Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Are You Ting Tong?

“Are you Ting Tong?” Whatever it was, I hoped not. The words were silly, like “tinkle” or “twaddle,” and every time I saw the question scrawled on a sign, a telephone pole, or a mirror, I was vaguely annoyed. Whoever the Ting Tong enthusiast was, he or she was graffiti-prolific in Pai.

During a night-on-the-town-without-parents, Casey and Karis discovered Ting Tong’s definition - crazy beautiful - and the marketing motive behind its ubiquitous expression. It was the name of a bar, a funky hangout where the girls settled in for some Singha beers and communion with the locals. They met Thanwa-Thayahan, a bearded fire staff dancer who went by the name “Bank,” and Maxie, a tall “model-gorgeous” New Yorker who came as a tourist and never left. Tutu, Ting Tong’s bell-bottomed owner, served up the Singhas and told the girls Pai needed pilates instructors. It was a tempting proposal as our two travelers loved the laid-back life in this tiny, soon-to-boom, mountain village, and had already decided they’d return for a longer stay.

Karis also met a guy who said he’d come to Pai to learn to love himself. Over breakfast, she mentioned the conversation, and I wondered if this was a self-conscious line to throw at a cute blond American girl in order to sound introspective. But upon reflection, I mused that for many, for me, it is easier to see one’s own flaws and failings than to recognize one’s worth. Had he achieved it? Did he love himself? How did one learn such a thing?

On our last night, we were finishing a tasty dinner of curry, fresh vegetables, and pasta at The Witching Well when Karis gave a hoot; she’d spotted Marcel, our young Brazilian friend from the jungle trek, passing by in the street. It is a surprisingly frequent aspect of travel to meet up with those encountered before. To see a familiar face and be hailed as an old friend in the mountains of Thailand made the world seem a kind and comfortable place.

Marcel pulled up a chair, ordered a Singha, and told us of the sights he’d seen. He whipped out his camera and thumbed through some pictures.

“Whoa, hold on,” I said. “Where is that?”

“About fifteen minutes away by motorbike,” he replied.

In the photograph, Marcel was a speck with his arms thrown wide, standing on a narrow precipice against a back drop of scrubby trees and red earth that dropped dead away. A canyon. A canyon! How had we not heard of this?

Well, we hadn’t. Nothing to be done. We had walked through rice paddies past thatched huts, a newly-constructed spa, and several hostels offering sheltered hammocks as accommodations. We had darted beneath a spectacular web strung across the road, the girls laughing anxiously as they photographed the impressive spider splayed in waiting. And we had climbed 375 steps to watch the sunset from a lofty temple, its entrance flanked by snarling blue-faced guardians armed with scimitars. But no one had mentioned the canyon.

So I awakened this morning wishing for one more day. Longing to see the canyon. Filled with regret that we would miss this Pai marvel. And then I thought, wait. The van leaves at noon. We’d strolled past the bike rental shop several times – it was maybe a five-minute walk. And rentals were cheap - $3.00 a day.

We could do this!

At home, I am a calendar queen, more at ease with plans made well in advance, but Thailand-Lea, traveler-Lea, is flexible, and oh, how I prefer her! It was 7:30 am when I woke my husband and made my suggestion. Dave is spontaneous by nature and needed no urging. Within an hour, we were showered, dressed, and motorbike-mounted, my arms tight around Dave’s waist, our helmets clunking together with each stop or turn.

Dave on a motorbike is a happy man. He called over his shoulder as we zipped along, “We’re on the opposite side of the world, Lea!” Yes! On the opposite side of the world!

We chugged past mountains wreathed in filmy mist, the scent of wood smoke in the air. Cameras poised, we captured a farmer herding goats, workers repairing an exotic red phone booth, a man in flowing robes, coolie hat, and staff, strolling serenely, alone. We stopped and started for shot after shot, for as is true in life, this jaunt was not just about the canyon, but also about doing it, about paying attention, about getting there.

The canyon was hidden from the road. We thought we’d missed it, doubled back, and asked directions of some road workers who spoke no English and had no idea what we wanted. They turned my tattered map of Pai round and round, scratched their heads and pointed. *Sigh* We allowed ourselves a little more time, but Connecticut-Lea was re-surfacing, tapping her watch, worried about hotel check-out, bike return and the van’s departure. We drove a mile further... and found the parking area.

A paved path wound uphill and opened to blue sky, pines and the erratic twists and cuts of the canyon as it snaked about the land. Sandy slender trails padded by daring feet led to the edge of promontories carved by some primeval rush of water, some cosmic slide of earth, or some giant hand slicing the red soils away like a potter at his craft. In his picture, Marcel stood on a spot, almost a pedestal, with space only for his feet. We found the location, but were not brave enough for the balancing act required to cross the tiny land bridge over.

And it was time to go.

Once on the bike, I hugged Dave’s waist as we steered onto the road back to Pai. I imagined myself, like Marcel, fearless, arms wide, so different, so different from me. What does it take to loosen, to lighten up, in a lasting way?

Letting go has many meanings, and at times the literal and figurative merge. I sat back in the seat, released my hold, flung my hands out, batting the breeze. Emboldened, I can do this, I circled my shoulders, let my arms flow, laughed, and performed a swaying, sinuous Thai dance. Matronly and bulbous in my clumsy blue helmet on a motorbike on the opposite side of the world, I felt Ting Tong, crazy beautiful.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

"Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?"

Dave is sipping his Leo beer and I my Bacardi Breezer as we sit on the porch of our bungalow at the Pai River Corner Resort. Karis and Casey are snoozing in the bungalow next door. Multi-beaked flowers of brilliant scarlet sprout beneath the wide leaves of the palms that skirt the lawn before us. Across the way, the turquoise waters of an infinity pool sparkle in vivid contrast to the mud-brown river flowing just beyond. On the opposite bank, people squat, washing dishes. Yes, they are wearing coolie hats and washing dishes in the river as we sit on our porch with our drinks.

The dish-washers have a fire going, and it smells like autumn in New England as plumes of wood smoke rise above bamboo huts visible among the palms. From the hotel bar sound system, the ‘80s singer Boy George croons, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?”

I know. Crazy.

Pai is a clash of cultures: hippie-meets-island-meets-jungle-meets-up-and-coming-resort town. Strings of red lanterns criss-cross narrow streets of tiny storefronts interspersed with tangled vines, palms, and open-air restaurants beckoning with swings or resting platforms as seating. Thai silks and hand-woven scarves form colorful curtains and neat rainbow mounds in several shops, while right next door, an establishment sells kewpie dolls, dingy yellow rubber duckies, an E.T doll in a red sweatshirt, pink knitted pig heads, and retro wind-up streetcars, fire engines and satellites. Intriguing.

Signs for Thai massage are an omnipresent lure. Dave plans to partake and during this afternoon’s exploratory stroll, he peered into each parlor, hoping to spot a babe of a masseuse. So far, the women glimpsed have appeared sturdy and strong, but definitely not babes.

Lining the main walking road, vendors on blankets, in booths, and with pushcarts hawk their wares. Skinny, dread-locked jewelry merchants sit cross-legged, stringing beads, next to black-garbed Hmong women in colorful embroidered vests selling handmade purses, skirts and bags. Dumplings simmer in boiling oil, vegetables steam, eggs bake in wrought iron pans, and meats roast on skewers. Despite one hideous case of food-poisoning in Laos, Casey and Karis are bold about tastings. Dave and I, however, are wary of street food. Prior to our departure, many people warned us about gruesome diarrhea, parasites and stomach aches, so my backpack is heavy with a plethora of potions: Pepcid, Pepto-Bismol, Cipro, Maalox, cranberry lozenges, charcoal pills, Imodium, and Ex-Lax. We hope to avoid their use.

As it is, Dave and Thai food have not been a good mix. The coconut milk, soapy-flavored basil, and sour fermented fish (a real favorite) have made him bloated, uncomfortable and suspicious. The Witching Well, a cozy Pai eatery decorated with witches, orange walls and spooky black trees, served the best food we’ve had in Thailand: tofu, broccoli, mild curry, cauliflower, and cashews. Delicious.

Pai has been a lull in our quest for danger, for this morning, our driver, a man for whom brakes do not exist, did his best to kill us on the switchbacks in the mountains on the road to Pai, and yesterday, we snuggled with tigers.

Tigers are not in this world for people to pet, but Tiger Kingdom offered that opportunity with the assurance that “Tigers do not have to be drugged to be tamed.” Drugging aside, I’d prefer tigers free and wild, and elephants unchained. I don’t want farmers to lose crops to a stampede, nor their small children to a hungry orange and black striped beast, but how do we reconcile large animals and humans? The answer is not elephant rides and tiger temples, I know, but here, one can lie with tigers, and we did.

At home, organizations and agencies seek to save us from folly and unhealthy leanings. Regulations, red-barred circles, barricades and fences remind or coerce us to caution. Not so in Thailand. As we took a tuk tuk (a motorized rickshaw/taxi) to Tiger Kingdom, motorbikes zipped past us, laden with entire families. Without helmets or safety devices, three-to-four people clung to each vehicle. In the back of pick-up trucks, aged crones and tiny grandchildren made the ride to home or market. And at Tiger Kingdom, a signature on a waiver gave daring, or possibly stupid, tourists full responsibility for whatever mauling or mutilation they might incur as a result of their choice to cuddle an impressively clawed and toothed 700 pound animal.

