Life Skills, Moving, Traveling, United States

The Unfamiliar Familiar

Before returning to the states, I spent a decent amount of time contemplating how to keep my love affair with the world going, even after I returned “home.” I remain loathe to give up the joy of new sights, tastes, and sounds. Mostly, I crave the feeling of openness and curiosity that being surrounded by the unfamiliar breeds in me.

My global love affair, as posted to FaceBook on the day I visited Wadi Rum

My global love affair, as posted to FaceBook on the day I visited Wadi Rum

 

A million self help books and the magazine rack at your local grocery will tell you that the key to any good love affair is to make the familiar new and exciting. Since the only thing I loathe more than giving up my travels is a self help book, I’m challenged with viewing this amazing island that covers under 58 square miles, on which I’ve been spending time for 38 years, with new eyes. It’s the equivalent of a being 40 years in to an uneventful marriage with the world’s most peaceful, beautiful spouse, whose calm can lull you into doing. Absolutely. Nothing.

Doing. Absolutely. Nothing.

Doing. Absolutely. Nothing.

While contemplating this (which, you may have figured out by now if you are following me on Facebook, resulted in buying a plane ticket to Spain for a month), I remembered a time when I created something totally unfamiliar out of my favorite hiking spot on the island, almost by accident. Sort of.

 

On Thanksgiving weekend 2007,  I ran away from Texas to refamiliarize myself with the smell of trees and the feel of air that hasn’t been sucking cement. My second day on Orcas, I headed to Mountain Lake, a four-mile trail I know like the back of my hand, since I’ve been traveling it almost as long as I’ve known how to walk.

Top of the switchback hill on a nice hiking day.

Top of the switchback hill on a nice hiking day.

It was 4:30 when I parked my car and headed out on the pine-covered path. Just over one mile later, I realized how quickly I was losing light. I took a moment to think about what I was doing. The brook that runs down from Twin Lakes in the wet seasons, barely trickling by August, poured vigorously beneath the little wooden bridge on which I stood. While contemplating the pros and cons of continuing in the fading light, I inhaled air that froze the hair inside my nostrils. The weather forecasted an early snow.

 

On the pro side: completing the lake loop. I hate not finishing things. In the last 25 years, I’ve failed to finish only one book. Actually, I didn’t fail; I refused to finish it because it was so unbearably bad it constantly made me think of all the other books I could be reading. The disappointment – by an author whose work I had devoured voraciously for years – was so depressing, I donated the book to the library so I wouldn’t have to look at it on my shelf.

 

Also on the pro side: No predators (unless the squirrels had gone rabid since summer). Trail I know blindfolded. How cold could it REALLY get near a lake that doesn’t freeze? Potential for adventure.

 

The cons? Potential for frostbite, but a finger or pinky-toe lost for the sake of adventure seems a small price to pay.

 

Note to self: creating an adventure of the familiar should take place within bounds of reason. Like any adventure, there is a risk-reward equation at play. When the territory is this familiar and the adventure seems this….risky, the equation may be out of balance. Dark +potential for snow + no headlamp….

 

Giant trees that whine against each other in the wind at Mountain Lake

Giant trees that whine against each other in the wind at Mountain Lake

Not surprisingly, something went awry. Another mile or two down the path, my pace slowing to a shuffle as I became unable to see my feet, I suddenly found myself off the trail and trapped in place by a fallen tree trunk that appeared out of nowhere. I started to panic, almost peed my pants, and came back to my senses quickly enough to remember how blissfully short my cons list had been. I would be safe enough by daylight, as long as I didn’t get bored to insanity, since it was pitch black, freezing cold, and more than twelve hours until the sun rose again.

 

In one of the more embarrassing and least adventuresome episodes of my life, I committed to two hard and fast rules of being lost in cold, dark woods: (1) don’t wander (it makes you harder to find) and (2) move constantly to keep your blood flowing. For the visually oriented, picture Jane Fonda aerobic warm up steps in fleece pants, long-sleeved shirt, gortex shell, and running shoes.

