Monday, August 30, 2010


I knew I would be cutting it rather close when I found out (while still living in America) that my plane landed at Shanghai PuDong airport at 1910, and the last train to Wuhan left at 2155. PuDong is about 35km away from the South railway station where the train departs from; had I flown into Hongxiao, the other Shanghai airport, I would have only been about 14km away. As it was, I had to clear customs, retrieve my luggage, race through the airport, catch the mag-rail (super fast, magnetic motor train, racing through the city at a whopping 300km/hr!) After riding the mag-rail I had to find the #2 subway line to People's Square, and there transfer to the #1 subway line to the South railway station. I was able to navigate all of this just fine, thanks to my rudimentary knowledge of the Chinese language and the written directions from a guy on the plane.

Fortunately, I got to the train station at 2110. Unfortunately, there was a very long line of people buying train tickets. By the time my turn came to approach the window, it was 2205 - I had missed the D@#M! train by 10 minutes. I sat down and contemplated my options: I could find a hotel in Shanghai. I could go back to the airport and buy a plane ticket to Wuhan. Or I could spend the night at the train station and buy a ticket for the very next train to Wuhan. Considering I was pulling a 46Lbs suitcase, a 20Lbs laptop bag and a fairly heavy carry-on, and the fact that the plane ride was less than comfortable, I opted to stay at the train station. I really couldn’t move anymore, and besides, it is all part of the experience, right?

Just before the ticket window closed down at midnight, I was able to buy a ticket on the next train departing at 1347 the next day. Immediately after that, the police started blowing their whistles, rounding vagrants up and out of the station. Being a valid ticket holder – a stroke of luck, there! I got to stay and I found a quiet corner, curled up on top my luggage and slept for about 3 hours. Then the train station got really cold, I woke up and couldn't go back to sleep, even after foraging into my suitcase and digging out my jacket to use as a blanket. I was very hungry. Remember the food disaster on the plane? Unfortunately all the stores in the station were closed. Fortunately, some of the food stores at the station opened at 0600, so I got up, washed my face and scored some food. Luckily I had thought to convert some money before leaving the U.S., and again I'm not going to discount the help my language ability afforded me. After that, a quick phone call – navigating a pay phone menu, nonetheless! - to my sponsor to let him know that I was not going to be on the train I had anticipated being on, and then... I wandered around the train station in a daze, instead of going to sight see around Shanghai. I was too exhausted to enjoy the sights, and by now my feet had started swelling badly in spite of the comfortable shoes Marjorie had provided me with.

So now, the wait for the train. I was unbelievably tired! Remember, it is just 6:30 in the morning and I had only slept about 3 hours. Adventurous spirit be damned, I wanted a bed, a shower, a decent meal... but it was all part of the experience, right? I was NOT in a good mood at this point. Let me stress that clearly.

I thought some warm food would help me, maybe something carb-laden. So I went to the train station’s KFC when it opened at 7:00 and ordered a breakfast meal. Please note that there were not many choices to be had; it was KFC or a dumpling restaurant. Chinese dumplings are notoriously light and, although initially filling generally do not go the extra mile to keep you full. Also, I think I was looking for comfort in familiarity. So I opted for a brand I was familiar with: KFC. I ordered a chicken sandwich meal, but instead of fries it came with congee, a Chinese glutinous rice soup dish that can be served either sweet or spicy or just loaded with other stuff. In this case, it was loaded with seaweed and some questionable meat. Being so hungry and cold, I gobbled it all up and felt a little better.

What to do now? With more than 6 hours wait for my train, I sat down and people-watched. What a fascinating snapshot of Chinese society I got in the train station! Women like to dress to travel: their finest dresses and heels, even if it was evening wear. Some of the younger generation went more for stylish or sporty comfort, but still styled their hair and carried designer bags. There was a lot of moneyed people going through that station, and they rubbed elbows with the vagrants and migrant workers – those called ‘shoulder-poles’ because they made their living toting goods using two baskets dangling from a bamboo pole, balanced on their shoulder. Interestingly enough, everyone was accorded the same amount of personal space, whether rich or poor, fancied up or unwashed. Nobody shied away from the peasants and no one sought out the rich.

I changed places many times, getting up and walking around when I started getting drowsy. Once I sat next to a father who was travelling with his daughter, who appeared to be about 5 years old. A sweet looking little girl with a pink dress on and a matching bow in her hair, the poor thing was so tired she was trying to sleep while leaning on her bag. Her father must have been equally tired as he was canted to the left and sprawled out as much as possible in the narrow metal chair. Perhaps some inner clock woke him, or maybe he just suffered the same problem I did – inability to actually sleep, so he nudged the girl and told her to watch the bags. And then he got up and walked away! Imagine: leaving a 5-year-old child alone in a busy railway station, and in charge of the bags, no less! She roused herself as best she could and reached for her drinking cup inside a small, pink bag. Feeling slightly like a voyeur, I looked away.

