfriend Laura.
The last week before I left was all about running around celebrating Laura’s birthday, Chanukah and Thanksgiving. I also started to hear “You must be getting so excited!” and “You’re going to have such a great time!”

Funny thing, though, I wasn’t getting excited. In fact, I felt more and more apathetic, and reluctant to finish up my final countdown checklist:  print off itineraries and reservation confirmations; pick up cash from the bank; get an oil change and a carwash so Laura can use my all wheel drive when it snows; and pack. I put it all off until Tuesday, the day before I flew out of JFK.

My apathy then turned to frantic activity and tension. I realized how nasty my mind was feeling when I snapped at my friend Kelly when she called to talk about some details about her leg of the trip (Thailand). Ugh.
When everything was packed and printed, stuffed and zipped up, I finally started to relax. As the tension started to slip away, so did the apathy – sort of like my ridiculously expensive yet so very worth it 2-step face wash regime. Wash first with the cleansing oil, and then rinse away all the sludged up detritus with the enzyme cleaner. I wasn’t excited, but as I stayed up all night in order to sleep during my day (Taiwan night) of travel, my mind started to look forward…

I feel free when I travel; I’d forgotten that one, priceless fact. I feel free  from rigid identity with my past or present – failures or glories. I get to just be another human walking around on this big planet of ours – languages like new music; vistas like new planets on star trek. Traveling is like science fiction – gives me that same feeling of discovery and adventure and wonder and “I don’t know “ or beginners  mind which can be difficult to maintain in the humdrum of daily activities at home.
Just a short note about Cathay Pacific food – the vegetarian pasta choice was sort of icky but the roll was delicious. I liked the Tao Ti Supreme Genmaicha green tea in a box covered with pretty symbols, and they and they had Haagn Daaz ice cream bars for desert. Breakfast was actually lunch - fried rice with egg and chicken, and it was okay.

I would travel Cathay Pacific again. The accomodations were better than expected (although nothing is Singapore Air), the food decent, entertainment really good, and the service was very excellent. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Asia Trip: Final Countdown

I'm writing to you today from my new ASUS tablet that I bought a few months ago for my big trip...which is now known as my big Asia trip. The keyboard is a bit small, but I'm getting used to it!

If you don't already know, I'm traveling to Taiwan, Burma (renamed Myanmar by its military government), and Thailand. I leave on December 4 (at midnight) and arrive in Taipei, Taiwan, on December 5 at about 4:30 p.m.

That gives me about two weeks to finish my still growing to-do list. Oy! At least I finally got my Visa from the Myanmar Mission (to the UN) in NYC. Phew.

In these next two weeks, I also have to get ready for Laura's birthday (November 24), celebrate Thanksgiving (we're going to "the" parade in NYC), and celebrate Chanukah - my first as a member of Beacon Hebrew Alliance, i.e. our Temple, or Synagogue, or Shul, depending on which denomination of Jew one might be.

Did you know that Chanukah falls on Thanksgiving day this year!? This hasn't happened since 1861, or would have if Thanksgiving was actually a holiday yet.

These last two weeks could have been more relaxed if I hadn't curled into a vegetative mind-state starting sometime in early October. I think that all my frenzied trip planning activities finally got the better of me, and I turned it all off for a bit...maybe too long a bit for peace of mind. But, that's the way it is. Of course, I do thrive on deadlines after 17 years of litigation, so perhaps everything is as it should be.

Laura suggested I go on a short retreat before my trip. She's so smart! I just returned from a weekend retreat at Dharma Drum, a Chan Buddhist center in Pine Bush, New York. It was lovely. Chan is a form of Buddhism that developed in China.

The form is a bit different than my lineage, Theravada, or more widely known in the West as, Vipassana; but, the dharma is the dharma. Siddhartha Gautama ("the" Buddha) taught what he taught, no matter the cultural influences that affect the form of practice. I have a long history with the meditation methods taught in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism - 13 years history - but have had a bit of a disillusionment with the teaching establishment (those located in Northern California) over the last few years. I am not necessarily looking for a new lineage, but am definitely adjusting my expectations and plans with respect to the old lineage.

With that in mind, I introduced myself to the Fashi (title of "teacher" in the Chan tradition), and told him what my current mind-state is about my practice. He was gracious, and invited me to take part in Dharma Drum activities -- even to sit in with a Dharma discussion group that meets on Tuesday nights. This last bit was an invitation to a group that is by invitation only -- I love this fact, which means my ego might not deserve the invitation.

