Monday, July 30, 2012


I know I'm not a kid anymore.   I don't think of myself as old,  yet I do think  about physical changes that bug me.   More often than not I find myself in conversations with girlfriends about various kinds of plastic surgery and whether this is something we would submit to.  Two friends said they would have liposuction in the neck area if they could take sufficient time off from work to recuperate.  Another friend sees her dermatologist every three or four months for Botox injections.  One of my family members had her eyes done, and another buddy had liposuction and now wears a size six.    A friend my same age had her first face lift in her late 40s, a second one in her late 50s and is considering a third,  although I think she looks great the way she is.

A face lift doesn't interest me at all.   I'm 68 and proud of it.  After all I can ride my bike 100 miles per week.  The only cosmetic surgery I would consider is a tummy tuck because I hate my fat rolls and would like to look better in clothes.  But I will never do it, that I'm sure of.   First, I would worry about possible harm to delicate organs in my body.  I also don't want to inflict unnecessary pain on myself and am not interested in the down time required to heal.   And I've seen some horrible botch jobs.  A few years ago I met a wealthy woman on our Arctic trip who must have been a beauty in her youth, but now she looked ten years older than her age because of the deep horizontal creases that spread across her face from ear to ear.    I wonder if she sued her plastic surgeon.  

This morning I heard Terry Gross interview a well known fashion photographer who said he could tell immediately which models had had plastic surgery and which models had not.  Those who had surgery didn't animate easily and lacked visual personality.   Presumably he was talking about face lifts since I don't think smaller hips or larger boobs can animate easily or have visual personality.  He wasn't passing judgment on cosmetic surgery per se, but he did have some comments that resonated with me.  

He said that plastic surgery doesn't change who you are on the inside, although it might make you like the way you look in your clothes.  You could hope that folks might respond to you differently and that friends might even like you more, but it won't change you as a person.  It won't change the way you think.  And it won't make you any smarter nor will people treat you with any more respect.   Any way you want to look at it, it's just a temporary thing because we are all getting old and can't hide it forever.    He said that what's really important is how you feel about yourself on the inside and accepting how you look on the outside .  And to tell you the truth I think that how we feel about ourselves on the inside counts more than how we think we look on the outside.     

Let me know what you think.  

Friday, July 20, 2012


Nothing should have surprised me.  After all this was Southeast Asia, and we were in a remote corner of Northern Laos, an eleven hour bus ride away from Oudomxay, where our small plane touched down the previous day.   On the itinerary our hotel sounded charming, but instead it was godawful.   There was no hot water for a shower and the mattress felt like I was sleeping on golf balls.  It was a one-eye-open kind of night since falling asleep was impossible with scratching sounds and unusual noises  coming from somewhere above.   Having discovered some nasty looking evidence before shutting off the light,  I figured it was either bats or rats who had taken up residence in our room.

The lodge was the jumping off point for the three-day trek in the mountains to visit Akha tribal villages, the pinnacle of our three-week adventure to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos with our eight intrepid traveling friends.  We would carry only a few essentials in our back packs and stay in primitive surroundings that very few Westerners get to see.  

For the first mile of the trek, we walked on an easy flat path that crossed a large sugar cane field.  An hour later the terrain changed and we were climbing a steep trail in a jungle of thick forest brush.  Our two Akha guides were short in stature, but carried their lithe bodies with a sense of pride.   The one who spoke English the best explained that we were the first American travelers to do this trip and only the third international group because it was a relatively new joint venture between a German NGO and the local government.   The program, called the Akha Experience,  was established as a way to promote tourism and boost the local economy which, in the past, had depended primarily on the opium trade.    

After several more hours of steep ups and downs on a path with exposed tree roots and loose rocks, we reached a beautiful waterfall where we were promised a special lunch. Tucked in among the boulders below the falls, we saw three villagers, two men and a woman,  cooking food over an open fire.    We startled them with our loud American voices shouting out the Akha greeting we had been practicing all morning.   "Iomamala, Iomamala".    They appeared shy but happy to see us. 

