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Category Archives: Food

Einstein’s Bagels And Why They Apparently Think I’m An Illiterate Putz.

I have a big superego. I freely admit that. I think a person should go out of their way to do the right thing and if something is wrong then you just don’t do it. That doesn’t make life in this culture very easy sometimes.

I am what the gamers, the folks who play Dungeons and Dragons and other role-playing games, call Neutral Good. As a player, that would be my moral alignment. Good, and Evil, come in three flavours—Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic. Lawful Good follows all the laws. That defines his or her idea of goodness. The means justify the ends, whatever those ends may be. Chaotic good follows no rules but acts on the ideas of outcome only, saying the ends justify the means. Neutral Good is defined this way:

A Neutral Good character is guided by his conscience and typically acts altruistically, without regard for or against Lawful precepts such as rules or tradition. A Neutral Good character has no problems with co-operating with lawful officials, but does not feel beholden to them. In the event that doing the right thing requires the bending or breaking of rules, they do not suffer the same inner conflict that a Lawful Good character would.

When I see a rule being broken, and I think it is a good rule, a law being scoffed, and I think it is a good law, one that makes sense, one that deserves to be followed, I find myself wanting to do something, and that oversized superego means I have no problem doing it. And I’m a fixer. When I see things that aren’t right, I want to fix them. Need to fix them. Even if I’m hungry.

And I was.

I was up early. Too early, really. At five-fifteen. Why? Because I’m the only one who shows up to Wednesday six a.m. spin class and I don’t want Tammy to lose her income for that class. So I went, even though I hadn’t slept well and even though I had to be back at the gym an hour later to see a string of members for short, introductory sessions of assisted integrated stretching from eight am through six that evening.

Spin class over, I ran home, showered and, after feeding Dusty, let her out. In the meantime I was going to make my own breakfast in my beautiful (and it is) healthy (and it is) lovely (and it sure is) Vitamix. Looking out the kitchen window I notice something. I notice that I don’t notice Dusty. She has leapt the fence again. So much for my salad smoothie. And so much for my coffee.

I walk out the back door and she isn’t there. I walk out the front door and she isn’t there. Down the street to where she plays with Rank and she isn’t there. It is five to eight and I can’t do anything but hope she likes her new family, wherever that is.

So much for breakfast. Sure, Dusty gets to eat and play, but I don’t. Off to the gym.

Two hours and six patients later, I’m hungry. I have a break and my blood sugar is low enough that I know for sure I’m headed for a bad choice. Luckily, Einstein’s Bagels is a block away, on Babcock and Palm Bay Road. A salt bagel and coffee. Maybe even some lox.

Without enough time to walk, I get into the truck and drive over. I park and have my Einstein’s cup, my cup about to be filled with free coffee, in my hand. Coffee. Bagel. Salty salty fish. But first, the bathroom.

On my way in, I see the community board. The last time, there was barely anything on it. An announcement or two. And it was neat. Not now.

The fact that I can barely hold it (and why didn’t I go at the gym? Oh, yes, I was hungry and my blood sugar was dropping) doesn’t keep me from staring at the board and noting that most of the things on it are not supposed to be there, according to the big old sign smack in the upper-middle of it all.

OK. Bathroom. Then I can talk to the fellow at the register as I order my bagel and coffee.

Back out. No line. Here I am. “May I take your order?”

“I’d like a salt bagel please. Toasted, and coffee.”

“Anything else?” I look at his name tag. He is the manager. Perfect.

“No thanks. But I wanted to mention that there is a lot of stuff on the community board that doesn’t adhere to the guidelines.”

He looks at me as though I had said, instead, “Excuse me, but there is a dead body in the bathroom and your mom is standing over it with a knife. Oh, and he’s not got pants on.”

Slowly, with a great deal of emphasis on the last word. “What sort of things?”

“Lots of business cards. And political advertising for candidates. I saw that the sign said no advertising and no political campaigning.”

“I’m offended!” He says this as though I had said he mom hadn’t any pants on either. And I am quite well confused. I can’t imagine how I could have offended him.

“I’m confused. You’re offended? By the political advertising?”

“No, by you. Everything up there has been approved by management.”

“So, you’re offended? I really can’t imagine how I offended you.”

“Well, you did. I’m very offended.”

I’m not going to win this one, so I might as well have at it. “Well, you must be incredibly easily offended. Exactly what offended you?”

“Your suggestion that we did not follow the rules on the community board.”

“That offended you? My, you ARE easily offended. It says clearly no advertising. And no political campaigns.”

“That campaign is a non-partisan race.  And those business cards and advertisements are not for food. It only appIMAG3762lies if it is for food that competes with us.”

“Come with me, please.” I gave him a follow-me index finger and walked over to the board about four feet away, the order area being at the end of the long counter and just before the short hallway to the bathrooms, halfway down, on the right side off which is the community board. I point out the sign.

“No advertising. It does not qualify that in any way. This is full of advertising. No political campaigns. It doesn’t say unless it is a non-partisan race.”IMAG3763

“Well, it means that though. That’s what it means. You know, you could have just asked if you wanted your cards there.”

I cocked my head to the side. The way a puppy does when he’s confused. I find myself doing that quite a bit.

“Now I am offended” It is his turn to look confused. “You are telling me” (and I step very slightly closer to him) “that I am either illiterate or I am a putz!” I take care to pop my P like I’m trying to explode a microphone.

“I would not ask to put up a card because this clearly states no advertising. If I did ask, that would make me illiterate. If I wasn’t illiterate and I asked anyway, I would be assuming you would break the rule just for me and that would make me a putz. So which is it? Am I illiterate or am I a putz? Which one are you accusing me of?”

I walk back to the counter. He follows. Each of us on our proper side.

Grimly, he looks at me and asks, “Did you want anything on your bagel?”

“I’m not handing you any money! I won’t give money to a place that can’t even follow its own rules and has an illiterate manager. And NOW you can be offended, because that one I meant!’

I walked out. To the car. I get my phone. I walk back in, camera on.

He follows me. “I really can’t let you take pictures of this store.”

“Really? People take pictures when they check in on Facebook. There are pictures on Yelp. On your own Facebook page, people upload pictures. And how are you going to stop me?  Afraid some other corporation is going to copy your community board?” I take one picture. “Besides, how else will I spread this great story all over social media without a picture?” I take a close-up of the sign. I smile and walk out.

Back to the gym I go. I’m still hungry. But I know the bagels are no good for me anyway and now I certainly won’t be having any. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not soon, unless they are really really good ones.

No matter. Right is right.

But I sure could have used some coffee.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2014 in Culture, Education, Food, Social

 

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Gin and Tonic

Some short time ago, I became interested in gins. Not just interested, but fascinated. I am not a tippler. I barely drink. A bottle of Plymouth gin I have is still more than half full and it is more than eight years old.

Gin, and gin and tonics, are nothing new to me. My Aunt Esther and Uncle Dave used to give them to me when I was four. Maybe even younger than that. But I could go years without onûe. I liked them, but no big deal.

But now I became preoccupied with gin. The differences in tastes, textures, bouquets. And, so I, with my friend Craig, looked for a place that had gins to taste and came up woefully short.

One place I called used to be a favorite more than a year ago. It was one of the last places I took my wife to eat before she died, before she was no longer able to leave the house, before hospice, before her death. Even toward the end, hard as it was for her to be out, to enjoy her days, they had great patience for her, for her needs, and for mine. I called with trepidation, but Matt’s Casbah, I thought, was a good bet for gin and, I had hoped, I could reclaim this place as a favorite happy haunt instead of only associating it with radiation therapy.

No, they did not have any different gins, the manager, Justin, told me. But rarely had he heard of anyone else interested in gin, and he happened to have a bottle of Smalls, a “boutique” distillery that produced, what he felt was a superior and different gin. And he remembered me, and my Lee, and asked if I would come in to have a drink with him, on the house.

I was delighted. Elated, really, and I did go there, to have a drink with Justin. I took Craig with me and we sat, happy, sharing a bottle of small-batch gin, fragrant, strong, viscous, with Justin. With our first sip, we toasted Lee. It was a small thing, but a great kindness, and it allowed me to reclaim something I had lost, and in that, I knew I could reclaim other places, other things, I had lost. Other things associated with pain could be brought back to joy.

