Monday, September 18, 2017

“I Married the Waiter” Vacation Romances

Podcast:  I Married the Waiter

I just finished watching one of the most heart-rending documentaries I’ve ever seen, although I am sure it was not the producer’s intention. It was an hour-long exploration of “vacation romances” entitled “I Married the Waiter,” which is, in my opinion, an absolutely inspired title.  What a cautionary tale, I thought, and I expected the hour to be filled with lonely or over-stressed English women swept off their feet by men who were the antitheses of the familiar, rather pedestrian and predictable English men of their own experiences.

I was not disappointed.  Only one literally married the waiter, and she was one of the few who had a happy ending. Her Turkish husband teamed up with her in a town in northern England and they set up a mini-bazaar. They had true team spirit, and it seemed like a true partnership with mutual regard. The other relationships seemed forged by lightning bolts into Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory that ignited long dead (and pretty much forgotten) flesh and fleshly libido, while shattering the glass ceilings of ambitious men who wanted to get somewhere in their lives.

The stories were painful, and I, for one, was filled with a “there but for the grace of God go I” feeling of relief.  It was the relief you feel when you what you thought was a shark swimming beneath you in the ocean turns out to be your own shadow.  In my own life, other cultures and other languages have held me in their thrall. I easily plunge into a state of fascination and heightened reality that feels like an awakening, and one in which I’m breathing pure oxygen while everything seems fresh, pure, transcendent.

My first experience with this experience happened when I was 16 and visited the Yucatan Peninsula with the Spanish club.  I was not actually studying Spanish, except on my own.  I was taking Latin and working ahead, but I liked the language, and most especially liked the book I had been reading, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan and Chiapas, by the 19th century U.S. government official and surveyor, John Lloyd Stephens, who was also a talented artist whose pen and ink drawings showed how tree-covered “hills” were in reality Mayan pyramids, long abandoned and forgotten by the indigenous peoples. I loved everything about that voyage of discovery.

I had also read every biography I could get my hands on that had to do with people traveling to Mexico. This particular fascination was fueled by Wednesday night Girls Ambassadors church services at Bethel Baptist Church in Norman, Oklahoma. We studied cultures and countries, met with missionaries and missionaries’ children.  

One particular daughter of missionaries had attended West Mid-High School with me during our 10th grade year.  I, who fetishized thinness, was astonished by her ability become absolutely skeletal. Looking back, I realize she was dangerously anorexic. I felt there was something terrible about her life in Guatemala, where her parents were missionaries.  Perhaps she was simply angry about being there.  That was what I thought at the time.  Later, I wonder if she had been subjected to some sort of violence. She was taciturn and dour, not at all friendly. I was shy and not likely to befriend her. So, I never quite knew what the backstory was.

I remember speaking with the tour guide who led us up the pyramid of Uxmal. He gave me his card and I started corresponding with him. I remember receiving letters from him. My heart would pound and I would attempt to read them. It was extremely motivating, and I started to buy the college textbooks for Spanish and teaching myself.  I never met him again, and I do not really remember his name. But, the letters ignited something within me that flowed when I played Scarlatti and imagined myself to travel in time back to the time of the Spanish court, where Domenico Scarlatti composed sonatas for his prodigy, the Princesa Maria Barbara.

The next year, my Spanish had dramatically improved, and my parents generously paid for a second Spring Break trip to Mexico with the Spanish Club.  I do not think they realized how almost criminally negligent our chaperones were. In fact, I do not even remember having chaperones.  While my classmates were binge-drinking and hanging together in packs, I was scurrying off on my own, engaging in conversations wherever I could. I gave my guardian angel a good case of post-traumatic stress syndrome, and came back home happy and without sunstroke, although I did suffer from the Montezuma’s revenge that no one ever hears about any more.

I did not marry anyone, nor did I have any physical relationships. But, I did write to a young chemical engineer I met.  I fantasized about what might happen in the future, and I continued to study Spanish and found myself increasingly drawn to the literature and the culture. I often wonder why I never did live or study in Latin America. But, my life definitely intruded, with marriage, divorce, education, jobs – and a rather turtle-like attitude.

The women in the documentary were definitely not turtles. When they finally poked their heads outside of cold, cloudy England and looked into the sun-kissed beaches and ancient souks of Morocco, Turkey, or the clear waters of the Aegean, they threw their shells into the breach and married, sometimes within a matter of weeks. They were brave, these women, all of whom were at a kind of breaking point when they went on their vacations. A few of the romances actually turned out well.  Most did not.

One woman, who was 71 when she married a 22-year-old young man from a small desert town in Morocco pretty much stated that she did it because she could not believe she was able to have a physical relationship that gave her so much magic. Well. Magic is not reality.  It did not work (not surprisingly). But, that’s what everyone would say. The magic is that it happened at all. I wonder if it was really worth it, though. She said, by her own account, that she has cried “buckets” of tears.  This makes me aware that there’s probably nothing more painful than a March – December romance when the woman is so much older. I was surprised that the rural family was so accepting of the relationship, but, well, there had to be some hopes for material improvement in their own lives. So – we all rise together, right? And, well, we must not forget that the traditional Muslim community is a collectivist society, and she probably did not realize that there would be other wives. She would simply be the first, who would potentially provide for the others.

I remember talking to an Uzbek engineer in Tashkent who was part of an infrastructure project funded partially by USAID.  He had two wives, and it was perfectly legal and acceptable in his world.  He said it was complicated because they maintained separate households, and it was expensive. I suppose he was not lucky enough to catch one with a big dowry.  