 Lunch was prepared and arranged exquisitely on shiny green banana leaves  that served as a tablecloth.    If there was a tribal edition of Gourmet magazine, this artistic presentation could be on the cover.    There was grilled fish, chunks of sticky rice, wilted greens that looked like fiddlehead ferns,  shelled peanuts,  and some shavings of saffron-colored spices.  We were really hungry due to a meager breakfast at the lodge and a long hike to the falls.  I was eager to try everything except the spices which looked dangerously hot.   I balanced myself on a rock next to the stream and started eating with my fingers.  The sticky rice tasted fine.  I mean how could anyone screw up rice.  Then I took one bite of the fish.  YOWSA!  There was no meat on this fish at all,  only razor sharp bones  that I didn't want to swallow, so I discretely spit my mouthful into the stream and hoped no one saw me.   Then I wondered about the greens.  Were they cooked?  Would they make me sick?   So after four hours of hiking my lunch consisted of peanuts and rice -- plenty of carbs and a little protein, I figured.  No problem.   

The Akha woman in her mid 30s was called Seersut.    She was dressed in a traditional Akha costume -- a red and black long-sleeved embroidered jacket.   All hand made, of course.  The waistline of the matching short shirt hung low enough to show her navel and heavy leggings came down just above her ankle.  Her yellow plastic sandals looked totally out of place,  and I wondered if she traded for them with a tourist.   What really got my attention was her heavy multi-layered red and black woven headdress decorated with colorful beads and weighted down with large silver coins.   As a collector of tribal hats, I coveted this beauty, but learned from our guide that these precious heirlooms are passed down through the generations.  She smiled when I pointed to her hat and gave her the thumbs up.  Despite a language difference, we made a brief connection at some level that I will always remember. 

After lunch Seersut packed the leftover food in a bamboo woven basket which she wore on her back and balanced from a yoke that sat firmly on her shoulders.  She and her fellow villagers set a quick pace up and out of the canyon on a steep slope with no switchbacks.  The ten of us struggled to keep up.     

Our guides took up the rear and we could hear them giggling behind us.  "What's so funny?" someone asked.   "For women with fat legs, you are pretty strong."    We all enjoyed their sense of humor but told them our legs were muscular and not fat.

Further on we came upon a group of men using axes and machetes to clear cut the forest so they could plant rubber trees and rice paddies to sell to the Chinese.  Water buffalos hauled large tree limbs down the steep mountainside on wooden toboggans.  The smaller brush was piled high and torched.  This was my first close up and personal encounter with slash and burn.  I can understand the power of money and the financial desperation of the people, but I couldn't understand how anyone would want to cut down this beautiful forest.  

In preparation for our first village stay, our guide told us about some of the tribal taboos we must respect.   The Akha are animists, more philosophically than religiously and believe that the soul of spirits reside in all things.  The villagers recognize the clear separation between the world of spirits and the world of humans.  While the evil spirits cause disease, accidents, and bad luck, the benevolent spirits bring abundant harvests, healthy sons and good fortunes.

All of us were warned about taking pictures of the sacred village gate which is forbidden because it serves as the boundary between the human and spirit worlds.  We were also told not to take photos of babies because the Akha people believe this will take the baby's soul away, so we were surprised when several women asked us to take photos of themselves holding  their babies.   What unsettled me though was hearing that twin babies are killed at birth because they are considered "ghost children" who bring bad luck to the family and ultimately the village.  This is a catastrophe for the Akha parents who believe they are being punished for doing something bad.  We were traveling in another world. 

After a few more hours of strenuous hiking,  we finally reached Ban Lao Kao, a village of perhaps 50 families.  Our rustic cabin was situated at the edge of the village and looked similar to the other thatched roof huts, except ours was larger and of newer construction.  The Germans built it the previous year to accommodate trekkers like our small group.  There was one large room with ten single thin mattresses lined up on one side,  each with its own pillow and two heavy blankets.   No sheets.  On the other side of the room there was a small fire pit where dinner would be cooked that evening.  At the far end there was an enclosed bathroom with a real toilet seat and a shower with solar heated water.  Outside there was a water filtering system which enabled us to safely brush our teeth and fill our drinking bottles,   The Germans had thought of practically everything we needed except a way to ventilate the smoke from the indoor fire pit where our guide told us they would be cooking an  "American dinner."  