There were several instances of children running free around the station. It is not that the parents don’t care, it is just that maximum freedom is afforded here because, of all the places in the world, China is one of the safest places to live. There is a premium value accorded to children in China, because they are treasured. It is truly a place where children can frolic without the obvious presence of parents nearby.

My lingering thought while taking all of this in through my fogged out, sleep deprived brain was: although I would do most anything for some creature comforts at that point in time, and I was sorely missing everything I’d left behind in the States, there is still no place on earth I’d rather be than in China. Except for in the company of a loved one.

My mood took a turn for the worse when I finally boarded the train, only to find out I had booked passage on the SLOW train to Wuhan: the one that left Shanghai at 1347, and got to my destination at 0600 the next morning! I had to borrow a fellow passenger's cellphone in order to call my sponsor and tell him I'd be later than I thought. And, my mood didn't improve when I realized that, not only was I on the slow train, but I had a 'hard seat' ticket, when I could/should have bought a sleeper car ticket. But, the ticket teller didn't give me that option and I didn't think to ask about one because I didn't figure I was on the slow train! So again, I spent the night sitting up, in a loud and lighted environment. The glow from the KFC carb-extravaganza had worn off a long time ago. Hungry, aching from pulling suitcases everywhere... you can imagine it was not a fun time. Nevertheless, it was a very interesting ride... and the subject of the final part of this nightmare trilogy!

For now, you have the story about being stranded in Shanghai! One of these days, I'm going to look back on it and laugh, but right now, I'm still a bit... frazzled. That's one for the 'bet I don't to that again' file that I keep in my head. It is an adventure I definitely would not recommend to anyone, unless they are less than 25 years old, unpampered, healthy and just a touch stupid. I certainly felt that way - a touch stupid, definitely not under 25. If anything, these exploits made me feel 125 years old!

Sunday, August 29, 2010


The trip to China, and then to Wuhan, my destination city, was an adventure in itself. It was a journey fraught with discomfort and unsettling surprises, as well as some wonderful and some not so wonderful discoveries.

I will write about it in three parts: the plane trip – a disaster in itself, getting stranded in Shanghai – disaster again, and finally the train trip to Wuhan. You guessed it, another disaster. Hence the title: Three Part Disharmony.

OK, here goes: I reasoned I should go to sleep at about 7:00PM, that last night in Baltimore. I had to be up at 2:00AM, and I would have to shower and call a cab to the train station in order to be there at 3:55AM to make my train.

At 11:30PM, the phone was still ringing. Why didn’t I just turn off the phone, you ask? I was using it as an alarm clock, as well as having set the hotel’s alarm clock and having requested a wake up call. I wanted to be sure to wake up on time: had to catch that train!

I woke up on time. As a matter of fact, I was so worried I wouldn’t wake up on time that I kept waking up. At 12:17AM, at 1:00AM, at 1:47AM. I think I had the waking up thing down pat. By the time the various chimes went off to actually wake me up, I was red-eyed, dizzy, overwhelmingly tired. Never mind I reasoned, I had a 19-hour flight ahead of me and I could certainly sleep then.

I could not have been more wrong.

I made the train, I made it to the airport in Newark, I made onto the plane still working that phone. I was missing people already, and I wanted to be sure they knew about it. I called people whom I knew were not near their phones and left voice mail so that they could have a nice surprise when they came home. I called people who wanted to monopolize all the time I had and battery life the phone had. I really tried to get to everyone, those last few hours in the U.S. Who knew when I would hear their voice again?

Finally: the Big One. The overseas flight. 19 hours worth. No phone, no interruptions… well, maybe a meal and a movie. I had my Benadryl ready to make me drowsy and sleep most of the flight away. My first disappointment: I had requested an aisle seat and not only got a middle seat, but a middle seat in the middle of the plane. Not just the middle of the plane, but the very back seat of the middle of the plane. There was no place to store my carry-on in the overhead bin, so per the air hostess’ instructions, my laptop got to ride first class in an empty storage compartment, and I was remanded to the back of the plane. There was no place for my ‘personal item’, so I had to shove it under the seat in front of me. There went any leg room I might have had. Strike One.

I forgot to tell you how I dressed for the trip: long pants, cami under a long sleeved hoodie. I wanted to look somewhat appropriate when I met my employer for the first time, and he would be picking me up from the train station. Thus the slightly formal but still sporty selection. The outfit was a little warm I grant you, even for 3:00AM Baltimore weather, but I can’t tell you how fortuitous my wardrobe selection turned out to be! The plane’s climate control system was damaged and the cabin temperature was stuck at about 65 degrees Fahrenheit for the entire overseas flight. There was no fixing it, and there were no extra blankets. We found that out the hard way.