I often wonder what kind of personality Barack Obama’s mother had as a young woman. I always think of her as a young women who dodged a bullet.  Obama’s mother could have been like the young American woman, Lori Berenson, who fell in love with a radical in the Sendero Luminoso in Peru, and was convicted of trying to overthrow the Peruvian government. She served 15 years. I remember watching documentaries when she was in prison. Her parents were tireless in trying to free her, and finally their efforts paid off.  I imagine there are any number of young, idealistic, love-stricken Americans who were not so lucky.

It is easy to seduce both men and women into revolutionary causes. It’s not just for young men, such as Simon Bolivar, who absorbed the concepts of the French philosophes (Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, and Montesquieu), and then went back to Venezuela as a firebrand and liberator. It also intrigued the Beats, with Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Mario Vargas Llosa’s semi-autobiographical novel, Travesuras de la nina mala, weaves in and out of the narrative of a young woman who found upward mobility through her revolutionary ideas. Jane Fonda seemed that way as well, and then one realizes she was not the tough woman she seemed to be, but instead brainwashed in a kind of psychological Stockholm syndrome. But, at the core, is passion. I think that’s the ultimate appeal. It’s Byronesque and it sells well.

But, back to the documentary. It’s hard to generalize, but many of the younger women were at a turning point in their lives. They had graduated from college. They had gone through a painful breakup. They had very stressful jobs. They wanted a life with more connections and flow of human warmth, and they saw the Greek, Turkish, and North African lives as warmer and more connected. The older women were made to feel beautiful and desirable, and of course they fell, and they fell hard.

What that says about women’s fundamental basis of self-worth is pretty tragic, if you ask me, but there it is.

What Makes Us Keep Listening? Discovering Jaime Bayly

click here to listen to the podcast (mp3)

I was in a meeting the other day with the goal of coming up with economic development projects for Pawnee. I’m all in. After all, I have some pretty significant skin in the game (a house). But, even if I did not, an economic development meeting would be catnip for me. I love, love, LOVE coming up with economic development schemes. Pawnee is small (pop 2,200), which means that it does not take much positive economic activity to move the needle.  I love it.

At any rate, there were six of us in the meeting:  myself, the Pawnee mayor, the Pawnee Nation College president, a cereals and grains expert from OSU (Oklahoma State), a grant writer from OSU, and a restaurant / hospitality expert. The cereals expert had a Ph.D., I’m thinking in agronomy, or something like that. She was from Mexico, and I asked her if she spoke Spanish. When we were alone, I proceeded to inflict my Spanish on her – it was great! Her first response was to ask me if I happened to be from Peru. Imagine my delight! I listen to recordings of myself and hear nothing but a hideous gringo accent. So, it was delightful to think I might sound Peruvian. I know in my heart of hearts that I don’t really sound Peruvian, but if my accent naturally gravitates that way, I’m willing to try. Plus, I really like Mario Vargas Llosa and I listen to his lectures quite often. So, I decided to listen to all the Peruvians I could find on YouTube.

The first Peruvian I found (besides Vargas-Llosa) was Jaime Bayly (pronounced Bailey). He’s written a number of books, the first one being a coming-of-age roman-a-clef that garnered great notoriety. The novel, entitled, “Don’t Tell Anyone” was made into a movie. I tried to watch it, but was put off by seeing adolescent boys in various homoerotic overtures. It made me think of my son as a young teenager, and I felt a bit sick, and a powerful maternal desire to put a stop to Mother Nature.

Jaime Bayly has a late night talk show that’s available on YouTube. I listened to it and really liked it. He’s in Miami now (unsurprising) and so his Friday program had to do with the potential impact of Hurricane Irma on Florida in general, and Miami in particular.  He was fun to listen to, and I found myself listening closely to his accent and realizing that I tend to drawl when I speak Spanish, and that’s precisely how he speaks. How delightful!

I proceeded to try to listen to every one of his shows I could find. I quickly learned that Jaime Bayly is an American citizen who voted for Mitt Romney, an avowed conservative, and an extreme opponent of anything Chavez or Maduro from Venezuela. In fact, he loves to bring on guests from Venezuela and then grill them about their political beliefs, knowing full well that they can’t exactly denounce the existing political system and expect to have any kind of work when they return home.

Jaime Bayly is every talk show guest’s worst nightmare. I don’t know why they agree to be on his show. He is like the red laser sites in a sniper’s rifle (coincidentally, he was part of an earlier talkshow called “Francotirador” which is “sniper” in Spanish).

Watching his show is awkward and uncomfortable to me, albeit Spanish is not my first language, and nor do I have a dog in the hunt. He’s extremely flattering, even unctuous, but that does not stop him from asking questions designed to elicit the maximum amount of discomfort. It’s raw and potentially humiliating. For example, he grilled a Venezuelan playwright about Venezuela’s voter fraud and corruption that put a president in power who was nothing more than a cheating dictator. The author did all he could to say that politics was not his métier, but to no avail. Bayly was having nothing of that! He attacked the soft underbelly, and the author was utterly flustered. I did not like it. The author tried to explain that art is more universal than politics and with any luck at all, it will appeal to all people and be a unifying force.

Art is not propaganda. The guest did not say that, but he could have, except he was too flustered by Jaime Bayly’s savaging of the entire contemporary Venezuelan political control of art. He did get in a few comments about how even under dictatorship, it’s possible to create subversive art. Sigh. I just realized that I do not agree with my earlier suggestion that art is not propaganda. Actually, it is, and probably always is, whether overt or not.

I had the chance to visit Venezuela in 1999, before Chavez. It was a scary place, with high crime, and yet it was also a lot like the U.S.  There was a very sophisticated highway system, and baseball was the national sport. There were elegant malls and the universities were quite nice. I visited Simon Bolivar University. I also visited the government agency for petroleum, PDVSA, and was impressed by how modern they were.