Anyway! During the Dharma talk given by the Fashi on Saturday night, he spoke of the Sutta of Complete Enlightenment. This is not one of the Suttas emphasized in my tradition, but I recognized the teaching (again, Buddha taught what he taught), and it is this bit of paradox (paraphrased): don't have discursive thinking while meditation, i.e. focus all of your mind and its attention on your method of practice - for instance, watching/being with the breath (a very limited way of describing my method); and don't eliminate/push away discursive thinking while meditation.

Like I said, a paradox. Quite the useful paradox, though, it turns out.

So, retreat is like this: put all your electronics, your books, your music, your t.v., your everything away and set up a simple camp in a clean, cell-like room in a dorm. Also, put away all clocks and watches -- the schedule is easy to follow if you stay aware of the signals, such as banging of a wood block to wake you up, or the striking of a bell to let you know it's time to walk to the meditation hall, etc. 

Then, after various formalities including bowing (in the Chan tradition), you sit absolutely still in one position (on a cushion on the ground with crossed legs, or sitting on a cushion with your knees bent under you) for 40 minutes. Take a short break. Do it again. Maybe do a 40 minute walking meditation (visualize a row of people walking as if they were on a slow motion reel). Sit again. Listen to a dharma talk (twice a day).

You do this from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. with 2 hours each for breakfast and lunch, about an hour and a half for dinner. During these breaks, you eat, shower, do chores assigned to you, take naps, take walks. I cleaned the women's bathroom in the meditation hall as my chore.

What actually happens on retreat has little to do with all of that, and is a little difficult to express in words. Of course, the Buddha found words, something we now call the dharma (or, in my tradition, the damma - which is the Pali word for the Sanskrit dharma). The Dharma can be capital D or lowercase d. Lowercase d dharma is sort of like, the way or the path - or, as I think of it - just life.

The capital D Dharma are the teachings of the Buddha, and can often present paradoxical instructions such as that I was offered by Fashi during retreat this past weekend:  direct your mind to your method (i.e. watching/being your breath for me) and don't engage in thinking BUT if you think, don't suppress your thoughts.

For someone like me, whose mind is just one long train of discursive thinking, this paradox was delicious!

A long time ago, I'd realized that I had to let my mind just go on about its thinking ways. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. So, most of the time, whether on or off the cushion as meditators say, I have a million thoughts coming at me from every direction, all the time. It can be painful, but most of the time it's just annoying. I've been known to do a lot of things to get away from my head - some really self-destructive like drugs or raging, and some just common place distractions like television.

What was so great about the Fashi's teaching on Sutta of Complete Enlightnment was how the Buddha summarized that particular form of suffering, i.e. the suffering that arises from a too-busy mind. My mind latched onto it with every bit of its attention...

...and suddenly, I felt that crowd of thoughts just melt into wherever they came from...I wasn't thinking them AND I hadn't suppressed them.

Of course, I almost immediately started to think about how COOL the whole experience was, and there came that thought train again...and then the retreat was over.

Even so, the knowledge that I don't have to live as a prisoner to crowded and racing thoughts stays with me, and that knowledge alone causes me some peace.

Whew. Where was I? Oh, yeah, I'm going to Asia for six weeks, and I'm leaving in about two weeks. My first stop is Taiwan, where I will meet up with another Fashi at the Dharma Drum center in Taiwan, and I hope, stay there for a few days soaking up some more dharma, and Dharma. I also plan on soaking in some of Taiwan's famous hot springs - there's a lava flow underneath the island - and eat some yummy beef noodle soup.

And, then, it's on to Burma, to see the country that birthed one of the truly great human beings in history, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and daughter of the man who led Burma out of bondage to the British Empire, Aung San Suu Kyi. After British rule, the country had a short respite before being put back into bondage, this time by one of the most outrageous military dictatorships of the modern era.

Aung San Suu Kyi, or The Lady as the Burmese call her with much love, along with her party (she is Chair and General Secretary), the National League for Democracy (NLD) were elected to a majority in 1990, despite the fact that she had already been detained by the military. She has been held under house arrest for 15 of the last 21 years, but currently sits in the lower house of Parliament, and has announced her bid for president in 2015.

 I read a book about the history of the country as seen through the eyes of a visiting Orwell scholar (George Orwell was a British officer in Burma before he left service to write), who was traveling around the places Orwell lived. Very good book for people interested in George Orwell, Burma, the consequences of oppression generally, etc.

