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Charmed

It has been a while since I’ve been as charmed by a book or story as much as I was reading Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow.

One of the most charming, delightful, moving, and enjoyable books I have read in years! Highly recommended.

It has been a while since I’ve been as charmed by a book or story as much as I was reading Amor TowlesA Gentleman in Moscow.

I’m not one to write a review for Amazon or Goodreads after I finish reading a book. Reader comments normally irritate me, as they tend to be nothing more than synopses of the story [I prefer reading the book’s jacket or back cover for those], or a complaint filed against Amazon for missing a scheduled delivery.

When it’s time for me to leave a review, I find so many readers have done so before me, that any word I should pen would be lost in the mix. Yet, every time I reach the last page of a book, my Kindle insists I add my views for the book, only so that it can display a hundred similar options and titles to purchase that would excite, or disappoint, in similar fashion.

Yesterday, I found myself breaking with habit. I wrote a simple and straight forward review for a book that left a lasting impression. After spending the last week cooped at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow with Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov learning about his thirty year house arrest inside one of Russia’s most notable hotels, I had an unfamiliar urge to share with someone the pleasures of reading a book. After giving the book a 5-star rating [something I seldom do], I dispatched a text message to a fellow reader: My friend: get this book, go to your room, shut the door, and enjoy. You’re welcome!

At first, one would think a 400 page story devoted to a life lived inside a hotel would not make for interesting reading, but once acquainted with Count Rostov and the cast of characters that inhabit the famed inn, one can’t help but fall in-love with a person of impeccable manners and keen sense of observation.

When the Count is found guilty of being an aristocrat and man of leisure by a Bolshevik tribunal, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, the grand hotel that sits across the street from the Kremlin. Count Rostov is forced to live in an attic room in the hotel while the tumultuous decades in Russian history unfold outside the hotel’s doors. And while this may seem like the beginning of a long, drawl Russian tragedy, under the expert pen of Amor Towles, it becomes a witty, funny, joyful romp across Moscow’s (and Russian) history instead.

Count Rostov is a charming a character as one can hope to find in literature. Dickens would have been proud to have known him. Mr. Towles breathes life into his main character, giving him ample wit to confer on a stranger, incident to move about, and history to cover. There is so much life taking place inside the walls of the Metropol that given the chance I would have enjoyed thirty more years with Count Rostov and the staff of the hotel.

Joining the Count in his adventures is Emil, the Metropol’s chef, a gruff but amiable man known for wielding a knife in order to make a point. I fell in-love with Anna Urbanova, the famous movie and stage actress, known to drop a dress to the sound of whoosh! I’d have a drink any day with Andrey, the Metropol’s maître d’hôtel with fingers so long and skilled, he could have been a concert pianist. And I will not soon forget Nina and Sofia, who give the Count plenty of reason to live and explore the hidden secrets of the Metropol.

The real hero in the story, however, is the narrator of the novel. With a keen eye for detail and language to charm even the most demanding members of the Politburo, the narrator’s commentary and sharp observations breathe life not just to Count Rostov’s character, but to everything that falls within sight of the Count.

On the virtues of choosing the right wine:

The Rioja? Now there was a wine that would clash with the stew as Achilles clashed with Hector. It would slay the dish with a blow to the head and drag it behind its chariot until it tested the fortitude of every man in Troy. Besides, it plainly cost three times what the young man could afford.

On the fine features of Anna Oblomov, the film and stage actress:

As the willow studied the Count, he noted that the arches over her eyebrows were very much like the marcato notation in music— that accent which instructs one to play a phrase a little more loudly. This, no doubt, accounted for the willow’s preference for issuing commands and the resulting huskiness of her voice.

On first impressions:

After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we’ve just met for a minute in the lobby of a hotel? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Botticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration— and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.

On coffee:

[H]e figured a cup of coffee would hit the spot. For what is more versatile? As at home in tin as it is in Limoges, coffee can energize the industrious at dawn, calm the reflective at noon, or raise the spirits of the beleaguered in the middle of the night. …
But when the Count opened the small wooden drawer of the grinder, the world and all it contained were transformed by that envy of the alchemists— the aroma of freshly ground coffee. In that instant, darkness was separated from light, the waters from the lands, and the heavens from the earth. The trees bore fruit and the woods rustled with the movement of birds and beasts and all manner of creeping things.

On unrequited love:

Mishka would pine for Katerina the rest of his life! Never again would he walk Nevsky Prospekt, however they chose to rename it, without feeling an unbearable sense of loss. And that is just how it should be. That sense of loss is exactly what we must anticipate, prepare for, and cherish to the last of our days; for it is only our heartbreak that finally refutes all that is ephemeral in love.

On the proper use of an ellipsis…

Ever since the Bishop had been promoted, he had taken to adding an ellipsis at the end of every question. But what was one to infer from it . . . ? That this particular punctuation mark should be fended off . . . ? That an interrogative sentence should never end . . . ? That even though he is asking a question, he has no need of an answer because he has already formed an opinion . . . ?

