Isn't It Pretty To Think So?

A wanderer's dispatches on life, love and the human condition


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Allow me to distract myself with whimsy…

self portraitI’m super-tired tonight after a day on the beach and more surfing (today went a little better than yesterday) but wanted to take the time to record a few observations from my first few days back — observations that remind me why I love this country — while they are fresh in my mind:

1. I forgot the connector that allows me to listen to my iPod in the car, not to mention my iPod itself. As a result, I’ve been listening to a lot of Portuguese radio and, except for a few current Top-40 hits and the inevitable club and house music, all they play are the hits of the 80s. Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, Rod Stewart, Tina Turner, Michael Jackson, the Spin Doctors — all of their greatest 80s hits played over and over and over.

Heard “Young hearts be free tonight” lately? I have. What about “Here I go again on my own, going down the only road I’ve ever known?” I tell you, a shiver of existential synchronicity ran through me when that special song came on. I wouldn’t admit this anywhere else except publicly on the Interwebs, but I’m sort of loving it.

1a. The hits-of-the-80s fascination supports my theory that Portugal is in an 80s time warp. It is the third world of Europe we’re talking about here, though a charming country it is, and everything is about 20 or so years behind the U.S.

2. The old Portuguese men who stand in doorways or on the side of the road or on some plot of land they’re farming wearing newsboy hats still totally knock me out. I’m not sure why they wear those hats, and many times I have no idea what they’re doing in the doorway or on the side of the road. But I love them.

3. If you have been here a few times and keep going to the same places you will invariably run into someone you know. It usually happens in a most uncanny and startling way, as if you have somehow conjured them.

4. The Portuguese people were born with an innate ability to do very little — or nothing at all — for very long periods of time. They also work harder than most anyone I know. And they can spend a whole day wandering around the countryside, stopping in cafes in each little town and talking to their neighbors. (They all know one other, of course.) If I spoke the language better, I wouldn’t be fretting about having so much time on my hands.

5. Like the Italians — with whom they share an extreme fondness for talking — the Portuguese are also serious about their coffee. And they drink lots of it. I reckon it helps with the talking. I do wonder how two countries that love coffee so much can be so inefficient when it comes to many other things.

6. Except for a few exceptions, nearly everyone I’ve tried to communicate with has been really understanding about my lack of language skills. The Portuguese are not stupid — they realize their language is nearly impossible for foreigners to wrap their tongues around. I think they appreciate any attempt to even try to speak it, even badly. And they will always provide the missing word when you’re ordering something. Two women in two separate grocery stores have had to remind me about 10 times the Portuguese word for “slices” when I ask for deli meat. It’s “fatias,” pronounced “faht-ee-ahsh.” I was reminded twice yesterday and will now never forget it.

6a: The reason the Portuguese language is so difficult I think is that the accents on the words are not in the place you expect them to be. I can’t think of a good example right now, but try reading something in Portuguese the way you think it would be pronounced and then ask a Portuguese speaker to read it. See what happens.

6b: The Portuguese, being the jokey types, also play switcheroo with subjects and verbs. There are billboards all around the countryside for a popular TV news show that says in Portuguese “The hour of truth has arrived” — “Chegou a hora da verdade.” Or, actually, it says “Arrived the hour of truth,” because that’s what it literally means if you translate the Portuguese to English. They do this with other things too. Want another beer? “Mais uma cerveja, por favor.” That’s “More one beer, please,” not “one more.” See what I mean?

That’s all I can think of right now, but I’m sure that it’s more than enough.
And for a few minutes as I wrote, I forgot that today I have been feeling a little homesick, a little lonely and a little “what the hell have I gotten myself into?” (I’m sure it’s the remains of the jetlag talking.)

It be only 9:35 pm local time, but I’m retiring to my bed. (People go to sleep early in the country.) I hope you are happy, safe and warm, wherever you may be, and I hope today you take a second to appreciate all the beautiful people, places and things you love in your life.