That was the third shock in this nightmare flight. The first came when I sat down and tested my position: how would I manage my limited leg room, how companionable are my seat-mates (they would have to let me out for bathroom and stretch breaks), will the seat recline and will the headrest support my head? The seat did not recline at all. Not one iota. It simply did not move, whether I pushed the button or not. Strike two.

Just after taking off, when the hostesses were offering the first round of drinks and a snack. The man in front of me asked that his wife not be served peanuts, as she had an allergy to them. Immediately, all 6 hostesses in the vicinity yelled at him – not kidding here, yelled! – that he should let everyone one the plane know in case something happened and she accidentally got peanuts. One hostess in particular was loud and braying; one of my seatmates and I figured that she was the ringleader… or at least held some sort of rank over the rest of the crew. I leaned toward my seatmate, after this poor guy had been berated 4 times by the staff about letting everyone know, and asked her: “didn’t he just let everyone know? Why are they yelling at him?” She was as shocked as I was at the aggressive tone of the hostesses. Maybe it was because they thought he was deaf instead of Chinese that they felt they had to yell. Regardless, we being in the last row were destined to suffer the ire of the crew, and they fairly threw us our snack: a bag of pretzels apiece. Strike three.

Normally, after Strike 3, one is considered out. Unfortunately I was on an airplane and I couldn’t just ‘out’ myself. Where would I go at nearing 3,800 feet? Helpless, I had to let the strikes continue.

My seatback entertainment center died. Not that I was wild about seeking entertainment: I was shivering, tired and hungry. But still, there might have been a good movie to watch. Unfortunately I elected to fill in the survey before I reviewed the movie selection. Even though I honestly appraised the flight, including the hostess’ attitude, the cabin temperature and the seat backs not reclining one bit, it would only allow me to select and report that everything was excellent. I started giggling madly – I simply couldn’t believe that, on a flight where personal comfort was anything but the norm, and the hostesses were rude I could not review the flight as anything but excellent! Both my seatmates also tried the survey, and got the same results: no matter what rating they gave any particular category, the system would only accept ‘excellent’ and taunt you with your lie before you moved on to the next question. They both started laughing as well.

That’s when the entertainment system died. Not everyone’s, just mine. So now, I’m stuck in the back of the plane, in the middle of the middle row and I’m too tired to read my book but still too wired to sleep, and I’m wrestling with the microfiber blanket to cover most of myself up. That’s when they brought out the food. Only one selection – pork, because the pasta was all gone. The food was cold, so I asked the hostess to please warm it up for me. She took the food… and it never came back. Seriously. I don’t know if it was meanness or if she just forgot that she had someone waiting for a warm meal in a very cold cabin. Whatever the reason, I never saw that food again. Just as well; I wasn’t hungry anyway and my seatmate told me the food was not any good. She didn’t finish hers, either. After the meals were cleared cabin-wide, the braying hostess asked me if another hostess had remembered to bring me my meal. I told her “Never mind, I don’t want it now.” And that was the truth. I did save the pumpernickel roll, the butter and the cheese, and the brownie. It made for a nice snack later, and I was grateful to have it because that was all the food I got on that flight.

This one is rather long, isn’t it? Just one more observation: It struck me as completely odd that, on a plane bound for China and with fully ¾ of the passengers being Chinese, the two languages offered on the on-board entertainment system were English and Spanish! There was not a single Chinese character in any of the menus or in any of the flight information. None of the on-board literature featured any Chinese either but they did have safety information cards in English… and Spanish!

Fortunately, the flight is now over, so kindly deplane in an orderly manner and let’s go get stranded in Shanghai – the next topic.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Significant Other

