Do You Have a Plan?

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: We’re wrapping up our time in Raleigh, running the last few errands, making sure we’ve crammed in as much in-person visiting with our people as we can. I’m eating my body weight in grits and biscuits—you can take the girl out of the south, yada yada. And I am mentally preparing myself for the pain of a 6 am flight, which will be complicated by Derek and my cast.

Do you have a plan?

We were on a beach in Sri Lanka for Christmas one year. I mention that it was Christmas, because that meant we were there for Boxing Day, the anniversary of the terrible tsunami that sloshed around the edges of the Indian Ocean in 2004.

There weren’t anniversary commemorations or anything, of course. As a matter of fact, the owner of our hotel asked us not to mention it to anyone. The people who lived through it don’t like to talk about it, she said. Everyone lost someone.

What we saw instead—the omnipresent reminder—was the grave markers. All along the side of the road, everywhere we went with Nihal, our trusty tuktuk driver, we saw headstones. One or two, or three or four. Little clusters in every available patch of land. Apparently there were so many bodies, the government temporarily lifted zoning restrictions, allowing the dead to be buried in any available space.

I’m a southerner; I come from a place where it’s not unusual for great-grand-daddy to be buried in the family plot out on the back forty. Even so, those Sri Lankan graves all along the side of the road were shocking. I can’t imagine the sheer scale of death that would force people to bury their loved ones wherever they could find a patch of unoccupied ground.

While we were there, I read a book (Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala) about one woman’s experience in the tsunami. Like me, she was visiting for the holidays. Unlike me, in a matter of seconds, her husband, children, and parents were ripped away from her and killed. Just like that—gone.

The book was harrowing, and I couldn’t stop talking about it as we wandered around Unawatuna Beach, lolling in the sun, eating mangoes, watching sea turtles surf in the aquamarine water. It was an idyllic setting, which made the book all that much more difficult to absorb.

Perhaps the only way we can look at something so horrific is to glance at it from the side. We (I, at least), focus on a small detail in a much larger portrait of horror. The piece of Wave that I latched onto was the moment when the author tumbled out of the wave and returned to consciousness, alone, bruised and battered, and without her things. I’m not very thing-oriented (duh—I live out of a suitcase), but the things I choose to keep are important to me. I’m no longer sure how to function without a phone. My battery got dangerously low one day while I was on a long Metro ride from our Paris apartment, and I got mildly panicky, worried I wouldn’t be able to retrace my route home without Siri’s friendly voice in my ear.

In Sri Lanka, I kept telling Lee about the tsunami. About how Sonali ran around looking for her husband and her sons. How she needed to call her siblings, her cousins—someone, anyone—but couldn’t, because the wave had taken her phone.

What would we do, I asked, as we lay in bed, listening to high tide splashing against our deck. How would we call our children, let them know we were safe?

Thus began a big project that took Lee several months to complete. He worked out and implemented a system that would enable either one of us to access all of our information remotely, if we ever found ourselves with nothing but the shirts on our backs. We have a back-up plan, and a back-up to the back-up. Plans A, B, and C. Once a month he drills me on the major elements. Eventually, I intend to remember how it all works.

In the meantime, every now and again, I look around at where I am, and think: you know, if there were a tsunami right now, none of that would matter, because I would have no idea which way to run.

Three weeks ago, on the day of my surgery, the nurse asked if I had a living will or a durable power of attorney. I don’t. Confession: I’m not even entirely clear on what those things actually are. I guess I’m not as well-organized and on top of my business as I thought I was.

That question I asked in Sri Lanka—how would we call our children, let them know we were safe—makes one glaring assumption: that we just keep walking away, as if the end never comes. If there’s one lesson that has sunk in over the intervening years, it’s that the end does come, for all of us.

There’s something about being in my mid-fifties that has made the fragile, finite nature of life much clearer. My days are sweeter because I finally realize in my soul that they’re not infinite. I don’t know if I’ll die in the turmoil of a tsunami, or the indignity of falling in a sewer, or surrounded by the quiet peace of a hospice room, but as Lee likes to say, no one gets out alive.

Take care,

Lisa

P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to
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Damn This Traffic Jam

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: We’re still hiding out in Raleigh, doing All The Medical Things. I’ve graduated to a proper cast, which is, because I’m me, bright pink. I’m diligently keeping Derek elevated and allowing Lee to bring me breakfast in bed.

