Morning Light and Chairs and the Shadows of my Breath

Photography, Edinburgh, Scotland, Color

Every morning, I wake up at 5:50 AM to meditate. The light is different every day, and I am learning to recognize the patterns played by the the rising sun. A month ago, the sun was rising an hour earlier, and it seemed like it never actually set. Recently, the sun has been rising later, and sometimes filters through the clouds differently. When there are no clouds, and it hits the objects in our living room, it can sometimes create magical patterns on the walls, as happened with these chairs.

Portobello Blues and The Dharma Bums

Color, Edinburgh, Life Philosophy, Photography, Scotland, travel
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Portobello, Edinburgh, Scotland

I hated Hated HATED The Dharma Bums for the first seventy eight pages.  But then, on page 79, I realized that he was disenchanted with California Buddhism as much as anyone, and I suddenly realized that he was ridiculing ALL of society, both the people gladly caught up in conspicuous consumerist culture and the people who rail against that consumerist culture and then, as soon as they get $300 in 1955 dollars in their pockets, will spend an entire day spending it, exulting in what they are able to buy, and then write an entire chapter on it, un-self-consciously hypocritical.  Oh man, did I end up enjoying it.

According to Wikipedia, this was one of the reviews:

“Don’t read Kerouac when you’re too young. Read him as you join that long death march called steady employment. Then look back. Look back to all the people you knew, those people who went here and there, those people who knew odd patches of philosophy and poetry. They fucked. They doped and boozed in desperate self medication. Look back at yourself. Jack travels here and there. He knows people with Odd Knowledge. They have plumbed the breadth and depth of human existence. They get laid in the era before The Pill. They doped and boozed. They had the Knowledge. Read Kerouac and look back. And then it occurs to you. It’s all been done before. None of your old pals will ever be quite what he once was in your memory. And you’ll know Kerouac for what he was. And you know that amidst all the lies, he told the truth. The truth with a little ‘t’. He wanted to fool you, but he couldn’t. It wasn’t in him; he hadn’t the talent for it. He had only enough to tell you the way he had wanted it to be. How he wanted it to be when he looked back on it.”  John Suiter

I’m going to enjoy re-reading this regularly now that I’m no longer in my youth.  If anything, it’s making me far more sympathetic to people; I certainly realize how intolerant, how incomprehensibly and unacceptably intolerant, I have been, and how I need to change, and how so much of the time we have the same goals and just go about it from different angles, or, as Bob said, me, I’m still on the road, heading for another joint; we always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point of view, and

There was a wisdom in it all, as you’ll see if you take a walk some night on a suburban street and pass house after house on both sides of the street each with the lamplight of the living room, shining golden, and inside the little blue square of the television, each living family riveting its attention on probably one show; nobody talking; silence in the yards; dogs barking at you because you pass on human feet instead of on wheels.  You’ll see what I mean, when it begins to appear like everyone in the world is soon going to be thinking the same way and the Zen Lunatics have long joined dust, laughter on their dust lips.  Only one thing I’ll say for the people watching television, the millions and millions of the One Eye: they’re not hurting anyone while they’re sitting in front of that Eye.  But neither was Japhy…

And death

Color, Edinburgh, Life Philosophy, travel

I was running on a trail this morning and came across this:

A moss-covered brick, with flowers and a small football boot, and a plastic memorial plaque.

It seemed an odd way to remember a son – why on the side of a trail?  Why a concrete brick?  What outpouring of pain could have prompted this tribute?  Perhaps this part of the park was where the son had died, or was somehow special to him.

And then I thought: a concrete brick isn’t that different than any other memorial.  Earlier on my run I’d passed this churchyard:

Who was I to determine what constitutes an acceptable memorial?  What kind of gravestone is appropriate?  What kind of worship?  And then I thought: worship.  That’s exactly what this is.  What are Gods but idealized visions of our ancestors?  This poor mother’s brick, and the porcelain bootie, and the flowers, are all symbols, just as the gravestones are symbols, of affection and love.  And that reminded me of India, and the roadside shrines that, while different in appearance, were not all that different in intent:

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And so for the rest of my run I thought about loss, and love, and how similar we all really are in our sacrifice.

