Tuesday, September 30, 2008


I have a PAIN -- that's an acronym. A very apt acronym. It stands for Pain In the Ass Neighbor. This is someone who's lived in this building longer than I have so that his rent stabilized status has made his studio an incredible bargain. He grew up a kibutznik and deeply believes there will always be someone around to who has what he needs if he doesn't think of getting it for himself. It's been everything from ice cubes to eggs to soy sauce -- you name it. My self-sufficient WASP background makes it almost impossible for me to consider asking someone else for something I forgot to buy for myself, in fact I don't remember ever doing so. If I don't have it I go get it or I do without. A great cultural gap - worsened by the fact that I also believe in helping others in need -- such a damned feminine attitude! But then it could be considered the kindness the Dalai Lama talks about. Or a psychiatrist might call it a pathological need to be needed - and I would disagree.

Anyway the PAIN calls me with whatever is on his mind that he has no one else to tell it to. Like this morning at 7:30. "Did you hear that helicopter?" "Yes. It seemed to be right overhead." "It woke me up." "I was already up." "I went to the roof to see where it was." "Was someone up there trying to suicide?" "No, the helicopter was about a block away. Then there was a fire truck." "Okay, some accident or maybe a suicide there. You should go back to bed, I'm going to work." Was this call necessary?

Yesterday: "Did you see what happened to the stock market?" "Yes." "Why didn't they pass that bill?" "They hate the fat cats." "Do you know what this is going to do to my IRA?" "Do you know why I am still working though I should have retired five years ago?" "It's insane, do you know how much Google is down?" "Listen, you're not hurting, your rent's a joke. People are losing their houses." "I bought a bad of brown rice today it was 3.69, a month ago the same bag was $2.89." I told him a story about the healthcare organization where my daughter works where handicapped people are not being provided lunch because their agencies haven't been paid by th state since July. They only get lunch because she buys bread and cold cuts from her own pocket. "We an afford rice. Other people can't." Years of saying, in effect, you aren't the only person in the world, look around you, have had no effect.

Last week the PAIN called to tell me he had picked up a Lipitor prescription from the pharmacy. The pills were oval instead of round. He took a couple then began to think about it and went to the pharmacy. He had been given a tranquilizer instead of the Lipitor [ante-cholesterol drug]. He talked about suing someone, he talked about what kind of side effects. He was nearly hysterical. "They didn't work anyway. You should be calmer and you're acting like a typical New Yorker, talking about suits." "How do I know what it did to me?" "It did nothing to you, obviously." Do I need this second hand hysteria? No. I assured him bringing it to the pharmacy's attention was important but that such accidents happen often and when he noticed it was different he should have taken it back immediately. Yes. A legitimate complaint. Too bad the tranquilter wasn't a stronger dose.

I can't even begin to list the variety of questions that come up. Well, just now I'm knee jerk complaining. Mr. PAIN just got a fruit basket for Rosh Hashanah and brought me the two big, beautiful Granny Smith apples that he doesn't like. This us his idea of quid pro quo for my time and advice and all the onions and butter and cups of uncooked rice, detergent, etc. That's how it is with neighbors whether in an apartment house or a suburb. Happy Rosh Hashannah.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Wonderful Muchness

Sometimes I contemplate the enormous variety of things in my life. Today it got started because I xeroxed the liat of books I've read this year -- what a variety! Poetry, fiction, nonfiction, starting with the amazing 18th century traveler, Carolina Bird, the very epitome of intrepid in the truly wild west, to, recently, Louisa Waugh in far westeren Mongolia, then there's Jim Harrison and Anne Rice, Norwegian and Indian writers and many others. And Pico Iyer on the Dalai Lama and Mattieu Richard on Happiness and on and on. All those, of course, were my choices, more than 50 so far this year.

Then there's the stuff I come across in my transcription job, often on subjects I would not choose, like today's job for an Army promo so that I now know much more than I ever cared to know about Apache helicopters and Striker armored vehicles; earlier there were a couple of actors talking about a B'way show [I WOULD chose that] also a lot about a company that rates hospital quality, and a bunch of MD's helping a drug company push a new medication, plus some guys hunting for ghosts. Now is that varied or what? And that's just a couple of weeks and I've forgotten much else and the next couple of weeks will bring more variety.

