Back in the USA

No sooner had Kim, the 18 year old Chinese kid who lives with me, landed in China, where he went for school vacation to visit his parents, when he texted me that he needed help. Literally he texted, “I need your help”. I have received these SOS texts from Kim before and I am always apprehensive about what might follow. Once, he left his soccer shoes at home and he had a game that day. Another time he was having trouble with his eyes and thought he should go to a doctor. So, what was it that he needed my help with this time?

When I texted back inquiring as to the problem, I received the following, “I left my Immigration paper”. Well, this sounded serious but something I know nothing about. He went on to ask me to look in his backpack for some official Immigration paper (it wasn’t there!) and then the top of his desk (I found an F-1 paper and texted Kim a picture of it so I could be sure it was the right form). Yes, I had indeed found the right papers! Step one complete.

He then asked me to send them to Xi’an in western China, his hometown, by 2 day mail. Ok, sounded like an easy plan. When asked for his home address he texted three lines of Chinese. Whoa! I don’t read, write nor can I copy Chinese. But, I knew people who could…

So, after school I drove over and picked up JZ (American name), the Chinese boy that lives with my friends, so he could accompany me to the Mail Store and write the address on the letter to go to Kim. Unfortunately, the Mail Store told me that there was no 2 day delivery to Xi’an; it would take 9 days. Now I got nervous. Kim was due home in 12 days and with the time change, etc. I didn’t know if the papers would get to him in time. I decided not to chance these very important original immigration papers to the Chinese mail system.

Now what? I asked my Chinese friends if Kim could use a copy of the papers to get back in the USA and they all said absolutely not. But, Jill’s (American name) husband was returning to Shanghai around the time Kim would be changing planes in Shanghai and he would be glad to rendezvous with Kim to hand him his papers. Sounded feasible. But, when asked, Kim told me that he was not going through Shanghai as he had when going to China; he was changing planes in Beijing. So, thanks but no thanks to Jill’s husband.

In the meantime, I emailed a copy of the F-1 to Kim in case there was any way he could use a copy to get through customs even though all signs pointed to no.

And, then, it struck me that the best solution was to head to the airport just prior to Kim’s arrival and beg someone to take the papers to Customs so that they would be there when Kim passed through. On the day of Kim’s arrival into Boston I drove to Logan Airport, International Terminal, Hanian Airlines and walked right up to an employee behind the ticket desk. I explained the situation and Harry (American name) told me that he would take the papers to the plane and hand them to Kim. No begging required. When the plane landed I texted Kim to look out for Harry.

Harry did go on the plane and handed the Immigration papers to Kim. Kim sailed through Customs and he was back in the USA! And people think immigration is easy!!!

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Post Card from Cape Cod (Falmouth, MA)

Almost twenty years we’ve been going to Falmouth, MA, lucky enough to have a summer home there. What a beautiful place, in terms of nature –land, sea and marshes; and so many charming homes and shops, a quaint downtown. Cod fish and seagulls; Quakers and whaling ships; Wampanoags and quahogs; cranberry bogs and lighthouses. All that good stuff. Plus, time to slow down, enjoy the sunset, and have “visits” with friends and neighbors. But this year, more than other years, something is not right in paradise. This year, folks on the Cape are suffering, in crisis, in danger of losing themselves, quite literally, to drugs, alcohol, violence and injury.

Summer brings all kinds of folks to Falmouth, and not surprisingly, an uptick in crime, injury and accidents. The ER can be pretty busy from fish hooks in thumbs to accidents on the bike trail to tick bites and allergic reactions. And this year, heroin and opiate overdoses, sometimes fatal. In one week, five drug overdoses were reported in the Police log: two were revived with Narcan on the spot, two hospitalized, and one dead at home. There was an obituary for the 19 year old who died, with a picture, listing friends, family, hobbies. Looked like a nice middle-class white kid — with issues, no doubt. Two OD’s were in cars, one parked at Walmart; one at Christmas Tree Shops. Where we shop.