Needless to say, when Chavez took over, anything having to do with oil and gas took a plunge into the abyss. He fired all the experts and replaced them with his buddies. I know I sound rather brainwashed in saying this, but it is the truth. It has been evidenced by the fact that Venezuela has not updated or upgraded their technology since Chavez’s takeover. Even when oil was $135 per barrel, Venezuela did nothing to reinvest in their fields. Instead, they used their oil proceeds for social and political purposes. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing (although Jaime Bayly would attack it!), but I am saying that the failure to put money in maintenance or new technologies will lead to problems.

I have not listened to very many of Bayly’s shows with Venezuelan guests. But, I have listened to enough to know that Jaime Bayly believes that Maduro was elected only because there was the most egregious level of voter fraud. He also thinks that Venezuela is the furthest thing possible from a democracy, and that the policies of the current administration have resulted in the destruction of an entire culture. He considers Maduro & Co. to be murderers.

I have to say that I agree with him on that point. But, I think he’s a bit mean-spirited beneath his unctuous flattery. Case in point: he invited an actress to appear on his program, and he instantly focused on her 5 marriages and her possible infidelities – by asking her how many “furtive affairs” she had engaged in.  I thought it was demeaning and took away from her work as a serious artist. But, since she had gained her reputation for doing nude scenes in the 1970s, and along the way earned the opprobrium of her family, I guess it was what the audience wanted to hear. But, yuk. Who cares!!!!! I think it is cruel.

At any rate, we can assume that since she gained fame and fortune from nude scenes when she was 19 years old in the 1970s that she had “perform” for her big breakthroughs. Jaime Bayly, whose claim to fame rests on his scandalous gay / bisexual behavior (and the fact that his family was very wealthy), can “own” his own transgressive narratives. In fact, in one interview he said that when some even suggested that he was simply pretending to be gay in order to sell books. Of course, sex sells, and it sells for the ambitious young actress. But, there is always a double standard, and she's not able to "own" her transgressive nature without receiving the vitriol of audiences. Madonna tried. Miley Cyrus tried. Countless others have tried.  They sell, but they still do not have the ability to "own" the self-exploitation. The ambitious young actress cannot. She does not have power, nor does she possess male privilege.

So, it was uncomfortable for me to listen to him ask the actress such questions. At the same time, however, I recognize that his success is all about scandalizing narratives and transgression. I would find that creepy and boring as well, except there is enough of the “real” Jaime Bayly that emerges to see that he’s a kindhearted person who cares about the welfare of all people, and especially the vulnerable.

But, Jaime was quite relentless in this case. I’m not sure if she secretly enjoyed the transgressive elements. She kept trying to steer the conversation back to her children and the fact she is a mother. That only served to make the questions more disconcerting and to make me really curious about her acting in the 70s.

At the center of Mario Vargas Llosa’s novels is some sort of sexual obsession. I’m most familiar with La Tia Julia y el Escribidor, and Travesuras de la Nina Mala. They definitely have a kind of Midsummer Night’s Dream awkwardness – the person who is helplessly in love, and who makes a spectacle of himself because of it. The family is embarrassed. The fascinating and inappropriate woman (love object) is calculatingly Machiavellian. And, through it all, there is a slow burn of desire, only rarely assuaged.

Vargas Llosa has discussed the fact that he puts sexual desire at the center and underneath his novels. He is adamant that it is what life is, and that life is sex, and that it is the engine of art. I don’t like to think so. It seems facile and reductive to me. But, I know in my own creative writing I tried to introduce every possible emotion – especially desire – as a way to express the meaning of life. So, even though my Puritanical side or my I, Robot side would prefer to be either really, really good at repression or simply mechanically logical, it’s not how I like to engage with art. But, as opposed to Bayly and Vargas Llosa, whose novels are very autobiographical, heaven forfend that someone think that everything I’ve written is a chronicle of my life! Scary. And yet, I do blend together feelings, desire, memories, and sensation for something I hope translates as life-engendering.

At least, that’s my feeling about Vargas-Llosa.  I’m not sure about Bayly’s fiction. I’ll have to read a few of his novels.

But, I do like Jaime Bayly’s interviews, even when they make me cringe.
Or, perhaps it is because they make me cringe.

Twisted Cause and Effect: Blame the Victim

(Click here for the Podcast)  Why Did My Gaboon Viper Bite Me? I Thought We Understood Each Other!

Sometimes you really can blame the victim and do it with full confidence that yours is the moral high ground. For example, there are the thrill-seekers who become tornado chasers and then get stuck on a highway that does not happen to go where you need it to go to get out of the way of the approaching vortex, is one example. Also, we can point to the people who refused to evacuate their beach houses before the arrival of a Category-5 hurricane with 10-foot surge and monster waves.

Hurricane Irma in Cuba. From ABCLocal.
Even then, it’s really hard to condemn them, especially since we eagerly devour their close-up videos of nature’s beasts. In a certain way, we’re complicit. Besides, in some cases, they seem heroic, especially if they’ve prepared and are well aware of the danger. We may even be financing their risk-taking. Think of all the expeditions to the South Pole that were funded by donations, even as the donors knew full well that there was a fairly high likelihood that the intrepid crew would not return from their 2 or 3-year quest – for a penguin’s egg, photographs of ice formations, rare phenomena. With today’s technology, there’s not the same need to explore on the ground, given the nano-satellites that have remarkable resolution. We can see it all from space. But, yet, we want the experience. If we learn something, all the better, but what is most attractive is that it’s that moment of raw awareness that this is as extreme as it gets – and you’re a part of it.

So, I can understand storm-chasers and explorers of the Antarctic.