Some days later, Jazmin handed me a National Geographic. In it was an article about dying languages she knew I would be interested in. It discussed languages and how they formed, and were formed by, a culture’s way of thinking. In one section it discussed Kazakhstan, and the word for juniper, which, of course, is the main flavoring for gin, coming from the word genièvre, French for juniper. It stated that the Kazahks burned juniper berries to allow those who have passed to move on, and those who were still alive, to live on. It cleared the souls who lingered for the rest of their journey.  Kazakhstan is the part of the world from which Lee, the doctor, the shaman, and her family comes and she but one generation removed.

And here I was, at the one year anniversary of my wife’s passing, fascinated, preoccupied, with gin, with genièvre, with juniper as distilled in spirits.

When the soul reaches, listen and lend it your hands. And gin is what I was reaching for.

Since then, I have tried many gins. Many awful, many wonderful. I found a bar in San Diego while there for a book signing that had over forty gins, Aero Club, and the barmistress set me up with a tasting. I described what I liked, and she set it up. All for a Jackson and a tip. Junipero, one of the first small distillery gins, made by Anchor Steam, the first microbrewery to make it big. Farmers Botanical Organic Gin. Smalls. Hendricks, well-known but under-appreciated. Others. Many wonderful. All different.

I feel much better. And, I know, so does she.

 

Have a Shamanic Gin and Tonic

When a friend or loved one’s passed
(we know the body doesn’t last),
but the spirit’s not moved on
of those whose time has come and gone,
or those alive are still bereft
over one who long has left,
there is a cure one can employ,
a special drink one can enjoy,
to clear the space and tears away
and free a soul who mustn’t stay.

Have a shamanic gin and tonic
served tall in a glass that’s cold and conic,
prepared by a shaman with a twist of citrus:
cinchona bark and a gin that’s viscous,
and cubes of stone that fizz when you drop ’em
(better than pills that appall when you pop ’em,
or capsules or tinctures or some New Age option
is tonic and gin, the shamanic concoction)
or cubes of ice—they’re even freezier
(they dissolve in the drink, and that is much easier).
Then sniff the bouquet of the herbs and the roots
or the leaves or the stems or the barks or the fruits
or the spirits of plants that the gin spirit suits!
Have one or two
with a friend or a few,
and beat a skin drum
or rattle bones some—
then slip with a buzz down a hole or a drain
to discover your lack or the source of your pain
or maybe the unattached bits of your soul
that keep you from feeling as though you are whole
that fled long ago and now can be found
safe in the keeping of leopard or hound
or in a small cave or hole in a tree,
and finding them now, you set yourself free.
Then bring them back home as you drum with your drink
(it’s really quite easy, just try not to think)
with the cubes made of stone
as you journey alone
in the land underground (or is it within?)
assisted most ably by tonic and gin.

And what herbs or roots or fruits should we add
that would be good—or by virtue of excess or vacuity of some constituent or actions or combinations thereof—would be bad?
Cucumber’s a wonder in high summer heat
but in juniper, gin should be more than replete,
and filled with the spirits that cleanse and abide
for clearing the home (or office or what-have-you) and sending them outside,
so inside and happy now people can live
without items disappearing or dishes crashing or things going bump in the night, and they can be happy and productive and get a good night’s sleep without antidepressants or therapy or a sedative.

So toast those now gone, or gone but still here,
and raise them a glass in celebration and cheer!
And don’t take to drugs or psychiatry or colonics—
just drink some shamanic ice-cold gin and tonics.

 
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Posted by on October 13, 2012 in Family, Food, History, philosophy, Poetry, psychology, Religion, Writing

 

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Boone Tavern Hotel

Rocking chairs creak
At the Boone Tavern Hotel.
Two rows across the wide
Inviting veranda.

Rails, boards, seats all
Singing smoothly in the
Kentucky July.
We were simply passing by,

My friend and I,
In the impossibly bright light
Of afternoon. Walking
Far too industriously.

Inviting and comforting
Like an old black and white movie
Of Southern days gone by
The veranda calls us

Though we are not guests
Of this hotel. I think of sitting
Among the paying customers
As illicit; theft of comfort.

Still, I am a traveler,
same as they, though
who knows how many
are registered at the desk.

I am a traveler,
Same as they,
Looking for a way out of
The summer heat

On my way to where I am going
Why not stop and have a seat
On the broad chairs
In the cooler light?

Two empty chairs together
We take our places
And begin the slow, rhythmic function
Dictated by form.

If the air will not move against us,
We can move against the air.
We are our own easy breeze
In the thick, tepid quiet.

Soon, silence turns
To slow talk. Before we
Know it, we are
Discussing spoonbread.

The temperature of a slow oven,
Debating the perfect number of eggs,
Their size, sour or sweet milk,
The color of corn.

 
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Posted by on May 22, 2011 in Food, Poetry, Travel

 

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Rememberance

The dates had been set for a trip for Lee and I to New York City. A drive up with the remainder of my daughter’s boxes, sixteen of them in varying sizes and weights, two portfolios, two pictures carefully wrapped in blankets, one tool set and a two by six by eight inch stone signed by fellow students from the inaugural class at The America Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, NC. The dates were changed from later in the month to earlier – her work schedule changed and, always overprotective, she worried about us traipsing around NYC by ourselves. On our end, work became heavy and, heading into summer, we were reticent to tell patients they could not have appointments.

It had been months since we’d seen her. Too long for me. But, in the end, though I missed her enough to bother her by phone nearly every day, it seemed a trip destined for difficulty. I felt we were pushing it somehow – the fast drive up and back, the shuffling of patients, the challenge in accommodations as she had, as yet, no couch or blow-up bed and I was not looking forward to arriving in NYC and immediately dropping a few hundred on a sleeper sofa.

Lee suggested Alek go along instead. We made the plans but, at the last minute, he felt it was a bad idea. Not just for him, but for anyone. In the end, it seemed he was right and we canceled. But I still needed a day or two away and Lee suggested Gainesville.

I had shied away from Gainesville. But, now settled into a home I like, visiting the place I considered my home for so long no longer seemed melancholy and bittersweet. I could go to my favorite gardens, walk the trails, climb the sinkhole, sit downtown, stay up late at my favorite coffeehouse, spend the afternoon at museums. And I can get from here to there well before a single MP3 disk runs out.

I asked Alek if he wanted to go – to get away with me and leave Lee the house to herself for a couple of days. Happily, surprisingly, he said yes.

This might have something to do with my having invited his girlfriend too.

Jessica is a sweet kid. A smart kid. We have made it a point to include her in the household whenever we can. She’ll watch TV with us, have dinner with us, go out with us. We want her to feel welcome and to know that she is. This is no chore – she’s fun to have around.

A week ago, Alek took her to South Florida to visit my father and brother, my in-laws. She learned quite a bit about the family and, yet, she stayed. So why not take her to Gainesville and show her some old haunts and tell her some odd stories. Let her see where Alek was born, where we lived, learn a bit about his parents.

Besides, Alek is quiet, Jessica talks. She and I will sing in the car while he sits. When we go out, he is worried about which one of us will embarrass him more. In short, it’s fun to have her along and it makes Alek happy. So why not?

The day was set. We leave Thursday. An easy trip. One night there. Gardens, sinkholes, museums, flea markets, thrift stores, retro clothing, coffeehouses. Maybe I’ll look up some people I know. Maybe not. I post a status message on Facebook. “Anything musical, festival, artful, eventful, funful or playful going on in Gainesville this Thursday of Friday?” I should have known not to, I did know not to, and I did it anyway.

Wednesday night I got this reply as a message on Facebook. It is from Tori, a friend of fourteen years. Tori thinks it is longer and I don’t tell her any different. The subject was “The Wild Young Zikr, Poetry Jam and Potluck”

I had gotten an invitation to this a month or so back but, since it was in Gainesville and I am in Palm Bay, three hours away, I said no. That and the fact it was a potluck which means there will be food and people which means eating food and talking to people. Actually, that was the only reason I said no.

The entire body of the email was two words. “Come by.”

People who know me, who spend time with me, come to understand that somehow, often somewhat uncomfortably, often somewhat frequently, they are in for new experiences. Tori, later, Victoria, later Murshida, always Tori to me, is like that as well. Having seen the comfort-stretching, learning and experiencing my friends tend to endure when around me, I knew what I had to do.

I had to say no. I had to say it quickly and before it was too late.

Why did I not use the word no? I walked right into it. I said “My dear Dear, It is a party. That means I will be struck with near paralyzing fear, cold with sweat, and wanting to crawl into any hole I can. Then I’ll cling to anyone I actually know and then worry about having done that. How’s THAT for a confession and knowing myself?” I added, “Besides, I won’t have been able to have cooked anything.”

