Saturday, November 29, 2008
Friday, November 21, 2008
After a poor night's sleep, I walk under the shade of that huge sprawling Fig Tree near the train station, moving toward a brunch with Sheryl. It's fantastic to see her, and we have a good time catching up, though it's hard to cover 14 years in a couple hours. As we talk, a group of four hippie boomers hold a small impromptu parade, smiling their stoned smiles and flashing peace signs and holding placards saying, "Impeach." My reaction was the same as when I saw Oliver Stone's latest film, "W." Why now? Where were you 4 years, no, 6 years ago? Don't let your egos fool you into thinking you still matter. They are later replaced by a real parade of camouflaged ROTC clones and old jeeps driven by aging vets. Is this Armed Forces Day? Veteran's Day? Boy, I've been away from America a long long time...
After brunch, I take a taxi up to San Marcos Pass and the White Lotus Foundation. Here I'd spend the week, studying Thai Yoga Therapy. While I developed new skills, I would be living a porous schedule, with ample time to hike, read, meditate on and around big rocks and trees, and take brisk, exhilarating swims in local watering holes. The weather favored the latter, staying up in the high 80s (F) most of the time. Night brought on the winds. The first night they were especially strong, making sleep scarce. (Poor sleep being the theme of the trip, actually.) I could hear the wind coming from the valley below, roaring up the ridge where my yurt stood. Through the glass nipple roof, I would watch a tree bough thick as a Volkswagon bob and weave only a few feet above my bed. The constant gusts sounded like a dozen bears tearing through the canvas. A few BIG gusts shook the floor like an earthquake. With these Santa Ana winds often come fires. A few days into the week, moneyed Montecito was alight. Daylight hours were marked by the near constant thump of helicopters flying over, huge monsters filling up with water at nearby Lake Cachuma, which they'd then drop onto the flames. Looking up was like being an amateur entomologist; the various aircraft an intriguing variety of insect shapes. From my mountain perch, the sky over the sea was smoky, hiding the Channel Islands entirely. Ironically, the sky up here is a flawless blue everyday. Nights are even more starting, the moon highlighting the landscape in Day for Night clarity, everything shot through a gauze filter like those old films. Every cloud, every rock is visible. Animals take advantage of this light, and when the winds finally cease, I can hear them creeping around my yurt throughout the night. I look for tracks in the morning, but the ground is too dry from lack of rain. One afternoon, while hiking on the ridge above the yurt village, I find a variety of tracks in a soft patch of sand. There are an intermingling of deer and skunk prints, plus the huge paw shape of either a bobcat or mountain lion. My sleep is even worse after finding these, though I eventually drift off to the sound of crickets singing in time to Miles Davis on my computer.
I read a lot, do plenty of yoga, and learn how to give a Thai massage. The last night, I play my shakuhachi awhile in the underground kiva (formerly a bomb shelter), and take part in a ceremony led by a Yanqi Shaman. The next day I'm off to LA. Near Ventura, there is a spot where I always seem to see dolphins. On this beautiful day, there is dolphin activity all along the southbound PCH. I get dropped off at Urth Cafe in Beverly Hills, where I reconfirm stereotypes as I wait for Gordo. I haven't seen him in 5 years, a significant period of time during which I got divorced, changed careers, moved cities, and married again. An hour-long monologue fueled by strong coffee just about covers it all. Gordo's own life jelled during this same five-year period, and he fills me in as we drive toward a setting sun whose patented beauty could only be created by this city's smog. LA drivers obviously spend loads of time in their cars, and seem so at home in them, in the way that their eyes are off the road and hands are off the wheel more than half the time. We have a surreal dinner in a fairly lowbrow Italian place, where the Chianti is bad and the waiters sing Happy Birthday. I love Gordo for taking me here, to a place so obnoxious and bustling and completely at odds with the peaceful quiet I'd had for the previous 9 days. Even after years without contact, a truly good friend will still fuck with your mind.
One last night of bad sleep in a hotel across from LAX, under the white noise of incoming planes. I hop an early flight for San Francisco, flying in an hour over what had taken many days to drive. We pass over Santa Barbara, which shows no apparent fire damage from 30,000 feet. I look at all those central coast mountains, and for the first time in years I remember the word, "Wilderness." I don't usually think of myself as separate from nature or mountains or the forest. But what is spread below me looks rough and wild, its beauty hiding perils like forest fires and big deadly cats. It's like a thick wrinkly comforter on an unmade bed. Somewhere along the way it dawns on me how much like an American I now feel, how these three long trips over eighteen months have made the place seem like home again. Mentally, I'm prepared for the impending return. (Emotionally? Who knows...) As we near SF, I look down on the water of the Bay. Lacking landmarks, I have no real perspective. I could be hundreds of feet up or merely standing at the edge of a small pond lightly tousled by wind. This lack of perspective continues until the plane's shadow appears, rising and rising until it touches our belly.
