Friday, October 30, 2015

Travelblog Episode 1

Away now for a week and a day.  Usual cattle car airline flight and argument with officious stupid agents at car rental counter.  Followed by fatigued bickering as we maneuver out of Newark during rush hour.  We finally arrive in the kitsch filled little place we rent in Redhook.  Everything is the same as when I stayed in the summer except now the leaves are gold and red and the air is crisp.  We attend mini-courses on the Bard Campus as part of family weekend.  I attend one on “The Science of Forgetting.”  The professor is about thirteen. I have been out of school for so long I have never seen anyone use a laser pointer for anything but tormenting a cat.  A chart for, an otherwise serious, presentation lists the different forms of forgetting, running the gamut from something being on the tip of your tongue to full blown dementia.  One form of forgetting is conflating a real experience with a fantasy or dream.  There is a photo of Brian Williams next to a fighter jet to illustrate this one.  It takes me several minutes to summon the name “Brian Williams.”  I keep coming up with Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings.  Finally, I have to google “Girls TV” to get the name of the daughter, Allison Williams and voila!  You can see why the session about forgetting is of interest to me.  Aside from the Brian Williams belly laugh and a couple of show off parents, what I most remember is that apparently the best measure to ward off memory loss is physical exercise.  While I am pretty regular about this, I inquire, just in case, if there are any drugs in development that might provide an additional prophylactic and I am pleased that the answer is affirmative.

We take the second course together and end up there because neither of us reads carefully.  The class is titled “The 60’s.”   What we neglect to notice is the the instructor is in the theater department and the topic is mainly “The Living Theater” and its founder, Julian Beck.  Neither, except for Himself’s soft spot for Samuel Beckett, has much appreciation for the avante-garde and we roll our eyes at each other when we realize our fatal error.  The class is too small to slip out of.  It turns out that the presentation is quite interesting and illustrates how experimental theater laid a groundwork for mainstream productions like Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar.

After a morning of intellectual rigor we head over the bridge from lovely Annandale to a two mile stretch of chain stores in Kingston.  I hate Walmart although I did enjoy Crystal Bridges, the admission free art museum they created several miles from corporate headquarters in Bentonville Arkansas.  I am also an enormous cheapskate but if there were a Walmart a few blocks from my home I like to think that I wouldn’t shop there.  It is completely irrational, I know, that it is ok with me to drive over the bridge to Walmart to buy stuff for Spuds.  Himself has never been to a Walmart and shushes me when I begin to comment on a display of pink rifles.  We fill a basket with staples for Spuds and throw in an electric blanket, having noticed that the cavernous old house he lives in is cold and drafty.  Walmart yields a remarkable amount of stuff for remarkably little money and a strong imperative to do something now to clean up my karma.

My cheapness extends also to restaurant dining.  The Hudson Valley is chock a block with places where entrees start at thirty bucks and the menu lists the provenance of every ingredient. Not a good choice for starving college students.   Spuds is a very good sport about having pizza two nights in a row. After all, he has enough in Walmart provisions to get him through to the end of the year.  We do spot Gaby Hoffman picking up take-out from a Hudson joint.

We take Spuds and his girlfriend Anne to Olana, the residence of Hudson Valley painter Frederic Church.  The site is chosen by the artist to provide a spectacular view of the scenery from every window.  The home is like no other of the period, Church having traveled extensively in the middle east and incorporating many oriental elements into the design. The home has been faithfully restored and a number of Church’s Hudson Valley landscapes hang there.  The light on the Hudson River vista, autumn leaves in full color on a late afternoon, is breathtaking. How comforting too that while having so little time with Spuds these days that we do so spectacularly well in the quality department.

We arrive in Hudson for a Halloween parade down the main street.  It is a ragtag affair, led by a police car and followed by a fire engine.  The town’s major employer is a nearby prison but there has been a great deal of gentrification.  The main street boasts twee stores and pricey restaurants and artist Marina Abramovic has plans for a museum there.  Still, there is a pleasant small town feel as we stroll at dusk with Spuds and Anne.

On Monday morning we deliver two loads of freshly mom washed laundry and some additional groceries to Spuds and take him to breakfast at a badly managed coffee shop quartered in a lovely old church near his house in Tivoli.  Our second celebrity sighting is of Daniel Mendelson, a Bard professor and writer that we both very much admire.  We stop to tell him how much we enjoy his work before we bid farewell to Spuds.  

