I’ve been warming up to pink.
Never a fan, to me the smarmy color represents nausea and forced gender roles.
But I had to get into the pink ribbon thing when it meant something to cancer strugglers I know. And now that forced cheer has turned to real cheer. It’s the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington D.C., celebrated with pink flags and pink petaled logos. There’s pink apparel, pink ice cream, pink backpacks . . . persistent pink paraphernalia.
By sheer coincidence, that’s actually the color of the cherry trees this week, the trees gifted by Yukio Ozaki, the mayor of Tokyo, in 1912. I don’t know how many of the 3,000 trees delivered survived, but enough to attract a whole big bunch of visitors every year.
I’m glad to learn our government reciprocated by sending flowering dogwood trees to Japan in 1915.
But I wonder what comments a blog like this might have offered in spring, 1942, a few months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Let’s not reopen wounds, let’s take a look at the effect the trees, planted around D.C.’s tidal basin, have on the atmosphere of place.
As I share a picnic lunch with my husband, who works in a federal office a few blocks away, we watch a slowly-moving, mostly-smiling, current of diverse people traipse along the edge of the tidal basin during the lunch hour today.
Driving in to D.C. is always a refresher course in ‘why I hate America’ as the gentrified drivers of Northern Virginia, who will always cede me space when I use a turn signal to enter traffic, are replaced by bleeping mini-vans, agressive dark-tinted SUVs and taxi drivers. The latter seem to blame me personally for their Uber troubles.
But these people we watch now, delirious with the scent of cherry blossoms, seem to have left their aggressions in their cars. We catch the stream to the Jefferson Memorial and meander up the steps.
I can’t help but wonder what this place looked like in 1942, just 30 years after the arboreal gift was transplanted, as we, the Americans, locked up anyone Japanese in internment camps. What conversations occurred here then?
I can only give you these pictures of the conversations that are occurring here now. Listen closely:
It’s 8:30 p.m. Monday. My son, who we’ll call “Chance” puts the Subaru in reverse and pulls out of the parking space, having had his fill from one of Colorado Springs’ finest pizza ovens.
I am still trying to get used to the mile-high altitude.
He shifts into drive and peers through the salt- and mud-coated windshield at the red light ahead. He talks about how he needs to get his thesis written, he really needs to get his thesis written. His self-imposed deadline passed at midnight and all he has is 25 pages of script and a brand new bedroom wall that flutters with post-it notes outlining the plot of his film.
He hopes to shoot this summer in northern California.
“What the fuck?” he asks, staring at the brake lights in front of him, followed immediately with an impatient, “stoners.”
The late model silver Mustang in front of us is plodding along at a 14 miles per hour along the main street, braking for no apparent reason.
Chance is not upset for the same reason I would be. He just wants to get home to work on his thesis. I recognize the relative power and handling capability of a Mustang compared to the 13-year-old Subaru that my son has repaired by attaching the bumper to the roof rack just behind the left rear wheel well using two bungee cords.
Since Colorado passed its marijuana laws, dispensaries have popped up in every has-been storefront in the state. They have not-quite-clever names and they feature the symbolic green leaf shape familiar to every slow-speed boomer who survived the 60s. And that tangy smell of weed has popped up in every parking lot.
My son, I suspect, has sampled the goods and found them dull, just as I did at his age.
And having lived in Colorado more than two years, he has observed the effects of the drug. One of his professors is so high strung the cannabis makes him functional. Others just cruise through their lives at 14 miles per hour.
I remember a family friend whose complex medical issues were well-treated with marijuana.
“I think they’re looking for something,” I suggest, turning back to the reined-in Mustang.
“They’re just high,” he said with authority and some dismay.
Where exactly is the line between interesting and uncomfortable?
I’ve mentioned here before our Iranian friends, Dariush and Yalda.
I was first introduced to Iranian culture when I lived in the rural burg of Kelseyville, California and made the mistake of speaking Spanish to a small woman being dragged to the parking lot from my son’s preschool by a small boy.
Lily and I became fast friends once I figured out that Farsi, not Spanish, was her native language. Her son, who we’ll call “Nathan” is between the ages of my children. My kids were 5 and 3 at the time.
Lily was a princess, according to her husband, Tom, who as a blue-eyed, blond guy looks more like me than my brother does.
Lily and her sister had fled Iran as young teens when the Shah of Iran was overthrown, because they had been members of the Shah family, cousins. Lily did not know where or if her father lived, for three years. She lived and studied as best she could at a boarding school in Switzerland.
How she made it to the United States, met and fell in love with Tom, moved to our rural northern California burg, remains irrelevant to this story. For this story is about another pair of Iranians I have come to know and love, Dariush and Yalda.
Dariush and my husband met at a gas station, at least that’s what I remember, where one was waiting for the other to fill a bicycle tube with air—the cheater way. Both later claimed to have met at REI in the bicycle section where they both wanted to try out the same bike.
