Birken-stalkings

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, October 2, 2016

 

Years and years ago, within the secret-gardened privilege of a liberal arts education — back when, at this particular college, there are no requirements for any sort of mathematics but four years of requirements for cultural history from Greece and Rome to the modern day — I have a professor, one of many big-time characters who help liberate me from my parochial thinking while at the same time opening the door to a lifetime of head scratching. Thank you, all you professors, so much.

 

This particular man, like many of his fellow academics with bigger and more beautiful than average minds, wears the same outfit day after day and walks the same way to get to the same office to hold the same office hours to help students asking the same questions arrive at the same answers – always making sure, of course, that they are doing it themselves, or at least helping them think that they are.

 

Some of these ivory tower types wear tweeds and bow ties, some wear elbow-patched sweaters. Professor H, call him, is in the habit of wearing very loose fitting khakis, a nondescript short-sleeved shirt, and Birkenstocks.  The way he walks is hard to forget: a deliberate and primordial stepping down – as if permanently imprinting in mud the ground of our tiny spinning planet, which hangs here delicately in a balance of not only deep space but snips, snails, puppy dogs tails, floating Greek characters, and enough ancient philosophy to bend light. Birkenstocks seem like the perfect shoe for this man.

 

At any rate, the professor is a man with a mission, a mission centered on the entrainment of undergraduate minds to better know Greek philosophers — and, more specifically, one particular concept. If you get it, and your work reflects that you get it, you score well, and get A minuses. (A’s are not given, on principal, in his classes.) The concept is straightforward, and the only thing keeping us all from simply getting it and ticking it off and writing the papers parroting back our comprehension of what he is getting at… is rebellion. You will see why in a moment.

 

His idée fixe, (which, like everything else under the Sun, is not new) is that freedom is not necessarily contained in the notion of choices. That, on the contrary, choice can limit us, paralyze us, even. That the happy life, a life determined by measured goodness and good-thinking and proper and natural adherence to rules, can create a life far more “free” than a life rife with too much choice or rebellion. Of course, at nineteen, we find it impossible not to rebel against this. Most adults today cannot conceive of it, given our modern world, which is populated by skillions of choices, that get chopped up into skillions more.

 

Today, I am thinking of this man – whom I have thought of many times before  — as I tackle a mundane task: replacing a washing machine, a brand new one with far more choices on its dashboard than I want or need, one which is so efficient in the water department that it hardly uses any water at all, so little, in fact, that it barely gets the clothes wet, let alone clean. There are too many other washers to choose from out there and too many choices within each of them. I feel paralysis set in. My free will – the freedom to choose wisely – is corrupted, even at the inch-worm level of the washing machine!

 

In addition to this burden of choosing, we are then asked to process these choices quickly and all at once. Look at this screen and figure out where you are. Pick a game and play it instantly. Look at this coffee maker and program it. Look at this phone, and figure out this week’s operating system. Pick two things to do at once, now, or seven or however many you want, there are so many! Do it until you’re giddy and fried and there is only one thing left: the bathtub. The idea of fewer choices and greater freedom? It is revolutionary. Subversive. Possibly even brilliant.

 

Recently, I hear of the early passing of an acquaintance, a novelist and screenwriter, whose habit with any kind of writing, which he does longhand, is never – not ever –to begin with a blank page. He writes between the lines of other people’s work, on the backs and fronts of bills and envelopes, on whatever comes in the mail. What I love about this is that the freehand scrawls flows more easily this way. Standing out between the rows of printed text, it quietly, and seamlessly illustrates how limitation, constraint, and fewer choices can be the beginnings of something very fine indeed.

Packing hacks

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, August 7, 2016

The only perfect bag I ever pack is the carry-on for a France trip, carefully engineered (by me, at my brief zenith) to contain not only clothes but gifts for the entire French family. This is the same bag that gets mixed up in Denver and ends up in Portland because I pick up someone else’s identical bag, a silver bag I somehow feel no one else will purchase but me, even though I’ve made this purchase at Target, which has about 2,000 locations in the U.S. alone.