 

To these rules, I added a Hail Mary: I yelled for help. Meekly at first, and then with more force, though I felt ridiculous since I wasn’t injured or near death. I modified my cry by turning it into a request, addressing the recipient as, “Mr Park Ranger,” and adding, “please,” to the plea that he come to my assistance. It sounded completely bizarre – almost as if I were hearing someone else doing it, and I wanted to go to her aid.

 

Mountain Lake from the south end dam. Not that I could see this in the dark.

Mountain Lake from the south end dam. Not that I could see this in the dark.

Miraculously, the state park service had funded a ranger this particular winter, and when he came back from town, he saw my car and came after me with a flashlight and headlamp. He was none-too-happy about it, and I couldn’t have been more the opposite, which made for a chirpy monologue on the way back to my car, and a one-sided hug once I arrived.

 

So I can’t advocate adventure in the familiar, but even in the ‘know-em-like-the-back-of-your-hand’ places, there is endless possibility for the unfamiliar. Rather than stick with the same lake loop, last week I hiked on a trail I haven’t touched in ten years. I went to dinner at a brew pub that’s been around for two years, and I’ve yet to set foot in it. It isn’t simple familiarity that ruins us – it’s invariable patterning of our lives that blinds us to things that may be always here, and never noticed.  If we just change our trail, we can open our minds and hearts as widely as if we traveled the world.

 

After a day of fear-conquering adventure

After a day of fear-conquering adventure

Life Skills, Moving, On the Road, Traveling, United States

On the Road Again

It is mildly unsettling how relieved I felt when I walked through the glass doors of Seattle Tacoma International Airport last week. The slick floor and high ceiling; the hustle of people not wholly sure where they should go; the easy pace of check in, ID check, electronics removal and body scan – they all felt oddly like coming home, even though I was heading out.

Humping my pack through my last couple weeks in Turkey with a sinus infection in tow, I wanted nothing more than eight consecutive nights in a familiar bed. But once in Washington (State) half-unpacked and settling in, I was uncomfortable with my….stability. And cold. So I’m setting out on a wander again, one last hurrah through the East Coast and then a month in Sevilla, Spain, which I was loathe to leave back in February.

I first remember flying through SeaTac when I was 8. My best friend had moved from the Bay Area up to the San Juan islands, and my parents gave me a birthday present that, in retrospect, probably made me part of who I am today: a plane ticket to fly alone up the coast to see her for a week. I remember nothing of the flight from Oakland to Seattle. What I remember is the layover.

The friend I was going to visit, and I, in a very important stage of dental development, circa 1978

The friend I was going to visit, and I, in a very important stage of dental development, circa 1978

Back in the day when solo child travelers were few and far between, I was something of a curiosity, like tropical fruit brought from far-off lands to the cold recesses of England way, way back when. For three hours, I sat on a stool behind the counter of the small regional airline that flew from SeaTac to the islands in twin prop planes of fewer than 10 seats. Flight attendants and counter agents came to visit from the center section of the departures hall, where big airlines had multiple personnel at the counter, way, way down to the far end of small airlines and cargo companies. While I may have been the attraction for them, I couldn’t be bothered with their kindness, because I was entranced by the desk agent checking in flights before mine, entering secret codes in green type onto the black screen of the computer, and radioing down to the tarmac, an underground tram ride away at the north satellite, where the small planes arrived and departed.

Some people hate small planes and find them terrifying. I couldn’t be more the opposite: I never get over the thrill of them. My father flew one when I was younger.  I’m sure it wasn’t 100 percent cake and roses, but I remember loving flying with him, a hop to Bakersfield to check on a hospital he was managing, or all the way up to the San Juans, a long day of counting swimming pools by the houses below, watching urban areas change to trees, and mountains, and at last, Puget Sound. I love no small plane more than the float plane, and it seemed appropriate that I took my first of 47 flight legs of my around-the-world trip on one of these, from the San Juans into Seattle.

My favorite mode of travel (thanks Kenmore Air)

My favorite mode of travel (thanks Kenmore Air)

My week away didn’t end as well as it started: on the ferry back to the mainland, my friend’s mom asked me where my ticket was. I have no idea what I said in response to her, but inside, my gut sank south as she frantically searched the car, because I could clearly see that plane ticket, its flimsy paper layers backed in red carbon ink, sitting on the bedside table next to the bunkbeds a ferry-ride away. A new ticket had to be purchased, though this was back in the day when the old one could be redeemed for the proper value once it was turned in.

