Darwin Is Dead.

The late nineties were pivotal in my evolution as a thinking person. Y2K, partying like it’s 1999, and all the premillennial madness was drum beating me into a travel frenzy. Infected with the proverbial wandering bug, on steroids no less, I was anxious to launch that round-the-world trip I’d been dreaming of, before the gong sent Cinderella home. What if the world came crashing down before my jet-setting jaunts could be quenched?

I salivated over the lonely planet. Where to?  Seattle > Anchorage > Seoul > Indonesia > Nepal > Johannesburg > Rome > London > NYC?  Or perhaps Mexico City > Lima > Patagonia > Kenya > Delhi > Beijing > Sydney > San Francisco?

I chewed on each country like jeweled jujubes, until they blended into a kaleidoscopic jawbreaker. Turning to my sister, no neophyte in the Delta mileage program, for destination distillation, she emphatically warned me to stay away from certain Muslim-populated countries, informing me that there was a price on my soft American head by a radical faction led by a man I’d never heard of: Osama bin Laden.

Seriously, I asked? Who would want to hurt little ol’ me? I’m a nobody. But my awareness of the greater world was on the verge of being blown wide open, and simply that I carried a passport issued by the military and cultural powerhouse of the 20th century put me in the 99th percentile of economic and political advantage. In a dog-eat-dog world, this meant I was prime meat, and we all know our human tendency to knock over those on top.

So in 1999, instead of a twenty-country bonanza, I opted for just one: China, rumored one of the safest countries for a solo woman traveler, and fortunately home port for the Mandarin and Asian culture I’d been studying. Off I went to see the land of revered mountains, towering Buddhas, and great walls.

While teaching English there, in Changsha, the capital of the Hunan Province and hometown to Mao Zedong, one-time leader of the not-so-free world, I was assigned a “monitor,” Hsui (English name: David). His responsibilities included making sure I didn’t spread pro-capitalist propaganda, subvert the Communist government, or otherwise pollute the pristine waters of my students’ shallow worldview. (and here I had thought myself sheltered from those who sought to squash my red-blooded love of freedom!) What I didn’t know was how two-dimensional my outlook would prove to be.

Once, while trying to spice up a rote vocabulary lesson, I considered myself keen, dividing the class into two rows and giving the end person in each line an eraser. I’d say a word like ‘kitchen’ and the end person would name something that could be found there – chopsticks! wok! MSG! – and then pass the eraser. I explained that the first team to get their eraser from one end of the line to the other, with correct enunciation and accuracy, would be the winner. I thought my little game fun and lively. However, during the first round, David suddenly stopped the game, jumping in to declare authoritatively, “Friendship first. Competition second.” Lively, indeed. Score one for Mao.

Now, if you’ve ever played a card game with me, you know I turn it into a contact sport. I’m out to win. I even configure ways to beat myself at solitaire, just for the thrill. I never considered any other M.O. Wasn’t Darwin the centerpiece of Western education? Isn’t the survival of our species dependent on the biggest, fastest, strongest?

Clearly I had crossed cultural boundaries and sensibilities, for then and on, David wouldn’t even let me go to the cafeteria alone, much less around the neighborhood, lined as it was with dozens of mom and pop stores, all selling the same limited merchandise for the same price. How did they stay in business I asked? Was there any benefit to buying your thermos from one over another? All those shop owners smiling and nodding was confusing, and all those choices – not really choices at all.

Over time, David diplomatically played ‘tour guide,’ as we explored his city and developed a simpatico relationship, one that flourished with mutual Q & A’s. Over sautéed bok choy and cilantro we attempted to build common understanding, but it was a bit more like sparring.

“Why do you kill your presidents?” David would ask.

“Why do you throw your garbage in the rivers?” I’d counter.

Eventually, we called a truce (a veritable peace treaty at camp David), which led to a growing fondness as we opened each other’s eyes to the dangers of narrow stereotyping and believing what those in power tell us to be true. It’s all propaganda, we realized, but we still had to navigate its mire and muck, he more than I, perhaps. (Perhaps not.) When I finally left, I returned to integrate my experience of life in a communist/totalitarian state with a new eye towards the American democratic experiment/myth with more textured perspective. My unlikely new friendship enhanced my contrarian leanings as I doubted the headlines of home and questioned even more enthusiastically the gospel of a superpower.

Still, I appreciated that I could hop a plane anytime as long as I had the money, whereas David wasn’t allowed to leave his motherland, and was relegated to his job and apartment until the forces that be changed their mind. At least I had the American Dream to hold up as a shining star of possibility, pointing to our founders as bastions of the revolution.

