Friday, March 23, 2012

What a gas!

Never having been a Shi'ite (I'm not even a Baptist!), I had never hitherto enjoyed the experience of being tear-gassed - until last night, that is.  

It seems there are certain social niceties one learns when traveling - the small local customs which make life go smoothly in distant parts.  For instance when one travels to Hawaii, one might be greeted by having a lei placed around one's neck while being welcomed with a hearty "aloha".  The proper response for the tourist is to smile much more brightly than any sane creature would do, raise one's voice that quarter octave so necessary when communicating with toddlers, the elderly, the terminally ill or any native anywhere whose skin is any shade of brown and to babble incoherent phrases amongst which the word 'aloha' should appear no less than three times, while asking the lei donor if he or she will pose for a group photo with said tourst.  It is particularly kind not to force upon the native person any of the many witticisms invoking this being the being the best lei one has ever had which will have crowded one's mind.  

In Nepal, I am told, one may be welcomed with a nice dish of yak tea, a beverage my cousin Warren informs me, although one wonders exactly how he researched this particular datum, which tastes exactly like licking a yak's ass.  The proper response involves the same bright smile and the quarter octave vocal rise, but instead of witticisms about getting lei'd, the preferred thing to suppress is the overwhelming urge to vomit.  

In Bahrain and various other areas in the Middle East, a Shi'ite native may greet one with a firm "Death to America" or ditto to the government or to Obama or, indeed, to any of the many persons or entities which have caught his or her attention during the previous few days.  It is unnecessary to respond in this case at all, since normally the local government forces will make the obligatory response which is to douse the man or woman or the mob which has spoken thus in generous quantities of tear gas.  

It is an unfortunate characteristic of tear gas that it tends not to remain in the locale in which it has been released, nor does it seem to be able to distinguish between local Shi'a and the odd foreigner who might be in the vicinity.  

Khalid and I had enjoyed a leisurely meal last night at a restaurant called Nando's which is a member of a chain which I believe is based in Southern Africa and which features some mighty fine Portuguese-influenced methods of preparing chicken.   Nando's is situated on a very westernized street in a very westernized area which is lined with western chain restaurants.  Khalid tells me this is called Restaurant Street, although I personally incline to calling it "Where are we - a mall in Tampa? Street".   I am influenced here by its very non-unique charm, reminscent of any place one has ever thrown up one's hands and said, "We might as well eat here."  Khalid, being a Saudi, had eschewed any lit or legal parking spot near this restaurant in favor of parking illegally amongst a series of similar looking concrete buildings on a dimly lit side street that ran perpendicular to Restaurant (or Tampa) Street.  As we were returning to the car, a stray breeze wafted a soupรงon of something that seemed, when it hit the eyes to be some kind of smoke.  It felt like that stinging sensation one get when one sits too close to the campfire and the wind shifts in one's direction.  At least that is how it felt at first.  With every step we took, it seemed to grow in force, and at the same time my throat and lungs began to feel suspiciously like someone had poured a tablespoon or so of sulfuric acid into them.  

Apparently the local Shi'ite majority had been in the process of its weekly celebration of the coming of the Muslim version of a Sabbath, by gathering and informing the interested as to what this week's quiet reflection had led them to wish death upon.  In response to this kerfuffle, the government lavished upon them tear gas in quantities greater than one could wish.  It was into billows of this that Khalid and I were venturing.  It is remarkable how difficult it is to find a car one has carelessly parked any old place amongst a clutch of similar-looking buildings on a dark back street when one's eyes are rapidly swelling shut and one has broken into the fastest run one can manage while semi-blind and somewhat touched in the wind.  When we finally got ourselves inside the car, it was the work of but a second for Khalid to light up a Marlboro Red.  This would not have been my first move, but who am I to cavil?

Upon our return to our hotel, we were merrily chaffed by the Syrian desk man and several others who were gathered there, all of whom found much to amuse them in our tear-streaked faces.  This morning, the man on desk duty suggested I stay close to home for the day.  

So I have crossed off another item on my bucket list.  I don't think anyone who was out and about during the Sixties would want to leave this Vale of Tears without having experienced tear gas, although I can  think of one such who is more than willing to forego experiencing it twice.  

And now, on to that yak…

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Learning Curve

Oh dear; it has been a long time since I wrote anything and there really is no good reason.  I have had an uncharacteristic burst of energy and optimism since I got back from my trip to India last Fall and I have no idea why.  It seems I have finally gotten adjusted to retirement.  I disliked working so much that I just assumed I'd slide into retirement with a glad cry and a list of great things I wanted to do.  What was I thinking; do I not know myself after all these years?  

