Tuesday, October 05, 2010


I'm currently reading this book...

...which argues that kids today are suffering from nature-deprivation disorder and parents have been frightened from letting their children roam free in wild places and climb trees.

My children, just for the record, do not suffer from this disorder. This is almost entirely thanks to their father, who takes them out camping and boating and hiking and biking and does his part to nature-surplus them all the time, even when I stay home to grade papers.

I do feel that Nora has gotten too much screen time lately and doesn't get enough outdoor time (and, honestly, when I take her to the park, she's climbing on plastic and rubber-coated metal surrounded by bark chips, so that hardly counts). So when Ken suggested on his day off yesterday that we drive the Nebo loop with Nora, I went along and we three had a lovely time. My daughter, for the record, may be a pink princess in some (annoying, say her brothers) ways, but it's comforting to know she can also run up a trail and play in the leaves and get nice and dirty just like my boys did at her age. Plus, as you can see, her outfit blends in so nicely with the foliage that it's clear that she's a born nature gal.

And just in case there was any doubt about our attachment to the great outdoors, we all went back and did the Nebo drive again last night with the boys for family night and took the same hike we had discovered in the morning--up to a hidden grotto. Thanks to outrageously bad traffic (what's with Southbound I-15 lately?!) by the time we got to the cave and waterfall, it was almost totally dark. But, thankfully, Nora had her Sleeping Beauty flashlight with her to save the day. Princess Power and Mother Nature. What a great combination.

And then this morning, Nature reared her ugly head, or more accurately, her ugly swollen, black, hourglass-tattooed belly, as I was getting into my car. This lovely lady (yes, it's a black widow and doesn't she look pregnant to you?) was hanging two feet away from my face as I opened the garage door.

Maybe I am a little frightened about letting my kids roam free in the wild. Now I'm even frightened about letting them roam free in the garage.

Friday, September 17, 2010

just for the record

I finished Ramadan. I did not finish the Qur'an.

I gained a lot of knowledge and some useful insights into Islam. I lost 5 pounds.

It is easier to go all day with no food than it is to pray 5 times a day.

I would make a lousy Muslim. I think I'm a better Mormon for having done this.

Food tastes better in the light.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Day whatever

Still here. Still observing Ramadan, although I will admit I'm glad this is the last week. They say you're supposed to be sad when Ramadan is over. Sad is not what I anticipate feeling. I must be doing it wrong.

I've been sick with a nasty cold for days which adds a whole degree of difficulty to the process. I'm sure I've broken the letter of the law a couple of times with ibuprofen in the middle of the day or cough drops lozenged right before heading to class not to mention all the phlegm that's been sliding down my throat. But I'm trying my best to follow the rules. The spirit of the law is, I'll admit, secondary. It's easier by far to avoid the sins of commission than to not omit all the things I'm omitting. I haven't done many good deeds lately unless you count feeding my family the occasional warm meal. I've been going back to bed after my pre-dawn breakfast rather than staying up to pray and meditate in the dark. I'm also way behind in the Qur'an. I should be nearly finished but I'm about half way through. Not to complain, but it would be easier if there were a plot.

Since fall semester started, I've been busy with preparing lectures and dealing with last minute emergencies (What? All of my books weren't ordered? No problem. My honors TA can't work for me until everybody jumps through a few more hoops? How high? I have misplaced my thumb drive with absolutely everything on it, including all my exams. Been there done that about a dozen times since I started using thumb drives, the nasty, slippery little things).

My kids are all starting school and riding their various emotional hurricanes. At least once a day, one of them washes up next to me, all soggy and windblown and bruised from the latest blast of national disaster proportions. Each of them needs a healthy, sympathetic, focused mother with unlimited mental and emotional resources. Instead they are stuck with me, the Michael "Brownie" Brown of personal hurricane relief.

If there were advice in the Qur'an about how to make friends in Junior High (McKay) so you could stop sitting by yourself every day for lunch, I'd be all over it. Or how to get to sleep (Gabie) when you're totally not tired even though it's 10pm because you just scratched your leg and it's bleeding and you're convinced it's pretty serious and the blood loss might make you pass out which would be a good thing because then you'd get some sleep, but you're so worried about it that you can't close your eyes just in case..... Or how to survive a schedule (Ethan) that's nearly as busy as your crazy mother's, with a bunch of hard high school classes, a college math class, marching band 3 days a week, not to mention a guilt-inducing church leadership calling that you fear you're not living up to and since you survive on air and goldfish crackers, now you've caught the cold of death that has slowly been working its way through the family and you went to bed last night with a fever and a sense of impending doom. Or how to deal with the fact (Nora) that you only need ONE friend in preschool because she's the girl who also likes to play dressup and you want to sit by Mallory every second of school and sometimes -- oh the horror! -- you are asked to sit by one of the other 15 children in the class instead.

Sadly for my children, I am not the font of wisdom. I am not the font of anything. Except maybe Kleenex and a deep sense of genuine, if somewhat distracted, compassion.

Monday, August 30, 2010


One thing I regret about the way I've taught about Islam in my classes over the past several years is the superficial comparison I've made between Islamic and Mormon approaches to prayer. Typically, I point out that faithful Muslims pray 5 times a day and look! if you count up our regular prayers (morning, evening and the three meals) you also get 5. This is incredibly shallow and the number 5 is really about the only similarity between the two.

As I've seen the phrase over and over in the Qur'an, Muslim's perform their prayers. This strikes me as different from praying. I asked Luda from Syria about this distinction and while her English is very good, she seemed a bit confused by my question. "We pray", she said. "Every prayer begins with a recitation of the Qur'an." (She has several suras memorized by heart). She then proceeded to show me, on the floor of Kristin's living room, how every position of every part of the body, from the fingers to the toes, matters in the prayer pose. She knelt down with the tops of her feet on the floor, facing inward, her palms down and then she touched her forehead to the ground. It's not just kneeling. It's a full-body prayer. Luda compared it to Yoga, and then apologized in case this was not appropriate, but being a recent fan of Yoga, I like the comparison. In both, the goal is to align your body and mind--both halves of the soul, according to Mormon doctrine--in pursuit of the same purpose.

So why not pray with your whole body, humbling yourself before God physically as well as emotionally? Sure, there are times when Mormons kneel to pray, but it's not as often as maybe it should be. And we pray all the time, but maybe our prayers are not as intense as they should be. Everything about Islam, including the name, stresses submission to God. Their daily prayers are not offered at the convenience of the pray-er but at exact, prescribed moments determined by the motion of the sun (which is determined by God). The prostrations are a constant reminder of this submission. To me, this is simultaneously marvelous and frightening. LDS doctrine puts tremendous focus on personal agency, personal revelation and conscience. To relinquish so much of it multiple times daily would be a radical offering indeed.

