Aug 072012
 

I am walking along the wide leafy green street of suburban Chicago when the sign outside a grey building catches my eye. I cannot remember its exact words, but it may as well have said ‘we will have the land once called Palestine, whatever it takes’.

I feel ill, as if all the air has been sucked out of my day. It is one thing to build a place of worship, it is completely another to dedicated that holy place to an endless war.

I am catapulted back to a childhood memory. I am standing on wide stone steps outside a synagogue. It is a familiar place to me. I am dressed in white, as are the men around me. It is a loving memory, a gentle memory, a warm winds of childhood memory.

One day, a long time ago in easy chatter, I mentioned the synagogue to my mother, a ‘remember when . . .’ conversation. She stared at me blankly. I stared back, stupidly. There was no synagogue. As common sense would have told me, had I thought about it at all – I am an Australian with no Jewish heritage whatsoever. There was no question that my mother was right. Yet, even allowing for the flawed and corruptible memories of children, I remember that synagogue. It is a memory now categorised under the possibility of ‘past life’, for want of a simple explanation.

I am jolted back to the present by a car horn playing Yankee Doodle Dandy. I walk on, pondering my response to the sign, for I am one among the host of people outside the USA for whom blind defence of a land called Israel is not just untenable, it is shameful.

What is deeply pleasing to me, and delightfully surprising, is not a single Jewish person I have met in the USA supports Israeli aggression against the people of Palestine – pretty amazing, huh?

This pleases me because it is outside our story about the people of the USA. And it pleases me because it signals hope for the people of Palestine, who still wear the keys to their grandparents’ homes around their neck – the homes they left just for a few days while the new settlers blasted their way into homes and land that were not theirs for the taking, fueled with the bloodlust of glorified entitlement sanctioned by a blue banner blazing the Star of David.

I have had only one conversation in the USA with a man who supported the land we currently call Israel and that was with Bill, born ‘n bred Jackson, Mississippi. I met Bill on the bus to Meridien. He said, and I’m sharing this by way of placing Bill in the broader scheme of things, that there used to be three classes in America – rich, poor and middle class. A union man, he pointed out to me that the unions created the middle class. Before that, he said, there was rich and poor. And now, he said, there are four classes: educated, not educated, ignorant and rich.

Bill hasn’t flown in a plane since 9/11. I tell him ‘y’know where the safest place on Earth is these days?’ He looks at me, interested. ‘The airport,’ I say. He says ‘you’re kiddin’.’ And I have not forgotten the light in his eyes when I told him how I spent time among the people of Palestine. ‘You’re kiddin’,’ he said again. I tell him how helpful and respectful they were to me. ‘You’re kiddin’,’ he said.

Bill points to the insignia on his baseball cap. Somewhere on that silver circle is the name of America’s 42nd president.

‘William Clinton’ he says, ‘best president America ever had . . . stooped, dang stoopid, but a good president. He was a man of the American people, he was one of us. Why didn’t he just say heck yeah when he got caught with Monica? Then we got Bush, Bush embarrassed us all over the world. Every time he opened his mouth on tv I thought it may as well be me talkin’.’

Bill tells me that a while back, he went to Arkansas to see Bill Clinton’s museum.

‘It’s a library actually,” he said. ‘A redneck library, but a library just the same. It looks just like the trailer homes across the river.’

I tell him I heard Mississippi was last in everything, except teenage pregnancy. He nodded. ‘Yep, that’s us,’ he says. ‘That and fat. We’re the fattest people in America. Two things you can count on in Mississippi: poverty and mosquitoes.’

From here we segueway into feminism.

‘Let me tell yer about feminism,’ he said. ‘Okay Bill,’ I laughed, ‘you tell me about feminism.’

‘My grandmother was the biggest feminist ever. She divorced in 1939 with three kids and accordin’ to everyone else she was the biggest whore in Mississippi. She worked tables and bars and did dry cleaning, then WW2 came and she was the original Rosie the Riveter, building airplanes in Memphis. One day when I was about eight years old I was at her house when the power company men came to clip the trees under the lines near her house. My grandmother met them at the door.

‘We’re here to clip the trees ma’am,’ they said.

‘No y’ain’t’ she replied.

‘Well yes ma’am we are.’