This week, my husband left Stop N Shop at four in the afternoon with his cart full. A group of people were staring at man hanging onto a light post; no one knew what to do. Another day, another man sat down in the street, unable to stir himself. Another was walking along the sidewalk, shirtless, missing a shoe, incoherent, without direction. There are flyers up around town about a man who has gone missing, middle-aged, with perhaps some mental issues. Like a dog or a cat. “Have you seen this man?” Along with the drug use, there have been a lot of cases of theft and break-ins, not a few in our part of town, uncomfortably close to our idyllic little corner of the Cape. On my solitary walk around the bog, I came across two men, meeting briefly and then parting; I kept my distance, feeling fairly certain it was a drug deal.

Besides the summer visitors, Falmouth has a sturdy year round population of people from all walks of life, including the Woods Hole scientists, the artisans, old Yankees, lively Irish, and the descendents of Portuguese and Cape Verde sailing and farm immigrants. It’s a changeable life, and yet, sometimes remote and even boring in the off-season, providing few jobs more than building, landscaping or services. The allure of drugs is widespread, but some areas seem more vulnerable, no matter how beautiful. Perhaps it’s the contrast of the wealthy who come and go to those who are stuck and struggling.

I’ve been aware of recreational drugs for most of my life, on some level. But this, what I’m seeing in Falmouth, is different. They are falling fast, these casualties of the drug war, bringing the battleground to us. My mother has said, “No one chooses to grow up to be a drunk or a drug addict; something has happened along the way.” It’s one thing to waste time, money, health, over time. But another to lose yourself completely, to lose your life, just like that. I wonder how these Cape Cod folk are any less victims than the Central American children being brought across the border, moved by terrible forces to places they never wanted to be due to their weakness and someone else’s greed.

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Folks and Spokes – or, Hold the Spandex

Too late now – the invasion has begun. The bicycle folks are out in numbers, in our little town, and it looks like they’re here to stay. Almost every day, mostly all day, there are bicyclists on the road, clad in their black and neon spandex outfits, hydration at the ready, sunglasses, and – helmets, I’m happy to say. Like it or not, car drivers and pedestrians are having to share the roads and crosswalks with the folks on bikes. Most times, we adjust, but sometimes it’s not so pretty and can be downright scary. Twenty years ago when we moved here, it was not so. Now, they are part of the landscape: bright, quick, darting insects, in whizzing motion, on the periphery of my vision.

I enjoy riding a bike myself on occasion, on quiet roads or cleared trails. More or less I enjoy the scenery, taking my time, fresh air, small hills and few gears. Not so much for the bike folks, I think. The bikes themselves are highly engineered pieces of sporting equipment, not mere transportation. Expensive. And tricky to repair, requiring knowledge and expertise. The bikers themselves are by and large a fast, fit group, no dawdlers among them, and in it for speed and distance, I suspect, not recreation. No doubt there is merit in it, and benefit: stress relief, exercise, endorphins, perhaps and maybe a kind of meditation in motion. But, the hazards! My frequent reaction is to wonder, “Don’t they fear for their lives on these narrow shoulders?” or “Don’t the gas fumes bother them?” or, “Why do they want to scale that big hill on a bike, anyway?” Even more perplexing, to me, is the “spinning” craze, of indoor cycling that gets nowhere and sees nothing, but has its true adherents, I know. Maybe, like the more extreme sports, it’s the adrenaline rush and the escape from everyday problems. Yet, that hasn’t been, for me, the experience of biking.

I logged a lot of miles as a kid on a bike on rural roads in Connecticut, and I know that my husband was attached to his bike like another leg, that got him where he wanted to go. It was freedom, for us. No helmets, of course. There were the occasional accidents, although none fatal. My cousin Bobby had a spectacular “wipeout” at the bottom of Newgate Hill. We must have been ten; I was first on the scene to observe the damage to boy and bike, a bloody mess. I rode like holy hell to get help from the adults. Only, it was a minor cut after all. Apparently, the forehead bleeds a lot. My husband bought a piece of land on the Cape (with his mother), from a settlement after being hit by a car on his bike, around 12 years old. Also broken leg, missing weeks of school, and tutor at home. Our associations with bikes were not very glamorous or associated with anything like achievement. A means to adventure, yes, but not an end in itself.