Casey and Karis were the impetus behind this tiger encounter. They were also the ones with a healthy fear. I, who suffer from anxious butterflies for days at the thought of a few minutes of public speaking, had no qualms. Perhaps I still unconsciously adhere to my naive childhood belief in the protection and concern of beneficent governments, confident “they” wouldn’t let us do this if it were dangerous.

A quaint notion.

After reading the rules, a list of “Do Nots” - Do not approach the tigers from the front, do not touch their paws, do not engage in provocative behavior - we removed our shoes and donned slippers to enter the cage with the baby tigers. Seventeen months old, and the size of a hefty beagle, they were precious – big kittens! Most were napping, although some batted littermates’ ears, climbed up on the low table in the middle of the enclosure, or ambled about checking the visitors.

Casey and Karis were charmed. They cooed and beamed as they stroked orange fur, rubbed tiger tummies, and lay against warm bodies. What a moment: our dear, intrepid travelers, faces blissful, curled up like children with beloved and trusted pets.

Trainers bearing sticks the size of pencils – the means used to train the cubs from the time they were tiny, a quick rap on the snout enough to halt iffy actions – accompanied each tourist group, ever repeating rules and cautions. I’m an intelligent person. I read the rules. I heard the trainers. Still, when a cub honored me with his attention, established eye contact, roused himself from the floor to begin a slow, purposeful saunter my way, I looked him in the eye and made “awww, you are the cutest little guy” type-sounds. Three trainers sprang between us, pencil-sticks at the ready, firmly hissing, “Avoid eye contact! He thinks you want to play! Dangerous!” The tiger backed off and I was flush with embarrassment. I had provoked a tiger.

After that success, it was time to see the big cats.

Again, foolishly – I seemed to have an instinct malfunction - I was not afraid. Dave wore a bright smile; I noticed nothing out of the ordinary. Casey and Karis wisely stifled their default mode of raucous laughter. They approached this encounter with wide eyes and hesitant, should-we-really-be-doing-this smiles of awe, respect and again, healthy fear.

As suggested by a pencil-armed trainer, we took turns draping ourselves across the broad muscled backs of four different animals and running our hands along their sides. I hoped the tigers, who gnawed coconuts, licked their paws, yawned, and shot the occasional bored glance at whomever was lounging on their flank, would not reach the point of annoyance and cuff the offender. Headlines ran through my head, a ticker tape of unnerving possibilities, all a variation on the theme, “Tourist Loses Face in Tiger Incident.”

For these tigers were alert. When not subjected to our ministrations, they paced the enclosure, grumbling. Huge paws placed one before the other, they padded back and forth along the fence of the enclosure. At one point Karis knelt by a tiger, patting and smiling, patting and smiling, her smile stretching too tight, blue eyes widening as I cheerfully video-ed her tiger time. “Um, Lea? It’s probably okay, but there’s this tiger? Right behind you? Don’t make any sudden moves…”

Wishing only to make a sudden move, I kept the camera running, continued narrating in a singsong voice, turned s-l-o-w-l-y, and reflected that while I didn’t want the tigers drugged, I’d thought, had hoped, they’d be, maybe, drowsy...

But the tiger was far more interested in the tussling of his fellows in a nearby enclosure than he was in me. After Dave, Karis, Casey and I immortalized each other with our tiger companions in a variety of self-conscious poses with four separate cameras, our time was up.

As we headed to the exit, Dave’s grin relaxed and his eyes widened as he said, “You won’t believe what happened to me!”

What? What could have happened? We were all in there together.

Before we went in. I was strolling over there,” he indicated the slip of a path between two cages and the animals within. “I took a few pictures, and as I walked away, I heard thudding. When I turned to look, that tiger had a bead on me and was loping after me. As I scurried away, the tiger on the left was coming at me too! Might need to change my pants after that one!”

He provoked the tigers too!

Turned out, Karis had an unnerving experience as well, when the one lion in the place turned nasty as she lined him up for a portrait. He lunged at her, but crashed into the chain link fence. Whoa. Provoked again. What set them off? Maybe Dave and Karis smelled…tasty. Good thing we had pencil-waving trainers to protect us when we walked into the cage with the tigers.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

We Gulp from the River of Shit and Visit the Marigold Strippers - Part II of the One Day Trek

(See Part I below)

It is raining. Of course. In the front seat of the van, Casey and Karis are white-knuckled as they press their fists to their mouths and then cover their eyes as we speed, skidding, over a slick red-mud road cut through the jungle. The mountainside rises immediately to our right; there is no shoulder to the left between the van and the drop to the river. The van fish-tails, wheels spinning, spewing a slurry of brown slush. “And they were never seen again,” someone intones. It is too easy to imagine that red earth, rain-loosened, sluicing down the slope and sweeping this creaky van with it.

But we make it to the raft loading area – an open-sided, roofed shelter – where we shed our clothes, but for our bathing suits, and don yellow life-vests and helmets. We hear our captains long before they drive into view, hanging off the side of their van, honking, hooting, exploding firecrackers, a wild yowling crew of yahoos eager to have some fun with the tourists. Wonderful.

Actually, we are pleased with the arrogant stance of the young man who props one foot on the raft we are assigned to, a paddle gripped upright by his side like a shepherd’s staff. He is cocky, lithe, and tattooed. He has almond eyes, cocoa skin, and black hair pulled tight into a short ponytail. Captain Don.

Don gives clipped instructions in pidgin English. He shows us how to wedge our feet under the inflated rubber seats of the raft to anchor us, how to paddle forward or backward on command, how to hold the rope and prop the paddle across a thigh when he says “stop.” How to leap to left or right to shift weight so the raft does not flip.

“No flipping!” I say sternly. “I am the mother! Keep us safe!”

“No woman, no cry,” Don says, grinning. Could mean anything.

“Okay! We Off!” Captain Don barks orders and we snap into action, shoving the raft into the tug of the current. We paddle like crazy people, clutching at the safety rope as the raft buckles and twists up and around hidden rocks, folding as it tumbles into troughs. Eyes bulging, mouths agape in screams or laughter, hard to say which, we ride, waves lashing our faces, drenching us. “Great!” Dave hollers. “I brush my teeth with bottled water at Sirilanna, but I’m swallowing gulps from the river of shit!” Oh yes. We’d seen the turds, big as bocci balls, that the elephants dumped in this river.

Don hoots with glee. We laugh – hysterically. Don shouts orders. Dave repeats every one. Casey yells at her father to shut up. “Forward! Stop! Back!” calls Don. “Forward! Stop! Back!” whoops Dave. Casey glares at him. Dave ignores her. The raft zips and careens as we leap to comply to rocket-fire demands. Our captain is amusing himself at our expense; still we dare not disobey.

And then, peace. The rapids are behind us. The water is calm, our paddles at rest across our thighs as instructed. We admire the scenery. And Don tells us to pull over.

Crude rafts of bamboo float along the bank. Don points and we clamber awkwardly out of our rubber craft - which looks pretty luxurious at this point - to crawl on hands and knees in water a foot deep, our fingernails scraping up wads of muck. We jabber about the possibility that resident worms and bacteria have easy orifice access. I assume someone will tell us how to distribute our weight evenly so the raft will float on top of the water as pictured in the brochure, but no. Once all eight of our original Panda Tour crew assembles, we set off, with Karis still on hands and knees, giggling, wide-eyed.

We drift downstream in water up to our waists as a man seated at the rear paddles listlessly. The raft rocks steeply left to right, right to left, left to right: why is it so unsteady? I picture the post-ride gathering of the captains as they exchange tales of idiotic clients and their own cleverness in ordering us about. I glare at the paddler in the back, sure he’s the cause of this shaky ride. He does not return my gaze.

* * *

The ride is blessedly short and when we dock, Ghee and the Panda Tour van wait among a cluster of guides and vehicles parked at a rough encampment. In open-air cinder-block shower stalls, we rinse-off in a warm dribble of water no doubt siphoned from the river, then pull on our damp clothes for the well-earned drive back to Sirilanna.

Except we don’t go back yet. After a brief drive, the van slows and pulls over. “You’re kidding, right?” Casey moans, her eyelids drooping. “What did we sign up for?”

A tour of the Mae Tang-Muang Khaud Area, is what. And today’s trek includes visits to several mountain villages. This one, our third, is surrounded by sweeping hillsides stained with orange, pumpkin orange, orange the color of monks’ robes, a brilliant wash of color in the dusky light. “Marigolds,” Ghee says, “used to make dye.”

Our bedraggled troop trudges down dirt roads, past rude shacks with roofs of corrugated metal, wood, or thatch. Dogs lounge against walls, and bare-chested men squat in doorways or snooze on hammocks suspended beneath platform-porches. The way opens to an area encircled by shelters, floors spread with blue striped cloths piled high with orange mounds. Men, women and children bend to the task of stripping petals from stems; they grin and nod when we hold up our cameras for permission.

I feel sheepish as I point and click, point and click at the marigold-strippers, at ancient women working their embroidery, at small children playing with puppies. What must they think about these sodden white people captivated by work and flowers, by baskets of corn, cooking fires, a cow in a rickety pen? Life here is utterly alien, a life I am grateful to visit, a life I want to capture on film, but a life I wouldn’t want.