Then there's the wonderful stuff available here in NYC like the HDTV production of Rossini's BARBER OF SEVILLE from the Venice opera house that I saw at my "neighborhood" theatre, Symphony Space -- what a great production! I spent two hours smiling. The cast was perfect, voices fine, acting broad as befits opera buffo. I almost couldn't fall asleep that night because melodies kept running through my head. And in a completely different vein, yesterday's lecture at the Rubin Museum on the restoration of a monastery in Bhutan by John Sanday [recently named Sir John] an architect/restorer who was working in Lo Monthang when I trekked there and who gave our small group a tour of what he was doing to a big gompa [religious building]there.

There's the newspaper and the death of beautiful, wonderful Paul Newman. All of that and, my friends and letters and phone calls. I do NOT have a television. I do not want or need a television; I never have a bored moment and love having all this stuff stirring around in my thoughts. If keeping the brain cells firing and making connections is a way to ward of Alzheimers, I think I'll be okay on that front.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


A beautiful sunny afternoon, the usual busy sidewalk along Broadway in the 80s [Upper West Side for those no familiar]. Two women, possibly in their 70s or early 80s, slender, nicely dressed and made up, hair coiffed, one clearly helping the other by holding her arm as they walked. I walk toward them and casually looking at people as I always do. The invalid lady looked directly at me and held out a her free hand. She had probably had a stroke, she could only say "ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta..." and said it over and over and over.

I felt she thought she knew me. [I know I have a prototype appearance, i.e., there are a lot of people I look somewhat like, as I've been told all my life, "you remind me a lot of --"] So I took her hand and said "Hello." She leaned to kiss my cheek and then my other cheek. I leaned in and let her. She was saying "ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta" the whole time and looked at me as if I were an old friend. "It's nice to see you." I said. I expected her companion [who seemed like a friend or perhaps a sister, not a hired caretaker] to say something in explanation but she didn't. I started to turn away and gave her hand a squeeze, "Enjoy the lovely day." I said and went on. The other woman tugged my "friend" in the direction they were walking.

A number of fleetingly intimate moments seem to happen to me on the streets. Maybe because I am watching the people and not lost in a cell phone conversation or an iPod song. It's not a wonderful poem but here's something I wrote a couple of weeks ago after another encounter, a little less intimate.

He's a bum, a sot, but not a beggar.
I see him almost every morning
sitting on a stoop staring at his feet.
He seems to live nearby.
He seems to be showered and almost clean
in the mornings;
In the afternoon he is asleep
beside his brown bag and empty bottle
curled like a sleeping child on the sidewalk
or in winter on a warm grate by the Subway shop
near the subway entrance, alive but dead to the world.
He had a mother and a father, he may be a vet.
Last week, at 8:30 a.m. as I passed
he looked up. Our eyes met.
I smiled and bobbed my head;
he smiled, the only expression I've ever seen
on his thin, worn face.
Namaste I thought, though I did not tent my hands.
Namaste, the life force within me
salutes the life force within you.
I see you, and you see me.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Good Financial News

The media are full of the financial melt downs and ways the Midases are saving one another's asses. We tiny little watchers can only sigh or rage or shake our heads. But today's paper had the annual list of MacArthur Prize winners -- reason to rejoice for twent-five people who have put their hearts, souls and minds into something they love, become very good at it, whether in the arts, the sciences or other fields. They did not apply for the prize. I'm told they don't even know they're being considered [although I'm a bit cynical and wonder if that's true]. At any rate, they are people with a passion and purpose in life -- not to get rich, not to join some rat race but to do work that is challenging and exciting. And they have been recognized with the prize which is a totally unrestricted $100,000 for the next five years.

We know that many lottery winners do not do well with their sudden wealth. But I have read of previous MacArthur winners who were, for the first time in a life of hard work, able to purchase a house, able to attend conferences in their field, able to give up a pay-the-rent job and concentrate on their art or scholarship. I did not recognize any of the names in the list, but that is not important, those with recognizable names are mostly earning reasonable amounts of money. These are deservedly lucky people and this is a bright spot in a dismal world too focused on money for it's own sake.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Feeling Their Pain -- Not!