There. That would be that. Done. Over. Crisis averted. After all, I promised no more forcing myself into social situations. I didn’t need them, didn’t like them, didn’t want them. And I can lie to myself as well as the next guy.

On the occasions I have needed a psychotherapist, and I assure you I have and do, I have not seen one. Why? Pack of idiots. Pulling out their tricks and counting on their common logic. I know their tricks and can out-logic them half asleep. Too smart for my own good, I am told, I have never found them to be effective. In psychotherapy, a good therapist has to get past your mind, past tricks and leave you with no place to go but in the direction of discovery, experience and growth, of finding or leaving. Tori is a psychotherapist. I should have known better. I should have just said no.

Her reply.

It’s not a party– it’s a ceremony– does the invite say party? That was a student’s oversight.

Come at 8:30 to eat and for Zikr– helping clean the dishes as your contribution to the meal will help manage your social anxiety between the eating and the invocation– bring a couple of dark chocolate bars to add to dessert– you can break them up and arrange them on a plate once you get here– another activity to manage social anxiety…did I tell you I was almost paralyzed by this for years… covered it up because I am an actor. It sucks. My heart to you! I love you.

And Zikr… Zikr is… Zikr is…

5,000 years of Dervish Divine Magic. 130,000 prophets in the room, Illumined Teachers in the room, music beyond what is being sung… such beauty.

During the height of the Moorish Empire when our ancestors lived in the Iberian Peninsula enjoying what is sometimes referred to as The Golden Age of the Jews, there were seven generations of Jewish Sufi Sheiks. And you, my dear, area Dervish to the core. So… if you don’t come I won’t be insulted for a moment, but what a thing to pass up… eh?!!! ♥ ♥ ♥

Damn. She did exactly what I would have done. The sidestep. She deflected my issues, piqued my curiosity, spoke to my longing and left me nowhere to go but discovery and experience and growth. She left me nowhere to go but her house on Thursday evening.

Hmm… social interaction and food. Nothing like dropping myself directly into the lion’s den.

But, if it is religious as well, it would probably be interesting to Alek, soooo…

Mind you, my newest poetry is not printed out so all I have is some older things. I mean, I have the new stuff on Internet access and on the computer, but not on paper. So if I read it might be something you have heard before.

Eight-thirty, eh? Dark chocolate, eh?

You know, if I’m on stage, I’m fine. If it is my job, I’m great. But I have even stopped going to contra dances for fear I won’t get asked, or, if I ask, I’ll be turned down. I never am but I know, next time… next time… so I don’t go. I just stopped forcing myself.

So what’s the dress code?

Why was I asking her that? Was I actually going? I asked the kids to see if they might say they’d not want to go. I prodded. I suggested.

“Sounds interesting,” they said. Damn.

Tori’s reply to my queries and misgiving?

Dress code is comfortable. Alek is welcome of course. Lots of young people. Not a place for performing actually. But what comes through comes through… you’ll see. Someone will be holding your hand most of the time and guiding you through… I promise that! lol. ♥ VA ♥

I wrote back. “Guiding me through? I’ll have Alek’s main squeeze with me to. Guiding me through?”

Notice the sidestep here. “Awesome… ,” she answers. “The Path of Love Loves Lovers… yep yep yep ♥”

“Damn, it looks like you are giving me something to write about. CRAP!”

“Yes!”

I have not written much in the last two months. It’s not that I have nothing to write about. I am working on a revision of a book coming back into print, on a novel, on a series of vignettes, on promotional material for the office. I have things I could write about. Maybe too many. A friend joked the other day that my problem was I had so much to write about that I don’t know where to start. I said “I need assignments. Write about this event. Write that story. Even better, maybe someone will give me an adventure. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a something interesting I could go to, less than a day away, that I could write about.” Make sure you really want something before you ask for it.

So Thursday morning we set off.

It is a three hour ride and we arrive in town with plenty of time. I take the kids on a tour, showing Jessica the house we lived in that we bought because of the live oak tree (age three), where the Lubavicher rabbi, one Shabbos eve, got Alek drunk on vodka and he spit up all over the rabbi in return (age four), where I died in my orange VW bus after a head-on collision with a blue truck, laying across Alek keeping him safe (also age four for him), his elementary school, Littlewood (ages five to nine), the old cooperative school we started out in the woods (ages who knows), Civic Media Center, where I got my start reading poetry at a clothing optional event (age who knows again), the bookstore we owned (age seven to nine) which now sells cigarettes and beer, and the house he was born in (not age four).

We pass the houses of people we know and decide to not stop in. Many we have made attempts to keep up with and most of the friendships fell apart from disuse as the distance and time grew. Some I email and some I call and from none do I get replies. That evening, I clean out my phonebook.

We explore downtown a bit and stop in at Flashbacks, a retro consignment shop. We buy a dress for Jessica and some cool whacked-out multi-coloured skater shoes for me (women’s size ten) and a great, magnificent find – a plaidish wool fedora. Neither appear to have been worn at all. Ever. Divesting myself of fewer than twenty-five dollars and feeling well on the upper-side of the bargain, we set off for lunch.

El Indio. It is not hard to find it and we have a great lunch of Mexican food under the trees on Gainesville’s main street, which is not Main Street, but 13th Street, US Highway 441. From there we walk a block to Mother Earth and buy three bars of dark chocolate. Green & Black’s Organic 85% Cocoa Dark Chocolate.

There is a whole lot of tired going on. We head back to the West Side, near Archer Road, and look for a hotel. Classes let out for the summer a week ago and rooms are plentiful and inexpensive. We settle in, me in one room and Alek and Jessica in another. We will rest and, in an hour and a half, at quarter ‘til seven, leave for Tori’s.

Out Hawthorn Road, in the Southeast region of the town, down towards the lakes, in a hidden area of small to medium, iconoclastic adobe, A-frame, tin-roof, shack, balcony, geodesic houses, each more improbably different than the next, we wind around dirt roads until we find Tori’s home as described, notice the many people sitting, standing on the wide front porch. I had hoped we’d arrive before most of the people and I feel my heart rise in my throat.

It is difficult to find a place to park and we squeeze past the cars on the narrow lane, turn around at the end, at the bank of Calf Pond, and squeeze past them again to park by the top of the street, unblocked and unblockable by any car obeying even the rudiments of the spirits of logic and the traffic laws. I have planned my escape.

The kids exit the passenger side. I left not quite enough room for me to get out and I step into the vines and loam, smoothing my way against the side, compressing myself over the hood. Down the road, up the short path, two steps up to the porch.

“Adam!” She rushes toward me, slams into me, hugs me. It takes me a moment to process the voice, now buried in my shoulder. Kat. Katey. “Katey!”

In her mid-twenties, tall and thin, other than a sporadic picture on-line, I have not seen her for nearly ten years. Long among my daughter’s best friends, even when distant. For years we saw her nearly every day.

I introduce the kids. Alek, of course, she knows though he has changed much since his age was in the single digits.

She takes my hand and brings me, around the people, inside. A small house. An adorable house. Different coloured walls, arches, stucco, sashes and prayer flags over doorways, devotional items on the walls, a fireplace to the left on the front outside wall as soon as one enters, and a table at the far end covered with food. A floor. The floor looks like people. Pillows and people. A sea of people between the front door and the table. A sea of people wearing shorts, t-shirts, sarongs, tank tops, less, more. I step around, over, through.

Really, it is not that crowded, but I don’t look down. There are many people but I don’t look down as that is where they are, sitting. Katey tells me her mother is busy talking with someone and points to a door through which I assume Tori is. And she must go as well. “Wait a moment.” I reach into my backpack and hand her three large bars of the 85% cacao chocolate. “For the desert table.”

We stand. It must be a few minutes or maybe a few seconds. I look at Alek and say softly, “I’m going to go outside where I’ll be less conspicuous.” I am not thinking about the fact that I am dressed in a button-down, albeit flowered, forest green shirt and dungarees which is as comfortable as I get when I don’t know the people. No, I am thinking about my mere presence and palpable, I am sure to everyone, discomfort.

And from some part of the room I hear, “be less conspicuous?” And so confirmed becomes my belief, my self-fulfilling prophecy, that people notice me, laugh at me, talk about me. I walk out the door again. Across the porch, down the steps, to the road and walk to the left, the right, one end, the other.