I also downloaded Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi to read on the plane.

I have little planned for Burma as of yet, although I have ideas for side trips after I arrive in Yangon (renamed by the military dictatorship - it used to be Rangoon). I'll probably have to take notes and write a blog from Thailand, which is my next stop. Burma, I hear, is a bit like entering one of those time capsules...the country stopped in the 1950's, and the internet is still new there.

After Burma, I fly to Bangkok on December 26 to meet up with one of my dear friends, Kelly. We'll be celebrating her 50th birthday on an island called Ko Lanta. Ahhh...white beaches, blue ocean, a cold beer...nice.

And, then, home to New York on January 14, and back to planning the next great adventure...

Next time I write on this blog, I hope to be above the clouds, on my way to Asia. See you then!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Dust and China: A Story Based on a Photo of an Abandoned Home

A friend and I decided to write a story based on one of these photos as a writing's mine!

The woman struggled to pull the last of the china from the hutch. The heat was still coming in waves over the dry grass outside the dining room windows and the wood of the bottom left cabinet had finally succumbed, warped a bit and made her pull harder than she’d expected. Her left forearm ached as she carried the serving pieces to the table.

While she used a dusting rag to wipe her face and neck of dust and sweat, Marta Stone took stock of things. All the wood was shiny with wood oil, the mirror streak-free and her mother’s keepsakes smartly arranged on the doilies she’d crocheted for them. She’d taken a feather duster to the wallpaper and pictures and, as usual, thanked herself for choosing that particular shade of green that held the dust invisibly in its creamy gray floral pattern.  

Inside the breakfront, she knew, were freshly laundered and lightly starched linens:  a good table cloth for guests; two daily table cloths; and three sets of hand embroidered tea towels. She’d even washed the red and green holiday runner she’d sewn herself from a dress that had worn enough in the elbows and seams to be resistant to further mending.

“All kipppy!” Her son might say to her.

She’d risen with the sun as she had every day of their marriage. Unlike Samuel, however, Marta liked a little leftover dinner for her breakfast. A little cold stroganoff and hot, black tea was just right. She’d listened in to the radio until Elsie Beebe came on, and then turned it to NBC for some music. She’d never taken to the dramatic series. Preferred a little swing music. There was enough drama in her own mind, thank you very much.

She took a deep breath as her brow started popping with sweat beads almost the second after she’d cleared the last. It was hot; still mid-summer hot although it was already September 3. The blinds did some good against the glare, but nothing could keep out the dust from the warm wind that had persisted over these last few weeks.

Marta moved back to the chair, sat down and started dusting off the rest of her wedding china. She’d taken out every bit of it that morning and one by one, cleaned them of their recent layer of dust. There was a pile of now dingy, irregular sized rags in a pile to the left of the chair.

Every once in a while, as she’d adjust herself in the chair, the wicker seat creaking in opposition to Glen Miller or The Andrews Sisters, Marta would lift her face to the blowing curtains, eyes blinking against the fine dust, and check for the sound of footsteps on the wood planks of the front porch. It was just to the right of the dining room windows, and the table had always been the best place to wait for him.

“All done,” she whispered but stayed in her chair, the last rag lying in her lap while she rubbed her left forearm with her right hand.

The year was closing into itself. Marta and Samuel were not farmers, but their neighbors were. The August harvest had been pitiful, and no one expected any more in September or November. Seemed to Marta that the world was closing into itself, too. She wasn’t college educated like her son, but she listened intently to the news on the radio. To President Roosevelt when he talked to them during his Fireside Chats.

She also didn’t have much use for the Bible. She went to church on Sundays because that’s what made a community. Even so, these last years might be making a believer out of her. First the big Crash. Then, drought and year after year of bad harvests. Men leaving their women and children behind to go somewhere, anywhere they could find work. The worst of it though, according to Marta’s thinking, were the bad men marching across Europe. Franco might be the devil’s own child. And, this Hitler.

Marta swooshed away a few flies from in front of her face. The hot air just kept on moving across the fields, pushing through her blinds, parting her curtains and laying down an endless sheet of dust into her house. Seemed sometimes like the wind and the radio waves were carrying the same message Pastor Rooks preached from his wooden pulpit. She swore all those tendrils of evil were gently ricocheting against the walls of her empty house and forming a new reality to bear.

