India Travelogue, Ep. 12:

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One of the most fascinating (and hair-raising) aspects of my trip was the sights and sounds to be found on India’s roads. I could write five posts about it (and might) but today’s reflection is about what I called the “clown car” effect. Everywhere I looked, there were motorized vehicles with about triple to quadruple the riders they were designed for.

Case in point: scooters were everywhere and we rarely saw one or even two riders. More typically, there were three to five riders. One memorable exception I saw was a single rider transporting a full sized refrigerator on the back of his scooter. Understandably, the fridge took up all the room that would have otherwise been allotted to additional riders.

Riders rarely wore helmets. Most wore sandals. Women rode side-saddle. And you just haven’t seen family togetherness until you’ve seen a family of five zipping down the road at nearly 50 mph on a single scooter — young son, father, young daughter, mother and infant (on mother’s lap) lined up like a cartoon illustration you can’t imagine until you see it in real life.

Efficiency rather than comfort or safety seems to be the name of the game. How else do you explain four to five folks riding a tractor down the road (I saw this multiple times), or dozens of folks riding in a dump truck (I couldn’t count them all but I’m guessing maybe 50 souls), or cars carrying two to three times the American legal limit?

Bicycles, farm and heavy equipment, carts pulled by livestock, busses, semis, rickshaws (both pedaled and motorized), scooters, motorcycles, cars, trucks, vans . . . you name it. If it had wheels or legs and could move forward, I saw it in traffic, both urban and rural.

Interestingly, during two weeks of travel, I didn’t see a single highway patrolman (I assume they have them) and I only saw one accident. India’s roads are jam-packed with what might best be called improvised modes of transportation but people are alert and seem to maneuver far better than many of the American motorists I encounter daily. Mario’s got nothing on Kumar, man!

 

 

India Travelogue, Ep. 10:

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I’ve told you about the folks I encountered in India who seek money from tourists either as a handout or by providing nominal services. What I haven’t told you about is the hawkers. Actually, I don’t like that term. It sounds pejorative to me (much like “beggars”), but I must admit there’s a level of aggressive selling of cheap souvenirs that can seem off-putting to the uninitiated. And much of the work is done by children.

The boy in this photo approached me outside the Taj Mahal and I must admit I was immediately smitten. I mean, look at that face! And unlike most of the sellers, he seemed devoid of desperation or frenzy. He was soft-spoken and unfailingly polite. He had an air of confidence that was neither brazen nor feigned and he was unlike any of the multitude of peddlers I met on my trip. I looked into his eyes and knew I would undoubtedly buy whatever this exceptional boy was selling.

First, he offered me a keyring featuring a tiny painted Ganesha (elephant god). He had a package of 12 and I told him I wanted them all, but I offered him a fraction of his asking price. My bargaining was a ploy, really, to ensure our walk together lasted a while. After I finally agreed to $5, he next offered me a boxed set of crudely carved and decorated marble souvenirs. Once again, I offered him a fraction of his asking price before finally agreeing to $5 as a way to prolong our conversation.

My friend also found him charming and her negotiation for keyrings gave me the opportunity to snap a photograph. I’m so glad I did because I would have paid $10 just for the pleasure of talking to him. That I also have a photograph to remember him by is the icing on my Taj Mahal cake.

Epilogue: I gave away all the keyrings and the marble boxed set during my office’s Christmas gift exchange. I was surprised how much my co-workers treasured the trinkets and gratified that a brief interaction that meant so much to me brought holiday joy to my colleagues.

 

India Travelogue, Ep. 9:

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There’s something so ethereal, so chimerical, so magically entrancing about the Taj Mahal that it doesn’t seem real. And I think that’s why I love this photo so much. It literally doesn’t look real. It looks like a painted backdrop in a Broadway musical.

I think it’s because the air pollution we encountered in Northern India gave this magnificent relic an other-worldy feel. I found the effect oddly fitting, as if the Gods had lowered a cosmic veil to obscure its stunning beauty from immodest admirers.

I had no idea what to expect. I knew it would be awesome but I failed to anticipate how jaw-dropping its scale, artistry, and symmetrical perfection would be. The only metaphor that comes to mind is Brigadoon. Once you step inside the massive gate and glimpse the Taj for the first time, you are stunned beyond belief. This must surely be a dream, you think, and you pray you won’t wake up.

Yesterday I mentioned that I grew up thinking the word “Indian” applied only to people like my Cherokee relatives. Despite my parochial upbringing, I knew about the Taj Mahal. It was part of a phrase my Okie mother invoked anytime she thought I had gotten too big for my britches. Sometimes she’d call me “Miss Astor” (after Ava Alice Muriel Astor, NY socialite and daughter of John Jacob Astor).  Other times she’d say “You don’t live in the Taj Mahal, you know!” For years, I thought the Taj was a palace rather than a mausoleum. I knew it was far away, from another time, and probably beyond my ability to visit.

When I toured the Taj Mahal, my friends and I sat on the “Diana bench” for a photo and I couldn’t stop thinking about my mother. She would have been gobsmacked by my stories (and frightened out of her socks that I had traipsed off to a place like India). Oh, how I would have loved to tell her all about it and about the Indian stranger who called me “Diana” when I walked by. She would have said “Ain’t that something!” about a million times and I would have felt even more like the little girl from the small town who visited the magical place her mother only dreamed of.

Colleen would have loved the Taj, and I’m quite certain she somehow thinks my britches are perfectly sized for the world traveler she inspired.

 

India Travelogue, Ep. 7:

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Most experts will tell you never to eat “street food” when traveling. And it’s good advice, I suppose, but it also limits your culinary adventures considerably.  For health reasons, I went to India believing I would only drink bottled water (and, in fact, I’d only brush my teeth with bottled water) and I would not eat any food that wasn’t prepared in a reputable  and hygienic restaurant.

Turns out, I broke rank. When I passed this street vendor in Munnar, I couldn’t resist. After more than a week of eating traditional Indian dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight and smell of two American favorites — sweet corn and boiled peanuts. I hollered at my friends and insisted they backtrack and consider this opportunity. Most of them looked at me like I’d lost my mind, but my friend Vandana, an Indian native who organized our trip and served as the arbiter of all things “advisable” (or not), inspected the cart and declared this vendor was probably safe.

And, so, I got my corn and peanuts, sprinkled of course with cayenne pepper because it’s India and cayenne is de rigueur.

Standing by the side of a busy road near a congested tourist attraction (Eravikulam Lake), I savored every bite of my corn and peanuts — served in a Dixie cup with a plastic spoon the size of a paper clip.

The verdict? Praise the lord.

Epilogue: Look, I’m no Anthony Bourdain and I’m not suggesting you take unnecessary risks with your GI tract while 10,000 miles from home. But in hindsight, I’m convinced I passed up a lot of tasty and perfectly safe treats by being overly cautious. In fact, I traveled to India with an armory of pills and elixirs for every stomach ailment known to mankind. In the end, all I experienced was a little “sluggishness” of the digestive tract, which happens every time I leave home, no matter the distance.

India Travelogue, Ep. 4:

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Before I left for India, I confided my anxieties about the trip to my friend and meditation teacher. She has been to India many times (to serve the poor rather than vacation like me) and she told me the trip would be “the edge of (my meditation) practice.”

I knew she was right but I didn’t know how right until we traveled by train. Two trips on the train (one 12 hours and one 18 hours) will remain my least favorite travel experiences.

I feel silly talking about it but I will say this: I’m so white and so American I had envisioned a very “Sex in the City” kind of adventure. (Remember the episode when Carrie and Samantha took the train to LA?) I thought we’d have cocktails. Instead, if you’ve ever seen the movie “Reds,” and you remember the scene where Diane Keaton meets Warren Beaty at the crowded and chaotic train station in pre-revolution Russia, it was like that, only depressingly un-cinematic.

Rather than recall the specific conditions (which were crowded and dirty beyond anything I’d ever experienced), I’ve reflected on why I was so outside my comfort zone, why I felt so unmoored, why I was convinced I might just perish right then and there.

Truth is, other than length, the second train ride was easier and more enjoyable than the first. Probably because I knew what to expect. We played cards, we laughed, we ate snacks, we had quite a scare when our friend left the train at a stop to buy food and we thought she’d been left behind. (Turned out, the train didn’t leave the station; it merely switched tracks and our friend made it back on just fine.) I even slept a little on the second trip, unlike the first.

Looking back in my photos, there’s nothing that’s shocking so I’m still not sure why I felt the way I did. But maybe it has to do with that old saying “The train has left the station.” For a girl who’s spent a lifetime planning contingencies and exit strategies (and polishing her bubble), once you’re on the train, you’re on it. And you are most definitely not in control.

And maybe the universe knew a train ride was the perfect antidote for my shiny bubble and accelerator for my meditation practice.

 

India Travelogue, Ep. 3:

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I am not a well traveled individual. Although I have seen all but seven of the US states, prior to going to India, I could name the foreign countries I’ve visited on three fingers (Mexico, Brazil and Canada).

Since I had never left the American continent, I was sensitive about being perceived as a stereotypical US resident (ignorant, rude, entitled) by the locals. I tried so hard to be warm and friendly and polite and respectful in every situation.

Well, you can take the girl out of her bubble but . . .

Case in point: one day we were driving through a number of smaller towns. Many of my friends were dozing but I became fascinated with the array of merchants flanking the main roads through these towns. Most were in makeshift stalls, many no bigger than maybe 8’X8′. I saw a couple of what could be termed “variety” stores (to use a nostalgic American term from my youth), but many were single-item affairs (brooms in one, chairs in another, snacks in another). I began calling them out. “Oh look, there’s an auto mechanic’s shop! There’s a broom store! There’s a store selling pots and pans!” I even saw a man ironing in one stall. (An ironing store? I chuckled at my inability to name it quickly.)

When we drove past the one pictured above, I said “Oh look! It’s a second-hand clothing store.” My two Indian friends burst out laughing. Between their guffaws, one said “Oh Joan, it’s first-hand. It’s just dirty.” I was so embarrassed and realized immediately how privileged my world view had become. 

So yeah. I got that going for me.

Epilogue: I think the Indians got it going on. In many ways, these small merchants made me nostalgic for my “Mayberry” upbringing, where my neighbors’ businesses thrived before the big-box, Wal-Mart, soul-sucking economy choked them out.

India Travelogue, Ep. 2:

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One of the most difficult aspects of traveling in India is the emotional toll on tourists of those who seek money. (I’ve always hated the term beggars.) I’m not trying to make a political or moral argument about society, I’m just saying the experience was hard.

Mostly those who sought money were children, but there were also many women and the occasional disabled man. Their numbers were far too many to ignore and their persistence is remarkable. I had carried a large number of $1 bills for this purpose. I most often gave singles but I sometimes gave as many as five as at a time.

One time, I was approached by a group of boys as I waited for my friends to return to our tour bus. After I gave them each a bill, our tour bus driver chided me. I smiled at his admonition. I have no answer except I dare you to look into the face of need and not respond. I told him there are individuals in America who do the same. Mostly, in my area, they are older men who stand by the interstate exits. And I told him I give them money too, far more than I was sharing with these children.

He asked me to follow him a short distance, where he pointed over a low wall and I saw a group of boys, perhaps 10 or 12 years old, sitting cross-legged on the ground and playing cards. “That’s what they do with your money!” he exclaimed. I smiled again. “They look hungry,” I said.

Of all the experiences I had in India, these momentary interactions where we met eyes and I acknowledged our shared humanity and offered what I liked to think of as a traveler’s gratuity will stay with me most poignantly.

 

The long goodbye.

Dear friends,

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Six years ago this week, my mother died after a brief illness. A couple of weeks later, Mr. Mom and I went to Colorado for a trial involving our mountain dispute. Both experiences were traumatic in their own way.

And while experts advise you never to make a major life decision in the wake of trauma, I did just that. Shortly after returning from Colorado, I announced to Mr. Mom that I wanted to re-make my life. A month later, with my family’s support, I put our dream home in “Mayberry, OK” on the market and began searching for job opportunities in other states.

A lot has happened since then . . . much of it chronicled on this blog. One thing that didn’t happen, however, was the sale of our home in Mayberry (which I dubbed “Magpie Manor” in a nod to my nickname and the home’s grand style).

I could go on and on about why our home didn’t sell, but it probably suffices to say our handicap as remote landlords combined with irresponsible renters who kicked in doors and broke windows and (yes, this part is true, brandished firearms when we sent repairmen to deal with problems they initiated) set up some pretty difficult conditions. It probably suffices to say that those conditions were compounded by the fact that we purchased the home at the peak of the housing bubble and were forced to sell, post-crash,  in an economically depressed county.  A little over a year ago, while visiting my father before his death, I dropped in on our renters and found a barnyard animal in my living room. To say I was distressed about the condition of our home is an understatement. I remember calling Mr. Mom after I drove away and wailing through my tears “Our home will never sell with a pig in it!”

For the longest time I have felt like the poster child for the fall-out of the housing crisis, with one important exception: we have managed to hang on financially.  There are so many times I wanted to simply walk away and let the bank foreclose, but I didn’t for a variety of reasons, some noble, some practical.

But last spring I had a mini-meltdown and declared to Mr. Mom that we would sell by the end of August or walk away. I drew a line in the sand, as unwise as that tactic usually is. I called the realtor and told her to slash the price to whatever would sell.

The good news is, we sold. We are finally, mercifully, released from the burden of a second mortgage on a home far away.

The bad news is we sold at a substantial loss. And I’m not just talking about an equity loss. I’m talking about writing a big, fat check at closing just for the privilege of saying goodbye (where big and fat equals a shocking percentage of my annual salary).

But as much as this sale represents a major financial set-back and heartbreak I won’t soon forget, I can’t help but remember everything wonderful and good and magical about the big white house on the brick-paved street that my family called home for five years. I can’t help but think about the new owners and hope they will love and care for Magpie Manor as much as I did.

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Will they love its broad porch and view of a main thoroughfare through “Mayberry?”

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Will they love the original oak floors and trim, and stately french doors with beveled glass?

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Will they love the grand living room with its gigantic front windows and 12-foot ceilings?

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Will they love its cozy kitchen with more outrageously sized windows and an abundance of natural light?

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Will they love the original chandelier that I carefully relocated from the dining room to the downstairs bathroom and fastidiously polished during the time we lived there?

Will they love the sun room with its Southern exposure, and the mudroom with its charming brick floor, and the basement with its rustic “coal room” tucked in the corner, and the study with its built-in desk, and the four spacious bedrooms, one in each corner of the house with incredible views? Will they scrub the home’s porch and polish its floors and tend to its yard? Will they care for its carriage house and bask in the charm of its historic style? Will they host big parties and give everyone a tour because the home deserves adoring eyes? Will they breathe easier when they walk in the door because there is no better place to be than the big white house on the brick paved street?

My heart can’t imagine any answer but yes. To the new owners: we loved the big white house with all our hearts and souls. We wish it — and you — good fortune and Godspeed.

With gratitude {for a path through . . . long and trying though it was},

Joan-Marie, granddaughter of Cren and Marie, friends to the big white house’s original owner, Billie B., a dapper man who must’ve loved the home’s style as much as he loved the crisp, seersucker suit and straw boater he wore when he posed for a photo on the front porch, circa 1925.

Two Years.

Dear friends,

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Two years ago this month, Mr. Mom and I had just returned from a week in Colorado for a second District Court trial in our decade-long mountain saga. Mr. Mom was optimistic about our chances. I was not.

Some three months later, my pessimism confirmed reality when the court ruling arrived via email and we learned we had lost. I gathered up all my brave and wrote this post.

We were immediately advised by our attorney to appeal the ruling. The appeal has been almost two years in the making. A multitude of documents and briefs and motions have been prepared and edited and filed on our behalf. A mountain of legal bills have been paid. Mr. Mom has spent countless hours and untold sleepless nights helping our attorneys build and refine our argument. Last month, the Appellate Court held oral arguments in our case. We watched a live stream of the proceeding as our attorney answered questions posed by the three-judge panel.  Then we closed our browser and began yet another waiting game.

Mr. Mom was again hopeful. The only way I know how to describe my feelings is lost and afraid. So much of the saga is over my head, as we long ago descended into the depths of arcane boundary law. Mr. Mom has dug in with a ferocity that is unmatched among laymen. He has read and researched and learned nearly every aspect of case law that applies to us. He has always possessed a nearly photographic memory and he can recall the tiniest details related to our case with ease and accuracy. He watched the oral arguments attuned to every nuance. For me, it was a lot of words I couldn’t follow. I found myself reacting like a child with thoughts such as “She seems like a nice judge. Maybe she’ll rule in our favor.”

For the last month we’ve been on pins and needles, wondering when a ruling would arrive. Our attorney said his instinct told him we’d hear in 30-45 days. He was correct. The ruling arrived this week.

I can’t say we won. I can’t say we lost.

The final verdict hinges on one tiny fact that — based on the evidence in the trial record — couldn’t be proven or denied by the Appellate Court. It all depends on whether a particular road near our property is private or public.

If private, we win.

If public, the Unfriendlys win.

Thus, our case has been remanded — once again — to District Court for determination.

During our second District Court trial, a witness for our side (a landowner) testified the road is private. A witness for their side (Junior Unfriendly himself) testified it’s public. The Appellate Court ruled there was insufficient evidence for them to make a determination. Obviously, whether a road is public or private should be a matter of public record and we believe we can prove it’s private. But I’ve also learned over 10 years that even simple facts can be distorted and challenged in ways that are highly effective in litigation, so I fully expect the Unfriendlys to unveil a convoluted (and fallacious) argument for why the road is public.

Our fate is once again in the hands of a District Judge. We’re 0-2 on that front, by the way. (Interestingly, we are 3-0 in the Appellate Court. I learned not long ago that only 15% of all appeals are successful in getting a verdict overturned. That we’re batting 1.000 with the Appellate court tells you a lot about the District Court in Pueblo.)

The whole public-private thing may seem confusing but it’s really quite simple. For the Unfriendlys to prove we have access via another route, the route has to originate with a public road. We’ve known for 40 years the road in dispute isn’t public (the locked gate that controls access to the road is just one sign) but, once again, we expect the Unfriendlys to dispute our claim.

We don’t know how long it will take to get a date in District Court. We might be looking at 2016 and we might not.

Several weeks ago I lamented to Mr. Mom how difficult a year 2015 was. Between the court case, difficulties with our house in Oklahoma that still hasn’t sold, my father’s death, and my illness and surgery, I wished out loud that 2016 would be the year we got rid of the house and the mountain saga ended in our favor. It’s only April, but I can’t help but speculate that the wish gods aren’t on my side.

Still, as our attorney said after the ruling “We’re still swinging!”

With gratitude {for another chance to not only claim our stake but actually be able to drive to it},

Joan, who watched The Revenent recently and really related to the scene where the nearly dead Hugh Glass clawed his way out of a grave to continue the fight

PS: I’ve condensed this post down to a tiny fraction of what’s been happening legally. The Appellate Court ruling is 48 pages, for Pete’s sake. As the Dude says “There’s, uh, a lot of ins and outs, man.” Mr. Mom could explain it to you but, trust me, you wouldn’t enjoy it.

 

Reboot.

Dear friends,

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My “gut reboot” is complete and, as promised, I’m here to tell you about it.

(Because what’s the point of self-improvement if there’s no one to tell, right?)

When my friend Patti told me about the plan (and the book), I was skeptical. A 21-day cleanse sounded about as much fun as a 21-day root canal. Perhaps she caught me at a weak moment. I had just fallen off the treadmill a day earlier. (This was a literal treadmill accident, not a fall “off the wagon” so to speak.)  I was feeling particularly old and vulnerable. And bad.

The thing about feeling bad is — like the frog in the proverbial pot of hot water — you don’t know how bad you feel until you don’t feel bad anymore. Headaches, sleepiness, lethargy, persistent GI distress . . . I chalked it all up to age and stress.

I didn’t realize it wasn’t normal. Until it wasn’t.

I started to feel better by day 3 of the cleanse. By day 10, I was really grooving. Now I’m all but a few days away from a month and I have no intention of stopping.

I’ve only had one headache the whole time. I’ve had ZERO stomach/GI issues. My energy is improving daily. Mr. Mom said my skin looks clearer, younger. (I’ll take it!) My “brain fog” has finally cleared. With the exception of two late nights worrying about my kids’ trouble du jour, my sleep has been uninterrupted and restful. My running and weight training are improving. (In fairness, fitness breeds fitness so I’m not trying to suggest eating better has made me fitter; but I’m certain feeling better and having more energy has improved my exercise.) I’ve lost 10 pounds. All in all, it’s been a 21-day boon.

If there’s a downside, it’s that eating is no longer easy. It takes planning and preparation to eat healthy. You guys know I’m a pretty decent cook and baker and I’m having to learn new ways and new ingredients. I’m in unfamiliar territory but gaining my footing daily.

My transition to a plant-based diet has been a slow evolution since I officially became a vegetarian a year ago. Still, forgoing meat is relatively easy, especially if — like me — you rely on packaged and convenience foods. The beauty of this cleanse is that it helped me break my reliance on convenience foods. First, I came to realize that “cheese tots” or “chips and dip” really aren’t a lunch option I should consider a viable option as a vegetarian. Second, it broke me of my reliance on cheese and crackers or PBJs as totally acceptable dinners (or breakfasts, or snacks). Third, it helped me understand that life goes on (and goes on well) without refined carbs and dairy.

I am reluctant to call myself a vegan now, though I’m still not eating dairy. The premise of “Clean Gut” is that you eat a very restricted diet for 21 days (no dairy, no gluten, no caffeine, no alcohol, with other restrictions on many fruits and starchy foods like potatoes, rice and corn). At the end of the cleanse, you reintroduce common “trigger” foods and test your reaction. I have successfully reintroduced gluten, but I’m only eating limited amounts of oatmeal and whole grain bread. I may try whole grain pasta later but, so far, I haven’t missed pasta one bit. I reintroduced potatoes last night (with a vegan mashed potatoes recipe I found online) and found that even the cleaned up version sat really heavy on my stomach. While I experienced no major GI distress as a result, I realized I no longer enjoy eating foods that prompt an “ugh” after dinner. I still need to “reintroduce and test” dairy and corn, but I’m in no hurry. I feel so good I’m staying the course.

Speaking of ugh, the best habit this cleanse helped me form is to quit eating when I’m 80% full. I have to admit, when I first read this advice in the book, the concept was lost in translation. I’m a clean-your-plate girl. Always have been. I know what full feels like but I have no idea what 8/10ths full means. Almost full? Not quite full? Still hungry? Hungry I know!

Despite being fuzzy on the concept, I gave it my best. For someone as lost as me, someone who knows what the hour after the Thanksgiving meal or Pizza Night feels like but has no idea what it means to stop eating before you are satiated, the best I can describe it is this: Stop when you still want more. Stop before you are ready to stop eating.

Stop before you are ready to stop eating.

This advice is not just about stopping. Although that’s hard enough to do. It’s also about how much to put on your plate to begin with. Recalibrating what constitutes a meal. As a young girl, a meal meant two helpings of everything. As an adult, it has meant excessively large portions (and still sometimes helping myself to seconds).

If you’ve ever done any reading on this topic, you likely already know it takes your brain 20 minutes to catch up with your stomach. Meaning — if you eat until your stomach feels full, 20 minutes later you will feel over-full. Over-full became my full. Which is why “less than full” has been so perplexing to me.

But I’m learning. And in the mean time, I’m having fun exploring new websites and cookbooks and recipes. I’ve had a couple of fantastic vegan successes (like the lasagna I featured here) and I’ve had at least one spectacular fail (a vegan “meatloaf” we shall never speak of again). Kudos to my boys for taking it all in stride.

With gratitude {for the chance, daily, to remake my life in healthier, happier terms},

Joan, who purchased the poster pictured above because it reminded her of Mr. Mom — who’s been an exceptionally good sport about eating more vegetables for the last year — and because he really does make her heart flutter

PS: I invite you to check out the websites of the books pictured below to learn more about a plant-based diet

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Click here for Clean Gut

Click here for the Kind Diet

Click here for Oh She Glows