In another chapter of my history with bikes, I arrived in Gloucester, England for a homestay during a semester abroad, and was promptly given “my bike”. That was it; no family car. Wherever I needed to go in town, hop the bike (buses or trains for longer rides). The trick there was figuring out where I was going. Fortunately, I had a self-appointed guide, the family’s 12 year old daughter, Moira, who took me everywhere. The biggest adjustment, of course, was the left-lane car traffic, and for bikes, too. And, the experience of being among so many other bikers on the old city streets. Yet, we managed without much fuss, and I’m here to write about it today. In visiting Europe in more recent years, there is still a “bike culture”, men and women, young and old, casual or business, priests and nuns. But not much spandex, that I could see. And how many would have said they were riding for exercise, I’m not too sure. Don’t think so, though. My son made great use of the bike-share program in Paris, and it seemed to work very well, but the bikes themselves were kind of bland, gray, workhouse models, maybe less likely to be coveted and stolen.

My old purple bicycle has gone out to pasture. I’d like a new bike; that is, I’d like to be able to go bike riding. But where? I’m still old-school when it comes to bikes: safety, comfort, and enjoying the scenery. Hold the spandex, please.

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Missing the Children

A while ago I realized there was something missing from my life – children.  Now that my sons are young men, I’ve had little reason to spend time around kids. We’re between generations, with the oldest of our nephews and nieces just coming of age and starting to settle down. After so many years marching through the elementary grades, immersed in all things child-oriented, that phase has passed. No more trips to the playground, swimming lessons, Chuck E Cheese, etc. All past, some of it not regretted. But what I do miss is the sweet energy, the hope in great things, the vulnerability, and the newness of the world to children — all children. 

I grew up in a world of children, more so than most: one of six at home, one of 70 first cousins. Our family life was dominated by visits with relatives, many of whom had kids our age. By necessity, our gatherings were kid-oriented, although not in a structured way. Mostly, the adults sat, visited, while the kids ran off to make their own entertainment – a walk, a swim, a bike ride or cards, mostly. In my childhood, large groups were the norm, with lots of children, and most all of them fun and friendly, eager to play. These days, there are no kids nor all the kid stuff that brings you, by necessity, into the present moment – collecting shells, throwing balls, hours lost at the pond, in a good way. Strange, how we seem now to inhabit such separate worlds.

Just recently, I had an opportunity to spend time with my nephew, Paddy, 9, from Florida, who was up last summer – my brother’s later-in-life child we don’t get to see much. Smart as a whip, very energetic, with sometimes wandering attention. They were with us in Cape Cod, and then on a jaunt to Vermont to visit family. It tickles me to picture him examining his great-uncle Ed’s age spots with fascination. Even better, Paddy pumping furiously in the rocker as we sat out on the deck late afternoon watching the hummingbirds. When great-aunt Betty instructed him, gently, that rockers were for putting babies to sleep or calming cranky old ladies, Paddy jumped out immediately, offering the chair to her. Looking back, how sweet it was to have him slip his hand into mine as we walked a mountain path or crossed a busy street. How cozy to bend heads together to search for “Where’s Waldo.” In our time together, we discovered a mutual passion for maps and an obsession for catching crabs.

In Costa Rica, we took a small group tour of a cacao plantation – four middle-aged women and a family with four small children. Initially, we groaned (to ourselves) when the family appeared, anticipating lots of distractions and noise. But no. They were from Italy, we found out, the mother American, in Costa Rica for a homeschool program while the father was on sabbatical.  There was Nicolas, 8; Olivia, 6; Benjamin, 4; and the baby, latched to his mother’s breast. All together, we helped to “process” the cacao beans, turning them into chocolate, to eat or drink, hands-on, grinding, chopping and sampling. When Benjamin wandered, his father guided him back, never raising his voice. No yelling or whining or tears. They were lovely; these children. We were charmed.  On the return to the visitor center, Nicolas, Olivia and I fell into discussion about Halloween, just passed, and how they hosted their Italian playmates, putting together costumes and cooking up treats. Had I ever celebrated Halloween, they asked, and what was my favorite costume? 