On the written word:

Now, in all of Russia, there was no greater admirer of the written word than Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov. In his time, he had seen a couplet of Pushkin’s sway a hesitant heart. He had watched as a single passage from Dostoevsky roused one man to action and another to indifference— in the very same hour. He certainly viewed it as providential that when Socrates held forth in the agora and Jesus on the Mount, someone in the audience had the presence of mind to set their words down for posterity.

On parenting:

For it is the role of the parent to express his concerns and then take three steps back. Not one, mind you, not two, but three. Or maybe four. (But by no means five.) Yes, a parent should share his hesitations and then take three or four steps back, so that the child can make a decision by herself— even when that decision may lead to disappointment.

There is so much to like in this novel: the well realized characters, the friendships forged and lost under challenging circumstances, the discovery of love in the unlikeliest of places, the humor found even when under duress. To write or say anything else about the book or the story would mean cheating the reader of finding out for themselves the many charms and surprises that abound in the novel. Mr. Towles’ story is rich in detail, events, and surprises. The book works like a Russian Matryoshka doll where one nested surprise leads to another, and where a carful reader who keeps track of all the pieces Mr. Towles juggles is richly rewarded in a heartbreaking, but perfect, ending.

Nostrovia!

A limpkin

Imagine my surprise when my reading reverie was interrupted by an unfamiliar squawk that made me loose my place on the page and look up as a brown bird of unusual size, beak, and coloring flew across my line of vision.

On weekends, I like to sit out in the backyard and take my morning tea as I read the day’s appointed chapters on Taoist and Buddhist dharma. This is my quiet time, communing with nature, reflecting on how to be one with Tao, witnessing as morning stretches towards noon.

The backyard meets a community lake where ducks, geese, and migrating birds perch on trees and fences looking for the day’s meal. In between chapters and reading pauses, I’ve noted ibis, vultures, and parrots flying about, as well as local crows and seagulls cruising overhead looking for discarded ducks that did not make it across the street in time to avoid a speeding car.

I’m not a bird watcher, nor am I a fan of walking around a nature preserve counting or admiring birds. I have friends who venture on hikes in Shark Valley and botanical gardens in search of feathered migrants who happen to winter in our state before flying back north, or south to a different hemisphere. Apparently, because of shifting weather changes and disappearing landscapes, these birds often find themselves stranded in unfamiliar territory, or disappear altogether when they cannot find a suitable habitat they can thrive in. My bird-watching friends are always encouraging me to report unfamiliar specimens in order to alert local wildlife authorities about migration pattern divergences. I’m usually deterred from snitching on feathered migrants since I always fail to take an incriminating mugshot of the perpetrator, and because I don’t know the difference between a duck or a hawk, or what makes a raven different from a crow.

Imagine my surprise, then, when my reading reverie was interrupted by an unfamiliar squawk that made me loose my place on the page and look up as a brown bird of unusual size, beak, and coloring flew across my line of vision and disappeared behind a tall palm frond. I frowned. This bothered me because I don’t normally frown at a bird, unless one happens to be using my car for target practice.

The bird’s features did not register as one of the local birds I normally see when I’m sitting in the yard. A vulture it was not, I knew that for certain, as I’ve noted their wingspan, dark coloring, and fondness for gliding in the wind without a single flap of their wings. The bird was too big to be a crow, and crows tend to gather about in businesses — usually making me wonder what sort of shady deals they are peddling. Nor was it a seagull, as seagulls will make a nuisance of themselves the moment they suspect a morsel of anything is laying about. Besides, the mysterious visitor had a distinct squawk not usually associated with Latino cultures. I was at loss to make heads or tails about it. But, out of sight meant out of mind, and so I returned to my book, my feathers unruffled — so to speak.

When the tea grew cold, and the last page of the day’s reading was read, I was once again surprised to hear the loud, unfamiliar squawk. Now, instead of flying about, the mystery bird stood at the lake’s shore, and I was finally able to get a better look. A swamphen? The last remaining dodo?

I grabbed my phone, walked slowly toward the lake, and snapped a photo of the bird. Satisfied with my shot, I promptly texted the image to my bird-watching Friend!!!

Me: New guy in the hood. A Pokémon, perhaps?

Friend: Oh my goodness!!! I think that’s a limpkin!!! I don’t even have a picture of a limpkin yet!!!

Me: You’re welcome?

Friend: LOL, Good for you!!!

Me: It’s quite loud, I’m afraid. And not a pleasant squawk either. But interesting looking.

Friend: I’m going to have to visit your neighborhood soon!!! So the only brown ibis there are, are called glossy ibis!!! They are a dark brown and look shiny…hence the name “glossy ibis”!!! This is the larger “cousin” called a limpkin!!! They are not all that common!!!

Me: Huh! Well, she’s making a ruckus out on the lake today and not too many friends. You’d think she just arrived from college for Spring Break.

Friend: It just so happens the picture in my birding app shows it making a ruckus!!!

