Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Most Appealing Daily Schedule

The most appealing daily schedule I know is that of a turn-of-the-century Danish aristocrat. He got up at four and set out on foot to hunt black grouse, wood grouse, woodcock, and snipe. At eleven, he met his friends, who had also been out hunting alone all morning. They converged "at one of these babbling brooks," he wrote. He outlined the rest of his schedule. "Take a quick dip, relax with a schnapps and a sandwich, stretch out, have a smoke, take a nap or just rest, ad then sit around and chat, until three. Then I hunt some more until sundown, bathe again, put on a white tie and tails to keep up appearances, eat a huge dinner, smoke a cigar and sleep like a log until the sun comes up again to redden the eastern sky. This is living...Could it be more perfect?"

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

52 Weeks of Kindness: Week 17

This was supposed to come out on Monday. And again, I missed the ball. That makes it twice this year. Oh well, imperfections are a part of life.

Take time early this week to consider some things you wish to experience in your own life. Then find another for whom you can be the source of one of those things, someone you think would really appreciate having it, and be that source. Provide for another something you want to experience. In principle, this isn't a material thing but something more experiential in nature.

Some ideas: If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another. If you wish to know that you are safe, cause another to know that they are safe. If you wish to better understand seemingly incomprehensible things, help another to better understand. If you wish to heal your own sadness or anger, seek to heal the sadness or anger of another.

Do not feel like this has to be anything "big." An important part of these themes is to become familiar with doing what is sincere to YOU, not as a show for others. Your level of sincerity can only be defined by you.

Per usual, in your kindness journal take time to concisely summarize what you've do to complete this theme.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Happy Birthday my darling Mummy

You know two years ago on this date, I was in the hospital watching you. And you had two episodes. Finally you had to be wheeled in and put on a drip. I went downstairs and sobbed, trying to call someone to pick me up because I didn't have a car. I didn't think I would need one, spending all night in the hospital, seeing in your birthday with you. Not how I planned to see it in, but perhaps, enough of a warning sign.

I carried you with me all through this trip. I saw wind chimes you might have liked or the beginnings of spring flowers. You would have wanted me to call you often and let you know all I was doing. And for you, I would have done it.

Mum, not a day goes by when I don't think of you. Not a day goes by when I don't miss you.

I love you so much and you can never die. Not in my heart. I think of your prawn sambal (you never gave us the recipe), your goreng pisang (I still don't know how to make it), your beef rendang. All of that died with you. I will have to start anew, create my own recipes, my own brand of dishes that no one else can copy. Mum, because of you I can. I have your knack. Some people say I look like you but I always thought that too flattering. Because you were so beautiful.

You had magic in your fingers (all those flowers you grew, all those vegetables, remember what happened when I tried to grow chilli plants? Stunted trees not bearing fruit until I gave up and gave them to you...and then, hundreds and hundreds of giant chillies coming out of the now gigantic plants). Why did we not appreciate all this?

You were beautiful and special and warm and welcoming and so talented.

I love you. I always will.

Happy Birthday.

Sunday, 26 April 2015


Once you decide on your occupation, says Jiro, you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That's the secret of success and is the key to being regarded honourably.

I had never heard of this movie/documentary nor the concept of a shokunin. From this movie you get the outer clothing of the idea of a shokunin, but you have to watch it carefully, to understand the spirit of it. Someone who keeps at something for years on end, for decades in fact to master a craft, never quite getting there, even if they have become world-acclaimed because as Jiro says in the movie: "I'll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is."

Watching Jiro handle each sushi as gently as if it was a baby, and how he brushed the sauce over the top, gave me pause. How did I approach my job? With my clouded mind and my to-do list and my good enough is good enough and my last minute to be as serene as Jiro, how to love my work and keep trying to improve on it, without all the extraneous considerations. How to perfect a story so it rings clear like a bell. And beginning now, it would take me years and years before I could even be regarded as a shokunin. And I would need a master to confer me with the title.

But it's not about titles or Michelin stars. It's about perfecting yourself day after day, hour after hour, always ensuring that you keep doing something a little bit better each time, not settling for second-rate materials.

Here is a transcript of what Jiro says in this clip:

Shokunin try to get the highest quality fish and apply their technique to it. We don't care about money. All I want to do is make better sushi. I do the same thing over and over, improving it bit by bit. there is always a yearning to achieve more. I'll continue to climb, trying to reach the top but no one knows where the top is. Even at my age, after decades of work, I don't think I have achieved perfection. But I feel ecstatic all day. I love making sushi. That's the spirit of the shokunin. When to quit? the job that you've worked so hard for? I've never once hated this job. I fell in love with my work and gave my life to it. Even though I'm 85 years old I don't feel like retiring. That's how I feel.


If you can, watch the movie.

Saturday, 25 April 2015


We arrived in Boston and it was cold. Really cold. Waiting for the bus, we blew on our fingers and stamped in place, trying to keep warm. Oh, would that bus ever come to take us to the hotel?

Boston was our split city - we had been divided into Raleigh (North Carolina), Atlanta (Georgia) and Boston. The Boston buddies were me, Alberto, Paul (Uganda), Abdallah (Palestine), Felipe (Columnbia) and Yasmeen (Saudi). Our liaison was Norman.