I’ve always been slow to approach children, like pets or animals, waiting for them to be comfortable or interested in me. Or not. How glad I was to have these children come into my orbit for just that little while, to bring me into the moment, to share the joy of discovery.  Blessed even, at the goodness and purity of these small beings, what we once were, what we still are, if only we can know it.

 

 

 

 

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Pura Vida

Pure Vida – “life to the fullest” is the motto for the Costa Rican way of life, emblazoned on tourist mugs and tee shirts everywhere. And, come to find, there’s some truth behind it, as I discovered on a recent 10 day tour through the country.  I came for the birds, the monkeys, iguanas, and alligators. Plus the rainforest and the hanging bridges of the jungle canopy.  Some friendly, happy native Costa Ricans would be nice, too, though I didn’t expect much conversation as I don’t speak Spanish.  My travel pal, Mary Jane and I decided on a group tour, rather than our usual private jaunts, with some hesitations: the water, the bugs, and safety, the bus rides and the riders. What I brought along, invisible to me, was certain prejudices about Latin America, and about American tour groups.  But as Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”  I guess I was one of those people. 

 We had decided on a bus tour, primarily because of the driving – Spanish road signs, long distances and possible road problems due to flooding and landslides. Probably we’d be OK, but if we broke down… Public transportation didn’t seem convenient. Then, we both knew people who’d recently taken the same Caravan tour, who were quite positive, especially about the food and lodgings. Safe, well-organized, and a great value for the money. Good arguments, leaving only the bus riding and our fellow passengers: American tourists, who don’t always have a great reputation in foreign countries. We’d be among them, without much freedom and recourse, and we’d be of them – Americans on a bus tour, and all that implied. Still, we took the plunge.

 Costa Rica was eye-opening, all that natural beauty, and a very different version of Latin America than I’d imagined.  My previous experience was basically Mexico in the 1980’s – Tijuana with its armed soldiers outside the McDonalds, and formerly fashionable Acapulco – now down at the heels, with shocking examples of extreme poverty outside the nicer resorts and restaurants. In Costa Rica, I expected to encounter similar broken down buildings, crime and impoverished citizens between visits to the nature sites.

Yes, there was some of that, but not so much. Modern airport in San Jose. Upscale hotels. Riding out of town, we passed two Wal-Marts, as well as Pizza Hut and KFC, partly due to large number of American expats.  There is no standing army in Costa Rica, we learned, so much of that money has been funneled to education and health. Highest literacy rate in Latin America, and a major Children’s Hospital. Lots of young people sporting braces on their teeth. Fumer prohibitado – no smoking almost anywhere. Bins for recycling almost everywhere. Water conservation as a way of life. Satellite dishes on every modest house. Pretty darn good roads. Safe water, few diseases. A democratically elected female president. Hm…

 On the bus, meanwhile, things were pretty merry. Who knew? We were a pretty diverse group of 44, hailing from FL, TX, AZ, CA, OR, MI, England, Canada, and just 4 of us from New England. Range of ages from 30 to close to 80, mainly on the far side of sixty. Hispanic, Jewish, Lebanese, and who knows what. Someone on the bus was reading Bill O’Reilly, so I can only guess conservative. MJ and I representing the liberal faction. There were techies, a bartender, psychiatric nurse, teachers galore, two writers, and a gal in the fashion industry, archivists and archeologists. There was Tammy – pretty, young thing – a social butterfly, everyone’s daughter and friend. Over ten days, you can get to know quite a lot about folks and their lives, one of the bennies of bus travel. A couple whose daughter was one of the first women in military combat.  Another couple who’d given up the family ranch in ND, because there was no one to run it, and their home and way of life had been swallowed up by the Wild West-like oil and natural gas boom. 