Regardless, Dariush and my husband, Lars, have become bicycling pals.
They have pedaled the C&O Canal, the Alleghany Trail, the W, O & D trail … and this summer we camped out in Shenandoah National Park midway through their 100+ mile tour of the long green dream.
Also, we have shared many a meal of Persian lentils and rice and eggplant and chicken in complex dishes I fail to remember the names of. Dariush and Yalda have come to our home for enough Thanksgivings now to know what to accept in Tupperware containers as take-home leftovers and what to say “Oh, it was delicious but no thank you very much.”
Dariush is a friendly, smart, honest, funny man with sharp eyebrows, but little hair above them. Yalda’s large brown eyes bely her innocence. She has perfect skin and a rosebud smile that questioned, when I first met her, in halting English, how to change gears on the bike. Now, several years later, she expresses delight and pity and sheer hilarious joy in the language that has become her own.
The two of them asked me to speak at their wedding this fall, an event Lars and I had predicted before, I suspect, it had occurred to either of them. I could see that Dariush loved Yalda far more than Yalda dared imagine. And I could see that Yalda, despite her misgivings about certain attitudes regarding potential in-laws, was interested only in Dariush. Yes, it was meant to be. I was honored to share my observations with their wedding guests, some of whom had flown around the world to be there and could not understand anything I said.
The other wedding speaker, a take-your-breath-away-good-looking guy who spoke in Farsi had the small gathering laughing by, I guessed, conducting a game show style “guess the fun fact about the couple.” I figured it out when he listed several things, three of which I recognized as food items, the last being “Pizza.” The crowd all yelled “PIZZA!”
The dancing at her wedding would not be permitted in Iran, one of her wedding friends had mentioned to me, nor would the gathering itself.
Fast forward past beautiful wedding with dizzying mid-eastern dancing and heart-wrenching Zoroastrian ceremony to the first dinner party in the couple’s new home. Last night Dariush greeted us in t-shirt and painter pants; he’d been working in the garage.
Yalda, busy in the kitchen but unable to tell me what smelled so good, wanted to know whether I liked her choice of colors for the bedroom. I would never have thought how to make wine-purple go with orange. But Yalda had pulled it off.
We dipped shrimp in red sauce, pulled orange segments from their rinds and eventually put our wineglasses on the table and sat down to dinner. Dish after dish of steaming unpronouncable exotic foods filled the table.
These people, my own dear Dariush and Yalda, had fled a country that forbade their religion. Here they are, right here, entering my hearts as fellow Americans. My own ancestors, I found myself telling them, had fled England for the very same reason just a couple hundred years ago.
My cheeks burned as I looked at Yalda, finishing her degree at our own George Mason University, and felt an enormous gratitude for this country.
As we finished dinner Yalda brought out six containers of ice cream, bowls and spoons.
I had emailed Yalda midafternoon, asking what we could bring for dinner besides wine. I knew Dariush was a sucker for ice cream, so I offered. “That would be great,” Yalda allowed.
I picked up three flavors of Håagen-Dazs on my way home from errands. I chose chocolate, Coconut with Pineapple, and Rum Raisin. Then I spotted a tub labeled “Tirimasu.”
Hadn’t Yalda said she loved tirimasu? I wasn’t sure, but somewhere in the depths of my brain, a tiramisu remark from Yalda prompted me to forgo the Rum Raisin for the Tirimasu Gelato.
Always listen to that little voice.
An engineer in Iran, Dariush found a niche fixing and installing heating and air-conditioning systems in his new land. On his way home to Chantilly, Virginia from Baltimore, Maryland, he’d called his new wife. “Guess where I am now?” he’d asked. Yalda couldn’t guess.
He had stopped for ice cream.
So when he showed up with three tubs of ice cream, she said only, “Maile and Lars are bringing ice cream too.” Dariush had chosen Mango, Coconut and Rum Raisin.
I was thrilled to see Yalda eyeballing the Tirimasu Gelato.
I went for the Mango, dropping a comment about smuggling mangos from Maui to Montana when I was a child … the conversation inevitably turned to airport security with a subtext of what it is like to be a middle-easterner right now.
Yalda jumped right in with her story about bringing a remote-controlled helicopter into the states from Dubai.
“It’s a present for my boyfriend,” she told the TSA people.
Dariush clutched his forehead, Lars roared with laughter.
“What?” Yalda asked innocently. “It is just a toy, and I wanted to carry it on the plane so, you know, it wouldn’t get hurt.”
The man made me wait while he went to get the supervisor, Yalda answered when I asked if they let her on the plane. But finally they let me take it.
Then she talked about bringing some food along on the plane.
“Did you just say, ‘this is plastic explosives?’” I asked, helping myself to yet more of her ماست و خیار (yogurt-with-cucumber)
“Oh,” Yalda said, “when they asked if I had fruits or vegetables, I said, “yes, of course.”