(Waiting for the bus)

Finally, our bus arrived. Our bus driver, Bruce, was what is known in local parlance as a "character". A native Bostonian, thick with the accent which I would come to imitate in the next few days, then promptly forget, he seemed to have imbibed a whole bunch of books to be able to reel off obscure facts about the city (like the fact that the bricks used to make the houses in Commonwealth Avenue are smaller than modern bricks and so if you want to make any repairs or renovations to any of the houses here, you have to have your bricks cut down to size. And other stuff, which I wish I had taken down but I don't remember now.

Of course to me Commonwealth Avenue was famous for just one thing. Pollyanna stayed there in the first part of "Pollyanna Grows Up". She said there was a "yard" in the middle of the street. There was:

It had been designed by a Frenchman and was thus, very French. I did get a chance to go into one of those posh houses on the day of my departure for breakfast with my friend Kate Sweetman. Wow, the interior (which I didn't take pictures of) was simply stunning. There was a gracious old world charm about the place, residue from ages past. Kate's business partner (who is actually from San Francisco) lived there. And it was their office. Oh my, what an office!

Although it was nearly April, it seemed that Boston had not left off snowing. It had experienced a record snowfall of eight feet that winter. The sidewalks had been heaped with the piled up snow and there was barely room to walk. The Saturday before we arrived, it had snowed from dawn to bedtime. When we arrived it was not so bad. But snow was piled up everywhere, not having quite melted yet.

This was our view of the Boston Common, which we passed, but I didn't (to my regret) walk through although it was so near the hotel you could see it out of the windows.

And then we arrived at our beautiful, very centrally-located old-world hotel, the Boston Park Plaza. It's huge and there are more than a 100 rooms on each floor. Unfortunately, it was in the throes of renovation. Apparently there is a saying in Chicago about there being two seasons: winter and construction. Apparently, the same applied to Boston too.

OK that is a file shot I extracted from the internet, not having taken a picture of the hotel. You can tell because there was not all that construction and upgrading going on around this picture.

After we settled into the hotel and dumped our stuff, Norm proposed we take a walk to take in the sights and get our bearings. So we crossed a few streets, came upon the shopping/historic part of town, where I saw and immediately wanted to go to the Old South Meeting House (it was already closed at this time on Sunday and it was uncertain as we would not get off our meetings in time to make a visit). I enjoyed the walk and taking in the sights (Bruce had pointed out a below the stairs bar which the Cheers (sitcom from the 80s) bar had been fashioned after and I was dying to get there.

Anyway, Yasmeen asked me to go with her and Abdallah to some place that let you smoke the hookah. Apparently, in Saudi she did it every day and here, she was craving for a hit. I didn't really want to go. It was not my thing. I would have rather gone on with the other guys to find some dinner...but I said yes. She identified a place and we took a cab thinking it would be close by. It turned out to be clear on the other side of town. I was beginning to regret coming. It was an expensive ride for a place I didn't even want to go to. Well done, Jennifer, this is what you get for not being able to say no.

And when we got to the place, it was dark and dingy and underground. I hadn't brought my passport (not having expected to need it when I left the hotel) so there was some trouble about letting us in, initially. I don't think Abdallah wanted to be there either. We had Arab finger food which was nice enough, but not substantial, and a sweet tea...while Yasmeen smoked her vanilla-flavoured hookah and relaxed.

We talked and got to know each other a little better. She told us how her husband had courted her and how they ended up married. It explained why she wore the pants in the family and was the bossy boss. But she seemed to love him in her own way, nonetheless. I told her about some of my psycho boyfriends and she looked stricken. You know, for all her princess exterior, she had a warm heart. And this was to be the only bonding sessions I had with her throughout the entire trip.

Anyway, we left at past 10 and took the long ride back to the hotel. The next day, our first meeting would be within walking distance of the hotel and our second would be at Harvard. Abdallah left us at the hotel door. Turned out that he was starving and he went off to look for some food, an exercise in futility, we learned later, so late at night. Oh for New York, the city that never sleeps. Boston, it appeared, did sleep, like a normal human being, and not a manic, frantic, insomniac one.

I woke up early the next day and felt a sudden craving for Starbucks. I tried to remember the ones we had passed along the way on our walk and ended up getting lost, looking here and there. The snow was coming down pretty fast which didn't help. Oh, for a cup of joe and something nice and warm to eat. It being Lent, I would have to avoid their delicious sandwiches, but surely I could find something.

(can you see the snow?)

I saw the famous mermaid sign and stumbled into it, thankfully. It was crowded to the overflowing as others had the same idea. But the line moved along quite efficiently and in no time at all I was ordering my tall cappuccino and chocolate caramel muffin (I became addicted to these, and the ones in Boston were by far the best!)

Or maybe it was the effect of coming out of the cold to these. I tried and tried to take pictures of the snow coming down, unsuccessfully. Finally I settled for the flakes that had been caught in my gloves.

See? Gloves were not optional.

Then fortified by my coffee and muffin, I made my way back to the hotel. It was still snowing hard. But lucky for us, it was only an hour of snow, after which the sun came out. We walked to the building (ironically, the building which housed the very Starbucks I had visited that morning) for our first meeting. Government offices, security checks, signing in...and then we went up to the fourth floor to an office shared some film promotion outfit...which is why there were movie posters all over the walls.

The meeting went as meetings do...and then it was time to take the bus to Cambridge for lunch. We could lunch anywhere we wanted and then meet in front of the Harvard University gate to go in. Felipe, Alberto and I headed straight for the Harvard bookshop. Yasmeen and Abdallah went to buy Harvard jerseys. Am not quite sure what the quiet Paul decided to do, but it was neither to go to the bookshop or with the others. Norm went off quietly to have his lunch and maybe, walk around.

The Harvard bookshop was a dream come true. I loved it! I picked up so many books that I realised how ridiculous I was being and set to cull my selection. Alberto laughed at me and insisted I take it all. I put two back. Two of the heaviest which I had deemed not essential.

And then I sat down to start reading. One of these books that I bought from the Harvard bookstore: "The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee" I was to finish in San Francisco and send off to my friend Katherine. The others, well, they are here with me now. I am in the midst of reading a book I bought in San Francisco (How to Grow Up by Michelle Tea) which I am absolutely enjoying. I bought Annie Dillard and Kurt Vonnegut and I can't remember who else. But oh my, I am going to enjoy reading those books.

Anyway, we overstayed at the bookshops which meant that we had almost no time at all for lunch so we rushed through a Chinese meal...and ran to the gate we were supposed to meet Norm at. Turns out we could have taken our time over the food. The absent-minded professor we were supposed to meet had just come back from China and consequently a little jet lagged. He had forgotten about the meeting. So we sat in that famous room in that famous building and waited. And waited. Finally one of the ladies there came out and told us about the building's history (as you see, I can't even remember the name of the building, much less it's history, and gave us the opportunity to take a picture with the famous portrait).

She kept us entertained while her assistant who was in charge of us, frantically called and texted the professor we were supposed to meet. Finally, he showed up and gave us his rollicking opinions about everything to do with the TPP and the TTIP. It was an entertaining hour and we left the place a lot later than we had planned because of this delay. Our host (the lady) took us around the Harvard Yard to give us "the tour", telling us strange and interesting anecdotes about the university that had been there before the American Revolution.

Took my turn rubbing John Harvard's toe:

which apparently, is supposed to bring good luck if you're going in for an exam.

Anyway, we stayed at the yard as our host proceeded to explain a whole host of things. I don't know if you can see it from these pictures but it was a cold day. It proceeded to get colder and colder as our host chattered away merrily. The guys didn't seem to mind. Yasmeen was so cold she covered hard of her face with her scarf and was jumping up and down in place. I was supposed to meet Kate this evening, but it didn't look like I would be back at the hotel to meet by our agreed time. So I was texting her to tell her I'd be late. When we finally left the yard, almost frozen solid, I texted to say we were finally leaving. She was picking me up from the hotel an we would be going for dinner around there. As she was coming from Commonwealth Avenue, it would not be too far for her to come get me.

It was cold. Very cold.

But finally, we were back at the hotel. I dumped my books on the bed and proceeded to remove my fancy red coat that had been a mistake. It's OK when a thin person wears red. I looked like a whale. But no time to worry about that now. A quick change and I ran down to the lobby. Kate was waiting at the wrong door. It was confusing...what with the construction and everything. This was to happen again.

Anyway, she picked me up and I was safely in her car and we drove around trying to decide where to go. She had planned for seafood but I told her I would really rather see Cheers. So that's where we went. She got parking quite close by at a metered parking lot (which tells you something about the weather) and we walked the short distance to the pub.

It was cheerful and touristy and the guy at the bar, after carding us, told us about the gift shop on the premises. So apparently, they got their priorities right. The bar was different from the one in the sitcom. It was only half the bar rather than one that formed a square around Sam and the bartender.

The other half of the bar, we discovered later, was had to walk round to the gift shop and you would come to this quieter, less touristy side of the bar, which was probably favoured by the native Bostonians to the tourist trap on the other side.

I didn't mind. In fact, I loved it. Not many from our group had even heard of Cheers. It was past its sell-by date. But I would remember it, not to mention, its most famous spin-off Frasier.

We had a great time catching up. We both had fish and chips and a lovely chocolatey dessert and the setting (noisy as it was) was just perfect.

We left to drive around a bit and then Kate sent me back to the hotel. It would be a full day of meetings the next day but I was up half the night as a protest was to be staged outside our office and I wanted to "be there" in a manner of speaking, with my colleagues. Dropped off at 2am to find when I woke up that the protest had been "hilarious", a joke, so to speak, the protesters brandishing ridiculous signs and not even knowing who they were supposed to be protesting against. Clearly, members of the the rent-a-riot squad.

I was groggy the next day, but managed to go for my daily dose. I met Alberto at the Starbucks. When I got back to the hotel, Yasmeen called my room to say she was sick and had thrown up twice the previous night. Clearly, the cold and street food (she had a habit of buying nuts on the street) had got to her. So Norman stayed back to take her to doctor and we went on ahead.

First meeting, same place. Then the bus picked us up and took us to Faneuil market to get something to eat. I got a fish steak. (Yes, Boston is all about the seafood). We sat and talked for a while, then got up to make way for other people (there were crowds and crowds pressing on us - a busker was playing, some people were fooling around on the piano in the performance space, disrespecting him, which drew the ire of some military guys who were sharing our table) but on the whole it was a scene of benign chaos.

We finished early and decided to take a walk along the pier. There was slush all over, the remains of snow mixed with dirt.

But it was a beautiful day, nonetheless.

