Of all the varieties of nostalgia, few are as sweet as returning to one of the places we learned how to write. Though it’s grown and expanded and absorbed millions of dollars in grant money, the Plainview-Old Bethpage Public Library is very much the same refuge I traipsed to after school, haunted on weekends, and ran away to when life at home became intolerable. The same childrens’ room where I discovered Beverly Clearly and Roald Dahl; the same wooden cubbies where I wrote my first short stories; the same metal shelves where a lichen-green volume of Who’s Who revealed the Sri Lanka mailing address of Arthur C. Clarke.

Today I visited the POB library as a guest, and told a small but eager audience what a lifeline the place had been for me. Among the local guests was Jeffrey Lipsky, one of my best friends since Junior High School, now a brilliant writer/director preparing to release his third independent film (12:30) in mid-January. We’ve worked diligently, Jeff and I, not always for the richest of financial rewards, but mostly out of true devotion. Jeff’s big break came at 18, when his review of John Cassavetes’ Minnie and Moskowitz, published in our college paper, so astonished the legendary director that he took Lipsky on as his protégée.

I guess I’m still waiting for that big break. For the phone message out of nowhere. For the email that must surely be a prank. For the whisper, the summons, the call. It sounds deranged. I know waiting doesn’t work. I’ve stopped waiting, and that doesn’t work, either. I know there’s no forcing that serendipitous instant when my own oblique angle intercepts the zeitgeist. Which will happen, if at all, by accident. Snake Lake has the heart and soul to be the right thing for the right person. But only a twist of fate can drop it into their hands. Who knows? Maybe they were at the library.

The elevated freight train tracks running above the western edge of Chelsea, a block from the Hudson, had been abandoned since 1980. Overgrown with weeds, the 30-block structure was a dilapidated eyesore. Until June, 2009 – when, after ten years of planning and development, the re-imagined route re-opened as The High Line: New York’s newest urban park. I visited this afternoon with my Mom. We climbed a few short flights of steps and strolled along the promenade, stopping to check out the art installations, wild gardens and city views. It was one of those crisp, brilliant New York afternoons when you feel you’re living in the best century ever.

Afterwards we walked to Herald Square, and – since Hanukkah comes early this year – Mom took me to Macy’s to buy me a sports jacket. Just saying “Herald Square” makes me feel like I’m living a couple of centuries ago. And saying “sports jacket” makes me wonder how those oddly cut, iconic garments got saddled with sports. Typically, I couldn’t decide between the Calvin Klein and the Ralph Lauren. Typically, my mother bought me both. Typically, I was wheedled into applying for a Macy’s credit card so that Mom would save 20% on the jackets. And then the long ride back to Hicksville on the LIRR, craving Chinese food.

“In the event of a large turnout,” the poster for tomorrow’s Snake Lake reading at the Plainview-Old Bethpage Library proclaims, “residents with photo IDs will be admitted first. Others as space permits.” The auditorium seats 200. Are there 200 people older than 75 in Plainview? I hope so. When my father passed away in 1984, about 3,000 people showed up at his memorial. It was if a ball player or a Mafia boss had died. My mother doesn’t have that many friends, but I think she’ll manage a respectable crowd. People love her. The High Line was her idea, as were the sports jackets. She is exquisitely reliable.

I’m feeling punted about by the Fates. And exhausted. Enormous energy and enthusiasm expended at the Book Revue bookstore in Huntington this evening, for an audience of 14. Eleven of whom were family. Without an effective publicist, without radio, these tours are an exercise in futility. They may be the most gratuitous form of masochism in which I indulge. Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Hmm. How far back in my behavioral chain do I want to navigate with those directions? And how far forward? (At least as far as the Plainview Library, this coming Saturday…. )

Is it a compulsion, or obsession? I can’t visit New York without diving into the museums. Today I visited the Met and the Whitney. The draw at the Met was   the John Baldessari retrospective. One of those godfathers-of-conceptual-art I’ve encountered in bits and pieces, but it was wonderful to take it his entire oeuvre in about an hour. Favorite piece: a 10-photo montage in which he took a map of California and photographed the actual location that each letter covered on the map. The final “A,” for example, was located in Joshua Tree. (It looks more clever than it sounds; which is practically a definition of conceptual art.)

