29 June 2009

blast off!

Yesterday, our place went from chaos to a city of cardboard skyscrapers to an empty (and surprisingly sunny) space.

We hosted a little dessert shindig to help finish up our homemade ice cream, frozen berries and leftover brownies (yum); headed to a friend's birthday party, which ended up including both snazzy Daedalus and seedy Witney's, with a slice of heavenly Pinocchio's in between; and said goodbye to beloved friends.

It was the perfect way to finish off our Cantabrigia lives.

Last night, we also slept in our tent, which was partly to make sure we knew how to put it up, partly to seal the seams and partly because it was like playing fort (the fancy grown-up version). I think the world would be a better place if people played more fort. And sheets thrown over couches with couch cushions tossed on the floor as safety rocks from lava (the floor) work just as well.

Also, while other women may swoon over fancy high heels, I am officially in love with our tent, which we put up in seconds and looks like a dorky turtle shell.

Meet Ralph:

Who could resist that sweet dome? (Don't answer.)

So, may Ralph keep us safe and dry as we camp through the national parks!

And today, we embark on a year of travel.


Usually, I never get up at 6am, unless I'm flying somewhere fun-- and today, like a first grader on the first day of school, I was wide awake and ready to go even before 6:00.

So, here we go! Blast off!

First stop: New York City.

27 June 2009

restaurant.com week

We had to use up our restaurant.com certificates before we left town, so we had our own private restaurant week this past week. In case you aren't familiar with restaurant.com, I'd highly recommend trying it. You buy $25 certificates for $10 (at most). We bought them at 80% off for $2 each. That's right: $25 certificates for $2 each. Pretty amazing (and legal, too).

We went to (in reverse favorite order):
- Atasca near Kendall/MIT (a beautiful outdoor garden patio or a cozy plates-on-yellow-wall interior) for Portuguese fare (our bill was $10 for the two of us for dinner!),
- 75 Chestnut in Beacon Hill (cute little tavern-type place) for sandwiches,
- Mela in the South End (hip and stylish with high ceilings and hanging paper lanterns) for more Indian food than we could possibly stomach,
- Zocalo in Brighton (colorful Mexican art and exposed brick walls) for upscale Mexican,
- Dalia in Brookline (purple walls with silver mirrors and painted flowers) for perfect scallops and steak, and
- Dante near the Museum of Science (with a great patio overlooking Boston and the Charles River or a modern, understated high-ceilinged interior) for some of the best Italian I've had in Boston (I'd recommend the squid primi and truffle secondi). Also, if you want to splurge on a nice dinner, the three-course menu is a good value at $35 for the quality of the food, even without the $25 certificate.

We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and did a good job fattening ourselves up, in preparation for conversion into frugal backpacker mode. But it's yet another sign that we are running out time here in Boston.

Yesterday, we had brunch with some of our oldest Boston friends (back from when my partner and I first met as wide-eyed first-year graduate students), one of whom we may not see for a while. My partner told me later he was sad throughout brunch, our friend who we won't see for a while was visibly sad when we said goodbye, and it really started to sink in that we were leaving. But also that we had created some great friendships and were lucky to have met such wonderful people.

(So, friend-who-we-won't-see-for-a-while (and I know you're reading this on your google reader), I guess we'll just have to see you here in Beantown in the next year or two when you get married. Ha ha. Kidding. Sort of.)

Anyway, back to travel. I just came across this incredible LA Times slide show, and while I know Australia is on many people's To Go list already, this is just another (very compelling) reason to go. Some of the most beautiful photos I've seen in a while. Even the captions are worth reading.

Our movers and packers come tomorrow and will transform our little one bedroom from Home into a Vacant Flat. Exciting and sad and wonderful and terrifying. Thanks for joining me for the ride.

26 June 2009

yert: your environmental road trip

Speaking of road trips, my partner's cousin (and two friends) just produced a documentary about a yearlong road trip to all fifty states, with an emphasis on our current environmental crisis.

You can watch the trailer here.

They're aiming for Sundance and hoping people will spread the word. They're also looking for (paid) transcribers and donations (you get your name in the credits).