Damn This Traffic Jam

Driving a rental car is always an interesting challenge. Each country, as it turns out, has a different road culture; as Lee once said, with a shrug, to one of our kids, “lots of countries, lots of laws.” We’re always happy when we pick up a rental—we can go anywhere we want! Wander down the side roads! Go out in the rain!. But we’re equally happy when we return one, especially if we manage to return it unscathed—whew! What a relief to be out from under than responsibility.

Mostly, though, driving a rental means watching other drivers, and trying to mimic their behavior, even when we don’t understand it. When we were in the Austrian Alps in August, we were reminded not-so-subtly of how important this observational caution can be. We noticed that whenever traffic slows down, like when the traffic on a busy highway suddenly slows—all traffic instantly veers to the side, clearing an emergency lane in the middle. No exceptions. No one dawdles, getting ahead of a few cars before they pull over. No one jumps into the clear lane, acting like they’re exempt from the rules. I’ve never seen anything like it.

As a matter of fact, the only exception we saw was . . . us. The first time it happened, we had no idea what everyone else was doing. Like the typical Americans we are, we saw the traffic suddenly part in front of us, so Lee accelerated, and we kept going, sailing right along in that clear middle lane for a solid ten or fifteen seconds. It was so weird and noticeable and atypical of any kind of highway behavior that we were familiar with, I went straight to Google.

Apparently this is the Austrian version of maintaining a wide shoulder for emergency vehicles to use. As soon as traffic slows even a tiny bit—whenever people start tapping the brakes—everyone clears the middle lane.

The difference between the Austrian middle lane and the American wide shoulder is that the American wide shoulder is somewhat less reliable. People caught in a traffic jam get frustrated and pull onto the shoulder to go around. Then the shoulder gets backed up, and when the fire engine arrives, it can’t get through. Or someone abandons a car, blocking access. Or the shoulder is poorly maintained.

I don’t know why Austrians are so consistent in their respect for the emergency lane. Is it because they’re instinctively reluctant to be penalized? I don’t know—I have no idea what the penalty might be. For all I know, it could be really high, or there might not even be a penalty.

Or maybe there’s extreme social pressure to do the right thing. It was, after all, in Austria where we saw little old ladies outside washing the road in front of their houses at seven in the morning. It is truly the cleanest place I’ve ever been. I know cleanliness and driving habits aren’t the same thing, but maybe they’re both a function of some kind of sociological phenomenon that you can’t really understand if you only spend a month in a place.

Or maybe—and I realize this stems from my deep desire to think the best of people—maybe there’s a stronger sense of community responsibility in Austria.

I think I desperately want that to be true. The pandemic has really clarified something in my brain. I want humans—all of us—to look out for each other. I want us all to be the kind of people who do what’s best for humanity as a whole—who pull over instantly to clear a lane for emergency vehicles. Just in case. Every-man-for-himself, or what’s-in-it-for-me may be great for some parts of life, but they’re useless against a virus.

From my writer’s notebook:

There’s an exhibit at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan entitled “Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art.” I found out about it in a somewhat negative review I read. The reviewer pointed out that the exhibit fails to tell the stories of the families who lost their possessions, and I absolutely see why that’s a problem, especially at the Jewish Museum. But I’ve seen two similar exhibits, both in Europe, and neither of those focused on the families, either, instead drawing attention to the current legal/systemic obstacles to the effort to return the items to their rightful owners. It’s an interesting insight into the challenges of curation: how do you decide which parts of a story to tell, when the whole complicated landscape is important?

Anyway, if you’re in NYC, please go see this exhibit and let me know what you think of it. It’s running until early January, I believe.

Take care,

Lisa

P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to
https://bookwoman.com/ to subscribe.

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: We’re in Raleigh. My surgery went well—apparently I have a whole new tendon now; I’ve named it Derek—so I’m getting around on a knee scooter while we catch up with all our peeps here. Derek seems to be settling in nicely. We’re also taking full advantage of Amazon to buy fun things like new underwear and phone cables. It’s all very exciting.

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

Some of you may have seen news stories about the recent Christo installation in Paris. Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, were artists known all over the world for large-scale, temporary outdoor installations. Perhaps you remember The Gates, in New York’s Central Park? I didn’t get to see that one, and it’s one of only a few things in my life that I truly regret.