July, July

black and white, Color, Edinburgh, Life Philosophy, Month Summary, Photography, Portrait, Scotland, travel

The Books of July:

  • Home Game.  I love Michael Lewis’ books, and this one was cheap on Kindle.  It is a bunch of essays he wrote on fatherhood – and man, it sounds terrible.  I read it just before Alice’s brothers visited with their wives and small children, and in looking at the children, and then the parents, it was…terrifying.  First, these little creatures just dominate everything in your life, and are helpless, and cry at 5 a.m. and force you to just deal with them.  Then, intelligent, intellectual adults suddenly find it perfectly acceptable to make gibberish noises to communicate with small animals who don’t really understand what you’re saying anyway, and to be happy about it?  Back to the book: it’s hilarious.  
  • The Road.  Continuing the fatherhood theme.  The copy I have challenges people to put it down, and that was about what I experienced; I think it took me under 24 hours to get through.  A masterpiece, although I’m not sure I could read another of his books anytime soon.  
  • Sex At Dawn.  This was recommended by my friend Sunny, who is one of the smartest, wisest people I’ve ever met.  I made it through solely based on his glowing recommendation.  I thought it was absolutely horrible.  Summary: people like sex, and other than the fact that it is so common in human society, we don’t have any evidence that monogamy is natural.  There, I saved you seven hours.  
  • Total RecallI spent the majority of my reading time this month on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography, which was surprisingly engaging, well-written, and occasionally honest.  It was fascinating to hear about his business ventures, his career, and the directions he has taken through life, but based on the omissions – a few of which, like the child he fathered with his housekeeper, he has to end up admitting later in the book, a few chapters after he promises California’s voters that he isn’t a philandering pig – one has to face the fact that autobiographies are inherently fictitious, because we only hear what the writer wants us to hear, and we all have very selective memories, and attribute things like success not to luck or chance but to our own skills, abilities, and virtues.  I enjoyed it, but it was a good reminder that everybody lies.  Including superheroes.  
  • The Hard Thing about Hard Things.  Another book someone recommended highly; I’d been looking forward to reading it.  It doesn’t apply to me much just yet, but it was good to read it and think about what I may end up needing to deal with in the future, if I’m lucky skillful, able, and virtuous.  

And that brings me to an even fifty books read this year.  I’m still trying to focus on quality, and utility; I don’t think I’ll hit 100 for the year, but I’m comfortable as long as I get quality thoughts into my brain.

Again, Alice’s brothers and their families visited this month.  It was amazing to realize that we’ve moved from a one-bedroom place barely big enough for the two of us to a four-bed place that can comfortably house eight people and two dogs (and maybe even more, if we got the sofa bed out).  It was also a good test of our hosting; August is going to pick up, what with the festival.

Then Carl and Gene visited.  They were recording in Abbey Road Studios again, and came up before heading back to America.  On their last night in town, we climbed Calton Hill and met a family from Illinois, visiting for a day.  They were talking about where they’d been and what they’d seen, and we traded some stories.  I’m always a bit hesitant to engage other Americans, for some reason – it’s as if I can feel special so long as I’m here, surrounded by Scots, but when I hear an American accent, or see a logo of a real American university (as opposed to the fake ones that pop up in European fashion shops), that illusion of specialness, of uniqueness, is shattered, and so my mouth clamps shut and I scurry away.  Sometimes, if people seem to be lost, I’ll reach out – actually, that happens almost daily – but much of the time I find myself trying to avoid fraternising with my compatriots and sticking to the people of this adopted land.