We cross the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to visit the Thomas Cole House.  He is the true founder of the Hudson Valley school and was a mentor to Frederic Church.  His homestead is far more modest than Olana but shares with it a spectacular view of the Hudson.  Our tour guide is of the vapid chipper sort who filters every detail through her own personal experience. Still, there are a number of Cole paintings and it is delightful to take them in from the point of inspiration.

Perhaps the only cheaper person than me on the planet is Himself.  We have prepaid for a full tank of gas and when we leave Redhook there is enough fuel for 120 miles which happens to be the exact distance to the airport.  We don’t however account for bumper to bumper traffic or the additional distance to the rental car return.  The gas light comes on about 30 miles before the airport and by the time we hit the off-ramp for JFK the indicator says we have only enough to drive a mile and I am in a panic.  When we actually reach the return lot it’s down to zero and I’m relieved to see a downhill ramp.  

An AerLingus redeye takes us to Dublin.  The flight attendants sport old school beehive hairdos, like the B52s, taupe pantyhose and their uniforms resemble housecoats.  They are curt, like most airline employees are these days, except for one who is mortified that our order for Himself’s vegetarian meal hadn’t been recorded.  She heaps our trays with rolls and salads and extra desserts and even offers to bake a potato.  I feel guilty when Himself eats the chicken curry anyway.

Our first stop on the Emerald Isle is Drogheda, a medium sized town about an hour from Dublin. We stay at a sweet guest house and the owner brings us freshly baked bread when we arrive.  Himself has an uncanny way of knowing who’s Catholic and who’s Protestant and informs me that our host if definitely the former.  Dear old friends, writers Carrie and Anthony move here from Belfast about eight years ago.  We see Carrie every couple of years as she hails from Orange County and returns to the States regularly to visit family but it’s been close to a decade since I’ve seen Anthony.  His Northern accent confounds me and embarrassingly, I have to often rely on Carrie for translation.  I will add, in my own defense, when Anthony is interviewed by Henry Rollins for American television, he is subtitled.   Both of their kids attend Irish speaking schools and take great pleasure in making fun of Himself’s self taught Irish.  We walk along the Boyne and visit St. Peter’s Church to see the embalmed head of Saint Oliver Plunkett and a supposed relic from the True Cross.  

Drogheda is a pleasant town with a burgeoning food scene but other than the saint’s shrunken head there isn’t much in the way of tourist attractions.  This gives us time for leisurely meals and excellent conversation.  Our conduit to the world is primarily digital these days, it is tonic and refreshing to just hang out with old friends.  Before lunch on the day we are to leave, Anthony washes two loads of clothes for us (which apparently wrecks their washer) and carefully mends a seam in Himself’s jacket.  He is a large man who sports a very full beard and many tattoos and I am charmed to observe his natural domesticity.

Between the visit to Drogheda and meeting some friends in a rural cabin we select a well reviewed guest house in County Monaghan.  The location is listed as Ballybay but the address we are given yields no results on the GPS.  We arrive in the town and stop at a mechanic’s shop to ask directions.  He does his best to explain but finally sighs that it is dark and that he doubts we’ll find it.  By some miracle we do and are warmly greeted by a grandmotherly sort who Himself proclaims is Protestant.  He later verifies this when snooping around he finds the book “Presbyterians of Ireland.”  We are in the attic, in a room that must have been a daughter’s as we find an envelope full of birthday cards under the bed.  The place is warm and comfortable but crammed with knick knacks, doilies, artificial flowers and popular fiction.  Breakfast is farm fresh eggs and fresh brown bread, and miraculously, brewed coffee.  Many Irish are partial to instant.

There has been a smattering of rain but fortunately only when we’ve been indoors.  I dream of borrowing Casper, the resident weimaraner and going off for a walk.  But our hostess advises us that the trails will be muddy and suggests alternatively we visit the farmers market and museum in nearby Monaghan.   The market is tiny but if I had a kitchen I would have scored some gorgeous fat carrots and a giant celery root.  I do stock up on a few hostess gifts from the local baker.