Here's a brief synopsis:

YERT (Your Environmental Road Trip) is a groundbreaking adventure and a celebration of the American spirit in the face of adversity - a thought-provoking, inspiring, and sometimes hilarious, documentary about the courageous and creative individuals, groups, businesses and leaders of this country who are tackling the greatest environmental threats in history. Called into action by the ever increasing threats of planetary catastrophe (from climate change to toxic pollution, from water scarcity to habitat destruction), the three of us - Mark Dixon, Ben Evans, and Julie Dingman Evans - upended our lives, pooled our collective life-savings, and set off on a first-of-its-kind, 50-state, year-long journey of discovery to personalize sustainability and to answer a critical question: ARE WE DOOMED?
Good luck, Mark!

25 June 2009

t-5 days, and we now have a car for our road trip

We took the Chinatown bus down to New York (complete with a slice of classy triangle-box pizza) and drove home in a new (to us) car. Sweet!

It was a little magical, how it all came together. I was talking with my partner's dad on the phone, and I casually mentioned that we were going to drive to California and needed to find a car.

I wasn't worried-- I'd found Adventures on Wheels and was planning on buying an old station wagon for $1500 and then selling it in California. (You can also buy something more expensive that they promise to buy back after you're done.)

But Papi (my partner's dad) said they actually wanted to buy a car on the east coast (because prices were better here) but didn't know how to get it to California. I was stunned into silence (which is rare). And then started screaming and talking a mile a minute (which is unfortunately common).

So, we bussed down to New York and went with the parents to pick up the car in a fancy neighborhood on the Upper West Side, get temporary insurance and register paperwork at the Harlem DMV. Ah, DMVs. Always a good time.

Finally, we sorted out all the registration paperwork and drove our effectively free car back to Boston. And now, we have Max (what we've named our little silver car) to get us 4000 miles to the west coast.

We had to get Max inspected in New York state within ten days but didn't have time to do it that day, so we drove across the state border two mornings ago to a cute little town called Canaan. It was a mile from Massachusetts.

There were some long stretches without gas stations (or exits), and I was a little worried we'd slow down and get steamrolled by one of those big rigs. Our gas was pretty low, but we made it to the next gas station.

Incidentally, my partner said Massachusetts must have neglected to pay their weather tax because as soon as we approached New York, the neverending (as of late) Boston cloud cover disappeared.

We found this great one-man operation who charged us $20 less than they were going to in New York City and said it would take fifteen minutes instead of the two hours they quoted us in the city.

This perfect countryside scene was across the street. There was an orange motorcycle in the office, and a bunch of awards hiding behind it on the ground.

The walls were covered in photos of his adventurous life: driving race cars, fancy cars, buses and motorcycles; tobogganing in Lake Placid; and one of a crazy bus crash.

He also had an original Woodstock poster and a beautiful old mahogany roll-top desk. It seemed he'd lived his dream life, and we were happy to support his business.

So, the final result of all this?

Max is now ready to go. Yay!

24 June 2009

financial planning (or the lack thereof)

One of our closest friends in Boston is a financial planner, and when he invited us to an informal meeting with him, we said sure.

a. We know nothing about financial planning and figured we'd likely learn something.
b. We will likely use up all of our money during this coming year of travel, so we figured we had nothing to lose/invest.
c. He's our friend, and we didn't know how to say no.

The meeting was, as expected, very informative. But it was also really, well, grown-up. Since when do I need to start thinking about life insurance and wills? Isn't that for old people? Or people with something to leave others?

When I was little, I thought being 20 was old. I figured I'd probably have a house and be married by then. Right. (When I was actually 20, I thought I'd never own a house or be married.)

Now, I am actually married and can see buying a home in the not-so-distant future. And it's interesting that yet another industry has been created to deal with human laziness. As our friend told us, most people could do 90% of what he does. All it takes is the time to research all these different financial strategies and the discipline to actually carry out the master plan.

Of course, most of us do neither the research nor the discipline (see: current economy), and voila-- financial planning is a huge, profitable industry. For a fee, you have an expert who is constantly refreshing himself (well, we hope so) on all the salient changes that will affect your financial future. Who will then prod you to make good choices.

The little kid in me is about to shoot herself. "Financial future"? Good lord, who have I become, using words like that?

Our friend asked us if we planned on saving for our future children's college education. My partner and I laughed at the thought of our unborn children going to college one day, and we joked that we'd be better off being poor and getting financial aid. But it's a sobering question, with college costs pushing higher and higher every year.