Lars and I laughed. What middle-easterner travels without fruits and vegetables?
Yalda recounted showing the TSA people her lunch and asking if they would like to try the dish. “How to make it came to me from my grandmother,” Yalda stated, “it is quite good.”
Dariush interrupted to add that this was when she only had a green card. The risks!
Yalda told story after story about having to wear the Hijab to school, how her sister didn’t want to wear it and got in plenty trouble.
About that line? The one between uncomfortable/awkward and interesting? I could see that Dariush, Yalda and especially Lily, walked a different line, one between uncomfortable and dead.
I comprehend this dimension — of time. Sometimes airlines have extra seats and they drop the prices at the last minute because $200 is better than $0 and that seat is flying across the country anyway.
But last week I got on the wrong side of that deal.
My trip planning fell as the last domino that started with the abortion issue. Without getting into left/right politics, let’s just say that my husband’s travel schedule is at the mercy of the federal government’s budget, which is in turn at the mercy of politics.
When things get iffy, that is, when the possibility of not having a federal budget next month begins to teeter, as dominoes are wont to do, my schedule at the far end of the line of calendars also gets wobbly.
Ultimately, because of the demands of canine care at home, I had to schedule my flight kinda at the last minute; I had to decide whether to pay $800 more or make a stop in Dallas, Texas for four hours.
Yup, what follows is the fascinating lifestyle to be found at this hub of airline travel in the second largest state in the union. And the least likely state to be in that union. Welcome to Texas.
I love a good in-flight conversation so being seated next to the tall, good-looking Jeff Bell from False Church, Virginia is just fine with me. FAHN. The veteran airforce pilot now works for the Navy developing fighter jets like the F35, with an intelligence and curiousity that rides that fine line between being bored with me and being interested in everything else I could think to ask him.
He is heading out to do some hiking in Big Bend National Park, vacation. There he looks forward to shooting some stars, with his camera. He shows me the app on his tablet that helps him identify constellations. Just hold it up, he demonstrates, lifting the thin black device over the seat toward the roof of the plane. The compass wheel on the screen spins crazily and stars, connected by thin red lines, appear.
By the end of the flight I learn that seated next to me is the man who can explain to me how to navigate with a sextant, something I’ve wanted to learn since I first read about Captain Bligh in the Bounty Trilogy. But alas, I learn this at that moment when the entire theatre of the airplane is pinging, as people turn on phones and download texts and voicemail. I am too late.
But if this is the kinda person Texas attracts, I’m eager for my four-hour layover to begin.
I disembark to the spacious terminal where the line to the women’s restroom snakes out and around the corner directly to the source of the problem, Starbucks.
I find a restaurant with exceedingly expensive dining options and lean my carry-on against the window. On the other side, among the men with headphones and lighted batons, I spot this:
(photo) Yes, that blue sticker says “I go out with runway models.”
As I finish the priciest pile of Romaine I’ve ever devoured, my waiter, “Mack,” chats amiably about why everything at the airport is so expensive.
“I used to think it was because of the captive audience,” he says. “But now I know better.”
“It’s the rent,” I suggest.
“Not only that,” he agrees, but everything has to be screened. But yeah, he confirms, the rent is $67 per square foot … and the kitchen is really small so we have to store everything downstairs.
He comments that Virgin America and Southwest paid millions of dollars for each gate. I look it up. This new terminal, opened almost precisely one year ago, cost half a billion dollars. Beyond comprehension.
I point outside to the Southwest plane-pushing cart out on the tarmac and it’s hard-to-read humor.
“Oh there’s another one that says ‘I’m a little Pushie,’” Mack says.
Mack and I recall the early days of Southwest’s promotional attitude, when anyone who smoked in flight would be asked to step outside. When any delay was attributed to the luggage bashing machine being on the fritz. Joke after joke.
Those were the days when flying was still scary, before 9/11, when it was just understanding the physics that made it scary, the counter-intuitiveness of strapping into an aluminum tube and launching oneself through the air at 500 miles per hour. Again, beyond my comprehension.
I pay my bill, extricate my luggage from the tiny table and wander through the airport.
A shop advertises boots and other cowboy necessities like refrigerator magnets, sugar-free mints and of course, what self-respecting Texas airport shop doesn’t stock horses?
A barrel of stick horses pushes my suspension of disbelief beyond comprehension.
I thought driving a sag wagon would be great; four bicyclists want to ride the continental divide from Banff, Canada to the border of Mexico, I would go with … but not actually have to pedal.
Each segment would be about ten days long, to be completed over several years. I would haul the gear and stake out our campsites every night. My husband, who we’ll call “Lars,” would organize it.
And so we start by landing in my hometown, Missoula, Montana. Lars knows I love and miss Montana. It’s where cool people have cool names like Tarn and Sasha and Cricket. Lars would fit right in, he just doesn’t know that yet.
