Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Mall Walking

It wasn't premeditated, I swear, but when I found myself at the mall last evening with weather too dark and foggy for outdoor strolling, I thought ... why not?

I turned around in the hallway, swung by Sears and the CVS. Before I knew it I was striding past Hollister, up and down the short Macy's hall, then out again into the main space where Santa sits. I passed the Apple store, the Talbots and the Williams and Sonoma.

It wasn't exactly Fifth Avenue, but I was speeding through what passes for commerce and public space in my part of the world.

How strange to fast-walk halls so often clogged with window shoppers and pre-teens. It was empowering. I had no intention of buying anything. I was, in a strange sort of way, beating the system.

Is this what all mall walkers feel? If so, bring it on!

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Unsaid Words

Thinking today about words I wished I'd said. Phrases more pithy and promising that any that could be uttered in the moment. Where do these words live?

Do they float in the ether, always just out of grasp? Do they settle in the soul like a stone?

They aren't much help; I know that. They're not there when you want them and hang around far too long when you don't.

I need to reimagine them, to take away their power. To see them as a pleasant landscape or as old books on library shelves, friends we don't yet know but hope to meet someday.


Monday, November 28, 2016

Nutcracker, Redux

Suzanne took me to the Nutcracker at Kennedy Center yesterday, and what a Nutcracker it was! A fizzy, funny production with tumbling sprites, flying Drosselmeyer and a stunning pas de deux.  There was enough of the traditional ballet to suit purists but enough site gags (a leaning cake, two harem dancers fighting over their man and silly prancing poodles) to keep the audience guessing — and laughing.

When Suzanne and I went to the Nutcracker years ago, I would be in the audience and she would be on stage in a progression of roles — mirliton, polichinelle, party child — as her ballet skills improved.  We reminisced about those days, about personalities in the ballet studio, including the earnest Mr. Ben, husband of the studio owner, who was pressed into service each Christmas as leading man and whose lifts looked ever more shaky as the years wore on.

And there were stories behind this production, too; we just didn't know them. We were, instead, caught up in the illusion, a gasp as the curtain rises, a sigh as it descends.

(Above: The Nutcracker's original performance in 1892.)

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Saturday, November 26, 2016

Stairway to Paradise

I wake early on normal days, even more so since the Asia trip. Trying to catch up with the other side of the world, giving up sleep for quiet time, plunging into a new morning that vanishes like a puddle on a hot sidewalk.

Time and place. In a long-distance flight they come together. Not in an elegant, theory-of-relativity way, but in a stuffy, jarring jumble of humanity; torn wrappers and crushed water bottles; headphones and paper slippers.

Here we are, defying time and gravity, and all we can think about are what movies are being offered and whether we'll be seated next to a crying baby.

There's a message here somewhere; I'm sure of it.


Friday, November 25, 2016

Adding and Subtracting

So what does the non-shopper do on Black Friday? It's a question I ask myself every year.

Today, there's an ironic answer. I've already spent an early hour or two tabulating final expenses from the Asia trip, trying to remember where I had dinner on November 17 and hunting down receipts for various Perrier with limes.

While this is for reimbursement purposes, it strikes me that adding up expenses might not be a bad way to spend a day devoted to shopping.

Putting on the brakes before pushing the gas pedal.

Seeing how much has gone out — before sending even more in its wake.


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Domestic Details

Travel, like any other intense experience, becomes even more valuable upon reflection. For me, the reflection began on the return trip, when I settled down into Seat 44H with my journal and pen and wrote for the first hour of an (unfortunately bumpy) 13-hour flight from Seoul to Washington.

But for now, it's a return to routine, to more typical duties — writing and editing  — and to domestic ones, too — unpacking and doing laundry.

And then there's pie-baking. Luckily, the girls are taking care of this Thanksgiving. Suzanne and Appolinaire are hosting with an assist from Claire and Celia. I'm only supplying a pie. Ah, this is why we have children, isn't it?

But still, the pie must be baked, which means the ingredients must be purchased, which means the grocery store must be tackled. At least I'll understand what I'm buying and how much it costs. No more rupiah or kyat.

I can't help but think about the domestic duties and supplies of the ginger farmer I just visited, though: two barrels of water, tin plates and bowls, alfresco kitchen and bath — a simpler (though by no means easier) life.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Around the World

In many ways the Asia trip itinerary was completely crazy, packing way too many appointments into way too little time.

In one especially intense stretch, we worked a full day in the U.S., then took an evening flight to Doha, connecting to Jakarta, with a 10-hour layover there before hopping aboard a Garuda Indonesia flight to Kupang, West Timor. We had about four hours of sleep before getting up at 4 a.m. for the puddle-jumper to Waingapu and a full day of work on the island of Sumba. That was three days on 10 hours of sleep.

But in one important way the itinerary worked, because it took us around the world. Heading east, easter and eastest ... or something like that.