The NY Times Business Section yesterday showed sixteen CEO of big financial type institutions with how much they were worth last year and how much they're worth now, in the midst of the current debacle. There were typically numbers like formerly worth $800 million, now worth $350 million. A couple of guys had sunk to only a little more than half a million -- I suppose THEY're really hurting, for their life styles probably demand more than that a year. Quite possibly some of these guys are really fine folks at heart. But I must admit I'm not a fine enough folk to feel their pain. If you had hundreds of millions and you still have hundreds of millions after it's cut in half, it really can't hurt. No matter how smart, how mean and nasty, or how generously philanthropic, no one should have that much when so many have so little. It just ain't fair and I don't believe it can be either earned or deserved.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Mean Nasty World

Nepal, I've just read in a news feed, has agreed with it's northern border neighbor, China, to send Tibetans back to China who have been living in Nepal and who took part in the protests that began last March and continued through the Olympics. Formerly Nepal arrested them, and perhaps beat them up a bit, but then released them. If the Tibets are now sent back to China they will probably be arrested, jailed and tortured and held for many years.

We take freedom of speech for granted. Not so in many other parts of the world, especially China which allows no serious dissent, even in its neighbors. China has poured money into building roads in Nepal that will connect formerly roadless areas -- like Mustang -- to China. This is an economic boon for desperately poor Nepalese who can then trade with China; but it is a double edged sword, making the potential for invasion very real.

I have been to Nepal four times. It is a beautiful country with the world's most magnificent mountains and with kind and wonderful people. But it is terribly poor country going through tremendous political changes having just dethroned their hereditary kin

My heart hurts when I think of the Tibetans who have settled there and tried to find a new life in a mountainous country that at least looks like their home and their struggle to maintain their identity in the face of the, arguably, greatest power on earth that wants to eradicate them and is reaching it's tentacles into the neighboring country to snatch them up and stiffle their voices, perhaps end their lives. From here in the comfort of my home, sometimes I think, what did Buddha mean that life is "suffering?" And then I look at what is happening to people around the world and I know what he meant. Some of us are extraordinarily lucky but we must not close our eyes and forget that this is a big world and we are a very, very lucky, very, very small percentage of people on earth.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Dr. Freud quote

"Sleep is a condition in which I refuse to have anything to do with the outer world and have withdrawn my attention from it. ... Our relationship with the world which we entered so unwillingly seems to be endurable only with intermission ... It looks as if we do not belong wholly to the world, but only two-thirds; one-third of us has never yet been born at all."

This is from early lectures. A date was not given but I suspect it was before his Interpetation of Dreams which seems to reverse the idea that sleep is wholly an unconscious state, as we know it is not. Portions apparently are but other portions are filled with active mental life. Whether Freud's ideas about our dreaming state are relevant or not, certainly that state does have much to do with the world. But, as always with Freud, his ideas are worth thinking about.

It caught my attention very immediately because I've been truly enjoying deep and refreshing sleep lately. It has felt like a renewing intermission many mornings when I woke up. This is exactly the kind of sleep I think most people wish for and get too seldom. i don't always sleep so well, so I feel wonderful when I recognize my well being.

I pick up poetry books at night when I'm all prepared for sleep but not yet quite sleepy. I can read one or several poems or find a citation like the one quoted here, sit staring into space and thinking about it's meaning, or sometimes I'm simply delighted the felicity with which the poet used words to state an idea. And then I'm ready for those hours of unconsciousness.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Where in the world are we?

I've begun reading a book by a British woman who spent a year in a very isolated Mongolian town teaching English. This is not an unusual sort of book. I read a lot of "traveler's tales}" books and the majority of them are by Brits, almost none are by American women. I know some American nuns have done work in Central America and that some Americans still do Peace Corps work. But something about British culture inspires intrepid women an American culture doesn't do anything similar. Of course Britain has a Queen and they had a woman Prime Minister years ago and we seem all agog because a woman is running for vice president but didn't have the gumption to let a woman run for President. This bugs me. Not the British part -- I love that I have these great stories to read and they go back into the 19th century as well.

Maybe the traveling has a little bit to do with a sense of geography. I don't know what British school children are taught, but since they had a far flung empire that is surely taught as history. They must have a better sense of the size and wonder of the world. Our school kids often don't know where most American states are and probably would have a very, very hard time simply listing all 50.