Me: Perhaps it’s on its way down to Cancun, or Daytona where the parties are. I knew you’d figure it out. Thanks!

Friend: Definitely a limpkin!!! Thank you for sharing your discoveries with me!!!

Me: Well, you know: if you see something, say something…you never know with these migrating birds. Perhaps it’s from Russia. I think they’re all spy drones anyway.

Friend: You may be right!!! LOL!!!

Scratching paper

I call it scratching paper because that is what it feels like to me most of the time. It is a form of physical meditation where the object of concentration is the tip of the pen as it moves across the page.

I’m falling in love: with writing.

Not so much the writing that comes from pounding on a keyboard to see my words appear on a computer screen, nor writing stories or posts for this blog. Rather, I’m falling in love with the act of writing: of putting down pen to paper and writing the way I was taught to write before I ever picked up a mouse or learned how to use a computer.

I have been practicing this act of spilling ink onto a page to reveal thoughts and words that cross my mind for 50 days. Although I can’t claim that it is a habit I perform every day, like brushing my teeth, it is something I hope becomes a daily habit that I can cultivate and maintain for 500, or 5,000 more days.

The writing is nothing but transcripts of the anxiety and worries I feel when I get up in the morning. Some would call them Morning Pages. Others would call it journaling. I call it scratching paper because that is what it feels like to me most of the time. It is a form of physical meditation where the object of concentration is the tip of the pen as it moves across the page.

Normally, I wake up, take my cup of coffee, groom myself, and sit in quiet meditation for 15 or 21 minutes. Then, I sit at my desk, perform a small ritual of lighting a candle, diffusing essential oils, and invoking whatever kind spirits happen to be about. Then I write for another 15 to 20 minutes, or until I feel there is nothing more to say — at least for the moment. This in turn becomes an intimate moment with myself that doesn’t seem to solve much, but gives me a chance to unburden what wells up in my chest during the day and that I need to express on to something, or someone, so that I don’t feel so overcome by my emotions.

This writing practice began when I took up Christina Baldwin’s Life’s Companion. The book is a guide to keeping a journal and the pleasures that come from exploring personal landscapes that occupy our mind and spirit. The chapters in the book direct me through the rigors, comforts, and pleasures of writing and keeping a journal. I have not been much impressed with some of the early chapters in the book. For the most part, her advice has been on topics I’ve been aware of since I started writing years ago, and some that I remember from her more popular book One to One: Self-Understanding Through Journal Writing.

I like to read a chapter from Life’s Companion on Sundays and highlight passages and exercises that seem interesting or relevant to me. This will keep the book on my bedside table through the end June, or until I decide I’d like to speed up the reading process in order to get to another book on my reading list.

This week’s chapter was devoted to the dark night of the soul. The entire read was a meditation on what to do and how to write during moments of despair. The chapter’s exercises and journal samples are elegant exercises one can use to reflect in difficult times, and I think that I will be coming back and read this chapter again to distill the insights and wisdom I found in Baldwin’s sentences.

Ms. Baldwin asserts that despair, or a dark night of the soul, while a “confusing, painful experience; it is also an ordinary, to-be expected part of the spiritual journey” (pg. 91). It is not, she continues on page 93, “until we admit our despair, or until someone/something helps us name it, we are in free fall.” But, she also counsels: “These are exactly the times when a half hour of journal writing, first thing in the morning, or last thing at night, may be the greatest gift we can give ourselves. Words reorganize experience” (pg. 95).

I did a lot of highlighting of the chapter — too much to transcribe or add to this entry. The point is, I found comfort in Baldwin’s advice and encouragement to keep on writing in order to move past emotions and feelings that may otherwise disrupt a perfectly sunny day.

Regardless of what happens when I write, or what I write about, the point is to write. To keep the pen moving. To make it to the end of the line, and begin at the start of the following one. When I do so, at some point, I feel myself free falling onto the page and losing myself in the rhythm of the pen scratching paper. Writing then becomes a sensual experience that I am unable to replicate with a keyboard and computer. On the page, there is room for errors. With a pen, there is no Esc or Delete key to strike when I’ve made a mistake. On paper, I don’t feel the need to add commas or punctuation. The point is to write and only to write. And in doing so, recover and restore a part of my soul I once considered lost.

A social timeout

The idea is to occupy Facebook with art and break up the political posts that don’t contribute to a positive conversation or understanding of the issues. This is NOT meant to ignore what is going on, but to give your eyes and mind a “break” from all the negative commentaries that are being shared.

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Flower Seller. Diego Rivera, 1941

Now we have Facebook and Twitter to expand each others’ rancor with copy and paste and link and forward so millions of commiserates can simultaneously bitch and expand on our rants. Perhaps we should pull the plug on this internet thing as a nobel idea gone bad, like New Coke. Did the inventors not know a world wide web is more likely to spread woes than facts?