The other major difference I've noted is that Muslims pray for personal blessings, but only after praising God through the recitation of the Qur'an. The words of their prayers are far more focused on God than on themselves. The one repeated with every prayer is the opening sura:

In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds, The Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful. Master of the Day of Judgement
To you we worship and to you we turn to in help. Show us the straight path, The path of those whom Thou hast favoured; Not the (path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.

These lines remind me of the opening of the Lord's prayer "Our Father who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." This is nothing like the kinds of prayers I typically offer, which are less about praising God than thanking him for my personal blessings and asking for more. I've been painfully conscious this month of how many times I use the words "I" and "me" in prayer. My prayers are very ego-centric. Even when I'm asking for blessings upon my family and my friends, they are still "my" family and "my" friends. There's not nearly enough "thy will be done" language.

So, while I don't want to relinquish my right to pray when I feel the urge to pray and face whatever direction I choose and formulate the content of my own conversations with God, I do see the value of prostration, at least in a metaphorical sense. There's room for more praise. And there's certainly room for more submission of my own will.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

why do they call it a fast when it's going by so slowly?

You know you've been fasting a while when you start having dreams about feeling guilty for eating carrots.

I'm nearing the halfway point of Ramadan and starting to get a bit burned out. I'm sick of being hungry; that's part of it. But I'm also tired of feeling antisocial. It's no fun eating by myself. And when I get up in the dark to eat an early breakfast I feel like sneaky binger. The one welcome exception was Monday evening, when my friend Kristin (who has lived in various middle-eastern countries and speaks Arabic) invited me to iftar with her family and her Muslim friend Luda from Syria. Iftar is the traditional meal to break fast and is usually celebrated by feasting with family and friends. (Unless you're a wacky Mormon usurping the Muslim holiday and then you usually celebrate it by eating cold leftovers alone at the kitchen table.)

Kristin had slaved all day to make some delicious Arabic dishes and Luda brought homemade Syrian food as well (sorry I didn't write down the names of the dishes; I was too busy eating). Ever the generous guest, I ran to the supermarket and bought a package of dates.

It was a privilege to meet Luda and I took advantage of the opportunity and asked her a good portion of my list of questions about the Muslim faith. I suspect I'll write about some of our conversation later. She was a lovely woman, very Western in appearance, but obviously committed to her religion even though she is essentially isolated in Utah Valley and prays at home by herself rather than attending the small local mosque.

One thing Luda said has me even more discouraged. When I admitted that I've been drinking water during the day (because I'm still running or walking 4 miles almost every day and I know I would suffer from serious headaches if I didn't drink any water) she said, "Oh, water is the most important part of the fast." So not only am I a total poser. I'm also a total cheater.

Kristin also told me it's a well-known fact that people gain weight during Ramadan. This has to be a cruel joke. Please tell me it's because they are indulging for hours after sunset (which I'm not doing), not because they are totally throwing their metabolisms out of whack by starving themselves all day and then eating right before bed (which I am doing). If I gained weight after feeling this hungry all the time, that would just be too harsh.

But I can say that I do feel, for the first time in many months, like I have some self-control when it comes to food. That's a cool thing. And I enjoy sitting in the dark of the pre-dawn mornings meditation/praying/listening to my own heartbeat. This is a rare gift. And food really does better when you have to wait for it for 15 hours. Even carrots.

Friday, August 20, 2010

washing hands

Photo: McKay washing in the fountain outside Cordova's Mosque in Spain.

One thing I'm NOT doing along the way in this Ramadan experience (but I respect, nonetheless) is washing before my prayers. It says in the 5th sura of the Qur'an:

O ye who believe! when ye prepare for prayer, wash your faces, and your hands to the elbows; Rub your heads and your feet to the ankles.

I like the idea of setting prayer apart as a sacred act by washing in preparation. It seems as if you were about to have an audience with royalty, which of course, you are. If I knew the whole Wudu ritual and could perform it without sacrilege, I'd try. But I sense it's one of the many things that belong so specifically to the Muslim religion that I'd be wrong to borrow it for my own curiosity. I do like the symbolism though of clean hands. It's all over in the Old Testament but I never thought to take it quite so literally.

Monday, August 16, 2010

fasting and feasting

Day five and I'm surprised by the fact that fasting isn't that difficult. I mean it's not easy to go all day without eating, but I think it's easier than, say, eating ONLY ONE really good chocolate chip cookie. There's something about total abstinence that takes the pressure off.

That said, by 8:30ish (it gets earlier each day according to the sunset) I'm ready for a big pile of food. I suspect with all I eat in the evening and the breakfast I sneak in before dawn I'm not reducing total caloric intake by much. It's not an ideal diet plan. But that's not my motive anyway. I do feel a strong sense of accomplishment that I've kept to the schedule thus far. I've had plenty of temptations, including a full weekend at the cabin with my fabulous family (my parents and 7 of my 8 siblings and their families) which typically means good food and abundant snacking. Thankfully my family was very supportive and there's nothing like 31 witnesses to keep you honest.

I'm also surprised by what I'm finding in the Qur'an. I have the book divided into 30 equal portions, one for each day of Ramadan. I read with two pens: a black one for underlining things I like and a red one for underlining things that don't jive with my personal beliefs. I'm into the fifth sura now and of the hundreds of verses I've read, there are only a handful that I felt compelled to underline in red. Why does this surprise me? I don't know. I guess I forgot that most religions have, at their core, the same fundamental principles: obey God, avoid hypocrisy, be kind to others, and keep your promises. The Qur'an is, thus far, largely devoted to these ideas and to predicting rewards for the believers (paradisaical gardens with rivers beneath them and pure spouses) and the unbelievers (the scorchings of hell). My strongest personal objection is merely that there is such a theme of division between these two groups. Many many verses are about the seemingly clear-cut differences between the faithful and the blasphemers. I suppose my own scriptures are no different. I just wouldn't mind spending more time admitting that we are all inherently good and deeply flawed at the same time, that we all struggle with demons and wish to be angels, that some days we believe and some days we doubt.