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A “bad” day, an invaluable lesson

Like most skills, surfing is something you learn by doing. Lessons help, but the only you’ll ever reliably stand up and ride waves over and over and over again is if you get in the water as much as possible.

Even on what I consider my “bad” days in the water, when all I’ve done is crash every time I’ve tried to stand up or paddle uselessly because the waves were too hard or too messy for me to catch, I feel like I’ve learned something. In a sport like surfing — where there are an infinite number of things to learn — any time logged on a surfboard in an ocean is time well spent. No bad day is ever pointless, especially for a beginner.

Even though I’ll mark today in the “bad” column of days surfed to date, I can’t malign it as far as experience goes because I learned probably the most useful lesson of all: how to get myself out of a potentially life-threatening situation.

It probably wasn’t the best idea to surf while jetlagged and sleep-deprived, but I was determined to get in the water today. Though David didn’t call me at the time we scheduled yesterday, he did respond almost immediately to my text about an hour later asking where and when to meet him for a surfboard.

At his request, I drove to the neighboring town of Odeceixe to see him and Joaquim, his friend with whom I’m also acquainted. David and I had coffee and caught up for a bit, and then he gave me a board shorter than I’m used to — about 7 feet or so versus 8-feet-plus boards I’ve ridden in New York and the last time I was here. He advised me to try it and if I didn’t like it, I could switch it for a longer board later.

I spent some time in the water at Praia de Odeceixe first, but it was frustrating — I was feeling a little woozy from jetlag and there is a rip current at that break that pulls toward a cluster of rocks at the end of the beach. I’ve had a couple of bad experiences with that current, and it added to the disorientation I already was feeling.

I also wasn’t having a lot of luck getting up and riding on the unfamiliar and shorter board, but I figured I would have to learn to surf on any board eventually, so I couldn’t blame a board for my poor performance. I stayed in the water for only about 40 minutes, then sunned on the beach most of the afternoon.

David was supposed to meet up with me on Praia de Odeceixe 20 minutes after I arrived there, but as is typical with my elusive friend, he didn’t show up. (I wasn’t surprised, and I have long stopped holding his erratic scheduling against him.) I decided to hit Praia da Arrifana — the beach where I spent most of my time in April. Arrifana can get quite big in its own right, but there isn’t usually a rip current, and I’m more familiar with its various breaks from my experience last time.

I was feeling stronger and a little more confident by the time I got to Arrifana, so after cutting my teeth on the whitewater for awhile, I managed to paddle out to one of several breaks the more serious locals and visiting surfers were riding. It was there that I got into a little bit of trouble.

One of the biggest sets of the day started rolling in, and I tried to drop in too late on a wave that a surfer behind me had missed — a rookie mistake. I didn’t quite get it and it knocked me off my board, which is usually not a big deal because, in much of my novice surfing experience riding waves that have already broken, I’ve usually been in water where I could touch bottom.

Naturally, when I got knocked off my board, my feet reached for the sand beneath me. Unfortunately, this time it wasn’t there. To most surfers, this isn’t a big deal; they know to just get back on their board, hold onto it until the rest of the set rolls through or paddle back out into it.

I’m not most surfers, however — I’m a beginner and a bit of a nervous Nelly besides. Up until today I’ve been too cautious to be out in deep water in such strong waves — especially alone — and my situation sent a flash of panic through me.

To calm myself, I spoke aloud and told myself to hold on to my board; when you’re surfing, your board is pretty much your lifeline (you’re leashed to it for a reason). I managed to grab it and scramble nearly back on just before the second wave of the set — over my head and even bigger than the first — hit me, knocking me off again.

Again my feet instinctively reached for the bottom that wasn’t there as I kicked to reach my wayward board again and choked in seawater. I was also seriously fatigued, and wondering if I even had the strength to paddle back to shallow water once the set rolled through.

I made it back onto my board again, this time more securely, and told myself to take a breather and try to catch a ride in on my belly with the next wave. My breather was short-lived, as the next wave hit me only seconds later. Fortunately, however, my plan worked; the wave — another big and fast one — sped me all the way in as I panted and held onto my board for dear life.

I probably could have gone back in the water for another go, but the experience scared me enough to call it a day. In a way, though, I felt proud as I made what seemed like an endless trudge down the beach and up the steep and winding path to where my car was parked.

I felt like getting caught in that set today was some sort of surfer initiation, and I had passed. Wiping out in deep water is par for the course for a real surfer, and learning to handle the successive waves that roll in after the one you’ve wiped out on is a skill that surfers use over and over again.

While I panicked initially, my common-sense survival instinct kicked in soon after. This is important, because when you’re surfing — even with other people, which I rarely am these days — there’s really nothing anyone can do for someone who’s caught after a wipeout in a big set. (That is, unless you’re a big-wave rider and they send someone in with a jet ski. But I’m pretty sure that will never happen to me.)

Today was also significant for a personal reason. I have suffered from anxiety disorder for nearly half of my life; it started with serious panic attacks when I was 21 and has waxed and waned over the years.

On and off for about three years, I was medicated for anxiety and the depression that is often paired with it; but for more than two years now, I have used a combination of exercise, yoga and meditation to control my disorder. I’m not always successful, but I like to think I keep my affliction fairly under control.

So today was not just a milestone for me as a novice surfer, but also as a human being. I’m proud that I not only remembered what to do when I was in a hairy situation, but also that reason trumped panic and got me out of it.

There have been times in my life in which that might have not been the case, and my own panic would have been more dangerous than any wave breaking over me. Today I’m glad things turned out the way they did, and that I will surf another day, a little wiser from my frightening experience but none the worse for wear.


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Chegada

mistI watched dawn lick the edges of the sky as I drove from Lisbon to Aljezur this morning, the sun burning through the mist about when I reached the wine-growing Alentejo region. It returned again as I wound my way through Alentejo west to the ocean, taking the scenic route accidentally on purpose to enjoy the ambivalent peaks and valleys of this beautiful country on my way to my home for the next two months.

My flight landed early in Lisbon before six a.m. and by 10 a.m. I was back here in the southwest Algarve. I am now once again ensconced in Irma’s Casa Maracuja just a few kilometers from Aljezur’s town center, jetlagged and exhausted, but happy to be here again, in this beautiful place, in my solitude.

Leaving New York was not without its drama, even though the city overall had been pretty nice to me my last few weeks in town. I was the victim of something banks do to “protect” us from fraud — that is, Bank of America canceled my debit card without telling me because it had been, according to the company, “compromised.” I did not learn this fact until I was trying to buy euros at Newark airport not much more than an hour before my flight and the card was declined. When I called the bank, the agent told me they’d sent me out a new card on Tuesday, but it had not arrived even in Friday’s mail (I checked before I left).

I was irate, of course, because not having a debit card and not being able to return home to where the new card has been sent for two months is a very bad situation to be in indeed. I certainly don’t want someone using my card besides me, but if it’s going to be canceled for that reason, why not some kind of automated phone call? I despise this practice of banks to cancel debit cards without proper notice, because it gives no thought to people in situations like mine — about to board a flight out of the country and dependent on a bank card for cash. I am hoping my kind roommate will send me my new card sometime this week.

Today was spent getting here, greeting Irma, her son Emanuel and the dogs Fuzzi and Tigar (by their enthusiastic greeting, Emanuel thinks they remembered me), napping and then driving to Praia de Odeceixe to check out the waves, which were gentle, predictable and just about perfect for a beginner like me. Too bad I don’t have a surfboard yet — something I hope to fix tomorrow by renting one from my friend David. His surf school was in the water with students, and inspired by watching them, I called him and we set up a time to do a deal tomorrow.

From my experience with my lovely friend — who operates strictly on Portuguese time — I know plans are all subject to change. I am anxious to get in the water, though, so if I have to track him down to get my hands on a board tomorrow — or go to someone else to get one — I will. The weather is unseasonably warm here and if the waves hold up it will be lovely to get some surfing in before I leave for Morocco on Wednesday.

I also went grocery shopping, and realized that my Portuguese is better than the last time I was here, even though I didn’t really study the language between visits. While I still miss most of what people are saying, I do pick up words here and there and even the context sometimes, and my own ability to ask for things and do simple transactions in Portuguese has improved greatly.

All in all it feels good to be here, and while I am disoriented and a little emotional due to jetlag and exhaustion, I do realize how lucky I am to have this time alone to think, to breathe, to write and just to be. Already I can feel the existential clamor of New York City falling away and my calmer, less-distracted inner life — the one in which I worry less, love more and exist nearly entirely in the moment — finding its shape again.


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I do nothing; I am everything

CSC_1700Today was my first day of voluntary unemployment, and after a weekend in which I celebrated another 30-something birthday and had another mini-meltdown about this Big Life Decision of mine, I have to say overall it feels pretty good.

Don’t get me wrong — it definitely felt strange to wake up on a Monday morning and have no career obligations. Sure, I’ve been on vacation before and had days off, but it was a very different feeling to wake up knowing that not only was the whole day or the whole week mine, but so is every day as far as I can see into the future.

I felt a significant amount of anxiety about this leading up to today. Friday, my last day at work, felt really weird, especially when I had to open a new retirement account as I sorted out transferring my 401K funds and the customer service agent asked me what I do for a living. At that point, late in the day of my last day at work, the most accurate answer would have been “nothing,” but I told him I was a self-employed writer.

It wasn’t entirely a lie, but as I have yet to find any paid freelance work, it is a bit of a stretch to say that. Then again, I like to think that if you tell people what you are before you actually are that thing, you have a better chance of becoming what you want to be.

Saturday was spent preparing for and hosting my birthday party, so the full emotional brunt of my situation didn’t hit me until yesterday, when I admit I started regretting the whole thing and wondering what the hell I’d done. The idea of not having a label occupation-wise — of being “nothing” — really hit home, and I started to panic.

I knew it was probably post-birthday blues getting me down, combined with a bit of a Mojito hangover, but it didn’t make the anxiety I felt about the situation any less acute.

This morning, something shifted. I woke up a little anxious at the thought of not having to show up for work as I usually do. But then I rolled out of bed to greet the first sunshine New York City had seen in nearly a week, planned my day and started to feel significantly better — even optimistic.

What cheered me was this: I realized that I get to do something most people wish they could do — indulge only my intellectual, creative, experiential and physical pursuits for the next two months.

I get to travel to places I love and places I’ve never been. I get to surf. I get to read books I’ve wanted to read but never had the time for. I get to think about things I want to write about and actually write about them. I get to dream up articles I want to sell and then try to sell them. I get to figure out what I want to accomplish next professionally and worry not about what I do for a living, but who I am as a person in the world and who I want to be.

In short, I get to not only dream of all the things I could do if I had all the time in the world to do exactly what I wanted, but actually get to realize that dream.

Nice work if you can get it, right?

I also got a piece of good news just in time for my birthday on Saturday — I received my certificate of Italian citizenship. This means I’m now eligible for an Italian passport and can work legally in Europe, which opens up a whole other realm of possibilities for employment not just in the U.S., but overseas as well.

So rather than think about this endless stretch of days and nights without employment ahead of me with anxiety, I now think of it as an incredible opportunity.

Of course, I don’t want to idle too long before I start making money again. Right now, I have no source of income except savings. If it wasn’t for money, I would be 100 percent happy about the next couple of months and the opportunity to do whatever I feel like doing. (Then again, if it wasn’t for money, many of us would probably do whatever we feel like doing all the time rather than whatever we do for a living!)

But for now I’m giving myself a break. Two months is not a very long time in the grand scheme of one’s life, and I know that someday I will again be a productive member of society. I am trying to tap into my Buddhist beliefs and stay as present and in the moment as possible. I am trying to keep in mind that nothing is permanent, which means I should not worry about what I will do to make money before or at the end of these two months.

The only thing that matters right now is that I am OK, all is right in my world and I have more than I will ever need. And the only thing I need to be right now needs no label other than “human being.”

What a blessed and beautiful thing that is.


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Public space, private lives

subwayeyeAs I prepare to leave New York for two months — setting up for a more permanent move if my trial separation goes well — I’m starting to reflect on my time here, stacking up observations of life in New York like books I will take along on my trip.

Something occurred to me the other when I was having a particularly difficult phone conversation on the corner of Essex and Delancey, just about to head into the F train subway station.

For one thing, having an actual phone conversation in and of itself in this day and age is quite remarkable. In the days when even the most personal and disastrous events of our lives are shared via text message, it was a luxury to share my thoughts in my own voice and hear a live human’s vocal cords at work on the other end of a mobile device.

But what I also realized during that conversation is one thing that will always be indelibly New York to me — how so much of our personal lives are played out in public. Because the private spaces of our apartments are usually quite small, and our lives so busy we are always rushing here to there, we live our lives in full view of the entire city — or whoever happens to be nearby at any particular time.

Moving to New York was not something I did particularly by choice. I was at a crossroads in my life, living in San Francisco, recently out of a significant relationship and still grieving the mother I lost to cancer just two years before. When my company suggested I vacate a position on our team in New York and leave SF, I didn’t exactly jump at the chance, but I thought it was the next best logical move.

When I arrived in September 2006, New York as a city — big, dirty, impersonal, busy — terrified me. I had only a couple casual acquaintances and felt immediately lost and very much alone here.

I remember early in my New York time talking to a friend in Portland, Oregon, as I walked through the lower West Village on my way to see my then therapist. (It was one of the first things I secured in New York after finding an apartment, office space and a good hairstylist.)

I was lamenting my move and sobbing, wondering what the hell I was doing here, sharing how alone and lost I felt. I was entirely focused on my conversation and my crying, yet also aware of how public my display of grief was, for New York has a strange effect on people — it gives you tunnel vision and yet makes you hyper-aware of your surroundings at the same time.

Even as I sobbed my worries into my cellphone, I realized how not a single person turned a head or batted an eye at this nearly incoherently babbling, mess of a women walking down Varick Street. All of them had their own cares and troubles to attend to, and my state that day wasn’t anything they hadn’t seen 1,000 times before, nor was it urgent enough to demand any immediate attention.

Not only are so many of our personal dramas played out in public, but they usually happen on or near some form of public transportation, an observation not lost on me the other night outside the F train stop on the LES.

More than anything else, the MTA is the pulse of New York City. Anyone who lives and works in the city is at its mercy, and it’s hard to be outside anywhere in the five boroughs — except maybe Staten Island — and escape the constant soundtrack of a rattling train or a chugging bus.

And so our very public lives are not only played out in public streets, but also on public transportation. I’ve even had an entire intimate relationship with someone start, end, start again and finally reach an uneasy detente on the B61 bus that travels from Red Hook, Brooklyn, the Long Island City, Queens.

The ironic thing about the fact that we share our personal lives with so many other people in New York all the time is this: it has not made us more intimate. Sure there is a “we’re all in this together” feeling that I appreciate about New York, especially when you can share a rolling of the eyes with a fellow subway passenger when service is particularly slow or you have to sit through yet another mariachi performance on the A train.

But something about putting the most intimate moments of our lives on public display makes them less personal, less meaningful and more mundane somehow.

Because we see them happening so often to so many others around us, they become as common as the wad of gum discarded on the bottom of the subway staircase, or the newspaper blowing around one of the many canyons of Manhattan on a windy day.

They somehow lose their personal significance to our lives when we see so many other people going through the same things we go through every day. And though there is comfort in the feeling that we are not alone in our troubles, the turned heads when we’re sobbing our woes into a cell phone somehow make us feel more alone than ever.