—from: “Urspo has a complaint,” by Urspo in Spo-Reflections

Over at Spo-Reflections, Urspo begins his eleventh year blogging complaining about the negative downturn social media has taken. There was a time, he reminds us, when Twitter and Facebook were platforms we “used to read about cousin’s birthdays and bad weather in Michigan, or see zany photos” about ordinary things we encountered on trips to faraway places. Now, however, “the posts are full of tirades resembling an orchestra of scorched cats,” he wryly observes. And with good reason.

For the last few months, ever since — let’s say — November, social media has turned ugly and nasty. Gone are the photos of dreamscapes or family reunions. Noticeably absent are dogs surfing on a California beach, or quotes about the virtues of the Internet attributed to Abraham Lincoln. Instead, we have, as Urspo observes, an endless stream of “complaining about complaining.”

So what’s to be done? How can anyone wired to their social media accounts hit the pause button on the stream of rancor and ire that seem to ooze from almost every post?

A friend suggests doing the following on his most recent Facebook post:

The idea is to occupy Facebook with art and break up the political posts that don’t contribute to a positive conversation or understanding of the issues. This is NOT meant to ignore what is going on, but to give your eyes and mind a “break” from all the negative commentaries that are being shared. If you LIKE, or otherwise comment on this post, you will be given an artist to look up. Then you have to post a piece of art by that artist on your page, along with these instructions so your friends can do the same.

Unable to resist a modern day pyramid scheme, I enthusiastically LIKE-d my friend’s post, and was duly assigned Mexican artist Diego Rivera, a personal favorite. I love Rivera’s earth-tone color palettes and his honest interpretation of Mexican life and folklore. I also saw it fitting to display art from a country that’s been much maligned by the recent powers that (shouldn’t) be.

I chose Rivera’s Flower Seller because it is one of my favorite pieces of art. The image is that of a woman holding an impossible bouquet of calla lilies; it is also one of Diego Rivera’s most famous and well known pieces, painted in 1941.

Already, a few of my friends have taken the bait and LIKE-d the Facebook post, so I’ve assigned to them the job of posting artworks by Paul Signac, Camille Pissarro, Mary Cassatt, Odilon Redon, and Henri Rousseau.

It’s my hope to see more art on Facebook and Twitter than political or global discord. I’m not blind to what is taking place in our country or the world. On the contrary. Now more than ever, I feel we must be vigilant and make sure our liberties are not taken away and voices are free to say what needs to be said. It’s just that sometimes what needs to be said could be firmly and confidently stated with a fine piece of art.

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Hope spring’s eternal

Maybe, it’s not that nature is out of synch. Maybe nature is so attuned to us, it gifts us its finest to remind us of what we’re missing, and what is important.

It feels like spring in our backyard, although yesterday it was predicted that winter would remain in place for another six weeks. It’s hard to predict anything these days. The world seems so topsy-turvy that one can’t easily rely on what is factual or alternate reality any longer. It’s like we have all donned a collective set of virutal reality goggles, and we are walking around in a landscape that seems oddly familiar but that has been significantly altered.

I’ve been reading Daoist philosophy lately. This Eastern practice is ancient, dating back to a time when elders and shamans provided insight and wisdom acquired by observing the cycles and rhythms of nature. The lesson of Daoism is to know oneself by understanding the flow of Tao in nature. Man is a microscom of the land around him, and to cultivate peace means to be attuned to the land and the seasons.

Nature seems to be out of synch in our backyard, what with blooming orchirds in winter and a lake that thirsts for rain that modern shamans predict yet doesn’t arrive. I like to sit in the yard in the afternoon to witness evening unfold. Here is where I take my goggles off and forget about facts and non-facts. Here the grass is real. So is the dirt under my bare feet. The lake’s water feels cold. In the distace, crows call out to each other, relaying messages I can’t decipher.

The orchids keep blooming in winter, yearning for and pointing to spring. An afternoon breeze dims the light of the setting sun, and on such breeze a shaman delivers his message. Maybe, it’s not that nature is out of synch. Maybe nature is so attuned to us, it gifts us its finest to remind us of what we’re missing, and what is important.

Crossed

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Last year, I hooked-up with a digital subscription to The Gray Lady as she hustled herself to keep abreast of the election that got away from her — and most of us. At the time, she offered her services at half her regular rate, and I thought it a fair fee for her graces. Part of the subscription benefits included a month-long admission to her playground free of charge: an archive of current and post-dated puzzles that exercise brain cells that were left reeling from trying to make sense of national and world events. After the free month, I could opt out of the playground privileges or pay an additional monthly fee to continue playing.

I have never been good at playing games. More often than not, when I play Monopoly or other such board games, I willingly and early on in the game give my money over to the bank after a few rounds around the board, refuse to get out of jail (friends say I tend to back myself in a corner anyway), and enjoy the rest of the evening watching others achieve real estate magnate status four or five hours later.