Twelve days, 14 flights — and a complete circumnavigation of the globe.


Sunday, November 20, 2016

Yangon at Night

A nighttime trip to downtown Yangon: banana peels and melon rinds, the detritus of the day.

Impromptu teahouses on the sidewalk, tiny plastic chairs, metal teapots. Wizened old women sitting on crates, couples embracing on the pedestrian bridge. And everywhere, the half-ruined colonial buildings of long-ago Rangoon.

I had hoped to see all of this in the daylight, but an after-dark viewing was the best I could do. Still ... I saw them. And I'm so glad I did.


Saturday, November 19, 2016

Kalaw Market

On a weekend trip to Shan State, I walked down the hill from the Pine Hill Resort to the Kalaw market, a multi-block extravaganza featuring everything from chili peppers to sewing machines. There were melons and limes and shiny dried beans.

I focused on the ginger, since we had interviewed a ginger trader only hours before. 

But I could just as easily have zeroed in on the fresh chicken or the fish heads or the pans of rice a child was playing with, running her hands through the grains.


Friday, November 18, 2016

Golden Pagoda

Sometimes, no words are needed. Or if you could summon some up, they would be inadequate to the task.

This is one of those times.



Even arriving at night it was unmistakably different from anything I'd seen before. A different fragrance in the air. The people taller than I thought they would be. Funnier, too.

And this morning, in the light, all the sights and sounds of a new world. Thanaka paste on women's cheeks. Longyis around men's waists. Saffron-robed monks. Tiny teahouses tucked away behind bamboo-frond curtains.

I want to be out in it ... that's where I'm headed now.

Stay tuned ...


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Burma Bound

On this trip I've seen the coastline of Bali emerge from the blue Pacific and the French twists of Garuda Indonesia flight attendants, who glide down the aisles in native batik, looking like goddesses.

I've been jostled and hassled and asked for money more times than I care to count.

It's been a journey of journeys,  of flights and flights and more flights.

Today's trip is different, though. I'm Burma bound.


Tuesday, November 15, 2016


From one of  the poorest islands in Indonesia to its glittering capital. Two flights yesterday brought me here, to Jakarta, a city of high rises, including this hotel.

Have I ever slept 55 floors up before? I don't think so.

The noise that reaches this high is indistinct, muffled traffic, a low roar, snippets of faraway music. I look out the window but forgo the balcony. It's nice to have a thick pane of glass between me and the view.


Monday, November 14, 2016

Welcome to Waingapu

After days of flying and layovers I'm on the other side of the world, in Waingapu on the island of Sumba, Indonesia.

It's a lovely, arid place, filled with beeping motorbikes, bleating goats, crowing rosters and an air perfumed with something I can't quite put my finger on that seems vaguely familiar.

I took a walk this morning before breakfast (which, like every other meal, consists of friend rice ... luckily I like fried rice) and saw clusters of uniformed school kids sauntering along shaded lanes.

The older children (who have studied English) shyly greeted me. "Good morning," they said, and looked down.

I was struck by how universal are morning routines. I could hear the sounds of water splashing, of mothers calling.  Yes, the pigs and chickens are not exactly suburban Virginia, but in so many ways, the rhythms of life are the same. They are a window on the world, a world that for me right now is completely and wonderfully alive.


Friday, November 11, 2016

A Run in the Park

Just a sliver of time this morning, enough to squeeze in a run in the park. Not just any park, though. But this one.

And it felt like so many of the years that have passed did not really pass, and the me that was running, creaky-kneed, through the brisk November morning was just a breath away from the me that lived here so many years ago.

There are morning glories still blooming on the fence that borders the sheep meadow. There are the same gaggle of runners and bikers and baby carriages.

New York City is a well that never goes dry.

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

First Leg

Still in a post-election whirl and funk, I board the Northeast Regional for two days of interviewing in New York, the first leg of a long trip that will ultimately take me to Asia and back.

It reminds me a little of Suzanne's departure for the Peace Corps. Though she was embarking on a  three-and-a-half-year sojourn in West Africa, her first stop was Philadelphia, where she'd have a brief orientation before shipping off to Benin.

Claire and I were the only ones in town that day so we escorted Suzanne to Union Station, tried very hard not to cry (and mostly succeeded) and waved as our precious daughter and sister made her way through the low-key boarding gate.

Only later did Suzanne tell us that a fellow passenger had come up to her and said that the size of her suitcase and the reaction of her family made him think she wasn't just going for a quick jaunt to Philly.

I look at the travelers around me now and wonder at their final destinations. Are they, too, at the beginning of a grand journey? Where will they be this time Saturday?

I'll be past Qatar, on my way to Jakarta and points East. Still can't believe it's happening. A good way for adventures to begin.