I sense a trend to my musings today. It's night: I can feast. It's day: I must fast. Some people are sinners and will pay dearly. Some are believers (Mormon equivalent: righteous saints) and will be rewarded. The avoidance of ambiguity makes all manner of things easier. It's moderation that's hard.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


(Arabic writing from the Alhambra in Granada, Spain)

Day one of Ramadan and I can already tell that the hardest part isn't going to be the fasting. It's going to be sleep deprivation. Of course, I say this before I've actually felt a single hunger pang, but I'm already tired and it's only 10 am.

I got up at 4:30 am for Suhoor, the meal before the first prayer of the day (which begins at 4:43 in my time zone and marks the beginning of the fast). I underestimated the time it would take to make oatmeal and so I was wolfing it down while it was still too hot and I didn't get to finish it off before my time ran out. I'm already having these manic conversations with myself about the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. It seems extreme to run a spiritual exercise by the seconds on a clock, but at the same time, if I start making excuses and fudging the numbers, where do I draw the line? If I don't follow the rules, soon I'll be arguing that the fast doesn't start until the sun actually rises and then it will be when I can actually SEE the sun and before long, I'll be saying I can just close my eyes and eat whatever I want.

It's only day one, mind you. I sense some internal battles in my future.

One thing I can say is that it's peaceful at 4:30 in the morning. The house seems perfectly quiet when I sit down to pray and then I begin hearing, one by one, the layers of sound that float across the dark air around me: the hum of the refrigerator, the vibrations of a thin stream of cars passing on the highway a mile away, a train honking at the crossing more than two miles away, my intestines gurgling around the oatmeal. My eyes have adjusted and there's a gray glow coming in from the streetlight outside. I enjoy being the only one awake in this hazy envelope of space and time. I would enjoy it more if I weren't aware that I will pay the price later in the day when I have to function on substantially less than my required 7 hours of sleep. But in the meantime, I can enjoy the moment and think about the millions of real Muslims out there who had to get up even earlier to make it to a mosque for their first prayer. I'm just in my pajamas in my living room.

I realize now that one of the layers of sound I hear is the ticking of the clock in the kitchen. It seems incredibly loud, in fact, and I can't believe I have tuned it out. It's not something I ever notice during the day. There's something about this early morning strangeness that makes time thicker and more precious than usual. Maybe that's part of the point to this exercise. The seconds do matter. They've always mattered but now that they mark the borders between dark and light and between food passing my lips or staying in the bowl, they have power over me instead of the other way around.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ramadan, a Mormon seeker's version

I’ll begin with the fact that my kids think I’m crazy, my husband is worried about me not eating dinner with the family, and my parents (when they read this) are likely to fear I’m becoming even more radical than my normal level of radical. On my part, I’ll admit to some trepidation. If anyone were to ask me why I plan to celebrate Ramadan this year, I’d have to pause for a while to collect my thoughts before answering. That isn’t to say that I don’t have a good reason. It’s more like I have a whole pile of reasons, none of which seems logical or convincing or likely to satisfy anyone who thinks it’s inappropriate for a Mormon to participate in a pillar of the Islamic religion. I’m writing this, I suppose, to explain myself to myself and anyone else who questions my motives or my sanity.

Why I’m celebrating Ramadan

For several years, I have included a short lecture about Islam in my Humanities 201 class. I do this with full disclosure of my own Western bias and my limited knowledge of the deeper aspects of the religion. I do it in an attempt to show another perspective on the Middle Ages, to balance out our reading of the Song of Roland (which portrays Muslims as polytheist pagans and heroicizes their slaughter), and to reveal to my classes of predominantly Mormon students that there more similarities than differences between the two religions. I enjoy watching their surprise at this discovery. Every time I teach my students about Ramadan, I have wondered what it’s really like to fast for a month. I’m simply curious to know how difficult it is and what kinds of rewards it brings.

I finally bought a Qur’an (or at least an English translation of it) last Christmas. In the basement of the university library, next to the rows of computers where elderly LDS patrons squint at genealogy records, I have plundered the stacks of books on Islam (ironically located right next to the books on Judaism, a kind of peaceful coexistence only possible in the abstract world of the written word). Ramadan this year is an excuse for me to read the whole Qur’an, study my pile of books about Muhammad, and try to gain a more personal understanding of Islamic beliefs.

According to what I have read, the blessings of Ramadan include forgiveness of sins, greater power through prayer, internal peace, and more strength to resist temptation. The phrase I've read dozens of times now is “The gates of paradise are opened, the gates of hell are closed, and the devils are in chains." I could use all of these openings, closings and chainings right now.

One of the benefits of Ramadan is an increase in self-discipline and self-control. I don’t want to belittle the sacredness of the rite by treating it as a diet plan, but I am in need of more self-control, especially where food is concerned. I’ve heard some people dismiss Ramadan as an easy way to fast because you can eat whatever you want in the middle of the night. But how could avoiding food and drink between dawn and sunset for 30 days be anything but a genuine test of will power?

During Ramadan, Muslims strive to better themselves and fill their hearts with charity and empathy for others. They try to be more generous, more friendly, more anxious to serve the poor and needy. In addition to gaining control over what passes into their mouths, they control over what passes out of their mouths by banning gossip, backbiting, and spreading of rumors. I struggle with these weaknesses. Blame it on my years of analyzing art and literature, but whatever part of my brain it is that makes you a good critical thinker, that part of my brain is over-exercised. As in Rambo. It is hard for me to resist criticizing others, and (not that I need a holiday to make me do better) it seems appropriate for me to set some new goals and have a noble reason to hold my tongue.

And maybe this should have been listed first, but I’m seeking a spiritual benefit as well. Those who faithfully follow the prescriptions of Ramadan are promised taqwa, which I’ve seen translated variously as fear of God, God-consciousness or piety. No Dad, I’m not converting to Islam (could any feminist do this?) but I know that there are many paths to God. I haven’t yet exhausted the Mormon path (could I ever?) but I am interested in what truths I can find in the Qur’an and what I can discover about my relationship to God by subverting the will of the flesh and dedicating more time in my life to religious study and prayer. Couldn’t I get these things from within my own religion? Sure. Am I conflicted as to why I feel the need to borrow a piece of someone else’s religion to gain the clarity and insight I should be working harder to find in my own? Absolutely.