I have never been good at playing crossword puzzles either. I find them daunting, obscure, and difficult to complete, especially the Sunday puzzles folk immerse themselves in for hours when the early Sunday edition is published and that arrives late on Saturday evenings. There was a time when I attempted to fill in the puzzles that came on the last page of New York Magazine. At the time, EX-Man 2 was a fan of completing Maura Jacobson’s mind-benders. When the weekly issue of the magazine arrived in the mail on Monday, he got me to help him figure out the clues that yielded words that revealed a larger theme hidden in the empty squares. I don’t remember ever completing a puzzle on my own, but he and I spent the remainder of the week looking up answers in crossword puzzle dictionaries, thesauruses, and almanacs. The Internet was not as ubiquitous then as it is now, and Google was not so readily available as to provide the answers to esoteric questions La Jacobson posed to us at each turn.

The first few times I tried to answer the Gray Lady’s riddles I felt at a loss, inadequate, or like I was playing chess with the Sphinx. In the app’s archive there remain a number of puzzles that are left unfinished because, try as I might, I can’t figure out the words, answers, or what, exactly, the clue is asking for. Once, on a Monday, I did finish a puzzle, but not without looking for words online or cheating by looking up the clue’s reference on Wikipedia. Puzzles published later in the week are far beyond me, and they leave me feeling like my vocabulary is lacking.

One day, by chance, my thumb brushed the icon for the Mini puzzle in the Gray Lady’s iPhone app and before me appeared what seemed to be the upper corner portion of a larger crossword puzzle. I pinched the screen several times trying to zoom out to see the larger riddle, but I discovered that the Minis are bite size puzzles one can finish in a matter of minutes, or seconds, depending on one’s verbal dexterity. The words are no longer than five boxes usually, and many of the clues reference recent current events or popular culture icons.

fullsizerenderHaving plenty to do that would solve half of the world’s problems, I decided to put it all aside and I tried working on a puzzle that I solved in about 5 minutes. When I tapped the final later to fill in the remaining empty square, I was rewarded with a congratulatory message and short jingle that validated my victory, and released a substantial dose of dopamine that made me feel extraordinarily good at having neglected the world’s problems. Of course, I thought, this was an easy puzzle. There is no way that I could repeat such feat of daring and wisdom again. But as the following day dawned, the world’s problems increased, and a decline in the previous day’s dopamine became apparent, I decided to test fate again and play the day’s Mini puzzle. Four minutes later, the previous’s day’s message appeared on the screen again and the very same jingle played, confirming, once again, that I had cheated Death at its own game, the Sphinx recoiled to her cave, defeated, once again, and I welcomed the day’s dopamine rush. I went about ignoring the world’s problems once again, sure that nothing could be so bad while under the influence of the neurotransmitter’s pleasures.

I have since then developed a daily crossword Mini practice — or obsession, some would claim. Every morning, after coffee (gotta be alert), meditation (gotta be calm), and Tai Chi (gotta get the Qi circulating), I indulge in the day’s crossword Mini, and have averaged completing the puzzles in less than 2 minutes. There have been embarrassing days, however, when the Sphinx is far cleverer than I and bested my best efforts. But in the process of accumulating laurels of victory, I have amassed a number of words and clue answers that seem to repeat themselves across different puzzles in myriad of ways. Erie, for example, is common when answering clues about a lake in the New York region, or one of the Great Lakes. Yoko, or Ono, are usually reserved for artist who broke up the Beatles, or not really an artist. The largest land mass is Asia. Iraq and Iran are usually trick questions best left unresolved until one figures out the correct consonant when answering the clue that completes the Ira-part of the word. Obama keeps coming up at least twice a month in puzzles, perhaps as way for the Gray Lady to remember happier, or easier to manage days. And I was happy to find the appearance of a certain villain hailing from a galaxy far, far away in a puzzle I recently completed. Love that dopamine rush!

I have yet to graduate and attempt a full crossword game, the likes of which most serious crossword puzzlers relish and attempt solving. I’ve begun several of the easy Monday games, but leave them incomplete and unfinished, not happy with the results or how long the dopamine release is withheld from me. I don’t know the answers to enough clues or many of the Sphinx’s references yet, but as my vocabulary grows and improves, and I develop skills to read through the less obvious clues, I think that maybe one day I’ll be able to put those skills to the test and enjoy the feeling of satisfaction avid players feel at besting the puzzle’s writer.

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My gap year

I wanted to meet people the old-fashioned way: face to face, analog, over a drink and a conversation. I wanted to talk instead of text. I wanted to be able to have meaningful conversations with folk who didn’t feel the need to be wired, connected, or looking at their phone every 5 minutes in fear of missing out on a post or a dopamine hit from a Like they received on their Facebook wall.

With a flick of his wrist, Victor pointed the magic wand at the black box sitting under the television, he uttered the magic words, “Main menu,” and as if by some strange hoodoo, the television screen filled with icons and logos of cable entertainment providers.

“Well that’s two hours I’ll never get back,” Victor spat. “I’m glad we can scratch that off our list. So, my dear, that’s Apple TV for you.”

I looked away from the television screen and deep into the half-eaten tub of microwave popcorn I was cradling on my lap, peering into it as if a kernel of hidden truth waited to be found in one of the popped pieces of corn.

“I’m thinking…” I started to say.