‘Billy – she called me Billy – Billy go get ma rifle. So ah did. I went and got her rifle. Those power men went away and my grandmother went to see a lawyer and she got the whole power line rerouted away from her trees.’

I’m digressing, I know. I’m tellin’ you all this because in the USA talking about Israel publicly is like walking on proverbial eggshells. Let’s talk about anything but this. The possibility of backlash – and there will be a backlash – is as terrifying . . . as . . . well . . . the razor sharp bitterness causing uproar in a Zionist heart.

Or a synagogue dedicated to ‘whatever it takes’.

Jul 162012
 

Bruschetta – lunch among beggars

Yesterday I had lunch with three women. We’d been on a writers’ panel together in San Francisco, sharing our hard earned experiences with a roomful of devoted writers.

Lunch, delicious, drew to a close and the bill landed on the table. I watched with amusement as the three spent about 15 minutes discussing the tip, which is a breath short of obligatory in the USA. In most places you’d wanna run if you didn’t leave one – and, I must say, I have.

As they pondered this much or that much or how much, I recalled a conversation I’d had the day before, over lunch with a childhood friend of my son’s. Adam has a brilliant mind; he’s here in San Francisco to take his place at the world’s inner cyber table, the crucible of new ideas that require brilliant minds.

When our bill came we nodded in hotheaded agreement about the burdensome nature of tipping. And Adam pointed out the time Americans wasted sorting out bills.

And here I was, watching three women who had spent at least 55 years each in this country, waste a collective 45 minutes working out a tip.

There are 300 million people in this country. Let’s say 200 million o them are adults who purchase independently of their parents . . . well, it would take Adam’s mind to do the maths. But I can tell from here that this is a massive amount of wasted productivity.

Talk to Americans about tipping and most will defend the system. It’s my guess they cannot imagine an alternative and besides, everyone knows someone who makes a great living on tips.

To me, they are a nation of beggars, relying on me – the customer – to assess what a smile was worth, a hello was worth, an attitude was worth . . . and much, much more.

A middle aged man, a doctor with the most charming smile in America, told me he supported tipping 100%, that he had lived on tips while he put himself through medical school.

He reminded me of a woman I knew who was six feet tall with a beautiful face and breasts slightly modified to perfect her goddess form – she also went into defensive bat for the tipping system.

Some people clearly make a lot of money.

But me, I’m old fashioned.

I believe people should work for a living wage.

I believe a person’s wage should not depend on the charm of their smile or the strategic exposure of their cleavage.

I believe the tip should be built into the bill and called a wage and if the customer wants to tip on top of that go right ahead.

I do not want responsibility – every single time I order a bloody drink – of deciding what her or his service was worth to me, of assessing the value of the human being who served me.

I do not want an avalanche of hidden costs driving up every single meal I order beyond the price I agreed to pay in the first place.

As Adam pointed out, the ACCC in Australia is devoted to weeding out hidden costs – and I have renewed respect for a philosophy that has seen an entire bureaucracy in my country established to ensure we pay the advertised cost of goods and services.

Besides, take last night’s meal, just as an example, because this scene is replicated every single time I have a meal:  in this instance I shop around for the kind of restaurant in which I might want to enjoy my last great meal in the USA, I take my seat, I order, the meal comes.

I admire, I anticipate, anyone who’s ever eaten a meal with me knows I am in my own delicious world by this stage.

I take a mouthful and at that precise moment the waitress sticks her head in my bubble world and says:  ‘how is everything?’

I pause, my mouth full of delectable food, and stare – at the face of the beggar – I have handed money over a thousand times to that face on the streets – the waitress beggar letting me know she’s paying attention to me, that she’s pleasing pleasing pleasing me.

Bizarrely, she’s waiting for me to talk – with my mouth full. I just want her to fuck off and leave me to enjoy my meal. I get like that when I eat.

Harsh, but true.

Because she’s begging.

And if I wanted to eat among beggars I’d eat out on the street.

 July 16, 2012  Tagged with: , ,  No Responses »
Jul 022012
 

I have lapped the USA. Returned to my point of departure on the train. Run the borders: Mexico to the south, Canada to the north, the oceans east and west.

I have ridden the night plains and the dawn mountains, the swamplands, the forests and the foodbowl. The white moon above has rolled along with me, rising high with the setting sun. A century of engineering made this journey possible, holding me and a thousand others steady as we stare into the green valley far below.