I don’t understand the tourists who run with the bulls in Pamplona. But, perhaps that’s a part of a kind of bullfighter mass psychosis. Go to a bullfight. Experience the corrida.  Then, be a DIY bullfighter and run with the bulls in Pamplona. There’s tradition and symbolism in this, so, again, I find myself giving the victims a pass.

Where it becomes more complicated is where someone is engaged in risky behavior that is self-destructive and seems, on the surface and from the outside, to be really, really delusional.

I’m thinking of people who have dangerous pets. For example, there are the people (mainly fairly young men) who have venomous snakes as pets. Many are ones I had never heard of until I binge-watched episodes of “Fatal Attractions” on Animal Planet. There are pygmy rattlers, West African Gaboon vipers, black mambas, and many more, that are not only deadly, but most hospitals do not have anti-venom. Then there are people who are mauled and killed by their pet alligators, Burmese pythons, lions, tigers, and chimpanzees. What are they thinking? Clearly there is a fantasy scenario and a deep need that is being satisfied. There could also be an identity issue, which is to say that the “pet” serves as an extension of themselves, and perhaps possesses the attributes they’d like people to think that they have. Wild? Deadly? Powerful? Invulnerable? A child of the untamed wilderness? Free? Well, some of those attributes seem somewhat attractive to me, but I don’t think I need to share my living room with a gabon pit viper or an alligator to feel I’m a child of nature. Plus, I think the reptiles smell bad.

from  - Burmese python hatchling in Key Largo
When we blame the victim, we employ causality as a logic structure.

It’s really simple:
    You kept a pygmy rattlesnake in your house. It bit you. Your own decision hurt you. And, let’s also mention that there was a pretty high likelihood that the snake would bite you, especially since you liked to play with it, because you thought you had a special relationship of “mutual trust” with it.

Safety regulations and codes are built on causal logic, but they’re also fraught with open gaps that make it difficult to actually establish a culture of safety. It’s not just the “blame the victim” mindset, but it’s also because people are not thinking of the delusions and cognitive bias that underlie the risky decisions that are made.

Let’s take a look at the example of the pygmy rattlesnake again:
    You kept a pygmy rattlesnake in your house. It bit you. Your own decision hurt you. And, let’s also mention that there was a pretty high likelihood that the snake would bite you, especially since you liked to play with it, because you thought you had a special relationship of “mutual trust” with it.

Let’s review the last part: “because you thought you had a special relationship of “mutual trust” with it”.  It is precisely that “because” phrase where we get in trouble. It’s the weak link in the actual adherence to safety protocols. They’re why a “culture of safety” is often hard to actually enforce.

It’s why so many people do not follow good advice. They think that they have a special relationship with or unique understanding of the hurricane, the tornado-spawning storm system, the alligator, the Burmese python, the bad boyfriend, and that their unique knowledge or understanding will protect them. If, for some reason, it does not go quite as planned, they think the emotional payoffs (and sometime financial spoils) will compensate.

And, sometimes they’re right. But not often.

And, in the meantime, the simplistic cause-and-effect argument we utilize to blame the victim is satisfies us because it’s elegant in its simplicity and symmetry.

But, if we’re serious about writing a series of safety guides or developing safety training, we’ll need to be more realistic, and actually take the time to address the aspirational hopes and dreams, or the deep-seated emotional narratives that lurk under the surface and influence behavior.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Effect of a Few Wrong Turns: North Shore Soap Factory, Oahu, Hawaii

For the Podcast, click here.
I was looking for a restaurant where I could eat locally caught fish, listen to the soothing plinkings of a distant ukulele, feel the juice of a ripe pineapple dribble down my chin, and watch the surf crash onto rocks and sandy beaches.

That was easier said than done as I roamed around toward the North Shore and highway after highway was snarled with construction. I gave up and decided to simply go where the open roads took me.

And, they took me to an old sugar factory that had a couple of tour buses parked in front, and a few Japanese tourists taking photos of each other as they returned. I looked at the sign, but instead of being a sugar mill, it was a soap factory. I thought of the Lush chain and the wonderful, intoxicating aromas of spice, flower, herbs and musky perfumes, and I thought I would try it.

I entered and immediately made a mistake, entering the off-limits factory itself instead of the gift store, where tourists could observe the fabrication of soap through thick safety glass.

The colors and scents were delightful, and it was a super-saturated rainbow of color. I considered purchasing a number of bars, but then realized I still had blocks of hand-made soap from a trip I made to Hawaii several years ago, and so I did not really need more souvenirs or potential gift items.

I wondered how much they sold to Japanese tourists.  Soap is practical and a great gift and household item, but it is heavy and bulky. I would imagine the best market would be the upscale boutique hotels that might enjoy having tiny bars of soaps and tiny little bottles of bath soap, shampoo, and more. It surprised me that they did not have more miniature sets for sale. They would be great gift sets.

But, I’m not much of a marketer of soaps or artisan items, although I love the small factories and gift stores that one finds tucked away in unexpected places.

Next door, in the gift store, there were all kinds of coffee beans for sale and other food items. Again, I thought they were rather bulky, and it might make more sense to have a little coffee bar. But, if we’re talking about busloads of Japanese tourists, perhaps not. Perhaps the best would be to have a number of places for wonderful photos, and then keepsake experiences. I do not know.

It is interesting how we combine shopping and retail experiences with the memories we create for the future, and thus shape our concept of ourselves and the world. We order our knowledge of the world by means of the images we create, and even as we create them, we know that they are less than authentic, but more designed to capture the quirkiest products, the most dramatic slice of nature, the most super-saturated colors, and the most emblematic semiotics.

So, as I think of a photo of myself to create a memory of what I just experienced – the effect of a few wrong turns – I will take photos of what is most unique. It will be, for me, a representation of discovery, and more specifically, the rewards of discovery.