Finally, it was time to catch the bus opposite Hard Rock Cafe. There was time for a quick bathroom break, first. This was on the door of the ladies in Hard Rock.

The afternoon meeting was OK. More of a discussion really with the professor from the University of Massachusetts that we had come to see. Norman joined us after this and proposed we go visit the newly opened Museum of the Senate, which was made possible by a legacy left by Ted Kennedy. To be honest, I was not so keen. But it turned out to be one of the best things we did there. It was a very interactive museum, which meant that we got to see the arduous process of democracy in action, how bills were made. As Paul said, it was a wonder that anything ever got passed at all.

Then, back to the hotel. I was so tired, that although I agreed to meet the guys downstairs at 7.30pm so we could all go for dinner, I fell fast asleep instead. And stayed asleep till past 9. It had been an exhausting day and with my disturbed night, well, I just wanted to snuggle in the folds of my warm, warm bed.

The next day, I made my daily trek to Starbucks. Was I becoming an addict? They had run out of my favourite caramel muffins. A message? I heeded it not and ordered two substitutes instead, neither of which were half as nice.

I noticed this sign outside the Starbucks:

Today, we would be visiting Port Authority. There was some initial confusion at the beginning (we couldn't find the floor or the person we were supposed to meet) and ended up being given a tour of some meeting rooms by a woman who thought we were from Boston Consulting and looking to rent some space for a meeting.

Anyway, Lynne, the woman we were supposed to meet finally showed up and all was well. She gave us a brief overview of Boston's port activities and the improvements that were taking place and the different markets they hoped to reach...and then, using our bus, she took us on a tour. We were given hard hats to be on the site...

It was another cold, pristine day...and then it was time to go. We had a meeting with another government office (this one took us through a very stringent security screening and we were late) and the guy had only a few minutes to spend with us before he had to go off for another meeting. It seemed to be a repetition of the two government meetings we had had so far but nobody minded and the view from the window was quite spectacular. After this, we had a choice. Either we could go back to UMass and listen to the professor we had met yesterday, interact with his class of multi disciplinary graduate students or we could have the time free to do as we pleased. We opted for the free time.

Yay. That meant I would be in time to see the Old South Meeting House. And maybe an art gallery.

I took a cab to the meeting house and found it a lot smaller than I had envisioned. And contrary to what I had believed it closed at 5 rather than 4. Yippee! But that meant I would not rush through it but take my time to read each exhibit properly. I was amazed at how it was laid out (not church so much as meeting house) and how significant it had been in the annals of American history.

Phillis Wheatley intrigued me, especially. The first published African American author and poet. I read how she had been kidnapped from her home in West Africa and sold to a slave ship and how she had come over...anyway, naturally when I found there was a gift shop at the Old South Meeting House I went to see if I could purchase the book. And guess what not only could I get that...there was also a biography of Wheatley by Henry Louis Gates, Jr

. Naturally I got both.

Here's the introduction about her in the book:

Phillis was brought from Africa to America in the year 1761, between seven and eight years of age. Without any assistance from school education, and by only what she was taught in the family, she, in sixteen month's time from her arrival, attained the English language, to which she was an utter stranger before, to such a degree as to read any, the most difficult parts of the Sacred Writings, to the great astonishment of all who heard her.

As to her writing, her own curiosity led her to it; and this she learned in so short a time, that in the year 1765, she wrote a letter to the Rev. Mr. Occum, the Indian minister, while in England.

She had a great inclination to learn the Latin Tongue and has made some progress in it.

This relation is given by her Master, who bought her, and with whom she now lives.

Boston, Nov 14, 1772.

And a sample of her poems:

On The Death Of A Young Lady Of Five Years of Age

From dark abodes to fair etherial light,
The enraptured innocent has winged her flight;
On the kind bosom of eternal love
She finds unknown beatitude above.
This know, ye parents, nor her loss deplore;
She feels the iron hand of pain no more;
The dispensations of unerring grace
Should turn your sorrows into grateful praise...

Anyway, she was not the only woman who intrigued me in the meeting house. There was also Margaret Sanger:

She wanted to educate people about birth control and they tried to shut her up.

Some other views from the Old South Meeting House:

I was about to go out to head for the art gallery when I was stopped short by the gift shop. I bought a host of books (including some diaries by young Bostonian girls from way back when) and then I saw there was a secondhand bookshop attached to the meeting house. That was it! I browsed through and found old old Louisa May Alcott out-of-print books (Hospital Sketches and Transcendental Oats) for about $3 an $4 respectively. I lost no time...

But after all the browsing, it was too late for the art I made my leisurely way back to the hotel. We would be leaving Boston tomorrow and I was sad. I had been cold. But I had loved it. And I had never got to walk through the Boston Common. I would need to come back. Definitely!

We had our home hospitality that night. Which meant we went to the house of a local Bostonian, gift in hand, and partook of their bounty. The local Bostonian turned out to be a university student who was also in charge of our Boston leg and her three uni friends. She made delicious pasta and we had a night of it. Lively discussion, warm and friendly. Interesting bunch, all of whom had traveled extensively.

The next day I was going to go out with Kate for breakfast and check out her cool office/apartment on Commonwealth Avenue. I woke up early and packed, had my bags sent downstairs and waited for Kate. Again, we mixed up the front entrances...but since her partner dropped her off, she could walk to where I was. We would be taking a walk to Commonwealth was not that far and she could show me some old parts of Boston along the way, which she loved...most of which was on reclaimed land.