My job would be to pack up camp, zoom ahead to claim a camp site, then have the rest of the day to hike or explore the gorgeous country on my own.
Well, beautiful it is, but time gets eaten up pretty fast when bicyclists miss the messages I leave on bulletin boards; decide to change destinations in the middle of the day; decide to stay in a motel; or miss the turnoff … and I have to find cell service to figure it out.
Did I mention that three of these guys are federal employees? Not relevant of course but … and I’m not sexist about communication either. Men CAN communicate. If they want to.
But don’t worry, this ends well.
It’s day seven and we’re within a bone’s throw of the end of the trail. The boys are still missing messages on camp bulletin boards and I am losing hair. So a visit with a friend near Whitefish, Montana, is not, by my sights, to be resisted. I met Sasha, a man with classic muttonchops, at my friend Tarn’s 20-Years-in-Remission Party last year.
So I make it clear to my four crazy boys—for at this point I’ve decided “crazy bicyclists” is redundant—that I’ll be at the Red Meadows campsite tonight. If they’re not there, I’ll backtrack. But I’m not—no way— giving up my visit with Sasha; not going another route; not waiting for them to drink their coffees in some café; and I’m not going to a motel. Period.
Sasha is just as full of interesting updates as he was when I saw him a year ago. He’s selling 1,700 organic head of beef out of southern Albert annually. He tells me where to get the best brew in the new Whitefish, a town I used to know but that has mysteriously become a metropolis. He tells us where to dine, should I be tired of cooking, where NOT to dine, how cold it’s going to get tonight.
And, “Oh,” he says, “be sure to check out the Whitefish Bike Retreat.”
His friend, Cricket, a former record-holder for the Banff-to-Mexico “divide ride” (she did it in 20 days, sola) built a cool resort for bicyclists. It’s right over there, he says, pointing east to an endless forest of dark evergreens. He gives me directions and Cricket’s phone number. I promise to check it out, but I doubt I will.
After I depart he informs me via text he has talked to Cricket and she’s looking forward to my visit.
He’s right, I will thank him later.
I find the place a few miles up a winding dirt road, a road hemmed by dark tree trunks.
A sign crafted from sprocket wheels greets me, so subtle and tasteful I almost miss it.
At the office, a one-room log cabin, I’m greeted by Zack, who, stepping out from behind a huge computer screen, offers a tour.
He points out the bikewash station as he pulls on the mountain bike handlebar that is the doorknob to the lodge. Once inside he points to the spacious kitchen where we are free to cook our own meals and use whatever the last visitors left behind. Cups, plates, pots, silverware and staples line the walls.
“We’re not allowed to sell alcohol,” he says, but the fridge is stocked with microbrews. He points to a place to donate to the beer fund.
Old bikes decorate the walls, mirrors are framed in bicycle wheels. The railings along the stairs are actually bicycle frames, leaving the impression there’s a mountain bike race going on right here in the communal living room.
Through the insulated top-of-the-line glass doors I see a fireplace surrounded by wooden chairs that look suspiciously as though they have been built from old skis. I detect Cricket’s second passion.
Photographs throughout depict mountain bikers, diminutive in the grandeur of their surroundings, framed by leaves and branches as though they are elusive wildlife, which perhaps they are.
Clutching a brochure, I thank Zack. Then I head up the long lonely valley toward Red Meadows Campground, stopping at every intersection to consult my map; one thing I know about Forest Circus roads, one bad turn and you’re lost for days.
Three hours later I am at an elevation of 9,000 feet. I’ve passed a meadow with red grass, there’s a dark brown government-issue outhouse. This must be it.
It’s been raining, which means it isn’t as cold as it feels. It’s four p.m. and no one, no one is at the campground. In fact, my tire tracks on the road are the only evidence of life since it rained. The silence of the place overwhelms me. I am at the tree line and a steep shale-fall looms over me to a peak south of a crystalline lake. It’s just stunning.
But where are my bicyclists?
I continue down the dirt road which quickly becomes so steep I use the manual gears so the brakes don’t wear out.
Twelve miles later I find them. Three of them look exhausted. The fourth, Lars, looks exhausted and hypothermic. I start to unfold the bike rack, informing them that they are not going to make it up the hill I just came down. But they are not so sure. I tell them it’s a 1,500 foot ascent and there’s a lake at the top we’ll be able to walk on by morning.
They’ve stopped moving and one of them, the one without the raingear, is visibly shivering. His teeth are actually clattering, his lips are actually blue.
I hand over the brochure for Cricket’s bike retreat.
The most senior of the federal employees cuts to the chase, “how far is this place from here?” he asks, indicating Cricket’s brochure.
“About two and a half hours,” I tell him. But I don’t know if she has any room and we won’t have cell service for two hours.
It doesn’t take long for them to make a decision. But just to be sure, I tell them they are not allowed to decide until they see the campground at Red Meadows. “It’s stunningly beautiful,” I promise.
He’s willing to risk it and begins loading his bike on the rack. The others have now seen the brochure and are eager to get to the hot showers too.
But Lars, the one shivering, is not ready to give it up. And neither am I.
“You have to see the campground … it is ssooooo beautiful,” I repeat.
I work on the boys some more, defining “retreat” as something only losing armies do.
By the time we get to Red Meadows the car’s heater has convinced us that enjoyment of the campground can be effected in a 15-minute stop, time enough to down a beer. We do this and move on, vowing to start from this point tomorrow morning. They don’t believe it’s two hours back to Whitefish and they are right. I scare up a bear as we rumble down the valley, not stopping at the intersections I now know. And convincing Lars the bear bell I strapped on can stay on his handlebars.
Cricket greets us in the morning before she takes her kids to school. One other couple shares our spacious, warm retreat, two young men from New York, driving a rental car, wearing tight jeans: posers. Well-educated and polite they are quick to move on, as if they know they don’t belong here.
But we do.
In the morning, the boys are still certain they want to go back up the mountain –yes, to actually retreat—to Red Meadows campground. But they will bicycle directly back to Cricket’s Retreat.
“Let’s start here next year,” the only non-federal government employee says.
I was super ready to go to Florida on a road trip to deliver my kid to college.
Until the day came we actually had to slide in behind the wheel and calculate the distance to the first break, two hours down highway 66.
I was no longer ready to go.
Not for the reasons you think.
I had just driven from Virginia to L.A. so I was tired of driving.
I’d flown back to Virginia to deliver the youngest to his school 1,000 miles south.
This kid, who we’ll call “Seth,” was not eager to be stuck in the car with mom for 25 hours, although he politely didn’t put it that way.
“Why don’t we put the car on the train?” he asked.
So we did.
I think my agreement surprised him because he rattled off the cost of hotels and gas as though he’d done the research in preparation for a debate.
The train cost about $600 for two passengers and the Mothership, an aging white Subaru.
I advised him he’d taken the wrong angle.
“With moms it’s all about safety,” I coached. “Statistically, taking the train for 17 hours is safer than driving for 25 … I’d pay for that.”
Assess the risk, that’s where the money is found.
Sensing the conversation turning south to insurance fraud, I commented that taking the train is far more romantic too.
I then lost my son in thought as he calculated things concerning his girlfriend, who will be at William and Mary in Virginia this fall.
The first time I put a car on a train I was hoping to get to Patagonia cheaper, faster and more scenically than the roads south from Santiago, Chile would take me.
I’d borrowed my uncle’s Japanese jeep, it was 1988, fall–March or April. The train car, built in 1926, meticulously preserved the very odor of the pre-depression era in its honey-colored velvet drapes. And my hopes were exceeded.
Today my Suburu, which I have named “Mothership,” boarded the only auto train in the United States in Lorton Virginia.
The seventeen-hour trip precludes smoking anywhere anytime and when the crew changes out in Florence during a 15-minute refueling stop, no one will be permitted to disembark. We are warned.
As I write, six hours later, we are hurtling along at an average speed of 55 miles an hour while I listen to less-than-agile passengers wobble through the lounge car to a bar featuring drinks slightly cheaper than those on the last flight I was on.
“If this were a drunk test, I would fail,” a young woman stumbling through says.
Passing by Pembroke, North Carolina, we have been told we are on schedule. We are hoping to arrive in Orlando, Florida on time, at 9 a.m., 17 hours after departure.
An intercom voice repeats that no smoking is permitted in any section of the train and warns that this includes restrooms. I look around for the culprit.
If I had paid an extra $50 I would have had the privilege of being among the first 25 passengers to be reunited with their Motherships. But I am too cheap so I fear I will be the 261st, or dead last. I’m sure that would delay our arrival in Coral Gables where my youngest son is due to check into his freshman dorm between noon and 2 p.m.
I’m not too worried about a timely arrival and fortunately, neither is he.
We are enjoying the notdrivingness.
Our train, a voice over loudspeaker informed us shortly after departure, is half an hour early (how do they DO that?) Other fun facts: the train comprises 16 passenger cars carrying 550 people and 22 car cars carrying those 261 vehicles, which include eight motorcycles.
The train–and at 43 cars that means there must be 5 engines– is three-quarters of a mile long. The voice did not enumerate, just told us that the power totaled that equal to 8,000 horses.
We arrive, haltingly, in Florence, the halfway point, for refueling and crew swap.
A man pleads with the barkeep to be allowed to descend. He is holding an unlit cigarette and a lighter. The man in a blue suit answers with “right here” and points to the nearby exit stairs. The passenger intones that he might kill someone if he doesn’t get a cigarette. The blue suit says ‘don’t go far and be sure to reboard right here’ in a voice that indicates he is bending backward for this indulgence.
Wifi passwords, scrawled with a pencil on a scrap of cardboard and jammed into a window frame, offer no sensical derivative. But they work … slowly and best in towns.
As I get to know the routine of this lumbering yet dreamlike train ride, I realize I am a newbie and this thing, this snake of logistical practicality, is a part of people’s lives. “They used to serve wine at dinner,” a tablemate remorses. “Free.”
I inquire. Pinot Grigio, no name given, is $16.50 for a half carafe. I decline.
In operation since 1983, the train shortens the trip for ‘snowbirds,’ people who migrate seasonally from homes in the north to homes in the sun.
As people wobble back and forth through the cars, pile bagels and milk boxes from tubs laid out on the lounge car tables into cardboard trays for their seat mates, I grasp for a moment what makes the train romantic.
About to fall in any stranger’s lap, about to spill my coffee on someone’s blanket, I am humbled. The risk of embarrassment, the likelihood of encroaching into someone’s personal space … it forces us to look into each other’s eyes and smile.
It’s an intimacy.
Then moments of magic slip by. I stare out the window pretending not to hear the man across the aisle snoring unevenly. His partner, a woman his age, tries to wake him but I signal for her to let him sleep. He has been sneezing and sniffling … there’s a box of Kleenex out. I mouth the words “he needs some sleep.”
Then I turn away, “Oh yeah,” I remember, it really isn’t any of my business.
A break in the greenery slips by in the early morning southern Virginia sun revealing a glimpse of the Roanoke River. Backlit mist rising from the water takes my breath in and I hear someone else several seats back, also gasp at the splendor.
The scene passes too quickly for anyone to share it even with a seatmate.
We arrive in Sanford early enough that Seth must be wakened in order to get breakfast. He reports that he only just now got to sleep.
We descend the train and wait two hours for our car, one of the last to emerge from the tunnels of two-story train cars that line up at 3 stations to disembark. A team of orange-clad drivers carefully delivers the vehicles, which are announced like horses at a track, as they round the bend, by number.
After three days of orientation I face a lonely drive home on interstate 95. After the four hour drive from Miami I pull over after I pass the turnoff to the Sanford train station, at a rest area. I check online … tickets remain available so I look for a phone number on my old ticket folder.
I laugh when I see it: 1-877-SKIP-I-95. That sounds awfully good to me. I calculate that if I stay at a hotel tonight, the cost of driving home is about $250. And I am getting sleepy.
At what point I fall in love with Miami I do not know. Maybe the rice at the Cuban diner does it. Maybe the guy crossing the street talking on the phone to someone he loves in Spanish, pleading about something; maybe the music coming from the car next to me at the stoplight.
But I am, my friend, in love.
It’s orientation week at the University of Miami and every permutation of middle-aged sorrow-faced parent accompanied by a scared/ecstatic/gawking teenager wanders about gripping phones or paper maps, looking up at building names. The teen boys, like mine, do not remove their hands from their pockets and most the parents, except me, bear bright new t-shirts in either screeching orange or simple green. The girls all have perfect hair.
The schedule seems overkill. We are invited to info sessions about campus safety, dorm life, disability services, health and wellness … it is too much, but I try. I ask for directions many times. “Where is the Shalala building?” I ask, pronouncing it -LAY LAH.
“The Shalala building is right here,” the ‘ambassador’ in an orange shirt corrects me, pronouncing it –LAH LAH.
I realize soon that it is day three and my son has not been to any orientation events. He’s already missing out, I worry.
“Mom,” he reminds me, “I have three auditions this week.”
“I gotta test outta the basic piano class; I have the thing Thursday where they place us in an ensemble…then there’s the Big Band placement Friday.”
Although I’m eager to meet the professor he’s been emailing with all summer and chat with the dean, this now seems logistically impossible. My son is a music major.
I drag my kid to a salad bar at the campus food court and wonder, once we get there, what we had been talking about on the way. Because there behind us in line is the head of the department and my kid’s main professor. The one looks like Cervantes or one of his characters and from his address earlier that day I know he is equally passionate.
The other remains oddly stoic, but when he plays his instrument that night he will reveal too the passion that seems to make this whole place sing.
I am starstruck but I feel I must thank them. I am dropping my child in their laps, in their offices, in their practice rooms. Whether they feel the burden or are busy thinking “I should have put Feta on my salad,” I’ll never know because neither responds.
Finally I get one of them talking about how long he’s been here, admits when he first came here just one high-rise could be seen.
I ask him what built Miami—“tourism?”
“No,” he surprises me, “it is all built on drug money.”
“Really?” I’m sure he’s exaggerating.
This is not a U.S. city, he informs me, it is a global city, it belongs to the world.
I reflect later that this man is free, he is a university professor telling a parent that the place she is leaving her kid is built on drug money. It’s kinda great.
Every time I have traveled to or from South America, I ponder, I have spent at least an hour at Miami International, whether destination was Costa Rica, Chile or Argentina.