The photo, with its rainbow array of soaps, tiny colored bath ducks, plumeria, pineapples, Kona coffee, macadamia, and more, will be a visual reminder of how rewarding it can be to go off the beaten path and to open your mind for new things, for discovery. Of course, I could just as easily frame this as a cautionary tale of menace and danger, but thankfully, that does not occur to me, unless I’ve been binge-watching past seasons of Forensic Files.

Life is much richer as a series of joyous explorations and discoveries.

The Perfect Companion

(Podcast) For most people, it’s an animal.  That’s because they’ve already given up on people. Or, if they do include people as their predilect companion, it’s generally a temporary one.  A few hours snatched here or there, or a brief vacation, and then both are secretly glad to go back to work, back to a place where they don’t have to constantly perform for scraps of approval or fear they are always judged and on the verge of rejection.

Ay chihuahua, my little best friend!
After the Chihuahua races, Cinco de Mayo, Tulsa, OK

A dog, cat, or even iguana is infinitely preferable. Your dog is always happy to see you. It’s an open-hearted, boundless love, and if you need it to be all about you and no one else, you can condition your dog to dislike and even menace everyone except you. You can even justify the neurosis you’ve instilled into your companion animal by saying that he’s “protective.” Maybe he is. But, if you like the fact that your dog loves you, and you alone, there’s something else going on. But, don’t worry too much about it. You’re not alone. If your pet is an “emotional support animal,” it is very likely that the exclusivity is something that gives you emotional support.

I’ve had students and coworkers who have brought their emotional support animal (dog) with them to the classroom and to the office.  I suspect the dog went with them everywhere else, too.  Would they want their spouse, sibling, parent, or friend with them at all times?  I suspect not.

Many Victorian novels feature a “paid companion” – a kind of personal assistant considered higher than a servant, but mixed with the clerical and step-and-fetch-it duties were requirements to go to shopping and to cultural events (museums, openings, readings).  I always wondered while reading why a woman who was independently wealthy would saddle herself with a companion. Why not just go to the places alone? But, I suspect that it might not have been safe. It might have been considered somewhat disreputable. So, the paid companion was also a bodyguard and chaperone.

Lucha Libre at Elote, Tulsa, OK  Cinco de Mayo celebration
Perhaps the Victorians were more realistic than we are about psychological needs. Sometimes we live far from our families; sometimes our families are like driftwood on the beach, constantly swept out to sea, then brought back, redeposited in new configurations. It’s all very transitory and confusing. In fact, if I think about it too much, tears well up, and I think of all the beautiful moments that time and circumstances swept out to sea.

All the loss and change in the world is hard to face. Talking to a human companion often simply compounds the issue. Even if you’re not feeling on the verge of being judged and found wanting, the conversations often veer into the bleak abyss of uncertainty and the lack of control we have over our lives and the seething, unstable environment.

My son had a lemon beagle named Sammy. For a while, Sammy was a kind of companion animal and emotional support animal for me when my son joined the Marines. But, I, too, abandoned Sammy when I moved to upstate New York. I’ll have to do a lot of rounds in purgatory for that, I believe.

I had to conclude that while Sammy could have been a good companion animal for me, I was a wretched one for him. Dogs make great emotional support animals. Humans, in contrast, are horrible emotional support animals for dogs. At least I was for Sammy. I’m probably equally terrible for another human.

No wonder I feel a bit lonely sometimes.

Then what, or who, is the perfect companion?

Who knows.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Earned Oxygen

Welcome. You are now passing into a HighO2 zone. Please pay the toll at the booth, or use your app to send $25 to the municipality.

The sign did not bother to tell you that if you did not pay, you would be hunted down by a drone and you would be forced to pay or leave.

 But, who would want to leave?  The HighO2 zones were lush zones of green trees and vertical gardens (vines and ivy crawling up all the walls), and they were places where you could breathe deeply and feel oxygen fill your lungs, and your mind achieve a strange, hitherto unknown clarity. They were parks and much, much more.

“Michelle. Do you remember when all people cared about was environmental quality?  Water quality? Air quality?”

Michelle turned to Mark. It was hard to tear her eyes away from the unusual scene of lush green oxygenating foliage.

“Yes. But then, the government decided to eliminate its national debt by nationalizing air. Well, to be precise, oxygen.  Oxygen and water are controlled. They have become big business. Buy water. By high-oxygen air, or at least access to it,” said Michelle.

“Do you think things will ever change?” asked Mark.

Frog Prince at the University of Oklahoma. Keeping the "earned oxygen" levels high! :)
Michelle sighed.

“Yes. Things always change.  We have to be architects of that change if we can. If we can’t control it, we can at least envision it and think of how we might respond to it,” said Michelle.

Mark took out his card that showed how much oxygen he had consumed. It looked like the data plan he had for his phone.

“Wow. I have used up a lot of O2 this month. I need to buy a couple of plants and some hydrogen peroxide and manganese (IV) oxide. I’ll produce enough to sell into the system and keep myself off the CO2 lists.”

“Good idea, Mark. Keep your “earned oxygen” levels high.”

They got out of the car and walked down a green trail canopied by the branches of trees and draping vines. The air was cool and fresh.

“I wonder if Eden was like this,” mused Mark. 

A Reflective Moment
Contemplate Michelle's observation: Things always change.  We have to be architects of that change if we can. If we can’t control it, we can at least envision it and think of how we might respond to it.

How would it be possible to respond to a situation in a world where oxygen is owned and your access to it is controlled?  

Comments? contact susan smith nash here

Friday, January 08, 2016

A Perfect Walk on the Beach

We sat on towels on the warm sand.  It was a small beach next to a traditional Mexican cemetery, hence the name "Playa de los Muertos."

