Saturday, December 31, 2011

Good Time For A Cleansing


It's tough to really call any year forgettable. Even in the worst of times -- when all the news is bad, and every time you see a newspaper or television you feel like screaming in frustration -- there are still moments that make you laugh, and maybe even feel hopeful.

Still, there's no denying that 2011 has been a tough year. Natural disasters. Political violence. Stupid politicians spouting a never ending stream of hateful nonsense. Dumb movies. An economy that many people feel is about to blow up like a faulty M-80. And general societal irritability and uncertainty that makes it seem like the wheels are about to fall off -- of everything.

Thankfully, it's 2012 now, and it's time to forget all that. Right?

Not really. The Gregorian calendar doesn't mean a damn thing to a subsistence farmer in the most primitive reaches of Papua New Guinea. Hell, they don't even have the iPad 2 there yet. And so tonight, when all the champagne corks are popping, and amateur drunks are committing more faux pas then there are stars in the sky, nothing meaningful will change.

However, New Year's can be a time to let go of bad things, to let them float away from the front of our minds to a comfortably insulated part somewhere in the back brain area. Let me be clear about this: I don't mean forgetting all the bad stuff that happened last year by sweeping it under the rug and pretending it wasn't real. Flipping the calendar page doesn't change anything. But it does give us a chance, as humans, to compartmentalize the past and move on. And that can be a valuable thing. A cleansing thing.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Smoke Is Powerful Stuff


It's December, and the night air is seasoned with the scent of burning wood smoke. It's not an unpleasant thing for most people, and it's actually the kind of thing that can really get you into the holiday spirit.

That got me to thinking about how powerful and evocative the smell of smoke can be -- how it always reminds me of places I've been, taking me back with just a whiff. Smoke is heavy with signals. It's chock full of codes and messages that speak deeply and directly to a primitive part of our brains. This will sound like an observation of the obvious, but it bears repeating: Smoke is powerful -- really powerful.

Anyone who's been camping can attest to how quickly and thoroughly campfire smoke gets into your clothes. It's the same permeating kind of scent that we're smelling in the nighttime air right now.

Smoke can also be horrible, like the kind that comes from burning plastic. Not only is this smoke toxic, but I personally associate it with chaos, the uneasy feeling that things are hurtling inexorably out of control and there's not a damn thing anyone can do about it.

Burning tire rubber, meanwhile, can be a reminder of how many bad drivers are out there. And anyone who's been to a rock concert can attest to the de rigeur cloud of marijuana smoke hanging over the proceedings, serving as a visual symbol of thousands of people having their minds simultaneously blown by the band playing onstage.

For me, smoke reminds me of other countries. In Bangkok, walk down the street and it's just a matter of time before you walk into an cloud of chili pepper smoke from street food vendors' cooking fires -- an invisible blast of capsicum that grabs your attention and sends you into a momentary panic. The pain only lasts a few seconds, and it's nowhere near as intense as being pepper sprayed, but it's still something you don't soon forget.

Smoke hanging in the still nighttime air also reminds me of India. I'll always remember landing for the first time in Delhi, very late at night, and having that be the first thing that registered in my jet-lagged brain. It made me picture the thousands of fires that were probably taking place at that time, all over the city. And with each fire there had to be some sort of interesting story, I thought to myself. Most of the fires were no doubt for cooking, since it was September and still quite warm. But the purpose of the other fires? I couldn't figure it out, and that made Delhi immediately more interesting to me.

The night smoke in the Bay Area right now is all about warmth, fireplaces and wood stoves, about huddling in front of the heat with a cup of hot cocoa, a good book, and preferably, a Golden or Labrador Retriever curled up nearby.

Humans love fireplace fires, both from a warmth perspective and because they're fun to stare at. Huddling at the fire in a cozy room is actually one of the most satisfying things we can do as humans, especially if it's pouring rain or snowing like crazy outside. I'm convinced of that -- in fact, I put it right behind eating warm chocolate cookies.