An hour later it's wheels up again, and a bigger shadow now speeds across the tarmac. My seatmate is Japanese, who demonstrates that uncanny ability to sleep anywhere, a trait seemingly shared by most Asians. Within minutes of takeoff he's out, and for the next 11 hours he does a lovely impression of an angler fish, head back, mouth open. When this entertainment grows thin, I keep busy with my books and videos, breaking away from the mono-view of seascape that begins immediately upon leaving the fatherland. We pass half a day in tracing a high arc above Alaskan islands toward the little happy land where the mono-views are in the politics...
On the turntable: Velvet Underground, "Live at End Cole Avenue"
On the nighttable; Donald Richie, "The Films of Akira Kurosawa"
Sunday, November 09, 2008
Saturday, November 08, 2008
On the way to the airport, I thought about how it is a new dawn for this country. The coming of the new Obama administration could finally morally justify a return home for me. I wondered what was going on in the heads of each African American I saw. I could imagine the incredible amount of pride they must be feeling. Yet will there truly be an improvement in racial relations in this country?
In the airport, an excited New Yorker shows me the cover of today's New York Times, telling me that the font used as the headline for the election is one he hasn't seen since the first moonwalk back in 1969. Apparently the font is used only for historic occasions. My plane takes me up out of Denver and over Boulder. Just beyond, the Rockies are getting their first heavy snow of the season. Further on in Utah, the mountains are lined up neatly in rows.
I deplane in San Jose, in an airport whose layout defies logic. I don't find any logic out on the road either, where I join the insanity that is the California Highway system. We spend 15 minutes going 80mph, then 15mph for 10 minutes, then back to 80 again. The traffic and the speed give out eventually, in an area where flannel-shirted workers bend over rows of bushes that stretch out toward the sea. Big grilled pickups and muscle cars rush past, predictably piloted by Navy men stationed nearby.
I meet with Ben, and we walk up into the hills above his house. It becomes full dark quickly, and it isn't long before we see deer coming down to graze from the hedges surrounding the massive estates up here. I spend a couple days here, walking the Monterey streets, beside white buildings red-headed with Spanish tile. It is a lovely town, with fine weather, but there isn't much life here; many shops are closed, the streets relatively empty of people. Life seems to have gone elsewhere. Ben and I follow suit, driving south to Point Lobos. We wander the forests and cliffs, going through our usually walk and talk rituals to dispel angst.
A day later I pass the same stretch of shoreline, solo this time. I follow the twisty mountain road with the views that define Big Sur. Many stretches through here are black and burned from recent fires. The charred hillsides seem indiscriminatory. More than a few sections of these, having lost their topsoil are following gravity's path, across the road and into the sea below. More than once I have to stop for quite a while in order for workers to clear the roads of the night's rockfall. I hardly mind since it's a lovely day. I get out of the car and walk to the edge of the cliffs, smelling the pines and looking at the sea hundreds of feet below.
The mountains eventually drop toward the sea, giving way to long stretches of flatland. The signs here say "Whale Watching." It isn't long before I notice the flecks of silver light that are the arching backs of dolphins. Dozens of elephant seals lay on the beach, using their flippers to flick up sand in order to keep the heat off. I overhear a ranger talking about the losses this colony suffered during recent storms. Two bulls begin to fight, but apparently the spirit isn't with them, and they both retreat to different parts of the beach. On a hillside nearby, Hearst Castle stands lonely and forlorn.
I pull into Cambria for lunch, sitting at a rail a few meters from the sea. The weather is warm and beautiful, so I sit awhile here watching the surfers exercising their patience in the low rolling swells. Other figures are on the beach, silhouetted in twos. When I lived in Santa Barbara, I used to escape up here sometimes. My favorite place was this old cemetary somewhere up in the pines, filled with the graves of the English and the Scottish who settled this part of the coast. As I drive south out of town, I look for it, but of course there are no signs. No surprise. Americans are a people in a constant battle with aging, and hate to be reminded of nuisances like death.