We read passages from José Ingenieros and asked each other questions: What does it mean to live your life in pursuit of the "ideal"? And, halfway into your quest, what if your concept of "ideal" changes because what sounded good on paper did not really align with expectations? In Ingenieros's world, the "ideal person" is not particularly flexible.

How strange it is that we can agree conceptually, but then things fall apart when they meet the physical constraints of the body and of nature.

For example, take something as simple as walking barefoot on a beautiful, sandy beach. The sand is natural, and has not, as in the case of so many other beaches, been trucked in from somewhere else. The vegetation is natural, not landscaped as in the case of beach resorts. We are on an actual ocean and not a replica or simulacrum such as Disney World or Las Vegas.

So, it's not perfect, and yet it is perfect.

Walking on the sand barefoot puts me on edge, like the sound of brakes when the brake pads have worn through. For others, walking barefoot in the sand feels like a nice foot massage.

We argue about it. It's not a serious argument, though.

He wins. So we walk along the surf's edge, his face relaxed.

I try to convince myself I actually enjoyed the sensation of a thousand tiny needles. Massage? Sand acupuncture? Pick your poison.

I love sharing moments in nature, so I'm willing to endure the discomfort, and then reflect later that the discomfort was what rendered the moment potentially transcendent.

It's a matter of living in the moment. I embrace the colors of the sun, the sky, the surf, and the scent of the ocean air filling my lungs.  I am alive to the prickling needles in my feet. I'm alive to the flow of words, impressions, shared ideas. I love it all.

The magic that makes this beach truly bewitching is the power of the mind and the untouched natural beauty that triggers human warmth.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Tortuga Twilight

The way the sun said goodbye every night, with a pale green explosion upon entering the liquid red of the Pacific west, made me aware that it ushered in the hour of magic. It was the hour when there was still light in the horizon, and yet you could still feel the starshine start to sparkle and the trembling of dreams just about to flood your head and your heart.

And every morning, after witnessing and wishing on the sun setting in the ocean, I awakened to dual, even triple perceptions:

First, I was in the moment, "I'm here and this is my routine; I love drinking cinnamon-infused coffee, eating thick lumpy oatmeal with nuts and raisins, and the tropical fruits that appear in the fruit basket every morning."

Second, I fast-forwarded to the future as I looked back on the moment I'm living now. I will remember always as a special time (although how it is "special" I have not yet determined -- that will be manufactured by the still-life collages and the selfies I'll snap today).

Third, I took an "outside, looking in" approach, "How does this open patio, with its sheer curtains moving like deep inhalations and exhalations in the breeze, the leaves of the bananas and mango trees dipping as geckos and iguanas scamper across in search of fruit, trigger a primordial desire in those who see the scene to come to this garden in search of whatever in their lives they perceive as lost, or at least, riddled with duality?" I am, after all, looking at things from a tourist perspective, and as such, I'm desperate to create meaning (and in doing so, obliterate the interpretive possibilities that make me uncomfortable).

Sometimes I wake up dogged by existential angst and doubt. Don't let it show, I think. But, by not sharing, I further cut myself off, and feel sad and disconnected. 

I dare not say anything. My friendships (precious and few), have been hard-won. Sometimes I think they are predicated upon my power to imbue a space with warmth and happiness. Even my best friend tells me he likes me when my voice is cheerful and sweet, and my eyes radiate joy.

Well, I like myself when I'm feeling that way, too. 

I love walking along the beach in the "magic hour" - the hour when the skies assume pinks, grays, and then indigo tones.

Last night, I watched 30 or 40 newly hatched turtles scramble toward the wet part of the sand where they would quickly meet the tide coming in. Children cheered and urged them on in what had become a heartwarming tradition to combine nature's processes and visiting children's desire to become little guardian angels. The turtles bobbed in the surf, looking all the world like tiny corks, and I wondered how hard their little shells were, and which predators gathered in the darker waters just outside the buoys and the nets and waited for the shower of tiny swimmers.

The skies turned from indigo to a color I could never name, and the moon rose oddly pale and distant. As I continued to walk, I smelled smoke from fires, and the salty warm breeze of a tropical depression far offshore.

The turtles would swim. The waters would move in tides, currents, and waves. And I would return home, my face glowing, my eyes sad, my smile volunteering to be that probably mainly ornamental outer layer to tell the world I mean no harm; I mean to bring joy.

And, I would wonder about what it means to move into the darker waters with only a fragile shell to protect me.

How can we protect each ourselves and each other?  I would do it with memories and beautiful interpretations of the small things we experience every day in our lives. 

Friday, October 02, 2015

A Post-Midsummer Night's Fire Dance

Shredded tissue.  Crumpled silk.  Clouds moving across the face of the moon shimmering as though already full.

For audio, click here. 

Warm breeze on my face, the rustle of leaves. Laughter.  A country band on the River Parks pavilion, festooned with small white Christmas lights, the only backdrop an American flag painted on a wall constructed of somewhat warped 1 x 8 boards.

I walked toward the pavilion, wrapping up an evening walk on the river's edge, where magic and mystery prevail in the level of the water: today up on the banks, tomorrow almost gone except for stagnant pools between the mudflats. That's how it is for a river functions as flood control for an upstream dam and reservoir. Sometimes I spend time counting turtles on the rocks and logs. At other times, I observe homeless sleeping rough on the grass and residents of nearby half-million dollar homes walking their miniature dachshunds and coveted-breed dogs.

It's 8:30 pm. The days are getting shorter. It's warm, but it's already dark, and I feel a bit sad to usher in the end of the summer, although I love the autumn, with its heady temperature changes, gaudy leaves, and robin-egg football season skies.