We walked through the quarters...Kate had to help carry my bag which was too heavy...and made it to Commonwealth Avenue. She had left her key in the car and her partner was not answering either phone or email and the downstairs buzzer was spoilt. So we had to wait till a postal worker with a key came along and let us in. In the meantime, we said hi to her next door neighbour who was appropriately French (Commonwealth Avenue had been designed by a French architect, hence the Parisian feel) and drank in the gracious avenue with the "yard" in the middle.

We had to negotiate several flights of stairs to get upstairs...boy did these people live large in the good old days. Kate introduced me to Shane, her partner, then took me to the kitchen to ask how I would like my was a wonderful breakfast and we had this really rich coffee cake to go with it. Apparently you can only get that in Boston (I am sorry I didn't take a picture) and since I was just about to fly off, I couldn't take it with me.

Again, it was lovely to catch up with her. And then she sent me back to the hotel, where I ran in to find Norm waiting for me. My bags were loaded into the bus (why so many bags, Jennifer? Books, Norm, books!). We left the hotel...heading for the airport.

I gave Bruce, our driver, a present because I thought he had been very nice and interesting. He plays piano in bars. Pity he couldn't have played for us.

(Bruce, with his piano scarf, posing with Abdallah)

And we arrived at the airport, my bag was singled out for special scrutiny (this was to happen a lot) and we were off.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Guess Who?

Sam: Hey Norm, how's the world been treating you?

Norm: Like a baby treats a diaper.

Thursday, 23 April 2015


For all my writer friends out there. From Dani Shapiro's Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. Which I would totally recommend. You know how I love these types of books. And she lived in New York once upon a time. Oh my.

Most of us compose directly on screens at some point the writing process. Desktops, laptops, iPads, and variations and thereof. Walk into any Starbucks, or down the aisle of any train or plane and there we are, our faces made ghostly by the bluish-white light cast from our devices. But the screen can make our work look neat and tidy - finished - before it is. We can swoop in, search and replace, cut and paste, highlight, delete, and all the while the screen absorbs the changes and still look the same. If you've never tried it, see what happens if you write a draft of something longhand. Before long, you will be forced to x out whole sentences. You'll draw circles and asterisks and arrows. You'll change your mind about why you've crossed out, and write "stet" in the margins. It will look messy because it is messy. It should be that: a beautiful, complicated mess. Who knows? Maybe only one sentence will remain. Maybe the whole order will be upended. You'll be able to see a road map of your progress as you build the architecture of your story. The poet Mark Strand has made art of his drafts in which doodles and scribbles and columns fill up the space with what the poet Jorie Graham call "a mildly feverish black cursive."

This fever is lost on the screen. The evidence of the mind making he thing - made visible in the cross outs, the thick rewriting of words over other words, the fanciful sketches - a cloud, a camel, a man in a hat - that seems to ride the waves of language, the places where the pen grows dark and forceful, nearly stabbing in its intensity. This is work being made in real time. Work that reveals its scars.

But - unless we are poets - there are practical considerations to writing longhand. Your hand gets a cramp. You become afraid of losing the notebook. Though I begin most of my creative work in a notebook, when I reach 30 or 40 pages, I type a draft into my computer. What if there was a fire? A flood? The irony that my work stored on a cloud feels safer than the solid weight of a spiral-bound notebook, does not escape me. But at least for a while, the circles and squiggles, the x'd out sentences, the asterisks ad inserts covering every inch of every page have served their purpose. They remind me that my work is changeable. That there is play in this thing I'm doing. I'm a child, finger-painting. This colour? Why not? There is joy - rather than industry - in putting pen to paper. A sense of possibility.

For the past dozen years, I have used a particular brand of spiral-bound notebook - dark blue, the insignia of a prep school I did not attend emblazoned on its cover. I've become a little obsessive about those notebooks. They can only be found in one bookstore, in my in-law's hometown. Whenever I visit, I stop by the prep school bookstores and stock up. I carry home armloads of them. I live in fear of running out, or - horrible thought - that they might be discontinued. Why those notebooks? They're nothing special to look at. I have no connection to the school, other than its location in the town where my husband grew up. The reason I'm attached to them is simple: the first time I randomly happened to write in one of those notebooks, the work went well.

We are, many of us, superstitious creatures. We think there may be reasons our day flows in the right direction. A favourite necklace, a penny found on the sidewalk, a crystal we tuck into our pocket, a private mantra - we may rely on talismans to help us along. But I've never heard of a writer feel that way about a device with a screen. Oh sure, they're functional. We would be lost without them. But just as we need to feel our feet on the earth, smell and taste the world around us, the pen scratching against the page, sensory and slow, is the difference between looking at a high-definition picture of a flower and holding that very same flower in your palm, feeling the brush of its petals, the colour of its stamen rubbing off on your fingers.

Pick a notebook, any notebook. if you compose well in it, you will become attached. Choose a pen that feels right. It could be a beautiful, expensive fountain pen, or any old BIC. Whatever feels good in your hand. Okay - this is your notebook, and this is your pen. Balance your notebook on your lap or set it on a table. And wherever you are in your work, stet there. If you listen closely, you'll hear the sound your pen makes as it moves across the page. Now, doodle something. Write a few sentences. Scratch them out. Write a few more.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015


A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.