There's just something hard-wired in our brains that makes us feel happy and relaxed when we're gazing at a fire with eyes closed, feeling its warmth radiating on our corneas. I wouldn't be surprised it this feeling goes back to the earliest days of humanity, when men walked about with knuckles dragging and looking for something to eat that didn't run fast.

I'll always remember another type of smoke, too: The kind I saw in Thailand coming from chimneys of temples where dead people were being cremated. This is how it's done in Thailand, and in many other countries. The first time you see it, it's a bit unnerving -- you're looking at the smoke wafting up into the evening sky and it's hard not to think about the fact that you're witnessing the last visible part of a person.

But if you believe that there's something after this life, there's no more powerful visual metaphor for death -- and the blink of an eye that we call a life -- than this type of smoke.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Trauma and Triumph: My Experience Playing The Turkey In The School Play


When I was in third grade, my class was chosen to perform the Thanksgiving school play. This news sent waves of excitement through the student body, and immediately, I began to daydream about what role I might land.

It was a delicious kind of speculation for an 8 year old mind: Would I end up playing Squanto, the Native American from the Patuxet tribe who helped the Pilgrims survive their first winter? Or Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag tribe? Or perhaps Samoset, the Wampanoag who first initiated contact with the Pilgrims? Heck, I wouldn't have minded getting the role of Captain Miles Standish, leader of the Pilgrims, even though he was, by some accounts, kind of a scumbag.

But as it turned out, I didn't get any of these roles. Instead, I ended up being chosen to play the Thanksgiving turkey. Yeah, the actual bird.

When I first heard that I'd been assigned the role of turkey, I was pretty upset. But dashed hopes were the least of my worries. The irony of my being chosen to portray a character that would eventually be devoured by the other characters wasn't lost on my classmates, and they helpfully reminded me of this. A few of the students would pretend to sharpen fake carving knives whenever I walked by. Children can be so creative in their ridicule.

But after a few days of sulking, a strange thing happened: I started getting into the turkey role. I mean, really getting into it. For example, I started hanging out at a local turkey farm, studying the birds' mannerisms, listening to the sounds they made, and applying this to my role, as would a method actor.

I soon became very skilled at mimicking gobble-gobble noise of the turkey, its herky-jerky movements, and its vacuous gaze. As it turned out, my role didn’t require much onstage walking around, but I felt it wise to be as thorough as possible.

This behavior soon became a source of concern to my parents. They humored me at first, but after a while I could that they were becoming alarmed with my dedication to preparing for the turkey role. When they began discovering feathers around the house, which I'd gathered from the farm in order to make my training more realistic, my parents finally drew the line.

In due time, the date of the school play drew near, and we began rehearsals. The play was to be a simple rendition of the story of the first Thanksgiving, from the pilgrims' arrival at Plymouth Rock, their initial difficulties in adjusting to their new surroundings, freezing their butts off the first winter, and then having their lives saved the subsequent winter by the Native Americans who showed them how to survive in the new land.

The first time I tried on the turkey costume, I was disappointed by how un-birdlike it looked. A giant ball of wire and paper mache constituted the body; a long, conical piece of construction paper served as the neck, and a little turkey-head had been fashioned from a shoebox wrapped in brown felt. Two small holes were punched out in the neck for me to see through. And for feathers, there were cut strips of cloth that hung down on all sides.

The simplicity of the costume, the teachers told me, was a reflection of the symbolic nature of my role: The turkey was the main sustenance shared in the first Thanksgiving, and I was supposed to shuffle onstage at various times during the play and just kind of stand there until the end of the scene, when the stage darkened. I appeared during the pilgrim's first winter in the New World, and later, during the following winter, when the Native Americans began teaching the pilgrims how to survive in the harsh conditions.

This role obviously wasn't challenging, and so in my restlessness, I began to find ways of using the turkey skills I had developed, even though they were not in the script. In between the periods of dialogue I would make the gobble-gobble noise, just loudly enough to elicit giggles from my classmates. I discovered that by doing this, I could cause them to lose track of their lines, which made this even more enjoyable to me. Unsurprisingly, the teacher directing the play wasn't happy about this, and she told me in no uncertain terms to stop what I was doing, and she forbade me to do it during the actual production.