I relished having not one, but two jobs to come home to, and the liberty to come and go as I pleased. While the rest of the patriots thought the dream was to work like a maniac, pay the bills, compete for limited resources, and hope to win the lottery, I said no thank you.

In order to finance this off-peak lifestyle and traveling affliction, I worked two restaurants in neighboring towns, and when I made a few thousand, I’d head off again on another globe-trotting adventure. Sometimes a thorn in my bosses’ sides – you want two months off this time?! – I nevertheless managed to keep my balls in the air to truly capitalize on the idiosyncrasies of the service industry. We were in it together, when we needed to be, yet we served self-interest first. No health insurance or paid vacation, but as long as the shifts were covered, there would gallivanting.

My peculiar philosophies were sometimes misunderstood, but more often they intrigued those around me. Pat, the hardworking owner of the first place once asked me how I felt when a new Italian joint opened up next to the second place.

“Aren’t you mad that your one horse town now has competition?” he prodded.

“Nope. The more the merrier,” I replied. Despite David’s reminder of the primacy of friendship, I still felt a little competition was a good thing. “It’ll bring in more people. Our small village will become a destination for dining, and customers can choose what they’re in the mood for once they get here.”

“Pshaw!” he said. “You don’t know anything about business.”

Maybe not, but I was familiarizing myself on the fluid spectrum between the polarities of working ‘against’ and working ‘with’.

For what it’s worth, his restaurant closed within a few years and I went on to earn a living with one of the best in the industry, learning that while the strong can survive with a little competition, they actually thrive exponentially in collaboration. I found that joining forces with both the people I worked with, and, ostensibly, those in vying establishments, caused greater prosperity and opportunity all around. Talent, ambition, and passion bred more of each, and my earlier adversarial tendencies evolved along those inklings I’d had of all boats rising with the tide. David’s legacy was intact. In fact, what I learned after being employed in both hemispheres can be boiled down to this:

Listen to the accepted truth, try to understand the foundation upon which it was built and the environment in which it was conceived, then discard 80% of it, keeping only the part that doesn’t make you bristle. Stay open to emerging ideas. (My contrary nature reveals there’s a little truth in everything, but most of it remains a mystery.)

Competition is a hulking, rusted relic of the past.

Cooperation is becoming the present.

For the foreseeable future, my modus operandi will be to prosper in the community of others. I am completely a product of alliance and reliance, as we all are. What lies beyond that, I don’t know. We may or may not have evolved from the apes, but we are evolving to create global webs and bridges and understandings. It’s what we gain from these interdependencies that propel us, allowing more precise and complex truths to emerge of who we are and why we are. Darwin was just a link in the chain.

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More cross-cultural Q & A with David: Taking My Breath Away

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Stepping Into The Same River Twice

Port Clyde Kayaks Full Moon PaddleWhen you find something that works, stick with it, goes conventional wisdom, but aren’t we so used to throwing out the bathwater in our quest for the latest and greatest that we end up missing what the baby might teach us?

Yeah, right. I’m the master baby-tosser.

An almost-full moon paddle last week was so transcendent that, uncharacteristically, I decide to do it again.  It’s rare for me to repeat something; I’m more of a seismic shifter. But clearly, the impetus for good fortune was announced in the I Ching reading that day – a metaphorical thunder-clap not only reflected in the coin toss, but in its riverside perch between sunset and moonrise. I knew not its full impact, and perhaps I still don’t, but the reverberations were sonic. The ‘Changing’ occurred and it was enormous, but internal. (No packing my bags for foreign shores this time.) Fortunes truly can flip with a switch, New England work ethic notwithstanding, and I’m ready to meet providence. (Well, I imagine there will be 99% perspiration on my part…)

It had been a less than desirable day, but I redeemed it by climbing inside the kayak I gifted myself a few years ago on my 40th birthday. The luxuries we afford ourselves reap far more than we realize at the time, and I’m ever grateful I treated myself to that little blue boat. For years I coveted one and after I took the plunge, my world widened. Pledging allegiance to enjoyment has made a profound impact on life; I highly recommend it. That small craft has not only altered my perspective, as sitting down low in the water can do, it has also provided opportunity to explore intimacy, balance, trust, and wonder – all while nestled in the watery bosom of Momma Nature.