Maya Angelou

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

New York

This was the shortest leg of our trip. All of us piled into a bus in Washington DC and headed out for New York on Thursday morning, stopping first for lunch, and then halfway at Delaware to stretch our legs and maybe have a cup of coffee. Yasmeen, the girl from Saudi is addicted to Starbucks. No matter where we go, she routs one out. Which is not hard to do here in the US of A where there is a Starbucks around every corner.

So by the time we get into New York, it's evening and the roads are jammed. It takes us quite a while to pass through the Lincoln Tunnel and I naturally think of Will Ferrell in Elf (the Christmas movie) running through the tunnel. Well we get through...and finally arrive at our hotel which is opposite the Rockefeller Centre. In terms of location, it was the best. But being in the middle of New York, it was small and cramped and there were only like two girls on the front desk to check us we waited, and then waited some more. By the time we went up and dumped our bags, took some of the free water on offer (this was the only hotel - other than the one in Chicago that offered this - in Washington, you had to go to the 24-hour Walgreens around the corner in the cold for some overpriced mineral water) and came downstairs ready to hit the streets laid-out in its customary grid-like fashion, it was already getting dark.

I had agreed to go out with Alberto - to look for a bookshop that Emily had recommended - Shakespeare and Co. When I got down to the lobby, Shyam (from Sri Lanka) was waiting with Alberto. He would be coming with us. We googled Shakespeare and Co to find out where it was; 939 Lexington Avenue where it crosses East 69th Street. That would take a LOT of walking from where we were...but it was New York, so walking would be fun and rewarding. We walked past St Patrick's cathedral which was under renovation (Alberto took note of the Mass times and actually went on Sunday; or it may have been Saturday because we were leaving for our split cities on Sunday morning, I was going to Boston). We walked past NBC and I saw the 30 Rock universal sign:

And we walked and walked some more and passed many store fronts...I particularly liked this one and Facebooked it almost instantly:

with the caption: Bergdorf Goodman: you can never be too rich or too thin.

Then we got onto a road where we were walking past Central Park (I think Alberto planned it this way) and it was beautiful. We watched squirrels playing around in the park, wondering why spring was not here yet. It was cold and I was glad of my coat. But the walking helped some. Shyam, as is his wont, was quiet. He just followed us meekly. Alberto navigated because he was the best at it. I chattered amiably, took pictures which I uploaded on Facebook instantly so my friends could come along on the journey with me. I don't usually do this, but Addy had asked me to.

And after walking for half an hour to an hour...we finally got there. Shakespeare and Co. Heaven. I stood there and breathed in the books.

I heard a regular chatting with one of the cashiers about when such and such was a sex symbol. And I cut in: "I remember when Robert Redford was sexy."

They nodded in a friendly manner and let me in their conversation with no problem. I kept picking up books and adding them to my pile. "Somebody stop me!" I said, looking at them, half amused, half alarmed. The cashier proved to be a kindred soul.

"It's even worse when you work here," she said, showing me the books she had put away. One of them was a copy of John Winchester's (think Supernatural) diary. Ah, another Supernatural fan.

I'm into Dean Winchester...I told her. She nodded. It was Dean or nobody for her. Sam didn't even merit a mention.

I bought books on New York like "Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York" which is edited by Sari Botton ( was halfway through reading that before I gave it to a friend in San Francisco - now I'll either have to buy it on my kindle when I get it or get another copy - I'm opting for a Kindle copy), Humans of New York (which I intend to give to Kenny for giving me five signed copies of his wonderful book to give away in the US), a book on mindfulness and another by David Sedaris (Naked). I think that was all, but I may be wrong...there were so many bookstores and so many books. The ones I finished over here, I either sent off to a friend or gave away. As for the others, am going to try and find a way to bring them back to KL.

Anyway, we paid for our purchases (I bought a whole mess of books, Alberto, who had started book shopping in Washington, bought Humans of New York and Shyam, who doesn't seem to like bookshops the way we do, bought nothing). We wandered back to the hotel, keeping a lookout for places to eat along the way, settling for a pizza place. Knowing American proportions, I ordered a slice. Alberto and Shyam ordered a whole pizza...and when it came, they were gobsmacked. How could one person possibly finish all this? As we chatted I suddenly noticed Shyam, who is vegetarian, picking out the circles of pepperoni from his pizza. Alberto, who had advised him on what to pick had thought that pepperoni meant pepper...he apologised profusely but Shyam was pretty Zen about it. Alberto decided to give the rest of the pizza back to the guys at the shop so they could resell it. Shyam asked for his to be packed. He said he could take it back to the hotel and give it to the "girls" - the ones from Thailand and Vietnam.

As we walked back, it started to rain. We took shelter under the eaves of a shop and I spotted this:

which gave me a thrill.

We also happened to pass Bloomingdales, which of course, brought to mind the movie Serendipity.

By the time we got back to the hotel, I was freezing and ready for bed. More than ready.

The next day we had two of the only meetings we were to have in New York at the UN building. Which was pretty cool. We met some nice people there. Walked to Grand Central for lunch and as I didn't want to have lunch with the rest, I broke away and wandered off by myself, buying some meds (my nose was running something awful and I kept sneezing in the room they assigned us) and some envelopes with bubble wrap in them so I could send off some books to friends. I figured I would do it from New York.