This bleak scenario (already documented) finds me on a layover in New York, stunned to flip open a suitcase full of brochures and men’s underwear, which then requires a payment of nearly $400 to FedEx for an overnight swap so that my relatives can get their chocolates, scarves and soaps from someplace other than Paris. A shooting star of packing mojo thus becomes an expensive disaster, and I return to default mode.

There’s no explanation for the way I pack, especially as the one beside me uses a simple, infallible equation of socks, tee shirts, shirts, pants and a dopp kit to get himself right where he wants to be every time. What’s so hard about it? You, too, can Google proportions, placement, even best bags for success.

But, each time a trip, short or long, rolls around, I feel myself falling, falling eerily backwards into the mire of organizational rebelliousness, throwing things in at the last minute and then staring at them in disbelief as I arrive at my destination. What was I thinking?

So then, you take a person who is obviously handicapped and give this person a task of moving not once but two times in two years. The first time around, she adjusts by moving slowly, taking an entire month to sort, get rid of and then shove things into boxes, labeling only part of the time whimsically and the rest of the time mostly straightforwardly.

In storage, however, these imperfect boxes get moved into even more imperfect places. She loses her winter shoes two winters in a row, in a place where winter lasts seven months. She begins to forget what the storage unit is storing except for what’s closest to the door. She makes do. Well, there’s beauty in that, right? Who needs anything at all, anyway?

Two years later, she is packing another house up, even as the first house set of contents slumps yet further down in storage. Her single rule for this move: “The better the boxes, the better the packing.” Things devolve. They devolve from a notion of Category to a notion of Location. “Winter clothes” becomes “Winter clothes — guest room.” So there are winter clothes in the entire box line-up. Boxes represent not a portion of a life, but a microcosm of all of a life. Theoretically, she should be able to do a little of everything by unpacking one box.

Why does this happen? Is she missing a gene? She knows all about organized people because she’s read about them. They’re goal oriented, in control, conscientious. They capture, calenderize, prioritize, pare down and prepare. They reap the benefits.

Not surprisingly, in unpacking the giant mound of boxes, things get a little screwball. Some things turn up (“Wow, summer clothes!”) and some things go missing — favorite market basket, a gallon of maple syrup, an engagement ring.  Who cares that she still has the uncanny knack of knowing where everybody else’s stuff is, that this part of her brain is mysteriously functioning at an extremely high level? What about her stuff?

A month later she finds the ring safely stowed in the nightstand, which is one of the first pieces of furniture placed in the house. And even without the Find My Syrup app, the gallon turns up, in the pantry, behind the olive oil, safe and untampered. No one has carefully selected a ring and a gallon of syrup to abscond with, not this time.

All that is left to say is that if Shakespeare were in charge here, this story would take place in Venice. The suitcase, of course, would not be from a discount chain, it would be upholstered and contain a renaissance ring that would somehow get lost even though two people were to have been betrothed on their vacation away. The story would remain in Italy, but domiciles would change, along with roles, alliances and costumes. Someone’s cousin would appear with a mysterious liter of sweet syrup that put everyone to sleep temporarily, but when they woke up, after a few famous soliloquies, the ring would be back on her finger and all would be well — without ever having once exalted organization as one of the great virtues of man- and womankind.

Breakfast of regulars

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, March 6, 2016

I am eating cereal, something I rarely do these days, but the cupboards are bare, so I am shoveling it in standing up, contemplating the nature of Os and going into a familiar routine I call The Visiting Alien, this time honing in on cereal and breakfast.

Here I am, eating a bowl of finely groundup non-wheat formed into the shape of rings that are floating in nuts that have been pressed into a white milky pool of liquid. Should I have two pieces of puffed up slabs of non-wheat that I slide into a vertical cooker and slather with fat, or one? What kind of hairless animal am I, and what is this thing called a spoon? How did I get here?