Not setting out to step in the same river twice, per se, I unexpectedly arrive under the full moon again, albeit in a different body of water, the following evening, soon to don spray skirt and life vest. The bathwater was still warm…

Port Clyde Kayaks

Whenever I crave a change of scenery (as if Penobscot Bay’s world class playground pales) I tour down the St. George Peninsula, roughly following the Georges River out to Muscongus Bay. I pass through Owl’s Head, Tenant’s Harbor (never missing a meal at Cod End’s back deck…fried scallops and belly clams this time),  and round past Marshall Point Lighthouse (of Forrest Gump fame), all the way down to Port Clyde, with its Finisterre atmosphere.

Cod End Tenant's Harbor, MaineThere’s a whitewashed barn across from the harbor with an art gallery upstairs and backgammon tables downstairs that serves shrimp cocktail and bottles of Shipyard Ale for the summer folk. It’s the kind of spot where you walk in thirsty and walk out with a handful of new friends, as I did one June evening. I forsake it this time, however, and consider the clear skies and looming sunset. Maybe I’ll take a Puffin cruise on one of the tour boats…

Port Clyde pierI roam the quaint general store, rueing modern supermarkets with their massive parking lots and bad lighting. Who knew you could buy Spam, motor oil, and oysters all in one creaky floorboard shop? This alone makes me want to settle in for a spell. I ponder an ice cream cone, then see that Port Clyde Kayaks is open and wander in. Cody, the proprietor, who I learn homeschools his kids so he and his wife can winter in locales like Puerto Rico and Maui, strikes up a lazy conversation. We chat about living off-peak, on our own terms, and find commonality, laughing as we realize we grew up only 45 minutes apart…kindred Hudson Valley spirits. I take him up on his offer to brew me a cup of Hawaiian coffee, despite quitting the caffeine habit months ago. Directly imported, these beans are not to be shunned; abstinence seems downright ungracious in this context, don’t you think?

It’s exactly these kind of exchanges that sets Maine apart from anywhere else I’ve traveled: unassuming encounters that seem to have the timeless tucked into them. Completely charmed, I sign up for the night’s full moon paddle, and I’m struck, yet again, by how many people I meet whose fulfillment arrives outside of the mainstream, and wonder why we call it the main stream, when it’s the customized tailoring that counts?

Honeymooners from Northern Ontario and a suburban NY couple with three kids filter in and we gear up. Cody takes his time while explaining safety and technique while the group gets to know one another. Once we put in, we paddle west, heading towards Deep Cove, where the depth reaches 150 feet, enough for the dozens of harbor porpoises that live there. Paddling towards the westward horizon, we watch melting oranges and pinks along the skyline, like softening sherbet, then turn to see the luminescence of the moon framed in darkening lavender behind us.

Full Moon rising over Muscongus Bay, St. George Peninsula, MaineWe float amid flourescent lobster buoys while glistening fins crest a gently undulating surface.  Sounds of their breathing, of exhaling, shiver me into gratitude and I am awed by their proximity. These gorgeous creatures breach repeatedly within feet of my kayak and I am spellbound.

Psshh.           Psshh.           Psshh.

I follow with my eyes, watching intently for the next surfacing. Over and over they crest and dive. I’m riveted. And then a harbor seal playfully pokes his head up.

What a glorious evening, yet so different from the previous night’s paddle. A sudden shift has definitely taken place and I can feel gestures of fluidity both around and within.

In fact, my whole day has been a series of blessings, each one almost making me blush in embarrassment as they accumulate like moths around the porch light.  I struggled with some prioritizing the last few days, and knew the answer would only be found by seeking relief. Once I cleared the air and let go, I relaxed into spaciousness, leaving tension and dilemma behind. As soon as I chose the better path, which was to step away from a form of income that wasn’t proving beneficial anymore, a new revenue stream miraculously propositioned me within hours. When one door closes…

Port Clyde Kayaks Full Moon Paddle Muscongus Bay

As I paddle across the bay, I reflect on how my day unfolded – each time I turned a corner, a desire manifested. I lost a top of the line knife (given to me by a chef I used to work for) and I found an exact replacement that afternoon. I admired a blue t-shirt a woman was wearing last week, and Cody, for reasons unknown, decided to give me one, the same shade, right off the hanger. I finally achieved a move in yoga I’d just about given up on. And I’d been wanting to get up close to some of the islands lately, get off the coast and explore, and that’s exactly what we did, vigorously – we paddled around Caldwell and Little Caldwell Islands, billionaire-owned Teel Isle, and larger Hupper Island, where we needed a power bar break after crossing the channel  – not easy working against the tidal currents at 10pm. Was I really out on the open water at night?

I even got up close to Andrew Wyeth’s house, which I’ve pined to see since becoming a member at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland. His paintings evoke a windswept and lonesome life whose origin I wanted to understand better. Cody shared the story of the island house being pushed across the frozen bay from Caldwell Island for relocation to the mainland many years ago. After spending the past winter here, I am at no loss to imagine such a thing. I’ve felt windswept and lonesome, too.

Perhaps I’m getting closer to the life that beckons, and I don’t need to make such drastic changes anymore. Maybe I’ll just keep paddling around under the moon and see what happens. It seems to be working out well.

Port Clyde Kayaks Full Moon Paddle Muscongus Bay

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Read more about the St. George Peninsula: The House Of Light

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Acknowledging A Year Of Triumphs

Do you do this?  I sell myself short sometimes.  I look at my life and feel I’m spinning my wheels, making no headway, then pessimism and defeat settle in.  I feel a little less worthy and the downward spiral bores into the ground, rooting into hopelessness.  Crazy, right?  But why steamroll myself this way?  I wish I knew.  But recently, when a high school friend posted a photo of a (very young & very skinny) me on Facebook back from my days coaching cheerleaders, I decided to pick up my metaphorical pom-poms and be my own pep squad.  2-4-6-8!  Who do we APPRECIATE?!

My quest to restore buoyancy begins with a small exercise injected into my daily routine – I simply review the day and list what I completed.  Usually I do this in my head (washed the dishes, finally wrote a blog post, called my sister, saved the world, didn’t eat the whole bag of cookies…), but occasionally I’ll write it down, especially when the mental list doesn’t offer quite the satisfaction I’m after. Actually putting it on paper makes for a longer list, because writing it out is more of a commitment (and damn! Doesn’t the page looks more impressive the fuller it is?)  I include more than just mundane errands and the requisite household tasks – I’ll jot new insights, flesh out story ideas and add smiley faces and exclamation marks.   (It’s hard to deny the uplifting nature of drama and silliness, particularly when colorful markers are employed.)

When I’m feeling really dejected – stuck in first gear with my tires spitting mud while the ruts only get deeper – I stop and look for a higher view.  Maybe a few months back, or even a couple years, and I check out the scenery since then.  What I see never fails to surprise and delight.  I’ve been amazed by distances I’ve traveled both geographically and in the landscape of imagination.  Try it – think back to a point in time and take inventory of where you were and what you were doing.  Marvel at how far you’ve come. We are not the same people we once were.  We’re better.  Stronger.  Wiser.

What I’ve learned is to be more aware of my current state, to see with clarity – the situation is almost always better than I think it is.  Now, even before I start to dip below sea level, I head myself off at the pass by taking stock, and appreciating not just what I have, but also what I’ve accomplished, both in large and small ways.

So as I head into this fresh year, this new decade, I’m taking time to review my accomplishments from 2010:

  1. I created OFF~PEAK, to explore and develop my voice and writing skills, and to target future goals with you at my side, dear readers.
  2. I committed more fully to nurturing my friendships, after a few too many years of sequestering myself.
  3. After almost 25 years, I moved on from the restaurant business – while I still enjoyed it.  (The secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go.)
  4. I ate more green, leafy vegetables and less meat.
  5. I drank more water, and less alcohol and caffeine.
  6. I donated substantially to causes I believe in, using my money as a tool to align myself with who I am and what my values are.
  7. The Great Midwest Road Trip!  I saw jaw-dropping miles of cornfields; visited great architectural sites like Columbus, Indiana, the skyline of Chicago, and the unsurpassed splendor of Fallingwater; operated one of the locks on the Mississippi River; and met a quirky cast of characters, including a roadside BBQ chef who taught me to roll down the windows and let my hair and spirit fly.
  8. I trusted my intuition.  I listened to my gut.  I believed in myself.
  9. I purged material belongings that were weighing me down and holding me back.  A LOT of things.
  10. I cultivated my creativity.
  11. I moved, on a whim, to Maine:  6 weeks from inception to arrival.  I call that Life Flexibility.

And more than any other entry on that list, I transformed how I define myself.  I am a Writer now, and the most content I’ve ever been.  I can’t wait to check in this time next year and see how far 2011 takes me!

And you?  I would love to hear your peaks and proud moments…bet there’s more than you think.

The Royal Flush

Design reigns supreme in Japan, and luxury design is as commonplace there as the mediocre is here in the States.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in a Japanese restaurant.  However, it’s not the interior architecture or the food styling to which I refer.  It’s the bathroom.

