Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Mumblings of a Jet-Lagged Traveler

Although I've been back home for five nights, I still wake up around 2, certain that it's time to get up. In Thailand, where I left my heart, it's 15 hours later, early evening. So I turn the light on by my bed and read for an hour or so until the go-to-sleep antihistamine can do its work. I don't find it to be time wasted. The book I started on the plane from London, Carl Hiaasen's Skinny Dip, was good, and it pleased me to discover a new mystery writer whose wit and intelligence could keep my interest. Michael Connelly's latest book, Echo Park, was waiting for me at the library, and it's every bit as absorbing as his others (I've read them all). So getting up in the middle of every night is not such a bad thing.

It was a bright sunny afternoon in San Francisco when my eldest son Chris picked me up at the airport. After the cool drizzle of London, it seemed unseasonably warm. Our plane had flown over Iceland, Greenland, and the frozen bits of Canada, including Hudson Bay; I watched our progress not out the window but on the screen in front of my seat. Traveling west is disorienting. We leave England at 10:30 in the morning on a Wednesday and arrive, nearly 11 hours later, in the early afternoon of the same day in California. Time and space is a mystery; Einstein would be pleased.

That same evening I try to watch a video at Chris and Sandy's house in Sonoma, while they celebrate Valentine's Day by going to see Dolly Parton in concert. After ten minutes I begin to struggle with sleep. The next day I drive my truck down to Santa Cruz where mail in two large piles spills off the table. Among the offerings of magazines and junk mail are three DVDs from Netflix; I restarted my account while still in London. That evening I try to watch M. Night Shyamalan's latest film, "Lady in the Water," but fall asleep within minutes. It took me three nights to wade through that pretentious clap-trap. Likewise, Richard Linklater's "A Scanner Darkly," which remains in the player until and if I can finish watching it. Finally, yesterday Shirlee and I go to see "Factory Girl," the biopic about Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol's favorite muse (until she went off the deep end with drugs). I stayed awake probably because it was screening at 11 in the morning before the weekly film discussion led by Morton Marcus. It's a gloomy and depressing movie.

But last night I went to see "Venus" with the ever magnificent Peter O'Toole playing an aging lecherous actor, and Jodie Whittaker who is spunky in her film debut as the woman 20 years his junior who reciprocates -- somewhat -- his attentions. It's a movie about desire rather than sex (O'Toole's character is impotent and dying of prostate cancer). What's wrong, I wonder, with a 73-year-old man finding beauty, with sexual overtones, in a young woman? In their previous movie, "The Mother," director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi went in the other direction with a grandmother who has a sexual affair with a young handyman, played by Daniel Craig. It, too, was done with taste and poignancy. Helen's lesbian friends in London had advised her to avoid going to see "Venus," and I'm curious about their objections. If it's because the power relations are unequal between older men and younger women, hinting at the ubiquity of rape, then in this film the 20-year-old more than holds her own against O'Toole's character, kneeing him in the groin when he touches her breast. Maybe it's just because it's about a heterosexual relationship? Anyway, "Venus" is also a terrific view of London, with scenes of places I visited just last week.

Perhaps I'm sensitive on the issue of May-December romance because of my time with Thim in Thailand. There are thirty years separating us. But even if we were close in age, the power relations would be unequal. I tried to tell her that I was poor in America, but all she could see was how rich I was in Thailand. Any westerner who comes to visit that country is rich by virtue of the money it takes to buy a plane ticket. Most Thais, particularly the children of poor rice farmers from Isan, can never contemplate traveling around the world as a tourist. The fact that I had been a university teacher, while she was only a farm girl, also separated us, and she made this clear one evening in a conversation by holding her hands in front of her, with the lowly left one symbolizing her life and the right one high above it symbolizing me and my existence. The analogy humbled me.

When I checked my phone messages from Sonoma, there were several which appeared to be from Thim, although no words were spoken. After a few days home, I dialed the mobile phone number she gave me, with codes supplied for calling from America, and she answered. It was a strange conversation, filled with excitement and laughter on both sides, and a variety of phrases we had used in Thailand with each other, culled from our various dictionaries and grammar books, including Thai for Lovers. "You are such a flirt," she said, something she had learned that struck her funny bone. I told her I missed her, and much more which she seemed to understand. Then we said "bye bye." Yesterday morning she called me, and I bid her good night (it being after one in the morning in Bangkok where she was staying with her sister).

Was it the two months away or jet lag that made the familiar seem strange? I had been home for two days when I stood in front of my toilet for a full minute before realizing that the object on top of it, connected by a cord to an plug, was my electric toothbrush. The old habits take hold slowly. I've forgotten what I fix for breakfast and have to go through the motions step by step.

For now, all I can manage besides seeing movies is to catch up on my email correspondance and sort through the 1500 digital photos I took in India, Thailand, London and Paris. Next Sunday the pilgrims from Sangha Shantivanam will share their memories of the trip with other members of the sangha, and I put together an album of 100 photos that I had taken. I went to mass yesterday and saw numerous friends, but the liturgy did not touch me as it has in the past. I haven't meditated for more than a month, and now, instead of climbing up to my altar in the loft first thing after waking, I make coffee and surf the internet. Molly is singing at the Vault a week from Tuesday and I will miss the meeting of my men's group. But Gene came by the house the other morning with his dog Sydney, and I sat with Ted in church yesterday. I can feel my previous interests and responsibilities tugging at my pant's leg, but I find myself turning away.

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