The Illinois family was a bit of a middle ground.  Gene thought the daughter was cute, so Carl talked to the father and I tried to talk to the mother.  They were normal Americans – careers in business development for an insurance company, and a housewife, two children, a suburb of Chicago, community events, annual vacations.  When they asked us what we did, I felt just like Jake Barnes when he and Bill were on the train in The Sun Also Rises, talking to the family who was visiting France, the two parents and a little boy who loved swimming.  I don’t have a life they could really identify with.  It was a bit embarrassing to say I lived around the corner with my English wife; I wanted to come up with a story that felt less indulgent, like I was a race car driver on a European tour, or an American Football quarterback on an off-season trip to my homeland, or a lawyer from Cleveland just taking a week to see Scotland.  But I was half a flask of Lagavulin in, and I could only come up with the truth.

On the last Friday of the month, Alice surprised me by bringing me to see Sir Ranulph Fiennes speak at Usher Hall. I’d never heard of him before, but he’s apparently a bit of a legend here in Britain – known, at least in this country, as the greatest living explorer. He spoke for almost two hours on his adventures on seven continents and two poles; it was incredible to see him, see his fingers that he cut off himself because of frostbite, and hear his stories.

He had an incredible wit, as well, although it was marred at times by a sharp, blatant bigotry against…well, virtually everyone that wasn’t white, male and English. He’s a big UKIP supporter and Brexit fan, so perhaps that shouldn’t have been a surprise, but his jokes at the expense of others – particularly the Norwegians, the French, and women – cast an uncomfortable pall over the evening for much of the audience. It was a shame, really, as so much of his talk was otherwise fascinating, engaging, and inspiring.

The next day, we flew to Bristol, then drove deep into Somerset. We passed through farmland, and visited an incredible cider farm, and had tea and chocolate cake and played with pottery and felt.  Fiennes’ talk, and his chauvinism, were still on my mind as we flew, and then we broke through the clouds towards the airport.  As much as I thought that his bigotry was unnecessary, I thought: wow, his pride in country is absolutely justified. This is really a beautiful, extraordinary island; loving it could be no vice.

And while it seems to be struggling a bit with the modern world, like many countries, I suspect that it is actually doing better than most, because it has such a deep connection to its own history.  At one point, we were looking over the fields below the Mendip hills, and I thought: five hundred years ago, and even a hundred years ago, the highlight of the year would have been the annual trip across the valley to a market town, to sell produce and cattle and horses, to drink potent foreign brews, and to flirt with people you’d never seen before and perhaps find a match, for the night or for life.  And the local power brokers, with direction from the King or Queen, would have had the burden of deciding lives: judgment of crimes, divvying up proceeds from sales, collecting taxes, allocating land.  And even if telephone wires are strung across the fields, and we’re on the verge of getting driverless cars to zip us around, the landscape here is still ordered by those ancient traditions; land is still bordered by walls and shrubs older than any generation alive today, cows still bred from elderly lines, and trees that were planted as windbreaks for hovels now protect newly built mansions of Londoners who only come down for the weekend to enjoy the country life.

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The absolute highlight of the trip was visiting a cider farm. There were two barrels of sweet cider and two barrels of dry; the sweet barrels tasted different from each other.  When we asked the owner, Roger Wilkins, he said that they didn’t use any artificial yeast – they just let the cider ferment with the yeast on the skins, so no two barrels would ever be the same.  It was extraordinary to think that cider had been made in this way for a thousand years, and we were participating in that tradition.

We ended up spending the last day in Wells.  It was stunning, but I couldn’t wait to get back to Edinburgh.  We have been here a year this month.  Last year, were were fresh off of our six-month tour around the world.  I was just starting CodeClan, learning Ruby.  We were renting a tiny flat and didn’t know anyone in the city; we were trying to learn the geography, trying to get used to cooking in our new place, waiting for a shipment of our basic living necessities to arrive by Seven Seas.  I didn’t even know where North was, or how to buy a train ticket, and I wasn’t sure what I was doing with my life.