The Santa Ynez Valley still proves to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. I pass beneath hills and mountains I once hiked, drive around the lake where I saw my first Pow-Wow. I cut my teeth in this place. Coming over San Marcos pass I see the familar shapes of the Mesa, Isla Vista, the Channel Islands beyond. Once in town, I head up State Street, amazed at how much has changed in 14 years. There are many new chains here, the old chains too still hanging on. The local shops, the ones that gave this town so much character, are no longer here. The travel bookstore where I spent hours researching my Asian travels, where I had had a long conversation with Pico Iyer, is now a Starbucks. Earthling Bookshop, where you could choose from some of the best stock on the planet and read it in front of huge fireplace, is a neo-bleached Old Navy. My favorite cafe, Cafe Roma, is still there, though now a chain. Another of my haunts,Video Schmido, (DVD Schmeeveedee ?) is thankfully there, as are both my old places of employment. I spend most of the evening in Lost Horizon bookshop talking with my former boss Jerry. For three years I worked here, minding the store so that he could surf. He tells me he's more partial to softball these days. Enterprise Fish Co. is also still around, though both the interior and the menu have been drastically revamped. The bar area is completely different, with lots of neon and a new wall that takes in a now obsolete smoking section. Friday night is bustling, as usual, and the waitstaff is larger and much cuter than in my day. A staff photo still hangs near the men's room, reminding me of days and friends long past. After my meal I walk back to my hotel that lies below the cliffs upon which City College stands. Santa Barbara has always been a strange place, hyper-rich people living in the homes in the surrounding hills, with a ever-changing supply of college kids to serve them at their favorite shops and eateries. The people I used to hang out with 15 years ago have no doubt long ago moved on. New college kids remain a constant, displaying a fair share of fake boobs, more than I've seen in previous trips to the States. A new generation of punk skaters are keeping it real, serving as the missing link to my day, along with the usual assortment of homeless eking out a reasonably comfortable existence in these temperate climes.
On the turntable: Gomez, "How We Operate"
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
In the rapidly fading light, I head north, following the Rio Chama flowing yellow with Cottonwoods. The moon is up, a slim crescent flanked by two stars. I keep a close eye out for elk, who move through this area in great numbers. Near the Colorado border stands a low mountain, looking grassy and beautiful. I'd hoped to get here before dark in order to ogle its shape, which had so impressed me last year. I honk my horn as I leave New Mexico, most likely the next time I go back it'll be to live there. It's full dark now, so I grab a bed near the terminus for the Toltec Railroad. The motel owner asks me if I'm in town for the hunt. Next door is a combination Bar and Diner, where I sit and order. The other customers all appear to be hunters, wearing clothes of camouflage or bright orange. A local politician moves amidst the tables, but doesn't approach mine. Somewhat self-consciously, I pull out a book to read. My food arrives, and after a few bites, I begin to gag and hiccup. This happens to me about once or twice a year, if I eat too fast. By getting up and walking around, it usually goes away quickly. I walk to the toilet, and upon a large hiccup, my mouth fills with foam, which I spit into the toilet. I begin to feel better and return to my table. But it happens again, and then again. I apologize to the server, pay my check and go back to my room. The next hour is a comic scene of me sitting on the edge of the tub, reading my book, and spitting foam into the toilet. Finally, I vomit the entire contents of my stomach, tasting again the pesto I had at lunch. My body had really wanted to reject something. Previously, I'd had bizarre hallucinations or intense emotional reactions while doing intensive yogic breathing sessions, especially those related to my throat. The same may have happened here, after all the weekend's pranayama. Or maybe it was being surrounded by the hunters, taking sport in taking life. Who knows? I slept well and quickly, my body exhausted after all the spasms.
The next morning I woke early and continued on through the San Luis Valley. I was surprised to see the Rio Grande running up here. If I grabbed an inner-tube and got on the water, after a few really cold days, I'd pass near my mom's house. High snow coated peaks rose to my right, and eventually the road ran right into them. Clouds sit on these peaks like a cap. I pass old schools and crumbling homesteads. The newer ones surprise me in how remote they are. With such gorgeous views from the picture windows, who needs TV? I'm driving along at 8000 feet, with 14ers right over...there. But from this altitude they look climbable in an hour or so. Up around 10000 feet, patches of snow begin to appear, hiding themselves in the shadows of tall pines. Through the mountain communities now, along a stream running fast and cold. Cord wood is stacked in front of many homes; winter must be coming soon.