I was surfing the web a couple of days ago and saw a map of Africa, totally unlike the one above except in shape. It was labeled American perceptions [I searched for it a few minutes ago and couldn't find it] But there was a colored patch at the bottom that said, Mandala, and a small colored patch at the upper right that said pyramids and a squarish patch near the middle that said Sudan. And all the rest said "Tigers". No, it didn't say elephants or lions. It said "tigers." I guess it's not stating the obvious, although I would think it should be, to say tigers don't live in Africa. Do Americans really think there are tigers all over Africa? My mind is so boggled I can't write more at the moment.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


When I awoke at 5;00 I reached for the on button on the clock radio which is always tuned to WQXR, the classical music station of the NY Times. Soon I heard an announcer say there would be no commercials today, only music -- chosen, I knew, with their usual care. Nothing maudlin, just wonderful music. This is a station, reader, that you can access on the web.

An email friend from the hinterlands twits me a fair amount about political subjects; we disagree approximately 120%. Sometimes the emails are serious, he's really not a knee jerk guy - retired military so ... but a recent note listed things he sees wrong with the US and he mentioned that "people forget 9/11". In his"that day" memories that are not just about what we saw on TV.

But the subtext was that people fault Bush, or self-proclaimed "war president" for the war in Iraq because they forget 9/11. But what has that war done? Killed as many of our men and women as the terrorists did, and left thousand more disabled and deeply traumatized, destroyed a country that was actually not a threat to us. It has not "got" the terrorists but has spawned more. And at home? The paranoiac fear has been used to ignore both our Constitution and international agreements, it has given us a 1984 type surveilence system and made air travel an irritation that raises nearly everyone's blood pressure while demeaning millions of well meaning Americans with intrusive search practices carried out by half-trained personnel who become mini-tyrants or mental neo-nazis who make everyone take off their shoes and forfeit their water bottles. Here in NYC I can expect to have most of my moves in public recorded on cameras. Are we safer? Have we won respect around the world? And when will the economy recover from the costs of this assinine war? This has not been an eye for an eye which is a horrible, primitive motto, this has been seven years of wishing I didn't live in a country with such "leadership."

I wish I felt there was true change in the air, I wish I felt some of that "hope" to be real and not rhetorical. I remember too many wars in just my life time. And too many Presidents who were "not crooks" but not fine leaders -- by a long shot.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Himalayan kingdoms

In the previous post I wrote about the Dalai Lama. Tibet! Of course, a land of magnificent mountains on the "other" side of the Himalayas. The first of my two trips there was so mind boggling I had to go back. I remember flying almost over Everest-- everyone rushed to the left side of the plane!

I have been in Kathmandu four times so I went, yesterday to the Rubin Museum to see a film set in Nepal, partly Patan, a city a little west of Kathmandu that I visited one monsoon-y day and waded ankle deep in the water running in the streets. The film was in some ways very confusing for it showed an event. On the Road with the Red God Macchendranath where local people built a 64 foot tower on a rather small base of a chariot, all made of wood. It is a temporary shrine for an idol of the god Macchenra and must be pulled and pushed on a triangular journey, which occurs once every 12 years. It seems very, very primitive but attracts thousands of people. Strangely the film's "main character" is a Buddhist "priest", not a lama apparently, who works in the state anthropology department. This does not se explanation but it certainly was an interesting film.

I just titled this post "kingdoms." As we know the king of Nepal has been deposed and has left the capital. The procession of this tower predicts, said they, political unrest when it has accidents, as it had had twelve years previous, after which the notorious palace massacres occurred. This time it did not predict the fall of the king. Ah, well -- it did show the little "living goddess" a couple of times -- a child who is chosen to simply exist in a secluded life to assure prosperity. She was not deposed, as I understand -- although she is replaced after she matures enough to have a period. All this is strange, strange, strange and exotic.