Regardless, that trip was the first of many I have taken to visit this same friend, who has lived in Korea, Japan, and many states, and recently returned to the San Juans with her husband and kids. And it was the first I remember of passing through SeaTac, which has changed considerably with the times.

Same friend and I, on the Great Wall of China, circa 2001

Same friend and I, on the Great Wall of China, circa 2001

SeaTac is a good airport to call home. It’s modernized – clean and light, it continues to remake itself to keep up with the pace of air traffic and the demanding needs of the modern traveler. Taking a cue from Austin, the main terminal now features local musical artists playing acoustic entrées to accompany whatever you grab from Ivars, or the brewery, or the competing coffee trio of Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, and Dilletante. Like SFO, SeaTac has started installing water-bottle refill stations near the drinking fountains for those of us who fear that reef of plastic bottles taking over the world’s oceans, and multiple recycling containers throughout the terminals.

Recycling in SeaTac

Recycling in SeaTac

Exhibits focused on local artists are sprinkled throughout the terminals in case you have time to stop and look a little.

 

Among Seattle's favorite native sons....

Among Seattle’s favorite native sons: Jimi Hendrix, on whose life as an artist there is a current exhibit in SeaTac

If not, most of them have a bar code you can scan with your smartphone for more detail later on. The shopping is a dangerous combo of items you may actually need (a jacket from ExOfficio, perhaps?) to crafty arts in Firefly or local souvenirs from the newly opened Sub Pop store (though one could argue Sub Pop merchandizing in SeaTac marks the moment when Sub Pop jumps the shark).

imageThough these creature comforts are more meaningful to me now than they were when I was eight, what I loved about SeaTac on this particular trip may just be the same thing I love about traveling in general: that feeling of camaraderie, of complete familiarity with total strangers. In this case, on a gorgeous Seattle day of sun after four days of rain, it is the people who pass through the gate area in SeaTac for a DFW flight – their LSU shirts and Longhorn gear, their well-crafted look (except for me, and the skaters who clearly are from the PNW), and the slightly southern air of it all that reminds you where you land it will be…well, warm and familiar in a different way, even if you don’t know where you’re going.

Life Skills, On the Road, Tourist, Traveling, United States

Where I’m From

Three months before I turned 40, I spent a month obsessively looking at new cars on craigslist. When I realized I was perfectly happy with my 12 year-old stick shift station wagon, I left the cars behind and decided just to pierce my nose, like I’d wanted to do since I was 14. Suddenly, I was freed from the socially-acceptable expectations of mid-life, and welcomed into the decade that would allow me to just be me. Midlife crisis narrowly averted.

Not even a full state from Texas, a crisis of an entirely different order arose. I took refuge from a torrential downpour at a café on the Taos plaza, and got to talking to a woman about her dog. Naturally, she asked me where I was from. A normally chatty human being who can carry on a conversation with anyone from the Pope to a wall, I was struck silent. I didn’t even stutter; I just couldn’t answer. I was faced with a geographic identity crisis.

For the eight, mostly uncomfortable years I lived in Dallas, I told people, “I live in Dallas, but I’m from California.” This is the technical truth – I was born in San Francisco, and consider myself a Californian – but it isn’t the whole story. I arrived in Dallas a full seven locations after I originally left my home state. As a result, I’m a committed recycler with aggressive driving skills, a very northeastern way of flipping the bird, a New Yorker’s style of walking through a crowded urban center ignoring everyone around me, a Northwestern desire to be outside even when the weather fills with rain and wind, and a Texan belief that my boots and a good buckle should work for any occasion. When I say, “I’m going home,” I could be referring to Seattle, San Francisco, or Dallas. But I don’t know how to tell someone where I’m from, because choosing one place feels like a lie.

I hoped this issue would resolve itself when I left the country, but it got worse. Complete strangers took a kind-hearted interest in the specifics of my personal history, and weren’t satisfied when I told them simply, “I’m from the United States.” People in other countries know a surprising number of US states; they also watch a lot of bad tv. Texas is on the map for Dallas (the original), Walker Texas Ranger, and George Bush. Telling people I’m from California garnered a lot of, “I’ll be back,” “oh…Ah-nald,” and, “California?…Hollywood?” So I tried Washington.