Out comes Tori. Tall, bright, nearly buzzed white hair, dressed in white, flowing inside and out, she hugs me. And I do so adore her. Always have. And miss her. Always do. She senses the discomfort even as I melt. She tells me how good it is to see me. She takes my hand, leads me around, introduces me to people, tells them she knows me much longer than she does. I don’t argue. “Want to take a walk to the pond? We have a dock that goes out into it.”

We walk down the road, onto the narrow, single file, wooden dock. In the water baby gators swim by.

“I swim in there,” Tori tells me and a few other people who have followed us, met on the way, or were already there. “I just listen to my instincts.”

It’s time to go back to the house. Time to eat. Back up the lane, inside. Tori walks to the table, gathers people around, points to the dishes and tells us what is what, what’s in it, who brought it. Time for a blessing and we all gather in a large circle squashed by the walls. Someone is missing. Tori’s mom. I’ll get her, says someone and leaves the room. A few moments later, her mom, thin and white, sitting in a chair, is slid into the room, chair legs across the tile floor.

The last time I saw her mom she spoke. The last time I saw her mom, she walked. Last time I saw her mom… I want to go over and say hello. She smiles. People talk to her. I can’t. My lack. It has not been long since my mother died and it feels like that. Far too much like that. Far too soon. And immediately I feel badly for my inability to communicate with her, my desire to distance, the feeling, if I walk over, I will begin to cry and see my mother, again, cold, dry, dead. My last image of her and I can’t do that now.

It is my lack. But I choose to be kind to myself. As kind as I can be while still dishing self-reproach.

The blessing begins. Tori leads it, blessing the food, our gathering, that we have come together to share this meal, this love, this precious time together and our reaching out to one another in union, in expansiveness, in joy. That we all move toward the one and the one moves within us all, each a ripple or wave in a single expansive sea.

And we eat. I wait, as always, not wanting to be seen eating, that someone might say, “he’s fat but he’s eating?” knowing, as I do, I am the only one who begrudges me food. But I wait, regardless, until the line is down, ’til seconds have been had, ’til cleanup has commenced, ’til most are busy talking, or laughing, or walking in the warm night.

I grab a plate and find the food is gone. This was my hope, of course. My son tried to get me to eat. I told him I would. But if the food is gone, what’s to be done?

There is half a slice of bread left, made by Tori, spelt and seeds and dense and delicious. There is a handful of cucumbers and a few fork-fulls of salad. I eat. Beside me is a conversation about massage therapy and sore legs. One woman has shin pain and wants to know how to stretch to alleviate it. It is a chance to help and I apologize, ask if I might make a suggestion, and, with leave, do. She is a massage therapist, not a student as I thought, and I think they might believe me to be egoistic. But it is information she did not have and seems happy for it. And I back out off the conversation before I have worn thin my welcome.

I bring my plate into the kitchen and, among three other people, wash my dish. Then other dishes on the counter, then gather other things to wash, happy to have a chore – doing something that allows me to face away from others and with no expectation of socializing. When there are no more dishes to wash, I walk outside. The kids are sitting on a set of steps.

Jessica is feeling uncomfortable. Her stomach hurts. She feels somewhat nauseous. Part of me wants her to want to leave and I will, of course, concede. part of me wants her to come in. We’ve come this far, why not go all the way? Tori comes over, crouches, speaks with her, assures her no one will ask her to do anything she feels unable to. She agrees to come in and give it a try. I am heartened. I am undone. My mind, my will, divided, opposed to itself, gets what it does and does not want.

Then, we are called back into the living-room and asked to take seats upon the floor. There are pillows. I refuse one, knowing, within ten minutes, my legs will be asleep. People push in, Tori askes we get closer. “Smush. Smush.” My son to my right, Jessica beside him. To my left, a young lady who’s name I do not know. I do not know anyone’s name save my son, Jessica, Kat and Tori. She wears a green dress and sits on a pillow. Everyone has a pillow and she leans forward and grabs one of the few remaining, piled in the middle of the room, and insists I take it. She has a Spanish accent, South American. Argentina, I am nearly sure. I refuse the pillow. I refuse the kindness.

“Smush Smush.” We do, I am pressed against Alek and he sits tightly. I try not to impose on his space. Ms. Argentina is pressed against me and I try to move to give her room, but there is no where to go. She sits cross legged and lets her legs fall to the sides, her right leg resting on my lap. I thank her for the excellent suggestion of the pillow, taking it from behind her and popping it under me. Newly elevated as I am, her leg still drapes over mine, resting on my thigh. I have no choice but to melt and breath.

Tori lays a sheepskin down in front of the fireplace and sits. “This (drawing a large circle in the air) is Islam. This (drawing a large circle slightly intersecting the other) is Sufism. This little space where they come together is Islamic Sufism but the rest of this circle is Sufism too. A long time ago, Mohamed welcomed the mystics, persecuted elsewhere, into his protection. Everyone was welcomed. Muslims, Jews, all the mystics. And they sat on sheepskins, or ‘sufs.’ So they were called Sufis.”

Zikr. It means to remember, to praise, to celebrate, to devote. It is movement and a spiritual state. It is to occupy ones body and mind, simultaneously, with the act of devotion so there is no space, no thing within that is not involved in devotion, not filled with celebration, not engaged in remembering, not suffused with love. The entire being becomes a celebration of all that is within and without and, soon, cannot tell one from the other. All things are divine and nothing is not the ground of creation. Zikr. Dhikr. Daven. Sway, rock, recite, repeat, praise, sing, move, move move.

She speaks about recognizing each other. Sufi’s, those on the path, mystics, though not all alike, recognize each other, as she recognizes us tonight.

There is further, but brief, explanation. Some chants will be in Aramaic, some in other languages, but all will be translated and all are here to bring us toward the one, toward unity, to ecstasy, out of our bodies and out of our minds to expansion past our skin-encapsulated egos, and into the ocean of being. We will be soaked, drenched in the one. We shall be drowned, encompassed without, filled within, by the love of all that is.

“Allah hu. Hu Allah.” A name of the one and the universal sound, a breath. We chant. I was taught a similar chant by Rabbi Isenberg, now the Chairman of the Department of Religion at the University of Florida. We would breath, chanting fast, bowing our heads. ” Sh’ma Yis’ra’eil / Adonai Eloheinu / Adonai echad.” Three bows each time, one for each part. Fast, faster, breathless. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, half an hour. Shaya would gather the Jews of a mystical bent and the Muslims of a mystical bent and have evenings he called “Jufi Dancing” to prayers and songs and chants. The Dances of Universal Peace. On Sundays, often, we’d play soccer, the Jews against the Muslims, no one keeping score. A name for oneness is a name for oneness.

Yet, I have trouble as the chant takes hold around the circle. First I sing not at all, then quietly, barely moving my lips. Then, as time passes, the chant starts singing itself and I feel no choice.

Words have meaning, rhythm and sound. Their power comes from the vibration of these three. But we don’t need to understand the words. Sometimes the words are lost. Sometimes we can’t pronounce them. The rhythm and sound are all that is needed as these impart their own meaning.

A rabbi taught me , if I don’t know the words, hum. There is power in the tune, in the rhythm and sound. Some chants come and go. Some, though, have power in their tunes, power in their sounds. They last. “Allah Hu.”

So I sing. And Tori begins to twirl. She spins and spins and spins in the little space there is within the circle. She bends down and grabs someone’s hands and they spin together. She lets go and that person grabs someone’s hand and they spin. We chant, we breath, they spin. With each choosing of a new partner, I wish simultaneously to be chosen and overlooked. We sing we sing we sing, they whirl, they whirl, they whirl. Faster and faster and then, as though by cue, we slow and breath and slow and slow and stop.

We had all pulled our legs in, to make more room, to not get our feet spun upon, and Ms. Argentina and I are now rather nestled into each other. And it is time for the next chant.

We count off into ones and two. Hold hands. Ones turn to the left first, then right. Twos to the opposite. Say “I don’t exist.” Turn. “You exist.” Turn. “I don’t exist.” Turn. “You exist.” Again. Again. Look in the eyes. Repeat. Again and again Ms. Argentina and I look into each others’ eyes, tell each other “I don’t exist.” Alek and Jessica are doing the same. Alternately, I turn to Alek, tell him “You exist.” Back to Ms. Argentina. “I don’t exist.” People are snickering, some laughing, some looking down, some follow through, more and more, look around, smile, radiate, expand, glow.