Today I saw an even more thought provoking film at the Rubin, Bhutan: Taking the Middle Path to Happiness. I knew about Bhutan's agenda for "gross national happiness". I knew the king who instituted this program had abdicated in favor of his son, entirely by choice. In fact, I've read a lot about Bhutan and passed its border when I was leaving Sikkim, but it has never called to me as a place to visit. I knew about it's careful entry into the modern world -- but a lot of reading comes alive, as we in this very visual media world know, information comes alive when you see it on film. Many wonderful Bhutanese spokea and were pictured. Yes, the country sincerely strives for general happiness. Nothing sappy and Hallmark-y. They are poor people, but they now have schools in every town and they have decent medical clinics and they foster pride in their culture, which is largely Buddhist, and they care greatly about their environment which is a difficult one but gorgeous. The definition of happiness is more one of well being, contentment. No, it's not all perfect. Since television has been allowed there is youth unrest, some gangs, drinking. But they have a democratic constitution and apparently no corruption. People are people so some are surely less content than others. But it is a country to inspire one's belief that wisdom can be exercised by kings and a country can be beautiful -- spectacular -- and the people joyous.

The photo above is my "favorite" Himalaya, a near neighbor of Everest named Ama Dablam which means a lady's jewel box for the squarish summit. I'm told many people agree with me about it's beauty. Our sirdar, or chief sherpa, on my trek past it had been on a summitting climb with a group of seven women who climbed it. ... I shall always rejoice that I was able to go into those mountains and meet many gentle and wonderful local people. These films and many books I read reinforce that feeling. Sometimes I feel so full of very wonderful memories I almost feel like a balloon about to pop and spew gold dust hither and yon.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Open Road, Pico Iyer

Over the years I've read many travel articles by Pico Iyer and always find he is unusually sensible and thoughtful, espeicially about the Himalayan region. I've read some biographical material about Iyer as well and know he has Indian parents who raised him in England, that he lives now in Japan and regularly spends weeks at a time in a monastery in California in private retreat. He is a very "global" person, a thoughtful man who seems very well balanced. So when I read a review of his recent book, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, I knew I wanted to read the book and would find a unique discussion of a man I greatly admire.

I bought the book in Hyannis and have been reading it slowly becuase I don't want to rush through and miss his points or the complex points the Dalai Lama makes in his public speeches and private talks with Iyer -- they first met in the '50s. There are many remarkable people in the world [Iyer paints a fascinating picture of Desmond Tutu], but the more I read the more I feel the Dalai Lama is especially remarkable. Not because he has special characteristics as a an incarnate lama or embodiment, as some say, of the Buddha of Compassion. Not that, but because he has had special training, unusual life circumstances and has risen to the challenges he continues to face, and has never ceased to truly work at creating his own character. I am amazed at what he has been able to do as Iyer describes it. This is a fascianting book.

Friday, September 5, 2008

A Question

I have been reading a wonderful anthology that is part poetry and part personal statments by many educators who use poetry either as a teaching tool [aside from curicculum] or as a personal prop, challenge, meditation. The book is called . I've found several new-to-me poems and several familiar ones and read the words of many people dedicated to teaching despite the many hardships they face day by day. One teacher, Tony Wagner, wrote that s/he sometimes makes up aphorisms and gave this example:

Is life nothing more than a question and answer period, where the questions go unanswered, and the answers go unquestioned?

There are many beautiful poems, many exquisite phrases and images, many profound thoughts in this book and I'm keeping it to come back to now and then. But I will come back to this teacher's question also -- it is the last phrase that cuts most importantly. It is not enough to ask questions, when we are given answer we must examine it and see if there are other answers, conflicting answers, where does the answer come from?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Shell Tree

The beach I walked on this weekend is special, partly because it is little known and often almost deserted -- certainly at 7:30 in the morning. It is a spit of land between a channel and the ocean. I always started walking on the channel side, at least until I get to the "shell tree". As you can see [and if you click the image it enlarges] it is a dead tree festooned with shells, mostly conch shells. Rachel has never heard how it came to be. But people seem to take care of it and probably replace shells blown off in storms, the shells change from year to year, I think just for that reason. Coming upon the tree is always magical. Such a thing seems ancient and primal. It's like finding a Druid altar or a fairy ring or crop circle although I do not have a sense it is anything other than a human artifact. There it stands, a testimony of an urge to memorialize the natural. Druids worshiped big, live trees, but this seems like an effort to revivify a dead tree by giving it gifts from the sea, although those gifts are the remains of one living creatures. All are dead but they becoming something alive with suggestion and definitely something beautiful by being joined.
Because this is close and easy to drive to first thing in the morning, I felt I was going to "my" beach even if I am only there once or twice a year. Someone, or many someones, have given it to me and to everyone else who sees it to contemplate and enjoy.