On this day, this one day, I have lived many days. I am thrilled to be able to head back to Sirilanna’s Jacuzzi, pool, comfy beds and fresh fruit. But today, with my dear ones, I trod a slick red-mud jungle trail, bathed in a waterfall, and clung to a rope in a raft on a swirling river. Today I rode on an elephant.

Casey's blog

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Rumblings, Gunshots, and Hysteria in the Jungle - Part I of the One Day Trek

I know two Thai words and one is our elephant’s name, Sawasdee, or “hello.” Yes, Dave and I are seated on a metal bench resting on many layers of padding upon the shoulders of an elephant. Casey and Karis are similarly situated on an elephant behind us. The girls are laughing and indeed, there is a swell of such joy in my chest, such astonishment, that I am in Thailand, lurching and sloshing through a chocolate mud river on an elephant’s back, that my laughter spills and mingles with theirs. The sun is bright and hot. Dark, mysterious mountains, wreathed in mist, slope to meet an expanse of brilliant green rice paddy. Beneath my feet, leathery gray skin puckers as a great ear flaps and Sawasdee’s trunk stretches to probe the shrubs along the riverbank. How, how is this real?

At 8:30 this morning, our guide, Ghee, arrived with her driver in a tattered Panda Tour van to pick us up at Hotel Sirilanna for our “One Day Trek of the Mae Tang-Muang Khaud Area.” Ghee’s tiny pale face, bushy hair and over-sized glasses peeped from a beige wide-brimmed hat. She was fully swathed in a long-sleeved rain jacket, jeans, socks and sneakers. Doubtfully, she eyed my sleeveless shirt, striped Capri pants, and sandals, and said, “Walking shoes? You have walking shoes?”

I headed back to our room to change and met Casey and Karis on the stairs. Both were wearing camisoles, shorts and sandals. When I told them Ghee’s remark, they exchanged a look. “These were fine the last time we rode elephants, Mom,” my worldly girl commented. “It will be harder to clean mud off of sneakers.”

Oh. Well. “Ghee was adamant,” I said.

So, with sneakers on our feet, bathing suits under our clothes, and raincoats in our daypacks, we rejoined our guide outside the hotel and climbed into the van. Four others had signed on for the expedition: three girls about Casey’s age and Marcel, an engaging young man from Brazil.

After a brief stop at an orchid and butterfly preserve, we were off to the elephant camp, a compound of thatched huts, canopies and platforms at the toe of the mountain, at the edge of the ride paddies, in the curve of a river.


We were distracted, delighted, and amazed that we were in the presence of elephants, so Ghee had some difficulty corralling us to read a large sign, written in English, posted beside the platform where we mounted up. Frequently asked questions – or perhaps, accusations – were addressed, most of them related to the chains around the animals’ ankles and the prods used by the mahouts, their trainers. Elephants, the sign said, are not allowed in the jungles or paddies, and they are prone to disputes, or even stampedes, at mealtime. The chains minimize such problems. As far as the prods, they do not have points, and we saw that the mahouts were gentle and affectionate with their charges. Still, something is wrong in the world when elephants are banned from their jungle, and chains on ankles are the answer.

Two by two we were helped onto our elephants. Soo-Ree, the mahout, speaks no English, but turns to grin at us often and, open-handed, reaches for Dave’s camera to capture our ride upon Sawasdee.

In front of us cavorts James Bond, a two-year-old baby elephant the size of a VW Beetle, tethered to his mother’s leg by a length of chain. Despite the mahout’s calls and urging, young James lolls in the water, at times disappearing below the surface but for the tip of his trunk. He emerges, his mother tugging him along, but he pulls to the bank, flops in the mud, wallows, takes his time – he’s a little kid out for a stroll. There’s fun to be had and he is doing what he wants – at least, to the degree he can at the end of a chain.

James’s mother urinates copiously, impressive amounts, gallons, into the river.

We hear a hollow thrumming, in this setting, a sound we know only from war movies. It would seem a helicopter is approaching. Sawasdee shoves past shiny green ferns as the grumbling grows so loud, we can feel it in our feet. In our feet! It is not a chopper, but Sawasdee, working up to a resounding trumpet! We are thrilled at her call. What is she saying? From behind us, Casey and Karis’s elephant rumbles a reply. We imagine the exchange between these two immense working girls, When do you go on break? My back is killing me.

I crane through the safety bar to caress tough skin bristling with wiry hairs. I take in the view down my leg: my sneakered foot, the mound of massive skull, the slap of a gray, wing-like ear. I want to soak in the scent of earth, manure, bug spray, sunscreen and elephant, the squelch of huge feet in mud and water, the shrieks of our two girls as a spider web sweeps their faces as they brush through overhanging foliage.

An hour passes and we circle back to the enclosure to dismount. Dave buys some bananas to thank Sawasdee and James Bond. Two snaking trunks eagerly probe for the yellow fruit and curl it away, gently, from our hands.

Ghee gathers our group and herds us to lunch at a wooden plank set on a platform beneath a thatched canopy. Two women garbed in black dresses swathed in pink fabric with multi-colored beads and ribbons serve bowls of yellow curry with tofu and potatoes, and a salty soup of broth, carrots and cucumbers. The food is delicious. After we eat, one of the women coaxes Casey, Karis and I to a booth draped with beaded necklaces, silver bracelets, woven goods and embroidered bags. “I make,” says the woman, and Casey and I pick out two beautiful scarves.

A little girl sits in the shade of the booth playing with a kitten. Near strangling the kitten. Tucking the kitten into a bag and zipping it shut. “That cat’s not going to last long,” Karis murmurs. We mime cradling, cooing and patting an imaginary cat, and for the time being, while we are there, the child heeds us.

“You ready to walk?” Ghee appears at our side. “We go down, down, down, then up, up, up.” She did not say, “is velly dangerous.” She saves that for later.

* * *

Gingerly, we seek solid footing on widely-spaced rocks at stream crossings and on the deep-red earth of the narrow path, stretching for a toe-hold where the trail has not washed away. We are grateful for our sneakers. Through much of the hike, we laugh hysterically – and I mean that literally. We are scared, but exhilarated. I wonder how we missed the part in the trek brochure that said “periodically perilous.”

NPR did a segment on laughter in one of their Radio Labs and concluded that it is not just a response to humor. Fear and anxiety are triggers as well. When Dave falls from the spine of a massive downed tree, when Karis slips on rocks beneath a pounding waterfall, when I tumble as the trail drops away, we are teary with laughter.

Always after one of us trips over roots or rocks, after one scrabbles to regain footing on a particularly tricky incline, or after the rickety bamboo handrail sways out of reach just when a clawing hand lunges for it, then Ghee shouts from the head of our wavering line, “Keh-ful! Slipp-a-leeee!” And it is. So very slippery. We crack up, weak with laughter and exertion, at the too-late warnings, the monstrous spiders, the holes by the track the girls insist are tarantula lairs, the gun shots cracking through the jungle. “This is where the sound track turns ominous and the drug lords appear and lead us, at gunpoint, to their compound…and we are never seen again,” I observe. Laughter. Hysterical.

“And they were never seen again,” becomes a regular refrain.

As we inch over a section where the trail used to be, Ghee sings back a minute too late, “Keh-ful! Landslide!” We glance up the slope of slick red earth at the jagged gap between the mountainside, the tiny trail on which we stand, and the dead drop through groves of bamboo, ferns and trees. Hysterical.

“We are in ‘National Geographic’,” says Dave, breathless.

After an hour and a half of sweating, muscle-twitching, weepy-with-laughter hiking, we hear the thunder of falling water – a promise, a beacon. Our skin is feverish, burning; cold water sounds heavenly.

“Strong water. Velly dangerous,” says Ghee. Ah yes. Danger. And we are howling again, laughing like lunatics.

A wild froth of water tumbles from an unseen source hidden in the foliage high above. Marcel, the young Brazilian, is first in and he disappears beneath the deluge. “It’s great!’ he shouts above the water’s din. “Come on!” Ghee slogs in, fully dressed, and submerges.

Casey and Karis have learned on this trip to turn no opportunity aside. They stagger into the churning foam, mouths wide, laughing. These girls have a spirit and courage I envy.

Dave and I make our way slowly and cautiously into the pool and toward the waterfall, but I can’t bring myself to take on the full force. Karis slides on a rock and goes down, wincing as she smacks her shoulder. It hurts, clearly it hurts, but she smiles, rolls it back to test it, and says she’s okay. Reassured, Casey yells, “Someone take pictures! Awkward family photos!” a phrase she and Karis use for the goofy stances they’ve observed other tourists assuming. Marcel climbs from the water to oblige. So, there, in the jungle, beneath a waterfall, after an elephant ride, we point our toes, grimace and primp for the camera. Hysterical.

“Next, back to the river,” says Ghee. What? More? “White water rafting,” she adds.

“No way,” says Casey. “Was that in the brochure?”

Ghee nods and says, “And bamboo rafts after that.”