I'm in Boulder by lunchtime. My brother is working, so I walk up to the Hill, grab a sandwich at Half Fast, a coffee at Buchanans. The sky over the Flatirons is starting to striate, but much of the street traffic is wearing t-shirts or shorts. I grow tired quickly of watching the Greek posturing here, so I head over to campus and grab a spot of grass. I try to make headway with my book, but I'm too enthralled by the trees, who have already removed their tops, but have modestly retained their flowing yellow skirts.
The next day, election day, I chose to ride a bike along the foothills, dropping down onto quiet streets strewn with leaves. Autumn, which hasn't yet gotten to New Mexico yet, has nearly finished here. The look of everything is pastoral, warm and homey. I wind up on Pearl Street, where I walk and eat and read. Kurt will finish work soon, and we'll get to the business of watching the returns come in...
On the turntable: Amos Lee
On the nighttable: Dieter Dengler, "Escape from Laos"
Tuesday, November 04, 2008
I'm up in Santa Fe for about 10 days, finishing up my yoga teacher training with Tias Little. This is the first session they've held at the new studio that they built behind their house. It is a pleasant little space, in the desert outside town. There are no guest facilities out here, so we all commute into town to stay at the Sage Inn. I feel that this breaks up the feeling of peace that usually accompanies spiritual retreats, and I wish we could've stayed at Upaya Zen Center again, with its remote feel and clothing-optional sauna. Don't miss Upaya food at all, which always messes with my digestion. My stomach is funky anyway, air moves howling through my belly during lectures.
The days begin somewhat late, with meditation followed by a 3 hour yoga practice. After the first few days, I feel like someone has taken a crowbar and yanked open my stiff shoulders and closed clavicles. I have a migrane that lasts for three days, and I'm not sleeping well; could be altitude, could be grief trauma being systematically wrenched from my body.
In the afternoons, we all eat lunch in the sun. Afterward, we listen to Tias give talks in front of the moon window, clusters of birds occasionally bisecting the flawless sky behind his head. Inevitably, we'll do another hour or two of asana in the midst of it. This training is billed as "The Subtle Body," delving into psychology, spiritual states, and the parasympathetic nervous system. The most amazing thing about Tias is how he goes into areas well beyond yoga, covering things I'd learned in my vastly different training in India and Vermont. One amazing teacher.
As usual there was good company. The caretaker of the Shaker Museum in New York state. A young woman currently training at Tara Mandala in southern Colorado. An alumnus of Upaya. Plus writers, yoga teachers, body workers. On the final night, as we eat curry and drink wine around a campfire, a comet passes by, so huge and bright and flaming that I momentarily think a plane is crashing down into Santa Fe. We've been blessed.
I go down to my mom's place for a couple days, then am back in town for the weekend. Richard Rosen is doing a workshop on pranayama. I'm a big Tias fan, of course, but Richard is one of the best teachers I've ever seen, weaving history (both Indian and American), sanskrit lessons, anatomical knowledge, jokes, film references, and song lyrics into the mix. This is technically a 12 hour weekend of breathing, but we do our share of asana as well.
On Friday, Halloween, as I go over to get a slice of pizza during a dinner break, I'm held up by a passing train, packed with costumed kids and adults, the former waving, the hands of the latter too busy holding onto long-stemmed glasses. The train blasts its air-horn, filling my body with sound which resonates through my core, hollowed out by an afternoon of deep breathing. The sky above mimics my revved-up brain, first the color of brushfire, later a duller grey like a fogbank rolling in.
The next night, Gino drives up from Albuquerque. We spend far too much time trying to find REI, driving round and around a train station built for trains which don't yet exist. This town is constantly evolving, and a short walk proves that little is where it used to be. Some things hardly change at all. As Gino and I have pints and food up on the Ore House balcony, a couple guys we knew from high school turn up, suddenly and surprisingly. The talk turns to old parties and girlfriends, mixed martial arts bouts and elk hunting. Worlds are definitely colliding here, an atmospheric book end to the comet of a few nights before. Later Gino and I tear ourselves away for coffee at Borders. He's long quit his position as regional manager for the chain, thought the staff doesn't know that. We sit laughing at a staff in frenzy, rushing about to straighten shelves. They'll sweat a few days, waiting for a memo that'll never arrive.
Sunday, the last day, I do 5 hours pranayama and asana with Richard, plus another couple hours in a Tias class packed with 58 people, many of them the being this town's wealthy "painted ladies." By the time I get in the car for the drive up toward Boulder, I'm spent...
On the turntable: Death Cab for Cutie, "Narrow Stairs"
On the nighttable: Barbara Kingsolver, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle"