Saturday, March 19, 2011

The best laid plans...

On Monday of last week we were making plans to head to Paris for two weeks in June, then I was going on to Italy for a workshop. And today less than a week later all of that has imploded. It turns out that Larry may be allergic to the cat in the Paris apartment where we were to stay and Italy, well, that's another story for over a glass of wine, not on my blog.

I'm frustrated and annoyed; it's true. But I also know that this is just one of the rules of travel. Expect the best; prepare for the worst. My father used to say don't worry about something until it happens. A great line I always felt, worthy of Yogi Berra. Or, as a flight attendant recently said, "shift happens."

How many times have I been on my way somewhere when something else happened. A snowstorm, an illness, somebody finking out. There was the baggage handler's strike in Barcelona and the snowstorm up north that left me, heavy sigh, stuck in Key West.

And then there are other things - the people we love, the losses. What we cannot account for in this world. When I was about to start my sabbatical and had a million travel plans, I was worried about - no, obsessed over - the jury duty summons I'd received. What if I got put on a jury? What if it was a long trial? Criminal? Murder? Would I be free in four weeks? Six?

But before I got to go to jury duty to find out, I fell ice skating and broke my leg, hence cancelling all my plans for the next three months and turning my sabbatical into disability. Indeed three months into my injury Larry and I did go to Europe, but armed with wheelchair and crutches as this picture before the Eiffel Tower depicts. I have hobbled away in my "walking" cast (a contradiction in terms if there ever was one) to take it.

So why worry about those delays and detours along the road? Things change. Perhaps they cause us anxiety because they make us aware of something we'd prefer not to be aware of. That life is uncertain. We have little control over it. We have little control over anything. So we can bemoan a flight delay, a snowstorm, a sinus infection that keeps us from flying. But in truth there are greater delays and inconveniences ahead.

So, to quote my father again, "roll with the punches." The Buddhists understand that holding on to either the good or the bad just leads to suffering. It is best when we can to let go.

Meanwhile Larry and I are thinking that our holiday might be in Canada - where he's from and where we rarely venture. Or maybe just a staycation, right here where we live, but have so little time to visit because we are so busy making plans for all the things we think we are going to do.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

After the Quake...

I was going to post soemthing funny today - some anecdotes I've been thinking of, but somehow it didn't seem right. It didn't seem like the time for humor. My mind has been thinking about something else.

For several years now I have taught Haruki Murakami's wonderful collection of linked stories, "After the Quake." The stories all in some way connect back to the Kobe earthquake without exactly evoking it or calling it by name. It is an elegant, thoughtful collection, but one that has also given me pause in the wake of the events of the past week. The 8.9 earthquake, the tsunami, and now, the nuclear meltdown.

It is, as my friend Russell Bank noted on FB today, as if the world we live in has come to resemble Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." I find Japan to be in a darkness we can hardly imagine. To have everything taken from you in seconds. To have 10,000 people literally washed away. To be afraid of the very air you breathe.

In 1993 I traveled to Japan. We stayed in a ryokan in Kyoto. Traveled up to Hokkeido and also went to Hiroshima. I went with a friend who was what is called a hibakshu - a survivor of Hiroshima. As we stood on the Peace Bridge, he told me what he'd seen the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He had a strange, nervous laugh as he desccribes things that no one should ever have to see.

My friend, Mr. Tobita-san, a wonderful translator, is now gone. He suffered, as many survivors did, from a cancer that found him late in his life.

A neighbor called me this morning about something else, then mentioned that her sister was on her way to Japan for a long-planned holiday. My first words were to tell her sister not to go. How can anyone have a holiday amidst so much suffering.

A number of years ago I had been asked by the NYTimes to write a piece about the Big Island of Hawaii. I was thrilled by the assignment and spent several weeks, planning my itinerary, booking at some amazing B&Bs. And then just days before I was to leave 9/11 happened. My Hawaii trip was over a week away but I knew I wouldn't go. I knew I couldn't go.