She started to feel the anxiety creep right through her skin and stood up so quickly the rag on her lap dropped right onto the table instead of the floor. Marta picked up the rag, and cut her breath off by leaning over to scoop up the rest of them off the floor. She saw the yellow fuzz of her slippers and realized she was still in her housecoat and needed to get changed.

Dropping the rags one at a time into the laundry bin along to “Plop-plop, fizz-fizz, what a relief it is…” chirping out of the kitchen radio, Marta did begin to feel some relief and indulged in a little one-two-three down the hall to their bedroom in time to the Tommy Dorsey horns that followed the advertisement.

The bath water was running, the temperature tepid. There was no truly cold water these days. She pulled the sheets off the bed and walked back down the hallway to drop them on top of the soiled dusting rags in the laundry bin. She’d get to them after her bath.

A loud knock sounded in the dining room. She was alone in the big farm house so she backtracked a little and turned down the radio and placed her hand on the phone, ready to reach the switchboard if need be. After a minute or so, and satisfied enough that her heart stopped beating itself into a dither, she put the handset down inside its Bakelite cradle and walked to the dining room.

The serving pieces were on the table, still waiting to be restored to their bottom cabinet, and the chair stood upright at the angle she’d left it. However, the little tripod table with the cutlery box on top of it had tipped over. The cutlery box was remarkably intact, albeit on the floor, but a few silver spoons had slipped through the space where the lid had separated from the box proper.

Sighing a little, she moved quickly, up righting the little table that had been Samuel’s mother’s and replacing the spoons into their rightful, velvet beds. She was about to close the lid of the box when she heard a terrible sound; somewhere between a gurgle and a piercing scream.

Turning slowly, Marta realized with genuine disappointment that the sound was coming from her throat, through which stuck a medium length, but very sharp and relatively thin fillet knife. She could see how nicely she’d polished the knife, as well as the blood trickling down her throat and into the neckline of her housecoat in the mirror that she had just cleaned a few hours earlier.

She stepped forward, reaching out as if to grab the tall, enamel and silver covered carafe, a gift sent to her from Germany by her son before the war, and which presently sat on the table, close to the edge.

The man, now on the other side of the room, thought she meant to grab at him with her old woman’s claw. It terrified him so he backed up into the hallway outside the dining room and waited until she fell and eventually, stopped twitching.

Fletcher didn’t know if the woman was dead, but she wasn’t going to harm him none anymore, so he walked around the left side of the dining room table and dug his hands into the box of silver forks and knives and spoons, dropping them by the fistful into his extra shirt, the sleeves and waist tied off to make a bag.

After a quick trip to the bedroom, and another, small handful of pearls and gold, Fletcher walked to the kitchen and turned the radio off. There wasn’t much to eat. The old woman had been alone in that house for at least a month. He’d come upon the pitiful little funeral a few weeks earlier. Gravestone read,

Samuel Robert Stone

February 1, 1868 – August 9, 1939

Loving Husband and Proud Father

           Decided he’d pass it by just then; head down to town, see what he could scrounge at whatever soup kitchen they’d got going. Then, he’d head back after the parade of mourners was long gone.

     Fletcher filled his belly well enough even on the widow Stone’s meager provisions, and then took the bath that she’d started. Weren’t no use wasting all that water. He slept like a baby on the big feather mattress, and then switched up his dirty clothes for some of ole’ Samuel’s clothes.

     He determined to grab the last of the hard-boiled eggs and bread from the kitchen, and then head out that way, the back way. Fletcher threw the food on top of the silver and jewelry, and switched on the radio before letting the screen door snap shut behind him. Didn’t want anything to sound out of place should someone come snooping.

     He had to pass by the little cemetery on the way to the path through the trees, down to the railroad tracks where he’d put a few days between himself and the widow. Fletcher knew the dead could really do some harm if you didn’t pay them no respect. He noticed an older headstone, same size and stone as ole’ Samuel’s. It read,

Robert CarruthersStone

March 21, 1894  - July 15, 1918

Lord, what fools these mortals be!

The son, seemed to be. Made him still for a minute, wondering about the meaning of that one, until he lost interest and headed across the dry lawn to the trees.