I remember the crowded, yet stylishly beautiful skyline.
That’s a lot of drugs; that’s a lot of laundry.
My last night with my youngest son we join a family friend for dinner. The just-past-middle-aged man we’ll call “Bruce” knows this place and selects a mid-range restaurant he says is around the corner from my hotel.
Everyone from his era uses clichés like ‘right around the corner.’
It’s kinda comforting, though probably wildly inaccurate.
We google the restaurant.
Bruce is precise. There’s no other way to describe it; it’s right around the corner. We can in fact, see the back of our hotel from the window of the restaurant.
We sit near the front because I do not remember what Bruce actually looks like. But, I tell Seth confidently, I know I will recognize him even though I have not seen him since my mother’s wedding to Bruce’s friend 12 years ago.
When he comes in I prove myself right. Bruce’s face and mannerisms and sense of humor comfort me into an easy joy.
He insists we move to an interior table so we can get a feel for the place.
We are seated next to a tree beneath a fiberglass roof that, because it is now dark, no longer allows in light.
I order a ‘Pisco Passion’ after being assured it is not one of those sweet drinks. It arrives not-too-sweet but surrealistically small in the hands of our hunky waiter.
Bruce recommends the t-bone, because it is Thursday. “They’re famous for their t-bone,” he says, then orders pizza for himself.
Soon he is giving us a history of the University of Miami.
“Donna Shalala,” he reports, (he pronounces it as I did on first instinct: -LAY LAH) “turned this town upside down. She said ‘I’m going to raise a billion dollars.’”
“We all,” Bruce said shrugging his shoulders, “said ‘sure.’”
Bruce takes a sip of his white wine.
“She raised two billion dollars,” Bruce’s eyebrows are sky high as he remembers the time.
Used to be the football players were all prisoners, Bruce continues. She raised this place to a respectable level, he says, spreading his hands out, raising them up as though lifting a tray of dishes. “She put us on the map.”
As parents like myself wander about campus and explore sidestreets, I sense the underlying culture.
We read the crocodile warning signs in disbelief, listen to the tourguides and struggle to think up questions. We google ‘soapdish’ and ‘flipflops’ and ‘granola bars’ on our phones as we make our final contributions to childhood.
Then we get in our cars and leave.
When I arrive in Sanford for the train home I am an hour early for my car’s appointment with Amtrak.
I spot an Army-Navy Store as I drive through the sprawling town. I have some river trips coming up and all river trips require ammo cans. It’s how we store everything that would be damaged by a ride through the rapids.
Inside I find lots of ammo cans, new and used. But none big enough for my intent.
I also see a wall of machine guns, racks of knives, bullet-proof vests and camouflage everything.
As I am wondering whether I can actually make a purchase from a place that sells a switchblade with a confederate flag on it, I overhear a conversation at the gun counter.
“…because I hear I cannot legally carry this in my car.”
“Oh no, my friend,” the salesman says. “People like to say that but it’s not true. You just can’t hide it. It has to be like out on the seat where it can be seen, that’s all.”
I have been taking pictures of ammo cans because they seem cheap to me and I wonder if my son needs any for his camera gear.
Then I turn to take a picture of some mid-eastern style scarves… a modern version with gun emblems woven in.
As I snap the picture I wonder if I am a threat … to someone who does not want to be photographed.
I figure it is time to go.
As I put my phone in my pocket, I wonder at a pink t-shirt in this place and stare at it as though I am interested … then head for the door.
In the parking lot, engine running, is a silver Mercury Lincoln with tinted windows, the one I think I saw on the set of Breaking Bad.
But it’s a long way from Hollywood.
What exactly am I doing leaving my child down here?
Every band kid worth his or her spit will offer some form of the answer: “He’s the music book guy.”
The guy who invented the play-along, a way for students to have a back-up band without actually having to round up a bunch of musicians. Aebersold has a voice known round the world. Because he counts out every song with a flat “one, two, three, four.” Come to think of it, no one I’ve ever heard has gotten past two. Isn’t it always “one, two, Unh, uh…?” If he gets to four it must be Jamey Aebersold.
At a restaurant in Kentucky I met a savvy sax player who told me that Aebersold was in Denmark one time and heard a guy playing on the street, using one of his play-alongs as a back-up band. He stopped and listened. When the song ended, Aebersold asked the street musician, “Do you mind if I count the next one out for you?”
When Aebersold, with his monotone, “one, two, three, four” perfectly matched the recording, the musician grinned, stood up and shook Aebersold’s hand, realizing instantly who he was.
Jamey also keeps a summer jazz workshop going every summer at the University of Louisville. (Say it LOO-uh-vull).
My kid, who we’ll call “Seth,” is headed to the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music this fall where he’ll be a freshman majoring in jazz performance. He has wanted to do the Aebersold camp for years.
This was his lucky year.