We rise and learn a song. Umbay alahay alahay alaho / Umbay alahay alahay alaho / (Rise an octave.) Umbay alahay alahay alaho / (Drop and octave.) Umbay alahay alaho. We sing. We sing. The circle breaks and the beginning of the line moves, sways, walks, dances. We become a snake, moving, swaying walking, around the house, into the kitchen, out the back door, into the yard, singing, walking, spiraling, singing, singing, faster, slower, louder, softer, tight, loose, drawn, compressed, expanded, pulling, pushing, singing singing singing. Passing eyes, looking, gazing, singing, the line doubles on itself, we face each other, it spirals again, we face away, it folds, circles, folds. We coil, coil, sound in our ears, singing all around and after an unknown time, we are all spiraled into a singing coil, tight, tight against each other, side by side, front and back, singing, pressing, pressing. Warmth and sound and naught else.

There is nothing to do but sing and melt. I cannot tell where I end and the next person begins. How long have I been holding Ms. Argentina’s hand? Alek’s hand? I am pressed between them, against the person in front of me, the person behind me. Briefly, ever so, I take inventory. What is there? Sound. But so much is missing. Anxiety. Worry. Boundaries. Me.

We quiet. Sing in a whisper. Slowly uncoil. Sit on the warm Earth. Come back inside. Sit again.

We are quiet. It is time for a story. Tori starts it. We each add a bit then pass it on. I am two thirds of the way around and it falls in and out of continuity, the story of a lonely woman of the distant past. A woman who lives in the desert and wishes to see the ocean. My turn comes and I do my best to return the story to the realm from which it came, to address the original question, get the woman to the ocean and away from caves and talking cats and speeding cars and back to her home and time and desert and to help her find her ocean.

The person before Tori has his turn. “I don’t have to finish it, do I?”

“No,” she says, “I wouldn’t do that to anyone.”

He takes his turn. So does Tori. But the story is undone.

“Adam,” She asks. “Would you finish the story?”

I guess I’m not anyone. I am surprised. It is a compliment, I know. And I take it gladly, finishing the story with the breath of the divine lifting the woman and her carpet to the clouds, to the sea. Everyone blows. Everyone blows. Our breath together is the divine breath. Our wish together is the divine wish. And together her wish is fulfilled. Together, may all our wishes be fulfilled.

Tori looks across the room, smiles, puts her hands together in front of her heart, shakes her head yes, says “I love that man.”

And, yes, I believe it’s true. And, right now, so do I.

 

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Nor’easter, Part 3: Goodbye Monks, Hello Dalai

Nor’easter: Being a Whirlwind Snowy Trip to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York City or How Van Gogh and a Herd of Alpacas helped Lee get her Groove Back.

Second day: Morning. Goodbye Monks, Hello Dalai.

We rise a bit before seven and the first thing I do is look out the window to see the cars, pavement, roofs, covered in snow. I noticed, last night, the car had an ice scraper in the trunk. We may well use it soon.

We shower and pick out the day’s dress. Long johns for Lee under a shirt. Special thin long johns under her dungarees. For me, a long sleeve charcoal long john shirt with buttons, looks like a jersey, and generic long johns under my dungarees. Each of us has a leather jacket. We wanted our longer coats but there is only so much we could take on a plane. Slowly, surely, car travel seems much more the luxury than travel by plane. The luxury of time. The luxury of space.

We dress, all the while marveling, as we do when we travel, at the TV. Not so much the TV, of course, but the regional differences that can still be found in the programming. Different accents, different emphasis on different stories, more of one type of commercial than another. Local flavor can still be seen, though it is often subtle.

Of course, one of the big differences is not just due to the area but the area at this time of year. The weather reports suggest several inches of snow. There are ski commercials, farm commercials and commercials for various animal-related fairs as well. No idleness during the winter months.

We eat breakfast. Apples. Bananas. We know Rachel will be here at eight and we don’t want to be late. Today, we are hers for wherever she wishes us to be. And the first place to be is outside at eight.

And so we are. Gloved. Scarved. Hatted. I have leather gloves, a newsboy hat with a brim just big enough to keep the bright sun out of my eyes and a cashmere scarf I never get a chance to wear. Lee has gloves we just purchased for her, Thinsulate within, leather without, and a stocking cap. I tried to find her better gear, and find I did. But the interest was lacking. At least I managed to get her into a pair of hiking boots.

Standing in the lobby of the Eastonian, we see a car pull up. It parks, driver window open. It’s Rachel. Window open. Open. This is not starting out well.

Out we go to meet her. Her window is broken and will not roll up. Ok, we could have met her at her house. No problem. She tells us she’s used to it. She is dressed in a T-shirt and sweat shirt. Last report was it was 22 degrees. Lee tries to give her another sweat shirt for under it but, no thanks. Rachel says she is fine. Neither one of us believes her.

We walk over to our car. It is covered with a fine powdery snow. I open a door and nearly all of the powder falls to the pavement. We get in, Rachel pulling up the seat to sit in the back, and closing the driver’s door, shakes the remaining powder from the front and back windows. Lee does not want to drive but can’t sit in the back. She never can for more than a very short distance. Rachel is sure she can direct us from the back seat. Off we go. Where to turn? What is that? What does that mean? A new town and I am a kid – curious and fascinated.

The first stop is actually in New Jersey – The Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in Howell, Washington County. It should be but a half hour away. It is listed as a monastery and welcomes visitors. According to the website, it is the home away from home, at least in the Northeast, of the Dalai Lama and it is where he does the bulk of his teaching in the US. There is a stupa there I have wanted to see and this snowy day is my opportunity.

But first, we must go through downtown Easton. This won’t take long and I drive slowly, even considering there is ice on the road. The buildings seem odd and it is a few moments before I realize it is simply because they are old. Old. Not in ill-repair. Not at all. But not modern. They have character and a scale more human than I have often seen. We drive by Lafayette College and it is quite a sight. Beautiful, up on a hill in the center of downtown surrounded by trees that must provide needed and appreciated shade in the summer.

At the very center of the downtown area, as per design and practicality, by the grace of fortuitous geography, on one side of the town square, where the Bushkill flows, is the old Crayola factory. Long moved to the outside of town and having significantly cleaned up its act, folks here used to be able to tell what color crayon was being made that day by the color of the Bushkill. Now the old factory building is called Two Rivers Landing. The Crayola Factory, a museum and activity center based on the much-loved company and product, takes up the bottom two floors. On the top floor of the three story building is the National Canals Museum.

The Northeast has the bulk of the navigable waterways in North America. Not the biggest rivers, perhaps, but the most, often the deepest, and easiest to get a ship down. Or, if not a ship, a boat or barge. Goods moved from place to place by water more than most people think. And, when there was no river, a canal could be built. The best known of these is the Erie Canal in New York, but there are many important canals and many still in use. This area long depended on the Lehigh, Delaware, and Morris Canals and the Lehigh and Delaware Canals meet right here in Easton. The Bushkill behind us, two canals within walking distance and the Delaware River but a mile away.

It is the Delaware we are headed toward now. On the way I notice there appear to be many more chiropractors’ offices and tattoo parlors than most places I have been. Any place I have been, actually. Often next to each other. Getting a tattoo must be more rough than I thought.

As we come over a hill, in sight are the Delaware and two bridges less than three blocks from each other. Also in sight, over the Delaware, is Phillipsburg, New Jersey. Rachel has me take the closest bridge, called the old bridge. “Is that its name?” No. I had asked about that the night before as well when first seeing the two bridges. The old bridge to Phillipsburg and the new bridge to Phillipsburg. No one I asked, and I asked quite a few at Tick Tock, knew the name of the other bridge or why there was a new one. And the new bridge cost seventy-five cents to cross leaving people to routinely shun it for the old bridge which crosses the Delaware just as well as the new one.

How can no one know the names of these bridges? There is really the excellent reason for this. The names are horrid. Not exactly names to trip off the tongue or lodge in one’s memory. The old bridge is The Easton-Phillipsburg Toll Bridge and is part of US 22. It does have a toll, it turns out, but only coming into Pennsylvania from New Jersey. The other bridge is The Northampton Street Toll Supported Bridge and it has tolls both directions. It should be noted the new bridge was damaged by Hurricane Diane in 1955 and later repaired so even the new bridge is not exactly new. Still, it is easy to see why the spans are called the New Bridge and Old Bridge.