As usual, we have the town museum to ourselves and get from the paleolithic era to The Troubles in about twenty minutes.  The town was known for linen and lace. Monaghan, close to the Northern Irish border was quite a hotbed and there were a number of Loyalist car bombs in the 1970s.  The IRA’s most conservative voice, the fascistic  Eoin O’Duffy, hailed from Monaghan.  Now the town is quite left leaning and we notice signage in a number of different languages, reflecting an influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe.  Still, shopkeepers are curious about my accent and always eager to chat about the weather.  We’re hoping to continue missing the rain as we continue traversing country roads to visit friends and be immersed in green.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Happy Trails to Me

Embarking on our usual Autumn travels and hope to check in here every so often to recount exciting adventures and memorable meals.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Special Shoes

There is a stubborn sore on my earlobe, which I am able to diagnosis, via Google Images, as skin cancer.  The nine year old dermatologist states however that it's just a stubborn infection and he prescribes two strong ointments.  By the time the medication is available for pick up from our insurance-provider-approved pharmacy, my ear is nearly healed.  However, while I have access to a bonafide, albeit elementary school age, board certified dermatologist, I ask him about cosmetic dermatological procedures and how I could get the most bang for my buck.  “You really should wait a few years before you consider having any work done,” is the right answer. Unfortunately I am advised instead that it is Juvederm, Botox and chemical peels, in that order and at the price of a decent used car.

I travel with my friend to Lucky Feet, a shoe store in Rancho Cucamonga managed by a podiatrist and catering to troubled tootsies.  Jack Benny had a running gag about Cucamonga on his radio, and then later television, show.  The squat beige stucco town likely wasn’t filled out until the sixties and we are tickled to discover one street named Rochester (after Benny’s sidekick) and another, Jack Benny Drive.  I am probably one of the youngest people on the planet which this would be meaningful to.

My fiscally conservative mother spent hours cutting out and sorting coupons but she advised me never to scrimp on food or shoes.  Alas, I thought the other admonition of hers I’d followed, to stay out of the sun, had paid off but the dermatologist was more than happy to suggest prescriptives.  This isn’t my first visit to the old lady shoe store.  We make a side trip there a few months ago after touring the nearby Maloof House and Museum.  My feet are measured by hand and on a Jetsons type machine.  The saleslady suggests a pair of shoes from Israel and assures that they are comfortable on a long walk but also suitable to wear to a restaurant. At a price that should get me across the Sinai.

The weather is so warm that I don't have the opportunity to check out the Israeli shoes but, as we are leaving on a trip which will involve a great deal of walking, I test them out a few times on my morning walk.  I try them with thin socks.  Thick socks.  Orthotics. They are miserable.  I call the store, and even though the purchase was over five months ago I am invited to bring the shoes back to be checked out.  It turns out I’ve been given the wrong size and I try on about a dozen pairs of other shoes to select some that are comfortable and not too orthopedic looking.

The young podiatrist says that some of her friends find it gross that she handles feet all day.  She is glad that we take an interest in her profession.  We learn that arch supports and orthotics are basically the same thing and that my big toes are exceptionally short. When I was a kid, foot docs were called “chiropodists.”  I’m not sure why “podiatrist” is more sexy.  I note how tragic it is that most podiatric treatment is not covered by health insurance although foot trouble can be extremely debilitating.  About two hours pass at the Lucky Shoe Store and my friend and I bone up on the wide world of feet and both nab a pair of walking shoes that aren’t too old ladyish.  

Joe Workforce turns 23 in a few days.  I try hard to remember myself at that age and remain patient when he says something inane.  I can’t recall what I wanted when in my early twenties or what I expected my life would be like thirty years down the pike.  I know I didn’t worry about skin cancer and sore feet or that visits with a dermatologist or podiatrist would be so fascinating.  It is surreal this aging thing.  Sometimes it feels like a joke or a dream I will awake from.  How is it that I’m not in my twenties anymore?  How is it that every day brings me closer to my last?  I don’t remember the aha moment when it hit me that the odds against me increase with every breath I take.  My ear lobe is completely healed.  The new non-Israeli shoes are good for, if not an exodus from Egypt, at least twenty miles.  Still, the list of possible bad outcomes expands the more I see what the world has the potential to dish out.  I have become, like my mother, a worrywart, as aging brings my vulnerability more sharply into focus.  