As a caveat, I know there are plenty who would say God will not accept my offering, seeing as it comes from a non-Muslim usurping a Muslim religious tradition. I readily acknowledge my status as an outsider. For that matter, for various reasons I’ve mostly felt like an outsider in Mormon circles my whole life. It’s a role I’m familiar with. My only regret is that I’m doing this alone. A significant aspect of Ramadan is the sense of community created by a group of people sacrificing together and celebrating together. There will be no public feasts in my version of Ramadan. No trips to the mosque for late night prayers. I might rope a few of my family members into eating some dates and Haleem with me, and my Arabic-speaking sister has promised to teach me a few phrases, but mostly I plan to do this solo. This may be the most un-Islamic aspect of my pseudo-Islamic Ramadan. So here’s an open invitation to anyone who wants to join me in all or in part on my strange quest for enlightenment, compassion and the ability to resist the lure of baked goods during daylight hours.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Bathroom break

One of the things I love most about travel and the main reason I wanted to get my kids to Spain is the way it broadens your understanding of the whole human race. If you always stay in one place, it’s easy to think that there’s only one way of doing things: the way you’ve always done them. But once you travel to a foreign country, you get to see that in other parts of the world, there are millions of people who eat totally different foods (and are accustomed to a totally different olive oil to potato ratio), they swim in a different language sea, they have different attitudes about public transportation or footwear or the amount of major appliances you can miniaturize and squeeze into a kitchen the size of an average pantry back home. In other words, there’s more than one way to flush a toilet.

And that’s literally what we learned in Spain. I saw so many different ways to flush a toilet on our trip it became a running joke. Each time we’d stay somewhere new or have to ask a waiter for directions to “Los Servicios” I’d play "Okay friends, how do you flush this toilet?’” I began taking my camera in with me to public restrooms. I can only assume this caused a fair amount of confusion to people in the stalls next to me. Can you imagine it? The flush followed by a short pause and then a sudden flash of light.

Yes, I became somewhat of a toilet tourist, a restroom reporter, a john junkie.

So here’s one of the recuerdos I brought home from Spain: my little collection of toilet photos. I'm just being realistic. While traveling, it seems we spent an inordinate amount of time searching for bathrooms, waiting in line for bathrooms, using bathrooms, and then talking about the odd discoveries we made in said bathrooms. It seemed appropriate to chronicle that part of the experience.

Here's a fairly standard little number from the Madrid Airport. The flusher is the large button half-way up the wall, which--when nearly every other toilet you've ever flushed in your life has a fairly innocuous little lever on the side of the tank--seemed ultra fancy and dramatic (does it summon airport security? will an alarm sound? am I launching a nuclear weapon?).

This one's from our apartment in Madrid. The flusher is a button you push on the top of the tank, which makes it easy to find. But take a look at a detail shot...

...the mystery being: what exactly is the difference between a "sun flush" and a "moon flush?"

Just when you get complacent and start thinking, "Hey, I can handle this one because I have cleverly deduced there's a button on the back of the tank" you find that the button simply will NOT be pushed. You press it multiple times and nothing happens. You're feeling like a stupid tourist, helpless in the bathroom, completely flummoxed by a plumbing fixture, wishing there were such a thing as a World-Wide Toilet Translation Phone App. You're about to call for backup when you think to pull on the knob instead of pushing it and thankfully discover that all it takes is a gentle upward tug to do the job. Sheesh. You have failed another IQ test.

This may have been the fanciest flusher I saw. Another "launcher" on the wall in a restaurant near Madrid's Plaza Mayor. But this time there are two rectangle panels and as far as my highly professional journalistic sleuthing could determine (i.e. multiple flushings) both panels seemed to accomplish the same thing. I still haven't figured this one out. Clearly I was not the only confused one because in the empty stall next to mine, one of the rectangles was permanently indented and water was swooshing down the drain, spinning furiously in some kind of eternal flush mode .

I encountered this no-nonsense, utilitarian job at the Reina Sophia art museum, a rather appropriate setting considering the fixture's totally post-modern exposure of the sign/signifier relationship. Here's the plumbing that takes you from flusher to things in need of flushing. No need to wrap things up in the illusion of detachment.

Okay, this one is from the Palacio Real and yes, I know we've seen the missile launcher variety before, but I wonder if you're noticing a trend here... Have you seen how every bathroom comes equipped with a huge garbage can? These are not your discrete letter-boxes attached to the side of the stall wall for your occasional convenience. No m'am, they are heavy-duty, tight-lidded garbage cans large enough to swallow small children. And if you think you've guessed their purpose you're only half right because they're not just in the ladies' bathrooms.

The large garbage can phenomenon led to no small amount of conjecture on our part, especially when we encountered signs like this one that--in addition to indicating that any use of the toilet is explicitly banned--seemed to strengthen our suspicions that we were not supposed to be flushing anything, including toilet paper, down the pipes.

Ahem. Moving on...

While playing "How do you flush this toilet?" I encountered a few truly baffling challenges such as this one. It took me several minutes to finally decide that the only recourse was to plunge my hand into the tank and pull on random pieces of plastic until flushing resulted. Much handwashing ensued.

At our Pension in Barcelona, it took a full-scale search around the toilet and up and down the walls to discover the pull chain hanging from the ceiling (we had to train Gabie to step up on the toilet to reach it). Also, you know you're in Spain when the bathroom is so narrow that you have to turn sideways and inhale to squeeze your way down to the toilet, BUT naturally there's room for a bidet.
In Granada, outside the lovely monastery we visited, there's a bathroom where for the first time, the mystery was not how to flush the toilet. Instead, the mystery was...can you find it?...where on earth have they hidden the toilet paper? In fact, not only was there no toilet paper, there was no dispenser on which to ever hang toilet paper. To get toilet paper, you had to buy it from the tiny, scowling, wrinkled old lady whom you passed on the way into the bathroom and only fully appreciated on your way out. Thankfully, I always enter bathrooms fully prepared (just the basics: extra tissue, pen and paper for taking notes, camera equipment...) so I didn't have to pay the lady for toilet paper. But I really, really wish I had plucked up the courage to ask if I could pay her to pose for a picture. She was a true cultural gem.

Thus ends our tour of Spanish toilets. And again, my point was that it's refreshing to see that sometimes there are a hundred different ways to accomplish a task and none of them are wrong and all of them get the job done eventually. I think my kids learned this lesson in Spain. They learned to open their minds to new ideas, learned to welcome different perspectives, learned to be a little less ethnocentric. They learned that we're all unique and not everything has to be done the American way.