It's also interesting to me that our friend has been the second person who has said we are "going on vacation for a year." I never thought of it that way. I thought of it as an adventure, yes, but vacation sounds like sitting on a beach and doing nothing.

My first reaction was, 'Hey, buddy, we'll be conducting field research in Tanzania, not sipping blue Curaçaos on a motu.' But, of course, how do I know that? Maybe we will be sipping on blue Curaçaos on a motu. And if we did, it wouldn't be the end of the world.

I guess my question now will be how to make this year ahead meaningful. We leave in six days, and while some of our trip has been loosely mapped out, parts of it have been left intentionally unplanned. I'm curious to see how different those experiences will be.

And maybe, during our downtime (hours spent waiting in an airport, for example), we can read up about financial planning.

Right. Who am I kidding?

So, my second question to you is: do you do your own financial planning (if you plan at all)? How should one do it? Does one just buy a Suze Orman bestseller and do everything she says? Read all of the Financial Planning for Idiots books, plus the Suze Orman books and pray for the best? Or hire an expert to keep you on track?

(Or just keep on winging it and hoping catastrophe stays far away? I guess our current strategy isn't the best one.)

23 June 2009

couchsurfing in martha's vineyard

T-7 days to our road trip across the US. We've decided to swing north on our drive from Chicago to Denver and visit one of my college friends who lives in South Dakota. We'll miss Nebraska but get to see Mount Rushmore and potentially some woolly mammoths in Hot Springs (where 52 mammoths were found) instead. Seems like a fair trade.

One more addendum: I would be remiss if I didn't mention Tucker, Caleb's friend from Nantucket. He's also from a "prominent island family," but he's on a no-spending kick and happily ate our leftovers when we had dinner together. My partner and I have an unsettling habit of always cleaning our plates, and we decided it would be great to always have a Tucker along. Then, you can stop licking your plate clean like some starving alley cat and physically see your leftovers not going to waste.

Now, then. Onto our second couchsurfing experience in Martha's Vineyard.

We took the ferry from Nantucket to Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard, and we were delighted by the colorful Victorians known appropriately as gingerbread houses.

While Nantucket was rustic and beautiful, Martha's Vineyard had a festive, summery feeling. It was also much more developed as a tourist destination.

As the Nantucketers told us, Martha's Vineyard received many more daytrippers because of its proximity to Boston. (The 'slow' ferry could go from Woods Hole on the mainland to Vineyard Haven on the island in 45 minutes and for $7.50 each way.)

While charming, I could see why they considered Martha's Vineyard a Disneyfied version of Nantucket. Of course, there is something of a rivalry between the islands, so neither offers much praise for the other. The Whaling Museum in Nantucket doesn't even mention Martha's Vineyard. It's as if it isn't even there.

But back to Oak Bluffs. I hadn't done my research, so I was pleasantly surprised by the colorful buildings. (Nantucket had lots of wooden and white buildings, so we felt like Dorothy landing in Oz as our eyes adjusted to the dazzling colors.)

Right across from the ferry, we stumbled upon the country's oldest carousel, the Flying Horses, built in 1876.

We walked up and down the main street, Circuit Street, checking out (but not entering) the cute little mom 'n' pop shops, then headed over to the gingerbread houses along the waterfront.

We met up with our couchsurfing host, Katrina, and she and her mom kindly gave us a ride to their house, which was a huge property covered in lush grass, trees, bushes, a garden, a barn-- and they had three goats, rabbits and chickens, too.

And I've decided one of the best things about traveling, aside from seeing beautiful things, is the incredible array of people you meet. Katrina's mom, for example, is a psychic. I've never met one casually. (Which implies I meet them officially. Which isn't true. But I digress.)

My partner and I were filled with questions but a little uncertain about what was appropriate to ask. It didn't seem right to ask her what she thought about our futures, and my partner said later he wouldn't want to know anyway. I ended up lamely asking her if she could control it, like she was some walking poltergeist ouija board that would burst into flames of knowledge. She said yes. And that was the end of that conversation.

Katrina's family had a full house, so she set up a tent in the yard for us. Pretty gorgeous, no?

We then went with Katrina to see her perform in a play. We got there early and snagged great front row seats. The official description:

"An Island of Women," an original musical, looks at life on the Vineyard between 1850 and 1852 when much of the male population was off whaling.

