Friday, August 4, 2017

S.A.M- Grief Issues

My dad died, quite suddenly, in 2009.  

He was a bit of a hoarder. Not a hoarder as in a room full of pizza boxes kind of hoarder, but he had a hard time throwing things away. His father once discovered a shoe box full of every Hong Kong commuter tram ticket he’d ever received. He road the tram daily.

He was an avid cook and many ease-inspiring gadgets crossed his threshold. Anyone remember the cubed hard boiled egg maker?How about the metal plate that was designed to defrost food faster without a danger of spoilage or hazardous microwaves. As seen on TV!

We spent an evening on summer holiday, stopwatch in hand, witnessing two chicken breasts thaw. One on a dinner plate and one on this magic disk. He swore it was faster until my next time to visit when the disk was stashed. My inquiry was met with a look that said it was bullshit.

In his safe (another story for another time) was a box containing his old wallets dating back to the 70s. Given that he used things until their ultimate demise, this meant there about 7 wallets total. But they were still filled. Old business cards, cash, Elder beerman credit cards, photos, film processing receipts.

He was an award winning photographer. He had hundreds of cameras and associated gear.

He would read all he could about photography and gear, too. Or he tried to. He worked long hours. He'd often come home in time to catch the 11pm news, finish his reheated dinner and recline on the couch with a photography magazine in hand. He was asleep in minutes, the magazine splayed open on his lap.

Growing up, our basement filled by the month, with issues of photography magazines. He installed shelves for them all. Someday, maybe there'd be time to get through them.

My mom, nesting and awaiting the delivery of my brother, intervened. Throwing them away while my dad was away at a meeting. Neither one to yell much, when he came home you could hear them through two floors late at night. It was as if she'd gambled away one of his kidneys and lost.

After he died, my mom never canceled the subscriptions. She'd let them collect for a while and then move them on. After she passed, we did the things they tell you to do. Call social security, call the lawyer, forward the mail and cancel subscriptions.

I swear we cancelled all the magazine subscriptions. But, the photography mags kept coming. The expiry date on the mailing label was September 2017. Why would anyone have a decade long subscription?  My guess is that he feared missing out so much and so renewed whenever they sent him a renewal notice. Back then that seemed to happen quarterly.
I was miffed at first. It was a monthly painful reminder of a loss. They came and it hurt. I thought about calling to cancel them again, but I stopped myself. Why not let them come?  

And so they have. For nearly 4 years they came to me in the US. These last few years, they've followed me all over the globe. I take them along on trips and leave them when I'm done. I've sprinkled them all over the Middle East and the South Pacific.

Dutifully, I leaf through each one. I read about all the photo tech. I read about editing and lighting. Sometimes, I even doze off with a magazine in my lap. I must say I think my photography has improved immensely.

He was always trying to teach us. About lots of things, but often about taking pictures.  Why a certain picture was good and another great. Maybe that's why the magazines kept coming. Maybe there was more to teach?

Next month, 8 years later, the last issue will arrive.  And that has been the measure of my grief.  Issue by issue, page by page, shot by shot,  The subscriptions will expire. I haven't received a renewal request from any of them.  That’s how I know it must be time.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Travel Serendipity

This is how travel serendipity happens and it doesn't happen quite often enough, but just enough to keep you moving.

You meet a former guide who asks to meet you later for drinks at the Petra Kitchen. You have no idea where that is, but you wait unit you're hungry enough to go out looking for it.

Walking after dark, you spy a small sign for “Petra Kitchen”, but the place looks kind of closed. You open the door and ask about a table. The host tells you that there is a cooking class going on tonight and they're closed.

A couple is sitting in the center of the restaurant.  They are the only two people in the place. They shout out, “We've just cooked enough food for eight people and there's just the two of us. Why don't you join us? “

The perplexed waiter agrees and pulls up chairs and place settings. Bowls and cups appear and food is passed.

And that is how you meet Marc from the U.K., (who spells his name with a ‘c’ in my mind, because he's in advertising and I feel that he must spell it that way) and his Spanish bride Maribelle. They both live in Dubai. They tell us about the dishes they've cooked and how everything was prepared.

And we had a wonderful home cooked Bedouin meal, and a great conversation about corruption and government and the Ministry of Happiness, and what a job that would be.

Though we'll likely never see these people again, we feel better for dining with them.

And all for pushing on a closed door. We never did meet our guide.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Dangling In Our Own Waters

We were trying to avoid dangling in our own waters.

Son of S.A.M. and I, both of average height, stood tippy-toed at a urinal in Amman.  Staring forward at broken tile on the wall. My laconic son remarked. “If you were an alien, and you dropped into Amman to use the restroom before heading out into public, you'd think all Jordanians are 7 feet tall.”