Last month, a two-year project (or a sixty-year project, if you include the inspiration stage, which I definitely do) culminated in the wrapping of the Arc De Triomphe in shimmering silvery fabric. We went to see it the morning it officially ‘opened’ (I’m not sure how one defines ‘open’ when the object in question is a 15-story tall monument in the middle of a traffic circle).

It was surprisingly beautiful. The fabric caught the light, brilliant silver against the perfectly blue sky. Traffic around the Arc had been stopped for the two-week duration of the installation, so we walked around and under and stared at it from every angle. It’s incredibly accessible—you just step out of the Metro at the end of the Champs Elysees, and there it is, this giant silver thing. It looks almost weightless, like a breath, but you know full well, from every photo you’ve ever seen, or the photos you took yourself the week before, or even just years of walking by and not really noticing, not paying close attention, not really, that the Arc de Triomphe is actually profoundly heavy. It’s not quite of the earth—it’s man-made, of course, to commemorate Napoleon and his very human life and times—but it’s fully grounded in the earth, built of stone and deeply settled.

To see it looking so delicate, like a bubble, or a fairy, or a firefly, was a very happy surprise.

It’s the second Christo we’ve been lucky enough to see; the first was The Floating Piers, in northern Italy a few years back. That, too, was beautiful and surprising, and again, we were lucky enough to go on the very first day, before various challenges became apparent (mainly, the size of the crowds jamming into a tiny village next to a lake). All we saw was the magic.

The difference between the Piers and the Arc, I think, is that I know the Arc. I had never heard of Lake Iseo before I read about the Piers. I had never been there, and likely never will again. The Arc, though, is a symbol of Paris. If you’ve flipped through a guidebook, or watched a heist movie, or visited the City of Light, you know what the Arc de Triomphe looks like. It looked that way before, and now it looks that way again. But in between, for a brief moment, it was something different, its true form visible but obscured, transformed into something more.

The idea of temporary art is a bit strange to me. As someone who loves museums full of paintings and sculptures that are older than my country, my instinctive understanding of art is that it’s a creative effort, the product of which is meant for posterity, for the ages. But that’s not always true, and my brain struggles a bit with the idea of spending so many years on a masterpiece that will quickly become nothing but a memory.

The Balinese are known for elaborate funeral rituals that require the construction of huge, expensive timber-and-plaster structures/creatures. We watched some being built, when an elderly relative of the local king died, including a black bull, as tall as a two-story building, beautifully painted and burnished with gold leaf. The construction took several weeks, under a shelter by the side of the road. Every day we’d ride by in our taxi, and several men from the village would be out there working in the heat of the day. Every day the bull got a little bigger, a little fancier.

The day of the funeral, we stood by the side of the road with the rest of the onlookers (there were many) and watched as the procession wound through the village. Utility workers had gone though a bit earlier and taken down all the wires, so that the creatures wouldn’t  catch on them. The body was carried on a bier as tall as the bull, a sort of gilded, bejeweled, floral tower. It took an hour for the whole ‘parade’ to make its way to the pyre. We bowed out at that point; as soon as the electrical wires were reconnected, I wanted to find AC and ice. But all that art—the creatures and towers—were all put on the pyre, to accompany the body. All that work—the labor and creativity and commitment of all those artisans—all burned up in a moment.

It took more than two years to to complete Christo’s Arc De Triomphe, but the project was sixty years in the planning. I like to think of myself as a process person, but Christo’s project required a determination that I can’t imagine. In a place like Bali, where you can’t really assume everyone has electricity and running water, the process of preparing for a funeral represents so much more than temporary art. We learned that some families will temporarily bury a body, so that they can take a few years to save up for the cremation ceremony.  Then they will spend weeks or even months painstakingly creating the art that will go up in smoke, in a few minutes flat.

Notre Dame, another famous symbol of Paris, is being rebuilt after the fire that destroyed the tower in 2019. One would’ve thought the cathedral was the opposite of temporary art—it was built for the ages, meant to last forever, or at least a very, very long time. It’s eight hundred years old now, and has been reincarnated, renovated, and reconstructed a multitude of times, and yet it still stands. It’s being rebuilt—again—a sign, if there ever was one, of our human capacity for optimism.

I suppose all art—no matter how long it’s meant to last—comes from the same place.

Take care,

Lisa

P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to 
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How Much is Two Dollars Worth?

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: We’re in Raleigh! I’m getting this email ready on Wednesday, because I’m scheduled for surgery Thursday morning, and have no intention of being coherent for the next few days.