We'd learned that whaling ships full of men would often go circumnavigating the globe in search of sperm whales, leaving the women and children at home for years and years at a time.

Apparently, sperm whale oil burned clean and clear, the remnants were made into exquisite candles, and whaling was the fortune-maker that turned the islands into what they are today. (And no, the sperm whale oil doesn't refer to the blubber on their bodies but this enormous sac in their head (believed to be a buoyancy tool) that was filled with clear, watery spermiceti oil.)

Most of the cast had experience as singers, and the music was lovely. The tickets for the play weren't the cheapest, but we felt good about supporting Katrina, and it was great to be able to tell Katrina (truthfully) that she sung beautifully and we really enjoyed the show.

We were also impressed to learn that one of Katrina's ancestors was actually the last whaler of Martha's Vineyard. Very cool.

Now, here comes the not-great part of our visit to Martha's Vineyard. The weather changed from beautiful to overcast, raining on and off, and it ended up pouring all night. The tent we had was a good one, but one side of it ended up leaking, and when we woke up, our sleeping bag was wet, along with our travel guide, my partner's ill-placed shorts and worse of all, a brownie we'd been saving.

Even though my partner barely slept and wasn't a terribly happy camper (har dee har har) in the morning, he was a good sport about it. I felt bad as the organizer because the trip was meant to be a relaxing treat for him after his graduation. (But hey, compared to what's going in Iran (sad photos from the Boston Globe), our lot is pretty freaking awesome. So, there.)

As we were leaving the island, we got sandwiches, coffee and dessert at the famous Black Dog bakery, and I was happy to find it actually lived up to the hype.

We got the Pilgrim sandwich, which was the best version of the turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce sandwich I've ever had, and a chicken salad sandwich, which was also very good.

What we found interesting was that almost every single person we saw on the island was wearing at least one piece of Black Dog gear. It was like the preppy, cool religion.

The Pilgrim sandwich was so good, I was almost tempted to become part of that black dog cult. But actually buying gear felt like bragging that I'd been to Martha's Vineyard, and I certainly didn't feel like I was part of that elite island club yet.

And also, one of the best ways to travel on a budget is to avoid buying silly souvenirs. So, I saved a bundle of money and got this (free) photo instead.

20 June 2009

our first couchsurfing experience in nantucket

My partner and I couchsurfed for the first time in Nantucket this past week. Our hosts were Lindsey, a sweet, arts-'n'-craftsy gardening girl one likes automatically, and Caleb, a hilarious, straight-shooting musician with a beard and an instrument (often a fiddle) in hand. When we met, the instrument was a bass ukelele. Caleb uses the word 'asshole' liberally, applying it equally to his "conservative, white, Republican" relatives and his sister's dog, but (I think) he means it affectionately.

When we arrived, Caleb picked us up at the ferry in his bright blue van with a dashboard filled with multi-colored sunglasses and brought us with him to a beautiful waterfront home for a family dinner with aunts, uncles, cousins and close friends.

We admired the Nantucket bay from a covered porch while munching on cheese and cocktail shrimp, drank wine with fancy descendants of the Dupont family (per an uncle) in their gorgeous home filled with historical artifacts, and sang happy birthday to a close family friend from Ireland after dinner.

The next day, my partner and I walked to town along a winding bike path. We passed cranberry bogs, picture-perfect homes, and endless stretches of greenery. It was sunny and warm, with a gentle breeze.

Even the weeds were beautiful.

Houses had window boxes full of colorful flowers and painted wooden signs with names like "Windswept" and "Seabatical" above their front doors.

After about eight miles and two hours, we ended up on the cobblestoned Main Street with its brick sidewalks and little preppy shops.

We then walked to every historic site on the Nantucket Historical Association's combination pass: an old Quaker meeting house, an old mill, an old jail, the "oldest house," an old fire-hose truck station and a fancy home built by a successful whaler in 1845.

My favorite was the old mill, whose top rotates so as to catch the wind. Pretty cool, for the oldest mill in America (built in 1746).

We got to see and feel real grindstones that are used to crush corn into cornmeal. Just amazing.

On our way to the mill, we saw this neat shell mailbox.

When we left, this was our path away.

Later that afternoon, we went to watch Caleb perform with his bluegrass group at a brewery for the afternoon, had burgers with Caleb and his friend for dinner, hung out with Caleb, Lindsey and Caleb's sister's boyfriend for a bit and then watched a movie in Caleb's basement afterward.

We loved Nantucket and couchsurfing with Caleb and Lindsey. We really couldn't have asked for better hosts. (And I didn't even mention their beautiful house, their sheep/dogs/chicks/etc., the giant trampoline, the huge dome jungle gym thing that Caleb built, and the cool old car parked outside.)

15 June 2009

t-15 days

We have fifteen days before we leave and are gearing up for our trip. We actually got reminder bracelets for our typhoid pills. "Remember Oral Typhoid Vaccine."

I guess "Remember to refrigerate your four typhoid vaccine pills and take them every other day on an empty stomach-- and then don't eat for an hour afterward" was just a bit too long.

But back to our imminent year of travel. It's both exciting and bittersweet. We've lived here in Cambridge for five years, enjoying life in the Harvard bubble, and these have been some of the happiest years of my life so far.

On the other hand, the end of a chapter always means goodbyes, which makes me sad, no matter how happy the next chapter promises to be. So, while I'm thrilled to be able to travel for a year with my best friend, I'm leaving behind people and places that have brought incredible joy into my life.

When we're young, the whole world of possibility beckons. As we make choices, we narrow our lives. By age ten, we know if we will be an Olympic gymnast or ice skater. By age twenty, we know if we will be an Olympic athlete at all. (Unless you're into curling.) By age thirty, you know if you will likely be an astronaut or president of a country. And so on. It isn't that people don't defy the norms with astounding feats later in life, but for most of us, we start carving away possibilities with each choice we make.

Usually, the possibilities we carve away are things we happily say, "No, thanks" to. Becoming a corporate accountant, for example (no, thanks). But the act of ruling out possibilities makes me a little sad. I want my life to feel like endless possibility.

I know, I know. It's our choices that define us. I just don't like definition -- it makes me feel fenced in. (I'm an INFP. Of course, my psych friends tell me the Myers Briggs results don't actually signify anything.) Why limit someone to "doctor" or "professor" or even "parent"? I need to go read my connessione post again.

Okay, I feel better now. And discovered that you can actually have conversations with your better self when you have a blog. Awesome.

And I'll share a fun little personality game I discovered this past weekend. Imagine you're in the desert. You're holding a cube. What does it look like? How big is it? You also have a ladder. What does it look like? Where is it? And you have a horse. What does it look like? Where is it? How do you feel about it? And lastly, a storm is coming in. What do you do?

So, after you've considered carefully, here's what your answers supposedly mean: your cube is your ego. Some people said their cube was huge, some said it was small; some said it was solid, some said it was transparent; some said it was mirrored, and some said it was like black wood.

The ladder is supposed to be how you view your friendships. In our group, there were aluminum ladders, wooden ladders, upright ladders, ladders lying in the sand and a ladder into the sky. (Hey, I have high expectations of my close friends.)

The horse was supposed to be how you see your partner. One of our friends said, "I don't want a horse." Pretty funny and pretty apt, as he's a single guy. Tame and wild were common descriptions, and it was fun to hear people say things like, "Yeah, my horse does whatever I tell it to."

And lastly, the way you react to the storm is supposedly how you relate to life's difficulties. So, our single friend said he'd follow the horse, hoping it knew where shelter was. Another person said he'd hide under his horse. I said I'd open a big, orange umbrella tent and take my cube, ladder and horse inside with me.

My partner wants to know who comes up with these things, and I'm guessing my psychology friends would just laugh. But I think they're fun. Hope you enjoyed it.

13 June 2009

win a $25,000 dream trip

Condé Nast is sponsoring a Dream Trip Contest, and all you have to do is share a photo of a memorable travel moment to win. And don't worry that there are a bazillion entries already; most of them are of people's kids on the beach. Or a close-up of some couple on a boat. Or a picture of a pretty girl which could have been taken anywhere. Hello, people! This is a contest for travel photos.

So, anyway, here are the two I submitted (from the Sahara desert and the Falkland Islands), to give you some ideas. And yes, you can submit as many entries as you want. So, go to town and win something awesome!

And don't forget to thank me in your acceptance speech.

12 June 2009


Okay, enough of the New York Times, right? Right.

So, here's something I discovered that I now love: wordle.

You can write something, paste in text or link to a website, and it will make pretty, colorful word clouds for you. The frequency of the words determines their size, and you can change the colors, fonts, orientation, etc.

This wordle above is from a recent post. So, you're probably thinking, that's great that you can now have word clouds (whoop dee doo), but what does one do with such a thing?

Well, as a writer, you could see which words you're using the most in your work. Which is important. It's a fun way to make sure you don't use juicy vocabulary repeatedly (no one wants to read about someone's pulchritudinous menagerie again and again-- or even once, really). Or you can catch the use of wimpy words like 'sort of' or 'actually' or other weakening fillers. I just did a search for 'felt' in the novel I'm working on and got rid of as many as I could (a great feeling). But back to word clouds.

You could also:

a. write a love note to someone and have it be all artsy fartsy,
b. break up with someone with a wordle and let them figure it out by using words like 'goodbye,' 'cheater' and 'leaving you' (just kidding-- please don't do that), or
c. procrastinate and hit 'Randomize' again and again until you get the desired combination of font, color and orientation while you should really be doing something else.

Not that I would know anything about that last one. Cough, cough.

But really, you could paste in your favorite poems/stories/chapters/articles/etc. to see which words are used most frequently (and then share the resulting word clouds with loved ones) or even make word art ransom notes, if you wanted to spice up your next kidnapping. You know, if you were an art-loving kidnapper. So, as I was saying, the possibilities for creative time-wasting are endless.

Have fun!

11 June 2009

sex and marriage

This article on sexless marriages in the wellness section of the New York Times yielded almost 800 comments when I last looked at it, and I always find it interesting to see what hits a nerve in people.

Denise A. Donnelly, associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University, studies sexless marriage (which isn't the happiest topic, but I guess it's better than, say, genocide), and she says that couples who aren't having sex are generally not as happy as couples who are.

But, it isn't a cause, necessarily.

It is more of an indication that other aspects of the relationship may have gone awry: lack of effective communication, for example, or a loss of feeling close to your partner.

So, the Q&A was interesting enough, but the comments were the real gems. I didn't read even the whole first page of them, but the ones I did come across were so raw, so personal, I felt a bit like I'd invaded someone's private counseling session.

Some were funny:

Sex is a heckuva lot of work for so little reward. Meh, I’d rather spend the time cooking really great food.

— brennan

Brennan, you’re doing it wrong.

— Greg
Some were heartbreaking, beautiful somehow, and bittersweet. Like this one:

My wife of 19 years ran off with the pizza man. We had very little intimacy (3 or 5 times a year) for many years. Later I realized she recoiled when I even embraced her.
The divorce was 8 years ago. I met a wonderful woman, and we are VERY satisfied.
The most erogenous thing of all.. is having a partner who LIKES you!!

— Ed
And it's interesting how the anonymity of the internet allows people to get these confessions off their chest:

My wife never was interested in sex, or in understanding anything about it. I love her for many other reasons, but I go to prostitutes for sex. I’d go out of my mind without them.

— E. B.

I am a 63 year old senior. My marriage became sexless around fifteen years ago. My wife had no apparent desire for sex and I finally gave up after years of begging. Five years later I began having an affair with a co-worker who was also in a sexless marriage. Our ten-year monogamous relationship likely saved both our marriages. We are both married to good people. I realize this isn’t the normal solution but it likely happens more that you could ever imagine.

— J
It begs the question: what is love? Does this last poster love his partner? It sure sounds like it. Did he disrespect her by going to a co-worker for sex? I'm sure many people would say yes and use colorful language to describe his behavior. But what about his needs? Should you leave the love of your life because your sex life stinks? How important is sex to a relationship?

While I don't foresee myself or my partner heading to a prostitute anytime soon, the older I get, the more I see there are many, many shades of gray. My heart breaks for lots of these commenters, and yes, I'm a softie, but I find it hard to judge them when they share their heartache. What do you think?

10 June 2009

the joy of less

This New York Times opinion piece not only spawned hundreds of comments, it even birthed an opinion on the opinion the following day.

Here's the original article:

The Joy of Less

“The beat of my heart has grown deeper, more active, and yet more peaceful, and it is as if I were all the time storing up inner riches…My [life] is one long sequence of inner miracles.” The young Dutchwoman Etty Hillesum wrote that in a Nazi transit camp in 1943, on her way to her death at Auschwitz two months later. Towards the end of his life, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “All I have seen teaches me to trust the creator for all I have not seen,” though by then he had already lost his father when he was 7, his first wife when she was 20 and his first son, aged 5. In Japan, the late 18th-century poet Issa is celebrated for his delighted, almost child-like celebrations of the natural world. Issa saw four children die in infancy, his wife die in childbirth, and his own body partially paralyzed.

I’m not sure I knew the details of all these lives when I was 29, but I did begin to guess that happiness lies less in our circumstances than in what we make of them, in every sense. “There is nothing either good or bad,” I had heard in high school, from Hamlet, “but thinking makes it so.” I had been lucky enough at that point to stumble into the life I might have dreamed of as a boy: a great job writing on world affairs for Time magazine, an apartment (officially at least) on Park Avenue, enough time and money to take vacations in Burma, Morocco, El Salvador. But every time I went to one of those places, I noticed that the people I met there, mired in difficulty and often warfare, seemed to have more energy and even optimism than the friends I’d grown up with in privileged, peaceful Santa Barbara, Calif., many of whom were on their fourth marriages and seeing a therapist every day. Though I knew that poverty certainly didn’t buy happiness, I wasn’t convinced that money did either.

So — as post-1960s cliché decreed — I left my comfortable job and life to live for a year in a temple on the backstreets of Kyoto. My high-minded year lasted all of a week, by which time I’d noticed that the depthless contemplation of the moon and composition of haiku I’d imagined from afar was really more a matter of cleaning, sweeping and then cleaning some more. But today, more than 21 years later, I still live in the vicinity of Kyoto, in a two-room apartment that makes my old monastic cell look almost luxurious by comparison. I have no bicycle, no car, no television I can understand, no media — and the days seem to stretch into eternities, and I can’t think of a single thing I lack.

I’m no Buddhist monk, and I can’t say I’m in love with renunciation in itself, or traveling an hour or more to print out an article I’ve written, or missing out on the N.B.A. Finals. But at some point, I decided that, for me at least, happiness arose out of all I didn’t want or need, not all I did. And it seemed quite useful to take a clear, hard look at what really led to peace of mind or absorption (the closest I’ve come to understanding happiness). Not having a car gives me volumes not to think or worry about, and makes walks around the neighborhood a daily adventure. Lacking a cell phone and high-speed Internet, I have time to play ping-pong every evening, to write long letters to old friends and to go shopping for my sweetheart (or to track down old baubles for two kids who are now out in the world).

When the phone does ring — once a week — I’m thrilled, as I never was when the phone rang in my overcrowded office in Rockefeller Center. And when I return to the United States every three months or so and pick up a newspaper, I find I haven’t missed much at all. While I’ve been rereading P.G. Wodehouse, or “Walden,” the crazily accelerating roller-coaster of the 24/7 news cycle has propelled people up and down and down and up and then left them pretty much where they started. “I call that man rich,” Henry James’s Ralph Touchett observes in “Portrait of a Lady,” “who can satisfy the requirements of his imagination.” Living in the future tense never did that for me.

I certainly wouldn’t recommend my life to most people — and my heart goes out to those who have recently been condemned to a simplicity they never needed or wanted. But I’m not sure how much outward details or accomplishments ever really make us happy deep down. The millionaires I know seem desperate to become multimillionaires, and spend more time with their lawyers and their bankers than with their friends (whose motivations they are no longer sure of). And I remember how, in the corporate world, I always knew there was some higher position I could attain, which meant that, like Zeno’s arrow, I was guaranteed never to arrive and always to remain dissatisfied.

Being self-employed will always make for a precarious life; these days, it is more uncertain than ever, especially since my tools of choice, written words, are coming to seem like accessories to images. Like almost everyone I know, I’ve lost much of my savings in the past few months. I even went through a dress-rehearsal for our enforced austerity when my family home in Santa Barbara burned to the ground some years ago, leaving me with nothing but the toothbrush I bought from an all-night supermarket that night. And yet my two-room apartment in nowhere Japan seems more abundant than the big house that burned down. I have time to read the new John le Carre, while nibbling at sweet tangerines in the sun. When a Sigur Ros album comes out, it fills my days and nights, resplendent. And then it seems that happiness, like peace or passion, comes most freely when it isn’t pursued.