Casey's blog

Friday, November 11, 2011

Chiang Mai - From Wat to Wat

At her desk, Sophia, Sirilanna’s concierge, patiently removes tiny flowers from a stem as we eat our breakfast of yogurt, muesli, Asian rice, fresh fruit and fried eggs. When we leave the hotel, we see that she’s created new arrangements in the water-filled pots lining the stairway: green palm fingers spread wide on the water’s surface, white blossoms floating between each one. Simple. Beautiful. A quiet task that took some time and, with gentle color and grace, sends guests into the clogged, busy street.

For the road outside Sirilanna, indeed every road we walk in Chiang Mai, is a sensory assault of clamoring street vendors, ropy black tangles of overhead electrical wires, roaming dogs, dingy facades, bright red Tiger Temple vans, careening, beeping, tuk tuks (open-air rickshaw/taxis propelled by drivers on motorbikes) and… apparitions. In the midst of a neighborhood scrabbling with modern life, we’d come upon a wat, or temple, with sweeping red-tiled roofs tipped with graceful finials, soaring towers, stone elephants, and gaudy, snaking dragons with gold teeth and flashing, multi-colored glass scales.

We are in Thailand. Foolish as it sounds, we say it often. It is like a pinch, a needed pinch, to process our surroundings, so alien are they from anything we’ve known. It is with this sense of near-disbelief that we slip off our shoes and don the shapeless blue robes offered to cover shoulders and knees to enter Wat Chedi Luang to stand in the presence of a towering golden Buddha.

He is thirty feet tall, smiling, serene. I can’t avoid the contrast to a Christian church in which one is met by images of a tortured, bleeding man on a cross. In this spacious, dimly lit hall, I am enveloped by peace. Thailand is known as the Land of a Thousand Smiles and I reflect that it would be easier to beam if, instead of sin and the struggle for redemption, your culture were grounded in a religious philosophy of wisdom and harmony.

A cluster of life-sized Buddha statues surrounds the base of the Golden One. Each smiles, each sits in the lotus position, inviting me to fold my fifty-eight-year-old body into a similar pose. Instead, I take pictures.

Moving on, we visit several other wats in which wax monks meditate in glass cases. They are eerily real and I walk around and around them, examining fingernails, wiry eyebrows, and creased skin for hints of life. With their orange robes, shaven heads and lean bodies, might they be monks of the highest order, those who have reached nirvana? How long could one go without food or water if truly enlightened? They are immobile, unblinking, but so real. As with the many monks we’ve seen in passing, the robe and shaved head virtually eliminate individuality. But for the arch of a nose, the angle of cheekbones, each is one of all.

Karis says she’s heard that education is the motivation for many boys to become monks. We notice signs for a “monk chat” and when we stop in a few days later, the monk, Jikmy, confirms that 50% take the robe for that purpose. We sit on stone benches around a table beneath a large leafed palm. Four mongrels snooze at our feet, occasionally lifting scarred muzzles to scratch an ear or lick a paw. Scrappy as they are, they seem well-fed and content. Jikmy tells us that each temple has a pack of dogs. “They do not cross the line from wat to wat. Very territorial.” At 6:00 pm, the air is loud with ringing bells…and barking, howling dogs. “It hurts their ears,” the monk explains. “They bark to balance the sound.”

Jikmy is good-humored, educated, and enjoys practicing his English. He makes it clear that monks are not to touch women. He confesses that, as a twelve-year old novice, he would hug his mother during weekend visits even though that was not kosher. He is happy to pose for a picture, although he reiterates that Karis, Casey and I must remain hands-off. When he requests a pen to write his email address in order to get a copy of the photo, he recoils when I offer mine. I have to give the pen to Dave to hand to Jikmy. Please. This is not my favorite Buddhist tenet.

Still, one young man, as orange-robed, austere, and clean-shaven as the rest, asks Casey where she is from and tells her she is beautiful. That raises a sparkle from my girl at being irresistible even to a monk.

Doves coo as we stroll the bricked compound, fragrant with sweet jasmine. Small boys gleefully heft wooden mallets to whack heavy bronze bells suspended on racks setting off a solemn, resounding echo.

A beautiful, wizened, woman shaded by a coolie hat squats by the corner of a shrine. She wears a long flowing skirt and loose jacket and smiles widely to show off perfect white teeth. She gestures at her tray of peeping, woven, covered baskets, each holding fluttering wrens. “100 baht – set a family free.” She makes a sweeping motion and wiggles her fingers to the sky. Flight. Freedom. Lofty blessings to be had for roughly three dollars.

I know freedom will be temporary. I know it is probably a bad idea to encourage this practice. I think I read in one of the guide books that this is a Buddhist version of a Catholic indulgence – a mercenary act of compassion to buy a token toward heaven, although that doesn’t mesh with Jikmy’s explanations of his religion. Still, I am drawn.

The woman smiles at her success in sucking me in as I fumble in my bag for bahts. She hands me a trembling parcel of chirping, pooping (yes, on my fingers) life. I flip the latch and hold the basket aloft to watch as the birds perch on the rim, stretch their wings…and fly away.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Flying Dreams and Happy Landings

October 13, 2011 9:00 AM

Cathay – Marco Polo’s destination. The word whispers of ancient cultures and kingdoms. Silks, incense, temples and elephants. And we are going there, borne by Cathay Pacific Airways. For two anxious months we’ve wrestled with doubts: should we go or not? Can we take the time from work? Does Casey want us or will we impose on her free-wheeling journey? Will it be an incredible experience or an opportunity to contract malaria, polio or typhoid fever? The path scattered with those decisions and fears is behind us, and we are waiting among our carry-on bags and fellow passengers at Gate 22. I am afloat with elation. I feel daring. This is not just a trip, it’s an adventure.

Dave and I have been rendered disease-immune machines by a multitude of inoculations. To-do lists are done, discarded in the recycling bin. Research and recommendations have reaped a hotel in Chiang Mai for five nights, and a few sights to shoot for, but for the most part, we fly to Karis' and Casey’s guidance… and chance…as well as floods and monsoons.

When we made our plans, the dates dictated by when we could leave work and where the girls would be during that brief window, we knew we’d be hitting the rainy season: we have our EMS raincoats in our backpacks. Casey called two mornings ago to alert us to possible travel glitches due to flooding in Thailand. Trains are no longer running, but she assures us that they will get to us… somehow.

Control is an issue for me, yet today, I feel giddy at letting go.


We are off to the other side of the world! My personal display screen and entertainment center (yippee!) flashes the time in New York and Hong Kong (Hong Kong!) in English and Chinese characters. Dave and I will be aloft for twenty some hours. Unclaimed hours! Hours without phones or email! Hours to read, write and watch movies! Twenty hours might not be enough. I want to watch movies that Dave would hate – Green Lantern, Bridesmaids, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Thor. I want to read Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. I want to read magazines and write. I want to sleep a little.

I have time and choices. Bliss.

* * *

When we boarded, lovely Asian women with serene smiles directed us to our seats in Economy. We passed the private cubicles of business class, each with its cozy quilt, individual monitor, stretch-out seating and decorative purple orchid sprig, but even our steerage seats are roomy compared to the cramped quarters offered by Delta, Continental and their ilk. Our meals have been delicious, and during the quiet lights-off hours, a whiff of something soothing and salty led us to a woman stirring noodles with chopsticks. She grinned and nodded and waved toward the rear of the plane. Apparently, we can lurch back to the galley any time we wish to order noodles…or tea, or peanuts or crackers. Dave clambers from his seat and returns with two steaming bowls, a glass of light, fruity white wine for me, and a beer for him. Bless you Cathay Pacific!

Brunch is served a few hours later – a noodle dish and a cup of fresh fruit. Soon after, a pleasant attendant distributes drawstring bags of water, oat bars, apples and refreshing towelettes for our comfort. Heaven forbid we be hungry for even a moment. Fed! Entertained! Rested! May I recommend Cathay Pacific for your traveling pleasure?

Our on-screen flight information display tells us we have 8 hours, 55 minutes and 4386 miles to go. We are content and cared for, our circumstances clear, while all is uncertain once we land.

October 14

I had set my expectations low. In fact, I’d aimed for no expectations. With reports of hundreds dead in the flood, the potential for Karis' and Casey’s delayed arrival, and the possibility that we’d be stranded in the airport, it seemed a wise mindset. My aim was a Zen sense of calm even if our bags were lost, no one showed to meet us, and rain poured.

But ours was a joyous welcome.

First, triumph, as we spotted and retrieved our backpacks from the tumble of duffles and suitcases rattling by on the conveyor belt at baggage claim. As I slipped my arms into the straps, bent to take the weight in my knees, and straightened, I pondered that an exercise-aversive 58-year-old woman had no business carrying a forty-pound backpack. But I liked the image – the connection to the twenty-one year old Lea who traveled Europe in the seventies.

Like wistful children hoping their parents have not forgotten to pick them up after school, we pushed through the double doors into the pick-up area and scanned the crowd. An Asian couple, a young man in a coral uniform jacket and a woman in a white blouse and black pants, held a sign bearing our name. As we approached them, they beamed and bowed, hands pressed together as if in prayer. They seemed as overjoyed to see us as we were to see them.

Outside, the hotel’s van was a silver mirage of sumptuous seats, ornate mirrored décor, and frosted water bottles in cupholders. We were in THAILAND!