I’m still not sure, really.  But a year on, we have so much to be grateful for.

Seven Pro Tips for the Queen’s Garden Party

Color, Edinburgh, Life Philosophy, Photography, Scotland

That is Lizzie in the background!

Every year the Queen hosts a series of garden parties – three at Buckingham Palace in London, one at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh.  As you may have guessed, they are held in the gardens, it’s invitation only, and everyone gets all dressed up.  It’s a chance to see the royal family, if you’re into that sort of thing, drink really amazing tea – like, perhaps the best I’ve had outside of Sri Lanka – and eat absolutely delicious cakes and cookies.

The procession of archers down the lane.

We got an invitation this year, which was pretty exciting, considering we’ve been here eleven months, and it’s the only one that the Queen does outside of London.  So we got dressed up, and went, and at one point when the queen was a few yards away, I turned to Alice and said, “Next time we get an invitation, we’ll know what to do to get as close to her as possible.”

Alice said, “There won’t be a next time.”

She was right.  It turns out that you get one invitation, and one invitation only.  Ever.  They keep lists and everything.  No re-dos.

I was going to keep any observations I had to myself.  I didn’t want to give tips to anyone else, just in case if we went in some future year and everyone read this post they might know what our competitive strategy would be and then we’d be fighting to get a chance to be on the front lines.  But seeing as I won’t ever get to go to another garden party, it doesn’t matter; everyone may as well know exactly how to plan their day.  If you can finagle an invitation, that is.  Without further ado, here’s my advice on how to get the most out of a Holyrood Palace Garden Party with Queen Elizabeth II.

1. Get an invitation. Marry well.  I mean, I don’t know what else to say.  I certainly wouldn’t have gotten an invitation on my own merits.

2. Get there early.  The invitation tells you when the gates open; you should be there waiting, with your two forms of ID and your invitation in hand.  If you come late, you have absolutely no hope of getting close to any majesty whatsoever.

3. Dress fancy.  The invitation says morning coat or lounge suit for men, dress and hat for women; most guys ended up just wearing standard suits, and women were in summer dresses with hats or fascinators (although a few gauche damsels opted to go noticeably headpieceless).  I work for a tuxedo rental company, and my workmate David hooked me up with tails, a tophat, and as fancy a suit as I could ever imagine wearing.  I mean, I looked GOOD.  There were a few other men dressed up like me, but we were definitely the standouts, and we matched the men who walked around behind the queen, so we ended up blending in with the best-dressed, most prominent men at the whole event.  I try to remember that it is always good to set yourself a bit apart in your appearance, and that still holds true when you’re in the presence of Royalty.

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Getting photobombed by some princess or whatever.

4. Lanes.  Now that you look better than everyone, it’s time to pay attention to location; lanes are perhaps the most important thing to understand.  Here’s the deal: the Queen comes out of the palace, walks down some steps, and the Archers – not the radio show stars, but her bodyguards, all carrying bows – create “lanes” of people.  There are two lanes – one for the Queen, called the Queen’s Lane, and one for whoever is accompanying her that day (Prince Phillip isn’t doing official events anymore).  The lanes aren’t fenced or anything; they are just organized by the Archers for the royals to walk down, greeting people and being seen.  When you arrive early, you’ll be able to ask the Archers where the lanes are; then, you can place yourself at the edge of one.  And wait.  You’ll wait for an hour or more, just standing there, as people mill about, or go off and explore the tea and biscuit tents, or try to meet someone who might be a suitable mate.  They will all wonder why you’re just standing there, waiting, like something is going to happen.  You’ll look terminally uncool.  Then, suddenly, everyone will GET IT and they will start crowding in behind you, and you’ll have the last laugh, sort of like when all the cool kids in high school laugh at all the “losers,” then at your twenty year reunion you can’t make it because you’re hanging out in Europe with entrepreneurs and rock stars and royalty.  Not you, I mean; “one.”  Anyway.  If you’re me, and you’ve been standing in place for an hour and suddenly everyone realizes that you were smart to place yourself on the line of the lane, two older women will stand behind you, passive-aggressively bumping you with their elbows and purses because they didn’t get there as early as you, talking about how tall everyone is around them, saying how they want to get photos with the Queen.  They didn’t get there early enough.  Their problems are not your problems.  If they assault you, it is not your fault, and you’re allowed to get a bit of elbow room.  When they shriek into your ear like teenagers at a Justin Bieber concert because they can see the top of the Queen’s pink hat, and they try to pull your shoulder down so that their iPhone video is at a better angle, ignore them and realize that suddenly you’re as close as you can possibly be to the Queen without shaking her hand.