Even though our village stroll took place around sunset,  there was considerable activity underway.  Women with their  betel nut stained lips and red teeth smiled at us as we watched them spin cotton on simple spindles and weave cloth on old-fashioned looms.    

Children with distended bellies played in a muddy water hole.   Pigs and their piglets scampered and grunted while turkeys and chickens scurried and pecked at random piles of garbage and trash.  There were no roads, no stores, no gas stations, no lawns,  just dirt and litter.  Their homes were simple huts built on stilts and livestock lived below.  

The adults didn't show much interest in us initially,  but the children with their wide eyes stared at the two six-foot men in our group who, by comparison, looked like giants.   I wanted to hug these precious little kids, maybe wash their faces or clean their runny noses.  They appeared so innocent knowing very little of  life beyond their tiny village, but they looked as happy as any of the kids I see at home,  maybe even more so because they have so few expectations.    Eventually other villagers gathered around us as our paparazzi-like presence became more of an event.   They delighted us with giggles when they saw their faces on the screens of our digital cameras.    The photo ops were endless.

There were a lot of children living in Ban Lao Kao, a family's hedge against the high rate of mortality.  Babies were wrapped in cotton swaddling and carried at their mother's breast or on their backs.  We didn't sense any modesty from the nursing mothers and learned that once a woman has had a child, she is permitted to expose her breasts in public whether she is nursing or not.

Our guide pointed to two smaller thatched-roof huts down by the stream where a group of teenagers splashed and teased each other while playing in the water.  "We call these love houses," he said.  Boys and girls come here to practice sex before marriage and not always with the one they will marry."  Polygamy, we learned, is quite common within the Akha tribe.   

When we returned to our cabin,  a young man who looked like he might be our cook appeared at the door holding three live chickens upside down by their feet.    I was unnerved by the screaming birds.  I knew what was going to happen.  Yet I really didn't want to know.  Cooking dinner took our guides forever, but eventually we were told to take a seat around the fire on tiny wooden stools.  The soup they served tasted delicious, but when they presented the cooked birds, I cringed.  I'm not in denial about where our meat and poultry comes from, but just a few hours ago I'm sure I saw these same birds strutting around the village looking for food.  Now they were our food.    

The home-made Akha brew was more to my liking, although I coughed and grimaced when the rice alcohol concoction went down the back of my throat.  It was hot and tasted raw.  A second glass was much easier to swallow and for a little while I forgot about those screaming chickens.  

The Akha trek will always be on my list of top ten travel experiences as there was so much to absorb and the experience was very intense.  It wasn't just about hiking in a pristine forest or enjoying an exotic lunch in a remote waterfall setting.  It was about spending time among indigenous people whose lives are 360 degrees different from my life yet their lives still have meaning.   While the contrasts between us are pronounced, at the same time we experience the same thoughts, desires, and emotions they do.  We are the same species and are able to connect on some basic human level.   These are some of the reasons why travel has changed the way I think about the world and why I try and not make judgments nor take anything for granted.

Saturday, July 14, 2012


Friday, the Thirteenth was my lucky day.  My bike shop called to say that my  reconfigured Trek Madone bicycle was good to go and ready for pick up.   The last time I rode my bike was May 4.    Two months  ago tomorrow I was injected with  Cortisone to reduce the inflammation and the bulging discs in my neck that caused so much pain and forced me off my bicycle in Natchez, Mississippi.  At that time I was cycling my way up the Great River Road to the source of the Mississippi in Northern Minnesota with 28 awesome women.  Since then my healing  has progressed on a reasonable timeline,  but not without some challenges and frustration especially for an active person like me.  For some consolation I can always think of people who are worse off than I am, so I kept feeling sorry for myself at a minimum.  At the same time I was terribly jealous of my girlfriends who were riding their bliss.