During the brief drive we learned that, yes, Casey and Karis had arrived earlier in the day. Karis, a petite, spirited blond with expressive blue eyes, was Casey’s roommate in New York for three years. She has been my daughter’s companion on this journey, experiencing the extraordinary, as well as sharing the anxieties of the utterly unfamiliar and the terror of the seemingly dangerous. They have also peed together in the dark of a rice paddy and shared a bathroom in weathering the hideous aftermath of a tainted chicken sandwich. As Casey says, “We were close. Now we’re closer.”

Borne in comfort by our silver van, we passed tented street stalls, lighted store-fronts and the swooping red-tiled roofs of temples. As we took a turn, the woman said, “And now down this road, a beautiful hotel.” I craned to see, and she giggled. “It is our hotel! Sirilanna!” And we pulled to a stop before a stairway flanked by two snarling white plaster lion-guardians and water-filled pots arranged with palms and flowers.

Our hosts would not let us tire ourselves with our backpacks. Those were whisked away up a flight of stairs as we were invited to sit, sip a chilled glass of guava juice and wipe our faces and hands with a damp, warm towel. Happiness! But where were Casey and Karis?

Hospitality is not to be rushed. Once assured that we were indeed refreshed, we all pressed our hands at chin level in that prayer-like gesture and Bow-ee, a slender girl in a white silk top and black pants, led us to our room. With as much delight as if she’d crafted them herself, she showed us the massive carved wooden armoire, a chair of sinuous dragons, the throne of a bed with its carved head and footboards. She gestured toward the floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors to the balcony overlooking the pool. She pushed through saloon doors to the expansive bathroom to point out the double Jacuzzi, tiled shower and folding stained glass windows with jeweled handles of amber, emerald and turquoise that opened to the bedroom. Spotless, beautiful, luxurious! Thank you Sirilanna! All for eighty-five dollars a night!

On the desk, a wooden bowl borne on the backs of elephants was heaped with pomegranates, pineapple, and what looked like a plump pink blowfish. A baggie of…hmm…yes… large stewed crickets - perhaps a daughter’s touch? - was tucked beside some bananas. An aromatic lei of jasmine blossoms twined across the arrangement. All lovely, but I could wait no longer. Where were the girls? Bow-ee smiled and said, “Right next door…”

I peeked out into the hall just as a face appeared. Casey! We hugged and danced and clapped and grinned. And then Dave and Karis trotted into the hall and we babbled and hugged and danced some more while Dave and I took in these two travelers, heroines of our favorite blog, dauntless voyagers of the Mekong River, Great Wall, and Angkor Wat, survivors of Viet Nam thefts, piddles in paddies, creepy boatmen, and tubing in Vang Vieng. Dressed in blousy Asian pants, wrists wreathed with beads and string bracelets, hair wispy in the heat, faces alight, here they were before us, in the flesh, themselves still. It seemed weirdly natural and normal to be together, but we kept shrieking, “Here you ARE!”

And for two weeks, we will be together, part of their adventure, In THAILAND!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Rolling Refuge

The other night, I drove in from work, looked over one shoulder, then the other, and backed in to the narrow parking space in front of the house. I sat for a minute in the warmth and darkness of the car and listened to the end of the song on the radio as I often do before heading inside. It was comfortable and peaceful, the work of the day complete and the chores before me on hold.

I climbed out, leaving the headlights on to illuminate the road, then crossed the street to fetch the mail. As I walked back, I gazed fondly at my car. Something about her front grill and headlights seemed to smile. The thought crossed my mind that she’d put in a lot of miles and it was time to think about getting a new vehicle.

I burst into tears.

My mid-size 2001 Caravan is a deep purple-blue: a unique color when it first came out, but now, you see it on the road a lot. After our kids left for college and our dog died, we down-sized from a Grand Caravan, but this model is still bigger than I need. While she does okay on gas – maybe 21 mpg – I feel guilty about not driving a hybrid.

I have never had my own brand new, snappy auto. When I was a teenager, I inherited a black Ford Falcon with a white vinyl top when my grandfather passed away. When my grandmother, Byeo, died, I took the wheel of her mammoth maroon Impala. Once I married Dave, we shared a car, and when the kids came along, so did the larger family vehicle. My Caravan is the first one that has felt like mine. She is matronly, but has held up well, so we are a good match.

While I never named her or anything, she has been a good friend to me. She has held me through some hard times. I slumped, sobbing, in her gray velour seats in the parking lot after visits with my father-in-law, Colombo, at the nursing home. She was womblike and warm, ready with heat, old favorites on the radio, and the reassurance of my own independence, my own abilities to punch buttons, turn the wheel and go, even though Colombo had lost his.

When I received my cancer diagnosis, she was the first to offer comfort. I’d held myself together as I walked through the waiting room of the radiology center and crossed the parking lot. But I couldn’t wait to get to my car, buckle in and break down before assuming a brave face for my family and friends. And throughout that year, en route to scans, hospitals, doctor’s appointments, and surgeries, she was my refuge. I cried a lot behind the wheel, but I also knew that as long as I was in her seat, I was safe.

Living in the moment got me through that time. As my car and I made our way to whatever needle, stethoscope or prodding awaited, I would tell myself, “Right now, you are fine. Right now you have control. Right now you decide on your music, heat, mood and destination.” And it helped.

In my car, I had no need to be cheerful, or self-conscious about my scarf. In fact, the small square of the rear-view mirror framed only my eyes, so I looked the same as before the cancer. Well, maybe a little sadder.

I will miss my Caravan. It will seem like a betrayal, to park her in a lot somewhere and drive away.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Night at a Country Carnival

Two decades ago, my husband Dave and I stood among the parents waving and grinning as our kids whirled in a silver Scrambler car or spun by in an oversized teacup. Easton’s Fireman’s Carnival has expanded since then and our children have grown up and left home, but the scene is still gloriously familiar. Bells clang, neon lights flash. Kids kick off their flip-flops as the Rip Cord ride rises slowly up a glittering shaft, then – whoosh! – drops its cargo of shrieking passengers. Indulgent dads squeeze into tiny compartments next to their gleeful little ones within a winged serpent for the Cobra’s gentle, undulating version of a small-scale roller coaster. Tan, lithe-limbed teenagers saunter and flirt with much self-conscious hair tossing (girls) and elbow-nudging (boys) as they enjoy a summer’s night out. Wafting over all is the whiff of grilled hamburgers and the sweet, sweet scent of sticky cotton candy.

Dave and I are the rare adult couple strolling without children in tow. For us, this is a chance to wander, hold hands, and catch up with friends and folks from earlier life stages. We spot parents of our children’s school friends, and even some of their former classmates, their second, third and fourth grade faces still recognizable in thirty-year-old bodies. But our memories are not what they used to be; periodically, one or the other of us furtively whispers, “Name?” as someone familiar, but not immediately identified, approaches with a smile.

We make our rounds of the rides remembering when we had the stomach for the lurch, spin and soar of Zero Gravity, the Dodgems, Ali Baba, and Dizzy Dragons. No longer. Dave owes me my annual stuffed animal, so we head to the games and stop at a baseball toss, a likely choice because Dave was a pitcher in high school. We chat with Irv Snow, who is one of those on duty at the booth. Almost every tent, game, and attraction is manned by one of the town’s volunteer firefighters, putting in still more hours on behalf of Easton’s fire department. I’m surprised how many people I know who are wearing firefighters’ blues tonight.

Dave’s pitching prowess wins me a stuffed purple turtle to add to last year’s Chihuahua, and the dolphin and long-legged brown bear of years past. As is our tradition, next we slip into the baked goods booth to savor a slice of blueberry pie in a flaky, buttery crust. Delicious. We catch up with Carol Mulligan who has volunteered here for as long as I can remember, then Dave and I beeline for the Bingo tent: for us, the high point of the carnival.

The place is jammed and we scan the tables for two open seats together. We recognize Kyle Haines, the Kushnir brothers, Jon Davis and the Sabias among the uniformed firefighters serving as Bingo ushers. We grab two seats next to Bill Bartosik (whose math-tutoring savvy helped our daughter through quite a few math tests as well as the SATs) just as the next game begins.

Used to be a dollar bought one cardboard playing card and a handful of corn kernels to mark off numbers. Now, that same dollar buys a three-card sheet. I can barely keep up as I hurriedly scan the appropriate columns when a number is given and, with a magic marker, place a splotch of brilliant red when I’m lucky.

The caller, Joe Puchalski, is a kick. His patter rolls with the fluidity of a stand up comic; if Bingo weren’t thrilling enough, he brings an energy that keeps us in our seats far longer than usual. “Keep your eye on your card, a hand on your dauber and another hand on your seat,” he advises. “Things move fast here in the Bingo tent!” His expression gives nothing away as he reaches for the next number. He intones, as if it were a moment of high import, “Whoa – another ‘B’!” and draws it out, the suspense palpable – how many are waiting for just…this…number for the five-in-a-row or all four corners that would win the pot?

“B-4!!!” Joe calls to hoots of relief when no one shouts “Bingo!” He pauses to announce, “My Chief Financial Bingo Officer tells me we have $50 riding on this game. Yes folks, here in the Bingo tent you get the biggest bang for your entertainment dollar. It’s not just the winning, but the unbridled excitement of the game!” We players crack up and remain in our seats for round after round, earning us Joe’s commendation. “This crowd will go down in Easton Bingo history…In fact, some might say in world Bingo history!”