I love you New York, but I will not miss this about you when I’m gone. And I hope that I haven’t lost my ability to not only feel compassion for the plight of others, but also to show it when I see someone else in pain, rather than pass idly by because it’s a scene I’ve seen played out so many times before.


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Counting the days, one frayed nerve at a time

GGbridgeandfenceI’m less than 20 days away from my next trip to Portugal, and two work weeks away from being unemployed for the first time in 12 years. Since I made the decision to leave my job to “to try a life of freelancing and international travel” — as my editor in chief characterized it in the monthly company notes when she announced my departure — I’ve managed not to have any major emotional meltdowns and have for the most part kept my big-girl pants buttoned up tightly.

My state of mind has started to unravel in recent days, however, and today was Meltdown Central. I decided to take my ire out on someone in my personal life rather than face the emotional complexity of what’s really going on: I’m bloody terrified of what comes next.

If I am to be honest about it, the freak-out started in my former home city of San Francisco, where I spent five days last week visiting friends — including meeting one couple’s new baby and celebrating the impending birth of another’s at a baby shower.

Many of my people there all seem to be in various states of transition, so there was a restless and uncertain energy that permeated the trip. Aside from the baby couples, two friends are unemployed, neither really voluntarily (one chose to leave her job rather than accept an unattractive position, the other was, to put it succinctly, sacked), and another just broke up with a girlfriend and is grieving the loss of two grandparents.

Changes abound for people there, and as I reflected upon my own forthcoming transition — and worried that rather than spending my time and money on holiday, I should be figuring out what I was going to do with the rest of my life — the anxiety that ruins my normally amiable personality began to set in.

It was my grieving friend — one of several I have in my life right now — who noted that I wasn’t really in a happy place, and though I took umbrage to that comment at the time, I guess there is some truth to it. Because what human, really, is happy in uncertainty?

Well, perhaps some folks are, some folks who are happy to live as completely in the moment as possible and not worry about what’s gone before or what comes next. I’ve never been so good at that, although the older and more deeply I get into a Buddhist practice I have done far better at staying present rather than engaging in self-recrimination about the past and worrying about what the future holds.

But there are some very real worries in my present right now that are killing the buzz and excitement I would like to have about my impending transition, and are making me quite uneasy about whether I’ve made the right decision.

One is that not one is interested in subletting my apartment, which is a pretty integral part of The Grand Plan to take off for two months, travel to Portugal, Morocco and other parts unknown, surf, write creatively and meditate on what my next act of gainful employment will be. I can’t really pay for my little house in Portugal and my apartment in Brooklyn at the same time (with no job or means of income, no less), so if someone doesn’t commit to renting my place, and soon, I may find myself in quite a serious predicament indeed.

Another is that the U.S. stock markets have been going down, putting a slight dent in the very 401k fund I plan to use to fund much of this adventure, while the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar versus the euro is pretty bloody appalling: it takes about $1.50 to buy a euro these days, which is even worse than it was when I was there in April, when it was an expensive-enough $1.30 to a euro.

On top of all of this, the two weeks I have left of work are likely going to be the busiest I’ve had all year — with events to cover and feature stories to write — and my social life is proving a bit hectic as well, with friends wanting to cram in time to see me before I’m off. (I certainly can’t complain about the latter, but the social butterfly in me is far more tempted to hang out with people than to complete the work I have to do for a job I have mentally and emotionally checked out of, and I’m worrying about that as well!)

Things being what they are, I am trying to stay positive and visualize a good outcome to all of this, but I’m not surprised right now that it all seems a bit emotionally daunting.

To calm my frayed nerves, I’m thinking of a quote by her favorite author Henry Miller that my roommate sent me recently: “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”

I’m a little better off than Henry was at the moment, but if things don’t start falling into place soon, that advantage won’t last for very long. And I am fairly certain “happy” will be nowhere close to describing how I’ll feel if I don’t get a few things sorted out soon.