I giggled.  Then I got a Charlie horse in my right calf, so I shifted. Then I got one in my left calf. I shifted. From behind I'm sure we looked like a pair of leaking metronomes.

Jordanian men aren't extraordinarily tall. Maybe shorter than average, he was right. Urinal placement is typically inordinately high. I was wondering why my calves were looking so good. I'm not sure why it is.  

Like many places we've been the building codes lack any sort of codifying. Even before a cataloging, there was the builder's code “Measure twice, cut once”.  Here, I don't even think it's “measure once, cut once,. More like “throw it up on the wall and see if it sticks, maybe it'll settle”

And until they settle, calves of steel, baby, calves of steel.

Friday, November 11, 2016

S.A.M. -The World Needs Crazy

Since the election, locals we meet ask early in any conversation, “So, Trump?...”  

There’s an implied, “WTH?” and maybe a search for something. A wariness, perhaps, that we’ll spout off on Muslims or whatever.  Mostly we shrug sheepishly and agree that he’s our leader and ask if we can still get something to eat?

“Of course. You are our guests.  You are most welcome here.”  And then things carry on as they did last week. The food is still good.  The prices haven’t changed.  

The Marine Corp Ball was last night.  They hold a ball at Embassies around the world each year in early November to celebrate the founding of the Marine Corp 241 years ago.  

It’s a formal affair with lots of ball dresses, pomp and ceremony.  Flags are paraded. Speeches are made.  Cake is cut and given ceremoniously to the oldest and youngest Marine present.  And because the Marines were founded in a bar, there is lots of alcohol involved. Then dancing.

Mrs. S.A.M likes to go. We play dress up.  She buys a dress, gets her nails done and does up her her hair with a can of hairspray and 3 dozen bobby pins.  I put on my Dad’s old tux.

After the Ball, close to midnight, we caught a cab home.  The exchange started much the same.

“Ah, you’re from America!?”


“Welcome to Jordan!”

“Thanks.  We like it here.” A brief pause. Reedy Arabicmusic poured out of the radio.





“Trump!”  He gave a thumbs up.  “Trump!  Trump!”  Each time a little louder.  “Trump, he’s crazy!”  The car doors locked.  “It’s okay!  Trump, he’s crazy!. But the world needs crazy!”

“You think that’s a good a idea?”

“Yes. Maybe he’ll finish the job.  Nothing is working so far. People are dying out there.  Syrians.  Iraqis. So many people dead.  Hopefully, crazy will help.”

“For their sake, I hope so.  For all our sakes, really.”

We spent the rest of the ride practicing our arabic numbers in this, now hi-speed, mobile preschool.  Our own kind of crazy.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Sketchy Street Spa

We're still without access to a car. Legally, anyway. So, some of the further flung places in Jordan aren't quite accessible to us.  It's fine.  It allows us to explore,our immediate surroundings a little more.

This weekend we headed down to the souk area of downtown. Even though it was the Muslim Sabbath, many shops opened up after 1 pm.

We grabbed lunch at Hashem’s, one of the oldest dining establishments in the area. The King and Queen eat here from time to time. It's really just a hole in the wall, an alley with some awnings. The food was very good.  Like many of the places here, the menu is limited. Falafel, some salads, some bread and some tea or cokes to drink. They had the  best baba ganoush we have had here, which makes it the best ever.  The falafel was a little dry.  All in all, it was a feast for around ten dollars. We left full. Service was brusk, but efficient. Definitely an eat it ‘n beat it kind of place.

Afterwards, we wandered the souks. Rabbit warrens of commerce. Perfumeries where you can mix your own knock off scent. Clothing vendors, both traditional and modern. Trinkets. DVDs. A whole street full of tailors.  A whole street of denim. Fruit and spice sellers. You name it, you can probably find it. Well, except kosher salt. That is proving difficult to source.

We had time, so we ambled. And toward the end of our day, Mrs. S.A.M. was lagging in some trinket shop. I ambled by a barber with some men sitting out front.  

Now, before I continue, do you know who Michael Palin is? He's a former Monty Python member. But, I've been watching is travelogues on the BBC for a while. You can more here. He's travelled much of the world by train or van and donkey or whatever.  He always seems to find interesting local people. He gets worked over roughly in a bath house. Unconventional acupuncture treatments. He finds the barbers that give him a nice shave and a haircut and it still costs two bits.

Walking past this barber, I kinda had a Michael Palin fantasy moment.

“Welcome! Please, come sit” said a barber.

“Oh, no thank you!”

“It's okay!” He took me by the hand and led me to a mirror.  He gestured to my forehead.  “We’ll just clean you!”  

I double checked the mirror. I showered that morning, but maybe I missed a spot. A giggling Michael Palin was looking back at me. Another man took my other arm and they plopped me into a barber chair by the window. “How long will this take? I'm meeting someone soon.”