 Did we have fun! Yes, it was safe to drink wine and beer, since there was no driving. And, there is a natural curiosity of people who choose to travel in less than luxury and who share a love of nature – why else were we there? We were also free of stress and responsibility. But a large part of it, I believe, was our tour guide, Elston Valentine – tall and black and handsome, with his calm, knowing manner, deep voice, memory of names, and detailed knowledge of pretty much all the flora and fauna of Costa Rica. He was a native son, of Panamanian extraction, and a credit to his country. We were all pretty much in awe of him; I know I was. And I know some of the women, and some of the men, too, were just happy to be in his presence, like a big group crush. All that he did was professional, but it was his warm, humorous tone that guided us and our behavior. And the fact, that he managed in his quiet way to avoid pretty much any problems, big or small.

 But it was us, too. A kind and helpful group, considerate and on time.  A happy group.  We had a wonderful time, and have shared pictures and emails. And many good laughs and memories.  The Costa Ricans were probably pretty OK with us, I think. And it made me proud to be — an American tourist.

 

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Talking to Strangers

One of the parenting rules I definitely did not model was “Don’t talk to strangers”.  Here in the northeast it’s a way of life to keep to yourself — less so in other parts, the south and the west, as I’ve experienced. But I learned differently, from my dear departed Uncle Dick, who would talk to anybody, anywhere — for information, to pass the time, out of pure curiosity and genuine interest.  Even as a younger, single woman alone, I was a talker – or, conversationalist, as I like to think of it. Genetic or not, it’s how I roll. 

Over the years, I’ve come to value a chance to talk to someone, in a limited time period, that I’ve never met before.  Most often, it’s traveling on public transportation, planes, trains and busses, which I’ve done a lot in my lifetime. I’ve found this kind of interaction, friendly and noncommittal, to be one of the best ways to beguile the time and make the hours fly. It can be a seat-mate, or across the aisle, young or old, male or female, cultured or less so. I don’t impose. If the person next to me is working, reading, scrolling through FB, I don’t interrupt. It’s often an occasion of transition, boarding or stopping, that opens the door. And then we start. Face to face; first person; gaining another point of view.

 Just recently, on a plane ride to Costa Rica, I found my self seatmates with Hugo, a Nicaraguan migrant beekeeper just returning from the summer season in Canada, a veteran of many years, who could speak English quite well.  Bees!  My son had just done a report on a species of bees who kill invaders to the hive by building heat with their buzzing bodies. Had Hugo heard of it? Yes, he had, and warmed to his subject with a true expert’s knowledge. Another ride, just recently, a young woman got on the train carrying a musical instrument – a trombone!  She quickly delved into a book, so I left her in peace. Then we stopped, underground, approaching New York City – and sat there. After a few moments, she looked up and we met eyes. What was happening? Then began our “chat” – she was on her way to an audition for a music festival in Japan. And, me? I wrote fiction. Like what? Well, a novel called Spanish Soap Operas, right here on my Iphone. I showed her the cover, and then began to read from the prologue: two women, one younger, one older, on a train stopped in a tunnel beneath New York City.

 Not always travel, either. Parties, sometimes, or funerals. Years ago, I was seated at a wedding reception next to a man, husband of my husband’s co-worker, who had come out of years of heroin addiction. I knew about addiction, from another angle. We talked, while others ate and danced and laughed around us. I needed to know his story of recovery, as recent as it was – the why and the how. And he needed to talk to someone of this other, new world who might hear his story, and see him for another human, not just a wreck. It was the birth of his baby that did it. I told him that I’d seen people change; not all, but some. And that he could be one of those.