The crunching of the dead grass was loud under his new boots but even so, Fletcher managed to catch the excited radio announcer from Marta’s kitchen crying out, “The second world war is upon us…”    



Thursday, October 3, 2013

RTW Trip - Oakland Vacation & Final Travel Plans

Vacation, basically, is an act of vacating the routine of daily living for a period of time. My daily routine of living no longer includes a 9 to 5 job; of course, my daily routine of living hasn't included a 9 to 5 job since the 1980's. My jobs have always been 7 or 8 to, well, 7 or 8- sometimes later. That is the life you take on when you become a litigation attorney.

However, now, I have no job, no work hours, and no externally forced routine of daily living. I have self-imposed routines, which are flexible, and involve high minded activities such as: morning coffee and electronic cigarette; walking the dog, Sami; making the bed and doing the dishes; running errands for myself or for Laura; taking Sami to the river for a swim (her); writing and editing my books; and recently, planning for a long trip to Southeast Asia.

However simple this routine might seem, it is, regardless, my routine of daily living.

So, when I got on a plane in Newark, New Jersey, headed for San Francisco, California, I considered myself to be embarking on a vacation. Of course, Laura made fun of me - "what, a vacation from your vacation." However, and all teasing aside, I do not consider myself on an extended vacation from the "normal" routine of workdays and weekends. I am in the process of completely shifting away from that paradigm.

This paradigm shift is taking time, and reflection, and a lot of metaphorical nail biting. It's scary to jump off the ledge - or more aptly, to step to the sidelines and watch the rest of the rats race. Fear, even when you're facing it, can be exhausting. I actually needed a vacation.

I arrived in the Bay Area on a Monday night and was warmly greeted by my friend Liz' friend Ivan, who picked me up at BART, and dropped me at Liz' house in Oakland. Liz was out of town for the first week of my vacation, and I was therefore able to stay at her house, for free, and keep company with Lucy the Adorable Monster dog.

The first evening and the following day were nice; I snuggled with Lu, took a yoga class at Yoga Tree in Berkeley and a walk/jog at the Berkeley Marina.


And, then, as so many of us do on vacation - when the built up stress and strain of our daily routine has a chance to catch up with us, I got sick. Very sick. Some sort of flue and cold combination that knocked me out for a week. I was out of it, and therefore got a street sweeping ticket on the 3rd morning - a good lesson in paying attention to local rules on vacation, regardless of distraction (or illness).

I did manage to get to the optometrist to pick up my repaired glasses - the optometrist who is located in the same building where my ex works - I got in and got out and avoided any unnecessary complications. It was stressful, though. I really never want to see her again. Sad. But true.

After days of cancelled plans with friends and family, I was finally ready to enter the world again on Sunday. I had a nice brunch with my friend and coven sister, Alexis on 4th Street in Berkeley.

Liz came home the next day, and we caught up before I left for dinner with my friend Vashti at the Lake Chalet restaurant on Lake Merritt in Oakland.

On Tuesday night, I had dinner with Shaana at Credo, a good restaurant with a very beautiful, Irish bartender, on Pine Street in San Francisco. Liz' friend Joe arrived on Wednesday, and all was merry at Liz' house. I also had a yummy dinner with my old friend and colleague, Bruce, at Burma Superstar, a Burmese restaurant with various locales - this one on Telegraph in Oakland. I highly recommend the sesame beef and the pumpkin curry. The rainbow salad is pretty delicious as well.

On Thursday, I hung out with my sister Sarah and her four amazing children, Eli, Diego, Faith and Shabria.

Thursday night, Liz, Joe and I entertained our mutual friend, Harris, who came by to pick up his "try not to be a dick" bumper stickers.

Friday morning rolled around quickly, and I packed it all up to get ready for my midnight flight home to New York. I really missed Laura and our 4-legged menagerie, and was ready to go. I spent the evening with Jennnifer - my beautiful and amazing friend and ex-roommate. We ate Noodle Theory (corner of College and Claremont, Rockridge area at the Oakland/Berkeley border). I had the beef udon noodle soup. It was so good, I had to pick up the bowl to slurp out the last drop.

And, then, there I was riding the BART train once more, on my way to SFO. My trip home was uneventful, but very long. It was a cheap ticket, and the return leg was payment to the piper. Three flights and 15 hours later, I was safely in Laura's car, Sami licking my cheek, as we got on the Thruway headed home to New Windsor, New York.

It's been about a week since I got home. I have returned to my routine of daily living, and have finalized my big trip.

I finally heard from a friend who has done extensive traveling in Southeast Asia - and, well, everywhere. He suggested I do the big Trans-Siberian/Mongolian adventure in the late Spring when the cities on that trip really shine. He also suggested that a trip to Burma is really the thing to do before it gets all weighted down with tourism.