There are times to travel and have fun, seeing the world. And there are other times when we just have to stop and think about what all of this means. I always loved that old 60th song (was it Joan Baez or Dylan who wrote it). "There but for fortune." Really we just dodged this bullet. It could happen to any of us. Anywhere. Anytime.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Bed, Bath and Beyond???

My last day in India, roaming around Mumbai. I was hanging out in Bandara, a lively hip neighborhood when I spotted these two men, sleeping on the street. Beside them a handcart and in it some parcel, wrapped in a Bed, Bath and Beyond bag. For me this image said it all - Third World meets First World, rich and poor, disenfranchised and corporate, pre-industrial, post-industrial. All of these contradictions made up India for me. Somehow it made sense that at rush hour oxen freed of their yokes stroll home on the national highway, that in the middle of a dirt hovel an electric sewing machine, and this.

Bed, Bath and Beyond actually holds a funny place in my heart. When my father died, the funeral home FedExed his ashes to me. However, I'd forgotten they were coming and I was expecting another delivery. The chiropractor next door called me personally about my delivery. He said, "I have something for you."
"Is it from Bed, Bath, and Beyond," I asked him.
He hesitated. "'s from Beyond."

This anecdote has nothing to do with this picture except it resonates in my memory and gave this moment a special poignancy. Also I had learned via my friend, Naresh, who hosted me in Mumbia, that a famous Bollywood star who lived around the corner from him in Mumbia had driven up on to a sidewalk in the early hours one morning and ran over four bakery workers who were getting some shut-eye in the street. I walked by the home of that Bollywood star who is out on bail, pending trial, which may never happen, and saw dozens of people, waiting on the street by the Arabian Sea, hoping for a glimpse of their handsome celebrity.

Somehow my father and the runover bakery workers by the Bollywood star and these two men asleep right here in broad daylight, it made me feel how fragile and vulnerable we all are. And how life is filled with contradictions.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Tea for....Fifty????

When I arrived in Kolkata, I was incredibly sick. Basically I stayed in bed, ate, back to bed. I regret that I didn't see more of the city. I did go on two more or less touristy outings with a guide my hosts found for me. The Maiden, that famous grazing land (Kolkata's Central Park except you can graze your livestock here) I only breezed by it in a taxi. The Victoria Museum - same.

I did see a few things. Some famous monuments, the famous university that Tagore, India's poet laureate began. Those I saw with a guide. But being with her was like spending the day with the Encyclopedia. If we passed a man, bathing on the street under a spigot and I commented, oh there's a man bathing, she told me the history of Kolkata's water supply. I remained silent and sullen in the backseat, my ears throbbing with pain.

It was an odd visit in a house with fourteen servants and a poor chihuahua with a broken leg. But on my last day my hosts invited me to a tea tasting. Full disclosure - they are tea merchants and growers and have a huge tea garden in the north. I felt kind of bad going to a tea tasting (I actually didn't know what it entailed) because of my illness, but I had already begun to suspect (correctly) that it was a sinus infection and hence not contagious. Still I was miserable.

I arrived at the tea tasting and found that, well, I was the only person tasting tea. This had all been arranged for me. I was both flabbergasted and chagrined. I tried hard not to cough and convince the tea tasting expert that I was all right.

He moved from cup after cup of tea. "Look at this. Do you see this? It is too pink. That is not good. This is rosy. Not good. This is beige. It looks like mud. Do you see the difference?"

Actually I saw no difference, but I wanted him to be happy.

"Now this one. This is golden."

I still couldn't tell the difference so he handed me a cup. "Now taste," he told me, tasting himself. He then made an odd sound and heaved the tea from his mouth into a spitoon. So this was kind of like wine tasting but for tea.

I tasted what he handed me. I wanted to be polite. "Oh, this is very good," I told him.

"No, no," he said. "This is the poor quality tea."

Oh, dear, I thought. I know nothing of this world.

So the afternoon went until we were done and headed over to the home of my host's parents. They lived in a huge house with many servants. I was led into a lovely sitting room where my gracious hosts offered me, of course, a delicious cup of tea.