 For better or worse, my children were brought up seeing me talk to strangers. Not that I didn’t discuss issues of safety and the idea of those who might have negative motives. But, sadly, those cases are more often with family or friends, rather than total strangers.  And now, they are great big men who can hold their own, the ones small children might taught to be afraid of. Strangers are people, too. And some of them are wonderful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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So Near, and Yet, So Far Away

There are a few items on my bucket list that should be easy to cross off, and yet, by virtue of their proximity, they always seem to fall to the bottom, i.e., “I can always get to that later”.  Years go by and opportunities come and go that might bring me closer to these destinations, but inevitably, they recede from grasp. 

 Foremost is Quebec, land of my ancestors, and a beautiful cultural destination in its own right. Maybe 6-7 hour easy drive from here. Even before I knew of the connections to my grandmothers’ families, I was attracted to Quebec as a very old, walled city overlooking a river with a very European feel. One of my girlfriends went to Quebec for her honeymoon, recommending it highly. She gave me brochures; they remain tucked away in a drawer. I have specific goals in visiting Quebec: to see the statute of ancestor Louis Hebert, an early founder of the city; to find my gr-gr grandfathers’ watchmaker’s shop (horlogerie); to see St. Gervais, where Memere’s family lived for generations; and to tour the Ile d’Orleans, in the middle of the St. Lawrence, where many early immigrants huddled for protection against the Iroquois. 

 We’ve made a family trip to Montreal, a big city with good food and hockey.  My husband is willing to make the trip to Quebec. But none of the genealogy exploration for him; his plan is to hole up in the hotel and do continuing professional education credits. I’d like someone who is interested in family history to make this trip with me; but so far, no one’s available.

 Then there is Nantucket – the Grey Lady – island of whaling ships and captains houses. The island is closer than ever, with the high speed ferry from Hyannis – half an hour from our Cape house. We’ve gone often to Martha’s Vineyard – an easy day trip. But the trouble with Nantucket is the effort and expense to get there in the summer when we have so many beautiful places near by. We almost got there one year – we had reservations at an inn during April vacation. Sadly, my father-in-law died, and we had to cancel. I still look for opportunities to go, but so far the circumstances have not worked out.

 There are other places: Deerfield, the home of the colonial village and French/Indian raids; the Brimfield fair – a huge outdoor flea market; Acadia National Park in Maine; Plum Island, on the North Shore; even Rockport, MA, I haven’t been to – we tried once, and couldn’t find a place to park. Lots of places in the area, full of charm and history, but I just can’t seem to get there. I suppose it’s a good kind of problem to have.

 Partly, it’s my unwillingness to drive highways, or to go too far alone. Plus, those “invisible cords” that tie me fairly close to home while the kids are with us. And, not to mention, my husband’s favorite destination is the Cape, so why look further? I am lucky that I have a traveling friend to make some bigger trips with over the years, but we would not have gone without her instigation.  But these little wishes seem to fall by the wayside, things that I could make come true myself. It’s really about setting priorities and not taking things for granted. And, for women especially, about not putting things aside too long before they turn into regrets.

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Paris….with the Boys

Sometimes dreams do come true. Often, however, not in the way we visualized. In my younger years, I dreamt of living in Paris – bohemian, intellectual, cultured.
Speaking a foreign language well. Good food and important talk in the cafés. International friends and perhaps a French lover. I could
just see myself there, an eager, unpretentious American with my black beret.
Well, I did get to Paris,
and I did wear the beret, but that’s about all that matched the original dream.  Rather, it’s my son who has spent a wonderful
semester in Paris,
acquiring the language and the heady mixture of old history and modern city.
And my trip to Paris
was a week-long visit with my husband and younger son to see him. The romance, shall we say, was of a
different sort.

 This travel and exploration business, I’m starting to believe, has some genetic factor. Or, maybe because I was brought up in
a fairly limited environment – small town
Connecticut, vacationing in even smaller town Vermont – I aspired to
the bigger world through my reading and movie viewing. I covered a fair amount
of ground as a young person, including Europe and Mexico. More recently, I developed
a traveling pal and we’ve made our jaunts to Italy and the
American southwest. My older son seems to have the same inclination – wanted to
study abroad, and taking advantage of the cheap bus and train rates to see other cities in Europe. He’s done cross-country travel, and side-trips to Montreal.
I couldn’t be happier to see how well he has acclimated to Paris, and he expressed
regrets that he couldn’t stay longer.