I did give the glad cry, but I found I didn't really want to do any of the things on my list.  Or anything else I could think of.  What I hadn't fully considered is that I was cutting off 95% of my human interactions.  There is almost nothing, except reading and writing, that I enjoy doing alone.  I have nearly always liked my co-workers on every job I had, and I even occasionally enjoyed the actual work.  What I hated was the element of "have to": I have to get up at six, I have to get my sleep, I have to turn down opportunities to travel or visit; I have to end vacations before I want to.  It turns out that I am hopeless at making myself do anything; these restrictions were actually what motivated me to do everything I ever did.  Like get up in the morning.  Like get something done before work on Monday, or at all.  

It is funny how we dislike what we need, or what once attracted us.  I expect that any of you who had a failed relationship know that odd circumstance that the very quirks that you found endearing and intriguing are the ones that end up driving you up the wall.  The teachers that had you trembling in September are so often the ones whom you will miss most in June.  "If only I didn't…" we cry, only to find that when it is over, the thing we bemoaned the most was the thing that kept us going.  A life which is all dessert and no main course is neither nourishing nor even sweet.  

I think that somewhere around the second anniversary of my last day of work I finally begin to figure out how to be retired.  I still can't shake the feeling that time is short, that the hard stuff (cleaning, doing taxes, weeding my garden) is "wasting" my time.  But I have found that if I start something with permission to stop when I feel like it - to avoid setting goals for the percentage of a task I will complete today or this week, or this winter, I get quite a bit done and enjoy doing it.  I can't account for it, but I have always done best in the most restricted circumstances - my Catholic college which had curfews at 7:30 p.m. in my Freshman year, Sa'udi Arabia where everyone else felt constrained and frustrated and I felt completely free and safe and life felt full of possibility.  I always have been, by nature, rebellious; what was the surprise is that I need something to rebel against.  Who knew?  

Of course the other thing I have always needed is people to talk to, to do things with, to make anything seem real.  I am totally a "people person", and not in a good way.  I truly don't feel like anything has happened until I talk about it with someone.  So another explanation for my improved state of mind may be the fact that Khalid, the Sa'udi guy I met in Bahrain last October, has been on the telephone or Skype to me almost every day.  He continues to vow that he was hopelessly smitten at first sight of me (ME!  Sad, saggy, wrinkly, pasty me!).  The more we talk, the more this seems to be true.  He says he loves to have someone he can speak with frankly.  He slowly reveals more and more of the type of thing one doesn't tell just anyone.  He has none of the usual flaws: need for money, desire for help with a visa, possessiveness, refusal to accommodate others' wishes, that tend to mar relationships with Sa'udis.  So, to make a long story short, I am off next week to Bahrain where I will be able to better test how a couple of weeks of constant companionship go.  There is nothing like a vacation with someone to reveal all the downsides.  I have a couple of dear friends with whom I never again wish to travel.  One of them is such an oppressive co-traveler that his first two wives each asked for a divorce on vacations - one in Mexico, the other in Holland.  My one long trip with this guy had me wishing there was a divorce for friends.  We are still good friends (it was years ago we traveled together) but I will never travel with him again.  

So that is my immediate future.

We are having the same winter here that has come to most of the nation.  Last Wednesday I took Papa, who was visiting for a few days, to the airport and on the way home I drove with my top down (on the car, not on my body) and wearing a T-shirt.  Next day it snowed.  

During the burst of energy I have been talking about, I completed the four-year project of painting my dining room and went from start to finish on painting my living room and wallpapering the ceiling thereof.  I am pretty chuffed with myself.  

It doesn't yet feel like Spring, despite several warm days.  I must be the only one not feeling it, though - tulips and daffodils are in bud, robins are on the lawn, redwing blackbirds have arrived at my feeder and the lovely wild goose couple that nests each year on my back pond is billing and cooing (or honking) with thoughts of eggs to come.  Spring is a funny thing; each year I will go outside one day - it may be snowing even, but I will feel like Spring has come.  And from that point on, no amount of snow or cold or wind will convince me otherwise.  

Have you noticed that one of the candidates for the GOP nomination is running against John Kennedy?  I would never try to present myself as one who is up to date on all the news, but I am pretty sure Kennedy is dead.  I could be wrong, I suppose.