I had previously posted that I do not have a significant other, and that is the truth... for the most part. I live alone, dine alone, go out alone, everything alone. Nearly. Now I confess: there is an 'other', and he's pretty 'significant' to me.
We met 6 years ago. From the moment I gazed into his sea-green eyes and he returned the look and nodded his hello, we were both hooked. It was like wildfire, spontaneous combustion, that 'click' you feel in the middle of your brain and every one of your neurons firing in time to that perfect celestial symphony that only plays when the stars are aligned just right. That's what its like for me and him. Even now, after 6 years.
We're not together, and we're not going to be together. Various circumstances compel us to not have that kind of life: our backgrounds, our values, our beliefs, our way of life is too different. We live in different parts of the country. He has commitments he cannot break, I've lived a life of solitude I can't let go of. But for the past 6 years, we've been there for each other: in hard times, in good times, to nurture and comfort one another. We accept that that is all there is for us, and all that there will be. For what we need and want from one another, it is perfect.
He's a sad and wistful man, deeply introspective. He lends thought to bigger things, philosophical questions, moral rights and wrongs. We often discuss his ponderings of whether he's doing the right thing with his life. In his opinion, he comes up way short. He's compelled by the circumstances of his life to be more materialistic than he shows himself to me to be. I think, on some level, he resents having to put on that face but he doesn't know how to get around it. I don't give him advice; my place it to listen to him and let him work things out. I'm not his preacher or teacher.
I don't look for him to be my savior or my rescuer: the whole knight-in-shining-armor phenomenon women seem to think men are supposed to be. There is nothing for him to rescue me from. Putting him on that pedestal would most likely break this wondrous relationship we have. I accept him for what he is, and how he fits into the life I made for myself. The only thing I ask is that, when he is with me, he should BE with me: no Blackberry, no phone calls, no distractions. He accepts that, and complies.
Since I met him, there has been no one else for me. I'm content with the phone calls every few months that last for hours, and the occasional emails, and maybe a face-to-face rendezvous whenever his schedule can manage it. He is the one who initiates most of the contact; I usually send emails wishing him a happy birthday, or letting know I'm thinking about him on the anniversary of his mother's death. After all, that's all there can be. I still thrill that this attractive, intelligent man is my friend, a part of my life, wants to talk with me, wants me - whatever part of me there is to be had. That's been a rarity in my life.
There's been strange coincidences that have thrown us together over the years. He had business in Houston one year, and I lived only a few hours away. A suggestion from him, a drive south for me and presto: magical weekend ensues! Another time I went to D.C. for a job interview; guess who happened to be there on assignment that very week? The pleasure of sitting across a table and conversing with him obliterated the frustration that I did not get the job I had traveled across the country for.
There's a reason we haven't let go of each other. I don't know what it is, and I suspect he doesn't either. But every time we are together, it is like there's been no time apart. We fall into that comfortable zone where people who truly know each other are totally themselves together. That's also been a rarity in my life.
Is this love? How should either of us know? We were both too broken in childhood to understand what love is, or recognize it when it comes our way. I think that love has slapped us both in the face with this relationship, and we are both too ignorant to know it. I've told him I love him, but I know instinctively that he will never say those words to me. I accept that.
I'm leaving the country. It will no longer be as simple as picking up the phone, finding out we are in the same neck of the woods by some strange coincidence, sitting across the table from each other in some funky restaurant again. He doesn't even have a passport; indeed he had never seen one until I showed him mine the other night. I don't know if he's curious about China and would want to go there, but when I told him about my new job via email a few weeks back, he immediately jumped on the Internet and learned what he could about the city I'll be living in. Its little things like that that let me know how he feels about me.
For those of you reading this blog who know me particularly well, you know that I do not know a soul in Baltimore. Yet here I am, my last 4 days in the United States in a city full of strangers that I've never been to before.
He's here on assignment. He works long hours, and has social commitments to boot. We can't spend every minute together, and I don't think we would want to. We did spend two wondrous evenings together walking the harbor, dining at eclectic restaurants, talking, talking, talking. Ever the conversation flowed. How I enjoy these moments with him! Surely he must enjoy me too: he's the one that grabs my hand, wraps his arm around my waist, arranges his schedule so that we can have some time together. Yes, there's definitely something between us. We'll have email, and that will have to do, IF there is to still be something between us while I'm on the other side of the globe.
He had brought a bottle of wine for us to share, and a bottle opener - a particularly fancy one. We didn't drink the wine; he suggested I take it with me and drink it on my first night in my new apartment. What an excellent idea! While packing up my stuff, I noticed he left his bottle opener. A quick text message from me, a return phone call from him: he meant for me to have it. He had bought it in Houston for our rendezvous and had kept it all of these years so that he could open the wine whenever we meet. He had no more use for it, so now its mine. That's the kind of deep sentiment this man has. That's how I know how he feels about me.
One last kiss in the elevator, hand in hand we walk to his truck. There is no sadness, nor is there a sense of fatalism. It doesn't even feel like good-bye. It never does, with him. One final hug by his truck, and he gets in. He sends me a smile and a wave, turns the ignition, and then he's gone.
The sky starts to weep, as though mourning my loss.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Quest for Shoes – Part 2

When last we talked I was trying to emphasize that something as mundane as shoes was a fantastic gift for me. A gift that only Marjorie would undertake to give me. Because Marjorie is not only the Queen of Charm, she is also the Shopping Queen! (And the Gadget Queen. I am the Question Queen, but a different friend gave me that moniker. So long as ‘Queen’ is equally shared, I bear Marjorie no grudge in her queendom.)