And in between all this rests the carved up earth, laden with cemented homes and roadways, neon signs and cluttered yards.

My home, the train.

Yesterday the woman across the aisle laughed and said ‘you’re well prepared’.

And I laughed back as I showed her my bedroom – the double seat billowing with my sleeping bag and little white train pillow; my kitchen – the hideously pink Whole Food Markets fridge bag laden with salads and salsas, apples, dates, cheese and chocolate; my office – the seriously handy stuff everything into shoulder bag containing computers, phones, chargers, notepads, pens etc.

My home, the train.

It’s been nine weeks since I left Los Angeles in the afternoon light, through Arizona into Texas, stopping in El Paso, then Houston, then on through Louisiana to N’Awlins. From there I rode north to Jackson, Mississippi, across to Atlanta, Georgia, then Savannah and on up to New York City to pay my respects to Liberty, my lady, my love. Then further north still to Boston, Massachusetts, then west to Chicago, Illinois, and over to Seattle, Washington, and the peace of Vashon Island, then south, sliding down the west coast to berth in the dark Los Angeles night.

The Pilgrim Heart Whistlestop Book Tour.

I have my favourites – New York City and Vashon Island, off the Seattle coast – my ‘well what was that fors but glad I won’t die wonderings’ – Boston, Chicago. My highlights – New York City and Vashon Island. My disappointments, not to be mentioned.

It is July 1. There are 17 days to go. There are still book tour commitments – San Francisco my remaining city light, beckoning.

And a few days to fill . . . the Grand Canyon is to my west . . .

 

 July 2, 2012  Tagged with: ,  1 Response »
May 022012
 

NEW ORLEANS

 

Bourbon Street smells like vomit.

And that big brass noisy band of lively boys on the corner promised so much more.

Bourbon Street these days is a lascivious right of passage for men and boys looking for girls drunk enough to pay them the attention they believe is their due.

Frankly, I wouldn’t eat there if they were givin’ it away.

Anyway, I couldn’t possibly open my mouth to that smell.

I wandered along with the early evening crowd, sure footed among the cacophony of booze and lights and smells and promises of barely legal girls, and then, suddenly, one more step and the air cleared.

I was still on Bourbon Street, but the stoopidness of inflated and hateful and broken masculinity passed with the crossing of one more street. No longer performing for me, the tourist and stranger, the street brightened into a corridor of pretty houses.

The air was easy.

The homes built like those of the Spanish, with enclosed courtyards shuttered from the street.

Tiled signs declaring ‘Calle de Bourbon’ . . .

And now I’m wondering why they call this the French quarter?

And then this:

Bar on Bourbon Street

Look carefully at this picture.

I turned left, circling back to my hotel via anywhere but Bourbon Street, and left again into Dauphine Street.

Ahhhh, a small sweet deli (there’s tomorrow’s breakfast), a seafood restaurant (lunch).

And up across Canal Street to the gorgeous Pavillion Hotel.

Home.

La Pavillion Hotel

 

Apr 232012
 

It’s a trick traveling at the best of times . . . even when it’s all going well, there are hurdles.

Very Good Traveling Tip #4 – nuthin’ costs what they it costs

In America, hidden taxes are everywhere. Nuthin’ – and I mean nuthin’ – is gonna cost you want they say it’s gonna cost you.

There are taxes flyin’ in all directions – federal, state, country, hell district for all I can tell.

‘How much are the bananas?’ I ask the woman behind the counter in the hotel lobby.

‘Two dollars ma’m.’

‘I’ll take two thanks.’

‘That’l be $2.50.’

Very Good Traveling Tip #1 – Australian passports

If you are traveling on an Australian passport that has been renewed before its expiry date – expect to be waylaid by US border security. Apparently Australia is the only country in the world that does this, but it means one thing for vigilant Uncle Sam and that is:  you have two passports.

And this in turn means one or both of two things:

1. you are a perpetrator of identity theft, i.e. you are not who you say you are

2. you are perpetrating identity fraud, i.e. you have sold your other passport.

And/or various versions of the above.

Don’t panic though – they are well aware this is a problem. They’ll hive you off in the corner for asking more questions and wave you through with not much ado.