“No! I forbid you to think!” cried Victor, almost spilling the remainder of his Pinot Grigio into the bowl. “Do not say whatever you’re about to say. I forbid you from speaking until morning, at the very least.”

“Why?” I interjected.

“Every time we watch a Julia Roberts movie, you get to thinking, and then go on to make some God awful decision. I forbid you to say whatever you were about to say.”

“Name one bad decision I’ve made after watching a Julia Roberts movie!” I objected.

“Name the movie,” Victor challenged.

Pretty Woman.”

“The German hustler at Gay Pride in Miami Beach and the subsequent round of antibiotics the week after.”

Ocean’s Eleven.”

“The blackjack player at the Hard Rock Casino and the three hour interrogation with Security that ensued.”

Ocean’s Twelve.”

“The South-American man on Bingo Night at the Miccosukee Casino and the close encounter afterwards by the crocodile pit.”

“Fine! August: Osage County.”

“Sunday Brunch with your mother and the Republican nut-job contingency afterwards.”

“I already apologized for that.”

“Do not, I implore you, continue any further. Stop right there. Finish your Pinot and go home. And refrain from thinking until morning.”

“One more. Steel Magnolias!”

“Mississippi, for God’s sake!” he hissed. “Or have you forgotten? We should have rolled up our windows, locked the doors, and not stopped at the Stuckey’s! I can’t bear to walk past a salad bar without remembering. I still wake up screaming!”

Victor was right. I tend to make unwise decisions after watching a movie starring Julia Roberts. But this time I felt different. This time I knew I was on to something.

“I think you should hear me out. This time it makes sense given the circumstances.”

Victor leaned into to me, put his hand on my shoulder and whispered slowly, with an air that seemed threatening, “It may seem like that to you at the moment. But, trust me, it’s not. You’re under the spell of a vixen, a siren, a sylph who has you captive under her spell. Yes, the elephant was pretty. Sure, Italian men are gorgeous. Pasta does not make you fat! And under the right conditions even Javier Bardem may seem, well…attractive. But in the morning things will be clear once again. You’ll snap out of whatever Ryan Murphy fueled horror scenario you’re suffering from and come to realize, ‘What a waste!’”

“But,” I began to say. I wasn’t ready to let this go. “But Ketut!”

“NO! Ketchup is not real! He’s not a thing. There is no Yoda! There is no Ketchup—”

“Ketut!”

“Whatever! Ketchup! Yoda! Ketut! I don’t care what the little man is called. He’s not real. It’s not real. It’s a movie! Fake! Finito! You’ll get more wisdom out of a fortune cookie than a strange, sarong wrapped, little man. Drink your wine and be happy!”

Victor was upset. I was upset. I looked down at my popcorn and flicked it inside the bowl hoping to find the perfectly popped kernel: the one with a fluffy top I could bite from the crispy popped bottom so I could feel it melt in my mouth. But Julia nagged me. Ketut beckoned. And the elephant at the end of the segment about India had me by the balls. I had to proceed, carefully, around Victor’s objections. I had to make a case and make him see I knew what I was talking about — even if I wasn’t all that clear what I wanted. I had to convince him, as well as myself, that this time things would be different.

“Vic,” I said. “This time I know what I’m doing. This is not a fantasy —“

Mirror, Mirror! And we both know how well that did at the box office. No!”

“This is not a fantasy I’m making up. I think I should try this. You don’t have to come along if you don’t want to. But I want to do what is right. And I think Liz had the right idea. I want…”

Victor threw himself on the couch and buried his head into several wine-spilled stained cushions.

“I don’t want to hear it. Please. Stop.”

“Victor,” I said solemnly. “I’m not going to date anyone for a year.”
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I went

I went to Miami’s Women’s Rally because now I know I’m not alone. I went because now I’m not afraid. I went because now I know there are others like me. And went because I won’t be silenced, and I will not rest until we ensure that we are all free, protected, and safe.

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I went.

Or rather, we went.

Women went. Men went. Gays and lesbians went. Muslims went. Latinos went. African-Americans went. Hindus went. So many people went. Pink T-shirts everywhere. Pussy hats all around. People everywhere. Parents. Children. Mothers. Fathers. Sisters. Friends. We went and we showed up because this matters. This is important.

We who care about women’s right, civil rights, LGBTQ rights, climate change, protecting the environment went.

It was inspiriting and moving to the see so many people went too.

We went because we are the majority: the loud majority. We are not, and will not be silent. We went so we could tell and shared our stories.

Maybe ours wasn’t the biggest rally or march in the country. Maybe ours wasn’t the loudest — which is rare for Hispanics — but we went nonetheless. We showed up. We joined the hundreds of thousands around the country, around the world who went and raised their voices and their fists.

And here’s the thing: no one fought. No one argued. No one got hurt or said a hateful word. We went because we wanted to show, to prove, that we care, that we love, and that we can get along. All of us.