Besides having mailed boots and sports shoes to myself, I am taking 3 pair of shoes to China with me: a pair of flats to work in, a pair of Okabashi to bum around in and a pair of white Sketchers with the strap that crosses over the top of the foot that I’ve had for at least 3 years. Those are to be worn with my capris and other summer outfits. They have really held up well but face it: they are 3 years old. They do not look good. The velcro closure does not hold really well and, at awkward moments just lets go and causes me to trip over my own shoes. Marjorie recognized this and thus decided to gift me shoes.

Now you know why it was such a huge deal.

Truly: my grin was fully 5/8ths delight at getting new shoes and 3/8ths mocking her for daring to challenge my impossible feet, because shoeing them is sometimes is an impossible feat! Nevertheless, my friend, the Shopping (and other distinctive types of) Queen set off with me in tow (toe? Pun intended) to find shoes.

We started at the local mall – a logical choice for people with normal feet. At the mall, shoes stores abound. We checked Macy’s, Sears, Payless… where else? There were several stores, and it was all a blur: one store after another, each selection stopping at size 10. We moved on.

T.J.Maxx, Ross, Lane Bryant just for fun. Admittedly, Lane Bryant had attractive shoes in my size, but because of the crossed toe, I cannot wear a deep cut shoe. There has to be a generous amount of toe covering for me to be able to wear it. We moved on.

Do you get now, why I keep my shoes forever?

We went home unsuccessful. Marjorie was undaunted – she is the Shopping Queen, after all. I… was along for the adventure. Could my feet defeat and unseat the Queen?

The next day – Sunday, we set out again, as early as possible. By 11:00AM we were at Bon Ton, no luck. Although there were cute shoes there, none fit the bill. On to the Outlet mall, 5 towns and a 1 hour drive away. There we would visit Easy Spirit – the one Marjorie was banking on, Naturalizer – the one I had high hopes for, Bass-Weejuns, Eddie Bauer and more. No luck on Marjorie’s horse or mine, and I noticed…

I noticed the fa├žade cracking. Marjorie was no longer looking optimistic, or even hopeful. I, on the other hand, started gloating. Not that I wanted Marjorie to fail – if she did, I’d be shoeless, but because my feet trumped the indomitable will of my friend, the Queen. I was not happy about her being flummoxed, I was just so amused that I am truly THAT hard to fit!

Uniform World saved the day. Just for fun, we went and looked. They had Sketchers that had the generous foot covering, the crossing straps over the foot, they were white, they were my size. They accommodated my orthotic insoles (another painful aspect of shoe shopping I had previously forgotten to tell you about). They were… PERFECT! It was simply amazing that, after 2 days of nearly constant shopping, my feet were ‘beat’ – literally and figuratively.

Marjorie won, and I’m so glad she did. We giggled about finding kicky shoes at such a functional store while we munched pizza at the mall’s food court. We deserved a reward for all of that searching, right? I have new shoes to wear in China, and I will take good care of them so that they will last as long as their predecessors. Who knows if I’m going to be able to find shoes in my size in China, and obviously, ordering online is out: I wouldn’t be able to try them on. The act of trying on is a must for feet as difficult as mine.

But the most important reason I’m so glad she won is that, when I’m feeling sad, missing my friends, wondering if I’ve made the biggest mistake ever… I can just walk a mile in my friend’s shoes and be comforted and cheered by the memory of spending this time with her.

Marjorie, thank you for your most wonderful and comfortable gift.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Quest for Shoes - Part 1

To every friend I have visited during this jaunt I have given a gift, usually something that they had given me over the years. Mind you, I’m not so churlish that I would actually return a gift; I gave it back to them more in the spirit of safekeeping. Should I return, they could give it back to me. Although not at all necessary, every friend felt compelled to give me a gift, usually something small or serviceable that I could use on my travels, keeping in mind that the airlines have a weight limit to comply with, and I’m not Hercules. Seeing how much weight I can carry is not the adventure I’m seeking.

Of course, I could have simply re-gifted everything I had – Liz’s gift to Cat, Cat’s gift to Marjorie, Marjorie’s to Mark and so on. But I feel re-gifting is tacky and I would never do such a thing. Besides that, each friend had the pleasure of savoring the memory of the original gift-giving occasion all over again, so everything worked out very well in the end.