Very Good Traveling Tip #2 – plane tickets

This is wild and I can’t believe it’s taken this long for me to cross paths with such extraordinary bureaucratic idiocy/greed/call it what you like:  if you don’t show on any leg of your international plane ticket – the whole ticket is void.

Can you believe that?

You MUST let them know in advance. Otherwise you’ll turn up to go home and find you have a) no booking and, worse, b) no ticket.

Apparently this applies to almost all tickets, not just the cheapies.

Very Good Traveling Tip #3 – changing money

I am not a money guru. I pay scant attention to financial wheelings and dealings and accept that this means I don’t always get the best deal; and that I might pay extra $$$ here and there, like when changing currencies for example. But hey, I do not have the knowledge to make informed decisions and I’m glazed over before I start when I do attempt to navigate the world of high finance.

Which, let’s face it, is what getting the best deal on changing money is all about.

So flying to the US recently I was wondering – should I change my money before I leave Australia or when I arrive in the US?

I called by the money changer at the airport and I asked her. She gave me great advice and it is this:

The closer to home you are traveling, the more your money is worth overseas. The further away you go, the less it is worth.

Translation:

As an Australian, my Australian dollar is worth good money in Asia but not a lot in the US, where US dollars count/are more valuable.

Considering I was flying to the US, it was best to change money before I left.

Voila!

Very Good Traveling Tip #4 – the wrong side of the street

It can be quite tricky traveling in a  world where they drive on the other side of the road.

Not because it’s difficult, when you’re paying attention; it’s just that crossing roads is something we do quite mindlessly – which can be erratic and dangerous when the traffic comes at us from the opposite direction, particularly with turning traffic.

Make it easy on yourself – as an Australian in the US, walk on the left hand footpath.

Americans in Australia, do the opposite.

This is as simple as walking into the oncoming traffic.

An old rule that used to be universal; one that we seem to have forgotten, judging by the number of people near where I live who walk with their backs to the traffic on narrow winding country roads!

Walk into oncoming traffic: a) they can see you and b) you eliminate surprises coming up behind you: you can see what’s happening and judge your movements accordingly.

 

 

 April 23, 2012  Tagged with: , ,  No Responses »
Apr 172012
 

‘There is nothing else to do but yodel from the edge of courage and claim all of myself and all of my life and trust the freefall and fallout will lead me somewhere alive and true.’
From My Pilgrim’s Heart

 

There is a space where the world pauses to take breath: between tides, before a storm, at equinox.

That breath marks a turning, the point beyond which everything changes, again.

This morning I am that space.

My whiteboard, six weeks ago marked with weeks, a week ago marked with days, overflowing with tasks, is wiped clean.

The whiteboard is – was – on my mother’s lounge room floor, where I have been sleeping – another pause.

Six weeks between full time work and an American book tour.

There was so very much to do and now there is just one word left on the board:  Fargo.

The word came to me recently in a dream.

It was the name of a publication, an old fashioned comic book-like magazine published by me.

Its name was Fargo.

The word is written bold and black on the whiteboard and seems to me a poetic metaphor for the fact I am going very far.

On Thursday, my tide begins to run again, when I board that plane for LA. To catch the train to New Orleans. And from there the train to New York City.

Journeys. Landscapes. People. Crucibles.

Once again I am at the edge of my known world, trusting the freefall will lead me somewhere alive and true.

Intrepid, a few butterflies, I stand alone as I do the farewell rounds of family and friends.

Connected. Distant. Fargo.

 

Mar 242012
 

15 June 2011

We the people
There are six elements you need to build a railroad: Fire. Water. Electricity. Farm. Imagination. Freedom.

True story, there’s a statue dedicated to every single one outside glorious Union Station in Washington DC.

I saw several things today I never expected to see – not just today but in my lifetime.

The Constitution of the United States of America.

The Bill of Rights.

The Declaration of Independence.

Parchment all.

And then I doubled back to the National Museum of American History to see . . . the biggest surprise of all . . . how could I not pay a visit to see . . . Dorothy’s ruby red slippers!

Here they are :)

Don’t you love that they look just a little worn, like all the women in the kingdom have secretly tried them on?

Washington was wonderful. I had one of the loveliest days of my trip yesterday, sensibly riding around on the big red tourist bus, the summer wind blowing my hair in the sunshine.