Just before we get to the bridge there is a steep bank to the south and then to the east again with a rough rock wall to the south as the road circles around Lafayette College and cuts through the solid rock which rises on the sides of us as we sink to river-level. Roads cut through the land are common in this part of the country. They are called roadcuts, as a matter of fact, and are often studied by geologists, who let the roads folk do the work and then come in to study the strata uncovered and material left over. You can even find them in cities such as this one in Easton and right in the middle of Philadelphia. It is not strange at all to see rock walls on either side of the road, and amazingly close stones jutting out as though one sneeze at the wrong moment, one twitch of the hand, will leave a driver without a passenger-side mirror or a passenger side all together.

The rock wall, as we approach the bridge, drops suddenly just as the road curves, just when you think you might hit the jagged granite and slate, there is nothing but drop. Nothing but air and treetops as the land falls away.

“That’s called Cemetery Curve,” Rachel tells us.

“Why? Is there a cemetery at the bottom?”

To my surprise, the answer is yes. There is a cemetery at the bottom of Cemetery Curve.

“Did they name it for the cemetery or did they put the cemetery there because that’s where all the bodies piled?”

“You know, I’m not sure. It was probably easier just to leave the bodies where they landed. Less hauling.”

I’m thinking we might not make it to New Jersey.

Finally, over the bridge, the geography changes instantly as the geology does. Granite and slate becomes dolomite and pegmatite, pinkish in color, and there is less roll to the hills, fewer rocks cropping up. The buildings, as well, are more composed of wood, more clapboard than stone. That we are in a different place is apparent. We continue to head out on US 22 though Phillipsburg to Howell. Among the bedding stores, the auto repairs, hardware stores, marts, offices, shops and restaurants, we pass a foodstand, an old gas station by the looks, white, wood. This is the sort of place one stands outside of and orders while the people inside make the food. The kind of place people congregate round during fair weather. This is not fair weather but I am no less intrigued by Toby’s Cup.

The cup in Toby’s Cup is not for soup or coffee. The cup is a bun and this is a hot dog stand. Not a bun in the sense most people think of one. It is a steamed bun without opening at either end, forming a long cup, a trough, for the hot dog and a slice of pickle, sauerkraut, onions and various other condiments to be loaded into. The hot dog is not broiled, not boiled, not baked or steamed – it is deep fried in peanut oil until it screams and splits. A Splitter it’s called, not surprisingly. I saw this on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations special show on New Jersey and decided, if I found one, I’d try it for sure. Once. Just once. I would stop for one now, regardless of the early hour, if Toby’s was just open. Once. Just once.

As we drive, Rachel points to the north at a gap, a wedge cut in the mountains. Wind Gap. Wind Gap is where the Delaware used to flow, she tells us, dividing the mountains for millions of years millions of years ago until acted upon in a manner so startling and violent, the flow shifted miles away to the present location, now called Water Gap for clear enough reason.

But this is not correct, alas. This is an area where the North American and African continental plates meet. Many streams once flowed from the north to the south through this area. One by one, the streams eroded wider and wider beds through the soft lime leaving the harder rock, sandstones and conglomerates, much less eroded and formed these old, now rolling, mountains, part of the ancient, even by mountain standards, Appalachian chain. The widening creeks and rivers, one by one, found the crack, the cleft that divided the plates, and the rivers were “captured.” Over time, more and more rivers joined them, eroded the crack to a bed to a cleft to a gap.

As it is now, Water Gap is a mile wide from New Jersey’s Mount Tammany at 1,527 feet to Pennsylvania’s Mount Minsi at 1,463 feet. The Gap is about 1,200 feet deep from the tops of these mountains to the surface of the Delaware which, itself, is, at this point, 290 feet above sea level and fifty five feet deep.

And Wind Gap was and is for wind.

After a while we come to the monastery road – a sharp, sudden left turn on a snowy steep hill, and pass it hearing “there it was” from Rachel. Another quarter mile and we find a safe place to turn around and slowly make the right onto the road, winding up and up, my wife wincing at the drops and occasional small skids, past farms and stables and homes and then, on the left, Tibetan prayer flags. We turn in.

There are two buildings. One looks like a large home, in the back of the property. Perhaps in the back. There may be more land, much more land, behind it but I cannot tell. To the right is a large hall. At least it looks to be a single large open room, with a wrap-around porch atop stairs atop a hill.

But this is all dwarfed by the stupa, high, round and white in the middle of the icy field. It is the first thing we see as we enter the gate and it dominates the scene. We park in front of the hall in the gravel spot large enough for only half dozen cars.

It takes us a few moments to gather our warm things and, in the meantime, Lee notices, out loud, this place appears to be empty. We leave the car and carefully walk to the one hundred foot or so gravel path to the hall steps. In the distance, the door to the distant house opens, closes loudly echoed on the ice and down the stairs, across the field, a short, many-layered lady approaches, calling to us. She introduced herself as Diana Cutler. Later I would find her to be one of the first American students of the center and the one to whom administrative duties were passed when the monks, when the monastery, moved to New Brunswick and the Center, called Labsum Shedrub Ling – simply, The Learning Center, was gifted to the Dalai Lama.

In thick sweater and coat, jeans and hiking boots, Diana has crampons under her soles. “We don’t get visitors here in the winter.” She can’t say that anymore. She worries about us falling on the icy gravel and asks us to walk on the side where it meets with the dead grass. There are no monks here, she tells us. And she is headed into town to see her acupuncturist. But she has a little time and we can see the study hall and learning center. We walk carefully where she instructs us and hold the railing up the wooden stairs. The double colonial doors are not locked and she bids us leave our shoes outside and we enter.

Fifty by thirty feet, I am guessing. Doors to the left and the right. Meditation cushions stacked against the wall through which we just passed. In front of us, a large alter spans the center half of the wall we are facing. Next to it, on the left and the right, from altar to wall, are bookcases. It is cold in here. There is no heat. There is no provision for heat.

The altar has flowers, statues, candles, pictures, iconography, tankas, incense stacked in tall cans, all in a profusion of color and texture and the closer we get the more interesting, the more fascinating, the more diverse and complex it becomes. There are tiny household statues of stone and pewter. Small necklaces and strands of malas sent to spend time on the altar. Coins cover much of the surfaces that, from further away, seem empty. Much of the color and texture comes from cans of food, boxes of cookies, toiletries. Much of the altar is composed of mundane household items and, along with the statues and candles, it all fits, it is all beautiful and serene and holy. The canned peas are holy. The toilet paper is holy. The toothpaste is holy. The cookies are holy cookies. The razors holy razors. Sacred are the Ritz crackers. Sacred is the cheese. Holy is the mundane. We back up again and it all blends and all is holy.

I sink to my knees, prostrate, allow my forehead to touch the floor once, twice, thrice. I walk up, take incense, light it. Offer it. I leave a few dollars in a box. I fold myself again, to the floor, on my knees and sit. I am quiet.

Lee asks Diane where the monks have gone. Gone they are and gone they have been for quite some time. Once it was home to Tibetan Monks and Mongolian monks in a culture that was mixed so both would feel at home. Then Americans started to enter as well. Americans like Diane and her husband Joshua. Now everyone is gone but them. Gone. Gone by death. Gone by attrition. New monks heading to the cities to be engaged in the compassionate work of the world, easing suffering with hands as well as hearts, to work as well as meditate. Only Joshua and Diane Cutler remain. And, in 1984, the Dalai Lama asked the monastery in Howell, NJ to change the name to The Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center. Now, this is where the lessons are taught when the Dalai Lama is in the NE United States. But not in the winter. In the winter, it rests.

And so do the texts. They rest. The massive shelves hold them. A full third of the wall is covered by them with half one side of the altar and half on the other.

These texts are bound in cloth and are just under a foot long, three inches wide and about an inch thick for the smaller ones to four inches for the heftier tombs. Each has a flap on one end of a specific color. It’s the color that tells the reader the language from which the text is derived, and the further information on the flap tells the title and contents. One holds them or, more traditionally, places them on a small slanted stand, with the long axis from hand to hand, and flips the pages up. Tibetan is read from left to right. These are the books Richard Gere has been spending so much on translating and digitizing. These and others like them from other collections are being saved and translated, made available and read more widely than ever. Perhaps not better understood, but certainly read.

And there are hundreds here, at least. They are stacked long-axis-in on the shelves, which are arranged, further, into cubbies. Six to twenty-four books, stacked three to six high, are in each cubby and there are four to seven cubbies per shelf on seven shelves set atop a set of cabinets and reaching within a foot of the ceiling. They are organized by color. These are the sutras and commentary.