Marjorie received jewelry from me, and she looks very good wearing it – or not wearing it. She is in fact a very attractive woman whether she wears my jewelry or not. And, she being quite literally the Queen of Charm and a most wonderful friend to boot, she fervently pondered what to gift me in return, Ideas were suggested and rejected, or they hit that grey mark of “Yeah, OK… maybe. Let’s see what else we come up with.” I was in on the decision-making process, and even my suggestions were… not summarily dismissed, but not quite suited to the magnitude of the gift she wished to make to me. That’s the type of friend Marjorie is.

She settled on buying me a new pair of shoes. Before you scoff, I have to explain what a gift that is. I have very big feet: size 11 if the shoe is cut big. Also, I require a wide width, as my right foot is unnaturally splayed out. If you do not believe how difficult it is to find footwear in this size, please feel free to amble through the large sized shoes at your favorite footwear venue.

As though these two qualifiers were not challenge enough, my left pinky toe does not make contact with the ground. Instead it crosses over the next toe, to the effect that, if I walk bare-footed on the beach I leave a 4-toed left foot print rather than a normal, 5-toed one.

There are benefits to this, the main one being that I am forever absolved of suspicion in all crimes involving barefooted, standard-toed suspects. The downside to it: I have a miserable time shopping for shoes. Sure, I could have had corrective surgery to fix my pesky toe problem, but along with the other problems my feet give me, I figured “Why Bother?” Considering the depressing results of shopping for shoes, maybe I should have had the surgery.

I concede that finding an attractive shoe that makes my foot look dainty and small in my size is about akin to melting a glacier with a hand-held blowtorch, so I have given up on finding attractive shoes and I generally settle for serviceable men’s shoes. I can get away with wearing the lunkier, less feminine shoes when I wear jeans or when I was working, but… I am female! I like looking feminine! I like wearing fun outfits and I NEED the shoes to go with the outfits! NOTE: I’m a pretty normal fit clothes-wise, it is just shoe-wise that I am… difficult.

But still, you wonder: shoes? What kind of gift is that? I mean, really: its not like one must travel on horseback for days or sit astride a mule through the Wild Country fending off snakes and savages in order to buy shoes! You do not have to go ‘back-alley’ and exact a heavy barter for a pair of shoes. To my knowledge, there are no ‘Shoe Sharks’, to whom if you don’t pay the price they will systematically break first your loved ones’ appendages and then yours until they get their money! There are literally – to paraphrase …… Shoes, Shoes everywhere and not a pair that fit.

Do I have your interest? I hope so, because I will have to finish this story in the next post. This post is quite long enough, and – just maybe – you have fallen out of your chair in paroxysms of laughter that you need to recover from so that you can appreciate the magnitude of this shoe shopping adventure.

So I will let you rest now, and recover. By the time you have sufficiently recovered, I will have set the rest of this narrative to type and will have made it available to you.

Rest well!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

On Second Thought...

I thought it was going to be so easy - fun, even: skip around America, visit friends and family, spend time just because I had all the time in the world to spend. And, in theory, it does sound wonderful, doesn't it?
You see, here's what used to happen after a visit to Cali, or hanging out with a distant friend, or taking a solo vacation: I'd go back home. I'd have my solitude, my tranquility, my old but comfortable and well maintained furniture to sit on, my familiar bed to sleep in. While out carousing, I would make mental notes to remember this event or that episode so I can be sure to share it with Ron, George, Mike and all the guys at work. Heck, my limber fingers would even type the narration out to Liz or Cat or other friends on my email list.
Somehow, while planning this vagabond adventure, I forgot that I'm painfully introverted. Sure, its great to lap up all the hugs from my sweet grandson, and have deep, philosophical conversations with my son... as long as I get to go back home and find my comfort zone, my quiet time.
I am the type of person who really needs a lot of quiet time: no noise, no conversation, no company. As a matter of fact, I am so painfully introverted that, when I had a 5-day a week job, the first of my days off was spent in utter silence, reading, cleaning up the house and doing laundry - that sort of thing. I didn't necessarily get on the computer, certainly didn't chat, and sometimes, even the phone went ignored (I usually just left it in the car).
By the time that day was over with, I was ready for a little noise and action. On the second of my days off, I would go out for a meal, do a little shopping, maybe just go for a walk or run errands.
Now, on day 10 of my vagabond life, I am craving downtime. Even during that first week with the family and my grandson glued to my side, I would wake up at odd hours in the night and wonder if I hadn't made a huge mistake.
I miss my space. I miss my things. I miss my quiet time. I miss my life. I don't miss my job necessarily, but I do miss the caring and thoughtful souls that work there, and I miss the measure of order and structure that a schedule gave me. Is this just transitory, or am I conditioned to a regimented life?
As a vagabond, what does one look forward to? If every day is free and you are obligated to nothing, what do you pursue?
Now, I am pursuing quiet time. Seven days with the family, followed by five days and counting with friends - sleeping in spaces that are unfamiliar, waking up at odd hours and trying to figure out where I'm at today. Trying to be bright, entertaining, 'on' every minute is exhausting for me!
I am so ready for some downtime.
The irony is, once I get to China, I will not have the opportunity to visit with my friends - at least not face to face; they will be too far away. So, I had better enjoy the visiting while visiting is possible. Also, thought crosses my mind that I will have a space to call my own once I get there. I will have a routine again, and I will be able to establish my life as I am used to it: some loud, brash fun, some good conversation, long stretches of quiet. I'm actually looking forward to that.
This makes me wonder: do I qualify as a vagabond?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Viva Las Vegas... or not?