 My other guys, not so much. A term that comes to mind is
“homebody” – they do love their creature comforts and familiar routines. My
younger son has never liked big cities with tall buildings, flocks of pigeons
and homeless people. My husband’s parents traveled a lot, and so I assumed he
would also enjoy it. But again, the world has changed since those days of dress
up for the cruise, the opera or even for the flights. Travel can be a hassle,
and the security can be unnerving – scanning, frisking, undressing, and even
separating parents from children. And, since my husband runs his own business,
there is always the notion of something going wrong while he’s away, and being unable
to fix it. Not to mention the helpless feeling of a foreign language in
an unfamiliar city, and not sure what attitudes the natives may have towards
Americans. To his great credit, my husband took a “French for Travelers”
course before our trip, which prepared him well for the money and metro. However, it
also put him on alert to the many faux pas that tourists can easily make, which
can turn a situation ugly. But none of that happened.

 In all, it was a wonderful trip. Perhaps it was November –
not crowded, mild weather, and everyone in a festive mood for the upcoming
holidays. No strikes. The food was delicious; we had no problems at all with service at
restaurants and stores. We enjoyed the sparkly, vibrant night life so
much that we quickly slipped into a routine of sleeping in, mid-day
activities and lunch, back for a nap, and out again for dinner, shopping,
walking and nightlife. We were able to visit French friends, which
makes a greater connection to the city. We even had a terrific Thanksgiving dinner, complete with cranberry relish and pumpkin pie at a nearby Irish pub. Our older son was a sure and able
tour guide, and the boys greatly enjoyed their time together, doing some things
without us.  

 So, I got my dream – Paris.
Which is a wonderful city. But maybe as important, I got my guys to see what a
wonderful world it is – and how humans organize their lives in ways that are
both similar and wonderfully different from ours. Au revoir, Paris, until we meet again.

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Space Age Travel

Ah, the miracle of modern international travel.  Well, not quite. On the one hand, pat downs, shoes off, tiny tubes of tooth paste, and alarms that go off at medical devices and underwire bras.  Long, long lines at security, and let’s not forget the time that my six year old son was seated by himself ten rows behind me. Flight attendant threw up her hands. I had to negotiate with fellow passengers to let us sit together. Packed planes, shrinking seats and sometimes long waits on the tarmac. Not to mention the rushing from gate to gate at the last minute. Oh, joy!

 But, the other side. Boston to Dublin in five hours.  Text message from my son, traveling alone, “I’ve arrived safely and been through security.”  All in all, my son’s first great solo journey across the big pond has been a wonder and an eye-opener, due mainly to the improvements in technology and communications. A far cry from when I spent a semester abroad, with perhaps two phone calls home, a bunch of postcards, and a few nice newsy letters.  I doubt letters will be crossing the Atlantic this time around.  Perhaps a more pointed example is my brother Pat’s extended information blackout when he studied abroad in Scotland back in the early 80’s.  He could have found a way to communicate, of course, but he didn’t. After my mother hadn’t heard from him in a couple months, and had no way to contact him, she called his home university, who gave her a number for the university in Aberdeen. She called the office there to ask that they find her missing son — which they did by means of posting flyers all over campus with my brother’s photo and underneath, the words, “Patrick McCormack, please call your mother.” It worked.

 In contrast, I knew within minutes when my son arrived in Dublin, and then Paris. All my worries about his connections from the airport to the hotel in Paris were for naught. He and the other members of the program had set up a Facebook page, to post their info, pictures, and arrival dates and times – they knew how to find each other and coordinate rides into the city. He wouldn’t even wear his Duke tee shirt as I suggested, because it would give him away as an American, and because he already knew who to look for.