Eventually, Dave and I lay down our daubers, still grinning. We stroll across the firehouse green to await the shuttle bus to the parking lot at the middle school. We line up behind chatty teenagers, heads bent as they text, weary adults and sleepy little kids clutching their trophies – stuffed frogs, mustachioed bananas (!?), and fuzzy dogs with floppy ears. Everyone is smiling, everyone is happy, after a great night at the carnival in Easton.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Zombies Beware

Video games. Please. I have never understood the appeal. In fact, I’ve worried that they spell the end of literate society as my husband, Dave, and my son, Tucker, seem to have abandoned the joys of absorption in a good book in favor of provoking angry birds, meddling with a pond full of hungry fish, and knocking off Egyptian pool balls.

A few weeks ago, Tucker came to visit. After dinner, instead of a family gathering of Scrabble or Scattergories, my son introduced Dave to a game with defensive gardening as its goal. In Plants vs. Zombies, the player must fortify his virtual front lawn with shrubs that shoot peas, catapults that fling butter pats, peppers that fire flames and grumpy squashes that squish intruders. All this to defend one’s home and brains from zombies.

Zombies? Yes! Well might you smirk! I did too. “Are you kidding, Tuck? A smart guy like you?” But my son merely smiled and tapped the screen of his iPad.

A simple, swaying, cheerful - and yet vaguely foreboding - melody played, a synthesized piano and violin instrumental. I was reminded of the mesmerizing strains of a snake charmer urging a cobra from a basket, except this time it was zombies lurking off-screen. “Ready! Set! Plant!” flashed an urgent red alert. Tuck tapped a round-faced smiling sunflower and “planted” it in the yard between a house façade and rickety fence. Periodically, a sun popped from the sunflower and with another tap, Tuck earned points toward plants. The music hummed as my son planted sunflowers, pea-shooters and mines. “The zombies are coming!” rumbled a threatening, throaty voice and I felt a mild unease because the pea-shooter seemed slow on the draw as cartoonish, bug-eyed zombies lurched toward my son's "house."

My book remained on the end table by the couch in the living room as I stayed on my stool, perched behind Tucker with a view over his shoulder. He lives in Boston and I don’t see him as much I’d like, so I hovered, an observer, as he fought off the undead.

As I said, I was concerned the pea-shooter was too slow and my boy’s brains were at stake. “How about the purple plant, Tuck?” I suggested. (This particular flower lunges at zombies, snaps them up, chews them with a gratifying crunch and swallows them.) “Sweetie? Maybe the cherry bomb? Watch it! Zombies in the upper right!”

A mad fray ensued - leaping zucchini, exploding cherries, flying peas, zombies losing heads and arms and finally falling. I watched with my heart pounding (yes!) until a harp-like trill of triumph signaled the game’s end and the zombie defeat. Exhausting! Exhilarating! Fun! Still, when Tuck swung around in his seat and offered me his iPad, I snorted dismissively. At first.

It was so stupid. But I wanted to play.

So, I did. And I’ve been playing too often since. Sometimes until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. The other day, I announced I was going on a zombie sabbatical – a “Zombatical” - just to prove that I could.

But Dave lures me in. He turns it on, I hear that snake-charmer music and I’m drawn as sure as that sinuous cobra. And I get it now. Fun feels good! Dave and I usually play together, taking turns, reaching over to tap the screen when the odds are too overwhelming, laughing aloud at the antics of shifty-eyed water plants, spore-spouting mushrooms, and zombies on pogo sticks, ladders and bungee cords. Who thought of this stuff? I can only imagine the self-amused glee of the brainstorming team behind Plants vs. Zombies.

The truth is, Dave and I do plenty of fun things, but for the most part, silly and goofy went out the window a decade ago, and it’s silly things that make one giggle or laugh until it hurts. Laughter is a balm in this grown-up life and for some reason, battling a zombie horde does the job.

Problem is, we’ve developed strategies too tough for the zombies – rarely do they breach the doorway to eat our brains. Tucker says there’s another game we should check out – something about covering oranges?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Rainbow Black Out

How could anyone grow up in the fifties without watching Dorothy dance down the yellow brick road? My husband and I had tickets to see “Wicked,” but Dave revealed he’d never seen “The Wizard of Oz.” We compared notes on childhood TV viewing and, as expected, “The Wonderful World of Disney,” “The Flintstones” and “The Ed Sullivan Show” made both our lists. The absence of Oz was a surprise.

Dave grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts in a duplex on St. Nicholas Avenue, a neighborhood where, on nice evenings, Dave’s father, Colombo, and his friends strung a net across the road to play volleyball or coached the kids during pick-up baseball games. Sundays were spent with Colombo’s parents for suppers of slow-cooked sauce over pasta and peppers stuffed with anchovies, garlic, olives and breadcrumbs.

There was little contact with Dave’s mother’s family. Ma avoids speaking about her childhood: the alcoholism, neglect and abuse as she was passed from one aunt to another. I never learned why her mother didn’t keep her, and she says she doesn’t remember much. “To tell you the truth, darlin’, I don’t even want to go there…”

She knew she wanted a very different life for her boys and was fierce in her devotion to them. But she’d also learned to shield herself from hurt, and when her sons disappointed her, they knew it, for she withdrew, face closed, lips tight, sealed off from painful feelings. For years, Sylvestro gatherings included roars of laughter at tales of Dave’s efforts to win her back as he scurried about at age four or five, washing ashtrays, hoping to melt her with each swipe of his cloth.

Recently, those stories have not seemed so funny.

Dave was a smart little guy and he can list every teacher he had, the subjects they taught and what he learned in each class. When I marvel at his mastery of facts from geography to history to science, he says, “Didn’t you learn them in grammar school?”

Perhaps, but they elude me now. In fact, all of my second grade year is a blank except for hunching over the toilet, feeling sick every week-day morning. Mom says my teacher was mean to me, but my brain has blocked that memory. How amazing, the mental power to deflect or conceal.

Around the age of four or so, Dave developed a stutter and attended speech class for three years. It was a difficult time. When kids teased him, his older brother Steve came to his defense, but when, in sixth grade, the bully was Mrs. Wiley, his teacher, there wasn’t much a brother could do. Once, Dave had barely begun his oral report on rockets when Mrs. Wiley stopped him and made him start over. He re-stated the title, but the teacher interrupted again, her voice stern and unforgiving. In front of his classmates she said, “You’ll have to do better than that, David, or you’re going back to speech class with the second graders.” Apparently he’d not mastered “r’s” to her satisfaction.

I’d have pled illness for weeks after such humiliation, but Dave says, “That kind of experience shapes a person, shaped me and heightened my sensitivity to others. I know how it feels to be teased, how it hurts to be different.”

Anyway, our date to see “Wicked” was approaching. We rented the classic film for our trip to Oz, prepared pasta for dinner, poured some wine, and inserted the DVD to watch Miss Gulch of the beaked nose and glinting eye pedaling her bike furiously, with Dorothy’s dog Toto in her basket.

We twirled our spaghetti as Dorothy fled with Toto to a haystack behind the barn. Why oh why are there cruel people in the world? Where can you go to escape them?

Somewhere over the rainbow is where. As Dorothy sang, I sensed movement at my elbow and turned to Dave. His hands covered his mouth; his eyes were wide. Tears streamed down his cheeks. He was crying.

“My god, honey! Are you okay? What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know.” He snuffled, took deep breaths and said something about the song.

The song?

I hit the pause button and onscreen, Dorothy froze, mouth open, eyes dreamy.

“Give me a minute,” Dave said. He went to the sink, washed his face and returned to the couch. He took a deep, chest-filling breath and said, “Okay. I’m ready. Let’s try this again.”

I reversed the DVD and Dorothy stepped back. I pushed “play” and she resumed her post by the haystack. “Somewhere over the rainbow…” she sang, and the couch shook as Dave burst into tears.

My husband is a psychologist and once he’d composed himself, he was intrigued. The song was a trigger – why?

Thank goodness for Google; few questions need go unanswered. He looked up the first televised broadcast of “The Wizard of Oz” and called his mother. When she answered the phone, he blurted, “Ma, why do I cry when Dorothy sings ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow?’”

“Hey darlin’. I don’t know. That is odd.”

“It first ran on TV in 1956. In the fall. I was four. Think.”

“I have no idea, David.”

“Try to remember, Ma. What happened around that time, traumatic enough that I would repress it?”

“Well. Hmm. That might be the year I had a D & C. You and Steve stayed with your grandmother. The doctor said cancer was a possibility, but you knew nothing of that.”

He might not have known, but a small boy so tuned in to his mother’s moods, a boy prone to washing ashtrays to make things right, such a boy would have sensed fear. Might have thought it was anger. Might have thought he’d done something wrong. Did Dorothy sing as Dave tried to bring his mother back, tried to make her well with his washing?

“Besides, I was fine, so that can’t be it,” said his mother.

For forty-five years, Dave avoided the movie, his brain protective, directing him, “Don’t even go there…”

“You never seemed troubled by it…” his mother added. “Except, now that you mention it, when I came home from the hospital, you’d developed that stutter …”

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Romance in Ice

Dave and I had known it was coming. In May, our son, Tucker, called us, his grandparents, and his sister to let us know he was planning to propose to his girlfriend, Lisa. He wasn’t sure when he’d make his move, but it would be soon. He said he had a couple of ideas, but was having difficulty acquiring permits.


