Apples, Oceans & Cigars (October, 2011)
I’m not sure why, but the outpouring of grief and nostalgia surrounding the passing of Steve Jobs has moved me quite deeply. To the point where I visited the New York Times interactive site, and posted a picture taken during my first trip to Cuba (this past June). The photo — see if you can find it here (it was in the far left column last time I looked) — shows the lovely Cristina Benitez (a member of our small and wonderful group) showing her iPhone to a little girl somewhere near the town of Vinales. The caption reads as follows:
“On a recent trip to Cuba, a member of our delegation handed a local girl her iPhone. There was no mystification, no hesitation; the girl started playing with it as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Which it somehow, inexplicably, is. Thank you, Steve Jobs, for the wonderful tools — and the irresistible toys.”
Friends have lately been giving me flak for not letting them know when I’ve published new stories. So I’d also like to mention that, since February, I’ve been a doing a lot of writing for Smithsonian. This has turned into one of the more enjoyable relationships in my long freelance career. So far there are five features, with a sixth to appear around October 12th. You can see the list by clicking here. Note: The Beach Plastic tale is one of my favorites…
Let’s close up this tedious vanity post by mentioning another recent story for OnEarth, this one about ocean researcher and sea turtle advocate Wallace “J” Nichols. Nichols recently started the “Blue Mind” conferences at the California Academy of Science, where he poses the quasi-obvious but seldom-asked question: “Why (neuroscientifically speaking) do we love the ocean?” His thoughts are well-reasoned and — if I dare employ the word in the context of a blog that mentions Cuba — revolutionary.
Speaking of which, or where, I trust you all read my Ethical Traveler blogs from Cuba! What a place, and what a trip. Stay tuned for the next Ethical Journeys Cuba trip, being cobbled together right now by our wonderful travel coordinator.
Beyond the Wheel
Now that the latest run of Strange Travel Suggestions has ended — and what a marvelous run it was — people have been asking me what comes next. It’s a reasonable question, but one that currently fills me with trepidation. Like The Fool in the intro to my show, I am preparing to take a leap of faith into the world, and begin a project that (if it succeeds) will be perhaps the most important work I’ve ever attempted. At the moment, it’s top secret. But by mid-Spring I should know if this crazy inspiration is going to be my job for the next couple of years, or if I’ll still be sitting by the phone, waiting for Christopher Nolan to decide that Snake Lake is going to be his follow-up project to Inception.
In the meantime, I’m writing up my recent trip to Guyana for the Los Angeles Times. Guyana is a country about the size of Iowa, with a population smaller than San Francisco. Seen from the air, the landscape resembles the sort of thick loop carpet you might find in a state college dorm room.
It’s a nearly unbroken expanse of green. There are some tannin-laced rivers, and a few spectacular waterfalls, but very few signs of industry. Guyana is a country just finding its place on the adventurers’ map, and it was fascinating to travel deep into rainforest and meet the Amerindian tribes that have decided that eco-lodges and birding expeditions are a better bet than mining and logging. I’ll post a link to the story when it’s in print.
In other news, a couple of terrific interviews aired recently. The insightful Dave Iverson invited me to be his guest on the January 28th broadcast of KQED Forum. We discussed my solo show, my books, and the work of Ethical Traveler. Also on the airwaves is a penetrating conversation with the sagacious Rick Steves, during which we spoke about Nepal’s current political situation and the serpentine plot lines of Snake Lake. Rick is a skillful interviewer and a wonderful human being, and our discussion was far-ranging. I hope you’ll check it out!
The Snow Leopard
In early January, I told my tale about rescuing a baby snow leopard (while traveling in Tibet in 1994) during an evening of Strange Travel Suggestions at The Marsh Berkeley. People loved the story, and asked me to post photos of the cub. All I had were stills, but I finally got down to the local copy store and had them scanned. Here are three of them, taken in my friend’s room at the Yak Hotel in Lhasa. Unfortunately, the ice-blue eyes don’t show up very well!
We named our new friend Ghang Sik Dondrup: “The snow lion whose every wish is fulfilled.” (There’s a picture of a mythical snow lion in the blog post below.) I hope you enjoy the photos!
Remember, Strange Travel has been extended through February 19th!
At the sold-out performance of Strange Travel Suggestions on Saturday I promised to post some pictures of Gang Sik Dhondrup: the baby snow leopard I helped to rescue in Lhasa in 1994. What I forgot was that the photos have to be scanned first… and I don’t have a scanner. So if you are eager to see these pix, check back in a few days. I hope to have them up by Friday!
Journeys to the Far Side
A gleeful pair of announcements for my fellow Wanderers and Fools! The New Year will begin with two wonderful opportunities to join me, as a traveling companion, on journeys long and short.
The first is an actual adventure in Nepal, my second home since 1979. In late February 2011 I will lead a two-week trip to the former kingdom, arranged by Ethical Traveler and Global Exchange. Dreams of Kathmandu—An Intimate Visit to the Sacred Valley will explore the cultural highlights of a city I love like no other. This is an opportunity for a small group of people to see a side of Nepal invisible to most tourists. Co-led by renowned photographer Thomas Kelly, “Dreams” will thrill anyone with a passion for the arts, a desire to meet great Asian thinkers, and a curiosity about the world’s newest republic. Sign on soon, as the trip must close in mid-January! (Big discounts for Ethical Traveler supporting members.)
Next—after a two-year hiatus — Strange Travel Suggestions is returning to The Marsh! Get your tickets now for the latest avatar of my ever-changing solo show, presented The Marsh Cabaret in Berkeley (just two blocks from the University BART station). This is the first run of Strange Travel since it sold out The Marsh San Francisco in 2008! I’m also teaching a “page-to-stage” performance class. Journeys for the Stage: Finding Your Inner Marco Polo will meet on three Saturdays starting January 8th, and is limited to 12 people. Thinking of turning your travel stories into monologues? This is the time to begin!