Shortly before leaving for Cali, I had gotten a phone call from an old high school friend. This is no mean feat, because I actually went to high school in Berlin Germany! Only one of my friends from high school and I are still in touch; she and I have been lifelong friends and she lives in Pennsylvania. FYI: I will be visiting with her, next. And now, there's Eva!
So, when Eva said she had just moved to Vegas, I fairly jumped at the chance to go see her. Vegas is only 5 hours by car from where the kids live in SoCal, and my son happens to love going to Vegas anyway, so when I pitched the idea to him he was eager for the road trip.
He arranged his work schedule so that he got off at 2:00pm, and swapped cars with his buddy - his car is too unreliable. I packed an overnight bag for me and my grandson, and soon enough we were on the road. I drove because my son was exhausted.
The only event of note on the way was the burning bus. By the time we encountered it, night had fallen, and I didn't know what was burning a quarter-mile ahead, I just knew it was straddling the highway and it was burning. All of the cars ahead of me shut of their lights and engine; I did the same. My son soon woke up and joined me on the side of the road.
You know, its funny how a seeminly deserted highway can fill up! Soon enough there were miles of cars and several people contemplating the nature of the disaster they were privileged to witness, and how long they would be stranded. I contemplated the stars. The lack of light pollution lent me a rare opportunity to see clearly and I was awed by the Milky Way, the Big Dipper and other constellations. In my rush to get to Vegas, I nearly forgot to take time out to look at the stars. Don't we all forget to look up as we rush here and there?
Soon enough the highway was cleared and we started the engines. As we passed the burning bus, we hoped that no one was hurt, and that whoever was on the bus wouldn't be stranded forever on this desolate road.
My excitement grew as I saw the lights of Vegas in the distance! I had never been there, and so many people love it, rave about it, swear it must be a destination for everyone at some time in their life. My time had come.
As I eased the car into traffic on the strip, I looked around with eyes wide with wonder. This was Vegas! This was The Strip! This was the vacation destination of millions of people worldwide!
Vegas has a pound and beat that is almost audible. It has an energy that draws you in in spite of yourself. One cannot be a casual observer in Vegas; one way or another you become a part of the city, if only for a short while.
Strangely enough, Vegas reminded me of Beijing. The same pulsing energy, the same throngs of people everywhere, the same drawing-in and the same feeling of inexplicable awe - this feeling of being a part of being something huge. As I drove the strip for the first time, my eyes were everywhere, but my thoughts were in China, where I had experienced this vital, moving energy once before.
Yet it seemed to me, Vegas has a whisper of sadness running through it. It is not just a tourist town, it is a place where people live their life, usually earning in a year less than some spend hoping to hit the big one. It is a place where dreams come true, but also where, more often, you hear those dreams shattering magnificently or whimpering a quiet death. It is mecca for gamblers and those who wish to break into show business. It is Endgame for performers who have already experienced the peak of their career but are not done entertaining: Cher, Barry Manilow and others.
By daylight, Vegas is a dirty city. Not because people don't ever clean it, but because it is an oasis in the desert. The pavement gets so hot it buckles under the weight of the busses, the pedestrian marks disappear under the bubbling asphalt, the gum (or other ejected body fluids) drying is grayish lumps on the sidewalks and gutters. There is a quiet desperation in the unfinished construction, in the casinos that sell beer 24 hours a day, in the people that partake of that beer and of the casino activities. By daylight, it is too hot to walk in Vegas, so most people don't see this part. But at night... Oh, the blessed night! Under the blanket of now invisible stars, how Vegas glitters, promises and witholds, drawing in again and again those whose imagined fortunes await!
Even though looking up or ahead is the prime directive in Vegas (besides spend, spend, spend, that is), one should look down at the curbs, to see the homeless and the dejected sitting there, their dreams gone, their survival questionable, their existence not to be denied.
Yes, there is a sadness in Vegas.
However, the reunion with my friend was joyous, loud, and all too short. Eva, when will we have this chance again?
On the way back my son and I looked for the charred carcass of our burning bus. It had already been removed.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

My nephew has always been an achingly beautiful child: wide-spaced, almond shaped hazel eyes that appear to have seen centuries of trials and pain, elfin features, dark complexion... just a beautiful child. Of all of my nieces and nephews, he alone stole my heart so completely while, of all times, brushing our teeth together.
Matthew, I believe, is autistic - lower spectrum, granted, but still: Asperger's is Asperger's, and he had every symptom. The elfin features, spatulate hands, lack of eye contact, no enjoyment or comfort in, or desire for physical contact, monotone voice, virtually no emotional expression, needing a certain order in his surroundings, picky eater.
He has never been formally diagnosed. His parents did not believe in 'special needs' children and treated him like they did their other children. He learned to live in his chaotic household and adapt to mainstream education. More than that, he has thrived and has a strong desire to succeed in life, something no one has given him credit for in his entire life. Matt is now 20, and only looking for someone to give him a chance to start his life.
Enter the Aunt who has cherished him for his entire life. The Aunt who is leaving the country and leaving everyone behind. The Aunt who, once upon a time, just needed someone to give her a chance and when someone did, she ran with it and carved out a sweet life for herself and her children. You know: me!
With just one week left in the DFW area, Matt told me he simply could not stand life as he knew it anymore. For him to make such a confidence is enormous (remember Asperger's); the pain of such a life must have outweighed his natural reticence to acknowledge feelings. I had to help.
I had promised to gift him my car upon leaving the country, but for various reasons not all mine, I had arranged to sell my car instead. That meant that I owed Matt a car, and now I had no car to give him. During one exceedingly fun weekend we spent together two weeks before my scheduled departure date, we talked about the car deal, and I told him that I always keep my promises, so I would buy him a car.
And then came that desperate late night phone call during which I suggested that, instead of buying him a car, I would give him the money I would have spent to buy him a car to start life on his own, away from everyone who perturbed him or caused him pain. Thus comforted, we agreed to go to sleep with the promise that we would see each other in the morning for breakfast.
While driving to the restaurant we were to meet at, The Idea struck me like a thunderbolt! My son had been in a similar place just 2 years ago, and a change of scenery made all of the difference in his life. Maybe the same would hold true for Matt?
I started working the phone. First I called my son, explained Matt's situation and asked him to help get Matt successfully launched in California. Darrell agreed with virtually no hesitation.
Then I called my daughter, who also lives in Cali. As she and her husband were driving through Texas to take me to back with them, would they mind another passenger? Again I briefly explained the situation and she not only agreed to transport him to Cali, but open her home to him as well.
By the time I arrived at the restaurant, everything was in place for Matt to start fresh: I would provide money and my kids would provide encouragement, guidance and support. All Matt had to do was agree to the plan.
Which he did, crying tears of gratitude. With a rare display of emotion, he threw his arms around me and thanked me for giving him this chance. He then asked for his cousins' phone numbers so he could thank them as well.
On Friday morning - one day before the appointed departure date, he showed up at my house to help me finish packing and cleaning. His material possessions consisted of two packed suitcases and one bicycle. He set to helping me get everything done - that task was more daunting than I originally thought, and that will be the subject of the next blog! In short, Matt made a firm commitment to walk away from everything known and familiar, and take a chance on a promise in a far away place.
Who does that sound like? Can anyone say 'Kindered Spirit'?
We arrived in Cali after 24 hours of driving - my son in law and I tag-teamed straight through, stopping only for gas and to eat hastily made sandwiches while the gas was pumping. I actually joked that we were probably the only family in America that picnicked around gas pumps!
All of us were still kinda worn and crinkly from the long ride the next day, but my daughter and I set out to get Matt registered at the same temp agency my son started with when he arrived in Cali 2 years ago. He had called them to introduce Matt to them, and we wanted to take advantage of that introduction as soon as possible.
Matt landed a job that very first day! Right now, his second full day in California, he is at work.
Oh, you should see my Matthew! He is radiant! Luminous! He was so ready for this chance, and he has taken it and run with it... and nowlook at him go! He has pledged that, once he gets established, he must find a worthy candidate and do the same for that person. Of course, he acknowledges that 'worthy' will be difficult to find. Matthew is not a stupid boy.
The Chinese have a word for this give-and-take type of story: it is called guanxi (pronounced g'wan-she. It means roughly the give and take of positive deeds and intentions for future benefit of others.
I built guanxi when Matt's father gave me a chance to start my life over all those years ago, Darrell used guanxi to help Matt land his job less than 24 hours after arriving at his new home, and Matt will use guanxi to help a deserving person, once he is established in his new life.
Those Chinese: they have the important aspects of life figured out, don't they?