The last few times I’ve visited the Whitney it’s been a disappointment. Either old stuff I’ve stared at to exhaustion (i.e, Edward Hopper) or new work that does nothing for me. Right now there’s a retrospective of the indefinable Paul Thek (1933-1988, of AIDS). Much of the work is nightmarish: sculptural representations of hunks of bloody flesh. But the title piece, The Diver, really spoke to me. A  painting of a pink figure, diving into translucent blue. Thek, like me, was fascinated by the unknown perils and possibilities contained within lakes and oceans. His artistic perspective originated from above; in Snake Lake, I take the view from below.

Did a reading tonight at the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art, one of my favorite places in Manhattan. A modest gathering; most of the people who entered the museum were there to hear a talk by film director Mike Nichols. But I gave it up for my attentive little group, and as always found myself totally immersed in the rarefied world of storytelling – which, paradoxically, seems a transit beyond the ego, an almost divinely guided ascent into a jet stream of urgent communication. (One does wish, afterwards, that more people had been there to enjoy it.) Only six people left with snakes—and they were very lucky people.

On a surprisingly narrow jet, flying from LAX to JFK. The idea is to blog more than I’ve been doing, which lately has been about twice a year. What better opportunity than my book tour for Snake Lake, with all this down time on airplanes and solitary lunches? Inspired by Buddhist ritual, Jewish mysticism, poet Maya Stein’s “Ten Line Tuesdays” and the $108K in a Los Angeles-based friend’s savings account, I hereby set two rules: a blog every day, through November 20th; and each blog exactly 324 words (three paragraphs of 108 words each). That shouldn’t be so difficult. Right? (These things never seem difficult at the beginning.)

Many human beings love Los Angeles, and this visit I was lucky enough to understand why. After a stupefying heat wave that ended with my arrival, a cold front moved in. Rain fell, the skies were cleansed, and Tinseltown was transformed into the Emerald City. I spent a luminous afternoon at the Huntington Library—amazed by the love poetry of John Donne,  a Walt Whitman letter, and the infinite adjoining cactus gardens. You walk among those convoluted aloes and comical barrel cactus feeling like you’ve been transported into a Dr. Seuss book. Fantastic textures you don’t dare touch. And a strange sweet smell in the air: tacos and sage.

(And LACMA was also fabulous – I kinda love Jeff Koons.)

Jeff Koons' "Balloon Dog"

Okay, back to the tour. My Book Soup audience (on Sunset) was thin – the audience had about as many legs as two beetles. After they filtered out, Jeff Garlin walked in. The actor, who plays Larry David’s agent on Curb Your Enthusiasm, is also an author (My Footprint), and we spent 20 minutes bemoaning our respective book tours. A good man, that Garlin, but what was he doing alone in a bookstore on a Friday night?  Far more vivifying was my reading at the wonderful Distant Lands, in Pasadena. About 40 people showed up—and ten left with snakes.

Narayanhiti Palace, Kathmandu

For 30 years I had viewed Narayanhiti–Nepal’s Royal Palace– only through its high silver gates,   or past the fruit bats hanging from the tall trees that shelter the grounds from view. But in early 2009 (shortly after Nepal became a Republic), the long-hidden residence was turned into a museum. Checking my   bag and passing through security I felt like a Chinese commoner, entering the Forbidden City after the Qing Dynasty fell.

It was a thrill to approach the sequestered palace, and climb the marble steps flanked by statues of horses and mythical beasts. But though the building is grand from the outside, the inside is dark and cold–filled with shabby décor that looks as though it hasn’t been changed for 50 years. With its small windows, narrow corridors and stuffed tigers (not to mention crocodile skins and rhinoceros heads), the place has a strange juju. One cannot use the word “comfy” to describe a single room.

There are the usual salons with useless gifts from visiting dignitaries: bronze medallions, filigree peacocks, a crystal paperweight from New York City Mayor Edward Koch. The walls are lined with photographs of visiting heads of state, even the humblest of them more powerful than their host. But the grounds and garden are quiet and pretty: the compound’s saving grace.