We gripe about a spate of bad luck, plagued by a hit and run accident, household breakage, work stresses, and a stolen computer.  It seems, I whine, that we cannot get a break.  There is nothing however that is fatal or physically painful or that cannot be ameliorated with an injection  of time and/or money.  It isn’t karma or divine retribution.  Shitty things just happen. The accretion recently of little bummers makes me think that maybe the universe really does have it out for me.    Annoyances, screw ups and tiny heartbreaks are ceaseless and inevitable. But still, when my mind wanders through old history the memories are mostly sweet.  My world sometimes seems like it is falling apart but always somehow puts itself back together.  I am astonished to think about the number of years I have habituated the planet.  It is impossible not to be more guarded as one witnesses the seemingly infinite variety of tribulations one might face.  Yet as I grow more acutely aware of all the shit that can, and likely will, happen, my memories of unluckiness and dumb decisions still seem to fade.  In a year or ten I will likely only remember this rough patch if I happen to reread about it here. The warm and  fuzzy,  the sustenance I get from the ancient marriage, our spawn evolving into decent young men, the people I choose to spend my time with, is stuff I won't have to read about in old blog entries in order to remember.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Another Week in Haiku

Hipster racism.
Skin color doesn't matter,
just eating fast food.

Now, post Columbine,
single digit mass shootings
just not newsworthy.

Senators drooling
to de-fund Planned Parenthood,
not immune from clap.

Ten dead in Roseburg.
Obama not welcome there.
Love guns more than kids.

Dumb Americans.
But not the worst of the worst.
Vladimir Putin

Heatwave in L.A.
Sports events and Obama
Thank God for Netflix

The Broad Museum.
His monument to himself
and ugly houses.

Mentally challenged?
The man performs surgery?
Ben Carson for Prez?

Donald Trump has peaked
now on to the next new thing.
Scads more bad choices

It is a comfort.
In first place four years ago
was Michelle Bachman

But you must admit
that Michelle Bachman's husband
is just fabulous

What's done in his name
by people who hate and fear
would make Jesus sad

And then there's Islam:
The infidels and women
Mohammed sad too.

Sheldon Adelson
won't let my people go.
No good for the Jews.

Kevin McCarthy
won't be speaker of the house.
Gingrich looks not bad

Except for murder,
there's limitations statue.
Bill Cosby relieved.

Achtung Volkswagen
We're sorry for our war crimes.
What's a little smog?

Grand Central Market.
But no one goes to Eggslut.
The line's way too long.

Dancing with the Stars.
Chaka Kahn first voted off.
Why not Paula Deen?

Just like a phoenix,
Clifton's Cafeteria!
Even green jello.

New season Homeland.
It all depends on Carrie,
On or off her meds?

Friday, October 2, 2015

Boots on the (Hot) Ground

I attend three different sultry evenings Aloud sessions with writers at the L.A. Public Library. Certain fashion choices have led me to question the judgement of a trio of heartily admired female scribes. The guilty parties are Lionel Shriver, Mary Karr and Larrissa MacFarquhar (the latter of whom I hope that I never feel inspired to write about again because her last name is a bitch to spell). Perhaps it is due to the impossible name that Larrissa has no Wikipedia page. Her New Yorker contributor profile is spartan but I would wager money that she has never resided in Southern California. Shriver is East Coast bred and now lives in England. Karr teaches in Syracuse.  (Her Wikipedia entry notes that she'd dated David Foster Wallace and that he once tried to push her out a moving car.) Still, being barometrically challenged is no excuse. Wouldn't any intelligent person check the projected weather conditions in a place that she is traveling to? Even if she were on super extensive book tour should she not pack one pair of footwear that is not boots?

These, otherwise ideal, women take to a public stage, on a blisteringly hot day, calves thick with leather. It is less of a sin to sport knee high boots in the 70s range, considered crisp for Southern California, because certain boots are sexy. But maybe in order to fully milk the sexiness of a fine pair of boots they should be worn only when it would be considered cold in a place with real weather. Wearing exquisite boots for warmth is sexy. Wearing exquisite boots in hot weather, evokes only the image of sweaty calves.

Enjoying yet another warm downtown happy hour, drinking among white collar folk, preceding a library reading, we notice here too a boot or two. And also that the law profession may be the last bastion of the mandatory necktie. For men in education, sales, banking and a number of other fields, often now the tie is optional. Perhaps fashion is conforming to the “too busy coding and making scads of moola to bother with more than a t-shirt and if it's really formal an untucked wrinkled button down,” Silicon Valley ideal.

Professional girlfriends report that as late as the 70s in cities between the coasts, a lacy tie around thingie was requisite work wear and served to distinguish a power-broad from a receptionist or a secretary. My memories of this are very vague but it fascinates me for some reason.  If anyone recalls the lady necktie your cards and letters are welcomed.