So! I decided to abide by Peter's advice, and a piece of wisdom from a travel blogger I read a while back who wrote, "this is not the trip, only this trip."

I booked my airline tickets: I leave December 4 for Taiwan where I will stay at the Dharma Drum Monastery for a week. On December 11, I fly to Yangon, Burma for a solo trek.  On December 26, I fly to Bangkok to meet up with Kelly and have a great almost three weeks of sun and fun. I fly home to New York on January 13 (and 14th).

I don't think of this trip as a "vacation." I think of this six week journey through the unknown as part of my training for living a life less "normal" than the average American. I feel scared and totally lucky to be able to pull this off at the age of 46.

When I was in Maine with my Aunt Jane, we got lost off the beaten path and ended up in a creek bed. Yes, literally, up the creek. I had to drive my Subaru Outback down that mostly dry, and rock strewn creek bed for several miles. It was harrowing, but I acted the part of heroine - my own savior. I am looking forward to meeting up with that heroine again, on the road, somewhere in Southeast Asia...

Sunday, September 15, 2013

RTW Trip - Electronics for the 46 Year Old

My Mom's mother, Isabelle, recently died, her mental faculties fully engaged and sparking to the end. She was always a role model for me in terms of moving with the times - of not getting stuck in one particular era, or way of thinking. I will be forever grateful for her legacy, and although I don't believe in an afterlife, it would be nice if she could read this and really understand how much she meant to me.

I have really needed her wisdom over the last few weeks as I've researched and tried to come up with an electronics game plan for my big trip across Sweden, Russia, China, Thailand and Vietnam (and maybe Taiwan).

I am 46 years old, and was not born in the technological era. The first computer I used was when I worked as a secretary for the Director of Admissions at the University of Missouri-Columbia during my freshman year there. That was 1985. It was very large, and had a blue screen. The word processing program was called WordStar, and everything had to be programmed - HTML style. There was also prolific use of function keys.

In my generation, there were no computer centers at University; students didn't own or use them. There weren't even any cell phones yet, unless you were uber-wealthy and had one of those gigantic car phones. I certainly never saw one. I'm not even sure that what we called "walk around phones" had come into the picture yet. We were still all tied to phone lines.

Technology moved fast, I'll give it that. By the time I got to the Gannett Journalism school at UMC two years later, we worked in a lab with Macintosh computers - desktops with huge floppy discs. Five years later, I found that my law school, McGeorge School of Law, UOP, had a computer lab, and was selling desktop Macintosh computers at a discount to incoming first years.

By the time I got to my first law job, we were all equipped with desktop PC's with the Windows operating system, such as it was in 1994. The internet and email started to make its debut in the late 1990's, and I had my first Hotmail account in 1996. It was a younger computer guy at the firm that set it up for me. I don't think my colleagues started in with the email for a few years.

Let's leap forward, past the advent of laptop computers, widespread internet use (first with dial-up; then cable; then routers), cell phones (again, late 1990's), and jump into the present. I have long since given up a desktop computer (my last was in the early 2000's), and use only a laptop. Currently, I have an ASUS with an Intel i5 that runs Windows 7. It's not even three years old, and already is being threatened by the Windows 8 revolution. I think I'll wait to see if 8.2 can fix some of the more horrific bugs until I download the newer version.

I also have an iPhone 4S. I love this phone, and don't need any of the fancier, newer versions. My Kindle Fire is sufficient for my other needs - ebooks and web-surfing, etc. when I'm out and about.

For my trip, though, I don't want to lug my "big" laptop, but my Kindle Fire just isn't enough of a machine to allow me to do some writing, both on-line and off.

And, so, I was off to the races, searching for something in between my laptop and my Kindle. Everyone screamed (well, not really screamed) iPad, iPad. But, I don't use a Mac operating system for anything. I considered changing up my entire way of working within the electronic virtual world, but decided I just didn't want to. I'm a writer, not a visual arts person. I don't need big, fancy Photoshop or video or music making abilities. I just need to be able to use my writers software, Word, and a basic photography editing program.