Times have changed. Dave asked me to marry him in a parking lot on Cape Cod after a party. He was dear and loving, but the only permit required was bestowed by my dad. Dave offered his much sought-after Bloody Mary recipe hand-tooled on leather and mounted on a wooden plaque in exchange for my hand. Dad thought he was getting a great deal.

Tucker, clearly, had something more in mind. Spring passed. A trip to Spain passed. (A combination of business for Lisa and pleasure for them both and, we thought, an excellent opportunity for a proposal… Not so.) July arrived – stultifying, steamy, debilitating. Still no word.

Dave and I departed for Italy. Much as we love that country, it was hard to fully appreciate Florence as the heat bore down, suffocating and heavy. It would not have been surprising to see Michelangelo’s David spin his legendary marble sling in an effort to stir a breeze.

To accommodate the time change and snag some cell service, Dave and I climbed a small hill one night to check in on our kids. When connection with our son was established, he crowed, “Tonight’s the night!” He was off on his mission – whatever was permitted - and would not divulge details. “I’ll call you tomorrow,” he said.

As much as we wondered what he might do, it was astounding to realize our boy had found the girl with whom he wanted to spend his life. “When you know, you know,” he’d said. In the way of mothers, or this mother at least, I flipped through a mental slide show: his birth, toddler Tucker sucking his thumb and stroking the ear of his beloved stuffed pig, Bacos, little Tuck in his corduroy Osh Kosh jacket, barreling toward me for a hug, adolescent Tucker, tight-lipped and reserved, and then the blessed transformation when his spontaneity, kindness and humor re-surfaced as he grew in confidence, grew into his Ingersoll nose, grew into himself.

Dave and I were standing above a vineyard in Tuscany when Tuck’s call came. We huddled close to the cell phone blaming faulty service and inadequate satellites when we thought we heard Tuck mention snow in Boston.

“Sorry, Tuck. Once more? Stupid phone…”

“I had 800 pounds of snow trucked in to the Esplanade!” The Esplanade is a park that runs along the Charles River, cooler than some spots, perhaps, but ice cubes in a drink were a fleeting pleasure on these sweltering days, so we were incredulous. Snow? In Boston? In July?

“I tried to get a permit for ice sculptures, but the city wouldn’t allow it. The 4th was out as the Boston Pops perform their annual concert on the Esplanade. Then, a movie was being filmed on the site. What a process! Finally, I was able to get a permit for this date and the snow. Lisa loves to ski,” he explained. “We joke about her being a ski bunny and I knew she’d get a kick out of this. So I had a guy build a ski slope with a family of stuffed bunnies perched on it. The words ‘Will you marry me?’ were sculpted on the bottom in ice.” I could hear his grin, so gleeful was his tone.

In today’s world, one need rarely speculate or imagine for long. By the time we returned to our room and Dave’s computer, Tuck had posted a photo gallery documenting the delivery of bags of snow, the creation of the snow sculpture, Tucker and Lisa’s arrival on the scene, and my boy on one knee. There were pictures of the kiss, a brief snowball fight, and Lisa’s “yes!” written in snow on the ground.

Such a romantic, our Tucker. Who knew!?

Link to Pictures

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Into the World

Casey’s eyes are bright as she flips the pages of the guidebook to photographs of Angkor Wat. She presses the leaves open so, together, we can look at temples, lichened stone gateways carved with blank eyes and broad lips, and pillars bound by sinuous, elephant-leg-thick vines. My daughter is planning a four-month trip. She says she needs to throw her life up in the air and see what comes down, and I get it – I felt that way when I turned fifty. I understand the lure of a mysterious, ancient place such as this, but I wish her life-tossing could happen close by, at least someplace closer than Asia.

As she talks about visas and inoculations, elephant orphanages and tiger cub snuggling opportunities, I want to hold her close and keep her here. Well, no, I’m not being honest. For her, this is the time for such a trip and I want all that it promises for her. I just want her to be safe.

But it has been a long time since I had any control over her safety. Actually, given the circumstances of her birth, I never had control over that.

Twenty-eight years ago I stood on a stone bridge with my friends Chris and Wendy, telling stories we’d heard about embarrassing places to break one's waters: the release of amniotic fluids that signals the onset of labor. Not the usual topic in some circles, but I was seven and a half months pregnant, and we all had toddlers, so talk was often about bodily functions, diaper rash, stool consistency and runny noses. While we chatted, we watched our kids, Tucker, Molly Beth and Nikki, playing in the yard of the school where we all lived and worked.

Suddenly, I felt a trickle down my leg. I was chagrined, but not surprised - unwanted and unexpected physical sensations had become commonplace over recent months. I excused myself and walked the short distance to our apartment, thinking “Just a little “mistake.” Except I couldn’t stop the flow. I had to laugh. We’d just been talking about broken waters and apparently that’s what this was. From my reading, I assumed birth was imminent. It was early, yes, but it was 1983, and I was not concerned about the baby’s safety. I was in good shape, Tucker’s birth had been smooth, and I’d taken Lamaze classes to refresh my breathing techniques.

Within a half hour, I’d spoken with the Cones, friends who would be caring for Tucker and our dog for the few days I imagined this would take. Tucker stood tearfully by the bed, still zipped in his brown corduroy jacket. “Don’t worry sweetie,” I told him, “I’ll be back in a few days with the baby.” I was confident and Tucker was comforted.

But I was wrong.

The baby did not budge. According to Dr. Hoffman, my obstetrician, that was a good thing: the longer the child had to mature in utero, the better. But the sterile protection of the placenta had been breached, so the doctor had me admitted to the hospital to stay until labor commenced. No germs there, right?


Despite my robust health, I was quarantined in the maternity ward in order to keep me as germ-free as possible. Other than my husband, Dave, I was not allowed to have guests. Apparently, only my friends were potential contaminants because I was encouraged to exercise and I was permitted to walk the halls and mingle with other people’s guests as they ogled the newborns. Maybe the germs found me as I stood among those strangers admiring their infants.

Or maybe they found me while my room was cleaned by The Crazy Lady.

She’d earned that less than complimentary title because of her dour manner, wild gray hair, and blank stare. She always wore a pale pink shirt-waist uniform and rarely spoke. I hadn’t seen her in a few days, but she appeared one morning and true to form, grunted to my greeting as she shoved my bed out of her way. She set down her bucket, dipped the mop, and swabbed the floor, sniffling and coughing a lot, but saying nothing.

Out in the hall, a nurse passed the door to my room and spotted her. “Hey! You’re back,” she said. “Feeling better?’

“Nah,” the Crazy Lady replied. “But I need the money.”

Ah, hospitals. While a blessing in many ways, they can be tricky. Never have I been as sick as during that stay. Natural childbirth purist that I was, I’d avoided even Tylenol throughout my pregnancy, yet, after a few weeks of bed rest, I was red-nosed and congested and taking a regimen of some of the biggest pills I’d ever seen. I would have refused them if I could, but I needed to breathe deeply, easily and energetically, once labor began.

When would that be? I’d begun to despair.

Three weeks passed and still not a twinge. Who would have thought I’d clamor for contractions, but so it was. Dave had brought in my sewing machine, scissors and a supply of gingham and calico fabrics to help pass the time. I cut out squares of blue, yellow and green, arranged pleasing patterns on my bed, and made bumpers for the baby carriage and a full-sized patchwork quilt for Tucker.

Tucker. I was frantic to go home to my boy. He fell under the prohibition against guests and was allowed only an occasional, bewildering visit. Why was I in my nightgown during the day? What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I hold him? Why couldn’t I go home? From what I heard, his confusion at my prolonged absence was resulting in tantrums, tears and battles for control. His two grandmothers were taking shifts caring for him while Dave worked, so he was in loving hands, but he needed me… and I needed him. I’d had it with the hospital. If the doctor refused to induce me soon, I planned to slip into my street clothes and sneak out.

When Dr. Hoffman stopped in for our daily visit, I pled my case: during my stay, I’d seen many healthy babies born three to four weeks early, and I was but two weeks from my due date. I painted a dire picture of Tucker’s yearning. I described the sick crazy lady swabbing my floor. I was revving up for another salvo when the doctor said, “Sure.”

What? Oh. That went better than I’d expected. He scheduled a pitocin drip for 8:00 a.m. the next morning.

For me, labor was a glorious battle with a baby as the prize. I was well-armed with my breathing techniques, lollipops and ice chips for dry mouth, and tennis balls to counter back pain. Dave, my valiant cheerleader, was at my side. A joyous picture of Tucker was prominently displayed as my focal point. I was ready.

Dave’s eyes were filled with loving respect as he held my hand while contractions sent wiggling lines soaring on the monitors, but I remember only the good, hard work of helping the baby make her way out to my arms. I remember the strain of pushing and my faith that Dr. Hoffman would not let me hurt myself, so I was free to bear down, bear down, bear down when it was time. In my mental movie of the birth, shot from an angle that allowed me to see my red face, eyes squeezed shut, mouth pursed and blowing, I bellowed as Casey surfed into the doctor’s hands.

