Fruit on meat.
I am a temple fiend. I was converted in 1999, when I arrived in Khajuraho, India, and laid eyes on the 100-meter-tall monuments dedicated to the belief that Tantric worship leads to a higher power. The passion was solidified when I climbed up the steps of Angkor Wat in Cambodia in 2003. I was determined that one day I would visit Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. It is located on the Indonesian island of Java, and was built between the 8th and 11th centuries AD, thereby falling on the same timeline as Angkor and Khanjuharo. And like those two sites, Borobudur is designated a World Heritage Sight.
On Monday September 30, 2013 I was there in time to catch the sunrise, except that, that morning clouds dominated. It did not matter. The pure majesty of this testament to nirvana exerts its power regardless of weather. I mean, check this guy out:
The temple consists of a network of over two million stones fitted together to tell stories and teach morals. It spans 15,000 square feet, and towers up to the sky on nine different platforms, each of which gets slightly smaller as you ascend. As you walk east to west, the panels may reveal the biography of Prince Siddhartha from his mother’s dream of how he was conceived to how he learned the lessons that became the tenets of Buddhism:
Or there may be a series of pictorial depictions of “modern” life in 900 AD in central Java:
There are various theories as to who built Borobudur, and why it was built. But from the minimal knowledge I gleaned, the inherent raison d’etre for its existence sprung from an inherent spirituality. Borobudur is a three dimensional representation of the path we must follow to reach nirvana. An architectural roadmap to Buddhism.
The first level contains friezes of what happens when one is dissolute and selfish vs. honorable and charitable:
Another lower level contains scenes of desire:
But by the time you have entered Level 3, you are ready to be introduced to the prophecy of the man who was born as Prince Siddhartha and died as the Buddha:
This level, as well as Levels 2, 4, 5, and 6, are built in a square formation. Each platform contains rows of cross-legged, seated Buddhas in near identical poses. Four hundred and thirty two Buddhas decorate the four facades of these six lower levels, and depending if you are facing north, south, east, or west, the Buddha’s right hand changes position in accordance with a spiritual teaching. In the east, the right hand clasps the knee. In the south, Buddha’s palm is turned up to the sky. In the west, the Buddhas are meditating. And in the north, the palm is extended out. (Even though our guide Lingga was wonderfully informative, I had to buy the book to find out more.):
Then the whole layout changes. Instead of corners, the path turns circular. There are no sharp edges as one moves closer and closer to nirvana in Levels 7, 8 and 9:
In these three levels, the Buddhas are no longer exposed – they are enclosed in 72 separate lattice belled stupas:
And then it was time to say goodbye, and eat breakfast, and move on to more temples:
Recently, I decided to mom-up and make something nostalgic and yummy for my two sons, who were both expected over for dinner. Bon Appetit’s Chicken Spaghetti from a 1990-something, free little recipe book, was their very, very, most-favorite, spicy, noodley meal since .. forever.
But what evolved into a mini-mishap wasn’t that neither one of them remembered that Chicken Spaghetti was their very, very, most-favorite, spicy, noodley meal since forever. It was that I was out of ingredient number nine – one bay leaf. While part of the fun of cooking for me is putting my own twisted spin and spice on recipes – I tweak and jiggle them as a rule (pretzels for bread crumbs, potatoes for flour, sherry for chicken broth), I’ve never messed with a bay leaf.
Even though there is no discernible flavor, that it hurts to bite it, and all recipes demand that it be removed before serving (I have secretly pummeled a bunch of them and tried to pass them off as oregano, only to spit them out throughout the meal), I figure its inclusion in so many recipes means that it must offer something so subtle, so mysterious, so necessary! that I, as a human, wouldn’t know what the recipe was missing until a bay leaf was missing.
The other ingredients in the recipe must somehow play off the fragrant and floating bay leaf, in a way that is transcendental, mystical, and divine – like God. (There is no substitute.) And to leave out the one bay leaf from Chicken Spaghetti felt shiftless. Indolent. And far, far worse than if I leave out the chicken. Or the spaghetti.
But I took an about-face that night. I didn’t want to run out to the store just because I ran out of bay leaves, as I’ve done in the past. After all, if they are so subtle, why doesn’t its cryptic force amp-up if I throw in seven – or ten? Yes, they smell good, but the smell is immediately usurped by the other stuff in the pot – like tomatoes, meat – lemon! Own up, bay leaf. What’s your point? And why do I need you?