When I was opening Union Square Tokyo in Japan a few years back, I was fascinated by bathroom culture and design.  Our store didn’t have its own restroom, rather it was a shared commodity, with an anteroom and four stalls.  Sounds familiar, right?  But once I stepped into a stall, it was as if I ventured into the cockpit of a jet airliner:  all these buttons and levers and, of course, the unfamiliar Kanji characters (not, to me) explaining it all.  At least I thought I knew the basics:  sit down and let nature take its course.  But wait!  The  sensor alerts a mechanism to rotate the plastic liner on the seat before I sit down, which is slightly startling, and then once I do… Oh!  The seat’s warm.  You know that gross feeling you get when you sit on a public toilet, and it’s been warmed by the last person?  Your backside has just been IM’ed by the bare bum of a stranger.  Yuck.

That wasn’t the case, however – no one had been inside before I entered.  Then I keyed in on the display panel… who knew there were so many variations to relieve yourself?  I pushed several of the buttons, just to see what happened.  There were sound  options.  Odor options.  Temperature options.  To distract fellow stall-dwellers from any offending sounds or smells, I could make fake flushing sounds, at different volume levels (trickle, whoosh and Niagara Falls), and pick three degrees of deodorizer to scent the room.  The seat could be heated on a scale from room temperature up to ski-slope thaw.  And although I could practically bathe in the basin,  I was never bold enough to explore all the cleansing options.  I feared walking back into work with telltale signs of toilet water geysers gone mad.

Recently, I was reminded of my Japanese powder room explorations during my last visit to New York.  I was deciding whether to go high-end or low-end for lunch – a Shake Shack burger or the healthier sushi option.  The Upper West Side fast food line out the door swayed me –  to Gari – and I figured enough time had passed since my last raw fish dining mishap (laugh at my Empty Cup story).  Seated right away, I  decide to treat myself and order the omakase (chef’s choice) and a small carafe of junmai daiginjo sake.  Then, I ask for the ladies’ room.

In here I am instantly transported back, and this time I can actually read what each button is for.  As I lock the door behind me, I turn while the lid  rises automatically.  This is what’s so great about Nippon hygiene:  the seamless choreography of sanitation.  The lid self-rises, I can warm my chilled bum, gently shower my nether regions  – all with ease and discretion.  Of course, this is the scaled back US version and I feel slightly gypped.  I want the full, miso-soup-to-gingko-nut Tokyo experience, but I’ll either have to sell my car for airfare or settle for installing one of these modern contraptions in my own house someday, along with a Japanese soaking tub.

In the meantime,  you can vicariously experience the sheer bliss of bathing in Japan as I’ll soon share my hot springs in Hakone escapade.  The Japanese really know how to treat the naked body.

Survival Lesson Number One

You know what to do, he seems to point out.  The answer lies within.  Or maybe he’s just sharing his cake.

I’ve long eschewed routine, preferring to keep life interesting by jumping in the river and seeing where it takes me.  Following the current kept my senses alert – watching for rock outcroppings and swirling eddies, being seduced by the water’s coolness and enchanting rush.  A schedule signified attention deficit, a diminishing of natural rhythm – the damming up of energy.  These days, however, my discipline leads me.  It climbs the rungs of system and structure, elevating my craft.  What to do, then, when my itinerant inclinations rise up and I’m missing everyone I love – the casualty of living more than 300 miles away?  Is routine mobile?  I’m about to find out.

I toss my trusty red leather travel bag in the car, gas up and go.  Six hours of highway roll under and away, and I’m back in the company of my family.  Comfortably nestled, I am thrilled to see them.  Still, I did move north for fewer distractions, and all I want to do now is sit on the floor with my nephew and stack blocks.  I’m eager to hang out with my sister, talking in the ways that only being face to face, legs tucked underneath, mugs of tea in hand can elicit.  Navigating familiar territory with a fledgling stance of self-government is challenging for an emerging writer.  How do I maintain the regimen I’ve begun to forge?  Wait.  That’s it!  Maintain.  I look it up:  to practice a habit or custom, to persevere.  I need to keep on writing, wherever my traveling heart takes me.  It’s not routine that’s required, it’s perseverance.  So simple.

Last weekend I visited an artist’s gallery, an outdoor sculpture garden.   Above the guest book in a wooden lean-to was a sign with that very word inscribed.  It didn’t register much at the time, but  I photographed it nonetheless.

Seems like the answer arrived even before the question.

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