IMG_4876

Cold, beautiful west coast

Understandably, it’s confusing to foreigners that the state of apples, Starbucks, and the Olympic peninsula is both not the same as the capital city that shares its name, and is located on the other side of the country. I didn’t bother correcting people who responded to Washington with, “ah! Obama’s house,” until the questions about DC got too involved, and I would confess that I was actually from an entirely different place (though I’ve lived in both).

Washington State

Washington State

The irony of all this is that it actually doesn’t matter. In earlier eras, outside of Manifest Destiny, the Gold Rush, and great migrations, people rarely moved far from home. Now, we’re in a shrinking global community, where constant population flux consistently alters cultures, blending them across geographic boundaries, until good barbeque isn’t just found in the south and good bagels aren’t held captive in New York. The San Francisco of 2013, with its dot com billionaires and microapartments for a million dollars, isn’t the San Francisco of 1993, with its distinct neighborhoods, affordable housing, and hippy funk. (When people ask me if I’m moving back to San Francisco, I feel compelled to point out that San Francisco isn’t there anymore.)

And yet, for all this movement, for all this homogeneity of culture, place matters. When I go out for coffee, place matters. Am I walking there, biking there, driving there, or taking public transportation? Is it Dunkin’s coffee, Starbucks coffee, local coffee, organically sourced and priced up coffee? Or maybe it’s Turkish, Thai, or Vietnamese white coffee? Is it hot or cold? Is it smooth roasted, or bitter? Am I standing at the coffee bar chatting with neighbors, sitting at an outdoor café under a heat lamp, or grabbing it to go while I drive off someplace?

Place matters for the most simple things, because it’s the simple things that form who we are. The personality of a place shapes our approach to the world; it demonstrates for us how we absorb information, how we respond to stimuli around us, and how we view what we see moving forward. Thirty years ago, when I moved from the Bay area to Boston, this mattered a hundred times more.

I left a place of cold oceans with rough surf and foggy-day picnics on the beach, of yoga and recycling and home-made peanut butter, and went to the land of green pants with blue whales, classmates related to passengers on the Mayflower, and ‘one if by land two if by sea.’ As a result, though I longed regularly for the west coast of my childhood, I was raised using the T, rooting for the Celtics, watching my first baseball game from the Fenway bleachers, and busing out to Great Woods for one concert after another. There is no mistaking that these experiences gave me some of the independence that I enjoy when I travel, and that the longing to get back to the other coast, to see what was beneath me when I flew from one to another, gave me my desire to actually buy a plane ticket and do it.

New York subway

New York subway

So when I tell people I’m from California, I feel like I’m disrespecting half of my roots. And I feel like my roots have more than two halves. Didn’t summers on a small island in Puget Sound teach me to love reading, staring at the water, and the smell of fresh wind? Didn’t college in New York help me understand that I can only do cities  for a moment before I shut down? Don’t we continue to grow, to absorb place and its personality, and to change as a result, throughout our lives? I didn’t move to Texas until I was 30, but didn’t it warm me a bit, teach me a about expressing myself respectfully to people with opposing viewpoints, and help me understand myself better? Isn’t growth and absorption of place the only thing that explains Madonna’s fake British accent?

For all the shrinking of the world, place still matters. The more we create these hybrid humans who herald from multiple cultures, possibly without much leaving their own, the more confusing the question ‘where are you from’ will become. I, for one, am looking forward to it, so I’m not the only one suffering from a geographic identity crisis.

Crazy Dallas weather

Crazy Dallas weather

Europe, Life Skills, Uncategorized

The Van Gogh You Know

You think you know Van Gogh. Don’t we all? His sunflowers, the time in Arles, his self portraits, and of course, the dreadful ear. Maybe you’ve heard about the recently discovered Sunset at Montmajour, or the record-setting price ($39.9MM) Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers won at auction in 1987. This is the Van Gogh that most of us know. In Amsterdam, however, here’s what I learned: we don’t know Van Gogh.

