Thursday, January 31, 2013

Taking a trip on a plane? Death to the Rescue!

There is a review at Peace Corps writers of RJ Huddy's latest book, Death to the Rescue, pointing out something that is essentially true of all his books—they will make you put down whatever else it was you were doing and read them before you can get back to whatever else it was you were doing.

And, oh yeah—great airplane lit, for sure, so if you're about to get on a flight, think only this: Death to the Rescue!

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Global Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Here in the US it's Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but monuments have gone global:

Westminster Abbey, London:

 Newtown, Australia:



Images from The Root.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Saturday Evening Re-post: My wife edits Proust


For a long time, I’ve had middle-of-the-night insomnia. I quite enjoy it. When I go to bed I fall asleep quickly, soundly, but then about four hours later I wake up, fully alert, and know that I have at least an hour with nothing to do. At the end of that period, which I think of as “halftime”, the need for sleep returns and when I next wake up, it is morning and I am refreshed.

This wasn’t always the case. There was a time when I’d get up during “halftime” and read, or even watch television, then in the morning I was exhausted. It felt like having jet-lag without the benefit of travel. Soon enough, though, I figured out that the problem was bright light. If I simply lay there in darkness, I awoke refreshed, even with the broken sleep.

The only problem was: boredom.

But along came the solution: audiobooks. Over the years during my halftimes I have listened to—hard to say…hundreds?—of audiobooks. My nomination for the best ever audiobook to cure insomnia is Marcel Proust’s beautifully mis-titled Remembrance of Things Past. If I were in charge of marketing his audiobooks, I’d use the slogan, “Nothing puts you to sleep like Proust.” I don’t think he’d mind. He might even be pleased, since he chose to begin that whole seven-volume set with the very sentence I stole and altered to begin this blog.

Our landlady in France knows that my wife loves her tea and tisanes and infusions and what not. One morning this summer she brought over a decorative tin (she’s not going to bring a Zip-Lock bag—she’s French) of flowers from the “tilleul” tree in her mother’s garden in Alsace. Her dictionary translated “tilleul” as “linden tree,” so, okay, now we can add linden tea to the list. No big thrill for me. I observe the six basic drink groups: beer, wine, scotch, coffee, orange juice, cola. Call me limited, but there it is, and even the landlady didn’t expect me to get excited about her “tilleul.” It was for my wife. I was hors de combat, as far as those two were concerned.

But sometime during the day I started to wonder just exactly what Proust’s narrator had drunk in the famous passage when he dips a madeleine into “lime-flower tea” and suddenly his whole past—seven volumes worth—opens before him. So I found a French copy of Swann’s Way and looked for it. Sure enough: tilleul.There it was! The elixir of one of literature’s crowning achievements! In my own kitchen! In a pretty coppery tin, hand-picked by a real little-old-French-lady grandma!

That afternoon I walked to the local patisserie for some madeleine cakes, while my wife set out her tea things in the garden. It was a gorgeous day and we were doing this right. She tasted her tilleul, then a madeleine. Something wasn’t to her taste. She went into the house and came back with some sprigs of mint and a jar of rhubarb jam. While I slathered the cakes with jam, she emptied our cups into the teapot, added the mint, and gave it all a good swirl.

“Ah,” she said, “Much better now.”

Friday, January 18, 2013

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Saturday Evening Re-post: 84,000 = one gazillion



If pressed to define the momentum that underpins Learn Thai with Me, I would have to say it’s the abandonment of the western view of human suffering in favor of the Buddhist view.

It’s common these days among humanists—and among Buddhists too, come to that—to see all religions as basically different paths toward the same goal. And of course it’s true that every major religion I know anything about does indeed advise charity, good conduct, honesty, and kindness to others. But when it comes to the ultimate aim of Christianity/Islam—which to an alien researcher would seem more like twinned stars circling each other than intractable enemies at daggers drawn—and Buddhism, the central thrusts couldn’t be more opposed.

Christianity/Islam holds that life’s great goal is an after-death paradise where all suffering will be banished because all our deepest desires will be abundantly fulfilled. The suffering of this world is variously explained as a test, a punishment, or perhaps just a mystery, but in any case a fleeting condition that will be followed by an eternity of happiness beyond our earthly ability to imagine.
Buddhism says suffering is a result of desire, and the great aim should be to banish it by banishing desire, period. Just make it go away. We can never get our fill of what we want, so let’s stop wanting.
 I recently heard from a woman who had lost her little girl to a horrific kind of wasting muscular disease. She said that although she tried to console herself with the notion that the child was in a better place now, and that they would someday be reunited, still the waves of grief swept over her, and her life was filled with despair.

On a much smaller level, I myself recall asking my grandmother, after hearing the crushing news of my first dog’s death by snakebite, whether I would see him again in heaven. She assured me that he’d always be there, waiting to chase his red rubber ball all over the back yard. It would never have occurred to me to doubt my grandmother’s honesty, but I remember crying for days anyway. As adults, even believers seem to suspect that the whole meet-me-in-heaven business is too close to a Hollywood script to trump the loss of a loved one.

There’s a story in which the Buddha met a weeping woman named Ubbiri. She explained that she was mourning the death of her daughter, Jiva. The Buddha told her, “Eighty-four thousand daughters named Jiva have died. Which one do you weep for?”

Or as my wife, channeling the Buddha, likes to say when I get anxious: "Jai yen-yen. Puay-man." Which means, “Be of cool heart. Release it.”

Friday, January 11, 2013

Travelbug Friday: Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Home of Newcastle Brown Ale:

Like my home Portland, a city of bridges:

A little architecture:

And home of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne:

 File:Lit and Phil.JPG

Let's hear it for Newcastle!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Fruit of the day: the wood-apple

More fruit, the wood-apple:

 File:Wood-apple dec2007.jpg

 . . . also called limonia. Read about it here.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Travelbug Friday: Tintange, Fauvillers, Belgium

This came up for me as the random spot in the world for MapCrunch. It isn't anywhere I've been or would have thought to feature, but having pulled it up I see it as a suitable escape fantasy.

My own run in with Belgium was thirty-one years ago hitchhiking out of northern France and to the border, far north of Tintange. I had devoted the day to the project, starting out early in the morning in Calais, thinking it would be a breeze to get into Belgium. Many hours and a few short rides later, I was finally dropped off by a French truck driver late at night. He pointed the way to the border kiosk, letting me know the entry to Belgium. I approached the customs agent near midnight with nothing but a backpack, half expecting him to turn me back. Instead he waved me in. I thought there ought to be more to this entry than that, so I asked if he shouldn't stamp my passport. He shrugged his shoulders, pulled out his reluctant little bureaucratic inkpad, and obliged with a gesture that said nothing but "if you insist." And then waved me to get a move on again.

I turned to the big empty Belgian field next to the highway that looked, naturally, identical to the empty French field behind me. At midnight I was done with my hitchhiking for the day, so I did the best I could to find an out-of-the-way spot in the grasses where I rolled out my sleeping bag and waited for the day to come.

I couldn't have predicted the contrasting experience the next day would provide, with every Belgian driver seeming eager to advance my cause the instant I put out my thumb. I arrived in Antwerp early in the day, and as I stood on a street corner studying a city map to figure out the directions to the hostel, a businessman approached offering help. I told him the address I was looking for and asked the best way to get to it. His answer: Hop in my car, I'm going in that direction; I'll drop you off.

I've never been back to Belgium, but if these photos are any indication, I think I'd like try a little further south next time.