Thank goodness.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Day Five - Birthday

If I were to create a recipe for the perfect birthday, it would have to include the following: 1) wake up in Spain (and already you'd know that it's one of those recipes, the ones with totally unreasonable ingredients, like fresh fennel or grouse or Egyptian limes), 2) wander around for a few hours in a world-class art museum, 3) do at least one thing that feels completely surreal, 4) eat something delicious, and 5) spend the whole day with people you love.

So that was my birthday this year. I can't remember a better one. And I'm getting to that stage in life where I dread getting older, so it feels good to think back on a birthday and experience happy thoughts rather than a tightening in my chest.

We spent the morning at what is now my favorite of the three great art museums of Madrid: The Thyssen-Bornemisza. Sure, Lady Prado flaunts all those masterpieces. And Queen Sophia has her Ultra-Famous Guernica. But in her four floors, their less-assuming sister Thyssen covers the whole history of art with the most beautifully eclectic collection I've ever seen. From glowing wooden triptychs to hip modern canvases, it's all there. My favorites were the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, of course. I can't get enough of Matisse and Van Gogh.

Berthe Morisot's Psyche (at the Thyssen)
Someday I'll write about this painting!!!

The pleasant surprise of the visit was the temporary exhibition called "Monet and Abstraction." It was a stunning collection of Monet's paintings interwoven with abstract works by Turner, Rothko, Frankenthaler, Krasner, etc (the whole concept being to show Monet's influence on later movements). We knew it would be beautiful, but I was truly in rapture through every room. We even turned one corner and found ourselves facing two Jackson Pollocks. I had not expected that at all, but to see them mixed in with Monet made total sense. My boys were awesome through the whole museum (and Ken is totally used to my slow museum pace so he was patient and helped keep the boys within sight). McKay later listed it as one of his favorite places in Spain.

After lunch, we visited (along with my sisters Teri and Anne and my brother Jim and their families) some old haunts. The first and second times I lived in Spain (when I was about 4 and 9 years old) we spent a lot of time at a "Residencia."

This was where the students in the BYU group lived and ate and studied. My family lived in apartments not far away, but we hung out at the Residencia plenty. It has changed, of course, and no longer belongs to BYU (which still makes me cringe because they should never have let this property go!) but it was a surreal feeling....stepping into the past a bit by walking on familiar but not familiar ground. The place is now subdivided into a bank and an engineering firm. They have changed just about everything except the basic structure of the building. But I could picture my brother Steve and I rolling our oranges down the marble stairs so they would be all mushy by the bottom and we could suck the juice out of them. Teri and I reminisced about walking around to the back kitchen door to ask the cooks for the feet off the chickens so we could turn them into animated claws. We remembered the little chapel tucked under the bottom of the building and the slick part of the back landing where we could slide. It's a little sad to see only traces of a building that holds such a permanent lease in my memories. And I'm worried now that the new images of the place, all fresh and repopulated, will taint the old ones. Maybe it's better just to stay away. But I couldn't resist. I've dreamed about going back to Spain for more than 20 years. And in my dreams, I often am walking down that street, looking for those columns, turning back the clock.

Anne (and her husband and the most adorable baby on the planet) went with me and Ken and the boys to see our old apartment (where we lived on our third trip to Spain when I was 15). It's in Moratalaz, if that means anything to you, but when I lived there, I knew it by its metro stop. I knew everything by its Metro stop. My mental map of Madrid is entirely based on the colors of various lines and their station names. After all these years, I remembered that we lived on the Purple line (lower right hand corner of the map) and the Vinaterros stop. However, I confess that without a quick phone call to my Mom, a little google-earth research on my brother Jim's cell phone and Anne's amazing homing skills (my heck, she was only 6 years old when we lived there but she remembered better than I did which apartment was ours) we would never have found it.

The place has gone down hill a bit (Ken's comment: "I didn't know you grew up in the hood"). There's more graffiti than I remember. The planters are a bit weedier, the buildings not as well maintained. But it was a kick to see it again. Our old doorman--Juan Carlos--is still there after all these years and he recognized us and even remembered our apartment number. I'm hoping this is because we made a good impression, not because we were a crazy, huge American family living in an otherwise ordinary Spanish neighborhood.

We ate chocolate-covered donuts from the Tienda where we always used to buy treats. I walked around to the side of the building where my old High School was (and still is).

I won't launch into all the details here, but just imagine if you were a year ahead in math in the US and then you went to a new school where everyone was two years ahead. And, oh yeah, everything, including all the math terms, are in a foreign language that you are still struggling to master and your teacher talks a hundred miles an hour and the numbers don't even look the same because ones have a long tail like sevens and sevens are crossed and commas are decimal points and...well you get the idea. I looked up at the bars on those windows and flashed back to the times I sat inside, staring up at those bars, wishing the class were over and feeling utterly, utterly stupid. I did have some good friends in that school, though. I wish we had keep in touch. The flow of correspondence trickled down to nothing within several months of my departure.

The last thing we did that evening was visit an old friend of the family. Fé is a Spanish grandma with infinite charm and warmth. She has hosted BYU students in her home for many years, starting with my older sisters Teri and Kathy back in 1985. And the first thing she showed us when we arrived was her book of Americans, a scrapbook filled with photos of my sisters (and their families, including me, although I had never met Fé before) and every other person from the US she has embraced in her generous life. What a delightful lady. She fed us dinner. In fact, had it waiting for hours (because we were late), spread out on a table squeezed into a corner of her typically tiny apartment. And you have never had a Spanish tortilla until you've tasted these. My gosh! Salty and slightly gooey with egg and fried potatoes. I've tried these at home a dozen times, but they don't even come close to Fé's. In fact, my boys--who have never liked my tortillas--were snarfing them down and saying "Mom, you should really try to make these some time."

We chatted with Fé for a couple of hours (my Spanish was improving!) and then rode home on the Metro. Yes, I meant to say "home." How funny that Madrid had already started to feel like home again. Shows you how strong those memories are...how deep an impression Madrid made on my little girl heart.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Day Four - more bliss in Madrid

Back in real time (late June, Utah) I start teaching classes again today so I may not get as much detail into these travelogues as I wish. This is good news for everyone since I fear my rambling gets boring. I plan to rely more on the journal of odd notes I took on the trip. It's a bit raw and disorganized but maybe better than the over-processed stuff.

I wake up early, way before anyone else in my family, as I do every day of the trip. When I'm home, if I wake up early, I just crave more sleep, but in Spain, every second is like the finest gelato you've ever tasted--you can't imagine wasting even a drop before it melts.