When I was young, my father brought me a poster from a Van Gogh exhibit. It was the ubiquitous painting Bedroom in Arles, and I loved it. I found peace in its broad brush strokes and strong outlines, both hallmark Van Gogh, and the unapologetic use of color, which in this piece, he specifically chose, “to suggest a certain rest or dream,” as he noted in a letter to his brother. And of course, I loved that the blond wood frame bed closely resembled my own bunkbeds, recently unstacked to accommodate my imminent adolescence.

Bedroom in Arles

Bedroom in Arles

For years since then, I have still loved Van Gogh for the same reasons – his boldness, his outlines, his color. The crazy flawed humanity that accompanies the desire to remove one’s own ear. At some point in college, I learned where he fit in the larger canon of artists and I’m sure that it made perfect sense, but over time, those are the things I forget. The color, the vision, and the sense of calm they bring are a sense memory that sticks with me.

What I got when I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam was far more than I expected. With so many of his the works so close together, I could understand the development of Van Gogh as an artist – one, I learned, who died when he was only 37, and was most prolific during the last decade of his life, which ended in 1890. While I recognize him for these more well known works that have been easily accessible to me, I discovered much more of his beauty in smaller, quiet pieces, like Sloping Path in Montmarte.

Sloping Path in Montmarte

Sloping Path in Montmarte

I gleaned a bit of his sense of humor in his Head of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette, which is familiar now as the cover of the David Sedaris book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames. When I learned that the details of cadavers (anatomically accurate) were part of Van Gogh’s art schooling, and that he added the smoke as a humorous act of rebellion or boredom, I enjoyed him – and this painting – even more. How Sedaris must have loved learning this fact given his own adoration of smoking and his exclamation that he loved Paris because you could smoke everywhere, including the waiting room of the hospital. I loved it for entirely different reasons: I could imagine my grandfather, an accomplished painter and irreverent soul, doing the same. And there I am, closer even still to this painter who died a century before I graduated high school.

Head of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette

Head of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette

 

Where the museum really wins is in the science. Want to know how art historians determine whether the artist was mixing his paints and creating his works plen air or back in the studio? It may be something that never occurred to you, but even those who aren’t into art will love the pigment analyses and microscope images of sand grains embedded in the art that help determine where it was created, and with what. It’s common knowledge that artists reused their boards or canvases, but in Amsterdam, you can see the x-ray photographs of cross sections of canvases revealing multiple layers of paint that confirm more than just the masterpiece on the surface, and you can view the recto and verso of boards with practice paintings, including some of the many birds nest series.

This is barely scratching the surface. Speaking of surface scratches, want to know how different an art may look over time, or how it is restored after years of exposure damage the paint? There’s an app for that. Really, there is. In the museum, there is an iPad set up with my beloved Bedroom in Arles, and on multiple touch points I could be enlightened about restoration work, letters about the painting between Van Gogh and his brother, and see the Yellow House in Arles in which the bedroom lay. The app is available for free in the App store; just search for Touch Van Gogh (there is also an android version for the rebels out there).

I suppose I could learn all of this by reading the beautiful coffee table book on Van Gogh that I have in storage, but it isn’t the same. There’s a magic to playing with these interactive exhibits and then walking out into Museumplein to catch the tram home down Marnixstraat, with the canal at your side. If you can catch a glimpse of a windmill in the distance you can imagine the reapers who may have worked beneath it. It’s part of the magic of the place, and brings with it the magic of the person who created the art. And that, my friends, is worth the $39.9 million, but costs a whole lot less.

 

Tree-Roots, van Gogh's last and unfinished work

Tree-Roots, van Gogh’s last and unfinished work

 

Europe, Life Skills

The Yoda You Know

Paris just redeemed itself by allowing me to do something unbelievably American and dorky, which turned out also to be fascinating and valuable. It was a great reminder that behind every blah façade, there’s a nook or cranny you’re bound to love. (Cue the Parisian outrage.)

Twenty years ago, I didn’t make it to the New Year’s Rave at DV8 before it hit capacity. Shut out of the fun for a couple of hours, two friends and I wandered south of Market Street in San Francisco (before it was posh, had a W hotel, or was called SOMA). We happened upon a black tie mafia wedding in a hotel, and stood before a cigarette machine in the hallway, paying homage to that device in the last moments of its legal life in California, as hours earlier it had been outlawed, and would soon be removed. And then….then we struck gold.