You don’t sweeten, spice or thicken. Are you just a team player? Do you bring out the best in a sprig of thyme? Or a sage leaf? You are a “classic” in a bouquet garni, alongside other fragrant and flavorful herbs, and, I’m guessing, it’s because they are tied and netted to you, that they must also be tossed from the finished sauce.
So in the spirit of being a middle-aged free-to-be, I had decided that night to no longer buckle to the bay leaf. That night, I substituted it with mounds of frozen kale, of which I had pounds stored for weeks in my freezer. I’ve learned that kale can be cooked to death, and those mounds all ultimately boiled down to the size of about three stacked bay leaves. And you can eat it.
So even though my kids had no memory of the Chicken Spaghetti of the past. There were no complaints about no bay leaf.
To get to Indonesia from New York City takes about 24 hours door to door. It is a small sacrifice because this country, which is composed of over 17,000 islands, delivers everything from Komodo dragons to golf courses; fine art museums to volcano treks; the cleanest of seas; the nicest of people. In a little over two weeks, Steve and I managed to cram in five different destinations on four islands.
The first destination was Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo, and a boat ride up the Sekonyer River through Tanjung Puting National Park to Camp Leakey to see the orangutans:Camp Leakey was established by Birute Galdikas in 1971 to protect and rehabilitate orangutans that were being poached and killed for a profit. Today they thrive!
The viewing conditions are somewhat staged by the preset 10:00 and 2:00 feeding times, when bunches of bananas are dropped on 12-foot high viewing platforms. Slowly, on cue, the orangutans emerge from their hidden haunts, and the performance of their dining process commences:
But, the predictability does not in any manner diminish the fascination of watching these grand primates, and their endlessly expressive faces, change from anger to docility as they play with their buddies, entertain themselves, and protect their young ones:
They are the great ape most like us, and to the extent we are a culture that loves selfies, the orangutans present different, but familiar images of who we are at our core: moody, playful, hungry and protective:
And of course, the excursion into the rainforest was not just about the orangutans. There were so many other things to take in: luscious vegetation in every shape, variety and texture that hugged the meandering curves in the river, plants shaped as pitchers, and trees so dependent on each other they grew into each other:
There were long-tailed macaques, and probocis monkeys with Cyrano de Bererac noses, huddled in groups in the tree tops, swinging from limb to limb, solitary gibbons and wild boar:
But this vista, and these animals, which have been part of the earth for millions of years, are at risk for demolition and destruction. It should not be surprising that the battle for preserving the world’s natural heritage is not confined to the debate over the Keystone Pipeline. In Borneo, the ever expanding palm oil estates are winning over conservation efforts and the Sekonyer River – once pitch black and clear – is now more dank and muddy – a perpetual reminder of the pollution from upriver mining:
So I was left with one thought: Don’t let these guys down, and made a donation to the Orangutan Foundation:
I think that one of the aims of this blog should be to point out things that we over-50s are likely to enjoy. Along those lines, Billy Crystal has written a book that I think perfectly captures what life is like after 50. It’s called, “Still Foolin’ ‘Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys?” I recommend it to everyone who, in Crystal’s words, “can still do everything they did at age 30 if only they could remember what those things are.”
If you consider aging Baby Boomers to all be occupants of the same classroom of life, then Billy Crystal is our class clown. He has been the voice of our generation through his memorable years on Saturday Night Live to his classic movies like “City Slickers,” “When Harry Met Sally,” and “Forget Paris,” to his brilliant stints as host of the Academy Awards. Now at age 65, he is the prototypical Baby Boomer – having grown up in the New York suburbs watching Officer Joe Bolton on Channel 11.
Like the writers in this blog, Crystal pulls no punches when discussing the effects of aging. He tells us, “During the past year, things started to grow on me where they shouldn’t. My ass looks like the bottom of a boat.” He says that he still is interested in looking at 20-something women, but now they’re out of focus and, “by the time I get my glasses on, they’re gone.” He laments that these days when he says, “dinner’s on me” he means it literally. He notes that age has made him feel cold most of the time, and he’s starting to think that global warming isn’t such a bad thing.
Billy spends an entire hilarious chapter on senior sex (you’ll have to read the book for details). I’ll just say that he is as candid about this aspect of life after 50 as any other. He also spends some time talking about the after-50 problem of staying awake at the movies or at Broadway shows. Ultimately, I found myself nodding my head in agreement while listening to the audio book. By the way, if you’re into audio books, that is the best way to experience this work because Billy reads it himself and the entire book is like a long stand-up comedy show.