How can such a box of airy cardboard line an entire aisle of something called a food store, be deemed sustenance, and cost $3.99 for about 12 cents’ worth of ingredients? And then we inject it into our bloodstream right after a jangly beeping alarms us into morning consciousness?

Cereal box graphics are the baseball cards of my youth. Corn Flakes, Grape Nuts, Cap’n Crunch, Quisp and Quake, Rice Krispies, and all the rest. My father occasionally eats Bran Buds, the closest thing to particleboard single-stomached bipeds can endure. And my mom, a French woman for whom cereal is just one more mysterious mainstay of a young and misguided nation, pours boiling water over her Shredded Wheat, drains it, and eats the soft paste hot (which is quite good, actually, with a little cream and sugar).

I am never anything more than a serial cereal eater, going from one brand to the next, never truly and completely satisfied. I am a fickle breakfast eater, as well, a penchant my daughter inherits at a young age, with her smoothie periods, fried egg periods and oatmeal periods. She recently reminded me, shaking her head, that we actually fed her French baguette and a bowl of hot chocolate for months on end one year.

This glycemic felony, instigated and committed over and over by me, has to do with my own nostalgia, my own French-girl years, my own bowls of chocolat chaud and tartines. At least she doesn’t have Carnation Instant Breakfast period to recover from. Nor has she endured the great Tang swindle, the sugary orange drink of astronauts. (“Tang sucks.” —Buzz Aldrin.)

Maybe I have been a fickle breakfast eater because I am still looking for the perfect morning meal. Not that there have not been some that stood out; there have been many.

Best service: Amsterdam. Delivered by the hotel owner up steep stairs on an antique tray, in a room full of antiques.

Most surprising: Breakfast served to 900 daily at Disneyland Paris. Fantastic coffee out of machines. And people of all nationalities breaking the rules and making sandwiches out of the breakfast cold cuts as they head into the fray.

Most nerve wracking: Navajo Lake, many years ago, as four of us fire up the espresso pot before climbing El Diente, my first 14er, crampons and ice axes in hand.

Most beautifully wheat-free: Chewy tapioca pancakes and fried eggs in Rio, and thick delicious juices made of mysterious fruits.

Most plentiful: Breakfast buffet at The Lodge at Vail. Gigantic bowls of berries, a sushi station, a smoked fish station and everything else under the sun. By day two, we are jaded. Lesson learned.

Most comforting: Buttered bagel and a coffee, light, from the coffee shop near my job in New York. The bagel is buttered, then toasted on the grill. The coffee, of course, comes in a Greek “Happy to serve you” cup.

Most deeply rooted: Boxed tartines (ready-made toast) and hot chocolate at my grandmother’s small house in Cognac, age 5 or 6. Walking around on the cold tiles with my woolen slippers on, feeling utterly content.

Most consistently thrilling: Any cup of coffee or tea sipped outdoors, first thing, in the morning chill of the mountains.

Most perfect, to date: A big café on the west coast of France, with a black and white tiled floor, at least a hundred chairs, a shiny brass bar, chandeliers and waiters in white jackets. Café au lait, assorted croissants and brioches with butter and jams, and orange juice. Comes with watching the world go by, and it never, ever disappoints, despite piles of wheat.

Nowadays, of course, there are trendy breakfast options for even the most fickle. Ultra juices, smoothie bowls, overnight oats, breakfast parfaits, chia puddings, anything with matcha, savory pancakes, breakfast cookies, avocado toast, Paleo breads.