“Only a few minutes!”  And they pulled off my glasses.  Now, I'm am quite nearly blind without corrective lenses so what follows is largely from smells and sounds and impressions of light.

One thing I did feel was Mrs. S.A.M.’s aghast look at me through the window as she caught up to me.

“What the hell are you doing!?”

“We’re cleaning!”  cried the barbers, “Please, come! Sit! Wait!  You want cleaning?”  

And just like that she was in the chair next to me. Some mentholated ointment was being smeared across my face. A steam wand contraption was rolled over and fired up. It started breathing hot moist air on me.  Because the floors weren't level the machine kept rotating and the hot metal arm drifted precariously close to my eyes. I would lean away, maybe seeking listeria-free air. The barber would grab my jaws and turn me back into the vapor.

My barber breathed through his mouth and he smelled like 4:30 in the desert. He rubbed off the first ointment with a cloth and then rubbed on a second batch of something.

Next chair over, Mrs. S.A.M. is having her face threaded. Methodically ripping out any follicle, visible or not. This finished and she had mentholated ointment smeared on.

My guy is unwinding a cord to a small white power drill, the bit of which is a disk of linguini-like fingers about an inch long. He power buffs the second batch of ointment into my face. “Don't open your eyes” he says as he presses the linguini gun into my sockets and then down the side of my nose. Thwapa-thwapa-thwapa...

I know only about 10 words of Arabic and “do we need a clean linguini pad for her?” isn't among them. But, I think that's what my guy asked.  I do know the word for “no”. And that was the response.  He passed off the power drill and Mrs. S.A.M. had her face buffed.

My face was dried and another box brought out and plugged in. I perceived a clear plastic spoon emitting sparks. He proceeded to glide it over my face. It clicked and tingled a bit.  

“What's this?”


I lurched a little. “Don't we need, like, safety goggles?”  


I closed my eyes.

A Dead Sea mud mask was next. Or that's what he called it. It could very well have been dust from the gutter mixed with water.  Who knows?  Didn't smell bad.  

Then my lower face was lathered up with shave creme.  I did hear and see a package of cheap disposable razors get opened. The shaving began. Michael Palin is rolling on the floor. I'm getting nicked up. A styptic block staunches the flow of blood

Another man walks into the barber shop which is only about 6x9 feet.  He proceeds to wash his feet, one at a time, in the shallow sink between the two chairs. He walks out.

Her face freshly pasta’d, The Mrs. has her face lasered and then suction cupped with a tiny cup.  Cleaning out pores perhaps?  Who knows? Then she got a Dead Sea mask.

My shave complete, my barber stood me up and I sidled over, slightly to the sink. I bent over and tried to rinse off my face. “I'll do it” he said, mouth breathing all the while. He shoved my face deeper into the foot bath and we rinsed. He pressed my nose back into, my skull. He pressed his fingers into my eye sockets. Again with the eye sockets!

Drying off, he asked, “you want hair cut? It'll take five minutes.”

I've been worked over, buffed, electrocuted and salon-humiliated in front of this store front window. Of course, I want the haircut!  Bring it on!  Let's ride this train!

45 minutes after the whole ordeal began,we are finished. The haircut is passable. It's the moment of financial reckoning.  I was hoping for the ultimate travelogue score. A deep discount. It wasn't.

60 bucks and a trip to the atm, and we’re free.  

Was it worth it?  You tell me.  

Here's before:

And here's after:

Monday, October 3, 2016

Swedish Meatballs in the Promised Land

This likely won’t be the first time you hear this from me. I know I won’t solve anything. I know I won’t say much that hasn’t already been said many times over thousands of years.
I won’t even understand the depth of the problem in the Middle East. I’ll just dip my toe into the ignoramus wading pool.

This weekend we went to visit Mt. Nebo which in Arabic translates loosely to the place of the prophets.

After leaving Egypt, Moses and his flock are wandering around the desert.  He’s got his main orator and older brother, Aaron with him.  

When they get close to present day Petra, God comes to Moses in a dream and tells him that it’s time for Aaron to die. Aaron is 120 years old already.  It’s time.  Moses, himself, is 118 or 119.  God says, the two of them have to get to the top of this particular mountain before it can happen.  

So, Moses, does as he’s told. He and Aaron and a nephew climb to the top of this mountain.  They take in the view, find a nice cave.  Aaron lies down for a nap and kicks it. You, dear reader, can go there now to Jabel Arun, where there is  monument.  We hope to go there one day.

Moses comes back down and they start wandering again. They make their way north for about for a year and 350 kms. They come to the Madaba area and they take a rest.  It’s arid and people are starting to get thirsty.  Moses asks God for some help and God tells him to strike the ground with his stick.  He does, and water spews forth.

There is still a spring there.  Under a big, old eucalyptus tree. We’d need a car to get down there, so we’ll save that for next time.