What else is out there? There are a lot of tablets going around these days. I did research and then went to Best Buy, and got talked into a Microsoft RT tablet. It had my familiar desktop, MS Office, and some neato Windows 8 touch screen app capabilities. But, it wouldn't work with Skype for some reason, and the apps wouldn't connect to Facebook or Twitter - and the FB and Twitter downloaded apps were not interface friendly. It moved slugglishly, and I just wasn't being able to use it effectively. Also, the charger is not a USB type and is specific to the Microsoft RT - I'd have to buy at least one more in case I lost one. I hated it. Now what?

I scrubbed it, returned it and got a mini-laptop: an ASUS Vivo Smart tab. It's working much better - $100 more, but hey, it's what I need for this trip.

Of course, more research hours later, I realized I'd need some accessories. The Vivo Smart tab has a mini-USB, so I needed converters to attach my phone, camera and international internet stick.

I also needed a Bluetooth keyboard.

Also, I'd need an all in one carrying case to protect it on this long journey (I got a cheaper keyboard that has a case + the full case for both the pad and the keyboard for less than buying just the keyboard from ASUS).
Just to be on the safe side, I got a surge protector power strip with an extra USB port.
Then, Laura brought me a little USB stick thing that she says I'll need for internet oversees. I did a little research, and realized it may be helpful, but also, that what I should have is a mini-router so that I can plug in cable internet connections in less than first world countries, as well as boost signals from less than stellar internet networks. The one below fits into your hand!

I have yet to receive all my goodies in the mail - I don't really understand the workings of the router yet - I understand why it will be more than helpful on an intuitive level - but I hope the install onto the Vivo Smart tab isn't an hours long exercise in frustration.

I also have a handy-dandy outlet converter that Laura lent me - it allegedly will transform into any outlet needed. She used it in Iraq and Afghanistan and Germany, so...I'm confident it'll work in Sweden and Moscow, and hopeful that it will be fine in China,Thailand and Vietnam!

I'll have to check back in later with an update on how the install of all this lovely electronic equipment goes...if anyone reading has suggestions, ideas, alternatives, etc., please let me know...

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

RTW Trip - Round and Round...

I want to travel everywhere. All over the world. Every continent. As many countries as I can. I want to see all the old and new wonders of the world. I want to go places with such natural beauty that I feel that I'm on a different planet.

Within a week of deciding I was going to do this trip, I came to a crossroads. I had to actually choose a finite itinerary in order to continue planning. At that point, I almost resorted to dropping slips of paper into a bowl with country names on them and just picking at random.

Eventually, I came up with my first "firm" itinerary. I was going to go from January to March:  Puerto Rico, Columbia, Peru, New Zealand, Bali, and Vietnam. I discovered this was going to be more costly than anticipated, and the weather situation wasn't good for half of the countries. So, I decided to divide my trip into two parts.

My second "firm" itinerary was 1) Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma/Myanmar and Southern India in October and November; and 2) Barcelona, Morocco, Istanbul, and Greece in April and May.

And then, my friend Kelly decided that Thailand would be a good place to celebrate her big Five-Oh. Of course, I totally agree. So, I changed the dates of my first trip to December and January, and still planned on making the European trip in Spring 2014.

I then read a comment on a travel blog about the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian train trips. The first brings you from Western Europe to Moscow. The second from Moscow to Beijing.

I love to travel by train. I took a lot of trains in Europe in 1991, and then a lot more in India in 2006. Also, I'm a weirdo who thinks the Oakland to Sacramento Amtrak is fun just to ride, forth and back.

More research ensued. Taking these trains would mean two additional Visas - Russia and China. China is like Vietnam. Paperwork and money, and trips to the Consulates. Russia, on the other hand, requires a letter of "invitation" before you even get to the rest of the paperwork and the Consulate. They all cost $100. Ugh. So, should I or shouldn't I?

I should.

Then, I realized I'd have to get a Visa for Belarus -- unless I went through Scandinavia. Hmmm...

I am seriously considering one trip, about 10 weeks, that looks something like this:  Stockholm to St. Petersburg, Russia via St. Peterline cruiseline; St. Petersburg to Moscow, Russia via Trans-Siberian train; Moscow to Beijing, China via Trans-Mongolian train; Beijing to Taipei (Dharma Drum Mountain school/monastery); Taipei to Bangkok, Thailand (Happy Birthday, Kelly!); Thailand (not sure from where yet) to Hanoi, Vietnam; Vietnam (not sure from where yet) to the good ole' USA.

I'd be happy to hear from anyone reading what they think; if they've been to any of these places and what I shouldn't miss - or should miss!

Happy travels...