Me, I have been thinking for many years of a traditional Japanese breakfast. Rice, miso soup, fermented soybean, rolled egg, maybe fish, and green tea. It may mean simply that I have scores and scores of mornings of sugar to counteract. Or — better by far — it may mean a trip is in my future. #hopeso

Trumping the candle

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, December 27, 2015

We have just lit a candle. An expensive, beautiful smelling, long-burning candle, the scent of which is neroli, I believe, (citrus aurantium — the flower of the bitter orange — a heady, citrusy, flowery scent still prized, as it was in ancient Egypt, for its calming, tranquilizing and mood-elevating effects). It is widely used in the perfume industry, and suspected to be one of the secret ingredients in the recipe for Coca-Cola.

We have not lit this candle as vigil or to make the house redolent of some evocative, mysterious, unnamable thing that leads one by the nose to blissful realms. It has not been lit to mark the presence of guests or the dinner hour or even as a late night treat for watching flame shadows flicker against a wall. In fact, we’re not even at home. We’re at work.

We’ve lit a candle quickly, with a specific purpose in mind and are having a good laugh about it now. This candle and matches have been dispatched to dispel bad energy, to clear the air, to burn away any residual negativity and to begin a new moment. Because what we’ve just had in our midst is an unfortunate person who does not have much control at all over her thoughts or her mouth and whose go-to expression is one of sourness, negativity and fault-finding. Meanwhile, in reality and right outside the door, soft fat snowflakes are falling all around, dotting peoples’ noses and eyelashes and accumulating in frosting-like layers, blanketing the town in a quiet and beautiful peace.

We are laughing for a couple of reasons. Because of the quick first aid we’ve applied to our space, the great and perfunctory speed of the sequence at which we’ve allowed a negative person to exit through a door and gone to fetch a good candle. We’re laughing because of the visible drama of marking the moment instead of internalizing it, which would involve taking on someone else’s miserable day, and taking it personally, a switch-up that is truly liberating.

And we’re also laughing because we’ve all been there before, in that discontented place, marching around like Pigpen from “Peanuts,” neck deep in a cloud of angry or resentful or fearful or lonely pheromones — inattentive to the world around us, thoroughly smitten by our own up-and-and-down-and-all-around stories, unaware or uncaring of their undeniable effects on other people.

The candle smells really good. In contrast to crisp, fresh mountain air, which is intoxicating and soul-reviving in its own way, the warmth and sweetness of the candle calms, helps us pause, accompanies us. Now, we are able to relax. Reboot. Let go of someone’s sharp, unwitting commentary.

Candles, which have been around for thousands of years, from the tiniest birthday candles to the tallest pillars, never disappoint. From insect wax and tallow, to oils, petroleums and more current permutations, we have lit our way through time, consoling and marking the moments as small flames burn bright. Now more than ever — in the advent of blue-screen glow and fluorescent light — we can benefit from the purity and light of fire, even in its most diminutive format.

Very shortly after we’ve applied micro-fire and scent to our space, another person walks through the door, this time a well-known personality with a couple of teenaged children and a husband in tow. They are an up group, a group whose vibe, charged with laughter and good cheer, with positivity and a sense of fun all around, changes everything and all at once.

We can feel it permeate not just the space but also our bones, our brains. It’s sweet and infectious and transformative. The children are polite. There is no sense of privilege or entitlement or urgency — none of that; and once they leave with their bags, the air in the shop expands, charged with good sparks, with pleasure, gratitude and generosity. It is now the prevailing climate, the power of which has trumped the candle by a long shot.

And we are the beneficiaries. It leaves us with a moment of real gratitude for the goodness of people who behave well. Who spread lightness of heart and joy. It gives us a moment to reflect on all of those who have told us (from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Norman Vincent Peale to Louise

Hay, Pema Chodron and many others) how important it is to tend to our emotional health, to take responsibility, to

examine the quality of our thoughts and emotions and to take care as we birth them in every moment.

What we learn, once again, this time from the cute candle-trumper family, is that good behavior is its own reward. It feels good and it makes others feel good. And what more could we possibly ask for as we attempt to make the very most of our limited time here on planet Earth?