Coming around the corner of the newly-opened Yerba Buena Arts Center, I looked up and saw a Storm Trooper on a Speeder Bike, the kind that is ridden heart-racingly among the redwoods in the Ewoks’ forest (aka, Marin). It was the Star Wars exhibit: costumes, robots, models, storyboards – every little thing my Star Wars-loving heart could want. Three days later, we returned to drool over all of it.

So when I looked up on the Paris metro and saw this: imageYou can imagine my glee. I mean, Louvre, Rodin, Orangerie, blah blah blah. But storm troopers? Darth Vader? Bring on the nostalgia! Bring on the original trilogy crush! Bring on the hive of villainy, the nerfherders, and “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”

I bought tickets online, and the site was in French. Since I don’t speak French, I  actually wasn’t sure exactly what I was buying tickets to. Unlike the original exhibit, this one went far beyond displaying the makings of a movie. Instead, it was an investigation of the creation of identity. At the entrance, I was given an earpiece and smart wristband. The earpiece activates automatically in areas of the exhibit that discuss the physical and emotional development of the characters and of humans in general, either via costumes and storyboards, or short movies about aspects of identity.

The smartband, when held up to 10 octagonal pads along the exhibit, stores information I put into it based on choices I made as I learned more about certain facets of identity. It started with simple concepts, like choosing your gender, home planet, and occupation, and moved toward more complex ideas, like how you respond to certain situations, to help demarcate ‘your’ personality along the Big Five – the five broad categories: openness, extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and neuroticism. Not at all surprising: C3P-0 scored off the charts on neuroticism, and Darth Vadar is highly conscientious (which is defined as being a planner – something may be lost in translation here). (Pardon the poor images – hard to take an image of a screen with twelve people pushing you.)

Neuroticism: off the charts

Neuroticism: off the charts

Someone likes to plan his evil doings

Someone likes to plan his evil doings

Discussion topics in the exhibit included parenting style (on a two-dimensional scale with control or demand on one axis and responsiveness on the other; mentors

Accumulating Yoda's knowledge to pass on to mentee, Luke

Accumulating Yoda’s knowledge to pass on to mentee, Luke

which included noting how it’s been physiologically determined we are in fact never too old for new tricks, using painting as an example and I’m 99% sure using a Bob Ross sillouette as the mentor; influences, i.e., your friends, and I’m sad to say Jabba the Hut has only two – Boba Fett and someone else;

Friends

Friends

pivotal experiences (like losing your mother); and your values, of which there were ten, including stimulation, power, benevolence, hedonism, and self direction. Don’t worry about Jabba, though – the discussion of his layer was titled “Gangster’s Paradise,” so at least he has a sweet pad. Again, no surprises: Darth values Power, Han Solo needs stimulation. “Don’t ever tell me the odds.”

POWER

POWER

STIMULATION

STIMULATION

I loved this exhibit for the way it addressed theories we all know are behind the original trilogy – the influence of eastern philosophy, Native American culture, and the values of equality and diversity that were persistent in a movie that presented non-humans as completely normal participants in our daily existence. Between two drafts of the film, Lucas debated transitioning Luke to a female character, and his refusal to let go of the female character is in part what led to Luke and Leia as twins.

I imagine this exhibit was headier than most of the parents present bargained for. How do you explain to your five year old that his mom could die soon, or that later in life, her friends may need to be ditched in favor of better influences? “Mama, what’s neurosis?” I felt for them. Yet as much glee as I get out of seeing models of the Millennium Falcon

Millennium Falcon

Millennium Falcon

and an imperial cruiser,

Imperial Cruiser

Imperial Cruiser

it solidified for me that Lucas wimped out in the sequel series. How can a creator who was so committed to diversity, to the complexity of human spirit, to exploring the forces that guide us, how can that man create Jar-Jar Binks?

No, seriously…I don’t get it.

What I look like as a Wookie from Tattooine who is friends with Leia

What I look like as a Wookie from Tattooine who is friends with Leia