I had planned to walk to the Lincoln Memorial. That was to be my whole day. But the big red bus was right there at the door at Union Station. What a great decision it was to buy a ticket. I got to do two laps of the city’s iconic buildings – how else would I have known about Dorothy’s slippers and the Constitution?

Guess what DC stands for? As a joke I would have said District of Columbia and hahaha, it does. That’s how I win at Trivial Pursuit using blue spots.

I reckon the founding fathers, with all their education and love of idealism, symbolism and grandeur, were in love with Ancient Greece. I reckon it’s all that democracy, because half of Washington looks like Ancient Greece. Even the buildings constructed in the 1980s look like Ancient Greece.

That’s Abe Lincoln’s temple at the top. I’m not being funny or poetic, they call it a temple. What is funny is that I thought the statue was bronze and it was sitting by a pool. That’s what happens when your primary source of American culture and history is a cartoon family :)  Abe is white stone, by the way. As I said, I thought he was bronze.

Here’s . . . I can’t remember what this is, but it supports my Ancient Greece theory. It’s across the road from Dorothy’s slippers.

And here’s Thomas Jefferson’s temple. It’s beautiful. This is the only decent shot I could get from the moving bus.

Apparently, someone, a president, said, during an event that pulled together all the Nobel Prize winners one year at the White House, that it was the greatest gathering of minds in the building since Thomas Jefferson visited alone.

God Bless America.

Honestly. Is it really so wrong to be so in love with yourselves as a people? To revere the ones that rode in before you? To laud and applaud yourselves and them. To believe in your nation? Surrounded by thousands and thousands of Americans on pilgrimage to themselves, I have to ask these questions. Because Americans do believe in Grand Ideas and besides, they are such nice people. And more than besides, they have produced SO MANY good people. There must be something to believing you’re the greatest that is deeply connected to bringing forth greatness.

Can you imagine Australians queuing by the thousands for an hour or more to take a look at our Constitution ? Haha. And our Constitution is pretty top of the line too.

Now, do tell, aside from the obvious, why is it men build monuments like this one? I said aside from the obvious. All these years I have heard mention of The Monument. I had no idea it was just a stone obelisk. All by itself. Seemingly connected to nothing but a ring of flags.

And that’s the version from a distance. It’s actually on a big bare patch of ground. Here are the flags.

And here’s the sad part.

There’s not a single monument in the Capitol dedicated to a woman.

Monuments ensure we remember. That we take pride in who we are. They elevate us. They illuminate us.

Not a single woman.

Not a single word attributed to a woman, although we know very well all these utterings about freedom might just as easily have been hers.

Not a single woman revered.

What does this do to the psyches of women?

What does it do to the psyches of women to never, ever see themselves among the elevated, the applauded, the wondrous?

This is not a rhetorical question.

The inscription on one statue claims:  Freedom is not free.

And on another:  The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

We are fools to think that women have not thought great thoughts and not fought great fights for the freedom to express them.

A 30 ft statue of Martin Luther King is currently under construction.

This will be the only presence of a non-white man among the stone edifices in the Capitol.

And this is why we missed the greater historical moment when we failed to elect Hillary Rodham Clinton to the White House as the 44th President of the United States of America.

The importance of reflection to the founding fathers is clear, judging by the number of pools and parks in the Capitol.

We would all do well to reflect on the gender of greatness.

Oh, and while we’re there, remember the lengths men of patriarchal disposition have taken to demolish the temples and diminish the spirits of women, including colonising their sacred days – Christmas and Easter among them.

Lest we forget.

God Bless America.

I did two laps of the Capitol. I ate fantastic crab roll and drank sangria that tasted like cough medicine. It was only when I returned to Union Station to catch the train home I realised I DIDN’T SEE THE WHITE HOUSE. Hahaha.

But I did find wonderful shopping. Oh my Toto, the treats I could have bought for everyone! Beautiful things like I expected to find in New York I found in the museums of Washington DC.

As I was looking at the Declaration of Independence, one little boy beside me kept saying ‘I wanna see We the People. Mummy, where’s We the People.’

Five minutes later I was staring at a different parchment. There’s We the People. The first three words of the Constitution of the United States of America.

Yes it was visionary.

Think back to the times from which these documents emerged.

It was visionary and courageous and brave.

And it was 150 years before We the People was extended to women.

And God only knows how many before it included non white men.

We the People.