See that placement? We are IN THE LANE.

5. Be First.  If you’re smart, you’ll also put yourself toward the beginning of the Queen’s Lane.  What happens is that she walks down the lane, slowly, meeting people – or, rather, having people presented to her.  All those people are pre-selected by the Palace for some reason or other; it’s out of your control.  Place yourself between two of the Archers.  She will come by, people will be presented to her, and she’ll chat; after a while, she will give a secret signal and an Archer will come get her and she’ll move on.  When this happens…well, you can’t really just follow her around, because there’s a line of other people waiting along the lane, and you’ve already gotten as close to her as you could.  Now, you have time to explore.  We decided to go to the fully-stocked tea and biscuit tents; they were almost empty of people, all of whom were still trying to see the Queen in person, and I must have had thirty or forty little cookies, cakes, tarts, and amazing macarons, with special Garden Party tea.  After she’d made her way through the lanes and went into the special Royal Tea Tent, everyone rushed for refreshments, and then the tents were full and they ran out of macarons and, well, it wasn’t as easy to get a really really good sugar high.  Don’t be like them: be early in line, get out early, stuff yourself on the Queen’s food.

6. Walk around.  Enjoy the surroundings.  Think.  There’s something glorious about the whole thing; the pomp and ceremony and pageantry, the rules, and how much this tiny woman means to everyone.  At the same time, as an outsider, it is a bit bizarre.  I was standing next to a navigator on a nuclear submarine who had just gotten back to port; he’d been playing war games around the arctic, and his skill had won whatever competition they were having.  He was really, really cool, and really impressive, and I wondered why he wasn’t the one being celebrated by all these people, but we were all waiting around for someone who had just been in the right womb at the right time.  It was like a mass psychosis; the only reason she was important was that everyone was waiting around to see her, literally waiting on her, and the only reason they were waiting on her was that she was important.  And I was part of that.  And as much as I hated to admit it, it was cool to see her.  The Queen.  And I broke my one-year-of-no-photographs rule to get a photo with her in the background.

7. Think of what you’ll say if you meet her.  They tell you not to introduce topics of conversation, and yeah, I get that.  But I kind of wanted to follow Mike Birbiglia’s lead and say something like, “Your majesty, my wife is pregnant, and if we have a baby, we’re going to name it after you no matter what.  We’re going to name it…Queen.”  Oh man, the archers would have tackled me, but it would have been worth it.

But that tea.  It was a special Twinings blend, and it was incredible.

Scottish Skies

Color, Edinburgh, Photography, Scotland, travel

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Dunbar

There are days where I think that Scottish Skies could be the subject of an entire photographic exhibition.  Everything that people imagine about the power of the natural scenery in Scotland is true, and a huge part of that is the light, the clouds, and the shades of blue that explode up from the horizon and swirl around our vision every day.  Here: the last place that Mary Queen of Scots lived in Scotland, before she was sent down to London; Cromwell destroyed the castle, but the ruins still remain.  But even without the historical connection, it’s worth visiting Dunbar, just to see the seascape, and the clouds, and the rugged cliffs and stones and scenery.