In Madrid, we're on the top floor of a five-story apartment building and we have two balcony patios (which turn out to be very handy when we start washing laundry later). I walk out on the upper patio and watch the sky lighten. There are clay and stucco roofs all around me -- flat layers and different levels of terraces for every apartment building. The balconies have pots of geraniums and the occasional string of laundry. The swallows are crazy around here -- hundreds of them, sweeping in masses and spiraling above the roofs, eating bugs I assume. They are noisy! Like giant crickets chirping in thick swaths across the sky.

Below on the narrow cobblestone street, a few people walk by, motorcycles and tiny cars work their way down the street. A dog is peeing on a stone berm and then, instinctually, he tries to scratch and kick his hind legs against the cobblestones as if burying his pee in the dirt that isn't there.

I can smell baking bread and diesel fumes.

When the kids are all up, dressed and fed, we walk to Retiro park to catch the "Madrid Vision" bus. This is an incredibly touristy thing to do and my sister (who planned the whole trip, bless her stressed-out little heart) was a genius for arranging it. Really, the tourist bus a great way to see the whole city, all its plazas, incredible architecture, crowds, traffic. It takes a while for us all to work our way up to the top of the double decker bus where we can see well, so once we finally get up there, we have to stay on the bus or lose our seats. We ride around the loop a second time, then get off near the Palacio Real.

McKay on the Bus (say goodbye to that hat; it was McKay's favorite and it's the only casualty of the trip. I still can't figure out at which point it got lost)

We eat lunch at a Turkish restaurant. If I'm not mistaken, this is the only time we eat anywhere that wouldn't qualify as "Spanish Food." We have instituted a strict ban on anything remotely American. I eat a salad that tastes amazing after days and days of bread and meat.

We tour the Palacio Real, which by the way was the former residence of the monarchy and is one of the many places on our trip where they forbid the use of cameras, even without flash. This is irritating and manipulative (we suspect they want to boost sales of their books and postcards) but as we have already had one encounter with a snotty guard (who was ticked that our group has smuggled in deadly baby carriers and diaper bags, even though we got permission at the front gate to bring them) so I obey the rules and take no photos. I wish I had broken the rules. Now I can only say things like: Wow! Opulent! Over-the-top! and Regal. If I can track down the guidebook that I bought (see? It works) maybe I could scan in some pictures.

The Palacio Real is simply another symbol of the overwhelming wealth the royals had during Spain's Golden Age. They had so much money, they really didn't know what to do with it other than commission rooms made entirely of Oriental porcelain. Or surround themselves with nude portraits of themselves as heroes of mythology.

Gabie, who ever since his introduction to Percy Jackson has been infatuated with everything Greek or mythical, is in heaven. He recognizes many of the figures painted on the ceilings. Hercules seems to be a favorite of the Spanish Kings. We see him (and his various labors) many times today.

The armory is surreal. The Spanish kings treated these suits and shields and swords like ceremonial relics--all inscribed with scenes from mythology and elaborate decoration--each a work of art. And they were for war?! It shows you how today's trillion-dollar Military Industrial Complex is just a modern version of an ancient industry: preparation for battle.

What seems funny to me is that the ornamentation does not make the armor more effective in battle; it just makes the wearer more convinced he is powerful, worthy of victory, bestowed by God with special authority to lead and fight. It reminds me of all those lines in Homer's Iliad about Achilles' shield. He describes in detail the sculpted scenes of a city at war and a city at peace (and the peaceful one gets more attention) but in the end, it's just a weapon. These kings had to bend over backwards (or at least their craftsmen did) to justify and ceremonialize their love of war. It's almost like a huge, elaborate distraction from the truth that war is about blood and gore and loss of life. If you can make your armor pretty enough and tie your actions to Hercules and Poseidon, you won't have to worry so much about the troubling consequences of conflict.

End of rant :)

Outside the armory, we see a couple of peacocks resting in the ledge of a window. Appropriate symbols of royalty and not a "No Photos!" sign to be found. Finally.

Teri takes the kids to the park next door and the adults walk through the pharmacy (shelf after shelf of porcelain containers with a million odd ingredients, whale sperm being our favorite). We sit down in the park for a while and watch the kids play. They have made some Spanish friends already (who needs language skills?).

We walk to the Plaza Mayor and on our way wander through a fancy market place. The hanging legs of jamon are pretty typical. I just wish I could also convey the terrific smell of the market: eau de dangling meat, baked goods, fish and more fish.

At the Plaza Mayor, my sister Anne buys me an early birthday present: churros y chocolate for my family. I'm having one of those moments again where I can't believe I'm here. It seems too perfect, like a movie set, the scene where the heroine sits with a whole group of relatives out in the most famous of all famous Madrid plazas and dips her crispy, sugary churro into a cup of thick chocolate.

Then some of the kids start chasing pigeons which infuriates Gabie, protector of all creatures great and small, and the spell is broken. I do take one of my favorite photos from the trip.

Do you think they pose here behind the statue on purpose? I just love the symmetry of the three horses' rear ends.

Some of my family head off to the airport to pick up Anne's husband Scott. Some of us head to the Plaza del Sol (where we see the zero kilometer mark that indicates the center of Spain). Then into the Corte Ingles, which when I lived in Madrid as a teenager was one of my favorite places. Corte Ingles is the largest chain of stores in Spain; they are EVERYWHERE. And the one in Sol is huge--8 stories of everything you could possibly want, from groceries to camping gear. We pick up some food: fruit, eggs, bread, magdalenas, Danup, Nocilla, Natillas, fresh milk (not easy to come by). These are the best food prices we've seen yet so we load up. The only flaw in this plan is that we then we get to carry all our bags back to the bus stop, onto the bus, and up the block to our apartment. Exhausting, but worth it for just a taste of that natillas.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Day Three, in which I become a food blogger

I woke up early and ventured out with McKay to find something for breakfast in Barcelona. No luck. The Ramblas, which the previous night was flowing with thousands of people, was totally deserted. The stores were all closed and the only living souls out were either cleaning the streets or making deliveries. I asked a few people for suggestions on where I could find some food and they each gave me the same look: Dumb tourist, don't you know where you are? Spaniards are not early risers!

We made do with leftover bagels (I knew we saved them for a reason) and two apples I had been hauling around in my backpack since Salt Lake. Note to self: buy breakfast food when you're out and about with the rest of the townsfolk at 10pm the night before. We caught our fourth plane in four days (enough already!) and headed to Madrid. On the plane, I made a list of foods I had to eat before we left Spain. These are mostly memory foods, things I loved as a kid.

