31 Thursday Oct 2013
30 Wednesday Oct 2013
Posted Confessional, Menin
My favorite Halloween costume, ever, was when I was eight or nine years old. I had somehow conned my mom into buying me a full-face mask of Nikita Khruschev, the famous Russian leader, who was a terrifying figure during the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis.
The mask was surprisingly lifelike, complete with a prominent gnarly wart on the left cheek and a fake black Russian winter hat curving over the top. I wore one of dad’s gray wool overcoats, which mom pinned up so it didn’t drag on the ground, and I wrapped a scarf around my neck to hide my t-shirt underneath. Black winter boots rounded out the ensemble.
Fully dressed, I was a perfect miniature version of Khruschev – sort of an early sixties “Mini-Me.”
The best part of the costume was that no one could tell who I was once I had it on, so I would stomp around saying threatening things like, “Death to America,” and “Capitalist pigs!” in a gruff Russian accent, while occasionally slamming a shoe onto a table. (Mom shut that part of the routine down pretty quickly – shoes, deemed inherently dirty, were not allowed to touch any table where we ate our food.)
I got big laughs at every house we stopped at – the unsuspecting housewife doling out candy to the crowd of kids would come around to me and giggle.
“Who do we have here – oh look, it’s Nikita Khruschev! Isn’t that cute!”
To which I would reply, in character, in my best rumbling Russian accent, “Trick or treat. Ve vill bury you!”
Nikita and I were both partial to Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Milky Ways, and Milk Duds. Anything homemade or healthful, such as apples or popcorn balls, were promptly discarded in the gutter. Stupid capitalist pigs.
29 Tuesday Oct 2013
As the fall television season gets under way, I am struck by how many television choices we now have. When I started working full-time in 1975, there was a total of seven VHF television channels available to me each evening. There may have also been some UHF channels that you could tune in with that bow-tie wire hanger antenna that came with your TV, but who watched them?
In the 1980s, we added a bunch of cable channels like CNN, ESPN, MTV, C-SPAN, HBO, Cinemax and Showtime. We also added VCRs that allowed us to not only record television shows, but also buy cassettes of old shows. Later, more cable channels came aboard and we added Bravo, Lifetime, Hallmark, Disney and many others. Then came DVDs, and more television viewing choices. Just about every movie and television show ever made became available. Still later, the Internet came along and added Internet television like Netflix, YouTube, Ustream, Amazon Prime and Crackle.
We are now to the point where there are literally thousands of choices when we want to watch television. Missed the first season of Burn Notice? It’s available on Amazon Prime. Want to see Kevin Spacey’s new series, House of Cards It’s available on Netflix. Want to watch comedy? YouTube has 201 different channels.
Because of the bonanza that content producers have experienced selling DVDs of throwaways like Car 54 Where Are You? and My Mother The Car, there is almost no movie or television show that is not available for viewing. So when I had a hankering to see Burke’s Law, one of my favorite shows from the 1960s, it took just a few clicks on Amazon to order the DVDs.
There are some shows that for copyright or other reasons are not commercially available. But even these shows can be found if you are persistent. When I wanted to see the 1950s show, The Millionaire, I found someone on the Internet selling DVDs of shows that were taped off of a television, complete with commercials. The quality is not optimal, but I can now watch John Beresford Tipton give Michael Anthony a cashier’s check for a million dollars to give away to some unsuspecting soul.
So now when I switch on the television, the choices are so far beyond what they were in 1975 that there is a danger of television dominating all of my leisure time to the exclusion of reading, listening to music or having some social interaction with friends and family. Add to that, the time spent surfing the Web at places like Facebook and Twitter, and it’s easy to see why as social media grows, we are increasingly anti-social.
We just don’t have time for real human interaction any more. Baby Boomers grew up with television. The first issue of TV Guide came out the week I was born. So we have a natural affinity for television. The trick will be to avoid getting lost in the wonderland of content that is now suddenly available to us. It will be a challenge, but I’m determined. How about a nice game of chess?
28 Monday Oct 2013
The island of Bali is all that it is cracked up to be: rolling, verdant, rice terraces, tropical flowers in every hue, massages and facials galore, temples everywhere, and fabulous shopping. I have never read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat Pray Love, so had no preconceptions of the island except an overall sense that it is supposed to epitomize beauty. It does. But the photos do not do it justice.
The beauty comes from the entire vista; the panoramic scope of a landscape treated well by its inhabitants. There is still hands-on tending to the rice in much of Bali, although it is slowly being leeched dry by the tourist trade. (Mea culpa.)