Given the positive rate of my recovery,  my PT seemed to think that I could start riding after the Fourth of July.  When the folks in the  shop wheeled out my bike from the storeroom, I winced a little.  The plastic surgery they performed did not look very pretty, but they had followed my instructions to a T.  The  drop handlebars were gone.   In its place was a straight riser bar with new brakes and new shifters in a different position, but just  like the ones I'd given up almost ten years ago when I replaced my hybrid with a road bike.  

Dave warned me that the front wheel might feel a little twitchy since I was now putting more of my weight on the rear tire and less on the front.   "60/40 is what the distribution used to be,"  he said, "but now it's more like 80/20."  He told me I needed to be extra careful on descents and on slippery wet roads.  

 "No worries, " I said,  as I walked out the door to go for a spin.   As soon as both feet were clipped in and I started to move,  I could feel the front tire shake a little.  I felt like I was eight years old again and riding a bike for the first time.   I wobbled back and forth until I got my balance just right.   Oh God, it felt so good to spin my legs again and feel a breeze blowing in my face.  Something wasn't quite right because I felt like a klutz.   My ego was up front and center.  I'm not saying I looked like a racer before, but the drop handlebar position definitely gave me that sense because of the lower position I assumed while riding.    I'd never given much thought to my image on a bike,  after all I'm 68 years old, but I definitely felt like a newbie.   I'll get used to the new configuration eventually, but the ego thing might take more time.

Mike from the shop rode with me for most of my 30 minute ride.  He wanted to check me out to be sure I knew how to use the shifters and the repositioned brakes.   Of course, I was horribly embarrassed to be breathing so hard, especially since we were riding on Foothill which is very flat.   I'd already told another friend I wanted to do my first ride alone, but having Mike along was important so he could see if any adjustments needed to be made.   I preferred holding my hands and arms closer in to the center of the bike and not so far out on the outside.   "That's easy to take care of," he assured me.  "We'll just saw off the ends to make the handlebar length shorter, but not compromise the bar ends that will give you a second position for comfort and climbing hills.

I was breathing hard and sweating a lot because I was wearing a jacket on an 80 degree day.   Mike and I chatted amiably as we rode along.   I was really pushing and pulling the pedals, but I could tell from the noise coming from his wheels,  he wasn't pedaling much.  We were going 9 or 10 miles an hour at the most.  

My butt  felt right at home in the saddle and by the time  my ride was up,  I'd pretty much figured out how the shifters worked.  My neck didn't give me any trouble and my legs felt o.k. which surprised me given how little exercise I've had in the last few months.   Later on that day I felt some minor twinges in my neck, but I couldn't tell whether this was from the ride or a new exercise I stupidly incorporated at the gym earlier that day.     Today I feel fine.  

I don't care what anyone tells me, my bike doesn't look as pretty as it used to.  The blue bar tape that matched my bike is gone, replaced by a black straight metal bar that looks industrial and far from sleek.    But that's the way it's gonna be and I'll just have to get used to it.  But more important than how the bike looks is how the bike behaves and how my neck feels.   By the time the 30 minutes were up, the twitchiness of the front tire didn't seem to be an issue.  At least it wasn't as noticeable.   I harkened back to the time when I converted from a hybrid to a road bike and remembered how quickly it took me to feel comfortable, so I know adjusting to my new handlebars is just a matter of time.

Monday, July 9, 2012


July 9, 2012.  

Thirty years ago today my Daddy died, and I still miss him.  The date of his death is certain, but the date of his birth was not.  Lucky for him he got to pick a birth date that was his favorite month, a day he would always remember, and a year that made him younger than he probably was.  When he arrived on Ellis Island without any documents, no one asked any questions.  They didn't ask because in those days people of all nationalities were welcome.

Daddy always said he would die when he was 85, but he made it to 86, so had an extra year to get his affairs in order.  He and my brother made a trip to Bennett's Funeral Home to make all the arrangements, just in case there was no warning.  He made my brother promise to have a big party after he died,  so he could say goodbye to all his friends, but then jokingly added, we would have to do it for him.   He was Greek Orthodox, but only by birth for he scoffed at those who went to church and especially those who went to confession like his Catholic friends.  The local Greek priest made attempts to visit after his cancer diagnosis,  but Daddy would have none of it until a month or two before he died when he began having second thoughts.   If there was an afterlife, he thought, maybe there was still time for God to forgive him for the many years of badmouthing and negative talk. 