Photography is prohibited–but I did sneak a picture in the Gorkha Room, where I found myself enchanted by the Ceremonial The ceremonial throneThrone. Every King needs one of these, and this one is a beauty. More than half a ton of silver and a 30 tolas of gold (nearly a pound) were used to build the sofa-sized, velvet-cushioned seat of power. A canopy of nine gold nagas shaded the King’s head, and thick gold serpents served as his armrests.

Massacre 1 On June 1st, 2001, the enraged and besotted Crown Prince Dipendra allegedly went insane, and murdered his entire family– King Birendra, Queen Aiswarya, his siblings, and several other relatives–in the billiard room. The venue for the infamous Royal Massacre was actually a separate building, behind the palace itself. That structure has been completely demolished. Only the foundation remains, as if it were a freshly excavated ruin. Small signs indicate the sites where the shootings occurred. They are weird abstractions, and a sobering reminder of how the incoming powers immediately destroyed every shred of evidence that might shed light on the real motives for (and perpetrators of) the killings.

It’s a poignant experience to stand at the threshold of the late King Birendra’s office–a hideaway as modest as the Throne Room is gaudy. There’s a large desk, an imported bookshelf stereo and shelves filled with an odd assortment of books: Freedom in Exile, by the Dalai Lama; 1001 Wonderful Things, by Hutchinson; Hindu Castes and Sects. There is a picture of Tibet’s Mount Kailash on the wall. My friend Chrissie and I joked (in poor taste, I admit) about finding a copy of Shopping for Buddhas on Birendra’s desk.

Inside, looking outBirendra’s last words to his son,” I quipped. ” ‘Are these things Greenwald wrote about you true??‘ “

I left the former palace feeling underwhelmed, and a bit sad. There is little sense of grandeur at Narayanhiti, and few signs of greatness at any level. One gets the impression that the late monarch, though not a sad man or an ignorant one, lacked the slightest shred of imagination. I had the sense, as I did so often during the 1980s and 1990s, that he was gamely filling a seat–hoping to be an adequate king between more majestic ones.

*   *   *

Growing up on Long Island, I had map fever. It was more than a compulsion to cover my walls; it was a need to possess the places those maps represented, to On the Roadaccumulate destinations”¦  Above my desk hung a map of the United States, stuck full of pins, heavy with the destination voodoo of the post-Kerouac generation. On the Road was practically mythology to me; I charted Sal Paradise’s route through bop America as a scholar of ancient Greek might try to trace Odysseus’s travels.

In 1974, after two years at a local college, I set off for the West Coast at last, attempting to duplicate Kerouac’s journey and follow that “one long red line called Route 6 that led from the tip of Cape Cod clear to Ely, Nevada, and there dipped down to Los Angeles.” Needless to say, my path across the country took its own shape. It included some of the cities Sal Paradise visited, like Chicago and Denver, but for the most part I wound my way through territories unknown, an eager disciple of the Fates that steer young travelers into unexpected–but always strangely appropriate–encounters”¦.

– from “On Maps,” Scratching the Surface

Don’t know why it took me so long, but it wasn’t until this November — after giving a talk at the 100th Anniversary celebration of Hostelling International in Boston — that I finally made the pilgrimage to Lowell, Massachusetts, to visit Jack Kerouac’s grave.

Kerouac 1It wasn’t even my idea. The inspiration came from Tony Wheeler, the co-founder of Lonely Planet, who was also speaking at the event. Along with travel writer Rolf Potts (and his Arlington-based friend Steve, who served as our own private Dean Moriarty) we left our hotel near the Boston Common and drove the 45 minutes out to the old milling town where America’s most poetic vagabond was born, schooled, and laid to rest.

There’s nothing much to say about the house Kerouac was born in, at 9 Lupine Road. It’s a brown shingle two story (his family lived in the top flat) with a porch filled with hanging plants Kerouac 17and kids’ toys, a black SUV and a couple of bright red trash bins parked in front, the trees nearly empty now, it being Fall, and a melancholy pre-Thanksgiving light pervading the alley like the memory of hot cider on those short afternoons after football practice at Lowell High, itself as angular and sharply-lit as a canvas by Hopper, or de Chirico, near enough to the Mills so that the boys and girls could hear their mothers at work”¦.