Not only did he get into the best combo (“even though kids in lower combos are better than me,”) his teacher for the three hours of combo rehearsal every day would be none other than a guy we’ll call “Eric Alexander,” the best saxophone player alive today.
“He has total mastery of his instrument,” according to Seth.
As mom, I only knew my kid was being challenged, having to learn new music overnight, trying to keep up with three other saxophones in his combo … and getting to work with a hotshot guy from New York.
I showed up at the final concert Friday afternoon. Seth had a gig in D.C. Sunday so I had planned for us to drive partway home that night, to avoid the nine-hour drive in one shot.
After the concert, Seth was hanging out with his combo but eager to get outta town. I talked to a couple of the other players, both professors at colleges I’d heard of. The director of the combo, Eric Alexander, did not seem like a New York Hot Shot. He told the group it had done well, having gotten lost but having recovered. He asked them what had gone wrong and they had all known. This conversation was over my head.
But I was eavesdropping. Was this really the great Eric Alexander my kid had been raving about? He looked like any German kid.
Suddenly it was time to say good-bye so someone suggested a photo. I became the phone juggler, trying to take pics from everyone’s phones before the smiles became fake. Eric Alexander had his shades on. I asked him to take them off.
“No,” he said.
I finished up, tried to match phones with musicians … and watched as the musicians, ranging in age from Seth, who is 17, to a guy Seth would later tell me was in his 70’s, hugged, shook hands and suddenly realized they didn’t have their phones. Two of the guys were professors. My father was an absent-minded professor, I was familiar with this scene. They all rushed at me for their phones at once.
When a kid lurking on the edges came forward, Seth introduced him as his roommate. Knowing they had free meals through breakfast the next day, I told them to go have lunch and that I’d meet them later at the dorms. I had to move the car.
What I really wanted was a nap, I hadn’t slept well at the cheap hotel across the river.
I lay down on a grassy knob near the music school (at the University of Louisville campus still) and hoped for a brief nap.
Nope, it started raining.
So I headed for a sushi place my iphone told me was about a block away.
Before I got to the sushi place a sidewalk sandwich board lured me into Griff’s restaurant with a promise of prime rib sandwich.
Griff’s walls are lined with large black and white photographs featuring an athlete, whether in basketball or football jersey I didn’t really notice.
I was guided to a table by a sharp young man who acknowledged that I was alone but nonetheless pulled out a chair at a table for six.
Soon I had ordered and had caught up with my emails.
That’s about when Alex Ericson walked in. Or was it Eric Alexander? I texted Seth quickly.
He straightened me out but the best saxophone player in the world just waved and headed for the bar.
Then Eric Alexander himself, gripping a tall glass of something soda-ish, apparently recognized the phone-juggling woman and headed my way. I pointed to the empty seat across from where I was devouring my prime rib drippy messy sandwich.
“I’ll just take a seat here,” the celebrity sax-god said.
Immediately he started in on how much Seth had improved this week.
He remembered which kid was mine? I was impressed.
“You don’t have to tell me this,” I said, having heard many, many teacher-telling-mom-what-she-wants-to-hear monologues. “It’s not perfunctory.”
So Mr. Eric Alexander shifted gears dramatically, telling me several long, sad stories about his career that made me vow to make sure Seth enrolled in at least one non-music-school class every semester.
Jesus. This guy is the most-listened-to jazz musician alive today and he has to work his ass off to survive.
Then he noticed Serena Williams was playing tennis on the large screens overhead. “Excuse me,” Eric said. Together with three African American women at the next table, we cringed as she faulted, cheered as she pounded the unknown opponent from UK. We talked psychology of the game, we agreed if Serena were not so dramatic, so caught up in the power struggle of the game itself, she wouldn’t have won. I learned something.
Soon Eric and I were back to the struggles of raising two children while maintaining status at the top of his game. He showed me pictures of his kids, his ski trip in Europe … then he told me my phone was buzzing. His ears are better than mine.
“I’ll be there soon,” I texted Seth back.
“I’ll be waiting in the dorm lobby,” he answered.
Eric was almost in tears telling me he would never get a good job at a good music school because he is white. He couldn’t get a job in Europe because he isn’t European. He has recorded more albums, played more gigs, outplayed everyone in the game. But he still doesn’t get the steady paycheck he needs to live in New York and pay for his kids’ private school in the Bronx.
An hour later I remembered Seth again. “I’m at Griffs,” I texted. “Maybe you should come over.”
Soon Seth showed up. His face when he walked in the door was priceless.
He mouthed the words “What the Fuck?” but I couldn’t hear him.
Seeing Seth, suddenly Eric came back down to earth, stopped cursing, stopped being an ADHD OCD musician-slash-gladiator. Suddenly he was a professional, musician-educator.
I kinda liked him better as he was.
We got a late start out of town, but I learned more about music in two hours than Seth could possibly have learned all week.