So there you have it. Two irresistible ways to get off your butt and see the world. That is your Number One New Years’ resolution, isn’t it??
I’m not the kind of guy who jumps up after every show and explodes into a standing ovation. But that’s exactly what I did last Thursday night, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, after two friends persuaded me to check out an artistic showcase called Left Coast Leaning. The opening “act” was a work by the experimental animator Miwa Matreyek. It’s impossible to put into words the sense of wonder and transcendence I experienced while watching her piece, entitled Myth and Infrastructure. It felt like being present at one of the first recitals of a Chopin Nocturne, or at an early performance of Alexander Calder’s Circus.
Let’s cut to the chase: I was in awe. Matreyek has created an art form that is conceptually brilliant, technically magical, and utterly seductive. To see her performance—a kind of shadow dance, in the purest Indonesian wayang fashion—is to enter into a dream and lose, for a gorgeous moment, any distinction between art and life. She is both dalang and puppet, the creator and heroine of her freshly mined myth. Though I was naive enough to think the artist was relatively unknown, a quick search of her name (and there aren’t a lot of Miwa Matreyeks) revealed that everyone seemed to know about her but me.
And: The Snake Lake tour is over. It ended with a radiant love fest at the beautiful Alameda home of my great friends Mark and Laurie Wagner. Laurie, who I’ve known for 25 years, is a profound writer, teacher and muse. Mark is a brilliant artist; he painted the Wheel used in Strange Travel Suggestions. Check out his work at Hearts and Bones Studio. Sitting by the fire in their comfy living room at 27 Powers (check out the upcoming writer events), I read to an audience of fully engaged geniuses. Who’d had plenty of wine. I think a few nagas were listening from the rain-soaked yard, as well.
Someday, The Prairie Home Companion will die. When it does, I know what must rise in its place. Because I have heard the future of radio variety shows, and its name is Live Wire. The brainchild of co-creators/producers Robyn Tenenbaum and Kate Sokoloff, the Portland-based revue is recorded before a theater audience as live as an electric eel. Last night I was lucky enough to be one of the guests, joining the post-modern jazz ensemble Blue Cranes, renowned orangutan expert Biruté Gladikas, and the astonishing Scott Poole—Live Wire’s poet-in-residence, whose spontaneous “What I Learned Tonight” summarizes each show with a burst of mad genius worthy of Valmiki.
Two hour-long shows were recorded in tandem last night. I was on the first (it will air Saturday 11/27). The second had somewhat more kick-ass energy, fueled by Portland’s beloved Weinland and ignited by stand-up political satirist Will Durst. I’d never seen Durst perform, but knew he’d be good. He brought the house down. His closing line about Sarah Palin was so fucking brilliant that I won’t spoil it for you here. See him. When the show was over, the cast and crew gathered to drink whiskey at a nearby bar. Here’s what sound effects wizard Pat Janowski, Scott Poole, Will Durst (and me, left) looked like afterwards.
So I take my leave of the Pacific Northwest (bidding farewell, also, to my favorite airport advertisement.) But I’m holding onto a dream: to perform Strange Travel Suggestions in Portland. For one thing, Portland is the perfect place for the show, with an audience that loves theater and loves to travel. For another, I’d get to live in Portland for a month, and develop a relationship with the local IPA. Maybe I met some people who can make that happen. I sort of think I did—and symbolizing a nod of agreement from the nagas, our Horizon jet is struck by lightning as we descend into Oakland airport.
Unstuck in Time (book tour blog)
The notion of living in Portland hovers at the edge of my thoughts like an animated cloud. It’s one of the few places in the United States where I feel an intense sense of community. Had one of my very best readings here this evening, at Powell’s. A cold front had settled in, and my breath steamed in the damp air, but the moon was up and people coalesced in the folding chairs to hear tales of Kathmandu. There’s intelligence here. It’s not the biggest city, and it’s not the most cosmopolitan city, but it’s a great place with great people and by God I love the beer.
Lots of friends showed up, and plenty of people I didn’t know. A few Nepalis, too, who clearly dug Snake Lake. My old friend Flora, a brilliant poet who was my next door neighbor in Santa Cruz when I was 22. William Burroughs came to stay with her from time to time. Her son Charlie was 10; he’s 44 now. My pals David and Pearl, who I met when we were visual artists in Santa Barbara. It made America’s West Coast feel like a self-contained universe, a snakes-and-ladders ride I’ve played again and again these past 36 years, since that long-ago Summer afternoon when I roared through the Waldo Tunnel and into the picture postcard of my dreams.
All of these people moving together and moving apart. All of us navigating through time and space with the flimsiest of compasses. And me among them, writing my books and drinking my beers. Like Billy Pilgrim, who has come unstuck in time. Astounded by the knowledge that the lights must go out someday. It made me realize that what the Buddha taught is true: The only thing that matters, moment to moment, is how you feel in the moment. This mad scramble of moments that supposedly all happen at the very same instant, regardless of our illusions about space and time. And at this moment I feel good.
West End Beach
Three photographs taken on Long Island’s West End Beach, where my brother Jordan and I used to throw ourselves into the waves on summer afternoons. When we were older we mostly walked on the beach, my brother doing most of the talking. I drove there this afternoon, in my Mom’s car. This triptych was inspired by photographs sent to me by my girlfriend Kristina Nemeth, who recently took a hike in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia and challenged herself to shoot three images every place she stopped. These three sandy photographs were taken within about 50 yards of each other.
To tell you the truth, hers are much better.
West End Waves (click link for video)