I went to prove that human decency, tolerance, and equality can be a reality and coexist. We went because we were there for friends and people we know who are afraid. We went because all lives matters. I went because this matters. I went because I wanted to be in the thick of it, with the rest of them, surrounded by others — many — who believe.

I went to Miami’s Women’s Rally because now I know I’m not alone. I went because now I’m not afraid. I went because now I know there are others like me. And I went because I won’t be silenced, and I will not rest until we ensure that we are all free, protected, and safe.

I went because I love my country.

Click on any photo to see them in a slideshow.

Power animals

INTERIOR: A Wilton Manors gay bar. SCENE: Victor and Walter stand in a corner admiring the crowd.

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INTERIOR: A Wilton Manors gay bar.

SCENE: VICTOR and WALTER stand in a corner admiring the crowd. WALTER holds a beer he’s been nursing for two hours. VICTOR winces every time he sips from a glass of red wine. They both look confused and perplexed.

VICTOR
Okay, then. Explain this to me. If he’s a bear. And that one’s an otter. The one over there you say pretends he’s a puppy. And the beautiful man over there is a wolf. Then what the hell are you? And what the fuck am I?

WALTER
I’m a platypus.

VICTOR
A platypus? Why the fuck would you choose a platypus?

WALTER
Because I’m a otter who didn’t give a fuck, screwed a duck and a beaver, got the best parts of each, and I don’t care what others think about the way I look.

VICTOR
Fair enough. So that make me a what, then?

WALTER
You? You are Ferdinand the Bull! You look tough and burly on the outside.
But inside, you are noble and kind, and I couldn’t have a better friend.

VICTOR’S lip quivers for a moment. They hug and hold each other for a moment. A young otter walks over to where they stand.

OTTER
Hey, guys. You’re so cute together. You make such a nice couple.
Are you looking to hook, or are you up for a threesome?

WALTER (releasing VICTOR)
You can have this one. I’m going to the bathroom. I’ll wait for you outside.
Be nice to him. He doesn’t know about Ferdinand’s dark side.

WALTER moves away, as VICTOR’s tirade begins.

FADE TO BLACK

Leaf and be happy

Who’s to say what ifrit or shadow had decided to bewitch or lead me down a dark path. Nature’s sylphs had seen fit to break the spell and reroute me on a more pleasant path.

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Leaf and be happy.

Normally, when something is bothering me, it shows in my face first. Most people get or feel tense. Others fidget and get antsy, needing to move or fret to diffuse nervous tension. Others reach for a pint of ice cream or chatter nervously to the person closest to them. My anxiety concentrates on my face, tightening my lips, frowning my brow, curling the corner of my nose upward in a gesture many confuse for disgust, but which when adequately translated means: “Give me a moment. I need some space to figure this out.”

It must have been some moment, or I may have needed more elbow room than I’m normally allowed, because nature saw it fit to intervene and interrupt whatever settled on my mind to make me look as if I needed more than a block’s worth of space.

Out of nowhere, this guy dropped from a nearby tree, landing right across my path, breaking the troubling reverie that had taken over. I couldn’t help but pause and take a second look to be sure I had seen correctly. There, between the cracks: a smile.

“No, you fool!” my brain cried exasperated. “It’s a leaf! Leaves don’t smile. You’re having a moment of paraidolia. That inexplicable human need to find and see patterns in inert objects. It’s the same thing that happens every time you look at a potato and think you can eat it because it was smiling at you. Or when you meditate and start seeing faces all over the wood floor. Snap out of it!”

And snap out of it I did. I grabbed my phone, snapped a photo of the leaf, and continued on my way.

I wasn’t frowning any longer. The corners of my nose dropped back in place. I added a lighter step to my walk, and I found myself humming the theme song of a certain 1960’s sitcom that worms itself into my brain whenever I feel silly.

Who’s to say what ifrit or shadow had decided to bewitch or lead me down a dark path. Nature’s sylphs had seen fit to break the spell and reroute me on a more pleasant journey.

The Practice of Contemplative Photography.

Portrait mode

The analog life is still very much alive — and thriving.

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Orchids. Miami, FL

And then you look up and realize that beauty is all around you.

Boys will be boys. Geeks will be geeks. And this boy is all about the geek when it comes to digital gadgets.

Last year, when Apple announced its new iteration of its handheld device, I flipped at the chance to upgrade to a new gadget, replacing my two year old iPhone 6. The new iPhone 7 Plus was a significant upgrade from my previous phone. Once it arrived, I spent a few days tinkering and toying with all the doodads, features, and screen interactions I was not used to having.

A few weeks later, Apple released a tweak to iOS for iPhone 7 Plus users: a depth of field setting called Portrait that allows one to take a photo while automatically blurring the background to create a portrait effect. It’s a neat feature to have and use, especially when it’s done simply and elegantly. There is no need to import a photo to a different app, or send it to Photoshop or Pixelmator to make the adjustments. iOS’s camera software looks at what’s on the screen and says, “Here, let me do this for you.”