Unless it is somehow incorporated into a Futurama device, the necktie is doomed. Probably the demand will be for garb that facilitates connectivity. Until our connectivity is physically implanted. I do not know if I will be alive to witness the inevitable giant step in evolution when beings are new and improved artificially and as frequently as Iphones. Will artificial intelligence pay off for civilization, as capacity for reason is enhanced and we all learn to get along and end disease and poverty and get some fashion sense?

The non-boot-wearing Jessica Jackley also takes part in the discussion with Larrissa MacFarquhar. Silicon Valley denizen Jackley is co-founder of the micro-lending site Kiva which is a Kickstarter like project. One can make a $25 interest free loan towards a small entrepreneurial project in an impoverished area. The repayment rate is over 90%. It is determined that the greatest single detriment to rising out of poverty is access to a small amount of start-up money. For those who don't have enough money to start a bank account, usually the only credit available is at an interest rate so steep that the borrower is forever beholden. The access to a modest zero interest loan is the key to financial stability for many of the world's impoverished.

In her memoir Clay,Water, Brick Jessica Jackley describes being raised by evangelical Christian parents who, inspired by the gospel, were devoted to assisting the less fortunate. Exposed to compassionate giving at an early age, Jackley's graduate work at Stanford is devoted to ascertaining how to get most bang for the buck on behalf of humanitarian pursuits. To illustrate the complexity of this, Jackley tells the story of a young doctor, whose experience of volunteering in a third world clinic was the most satisfying in his life. At a dinner party hosted by big muckety mucks of philanthropy community, the doctor shares his plan to retire at a young age and go to Africa to start a clinic. It is pointed out to him that if he continues to work instead and simply donates his earnings there would be enough to start five clinics.

Jackley, bootless, wears an outfit that could be Armani or Target. She is unfortunately plagued by a persistent hacking cough. Twice, when she is unable to control it she steps off stage, to cough violently. While wearing a body mike. When she is not coughing Jackley describes the culture of giving and notes that a small amount of money may be the best ticket out of poverty. She also relates, harking back to her own Christian upbringing, that a giving experience is enhanced when there is a specific tangible. That's why those in-your-face suffering children /tortured animal//wounded veteran ads are so successful. Kiva has photos of would-be borrowers and descriptions of projects, like an investment in used clothes or chickens or beauty supplies. This is different from the strategy of many NGOs. The norm is to go in and do a large scale village makeover instead of taking smaller steps to nurture self determination and reliance. Jackey is married to Muslim Resa Aslan whose book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth caused a big brouhaha at Fox News for having been written by a Muslim even one with a Jesuit education and a PhD in Religion and an evangelical Christian wife. Intellectual superstars Jackley and Aslan are one of those great couples like David Byrne and Cindy Sherman or Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman. Himself is one of the first to review Aslan's book on Amazon which creates itself a little shit storm and causes his Amazon reviewer ratings to decline steeply.  You can read the thoughtful review here-- 
The result is that we are receiving a bit less crap in the mail to review. 

Larrissa MacFarquhar's new book Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help, is a collection of portraits of super do-gooders, like folks who adopt 20 special needs kids or donate a kidney to a stranger. The title comes for the Ethics 101 classic. “If you saw a child drowning in a puddle would you save him even if it meant getting your clothes muddy?” Himself might have to think about this for a while but for the rest of us, the obligation is clear and a human life trumps clean clothes. Yet there are children at risk all over the world and the price of a cup of coffee can literally save a human life. Why do we still buy coffee? Because coffee gives us more of a rush unless are able to see, or at least vividly imagine, our largess in action. We act immediately if the potential to do a good deed is right in front of us but with the exceptions of the sort of people described in Strangers Drowning we don't often go looking for it. And most of us don't, like MacFarquhar's subjects, sacrifice many of life's delights in service of selflessness.

MacFarquhar is balanced in her characterization of the hardcore do-gooder. She notes that many are perceived by others as sanctimonious prigs. They make people feel guilty. While the super givers likely make the world a better place, they often neglect friends and family. In some cases the devotion to selflessness springs from a personality disorder. MacFarquhar, while admiring in many ways those who have completely dedicated their lives to service, makes a good case for moderation. There is a place between Mother Teresa and Montgomery Burns. People who find the best balance are nicer to be around and maybe, in a way, that's as good as a kidney.