I think the most surprising thing about this book is how well-written it is. It is not hyperbole to compare the writing style with Mark Twain’s. It’s that good. Billy’s line that, “I sleep like a baby. I’m up every two hours,” could have come from the pen of Twain. But ultimately, what makes the book so attractive to the over-50 audience is its sincerity and truth. When Billy talks about his insomnia, it’s something that most of us can relate to. And that’s the key to good humor writing.
For example, Crystal spends a chapter on what he worries about these days. Among many other things, he says, “I worry that someday my kids will look down on me and say: “‘I changed him last time. Now it’s your turn.’”
The truth can sometimes make you wince, but the trick is to always stay positive. We can draw inspiration from one of Billy Crystal’s famous characters. No matter the effects of aging – “You look wonderful!”
I’ve lived long enough to accept that change is assured. Not the kind of change that comes about from restlessness – as it does when we are younger, when we choose change with abandon and ardor – but midlife change that can come with less renewal, and more fallout. Losing the sustaining comfort of familiar to the uneasiness of foreign can now hit with a punch-in-the-gut force that can sideline the most resilient among us. It could be the death of someone you love. Or divorce. Independence and self-reliance can be snuffed out because of illness, or reduced physical capacity. Unwelcome adjustments may have to be made because careers are dwindling and the financial safety net has been pocked.
Midlife is a letting-go part of life. There’s much saying goodbye to familiar.
A month ago yesterday, I moved from my beloved family house to my own apartment. A lot of my familiar has been plucked and tossed since that move. For the first time in 30 years, I’m living in space that is less mine. (I have to share stairways, elevators, walls, floors, a laundry room, the front door … toilet flushes.) In the beginning, time would sometimes stand so still at random moments – I could be driving, walking my dog, sleeping – that I would be jolted into an uneasy awareness at the reality of all that was, and all that is no longer – the familiar was conspicuously absent.
But I am also a lover of change. I will throw myself into the deep end, and find my way up – smiling. So, while my recent move (and accompanying fallout) has been unnerving at times, I’ve been adjusting spectacularly to the new everything …
… except the kitchen. Yes – you can mess with my familiar. Take my marriage! Bye! to my beautiful (big sniff) babies. Who needs a back yard? I no longer need shovels. And privacy is for the dead.
But don’t take my big old kitchen. My old kitchen owned my aura. It was my nimbus – hanging over me with “home.” It’s where my children would rush to after school. It’s where their scraped knees were bandaged, and stomaches nourished. They would do their homework in the kitchen, and recently, as young men, would gather with their friends over a beer. There was a corner the size of a closet for the shoes of a family of four. It’s where the party began, and usually stayed. It could be set aglow with a dozen candelabras on the counters. Holidays, birthdays, summer nights, winter storms – all kitchen-bound.
My new kitchen is the size of my old broom closet. And I’m OK with stacking and piling. I don’t care that my fancy, etched glasses are in the second bedroom armoire. Love my wine rack in the hallway! And so what that my cool, crystal, just-for-party-plates are in my car?
It seems, though, that it’s the little things that have been looming big in loss. I can’t blast music and do my joyful cooking-twirl with my wine in hand without crashing into a wall. There’s room for one stool, and it only fits in the corner, with room for only one elbow on the counter. I can’t gather more than three (I have squooshed five) people in it at once. (We can’t sit down.) I’m the bandaged one these days, because if I leave the cabinets open, I’m pierced in either the head or ankle. To cook and eat and drink requires a lot of turns sideways.
But a month in, I’m beginning to feel huge of heart in my small kitchen with a (newly) big aura. Yes, I can only hang there in bursts of time, instead of hours. And yes, it’s the old oven that burns these days, not candelabras. I’ve left the small square space right outside its doorway furniture-free for my wine-infused cooking-twirls (OK, more like twists). Adjustments, all. But little gems, each, that remind me that letting go means more space for letting in. That living large is about hugging change like your bursting-with-zeal-20-year-old self. My new kitchen may be narrow of space, counter-challenged, and twirl-free. But it’s found its aura. And it’s become familiar.
Hello from Bali. Steve and I fly home on Saturday, October 12. We arrive Sunday morning around 7:00, and the post–vacation routine commences. The mail is retrieved; the bills are sorted; the bags are unpacked. And the dirty laundry is washed. That first night home, you go to sleep with a different feeling because the illusion of being an unemployed vagabond without a money care in the world is replaced with the dread of obligations that have stockpiled on your desk over the past two weeks. The unfettered bliss of suspended reality is dashed to smithereens in about 24 hours. So, in anticipation that real life is about to descend, I shall tell you the tale from August (which is still on my mind), of Kimberly Collier.