Lights are flickering in my peripheral vision. I flash-wonder if I'm genetically doomed to lose my peripheral vision. My dad has fought a losing battle with glaucoma, and although my eye pressures are fine, my opthamologist has referred me to a glaucoma specialist, although he says I'm 20-30 years younger than most he refers. Oh. Well. Thank you.  I guess.  I have researched the items that cause eye pressures to increase, and I realize I already do everything I'm supposed to, except I could cut out all coffee and avoid yoga. I find avoiding the Downward Dog does not present too many problems. Coffee -- well, that's another issue.

So in my still-intact peripheral vision, I see flickering lights. I look toward what seems to be people juggling fire, and I mention them to a couple of people standing near.

"Oh yes -- there's a big group that comes out on Tuesdays. Almost 50. Tonight it's just a few. Real fire, except the light on the ground. The circle of light is an LED light."

I approach and I see two individuals -- a woman with what seems to be a hulu hoop with equidistant sources of flame, and a man with two flaming balls on the edge of what appears to be a long jump rope.  It's a chain with two fire sources, and it's called a "poi."  The woman is working with a fire hoop.

River Parks, Tulsa, Oklahoma:  Performer with Fire Hoop

Their movements are fluid, well-choreographed, and I feel I'm suddenly in the woods on the edge of the palace of Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream. I will never forget the Shakespeare in the Park evenings in Edmond, Oklahoma. My son, then 11, would go with me, and we'd sit on a couple of beach towels and watch the actors. By far, my favorite was their interpretation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, set far in the future, rather than in classical antiquity.

I ask one of the dancers how long she has been fire dancing. She says for 3 years and she runs workshops. I wonder if fire dancing is having some sort of resurgence, with Burning Man vibes.  It merits investigating.

In Chengdu, China, I had the opportunity to go to a Tea House, which was a place you could eat dinner and then see a variety show with acrobatic acts. Juggling was big, and juggling tea pots, ones that actually had water inside them was pretty amazing. There was also a bit of juggling items that could be set alight -- I often wondered what would happen if the flaming items in the air ever collided with the numerous silk scarves one was wont to see in the highly decorated locations.

Others are videoing the dancing, so I suppose it's perfectly acceptable. I take out my phone and capture a few performances, thinking how amazing it is to be able to stand 2 feet from the circle of light, and to be so close that I can smell the fuel, hear the flames. When the lead dancer says "Switch" I watch the movements with delight. I love the way that they incorporate the aleatory yet seemingly perfectly predestined musical accompaniment.

Fire Hoop and Flaming Poi: Performers in Tulsa, Oklahoma

This is not my first close-up encounter with fire and its arts. I will never forget the Novruz Bayram holiday, the first day of spring in Baku, Azerbaijan.  All throughout the city one could see small improvisatory fire art, as people shouted and then jumped over the flames.  The practice dated back to Zoroastrian days, with Mazda the god of light, and a competition between good and evil. In theory, each jump over the fire burned up one year of misdeeds. My curiosity got the best of me and I paid the interpreter to take me to a group with a tiny fire where they would let me jump (for a gift of vodka). I jumped numerous times, but probably not enough to clear the slate. Oh well. It was a start. While I was leaping, I really never felt any fear, or that I’d fall. Granted, the fire was small.

Other fire art could include July 4 fireworks, but I’ve preferred to keep my distance. I, like all other young children, liked sparklers, which I now consider to be good for nothing but mutilations.

Again, my thoughts float back to Shakespeare in the Park and the actors portraying people in varying stages of enchantment. I wonder if someone will sprinkle pansy juice in my eyes and if I’ll be a helpless captive of the first thing I set my eyes on.

Moon higher in the sky. It casts a strangely orange glow. The waters of the Arkansas River (yes, there is water tonight) sparkle and glow with golden moonlight, while the park sizzles and sparkles with the white-light fire whirling in the tender night.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

In the City Different: Santa Fe, New Mexico

I'm not sure what to think of a place that seems so light-drenched and enchanting one day, then shadowed with mystery and history the next. It's not the first time this has happened to me in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  It seems to happen to me each time I visit, and it always takes me by surprise.  

audio file here


Santa Fe, New Mexico, was officially established in 1607 by European colonists. Only St. Augustine, Florida (founded 1568) is older. It became the principal city for a large region belonging to the Spain. It was important as a center of commerce, culture and general adjudication. Later, after Mexican Independence, the Mexican-American War, and more, it became a territory of the United States. It was important as a part of the Santa Fe Trail and center of commerce, but it is far from the mining towns of Colorado, and also far from secure sources of water. The system of managing irrigation ditches (acequias) worked for centuries, and water rights were critical for ranching and sheep-raising. But, things declined, and in the late 1800s, visitors commented that it would be hard to imagine a more dismal place than Santa Fe; the people who lived there subsisted on little more than red chilis, onions, and mutton.

Sometime around the construction of the railroad and expansion, wealthy city dwellers discovered Santa Fe, and it became something of an artist colony. In 1912, when the town had only 5,000 inhabitants, visionary planners determined a "City Different" concept, and decreed that all buildings had to maintain architectural consistency, which included adobe and brick, with an emphasis on incorporating native flora, including cottonwood trees, mesquite, sage, and lupine. Pueblo Indians along with the various other tribes in the area contributed culturally unique weaving, beadwork, rugs, pottery, and more.


The result is a charming admixture of influences from Pueblo Indian, colonial Spanish, Mexican, and Old West / cowboy culture, and it feels a lot like an illustration from a 1890s Western dime novel.