On the bookcase to the left are the sutras, all one hundred and eight, in red. Above them, to the top of the case are the Indian commentaries in blue. Those continue to the next bookcase and, then, above those are the books in yellow – the Tibetan commentary on the Indian commentary.

Diane has to get to her appointment so we start to leave and I turn around for a final look. Once out the door, I see the prayer wheels, again. Each like the next like the one before, each a black cylinder bidding us to open like a lotus. Om Mane Padme Om. May I open like a lotus. I go to the first one on my right. I have never spun a prayer wheel before and, as I do, Diane calls to me. “Start on the other side and walk clockwise.”

I start again, on the left side of the front doors, spinning each, walking, allowing my hand to contact the bottom of each, spinning it as I walk, the next, the next. I turn the corner and continue and I can hear the wheels turn, behind me they slow, the next one start, several turning at once. Each one spinning a prayer again and again and again. Coins are left here and there and I dig into my pocket with my left hand and leave a quarter at the next corner before I turn, not missing a beat. The back of the building, wheel after wheel and another coin to leave at the corner before I turn and the other side of the hall and another coin and then the last half side and the door again. Lee is smiling. She knows I have long wanted to do this. And smiling, we walk down the stairs, carefully, on our non-spiked hiking shoes. Rachel in her sneakers. Diane walks confidently, we, slow and haltingly, carefully, where the iced grass meets the gravel. We thank her and Rachel and Lee go to the car.

The stupa sits large and imposing in the field. Not the tallest in North America. Not the widest or most ornate, but it is the one I am at. There is too much ice to go there but I do regardless, slowly, carefully, crunching and balancing the two hundred or so feet into the field. This stupa was dedicated in 1984 to the founder of Labsum Shedrub Ling, Venerable Geshe Wangyal (1901-1983). And I stand at its base for a short time knowing those behind me are cold. So I turn around and tread to the car.

Once in, we head back the way we came, down and around the mountain, slowly on the icy road, to the main road back to Easton. Tony’s Cup is still closed. Over the Delaware, Rachel gives us directions to her house. Her mother wants to take us to see the sights of Jim Thorpe and some surrounding areas. Not having any idea what she is talking about, we happily give in to a new adventure seeing things we’d never heard of. She has a minivan and will drive. An easy day for us.

Arriving at her house, the garage door is open. Dogs are barking and can be heard all over the quiet, snow-covered neighbourhood. We enter the house to wait for her mom who has taken a half day off work. It is loud with five barking dogs that never cease. It is musty with animal, fur, aroma of cage. Lee exits and waits outside in the cold.

She enters again asking for paper. The answering service called with a new appointment for a new client. We had put off getting an answering service because of the expense. This trip made it a necessity and, searching the Internet, found a local one in Melbourne. The cost is sixty dollars a month. Much less than we had anticipated and added one more example of our not taking advantage of something because of our assumption it would be expensive. Before the day of vacation was out, we’d have three new patients. All while enjoying the Poconos. One day and the service paid for itself nine times over. So much for saving money.

Mom arrives. After a few minutes of hellos and explaining why Lee could not stay in the house, after making sure Rachel was dressed more warmly, we are all into her van and off to see Jim Thorpe. The road is leading up and up while the snow begins to fall.

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2009 in Culture, Family, Food, Nor’easter, Religion, Social

 

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Night Garden

It was around eleven pm and I started feeling hungry. I’m not sure if this is my stomach or my brain. I had a cup of black rice with about a cup of cooked vegetables for dinner around seven. Yet, since ten, I wanted more.

I opted for a bowl of organic Cheerios-esque cereal with almond milk. Not long after – not even after, halfway through the bowl, actually – I regretted every spoonful. So I continued, more and more loathing building with each mouthful until I finished the bowl, now empty of cereal but brimming with contempt.

Having eaten, it being about a quarter after eleven, I have to take a walk. While I know this does not undo what has been done, there is a part of my brain that tells me that is precisely what it does. A part of my brain exists that says this one action, talking a walk, will undo the cereal. A crazy part, no doubt. This is not something of which I am unaware. But had this part spoken up before the cereal, I’d be in bed now.

So I put on my socks and sneakers, collar and leash the suddenly ecstatic dog and out we go.

Today it stormed. This evening it stormed. I could hear the frogs and various un-named creatures through the windows. So, while I would normally take my MP3 player with me, this time I leave it at home. While normally I’d listen to lectures on physics, or religion, or recorded books, tonight I will listen to the sounds of the natural world, all wet and happy, awake and loud.

We leave through the back door, quietly, as my wife is sleeping, grabbing the bamboo short staff. There have been, as of late, stray, large, unfriendly dogs following us on our walks. Dogs in pairs and triplets, one at the heels, one on each side, each pushing me into the other. Growling and showing teeth. I tell them to leave and they do, then return a minute or so following closely, more closely, at my heels and side once again. I tell them there will be one fewer if I find a stick. When I do, they leave me before I can pick it up. Since I have carried this thirty inch long, one inch thick bamboo, they have not approached.

Through the yard and out the gate to the sidewalk. I attach the free end of the leash to my belt loop and my dingo trots along my left side, leash loose, looped, swaying as we walk.

I don’t see her, of course, walking next to me. One side is the blind side and the other side is the one with very little peripheral vision, so I need to trust her. And I do. I know what she is up to. I can tell where she is by the pull on the leash. When she gets a sandbur, and we have some versions of cenchrus here that appear to have been developed as devises of torture by the SuperDevil, I can tell immediately by the change in her gate, the different rhythm in the paws on pavement, the change in the sway of the leash.

A short walk. Two and a tenth miles. I walk this in the morning in thirty-five minutes which is a shade under four miles per hour and quite good for a fellow with my leg-length. Far too fast for an extended conversation which makes the dog a perfect partner. Tonight, though, we’d take our time and walk for the air and the sound.

The rains have left the night cool. Wet. It feels like home. Not a specific home, not a specific place, but home, a home faintly, distantly recognized, comfortable, familiar, inviting and kind. The wind is easy and the frogs are singing. Insects are buzzing. As we walk, Dusty’s nails clack on the sidewalk, insects tick in the taller grasses. There are croaks and calls and buzzes.

I place the staff, lengthwise, on my right shoulder, a foot and a half or so behind me, a foot and a half or so before me. It balances easily, seesawing from time to time, swaying in and out now and then, like a compass needle. This will keep my posture in mind as we walk.

I wonder what sings in the grass. Not names, not labels, just what is. So many creatures and so few found. So few named. Many people think we know all of life on the Earth, but here, right next to me, could be life unknown. There very likely is.

Very few have any interest in this. You could gather all the taxonomists in the world into one small hotel. Experts on fungus? The world’s mycologists could meet at a Day’s Inn conference room.

In The Diversity of Life, Edward O. Wilson describes the work of one botanist who spent a few days in Borneo and discovered over one thousand new flowering plant species. More discovered in half a week than the total of what is known in North America since we have been keeping records. A pair of Norwegian scientists, as a lark, picked up two samples, only one gram each, of soil from a beech forest near their lab. Carefully analyzed, they found between four and five thousand separate bacterial species in each sample. More than is recorded in the best known record of things microbial, Bergy’s Manual of Bacteriology. Over nine thousand species in two pinches of soil taken from no place special. In Kenya, four new species of millipedes and a new tree, a big tree, is found.

Such is the myth of naming. Such is the idea that we explore, thirst to discover, to mark, to label, divide, organize. We don’t care, most of us.

I don’t care for names. But I listen as we walk, wonder what might be singing I have never heard singing before. Maybe something is thrumming with life, just beneath my feet, no one has ever seen. Maybe.

Bamboo leaves rustle. Jasmine glows under the three-quarter moon. Angel trumpets hang, moonflowers open as we pass. A rabbit is sitting by an in-ground pool behind a house no one has lived in for over a year. Owls call. Bats dart. Dusty, from time to time, walks out slightly ahead, looks this way and that. When I follow her gaze, I see cats.
Lives in the trees as we approach silence as we walk under them and resume as we pass.

I bend forward and the staff slips off my shoulder and down into my right hand. I twirl it forward, back, round and round, behind me, under my arm. I flip it over my hand and into my left to do the same. My dog never notices. I place it on the left shoulder, grab the front with my left hand and the back of the staff with my right, pulling down, bringing my shoulder lower, digging into the muscle, ironing it with the broad bamboo. Over the back and onto the right shoulder for the same. A large toad crosses the sidewalk in front of me.