 I begged my son to take a map, “just in case.” For my son, Google Maps on his smart phone is enough, and the GPS app will help him get where he’s going.  The phone, it turns out, also contains a translation app, money converter, and other helpful things. I found out that it can serve as a flashlight if needed, and there is even an app to use it as binoculars. Of course, my mother’s point of view is, “what if you lose the phone?”  I think there is a new anxiety disorder about being separated from phones, and I can understand why. Ironically, the phone itself is disabled as a phone (too expensive) and is now used entirely for its internet connections. He’ll have to buy a phone card…

 Alright, maybe this is weird, but once I had the address where my son would be staying in Paris, I had to look it up on Google Maps – the function that shows the street view of a given address, even to the door and the windows, plus up and down the street, all the shops and businesses.  All I can say is “ooh-la-la”, looks rather nice to me. Voyeurism or peace-of-mind? Strange, new world with lots of amazing gadgets.

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Who Pushed the Panic Button?

If you’ve had one, you know the symptoms: racing heart, short of breath, sweaty palms, fear of passing out. Even constriction in the throat and chest – just like a heart attack!  But it’s not; it’s a completely non-medical-emergency panic attack that may last for a few minutes, but feels like the end of your life.  I had my first one years ago, completely clueless as to what it was. Subsequently, I’ve had a few major ones, mostly related to driving and not so many lately — with older kids, yoga and meditation, and recognizing a panic attack for what it is.  But just lately, I tested myself in a situation that has been a trigger, driving on a busy highway with big trucks, and sure enough, it was still lurking there, waiting.

Panic attacks are not so uncommon I’ve come to find. And they are perhaps one of those things that many people will experience at some point in their lives, just waiting for the right catalyst.  Living in a stressful age and society, the situation is ripe for attacks of panic or anxiety – essentially, a physical response to a belief that something dreadful is happening, and that life, for the moment, is out of control. I had one in my forties, completely unexpected, inside the MRI machine, where I had to practice my three-part yoga breath to endure 45 minutes. Afterwards, I mentioned my discomfort, and the technician said it was not at all unusual – hence the popularity of the open MRI for those with claustrophobia.  That helped me put a name on the fear that triggered the attacks – confinement and lack of escape. Someone near and dear to me had a first panic attack  in mid-life while restrained after surgery, and then another one in the closed cabin of a plane stuck on the tarmac. And I thought some people were immune…

 I came to mine early, and it came as a complete surprise. For me, it was not driving at first, but on an airplane – with me not in control at all.  I was in my twenties in California, and in a state of conflict about whether to stay or leave the area.  I’d done plenty of flying before with no hesitation, including one of those flights that was so bumpy, many passengers got sick, some taken off into ambulances. But on that return flight from CA, I had a full-out panic attack, convinced I was seriously ill. After the flight attendant determined that it was not an emergency, I still had 3000 miles to get through. Only I didn’t have to do it myself, because a nice man across the aisle held my hand until I calmed down. Thank you, Hank, wherever you are.  I managed the rest of the flight, but had developed fear of flying.

 I fly now, because of all the places I want to go with my family.  It’s doable, with an atavan, my iPod, and some relaxation techniques. Plus, enough experiences that were not disasters.  But I still avoid the highways – when they’re busy, which is most of the time.  I never ever want to have that sensation of blacking out, and turning my car into a death machine for myself, my kids, and others on the road.  Funny thing, I can drive highways with no traffic – it’s not the driving; it’s the being stuck or closed in. 

 I drive a lot, around town and back roads.  I now have my two big boys to do the highway driving.  I have a lot of shame about not volunteering to do the driving into the city or to other destinations, but I’ve learned to live with it. I’m not at all sure that I’ll get past this hang-up.  It’s been with me so long, part of my identity.  Most everyone has a handicap of some kind, seen or unseen.  It could be worse. In a strange way, it’s a kind of badge that represents some of the trauma of my youth and childhood – a scar that I no longer feel I have to hide, but can accept as part of my life history.  It’s so true, “stress will out”, one way or another.  And panic attacks, while no fun, remind me of my limitations, and also that it’s a stressful world, for me and for everyone.


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