That's the part that always charms me. The first day, walking around, feeling the light breeze, the warm air, the smell of sage and mesquite, never fails to captivate me and make me think of myself in the U.S., circa 1910, with a magical sense of expansiveness and freedom.

But, something happens. I'm now convinced it must be physical, but I'm not sure what. In my ramblings, I start to feel the thin, dry air's impact on my skin, and my face starts to feel like a crumpling piece of paper, and the exclusive art galleries and purveyors of artisan items start to seem to fall into mysterious shadows.

Ceramics galleries that should, by rights, appeal to retirees and vacationers who would like to decorate their own ceramics, are filled with hand-painted and fired mugs, plates, and vases. They are quaint, and their Grandma Moses primitivism is charming, but their price tags are not: $120 for a mug; $75 for a plate.  I suppose that one could consider them to be collectibles, but the quirky DIY (do-it-yourself ) and vintage-cowboy vibe is eroded. I can't imagine why the workshop does not let people have classes and then potentially sell stuff on consignment in a gift store.

On Guadelupe Avenue, the oldest sanctuary in the U.S. to the Virgin of Guadelupe is a lovely mission-style church. Unfortunately, it's locked. The statue outside, which is wreathed with with bouquets of flowers, is serene and calming. Across the street, Mexican men gather to seek work for the day. I suppose they're paid cash and under the table. It's a hard life.


My sister believes there are restless spirits in New Mexico. I have to say that it could make sense if it is arising from a violated earth and environment. It's one of those dark edges, a "resource curse" - in Grants, lots of uranium ore, and then, north of Santa Fe in Los Alamos, figuring out what to do with it. We all know the story. Today, the Albuquerque baseball team is named the Albuquerque Isotopes.

For me, Santa Fe offers an icy plunge into wish fulfillment.

Do you think you like nature? A laid-back Bohemian life? Time to write, sculpt, paint? Welcome to Santa Fe. What happens to the flash drives you fill with digital manuscripts?  What happens to the canvases stacked unframed in your garage studio? Or the shelves of painted ceramic mugs, plates, bowls? What happens to your weavings, embroidered pillowcases, cross-stitched guest towels?

The future is unknowable. The midnight-blue shadows behind the pale yellow cottonwood leaves suggest that the present is likewise so.

Do you want to grab onto the American Dream?  In the park across the street from the oldest sanctuary (still locked) in the United States for the Virgin of Guadelupe, the group of Mexican men seeking work has swelled to 40 or 50.

"I'm lost," I say in Spanish. "I just arrived, and I'm looking for downtown."

It's a weak conversational gambit, but it works. I manage to have a nice conversation with a small group, and I learn that work is scarce, and they're worried about having enough earnings to eat and to pay rent.  I thank them for their efforts and tell them I admire their drive and hard work. Several thank me for speaking in Spanish, and I apologize for my accent. I suppose that having an Oklahoma accent makes it clearer that learning Spanish has been a matter of choice, of passion, and of years of dedication (although I've been intermittently dilatory, which I attribute to the fact I have not had the opportunity to travel very extensively, or to live in a Spanish-speaking country.)  Plus, although one might not believe it to see me now, I'm a bit shy about talking to people.

I wander around the church and try to find an open door. All are locked. I encounter younger males - -probably around 18 or 20. They are thin, appear to have a very hard life. One comes up to me later and speaks to me in a combination of Spanish and English, and tells me that he has just washed his shirt. Now he is hungry. I do not know quite what to say to that. His friend talks about the importance of having a stick and a blanket. I think the younger one has probably huffed a lot of glue in his life. Tears come to my eyes. I chat a bit. I do not have any money with me so cannot help them. I'm reminded of the homeless who spend time on the banks of the Arkansas River in Tulsa. They make quite a contrast to the Mexicans across the street who, on the whole, exude a much more positive "can do" attitude. I realize that with these homeless adolescent males, tragic stories abound. It is heart-rending.


It's close to 11 am. I'm feeling a deep gnawing that is partially hunger (I have only had water so far today) but the feeling also has something else. I slept rather late, lost in a world of disturbing dreams and persona from my past and in different time periods.

I want to explore the depths of the shadows behind the leaves.

I am fascinated by this place. Its beauty, pungent aroma, and the quality of light seduce me within the first few minutes of arriving. But, almost as quickly, I'm forced to listen to questions I can't block or eliminate from the voice in my head. What is happiness? That one is too cliché, and it is too easily silenced with endorphins from exercise or a high-pressure presentation. 

The dark, hard questions are the ones that creep in around the edges of consciousness. What happens when the things you've been working toward all your life turn out to be trivial and/or meaningless, or, you're simply not very good and your output is worse than forgettable, it's awkward and embarrassing? What do you do when, compelled by a sense of duty, you assume family roles that are extremely self-destructive? How and why does every goal or desire seem to contain built-in contradictions?

I look at the clock and am secretly relieved that I will need to head to the airport in a few hours. I can flee the light and the thin air before I've had to really probe my inner thoughts, and to hash over the same old turf of self-analysis. If I stayed for a few weeks or a month, perhaps I'd be able to work through the archeoliths of my unconscious.  I must leave, and so will not have time to do so. I have the option to continue to resist change and true transformation.


Perhaps I'm not quite ready to confront my own depths.  Perhaps transformation still gives me pause. Although I do not like to think so, transformation can cut both ways. Instead of ascending to a higher level of consciousness, I can always sink into an abyss; mire myself in a Slough of Despond of my own making.

In my heart of hearts, though, I do not want to stay at the same point. I want to journey between the inner and outer worlds, and I perceive Santa Fe as precisely the place that opens dimensions.

I contemplate a cottonwood branch with its light yellow leaves glistening in the pale yellow light. I see the shadows dancing on the cool white trunk of the tree.

I am ready.