When the Big Day arrived, my fellow actors and actresses had not only stopped teasing me, they actually seemed a little bit jealous. After all, I was playing the central symbol of the Thanksgiving story, the image most people immediately think of when they hear the word mentioned. They were also nervous about their roles, but I wasn't in the least -- there was no way I could forget my lines, since I didn't have any.

My third grade class had never staged a class play before, but the previous year, the second graders had given a presentation of Romeo and Juliet. It had gone so well that the students were still strutting around the hallways like pompous little movie stars, nearly a year afterward. Their play had given them a lot of cachet around campus. And to be honest, us third graders were hoping for a similar impact from our Thanksgiving production.

And the play ended up going very well, with one exception. The main characters nailed all of their roles so well, and with such confidence and clarity of speech, that I felt compelled to show some of my talents. This went outside the scope of what I had been assigned to do onstage, but I didn’t care. I just wanted a piece of the spotlight that was being hogged by the other kids in the play.

So in the last scene, when the Thanksgiving feast was winding down and I was standing in the background near a flimsy replica of Plymouth Rock made of balsa wood and cardboard, I began to move around a bit. I channeled my inner turkey and mimicked pecking the ground in front of me, as if searching for some concealed seeds. I burbled in the low, muttering way I'd come to know as the turkey's form of idle chatter. None of this was in the script, naturally, but no one seemed to mind.

That is, until I slipped during one of the pecks and fell backward into Plymouth Rock.

Luckily, I didn't knock it over. The other kids in the play busted out laughing, as did most of the kids in the audience. The parents, meanwhile, tried to pretend like they weren't laughing, but they were. But we finished the play without any further issues. I caught some flak backstage from the teacher/director, but the production had gone so well overall that her scolding was almost half-hearted.

What's the lesson here? Not sure there is one. Except that in life, it's good to make the best out of the hand you're dealt. And if that comes in the form of being assigned to play the turkey in the school play, you should tackle that role with a level of intensity and enthusiasm that scares the heck out of your parents and teachers.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

I Am So Foreboding, I Actually Scare Myself


What's up? I'm an insanely scenic stretch of terrain in the Connemara region of western Ireland. I have been blowing people's minds with my craggy features for millennia. And on this day, I'm in especially rare form, as is obvious. The way the fog is pressing down on my mountain peaks and shutting off the sunlight really adds a sense of foreboding, and frankly, I'm enjoying the hell out of it.

But lest you think I'm some sort of psychopath, let me assure you that I don't get off on scaring people or anything like that. It's just a curious thrill. No one knows what lies down this road, and around its many bends, which are hidden from view in this scene. One might assume, just based on how ridiculously ominous I look, that to travel down this road would be a fool's errand, like break-dancing next to a pile of live cobras. Go ahead and think that.

Of course, I could be bluffing. There could be a damn amusement park down that road, or an ice cream parlor with golden retrievers playing outside, and overexcited children shrieking and demanding confectionery treats. And you'd never know it because I'm looking so terrifying and dramatic. Anyway, it's your choice -- travel down this road, if you dare.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

What Is Taking Your Father So Long?


What the heck is your father doing? He said he was going to get the ice cream like 20 minutes ago. Is he making the ice cream by himself from scratch? Seems like it's taking about that long. He'd better hurry up or he's going to be in deep trouble.

I know it's hot out here, honey, but just wait a couple of minutes and your dad will be back and we can all go find some shade and eat our ice cream. Actually, there's a lesson to be learned from waiting, honey, and it's called delayed gratification. It means learning how to wait and be patient for the things you want. It's difficult, but it also makes it all the better when you finally get what you've been waiting for. Yes, it's a grown up idea, but it's also a good thing for kids to learn too. It's all about discipline.