On August 17, I received an email from Kimberly Collier:
My name is Kimberly Collier. I am interested in purchasing an artwork from you. Kindly write back with your webpage so that I can view more of your recent works.
That was cool. She had seen some samples of my work on the website Artsicle. I sent her the link to my personal website, julieseyler.com, and the next morning, I found this message waiting in my Inbox:
Thank you for the email. I am interested in making an immediate purchase of the work “twisted 2: josie & david’s lovers oil 52” x 30””. Can I have a detailed information about the work, its availability and pricing? As soon as we reach a concrete agreement on pricing, I can instruct my p.a to process a cashiers check to you for the payment of the work so that my mover can have it picked up along with my properties that are to be moved to Munich.
I await your email soonest.
This was even cooler, so I sent her the requested information, and received a reply:
Thank you for the mail. I am ok with the price of the work but I want you to deduct the shipping charges from the cost as my mover will take care of the pick up and delivering to my new resident in Munich. He has other properties to pick up for me so he would get the work along with other boxes. But before then, your cash must be at hand. Can you provide me with your full name as you want it appeared on the check, your full address which includes(street name, house number, city, state and zip code) to ensure safe delivery and your working phone number where my mover can easily reach you at. As soon as I get these details, I will fwd it to my p.a so that he can go ahead with the issuance of the check to you after you must arrived back on Saturday, August 24.
I happy to have this piece purchased as it would look good on the walls of my guest room.
But there were a few logistical problems in getting the painting to Ms. Collier. I was down at the beach in Allenhurst. The painting was in a warehouse in Union. And the keys to the warehouse were in Manhattan. Even if we did get it, I could not get it home because it would never fit in the roadster, and the schedule for the next seven days was crazy. Somehow, we had to get the painting back to New York City that Sunday.
Steve had his van, but he preferred keeping it in New Jersey, rather than dealing with parking in the city. But after numerous back and forths (and back and forths), the only option was to drive the van back to Manhattan, then back to Union to pick up the painting, then back to Manhattan. Two trips in, and one trip out, of the Lincoln Tunnel in a period of three hours on a Sunday afternoon in August is not anyone’s idea of fun. Plus, I kept fretting that Kimberly Collier would change her mind. Steve, always my supporter, said, “Don’t worry. Of course she wants the painting.”
Monday morning I e-mailed Kimberly Collier that I had the painting, and we could start making arrangements for her to send the money, and pick it up.
Two hours later, I received this email from Artsicle:
On Saturday, a variety of you received an email via the new messaging system from “Kimberly Collier” requesting more information about your work. Sadly, this is part of a known scam involving fake cashiers checks. I recommend you do not respond to this request – or simply delete the email chain if you already have.
What a bummer. But after talking to the people at Artsicle, it was confirmed that the scammers really do want the art – they just want it for free. To me, that was better than being taken just for the money.
In retrospect, there were lots of little hints this was a scam. No one pays for anything without knowing the return policy.
… but you should not take someone like me, whose favorite food is sourdough pretzels with aged cheddar cheese, to haute cuisine restaurants. The appreciation factor for sea urchin on a pedigreed pea with lemon zest is not going to fly high. Nonetheless, for years I have tried to be more of a gourmand rather than someone who is a repetitive orderer of spaghetti with tomatoes and basil. I am, by my own admission, boring to dine with. Plus I think people with refined palettes are more sensual than the plebe that goes for sirloin. On the other hand, one could make a good argument that nothing is sexier than a rare steak.
Anyway, this summer I had a chance to dine at Le Bernardin, one of the premier restaurants in Manhattan – or so say the pundits of the food world: Le Bernardin. To a great degree, the dishes live up to their reputation (charred octopus, Alaskan King Crab “Crabouillabaisse,” and lobster timbale appetizers), but to me, a reveler of simple grilled fish, I was slightly underwhelmed by my Dover Sole, where the restaurant tagged on an $18 supplement to the $130 prix fixe. It arrived seared and tough – as in dried out – although the “Brown-Butter Tamarind Vinaigrette,” as it was described, sang rapturously. Nonetheless, the balance of the experience left me more convinced than ever that the best restaurants are not on any media lists.