If you’re the kind of person who prefers freedom to security, who feels more comfortable in a small room than a large one and who finds that happiness comes from matching your wants to your needs, then running to stand still isn’t where your joy lies. In New York, a part of me was always somewhere else, thinking of what a simple life in Japan might be like. Now I’m there, I find that I almost never think of Rockefeller Center or Park Avenue at all.
Some people thought it was refreshing, while others were offended by the luxury of being able to choose to live simply (vs. being forced to). Like this woman:

Single Mom Blues

While I applaud the virtues of living simply, I have to point out that it is a choice only if a) you start off privileged enough to be able to uproot yourself and b) also unattached to your family and friends. So I read this article with a mix of agreement at the sentiments, and irritation at all the assumptions it takes for granted. I myself am an unemployed single mom of five children. I do not find any romance in having little money - it is very stressful worrying about whether I can afford the peaches at $1.29 a pound or not getting the bread I love because it’s $3.50 a loaf. We freeze in the winter and swelter in the summer because I can’t afford to pay for much heat or for air conditioning. I laugh when I read “tips” about scaling down: they are things I’ve been doing for years, not because I want to but because I have to. And I would love to be able to uproot myself and move with my children to somewhere simple, but in order to do that — in order to, say, move to Japan, you need money.

You need money for the plane flight and passports, you need money for the apartment, you need a way to provide for your kids. I really wish this article acknowledged the ironic contradiction inherent in “living simply” as the author does. And my second point is that you have to feel unattached to family and friends if you want to do this for a length of time. My family is what saves me from going under. I would never leave my brother and his son — they are family. I could move for a time, but never for years. That would be horrible. Family is your deepest treasure. … I care far more about people than things, and so that is the first thing I think of — uprooting and leaving those I love. That would be poverty indeed.

— Posted by Diana
What do you think? Is moving to Kyoto and leaving behind your prestigious job freedom, or is it excessive?

Would you rather live somewhere far from the worries that plague you at the cost of also living far from the people you love? Do you think we can find that peace and simplicity in the midst of bustling urban excess? Would I be as upset about the Lakers game last night if I were living in a monastery in a Thai palm tree forest?

08 June 2009

the monchichi world tour part ii

We now have a (slightly) clearer idea what the second half of our year of travel will look like.

It begins with a one-way ticket to Bangkok (via Taipei). We've decided to give ourselves lots of room for whim and chaos again, so here's a loose idea of where we'll go from there:

January-February: Taiwan, Thailand, and maybe Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and/or Indonesia

February: India, then work our way northwest up to Turkey

March: Greece, then western Europe (through Italy, Switzerland, France, Spain and Portugal) to fly to South America

March-July: Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and then up through Central America back to Mexico and the States.

Of course, maybe we'll bump into a Nepalese monk who will want to hang out in Mongolia with us, and we'll scrap our plans and end up in Azerbaijan instead. So, we'll see.

After July, though, it's back to the real world of work, finding a home and finally (well, maybe) planting some roots in California.

Our latest discovery is just how many visas we'll need. There are some countries that don't require American citizens to have tourist visas for short-term stays (like Thailand, Malaysia and Argentina), but many countries will turn you away if you didn't get your visa prior to your travels (like India and Vietnam). And they aren't cheap, costing $50 or more, on average. So, with our current plans, we'll need at least ten visas-- around $1000 for two people. Croak.

Happy thoughts. Well, the Lakers are on a roll. And the current line-up is as lovable as it gets. There's Odom, who seems to have a permanent smile on his face, and the gangly Spaniard, Gasol, who seems to just bumble toward the basket and make it every time. It doesn't even look like he can see where he's going through his curls, but his success rate speaks for itself (even if he isn't the most graceful athlete I've seen). And of course, there's Kobe, who's all grown up now but still an awesome player.

I may have become a Red Sox fan, but when it comes to basketball, the Lakers are still my team. I saw them play at the Staples Center when I just graduated from college (and yes, Jack Nicholson was there). Go, Lakers!

Oh, and who can look at an echidna and not smile?

Evolution rocks. Sorry, Intelligent Design.