I leave the staff to balance once again. Blue lights of TVs brighten and fade, one person argues with another, cicadas call, moaning gains intensity, breathing quickens rhythmically, gains volume, slackens, softens, intensifies again, a dog barks, a baby cries, there is buzzing in the grass, someone says they are not coming back. A car starts.

 
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Posted by on June 3, 2009 in Food, Nature, philosophy

 

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Nor’easter, Part 2: Eat In or Pass Out


Nor’easter:
Being a Whirlwind Snowy Trip to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York City or How Van Gogh and a Herd of Alpacas helped Lee get her Groove Back.

First day: Night. Eat in or Pass out.

After a finger-numbing walk around the car, making checkmarks where indicated, promising to bring the car back with the same amount of fuel it has now—just over three-eights of a tank and why on Earth don’t they just fill the tanks and then ask you to bring them back full—we settle into the car with a plunk as we allow gravity to seat us. Low car. Too low.

We get direction to Easton, but fifteen minutes away according to the girl at the car rental. We ask where to eat, as it is getting late, but she has the suggestions one might imagine for around an airport and not one fast-food joint was more appealing, or less appalling, than any other. She is sure we’ll fare better in Easton.

It is an easy drive. And, as we drive, it begins to snow. Lightly. Lightly. East to nearly the New Jersey border. The roads are good and we make amazing time even in the snow. At nearly eighty miles per hour we are being passed by cars whose inhabitants must be getting younger as they drive, whose speech, if only I could hear it, would sound slower to my ears, whose color shifted strongly to the red. People driving so fast they will have to reset their timepieces ahead when they get to their destination to match local time.

Lee is speaking to Rachel on the phone. Where to stay? If not for her two cats, five dogs, and various other animals, we could stay with her and her Mom. The Estonian is the suggestion. She gives us directions. We follow them and become, after getting off at the correct exit, lost. Instantly lost. While the next day we would see how easy it, in reality, was, in the snowy dark, it is anything but. Finally, after asking several people in parking lots, we are directed to The Estonian Suites. Suddenly, as we pull in, I understand and then, just as suddenly, no longer understand the hotel’s name. The folks here pronounce it East-onian. And, indeed, it is named for the city and is but a few blocks from Lafayette College. But it is spelled as though it is named for the country, Estonia. And, apparent only as we pull up, it is a Holiday Inn Express.

Within, it is empty save two people behind the desk. Past this person is a large reception area followed by a larger comfortable lounge. There is also a computer area with Internet and I make note in case I cannot find such in the room. The price is more than I am comfortable with, though, in truth, that is not hard to accomplish, but less than most places we have stayed.

It occurs to me, I have never seen a hotel lobby this empty. So empty, the idea comes to mind that I could easily break out into a Robot Dance right here and no one would notice. No one but Lee, it would seem, who apparently hears the thought and steps lightly on my foot adding just enough inertia to keep me where I am. I think of a waltz instead. She steps slightly harder.

Classes started last week, at Lafayette, the clerk explains to us. Last week, there was not a room to be had in the county. This week, hardly a room is full and we can have our pick. Non-smoking, top floor please.

Like the lobby and lounge, the hallways are lovely as well. The entire hotel is lovely and only the small sign outside under the hotel’s name would give it away as a Holiday Inn. It is clean, nearing elegant, beautifully decorated, large and with a staff than cannot think of enough wonderful things to do for their customers.

We are going up to our room. It is coming on eight o’clock.

Lee calls Rachel again. Where to eat? No worries. She’ll come over and guide us. We’ll have dinner together. She arrives about a half hour later, after we have cleaned up, put some clothes away, changed and we head out to see Rachel waving fro outside of a minivan. Rachel gets into the middle seat, as do I and Lee takes the front passenger seat. After Rachel introduces her to Mom, we head out.

What does Lee want to eat, Mom asks. A cheesesteak, of course. No problem. We’ll go to Giamanies. We ride some twisty-turnies and arrive to a closed deli. Closed at nearly nine on a Wednesday evening. No problem, We can go to The Widow’s Tavern.

It takes us ten minutes or so down roads I could never find my way back on, through neighbourhoods and past buildings I really would like to return to in daylight to explore before we find The Widow’s Tavern. This is not a new building.

It used to be a stage coach stop and an inn of quite little repute. Marvin, perhaps the innkeeper, had an affair with one of the “house ladies” and, later spurned, killed her and placed himself dangling sharply at the end of a rope. As the story continues, he is sighted now and then at the tavern, turning this, dropping that, peeking here and there.

We walk in, have a seat, ask for menus, are told no food is served after eight but we are free to drink, hand back the menus, exit the opposite door and get back into the minivan.

At no time did I see Marvin.

All the while, we are getting the special “it’s too dark to see it but that is the ____ and it was built in ____ and now it is a ____ tour.” Lee and Mom are talking about Alek, of course. I have met mom, but Lee has not, and they seem to be getting along well enough. Rachel and I are busy texting Alek and being, more or less, pains.

Lee wants to know if he is OK. Alek is seventeen, has Dusty the Dingo home with him, transportation and numbers of three people ready and happy to assist in any way he might find useful. Alek sums this up by texting me “Mom’s a pain.”

Lee calls him and asks if he’s OK. She does her mom thing. He does his son thing. The conversation ends.

Alek texts Rachel. “She is a crazy lady.” Rachel laughs and shows it to Lee.

Where to eat. Mom tells us the only place that is certainly open is Tic Toc. It’s the place all the kids go, all the adults go, everyone goes to, it is always open and always has decent food. It’s just rather run-of-the-mill. Fine. No problem. We arrive at Tic Toc about fifteen minutes later and are now two blocks from the Estonian.

Tic Toc is a large diner. New Jersey has, by all accounts, more diners than any other state. We are but a few blocks from the Delaware River and Jersey and, apparently, diners spread. And the Tic Toc is huge by any standards. By diner standards, it is a behemoth. Remember the old Sports Authority commercials? “Rhode Island. It’s a small state but would make a huge sporting goods store. That’s us. Sports Authority.” I have passed though towns smaller than Tic Toc.

We are seated amid the glorious smell of commingled eggs and coffee, toast and potatoes. We each have a menu. And what a menu it is. Five pages thick, front and back and, as always, whenever I am handed a too-large menu, I freeze up and become instantly un-hungry. Lee takes the menu from me, points to a page and says to just look at this one page and order from there. Excellent. She has removed the fried entrées, the sandwiches, the salads for which I am too hungry and the deserts.

I order hash browns covered with vegetables, two fried eggs, a bagel and, and . . . what is this? Pierogies? It has been years since I have seen them—once or twice in a box from the freezer section (Mrs. T’s barely qualify) and it has been ten years since I have made them myself. I order potato pierogies—too many for me—and ask Rachel if she will split them with me, which she happily does. Everyone else has what they want as well. The iced teas and waters arrive and we are set.

It is busy. Teens, adults, old folk, groups and clubs. Packed. And we are served as though we are the only folks here. The food is quite good for such common fare and the pierogies, large, ear-shaped, boiled and then, in this case, fried in butter quite like my grandmother would have done, are wonders. I have two and let the other two go to Rachel.

We make our plans for the morning as we eat. She is afraid we’ll get lost going to her house so she will come to the hotel and we can follow her back, where we’ll all continue on in the rental car. She’ll meet us at eight. Rachel has taken the day off from tending the alpacas and we’re happy to let her take us around as she likes. One day in and around Easton, in the Poconos, with Rachel as our guide. I have a feeling there is much more here than I had anticipated.

Now, well past ten, we are quite full and more than tired. We pay, despite Mom’s protest, let them drive us the two blocks as, in the dark, we do not want to chance the uphill walk on ice, and we hug good night.

Through the empty lobby and up to our room. It is comfortable, quiet. We use two binder clips, we always carry in the suitcase, to clip the curtains together to keep the light out. Lee has her computer open and we take turns looking up various bits of what-to-do-ness. There is the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center, there is the Appalachian Trail, Delaware Water Gap. There is Lee’s hand closing the computer. She is, of course, right. It is time to go to sleep if anything is to be seen though open eyes. Especially if we are to be out by eight.

And I am, frankly, more than ready for sleep.

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2009 in Culture, Food, Nor’easter, Social, Travel

 

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