The flock spends some time there and God comes around again and tells Moses to Climb to the top of Mt. Nebo.  Moses is now 120 years old and he know which way the wind is blowing, but he trudges to the top of the mountain 817 meters high.

Once he got to the top, God tells him to look out to the East and promises his people all the land that he can see. But, sadly Moses won’t be able to go there.  He has to stay behind.  It’s time.  And, so, shortly thereafter he died and was buried somewhere there on that mountain. Moses’ assistant, Joshua takes up the reins and leads his people into the promised land.  

Prophets have been traipsing around here without maps or GPS for centuries after. Elijah, Jeramiah, John, the Baptist, Jesus.  Often their stories have them scaling some high place and looking down on Jerusalem, known as the gate to heaven.

600 years after Moses, the Prophet Mohammed has his revelations and has started his branch of religion.  He’s on his own spiritual journey and winds his way up from Arabia. He, too, finds a spring and he, too, climbs a mountain and looks down into Jerusalem and wants to go there.

It’s on the Temple Mount that Mohammed goes to visit heaven for a few days. He has some high level consultations with John, the Baptist, Moses, Elijah, Jesus and Yahweh itself. Apparently, it was Moses who urged Mohammed to go back to God and renegotiate the number of times people need to pray per day down from 50 to a, more manageable, 5 times a day.

Mohammed comes back down to earth at the Temple in Jerusalem and decides this would be a good place for a mosque. Thus, a conflict was born. I don’t have any knowledge about why this promised land was given to Mohammed, or if Moses had any input during their high level talks.

Back in the 21st century we took our tour bus to the top of Mt. Nebo. There’s a basilica there that they
uncovered in 1933 and have been restoring for a while. It reopens later this month. There are some wonderfully preserved stone mosaic flooring that are promised.

We walked around and toured the small museum and at the highest point we looked down into the promised land.  Amman, Jericho and Jerusalem before us.  

I wondered about the promise of of such an arid looking land. It's rocky. It's water poor. And, there's a giant life sapping salt sea. But, after 40 years of trudgery, I’d probably cherish it if someone told me it was mine. But, really, it doesn’t look like it’s worth fighting so hard over. I mean crusades and terrorism. Battles fought near and far, over the aged beliefs of all these enlightened and special people.

The following day, in the search of some household goods, we headed to IKEA very near the Madaba area.  It’s set up like every other IKEA, snaking you around the myriad of ways you can decorate your space cleanly and inexpensively.

We stopped mid-way for some lunch at the cafeteria. It was a bustling time to eat. There were a couple of other Americans there. We heard some Spanish speakers. Mainly, thought, there were Jordanians. Some in shorts, some in ripped blue jeans,  Many of the women in burkas or very conservatively covered.

It struck me there in the cafeteria line. If you strip away all the dogma and the dress codes, I wonder if we’d all be happier with functional, inexpensive furniture, lighting solutions and some Swedish meatballs with lignonberry jam.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Digs Coherence

Our new digs are in a fairly upscale part of town.  Lumped in with hundreds of other 4 story sand colored buildings.  It turns out that the King decreed that housing be of three varieties.  Faced on all sides with limestone, faced on one side with limestone and painted beige or painted all beige.  

It’s capacious, if rather oddly laid out. There’s definitely a public space and a private space inside

It is not as large as our last place. We’re upstairs and we don’t have a yard. The dog, who’s not really lived in a multi level, is getting used to the steps.

As yet, it doesn’t seem like we’ll have need for the staff that we had before.  Maybe a parttime housekeeper, but no need for a driver or a gardner.  

There is a boab.  This is a guy who lives in the basement who keeps up the place.  Removes trash and washes your car.  He watches fuel levels and tells you when to order more.  It’s a different concept, but apparently you can ask him to run errands for you. So, far we’ve established that we will give him money, but beyond that, it is vague. He’s very friendly, but there is an adversarial quality to the relationship.  A man who lives in your basement with access to all vital fluids tacitly demanding cash every month. But, it’s less than we paid before and part of the culture.

As in our last life, we are near several mosques.  It’s nice to hear the call to prayer again. Except for the 5 am one.  That still takes some getting used to.  

The singers here are better. Maybe the arabic is less accented than those in Indonesia.  Maybe it’s better genetics.  Maybe the dusk adds a certain husky quality. Maybe they bought a better speaker system.  Whatever the reason, it’s more rich and sonorous.  At 5AM, you can get back to sleep pretty easily.

I’ve been reading lately about coherent breathing and meditation and how the ideal breathing rate when one is totally relaxed is 5 to 6 times per minute. I wonder, on some level, if this call to prayer is in some way supposed to mirror this. A reminder to pause and breathe out.

Click Above.  Take a moment and listen and imagine just stopping for 90 seconds 4 or 5 times a day