Our first introduction to this island of lushness was on the drive from the airport in Denpasar to Northern Bali for a couple of days of snorkeling. We stopped along the way to buy fruit we had never eaten before, like mangosteens and jackfruit,
and to see a temple called Pura Ulun Danu Bratan. It is not so old (1926), but because it honors the goddess of lakes and rivers, who helps make the rice grow, it is very important.
It is built on an island in the lake, and is quite festive in spirit. The goddesses and gods, like Ganesha, the elephant god, were draped in various colored cloths, and protected from the sun by fringed parasols. There were priests dressed in white preparing for a ceremony and families out for an afternoon stroll and of course the group tourist trade in droves. The grounds were lush with orchids and trumpet flowers and hibiscus. As we wandered around we came upon a sort of private-mini avian zoo of various exotics, like giant bats and mega-toucans.
If you wanted to, you could have your picture taken with one of them. (I have a funny feeling this whole business might not be permitted under some law of the U.S., but cock-fighting, albeit illegal, is an open sport in Bali.) In any event, the collection was interesting, and the animals looked awfully well taken care of. Ultimately I could not resist having my picture taken with a wise old owl. (Forget the bat.)
So after indulging my need to play consummate, hokey tourist, we moved on to a waterfall hike, and about 4:30 arrived at our destination – Pemuteran, a small village on the cusp of a development boom. According to our guide, Pemuteran is what Kuta in south Bali was like 20 years ago. There was our hotel, and a few more dotted along the beach, but no shops and few restaurants. We had come to snorkel, and there really was nothing else for us to do but relax. What I did not know was that we were going to be doing nothing in a place with so many delectable options of where and how to relax. Therefore, I never really relaxed.
There was the private plunge pool to constantly dip into, especially at night once the stars emerged. Then there were the choices of where to sit or lie: the veranda located directly in front of the pool, which was furnished with inviting armchairs, perfect from which to sip a Bintang beer, or the double-wide chaise, with soft fluffy pillows perfect to take a nap on. But the piece de resistance was the upstairs sitting room, reached by an outdoor staircase, which hovered above the pool. It was equipped with chairs, a desk and a mosquito-netted daybed in case we wanted to sleep outside.
The whole place was a little slice of paradise. But before I could take a nap or read a book, I had to fit in a facial, a massage and a reflexology treatment (all at price points one-tenth of what one pays in New York City), plus the snorkeling excursions. And we only had two days. There was way too much to do, but we managed to do it all.
26 Saturday Oct 2013
This photo, taken through a barber shop window in Manhattan, reminds us that Halloween is coming.
25 Friday Oct 2013
It takes four hours by boat from Labuan Bajo, on Flores Island, to see your first Komodo dragon:
They are the largest lizards on earth. Mighty predators that will eat anything. We saw a few collector buffalo and deer skulls on our trek (the rangers’ sense of humor), but according to our guide, the last attack on a human was back in 1988, when a little boy died. All they need to do is give you a swipe with their bacteria-laden tongue and you’re a goner – slowly poisoned. Then they come around and lick you clean. But however deadly they may be, they are otherwise not particularly interesting creatures to observe. Basically, they lie there. Sometimes, they move an eyeball, or lumber an inch or two on their short stumpy legs:I guess they are hot, tired and lazy, which is better than them being active and feisty. I certainly don’t want to be nabbed by that: They live on Rinca and Komodo Islands, and the ride there and back includes snorkeling off a pink sand beach, sleeping on the boat under the stars, and eating some wonderful local food: fresh caught fish, the ubiquitous noodle dish, mee goreng, tons of bananas and the best watermelon ever. It does not involve running water or a toilet that flushes. But it is one beautiful boat ride: The sea shifts from turquoise to aquamarine to transparent cerulean. A sea that crystalline is a finite resource because we keep mucking it up. For now though, it is still pristine, broken up only by thousands of small brown islands dotted with sparse vegetation and, occasionally, a fishing village:
Then you arrive at Rinca Island, where you are given a choice of a short, medium or long walk to find Komodos. We chose the long haul (in 98 degree heat at 1:00 in the afternoon), and saw three dragons slurking around some holes a mama had dug to lay her eggs in, as well as indigenous megapode birds, and lots of water buffalo actually hanging around, and in, a watering hole:But no more dragons until we returned to the ranger station, where they seem to hover, thereby guaranteeing that a tourist who travels zillions of miles, will see a Komodo dragon:We reboarded the boat, and headed farther east as the sun sank, and docked near Komodo Island so we could start our second hike for the dragons at 7 the next morning. The trek was gorgeous,but we did not spy a dragon. Instead, we had our best best birdwatching session for non-birdwatchers: falcons, a golden oriole and a cockatoo: Back at the ranger station, there they were – perfect chameleons laying about, allowing us to take a photo or two: It was about 10:30, and time to start the return trip to Labuan Bajo, but there were a few more pit stops for snorkeling in that AMAZING body of water. And then it was over. We were back on dry land, missing the boat, but loving the shower. The next day we had an early morning excursion to a cave of dripping stalactites with such pointed spears you had to wear a helmet to protect yourself not just against the sharp edges, but also the fruit bats and spiders that inhabit the cave: A quick stop at the local market: And a mad dash shopping splurge for ikats at the airport,
and we were on our flight to the island of Bali.
24 Thursday Oct 2013
2:53 in the morning. Who else is up?
23 Wednesday Oct 2013
“Don’t break bad, now,” the 30-something pharmacist at my local Walgreens said to me after handing me a 12-dose box of Claritin-D. He had determined, after a mini-background check, that I was not a meth cooker.
All this ado, according to said pharmacist, is a reaction to the popularity and the press surrounding the AMC television series, “Breaking Bad,” about a down-on-all-luck chemistry teacher who crosses the line to methamphetamine (meth) kingpin.
It’s because of the D-part in Claritin-D, which stands for psuedoephedrine, a component of methamphetamine, which, when broken down, cooked, and then snorted or smoked (or when downing a whole 12-dose box of Claritin-D at once), produces a brain-stimulating, euphoric rush that will probably help you forget that you have a runny nose.
So Claritin-D, and all decongestants with psuedoephedrine are no longer over-the-counter, and are illegal to buy if you are under 18, or if you are over 18, and do not have a valid drivers license.
This system required me to take a card from the shelf, hand it over to the pharmacist behind the counter, and wait for the rundown on my background before I was handed the goods.
Claritin has been a newsmaker before. It wasn’t that long ago – 2002 – that Claritin won approval to be sold over the counter without a prescription. The decided culprit then was not an ingredient (no psuedoephedrine then, just loratadine), but instead, a cocktail of questionable conduct – the lengthy and arcane F.D.A. approval-process, the effectiveness and the cost of the newly-available Claritin, and the purported greed of Schering-Plough- the pharmaceutical company that developed Claritin.
So I’m all for consumer safety; awareness. We all need to be watchdogs. But my encounter with this latest keep-the-goods-from-the-bad-guys, and keep-the-public-safe tactic seems a bit short-sighted, certainly not foolproof, and just plain silly. I can confirm the pharmacy’s findings that I am not a meth cooker. But how do they know, given that I wasn’t buying Claritin-D for myself, but picking it up for someone else (the pharmacist didn’t ask), that I’m not a mule? Or a huckleberry.
22 Tuesday Oct 2013
BY JULIE SEYLER
One thing you can count on when you travel are the touts that mass you as you emerge from the tourist sight-du-jour. Be it the Colosseum in Rome, the Pyramids in Egypt, or, as had recently happened to me, the temples in Central Java – the pitch and plea is identical. With near-perfect English, you are beseeched with, “How much you want to pay for that?” and “Here this is for you!” as something is shoved in your face.
I love the whole process! I am just the person these marketers of local wares are looking for, because I am a tchotchke collector. I can’t get enough of the wooden masks, puppets and other paraphanelia that are stockpiled in the outdoor stalls. I was thrilled when we made our way out of Candi, Mendut where Buddha sits with such serene majesty,
and were bombarded with offers to buy “stuff.” There was an explosion of possibilities: the wooden shadow puppets known as wayang klitik used in shadow puppet shows, the topeng masks, miniature bronze Buddhas and countless Batik sarongs. Had I not been with Lingga, our wonderful tour guide, and Steve, I could have spent hours going up and down the stalls looking at the minor variations of the exact same things, and never getting exasperated. But I was not alone. I had two pairs of eyes trained on me in utter disbelief that I could possibly derive such pleasure from paying too much for the Indonesian equivalent of a souvenir of the Statue of Liberty. In any case, “window” shopping was not an option. Prambanan, a whole other temple complex, beckoned:
Prambanan was built around the same time as Borobudur, but its structure is completely different. Instead of one large temple designed as a mandalic maze, there are separate temples, ranging as high as 157 feet, with interior chambers designed to house a statue of a Hindu god:
The three largest temples are dedicated to the gods Shiva (“The Destroyer”), Vishnu (“The Preserver”), and Brahma (“The Creator”); the smaller temples to other deities. As in Borobudur, the stone blocks that comprise the temple are masterfully chiseled to tell a story, this time of Lord Rama, the hero of the great Indian epic The Ramayana and the natural world around him where monkeys may sit contemplatively under a tree:
We scaled and circumnavigated the six temples in Prambanan, following the protocol of walking from east to west, and even though we had begun the day at 4:30 a.m. with Borobudur, and had seen three other temples before even arriving at Prambanan, there were more to visit. I could see that Steve, who for some crazy reason does not share my passion for shopping and temples, was becoming glassy-eyed. Visions of the hotel pool and a cold beer danced in his head:
I could not be that easily dissuaded. I mean, here we were in Indonesia. When was the next time we would get to see the ruins of Sewu and Candi Kalasan? We reached a compromise and chose one: Kalasan, the oldest on the Prambanan plain:It cannot be entered, but the facade is peopled with what seemed like dozens of ornately carved Kala heads. These bug-eyed creatures are found on all of the temples, but the ones gracing the porticos here were especially exquisite: Then it really was time to end temple viewing.
The next day started with the hotel staff in Yogyakarta singing Happy Birthday because I was now 58. It ended with Beef Rendang and a Bintang beer in Denpasar, Bali:
In between there was a rickshaw ride to visit the Sultan’s Palace,
a live musical performance of the traditional Indonsian orchestra known as the gamelan, where the instruments may look familiar like xylophones, or unfamiliar, like hanging frying pans and covered cooking pots:
And an excursion to the market with a final stop at a shop that makes gamelan instruments by hand:
The next day we took off for Flores Island. It was time to begin the journey to see the Komodo dragons.
21 Monday Oct 2013
Years ago, I vacationed on Prince Edward Island in Canada. While there, we visited the house of Anne of Green Gables. It was a beautiful house, full of tourists and a gift shop where my wife bought an Anne of Green Gables doll. The only problem with all this is that Anne of Green Gables never existed except in the imagination of Lucy Maud Montgomery. Anne was a fictional character. Yet the tourists came in droves and literally, and figuratively, bought the myth.
I bring this up because as I am writing this I’m on a ship in the Mediterranean having just visited what is purported to be the house of the Virgin Mary near the ancient city of Ephesus in modern-day Turkey. There is evidence that Jesus existed and that Mary was his mother. But there is scant evidence that Mary ever set foot in Ephesus. In fact, the only evidence is that Saint John lived there and he was told by Jesus to take care of Mary. But no matter, the tourists come anyway, and those tourists include three popes.
So our ship docked in Izmir, Turkey, and we got on a bus that took us to the ruins of ancient Ephesus – a 90-minute ride to the south. We toured Mary’s house and the ruins at Ephesus. Our guide made no bones about it – no one knows if Mary ever lived in Ephesus. But we were all here so let’s pretend that Mary was here once upon a time.
After touring Mary’s house and the nearby ruins at Ephesus, we got back on our bus and headed for the commercial advertisement of the tour – a Turkish rug store that apparently pays the tour operator to deliver tourists for a sales pitch. The rugs were gorgeous, but the prices were high. Needless to say, we didn’t buy anything. And that’s when the real adventure began.
We boarded our bus for the ride back to the ship. It was 3:00. We were due back at 4:30, and the ship was scheduled to leave at 5:00. A minute later, our guide gave us the bad news: the bus would not start. The guide asked everyone to get off the bus and then he asked the men to get behind the bus and push it to help it start. So we all got off the bus, but no amount of pushing would budge the bus. It was now 3:15, and we still were 90 minutes from the ship.
The tour guide called for a new bus. That arrived at 3:30, and we all got aboard. We were relieved because the 90-minute trip back to the ship would get us there just before the ship was scheduled to leave. The bus headed back to Izmir at top speed. And then about 45 minutes later, there was a sudden smell of steam, and the driver pulled over. Smoke was coming from the back of the bus. One of the passengers shouted, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” as we all realized that it had happened again. A second bus had broken down. So we all got off the bus once more and stood by the side of a Turkish highway while we waited for our third bus.
This proved to be a much longer wait. Our five-hour tour was quickly turning into something like the SS Minnow. We all began to have visions of being left behind in Izmir.
Finally at 5:00, the time our ship was scheduled to sail, the third bus came. Fortunately, our tour guide had a cell phone and he contacted the ship. We broke Turkish speeding laws as we made it back to the ship at 5:35. The ship’s engines were on, smoke was coming out of the smokestack, and they were waiting impatiently, ready to go. We jumped aboard quickly (bypassing Turkish customs), and our adventure was over.
Despite the stress, it was a great tour and we made some friends who helped us keep in good spirits as the minutes ticked by. So all in all, it was a good experience. But after all this, I sure hope that Mary actually lived in that house!