I’m happy with this photo I took in my mother’s garden of the orchids that keep blooming and thriving in spite of her neglect. The orchids grow on what used to be a tree that succumbed to my father’s abusive gardening techniques.

I am glad for the opportunity to look up from my iPhone to appreciate beauty in nature. To me, the orchids are a constant reminder that not everything worth looking for is found on a digital Wall, feed, or by sifting through a Google search.

The analog life is still very much alive — and thriving.

Let’s talk. Again.

What I would like, instead, is to create a nook, a space, where one, two, or a few people gather with a cup of pipping hot tea or freshly brewed coffee and sit to exchange thoughts, ideas, and stories about what is important to them and what they found to be amazing about their day.

Over in Bloom County, Opus and friends continue to enjoy a renaissance of sorts, poking fun and making sense of the terrible year that was 2016, and began lampooning whatever 2017 will decide to be.

I have been following the Bloom County crew since their re-launch, and have giggled, guffawed, spit-out my coffee, and cried over their episodes ever since. The cartoon strip harks back to the 80s, a time not unlike our own when the world didn’t quite make sense, and where daily headlines could best be explained by characters acting out in the funnies the inexplicable situations the news reported every evening.

For my part, I decided to take a long break from journaling, blogging, and posting to Inquietudes in order to focus on matters of importance that required a focused and diligent effort on my part to complete.

2016 was a difficult year I was happy to see come to an end. There were dragons to battle and slay. There were long stretches of boredom and solitude where nothing, I mean nothing, happened. There yet remain dragons that survive and are in need of taming or slaying. And then there was a brief moment of unexpected joy and promise that sadly did not last.

All the while, in the back of my mind, Inquietudes waited and remained a possibility to come back to. I missed the public part of writing: posting and receiving comments from kind, thoughtful readers who urged me on my scribblings. I didn’t miss the tedious moments of writing: of looking for the right turns of phrase to mean exactly what I wanted, sorting through daily events and deciding what to focus and write on, or searching for a surprising image that would not only illustrate what I was writing about but that would also make someone’s hair (or toes) curl, or incite panic in them should they be reading my posts at work.

I would like to create a nook, a space, where two, three, or a few folk gather with a cup of pipping hot tea or freshly brewed coffee and sit to exchange thoughts, ideas, and stories about what is important to them and what they found to be amazing about their day.

In any case, Inquietudes loomed in my mind, and as 2016 began to take a toll on lives that mattered and made a difference to me, I decided that it was time to come back and enjoy a sort of renaissance of my own. I wanted to return to blogging (again), but on my terms and my rules.

I do not want to post or write everyday, and I certainly don’t think that with all I have to do and work on this year, that I can manage to squeeze a sentence or two for the site every day. I do want to write and create something that is relevant to me because I feel the world needs something (though I’m not sure what that is exactly) that points to events that need clarification or be called on. I know I don’t want to remain silent or stand idly by hoping (against the odds) that things will improve and get better (when I feel they won’t; at least not for — the next four years? So, now you know where I stand).

So, taking note from the lovely, Ms. Diane Rehme, formerly of NPR’s The Diane Rehme Show, I decided to come back and start writing and posting again at least once a week. Ms Rehme’s daily show on NPR was a sane, tempered conversation that I will miss in an age where tempered and balance discourse is sorely, sorely needed. After her retirement, Diane promised to continue the conversation on her terms by publishing a weekly podcast I eagerly anticipate. Along the same lines, Mr. Breathed, creator of Bloom County, revived the comic strip that got me through my teen and college years on his terms, by publishing his stories on Facebook when he felt he had something to share with his readers. The last 350 published strips have been a joy to read and remain true to the spirit of the original cartoon with an updated sensibility to headlines and stories we are living in the new century.

I want for Inquietudes to be something similar to Diane’s upcoming podcast and Mr. Breathe’s work. I want to hark back to the days when blogging was exciting and new, intimate and immediate, personal and friendly. I don’t care for making headlines, stirring the pot, or posting 140 plus characters — or whatever the count is up to these days — that incite angry banter or denigrates one person or people for whatever misgivings they may be choosing to spread on any particular day.

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Rather, I want Inquietudes to be like Bloom County‘s Boy Dancer troop! I want to create a nook, a space, where two, three, or a few folk gather with a cup of pipping hot tea or freshly brewed coffee and sit to exchange thoughts, ideas, and stories about what is important to them and what they found to be amazing about their day [more on this later]. I want Inquietudes to be that place that feels comfortable and safe to hang out until the tea’s been consumed, or another pot of coffee is called for. And, yes, there will be red wine, Pinot, served as well with wry observations and commentary, served snark-free, thank you very much.

So I’m dusting off the keyboard and taking the covers off the furniture. I’m flipping the sofa cushions and clearing off the table from clutter. I’m pulling up ottomans and fluffing cushions. I’m turning off the cell phone and turning on the ambient music. I’m lighting a few candles, opening up windows (it’s Florida, after all), and brewing a fresh pot of coffee and warming up water for tea. Sit on the sofa or pull up a chair.

Let’s talk. Again.