“It’s a little girl,” he announced, “and she’s so sweet.”

Now that sweet little one is off to Asia. She mentions destinations like Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia, names that to me, still conjure guerrilla warfare and napalm devastation. While I am excited about her adventure, I am anxious. She says, “Mom, I don’t want to be raped or kidnapped any more than you want me to be. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.” But, I want the trip to be over, with Casey home again, telling me of the wonder, learning and challenges of her adventure, complete with pictures, wide eyes and shrieks of laughter.

I love this brave, beautiful girl who has been out on her own for years now, living in New York City, and I have to admit, that was scary for me too. I think back to the frustration of my long wait for her birth in the hospital, and the years – such a short time it seems - when she was safe in her car seat, safe in her bed, safe in our care, and still, it is hard to let go.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Trombones to Tears

I am crying in my car as I drive to work. For me, this is not so unusual. My car is a roving cocoon where I ruminate, dream, and work through conflicts via inner enactments. I nudge or shove myself to tears with poignant reminiscence or imaginative pursuit of fears and worries to their full, dramatic, gut-wrenching finales. I fuel whatever mood takes me, such that often I arrive in the school parking lot with make-up smeared and lips twisted in an effort to quell sobs.

Often the cause lies with music. By radio or CD, the morning’s selection can tease out a memory with its full sensory accompaniment. A little Loggins and Messina can spin me back to the seventies, to my bedroom at #638, to the pale blue bedspread with multi-colored flowers, the clatter of Mom making dinner in the kitchen below, the window open to soft summer air, and my own nasal voice, filled with yearning for my new boyfriend, Dave, as I sing along with “Till the Ends Meet.”

Today, however, the brass section blared “Seventy-Six Trombones” when I started the car for the drive to Southport. It was sunny and warm enough to roll down the windows, let the breeze take my hair, and invite every passerby to March! March! March! with Professor Hill’s boys’ band. I was smiling and tapping my foot, but one song led to another and, of course, “The Music Man” is not solely music, it’s a story, just like every day of my life, of anyone’s life. I’d grinned through “The Sadder But Wiser Girl,” started to tear up when the Buffalo Bills crooned “Good-Night Ladies,” and knew I was gone, pathetic, when I had to bite my lip to keep from sobbing when Winthrop lisped his way through “Gary, Indiana.” Oh please, Lea, there is not a word, not a note of that song that warrants tears.

But here I am weeping as I drive down Hillside Road because my own story line inter-weaves with that of Harold Hill and his librarian: this weekend, my nephew Campbell is playing the role of River City’s pompous Mayor Schinn in the Shipley School production of “The Music Man,” and I cannot be there.

While I organize clipboards and review the benefit schedule, ponder placement of jewelry and action figures for the live auction, the lights will dim in Shipley’s theater as nervous eighth graders take their positions behind the curtain for the Saturday matinee.

I have not been totally deprived. Last weekend, I returned to my childhood home to attend my 40th Shipley reunion. Rehearsals for the play were in their final days, so in between receptions and dinner with the women who were my friends from kindergarten to ninth grade, I snuck into the darkened theater to catch a few acts. Again, there is nothing to warrant weeping in this show, yet I smiled and wept throughout – at the talent and youth onstage, Campbell’s perfectly irascible performance, the innocence of the storyline, and at memories of being in my daughter Casey’s audience throughout her school years.

I was born to be a mom seated in the darkness of a student production; there are few places where I feel as blissfully engaged, euphoric and sad – all at the right moments in the plot. Through our membership in Casey’s fan club, Dave (now my husband) and I learned the responsibility of being a good audience; the importance of laughing at funny lines and clapping wildly at memorable scenes. The kids feed off that energy and it was our joy to provide it.

Campbell will have a full complement of cheerleaders as his parents, my sister and brother-in-law, will be at the show, as will my other sister and my mother and father. The whole family. I want to be there with them in one of the folding seats in the dark to beam and cry and applaud.

I pull into the parking lot, emotionally tossed from high spirits to wistful tears and back up again as the reprise of “Seventy-Six Trombones” spins twirling batons, the clash of cymbals and high-stepping majorettes through my mind. I check the mirror for tell-tale smudges of midnight blue eye-liner, make the necessary touch-ups, take a deep breath, and head into the school.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Tribute to a Friend and Artist

Our friend Steve Larrabee passed away April 5. May 13th would have been his 61st birthday. I wrote the following essay and sent it to him about four years ago. He called me after he'd read it and told me I didn't need to worry, that things were not as bad as I seemed to think. That wasn't the truth.

Dear Labs,

I wrote this piece with the greatest love in my heart. We want you to be happy and inspired and well.


Hi. My name is Lea and my friend Steve is an alcoholic.

I worry. When we talk on the phone, his voice does not sound the same. When I ask what he’s doing, how he’s doing, he pauses too long. He is a talented artist - is art always linked with torment?

The power of Steve’s craft inspires. Both my husband Dave and his brother embarked on their woodworking efforts after admiring Steve’s projects. Undulating shelves, multi-colored lamps, and inlaid chopping blocks – he rendered even everyday items extraordinary.

Testaments to his talent and love abound in our house. In the mid-eighties, three watercolors of our children arrived unexpectedly in the mail. There was no occasion – they were just a gift. Casey at one or so, Tucker at three. Steve captured the light in their eyes and the roundness of their kissable cheeks – a moment for us to hold on to, now that the kids have grown up and left home.

We have a dulcimer of black walnut that Steve made in the seventies. It is sinuous grace carved in chocolate wood. We don’t know how to play it, but it’s a beautiful accent, leaning against the wall behind the dining room table and Windsor chairs that Steve also made.

Our house was built in 1783. We love antiques of that period, but could not afford authentic chairs to go with the table we’d purchased at an auction. While the idea of making eight of one thing must have grated a soul fueled by novelty, Steve agreed to the project… and I love my chairs. New as they are, they speak of the centuries. For all of their hard wooden-ness, they are as comfortable as if cushioned. Steve’s caring and craft are in each spoke and leg.

In the mid 1980’s, Steve cut off four of his fingers at the first knuckle. He was guiding a plank through a joiner and somehow, his hand slid into the machine too. A chill touches my spine in picturing the scene. The shock. The realization. The trip to the hospital. “I need those fingers,” Steve said at the time.

But it turned out he didn’t. He healed, at least outwardly, the skin closing over the wounds, and he learned to make do without those fingers.

We have undertaken several house projects over the past thirty years, an addition in Clinton, a kitchen and porch here in Easton. Steve drew plans and “made boxes” that became cupboards and shelves. There is as much of Steve in our home as there is of Dave and I. He is in the etchings on the wall in our bedroom, in the drawers, knobs and wainscoting of the kitchen, in our living room built-ins, in our dining room chairs.

We have photographs documenting these various stages. Steve grinning as he posed, drill in hand, on the roof at Clinton, his beard sawdust-speckled, his eyes behind plastic safety glasses.

I should say something else about Steve’s eyes. When he smiled, his eyes danced; they were crinkly and kindly. You could not help but love the man you could see through those eyes. The last few times I saw him though, his eyes were shadowed. He would tell me he was not drinking, but they say alcoholics lie.

When we spoke, before he moved away, he would tell me of his pain. He could not seem to meet the Mount Everest of a standard that he’d set, even though the rest of us saw him bravely scaling that peak. He said he was a bad friend… and I’d run through the long list – all the help, all the love, all the inspiration, all the art, all the CUPBOARDS! But I could not convince him, even with tangible proof. He dwelt in a dark pit, sealed away from the truth of his contributions. As much as they were a light for us, he would not let them shine for him.

He moved to Easton with Joan about thirteen years ago. Together they built a house that was more than a house. Two artists, they brought their touch to its moldings, its beams, its railings and floors. We have a picture taken of the two of them standing on the poured concrete foundation, tarred brushes in hand, mugging for the camera. They lived in a trailer on the property, working at their day jobs as well as the new house. Despite all the work and the stress, they were tight. “It doesn’t get much better than this,” they would say to each other.

What happened?

Was there a tipping point? Steve had been sober for twelve years. What happened?

Even now, Joan wonders if an intervention could save him. She still loves him… and we do too. Dave has heard from addiction counselors that the only thing that could reverse the course would be if the person he loves most tells him that his choices are ruining them both… and turns away.

“He lost Joan and he lost Moo,” I remind Dave. “Who else would that most beloved person be?”

We worried when Steve moved to Vermont, to a 250 acre farm. It’s a big responsibility for a man who worries about money and duels with demons. We hear he dates a woman who fights duels of her own. We worry; it sounds like another set of hands digging his pit deeper.

When we built our porch, two years ago, Steve came with his backhoe to dig holes for the posts. Like the New England farmers of the seventeenth century, he discovered a healthy crop of boulders impeding his way. It was laborious work, but being our friend, he helped us, as he had done many times before, and dug them out, adding them to the ancient wall behind our house, laid by those long-ago farmers.

Steve is here in the stonewall and the porch where we sit, overlooking the woods while spring peepers sing. He is here in the kids’ portraits and our dining room chairs – and in the kitchen, the dulcimer, and the etchings hanging on our bedroom walls.

And in our hearts – did I say that? He is in our hearts too….

We miss you, Labs… and we worry.