Unfortunately when I walked back to the UN building, I couldn't remember where we were at. I wandered around lost, trying to catch a glimpse of anyone else from the returning party. I sat for a while on a park bench in front of the building.

Eventually I found a card someone had given me and it said his office was in 799 UN Plaza. I asked around and found it.

Anyway that evening when we got back, I was due to go to Alexandra's to meet her for guacamole and a Japanese movie. We talked in her apartment, she showed me some cool new clearing techniques (and did one of them on me) and then we took a cab to some really cool "only known to insiders" place to watch this movie.

It was pretty good - though I found the female protagonist (who was supposed to be Chinese or Manchurian, I was never quite sure which) to be spoiled and bratty. The Japanese hero was of course, handsome and honourable. It was made during the war and was a war propaganda movie and there was a scene at the beginning where the heroine beats her rickshaw driver because a Japanese car had knocked his cart while he was outside a store waiting for her, and he fell and lay on the ground. First, the driver of the car (a Japanese) beat him and said he was faking it. The hero of the movie (who was the passenger of the car) stopped his driver from beating the poor rickshaw driver and offered him some money as compensation to go and get his hurts looked at. And then the heroine comes bounding out and she hits her rickshaw driver, saying Manchurians are famous for playacting to get money out of people and forbade the Japanese hero from giving him any. In all this, the poor rickshaw driver looked hunched and beaten. It was not bad enough that he had been run over. He had to be subjected to all those humiliations and talked about as if he were no better than a recalcitrant child or an animal.

So, almost at once, I didn't like the supposed heroine, whom I didn't find that beautiful, to be honest, and I did find spoilt beyond measure. She falls in love with hero. Sees him with another woman (a misunderstanding). Joins the Communist party in a fit of chagrin. Goes along with their plan to blow up the railway that the hero's company is working on. And then..."comes to her senses" at the last minute.

Not that we saw how it ended. Alexandra's knees were starting to ache something awful and she wanted to leave early. She asked me to was not that far from my hotel anyway, but I wasn't interested enough in the characters to see how everything turned out.

She took a cab and I walked back to my hotel. I love crossing streets in New York and taking in the sights. Nothing better.

However, the cold that had started that day, grew worse and I had a bad night. We were supposed to go for a tour of Wall Street that morning but I was feeling too crummy. I called Brittany, one of our liaisons, and begged out. Then I went back to sleep, woke up and watched Serendipity which I had downloaded on my computer, gone down to have a bagel at Theresa's, which was a diner near the hotel...and took off to Alexandra's. By a very circuitous route. First, I went passed NBC again and bought a picture from a Georgian who called me beautiful and kissed my hand. He charged me $10 when his board said $20. Nice start to the day. But it was cold. And a fine powdery snow had began to fall.

I wanted to go to the post office to send off various books and parcels. I had found out that Nessa would be sick and not able to make it. I wanted to send off Jacob's (Katherine's son) picture book. And some letters and postcards. But first, I needed to find out where the post office was. It was on 33rd and 8th and I took a cab there because it was cold and the snow was falling more heavily.

I stood in line in front of a woman who seemed to have schizophrenia - she kept talking to herself about the government stealing her pension cheques or social security (am not sure which) or perhaps the postal workers doing that because two of them and gone astray. Her son, whose hand she held tightly while declaring war on all and sundry, glanced at me apologetically. Poor boy.

Anyway, I got my business done quick smart and then I decided to walk from here to Alexandra's. On the way, I got waylaid by a man selling skincare products who managed to sell me a caboodle of products seemingly without my consent. I was reeling as I left with a bag full of product.

Anyway, I walked quick and finally made it to Alexandra's. She had another appointment later so it was not cool arriving so late. But she was fine with it. I had a great time with her and then I took off again, this time walking back to the hotel. I dropped into Shakespeare and Co on the way, had an edifying conversation with an old man called Joseph about the state of the world, bought a book and a slew of postcards which I would write out and send that evening itself, and while still on the way, decided to drop in on what looked like a proper restaurant (I was tired of diners) to have a proper quiet meal, all by myself, with one of my New York books (perhaps the one with the writers who love and left New York, writing a Joan Didion-type essay - Goodbye To All That).

My risotto when it arrived:

I ate a leisurely meal, didn't finish it because risotto is a bit creamy and much of a muchness but I enjoyed what I had. It was a lovely meal in a lovely restaurant which soon started to fill up with other patrons. I decided not to have dessert and took my leave.

A walk back to the hotel where after a little rest, I wrote out the postcards and lugged the books I would be sending on so I wouldn't have to lug them with the rest of my luggage. My bags were heavy. I had packed books rather than bookmarks as presents. Because I felt it was more reflective of the country. Reflective maybe. But heavy. Oh dear, how heavy. And my book-buying spree wasn't helping.

So I got another cab to the post office. 33rd and 8th. And managed to post off everything. Oh boy, did it feel good to get rid of that load.

But when I was walking back, despite the coat and gloves (which I had purchased from a street vendor on the way to Alexandra's) I was cold. Freezing. It had stopped snowing but it was about 0 degrees out there. Walking fast, trying to shield myself behind big buildings from the icy gusts of wind, I made it back to the hotel. Not before I saw this, which I thought was rather strange, until I went to the other cities and realised that they name their streets funny things....from movies or famous people.