(New York City sunrise, October 25, 2016)

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Morning After

This is no "morning in America." This is more the way you feel when you learn that someone you love has been hurting more than you possibly thought they were. Why didn't you tell me, I feel like saying. How could things have been this bad, to produce this end?

But they were telling me, telling us, and we wouldn't, couldn't listen. Because listening across party lines is not something we do much anymore.

The great rift exposed by this election has been a long time coming, and it will take a while to repair. I'm not a politician, but it seems to me that the best way — maybe the only way — out of this is to pull together. Unfortunately, the campaign has eroded our ability to do the very thing we need to do for our recovery.

In my office now there is much gallows humor, talk of relocating to Canada or some tropical isle. It's a good time to leave for Indonesia and Myanmar (which I do on Friday). But I'll be back soon. How much will this have sunk in by then? How inured will we be to this new reality?

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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Notes to a Future Self

I'm reading Paul Auster's Report from the Interior, a memoir of mind, a book that reconstructs the awakening of consciousness. In the course of doing this, Auster laments the fact that, though he wrote stories as a child, none of his early scribblings remain.

He never much saw the point of keeping a journal, he says. The problem with the journal was that he didn't know who he was addressing, whether himself or someone else. And if himself, he muses, then "why take the trouble to revisit things you had just experienced, and if it was someone else, then who was that person and how could addressing someone else be construed as keeping a journal?"

I bristled a bit reading this passage. As a longtime journal-keeper I'm hypersensitive to journal-keeping being considered an idle or superficial exercise.

But Auster comes around. Here he is again, writing in second person, as he does throughout this book:

"You were too young back then to understand how much you would later forget—and too locked in the present to realize that the person you were writing to was in fact your future self."

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Monday, November 7, 2016

The Ploy

It's a trick, this time change thing. In the fall we're lured with the extra hour. Oh, it will be good to sleep in, we tell ourselves. And who can't use a little more sleep?

In reality, it's just a ploy to take our eyes off the ball — the ball being how little light there is to go around this time of year.  For everyone who rejoices at the lighter mornings, there are those who decry the darker afternoons.

Yesterday, as a golden day gave way to a lowered-sun afternoon, the reality of it all hit me. It would be darkness at 5. And the sun that slanted so fetchingly through the trees would dip out of sight long before I was ready for it to.

It's just the way the world turns, I know. But that doesn't mean I can't complain about it!

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Friday, November 4, 2016

Views of the Fall

A perfect fall day. The trees have flamed up and light streams into the yard.

Nothing much to say... 

But a lot to see ...

Thursday, November 3, 2016

One-Eyed Walker

I walked before sunrise this morning, wearing a headlamp to get in practice. (At least one of the places I'm going has no electricity.)

There I was, the Cyclops of Folkstone Drive, one wild eye bobbing with every dip and divot of the road.

I felt powerful, in a dark and crazy kind of way. Could I blind the drivers coming toward me? Didn't matter. There were only three of them. And anyway, I lost my nerve, averted my eye at the last minute.

Better to muse than amuse. I thought about how the wide cone of light allowed me to see only a fraction of what lay in front of me. Just enough to tread carefully. Sometimes that's all you need.

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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Purpose of Travel

A long time ago, I lived to travel. I saved my teacher's or assistant editor's salary so I could use it on trips to Europe, Greece and what was then called Yugoslavia. I'd plan these trips for months, find cheap charter flights (one of which almost stranded me in Athens), stay in minimal hotels — and have the time of my life.

The travel bug has never really gone away. It's just taken a back seat to raising a family and earning a living.

I'm hoping it will make a big comeback next week when I travel to New York, Jakarta, Burma and an Indonesian island called Sumba. Right now I'm racing around getting shots, finishing assignments, arranging a complicated schedule with scores of moving parts — and imagining how my suitcase will fit everything I need, plus the three moisture meters I'm ferrying over to Burmese coffee farmers.

It's tempting to wonder whether it's worth all the bother. But it hans't been so long that I've forgotten how it feels. i'm keeping in mind what travel does for the soul. It feeds it — and fills it.


Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Missing Halloween

Halloween makes me nostalgic for the days of young parenthood. With most other holidays, the nature and tenor of them, how we celebrate, changes as children grow. Christmas isn't the same as it was when Santa or the Easter Bunny made "appearances," but the days are still fundamentally the same — and we celebrate them together.

But Halloween is for little kids, and my kids ... aren't little anymore.

Still, Tom carved the pumpkin and I roasted the seeds. We handed out Snickers and Sour Patch Kids. Copper was his usual crazy self.

But I kept remembering when the girls would come back with their big pillowcase hauls, masks askew, makeup smeared. They would sort candy by size and brand, then commence trading.  Who wants my Milky Way? What's a Heath Bar? Oh, no, not raisins!!

Which is all to say that the ghosts I saw last night weren't creepy or scary. They were cuddly elephants, cute clowns and beautiful princesses — the memories of my own sweet girls when they were young.

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