Kerouac 7_1

These days you can walk from the Boott Cotton Mill and Museum (now, strangely, a National Historic Park) to the Kerouac Memorial: a series of marble pillars arranged as a cross and a mandala, inscribed with passages from the Beat hero’s books and poems:

–When you’ve understood this scripture, throw it away. If you can’t understand this scripture, throw it away. I insist on your freedom.

– The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, #45

Two miles south of Lowell along a road punctuated by Dunkin’ Donuts and freight car diners and gas stations without restrooms is the Edson Cemetery. We parked inside the wrought iron gate and crunched through vivid leaves, a jazzy honeyed medley of cinnamon red, candy corn yellow and burnt umber.

It was a big cemetery. There was no map. Finally — with the help of Steve’s iPhone, God bless “˜em — we found the flat stone. It was covered with a scattering of small offerings: dried flowers, cigarette packs, stones, candles, an American flag, a picture of Buddha, hand-written notes.

We stood there for a while and didn’t know what to say. Kerouac’s marker may be here — but for us his spirit still inhabits the road, anchored more in San Francisco or Denver At the Edson Cemetery, Lowellor Mexico itself, though we know he loved his roots and family and was a popular kid in high school, athletic and smart. What I mean is that Lowell meant more to Kerouac than to us, and although his bones lay beneath our feet I realized that if I can say one thing about Jack Kerouac it is that he is not interred. He is what Melville called a “loose fish,” connected not so much to this place (or any place) but to the Sense of Place itself, having created and cultivated that beautiful abstract sensibility better than anyone: that sweet lonely balance of longing and belonging, abiding in the moment while utterly aware of mortality, sublimely grateful yet inconsolably sad.

Rolf left a dollar bill he’d been carrying for six years, since he got it as change at the Golden Gate Bridge tool booth in 2003. Tony left a $10 trillion note that he’d picked up in Zimbabwe.

I dropped three coins onto the stone. They fell heads, heads, tails. The I Ching value of eight: a broken highway line. “The dark, yielding, receptive power of yin.”

Thank you, Jack Kerouac, I whispered to the bare trees in the leaf-littered November Lowell cemetery. We’re here by your invitation.

JG at Kerouac Park

Have I not written since Christmas? Forgive me. But now that I’m 55, I truly appreciate the words of Buddhist teacher and author Joseph Goldstein: “At some point, breakfast seems to come every 15 minutes.”

I recently returned from a trip to Tasmania, my second visit to the Australian island state in 16 months. This is a funny thing about being a freelance journalist; one becomes semi-expert on subjects that, a week or a month or a year ago, one knew nothing about. Like the rest of the world (with the exception of a few people on the island itself), my entire idea of what a Tassie Devil looked like was based on the Looney Tunes character, Taz.

In reality, devils are snarling, toothy, adorable creatures about the size of big raccoons, with translucent pink ears and white bands across their chests. They feed mainly on carrion (i.e., road kill) and small mammals. And they are in serious trouble. A deadly and contagious (!) cancer called Devil Facial Tumor Disease is sweeping over the island, and has already wiped out about 2/3 of the devil population since it appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, in 1996. Unless this mysterious disease is stopped, devils could be extinct by 2025.

A few days after I returned home to Oakland, I   took a walk in the Berkeley hills to enjoy the wildflowers. Along the trail I ran into my old friend Arlene Blum. Though Arlene is best known for her role on the 1984 all-women’s expedition to Mt. Annapurna (and as the author of Annapurna: A Woman’s Place), she’s also a PhD in chemistry. The minute I mentioned Tasmania, Arlene informed me about a recent study. Amazingly, autopsies on Tasmanian Devils are showing very high levels of chemical fire retardants called PBDEs: highly toxic chemicals commonly found in computers, carpets, and furniture. How did these chemicals get into the environment of this remote island, which is said to have the cleanest air is the world? And are these PBDEs — which affect the immune system, and “have been linked to reproductive problems and cancers in animals and human” (The Australian, 2/22/2008) — the cause of Devil Facial Tumor Disease? If nothing else, these remarkable and alarming finds show that this planet’s biosphere is linked in ways we can barely perceive, with results we are only beginning to anticipate.

On a more playful note…

Is it wrong to blog about a blog about me? I think not. A few days ago, my Google ego-alert turned up a blog on referencing a quotation from my 1999 book Future Perfect: How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth. The ping was timely for two reasons. First, because the new Star Trek movie is scheduled to open on May 8th ( can you believe it’s actually called “Star Trek”?). Secondly, because I have come to realize that what most appeals to me about Barack Obama is his Spock-like quality.

Anyway, here is the blog from the erudite Virginia Postrel,entitled “The Glamour of Star Trek.”

Earthrise from Apollo 8

Earthrise from Apollo 8

Whenever I see this photograph – taken on Christmas Eve, 1968,   by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders — I think about the now-classic sci-fi film Men in Black. Planet Earth, suspended in space, reminds me of “Orion’s bell:” the bauble around the neck of an alien’s cat, containing an entire miniature galaxy. There it is: the home planet, shrunk to the size of a Christmas ornament.

As many times as we’ve seen this iconic image, how often do we really get it? Do we understand, viscerally, that everything that has ever happened to humanity – to every living thing ever known – has occurred on that glossy blue-and-white marble?

In the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, much is made of a phenomenon called satori: the moment of illumination, or awakening, that makes the delusional nature of life melt away like a sno-cone in the Sahara. Satori can be evoked by a simple phrase, feeling, or gesture. The emaciated Buddha attained realization when served a bowl of rice milk; the teacher Byron Katie awoke in a halfway house to the sensation of a cockroach creeping across her foot. For others, illumination comes with the contemplation of a koan: a mystifying paradox which short-circuits our rational thought process.

It seems to me that this astonishing photo — disarmingly simple, yet impossible to fully comprehend — might serve as the collective koan for every human being alive on this world. It is a portrait in which we are invisible, yet fully contained;   a point of view that portrays reality in an absolutely unadorned, yet utterly radiant, state. It is a vision available to non-visionaries; a miracle that requires no faith.

It is a view of our dizzying isolation, and proof of our total interdependence. And whether our Earth is just one of a billion populated worlds in this spiral galaxy, or a trinket around the neck of some alien’s cat (or both), it’s pretty frakkin’ gorgeous.

Here’s wishing all of you a wonderful New Year – on a planet that seems just a little more wonderful than it did last year.

*   *   *

p.s.A marvelous essay about this famous image, by Nature editor Oliver Morton, appeared 12/24/08 in the New York Times.

Nearly half my lifetime ago — in October, 1983 — my friend Bill Geary and I took a taxi to the Kathmandu’s old Tribhuvan Airport and boarded a sturdy Twin Otter for Lukla, the gateway to the world’s highest mountain range. We trekked for nearly four weeks, exploring the three main valleys of what would soon become Nepal’s Sagarmatha National Park. Our adventure climaxed atop Kala Patthar: a “black hill” which, cresting at 18,200′, affords a panoramic view of the Khumbu Glacier, the saw-tooth face of the Lhotse/Nuptse wall, and the commanding anvil of Everest, towering yet another 11,000′ above our struggling lungs.

I didn’t know if I could do it again. I’m in my 50’s now — fit enough for sea level, but cashing in on my genetic inheritance: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and a hardwired risk of heart failure. This year, in fact, I outlived my father, who passed away in September 1984 — less than a year after my first Everest trek, and mere days after his 54th birthday.

There are no guarantees in the mountains. I would not have been the first “healthy” trekker to collapse in the thin, cold air, struggling up flagstone trails that climb as much as 2,500′ a day, into an atmosphere that holds only 50% of the oxygen at sea level. And if that had happened — had I died on the trek, surrounded by impassive yaks and single-minded lichen — it would have been all right. By the time the Dakini and I began the long, slow climb up Kala Patthar, we had seen visions of such breathtaking beauty that it might seem almost selfish to wish for more.

You know the ending of this story. I didn’t die. We stood atop Kala Patthar just after noon, the sky high angstrom blue, the sun a bleached yellow star of halogen brightness. My ears beat in the wind. Crows hovered alongside our perch, hoping for power bar crumbs. The shifting Earth, with its myriad expressions of DNA, lay all around.

We tied a string of multi-colored prayer-flags at the summit. I dedicated their blessings to the memory of my father, and his good heart.

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