OK, I think I see your father over there. It looks like he's got his hands full, too. Yes, he got the ice cream! It looks like pistachio. See what I mean about being patient? This is going to be the best ice cream you've ever eaten.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Man...What A Long Day


The boy patted the elephant's back and thanked her for a long day of work spent shuttling tourists around to see the sights of Jaipur. This pleased the elephant, who found the day-to-day work enjoyable but was still heavily fatigued after carrying the weight equivalent of a Boeing 747 on her back in the sweltering Indian summer heat. The elephant wanted nothing more than to immerse herself in the cool, muddy lake and relax as the sun sank slowly beneath the hills surrounding the ancient city.

It was a routine the elephant repeated daily for many years. It sounds like monotony, but there were breaks that made it all worthwhile. New and interesting opportunities arose for the elephant from time to time -- like being in a wedding. The elephant loved being dressed up in Indian wedding regalia and serving as the official transportation for bride and groom. When dressed to the nines, with all the colorful accoutrements that accompany the stunning spectacle of an Indian wedding, the elephant felt like kind of a badass, actually.

What was really interesting to the elephant was how people didn't regard her as a servant or beast of burden, but as an actual wedding guest to be honored and cherished like the other guests. This, too, pleased the elephant, because she always had a keen awareness of the life-changing significance these ceremonies held.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

I'm Seriously Getting Too Old For This

Man, that truck missed me by a very uncomfortably close margin. That's like the fifth time I've almost been mowed down today. I know I keep complaining about my damn job, but I'm getting too old for this. And because I've always had this desire to, you know, actually GET older, I'm going to have to finally quit once and for all.

Of course, there's the issue of what I'll do next. I've always wanted to sell ice cream. The money sucks, and the margins are razor thin, but hey, at least I'd be bringing happiness to people. Frozen happiness that slowly melts away and then is gone, with a finality like a door slamming shut. No, forget that, I don't want that job.

What about working at a movie theater? I'd get to see free movies. And I'd be bringing happiness to people there, too. Oh wait. What about the crowds on opening night? And that popcorn, with the disgusting imitation butter? I'd probably gain a ton of weight from chowing down all the time on junk food. Forget that job too.

Ah well. I do this every week it seems. This job sucks, but at least I'm outside, on the streets, feeling the vitality of the city, along with its fumes, of course. But it could be worse. So I guess I'll stick around in this street sweeping job for a while.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Go Ahead, Try Climbing Up Here


Hey, I'm a stone fortress, and before you get any ideas, just be aware that you have pretty much zero chance of climbing me. Just wanted to get that out there before you go getting any ideas or delusions of being able to scale my rocky steepness.

I've been here for 600 years perched on this mountainside near the Diskit Monastery in Ladakh, northern India. Of course, someone had to climb up here to build me, and from time to time, to fix up my crumbling walls. But those guys were tough. You're not. I can tell.

Hey, not trying to insult you, just stating facts here. First off, it's 12,000 feet above sea level at my bottom. The air is thin up here, and that's enough to keep most folks from even trying to climb me. Second, in case you haven't noticed, it's rocky as hell up here, and crumbly, too. Treacherous would be a good way to describe it.

What's that? You're going to try anyway? Cool, whatever, just be aware that the nearest emergency room is about an hour, and the roads are pretty damn bumpy.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Oh Man, Is That A Tour Bus?


Are you seeing what I'm seeing? It looks like a giant bus full of tourists. Big, loud, obnoxious looking ones with cameras hanging around their necks. Could they be any more of a parody of themselves? Seriously, do you see that hat the guy in the blue shirt is wearing?

I just hope they maintain a sense of respect when they come into our temple. Because a lot of times tourists come in here talking and laughing and generally not caring a whole bunch about the fact that this temple is a place of worship, a house of peace and serenity, a place where one should be able to reflect on life without having to listen to inane background chatter.

Whoa, wait, are they wearing Hawaiian shirts? We seriously need to think about banning them, as a policy. That's just not right. I can never take someone seriously when they're wearing one of those.

Ah well, here they come. Let's hope for the best.