Do you remember the father in that wonderful movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding?  Well, I grew up with a Dad like that.  He didn't clean my scrapes and scratches with Windex,  but he did have a habit of interrupting my conversations with girlfriends to remind us of the Greek derivative of the words we used.   After seeing the movie, this habit endeared him more to me, but it was too late to tell him.  For someone who only went to the second grade, he had an impressive command of the English language.  His grammar wasn't perfect, but yet he didn't need a dictionary to read the New York Times.

The party was held in a local Greek restaurant and the room was packed with Greeks and non-Greeks.  My Dad loved people and people loved my Dad.  He was an affable man who had rich friends and poor ones.   He loaned out money, but never worried if he wasn't paid back.  Then there were some kids who couldn't afford college, so he made it possible with a generous check.   When I asked him for a quarter, he gave me fifty cents, but held me accountable for some of my expenses during college, saying I would thank him in the end, and I did.   His needs weren't much except for a new Pontiac every year, which he bought  from Bill Walker, one of his trusted Masonic friends.  Driving the latest model car and wearing a new suit made my Dad happy and feel secure. 

 Even though my folks were born in the old country,  we didn't grow up in a typical Greek household.  I wasn't required to date Greek boys like some of my cousins were, and I was spared a 
full-dunk baptism in the Orthodox church one hundred miles away.  I also didn't know that the "last supper" was a tradition among our kind.  It was not meant to be a memorial service.  It was definitely a party.  Dolmathes, spanokopita, and roast lamb  filled our plates.  There was bouzouki music, line dancing and hilarious stories that would have made my father blush.   He arrived in America with only a name and a New York address written on a piece of scrap paper  tucked in his pants' pocket  He told us stories about sweeping floors and washing dishes before owning his own restaurant, but the funniest tales were the ones about going door to door as a Fuller Brush man.

Both my parents were story tellers, but the ones my Dad told usually had a purpose.  He wanted me to know about his early years,  so I would understand and appreciate his values and not take my good life for granted.   He taught me about hard work and the meaning of the words, I earned it.  He signed me up with a Social Security number when I was 13,  so I could report all my earnings.  When I started drawing on that account, I wish I could have thanked him.   Politically he leaned to the left, but socially he was straight down the middle.   Having your ears pierced is ok,  he would say, but home by midnight is the rule.  He made a big deal about my dating, and even a bigger deal when I said I wanted to get married.  As far as he was concerned, knowing the boy's parents was more important than knowing the boy.  He said he didn't care what color he was.   If he came from good stock and a good home that was all he needed to give us his blessing.  

I spent a few days with him in New Hampshire before he died.  He looked thin and gaunt from the cancer that was eating him up inside, and had to use a pillow to sit on because he was all bones.  He hadn't given up yet, and although he had decided not to fight it,  he was never in the hospital or laid up in bed.    He didn't seem to be in pain, and still enjoyed meeting his cronies for their daily coffee and philosophy talk.   

When I pulled out of his driveway and headed for the airport,  I didn't know his time would be up later that day.   As I walked into my California house eight hours later, the phone rang, and I heard the words,  he is gone.  After a lovely meal with Mom and some of our family, he collapsed and within minutes passed away.   His heart gave out before he would have to experience the awful pain of cancer.  Everyone said it was a blessing.   Now thirty years later,  I see him standing in front of my car waving good-bye and blowing kisses on the day I backed out of his driveway.    

In a beautiful eulogy read at my father's last supper party, my articulate uncle said it best:  

"Close to midnight, like in a fairy tale, the soul of the once immigrant child, who had become a model citizen, a husband, father, uncle, grandfather, and to me a very dear brother, left this world of roses, birds, brooks, breezes and daisies for an unknown world from which no traveler has ever returned.  Good night, sweet Prince, Bon Voyage Kalo Taxithee."