Danup (very runny drinkable yogurt)
Bread (real Spanish Pan)
Good cheese (Manchego!)
Fanta Limón
Arroz con leche
Paella (of course, though I never liked the seafood kind)
Tortillas (the Spanish kind with potatoes and eggs)
Pechugo de pollo (breaded chicken)
Churros y chocolate (the thick kind that's like pudding)
Sugus candy
Gummi candy
Nocilla (pronounced no-THEE-uh, a chocolate and hazelnut spread)
Tofe Nata
Horchata (almond drink)
Ensaladia (potato salad)
Real White Chocolate

I'm happy to announce that by the end of the two weeks, we had consumed every one of these foods (plus lots of other yummy things besides). My conclusion on several of them (including paella, pechugo de pollo, arroz con leche, and ensaladia) is that my Mom--whom we ironically left behind in the U.S.--still makes the best Spanish food I've ever tasted).

We settled into our Madrid apartments (I'll have to write about these in detail later; they were fantastic and perfectly located within walking distance of the "Gold Triangle of Spanish Art"). We met up with more of our group (My brother Jim, his wife Julia and daughter. My sister Anne and her baby. My brother Thom, his wife Robin and their 3 boys).

These are the kids (so far; we'll gain a few more in a couple of days when my brother Steve's family arrives).

Then we hit the Reina Sophia, the first of the three world-class art museums in Madrid (thus the Golden "Triangle"). The most famous resident of the Reina Sophia (and essentially the reason this museum was built) is, of course, Picasso's Guernica.

Seeing Guernica in person for the first time was definitely a highlight of the trip for me. No, I didn't cry. But I was in a sincere state of art-lover's ecstasy for a while. The thing is HUGE. Even bigger than I had assumed from all the pictures I've seen. Sure, I knew it was 11 feet tall and nearly 26 feet wide, but these dimensions don't sink in until you see it looming on the wall in front of you. Some of the figures, even the partially-severed ones, are far bigger than lifesized. I know this because I could compare them with the guards standing soberly on either side of the canvas. Four more guards strolled around the room reminding people to put away their cameras and step back from the painting if they were even within 3 feet of it; I've never seen security like this in ANY museum. It speaks to the volatile history of this painting and its power as a political symbol. I teach all of this in my classes but what a privilege it was to see it in person.

We wandered through the Reina Sophia for at least another hour as a group until the kids had really had enough. Some of the adults (thank you!) took the kids to Retiro park so the rest of us could see more art. I have to confess, as much as I enjoy Dali and Miró and Picasso, once you've seen Guernica, everything else in that museum is a step down.

My second favorite painting was probably Antonio Saura's Shout (1959). I have certainly had days like this, haven't you?

I especially loved the detail of the shouting person's fist dripping paint down the canvas like blood.

We met up with the kids in the park just in time to see a spectacular sunset. I cursed myself for not following through with my goal to become a fantastic photographer (or at least understand how to use half the features on my fancy camera) before the trip. This is my best shot. Sorry.

I did snap one more picture on our walk back to the apartments, one that captures the flavor of Madrid (and all big Spanish cities) quite well, don't you think? Tiny cars, even tinier parking spaces. I mean, how's this guy ever going to get out?

Ken and I and the boys ate dinner on our own at a little restaurant called Los Rotos. Gabie was so infatuated with everything about this place that he saved the placemat and taped it into his journal. We ate pan (of course) croquetas (blah), patatas (meh), Gaspacho (the best we had in all of Spain), Fried chicken strips with a honey sauce (delicious!) and, since Ken was brave, a scrambled egg dish called Pistos with all kinds of mystery foods in it that was quite good. The second time we ate here on our last day in Spain I think we decided that one of the mystery foods was eggplant. I think one of the others was some kind of fish. Yeah, I make a great food blogger, don't I?

We ate dinner, by the way, at 10pm. This is pretty standard for Spaniards and became a regular routine for us as well. It doesn't really get dark until after 9pm and who wants to eat early when there's so much to see?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Spain, Day Two –The day that never ends. . .

At this rate, it may be Christmas before I catch up on our trip. But in my defense, this was by far the LONGEST day of the whole thing. You'll see why...

We spend the night with Toni at her home on Long Island. We wake early and eat Real New York Bagels for breakfast. We spend a while hanging out with a Real New York Family (Toni’s husband and kids) then pack up our backpacks and head back into the Real New York City. The kids marvel at everything: the traffic, the buildings, the traffic, the miniature villages beside the freeway that turn out to be cemeteries, the traffic...

In New York, we walk around for a while like the tourists we are and visit Rockefeller Center and Times Square. We watch Toni light a candle in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a lovely ritual that marks each of my trips into Manhattan with my Catholic friend. Eventually, we make our way to Central Park where the kids eat pizza and climb the rocks and trees; they are finally in their element.

Central Park is definitely the highlight of the city for my boys. I do love how, if you get deep enough into the center of the park and can’t see the buildings poking out above the trees, you can almost forget that you’re in the middle of a sprawling metropolis. We walk past a little-league baseball game that strikes me as funny. Can you imagine playing your regular, scheduled baseball games in CENTRAL PARK? It’s just such an ordinary thing in an extraordinary place. I think each game would be worthy of a full-scale camera crew, or at least an accompanying Simon and Garfunkle soundtrack.

Toni drives us back to the airport where we begin the process of visiting the Dude with the Closet to pick up our luggage (whew! still there) and checking through security. We reach the first gate and meet a Real New York Nasty Airport Security Officer. She takes our passports, and one by one goes through them, saying, “This passport is NOT valid…this passport is NOT valid…this passport is NOT valid…” My heart sinks. This is it. I knew some big catastrophe would keep us from getting to Spain!

The she tells us in a very condescending tone that we have neglected to sign our passports (which she seems positively delighted to have been the first to discover). My heck! Does she revel in giving people heart attacks or what? We sign them right away. Then we find a line as far away from the This Passport is Not Valid lady as possible.

We wait for three hours at the airport (because aside from neglecting to sign our passports, we are obedient travelers and we have followed instructions and arrived half a day before our actual flight leaves). We eventually run into Teri (my sister) and her son Sawyer who are taking the same flight to Barcelona. Or at least we think it’s going to Barcelona. What no one at Iberia Airlines has actually told us (and what it says NOWHERE on any of our ticket info) is that the flight will land in Madrid, we will be asked to switch planes, wait around some more, and then fly to Barcelona. By the time we get there 9 hours later, we are exhausted. None of us, including the kids, have really slept much on the flight. How can you sleep? They provide you with pillows and blankets but then interrupt constantly with various announcements, pings, movies, and 4 separate trips of the meal/beverage carts. By the time we land, the sheen has rubbed off the novelty of air travel, even for the boys.