I wrote the following essay when we visited Cambodia in 2016, early in our travels, and posted it on my Facebook page back then. Europe is wonderful, and I’ve very much enjoyed my 2021 Grand Tour Summer of Art, but I miss other kinds of adventures. And I worry about all the people we’ve met around the world over the years. I’ll be very, very relieved when the developing world is able to get vaccinated, and borders reopen.

How Much is Two Dollars Worth?

Cambodia has been sobering and eye-opening. I feel my privilege, and the basic human responsibility that comes with it, more profoundly here than anywhere I’ve been before. When I look at a naked baby, playing around the edge of the pig wallow under the house that is a one-room shack made of two-by-fours, and our driver asks if we drove a car in America (did we drive a car?? Of course we did. Sometimes two—three for a brief period), and I remember deliberating over which Gymboree outfit would be cutest for my rosy-cheeked babies to wear to Kindermusik class, I have a complicated, uncomfortable emotional response that is difficult to sit with.

He speaks so proudly of his children—3.5 years apart, just like mine—and how hard he’s working to give them an education. He drives rich tourists around, with the AC cranked up to shield us from the unrelenting heat, while all the elderly relatives who live with him make sure his children get to the private English lessons he pays for. He makes sure they have a few pennies every day, with which to pay their public school teachers, so they’ll get some attention in the class of thirty-seven kids. He is soft-spoken, compassionate, ever-concerned about our well-being, pushing cold water on us, warning us away from wrong turns and touts and scammers. He checks us over like a fussy mother before we go into a temple—Do you have your camera? Do you need another water? Do you remember where to find me? Take a flashlight—be careful. I feel guilty, but I am deeply grateful for the air-conditioning in his car. I suspect he never uses it just for himself.

When pushed, he tells us matter-of-factly about life under the Khmer Rouge—the hunger, the hard labor that was forced on the population, the loss of an aunt who had been a teacher, simply because she had been a teacher. The complete destruction of the educational system is what seems to bother him the most. We don’t push any further—we don’t need to. As I write this, I’m in a coffee shop, looking out the window at a man who has lost one arm from the elbow down. They’re everywhere we turn—people broken by war, by hunger, by landmines. Missing limbs—so many stumps and crutches and slings. The lucky ones have dirty rubber prosthetics, like you’d buy from a joke shop. It would be funny, if it weren’t utterly horrifying.

And yet. And yet. People are universally smiling and kind. We’ve encountered very few who don’t speak at least some English, which makes this an easy place for us to exist. We haven’t really interacted with anyone out in the country, which is where the worst of the poverty is, and where most of the population lives, but we’ve talked to people everywhere in Siem Reap. The accepted currency is the dollar—prices are in dollars, ATMs give dollars. Every restaurant we’ve been to has western food. A funny Muzak-version of “Home” by Edward & the Magnetic Zeros is playing in this coffee shop right now, and the television in our hotel lobby had CNN on this morning, making it difficult for me to avoid thinking about the Iowa caucus while I filled up on noodle soup & toast with mango jam. It’s all one world now, a sometimes startling, always interesting fusion of the familiar and the challenging.

It’s hot and dusty outside, and the streets are a little crazy, so I hired a tuk-tuk driver to take me to the coffee shop a few blocks away. He promised to return for me in two hours, even though I know there will be a phalanx of drivers outside the shop, clamoring for my two dollars, and willing to take much less. When I am ready to leave, I step outside and don’t see him, so I decide to wait for a couple of minutes. He’s driven me before, and asked me this morning if my husband was “staying inside the hotel today.” I like him.

Another man approaches, bows, & says Mr. Syd sent him. I am relieved—I didn’t want to be disloyal. I feel bad for the other hopeful tuk-tuk drivers, but I am pleased that Mr. Syd has worked out a way to get at least part of my two dollars, as well as whatever he is getting from whatever other fare he managed to snag. He hustles.

I feel out of place, like an obscene, extravagant pale queen riding through these dusty, crowded streets.

This is why we are here.

From my writer’s notebook:

The British Museum has an upcoming exhibit featuring the works of Katsushika Hosukai. They’re going to create two hundred NFTs based on his works (and others in their collection). Prices will start at $500.

If that means absolutely nothing to you, well, you’re not alone. I’m trying to wrap my brain around the concept of non-fungible tokens, because they seem like a fantastic plot twist to work into a mystery, but I fear I may have found the outer limits of my intellectual capacity.