It was really nice to get back to the warmth of my hotel room. We were leaving early the next day which meant I would have to pack. And I was tired and it was nearly midnight but nothing for it...what has to be done, has to be done.

So I packed, crawled between the sheets and was out like a light.

The next day was Sunday. We would be flying off to our respective split cities. I had time for a quick bite at Theresa's where I enjoyed the bagels yet again. And then, back to the hotel to get my bags check out.

Goodbye New York. Be seeing ya!

Monday, 20 April 2015

Week 16: Acknowledge With Gratitude a Kindness Extended to You

Pay special attention this week to any kindness that is extended to you, no matter how small. Choose at least one of these kind acts and acknowledge it with gratitude.

Note, this acknowledgement can take many forms, including expressing your gratitude to the person who extended the kindness to you in words. It could also take the form of paying the kindness forward to someone else, or simply by telling someone about it and why you feel gratitude for it.

Personalize this acknowledgement so it provides the most meaning for you.

Spend some time thinking about how often you express gratitude and whether this is done formally, like around the dinner table, or informally, in response to a situation. In your journal, extend an appreciation for a past kindness you received by writing about the kindness.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

How To Grow Up by Michelle Tea (introduction)

I like stories about messed-up people and their messed-up lives. It makes me more at peace with my own. And I found this gem at the City Lights bookshop in San Francisco, which makes it doubly special.

Perhaps some of you have glided into adulthood with all the grace of a swan, skimming lightly into an adult living situation, adult relationships, adult jobs and income, and, most important, an adult sense of confidence, of a solid place in the world, of stability.

Who are you people? I'm not sure you actually exist.

If you are not yet an adult and fear you may never be one; if you suspect you in fact may be an adult, but your grasp on both the concept and the lifestyle is shaky enough to wake you up at night; if you spend too much time longing for items you can't quite afford and break into a cold sweat whenever you do part with some of your hard-earned cash; if your sliding-scale therapist has diagnosed you with post-traumatic stress disorder from the dysfunctional formative years you're clambering out of; if you are slowly learning how to clean your house; if you are slowwwwwwwwwly learning how not to date narcissists; if you've spent too much time with too much booze in your belly; if you never went to college; if you have embarrassing spiritual inclinations that lead you to whisper affirmations under your breath and hiss occasional desperate prayers to unknown unicorn goddesses; if you have a stack of unread self-help books under your bed; if some of your most ridiculous, irresponsible choices have turned out to be some of the best decisions you've ever made; if your path into so-called adulthood has been more meandering and counterintuitive than fast-tracked, then this is a book for all of you, my darlings. And as for those graceful individuals who swanned themselves effortlessly into adulthood, you, too, might find something that interests you, even if it's just a juicy bit of voyeurism.

I have spent the past decades alternately fighting off adulthood with the gusto of a pack of Lost Boys forever partying down in Neverland, and timidly, awkwardly, earnestly stumbling toward the life of a grown-ass woman: healthy, responsible, self-aware, stable. At forty-three years old, I think I've finally arrived, but my path has been via many dark alleys and bumpy back roads. Along the way, I've managed to scrawl a slew of books - memoirs about growing up a persecuted Goth teen in a crappy town, or a love-crazed party person getting my heart smashed up again and again; about the creepy secrets my family was harbouring; about my time working in the sex industry. That I got these books published was a shocker - I hadn't gone to college or studied writing or anything. That people read them, and liked them, felt like a total miracle. Because of these books I've been able to cobble together something of an adult life writing and producing literary events, blogging and running a nonprofit of my own creation.

It is from this somewhat trembling, hard-won perch of adulthood that I type to you now. I type to you form a marginally clean home - no longer do roaches scamper under cover of darkness! No longer do stubbed-out cigarette butts stud my floors! No longer will hungover twenty-something roommates vomit in my toilet! I type to you as one who has, amazingly, learned to fix my "broken picker" - you know, the terrible radar that sends a person fluttering in the direction of the cad most likely to trample your heart. After a lifetime of flat-broke-ness that includes many dips into full-on poverty, there is enough cash in my bank account to occasionally blow on pricey perfumes and other useless but beautiful items. And, after nearly killing my life with drugs and alcohol, I have more than a decade sober, and all the oddball spiritual wisdom that comes with it. After a lifetime spent writing memoirs that detail the struggles that I and countless other girls experience when they're born broke, or weird, into tricky families and unsafe towns, it seemed like time to write a book about ow that struggle can actually, with luck and grit, lead you straight into a life you didn't know you wanted and never thought you'd have.

Getting from there to here is a story that will take us to Paris Fashion Week and the punishing halls of blue-collar all-girl Catholic high schools; to the bingo games of Las Vegas casinos and a New England bus station where an Internet-sourced date peddled her pills; from a yacht on the French Riviera to a rundown San Francisco apartment with a persimmon tree in the backyard; from Buddhist meditation halls to the magnificent Pacific Ocean. Like life, these tales rise up out of nowhere and leave you shaking your head and changed for the experience. Through repeat failures and moments of bruised revelation. I have mastered the art of doing things differently and getting different results. If you can't quite relate, I do hope you enjoy the wild ride. And if you do relate, I hope that what I've lived and what I've learned serve to make your own messy journey to adulthood a little less rocky, a little less lonely. At the end of it all, we're all just kids playing dress-up in our lives, some a little more convincingly than others.