Take care,

Lisa

P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to 
https://bookwoman.com/ to subscribe.

Pro Tips

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: This is our last weekend in Paris; we leave on Monday for North Carolina. I’m sad to be leaving one of my very favorite-est cities in the world, but the foot is an increasing nuisance, so it’s time to go deal with it. Plus—we get to see our people! And have ice in our beverages! Clearly, I’m having all the feelz.

Pro Tips

I have compiled, just for y’all, a few of my favorite travel tips. These are next level:

Never walk between a pile of garbage and a wall. You want to give the rats a wide berth.

Pack a bit of electrical tape (just wrap some around the end of a pen). A little snip is super-handy for covering up the blinking red light on the smoke detector.

Pack an extension cord. The outlet is never where it ought to be.

Fight jet lag. Or don’t. Your choice. (Especially if you’re going to have to quarantine when you arrive—sleep schedules are irrelevant in quarantine.)

Say thank you in the local language, no matter how much you think you’re mangling it.

If you need to print something, go to the front desk of a fancy hotel. It doesn’t matter that you aren’t staying there—just act like you own the place. Better yet, figure out how to use the local Internet cafe.

Always wear socks to the airport—going through security barefoot is disgusting. But on the other hand—don’t just automatically take your shoes off. A lot (most?) of the rest of the world doesn’t bother with such silliness.

Keep a packet of balloons in your bag or purse; they’re useful for entertaining cranky children in airports. (But maybe not during Covid—no one wants you handing their kid a bag full of hot air and virus.)

Always have a little packet of emergency nuts in your carry-on. They’re useful when you get hangry, plus they’re entertaining. The jokes about ‘emergency nuts’ just write themselves.

Say yes. (Unless it’s a guy on the street trying to sell you ‘happy pizza.’ Say no to that.)

Sit for a while.

Try the restaurant that doesn’t have an English menu. You may wind up with a bowl of chicken feet, but at least it’ll be memorable. Besides—you can always go back to the hotel and eat your emergency nuts.

Stay in an apartment, away from the hotel zone.

Touts are much less bothersome if you wear earbuds. You don’t have to actually play anything; it’s okay to pretend.

A snack and a nap make everything better (I think that’s from one of those feel-good-wisdom books, but that doesn’t make it any less true).

Ride the public transport at least once.

Go to the mall—it’s where the normal people are.

Go to the grocery store, even if you don’t need anything. See above: normal people.

Shake out your shoes before you put them on. You don’t want creepy-crawlies—or pebbles—in your shoes.

When you get tired of churches/mosques/temples/museums—just stop. You can’t see them all, so why try?

When a taxi driver asks where you’re from, answer, then ask where he/she is from. Ninety percent of the time, you’ll get a huge grin, even if the conversation then clunks to a halt. We had this experience in a restaurant last weekend. The waiter asked where we were from, we told him, and asked where he was from. “Paris,” he said, and pointed. “The next block. But my girlfriend’s from Cleveland.” The rest of our meal was a delight, and the service was fantastic.

If you ask a taxi driver for a restaurant recommendation, there’s a 50/50 chance you’ll be invited home for some of Mom’s cooking. That might be what you want, or it might not—we all have different comfort levels.

Don’t order gazpacho if the refrigeration seems iffy. I did that once, and I lived to tell the tale, but I won’t do it again.

Buy something at the market. Take your time, watch what other people do, be fully present in the place. Again, it’s probably where the normal people are.

Avoid monkeys. They will pee on your Kindle and try to steal your snacks. Trust me on this.

When someone tries to teach you how to sing/dance/pronounce/cut your food/tie your longyi/cover your head, pay attention and count your blessings. Engaging with other humans is the best part of travel.

Don’t worry that people are judging you. They haven’t even noticed you, but if they have, they’re probably just curious about who you are and where you’re from.

Read a book set in the place where you are, while you’re there. I can’t recommend this enough—it will enrich your experience more than seems possible.

Look both ways for cars, motorcycles, bicycles, scooters, rickshaws, cows. Always look both ways; rogue transport will come from where you least expect it. I used to believe that my obituary was going to be ‘run over by a bicycle.’ (Nowadays I’m pretty certain it’s going to be ‘fell in a sewer and died.’)

Always, always be polite.

It’s okay to sit some more.

Take care,

Lisa

P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to 
https://bookwoman.com/ to subscribe.

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