Okay, Barcelona in three works: impressive, expensive and exhausting.

We take a bus to the Plaza that shall not be named (because I can’t remember it), find our Hostal and check in.

A word here about the Spanish floor numbering system. They skip the ground floor. This means if the nice lady running your Hostal says she’s just up on the 2nd floor, you can expect to drag your suitcases up THREE flights of steps. (This also means when you get to see the Mormon temple on your last day in Madrid and you run into the Temple President and his wife and they kindly invite you up to their apartment on the 7th floor of the building next door—thankfully in an elevator—you will be looking out the window from 8 stories up and you will be pretty much eye level with Angel Moroni, which is very cool).

The Hostal is cramped and old and consists of a few bedrooms with shared bathroom, but it’s clean and quaint and, oh yeah, IT’S IN SPAIN! so everyone is totally thrilled. It’s also in a great location, right off the Ramblas, which is the most famous tree-lined street in Barcelona. (This is the view from our window).

We take a stroll, check out the shops and street performers (you see them all over Spain; they paint themselves in metallic colors and sit perfectly still like statues until you drop a coin in their bucket; then they move slowly, like they’ve been wound up with a key, until they wind down again and freeze. It’s worth the coins to watch and far better than the beggars who you also see all over Spain but they don’t do anything but look pitiful).

We eat our first bag of Magdalenas with Danup (because we're finally IN SPAIN! and these are tasty Spanish foods I've missed for 25 years) and make our way to the waterfront. There’s a monument to Christopher Columbus there but the kids are far more interested in the carp who are competing for crumbs with the seagulls. (This is major motif in my Spain pictures: everywhere we went, the kids made a beeline for the water).

We take the subway (another cool first for the kids, not cheap at 2 Euros a person, but worth it because we're tired.

We ride to the neighborhood of the Sagrada Familia cathedral (which costs over 100 Euros for us, but is worth it and the main reason we made this whole side trip to Barcelona).

Sagrada Familia is impossible to photograph, as all good cathedrals are. It’s outrageously tall, outrageously disorganized and resembles something you’d make if you had a beach full of runny sand and a hundred years of free time. We pay extra for the audio tours and wander around the interior (under construction since 1882) and the exterior (also under construction since 1882). This building is a world wonder. The best part is our tour of the East towers (for which we also pay extra to ride up the elevator). Here’s a photo of our little group near the top.

Please note that, yes, most of us are wearing the same clothes we had on in NYC. We have now been awake for nearly 30 straight hours. We have heard that the best way to fight jet lag is just to push your way through the first day with no napping. Then your body will adjust to the new time zone. This is great advice (and I confess, actually works) but at this point we can hardly keep our eyes open. Every time we sit down on a bench we all begin to nod off and tip over onto each other’s shoulders. We form little heaps of bodies against the wall just inside the cathedral door and on the wall in front of the cathedral.

After the cathedral we eat. We walk many, many blocks to the Casa Batlló by Antonio Gaudi.

It is stunning and crazy and another 100 Euros to enter. All my kids probably remember is the various surfaces they plopped down on to rest as we wandered through the tour like zombies with audio guides.

We ride the Metro again (cha ching) to Montjuïc to watch the famous fountains. (And if you’re noticing, by the way that these words do not seem like Spanish, it’s because they aren’t; the first language of Barcelona is Catalan. To the Catalonians, this is a source of great pride. To a sleep-deprived traveler who owns a sister who speaks fluent Spainish, this is a rude, ethnocentric, politically radical, and entirely inconsiderate tradition.)

The fountains are fantastic, though I must note that the music is mostly American Pop. Where’s your Catalan pride now you Barcelonians?

The fountains don't even start until 9pm. Gabie doesn't make it that long. He clearly has reached his melting point.

We don't even make it through the whole fountain show. We're just way too tired. We vow to visit the Bellagio soon to make up for it and then ride the Metro one more time back to our Hostal and fall into bed around 11pm. We have survived a marathon of 34 hours without sleep. But guess what? We’re in Spain! No wait, we’re in Catalonia. Soon we’ll be in Spain!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Spain, day one – On the surreality of travel

“It’s too good to be true!” Gabie says as we load into the van and again as we pull up to the airport curb and again as we wait at the gate to board the plane. He’s been looking forward to this imaginary thing called “Our Trip to Spain” for months. I’ve been looking forward to it for years and must agree with him. It is too good to be true. I keep waiting for something catastrophic to drop between us and the trip. But here we are, the first to board the plane (how nice that they let travelers with children go first; I vow to always travel with children). The boys are fascinated with everything about this flight. The sizes of each plane they can see from the giant windows in the waiting lounge, the baggage-loading process, the ramp, the seats, the lights, the air circulation, the screens on the back of the chairs, it’s all unfamiliar and thus completely thrilling. They have all flown before but don’t remember much (especially Gabie, who was in utero the last time and he keeps insisting that flying while in mom’s belly totally does not count).

Flying is surreal, even to me. Sure I’ve had the physics of thrust/lift/drag explained to me multiple times but as far as I’m concerned it still must take magic/faith/catchy show tunes to get this oversized Chitty Chitty Bang Bang into the air. I can see the water and freeways and the skyscrapers as we take off and bank over Salt Lake City. It always seems foreign from this perspective. Not so to Gabie, who presses his whole face up against the oval window and announces, “Wow, it looks exactly like Google Earth from here!”

It’s a good thing the kids find the novelty of flight so attractive because we’ll be flying in 6 planes total before we’re through. We land at JFK mid afternoon and have to take an airport train from one terminal to another. We have already planned to stretch out our layover in New York to 24 hours so we can visit my friend Toni and see the city. This means storing our luggage at the airport. I have done the research and know there is a place for this. I have pictured a big counter with loads of shelves, something classy and official-looking, like a department store layaway office except with signs clearly stating "JFK Baggage Storage." In fact, it takes us forever to find the right place, and by right place I mean the barely marked hall where we get to leave our bags with a skinny Hispanic guy in jeans and a t-shirt who stands in the doorway of a walk-in closet. There are maybe 20 or 30 other suitcases crammed in there besides our own. I had forgotten how New York City is a crazy blend of How High can you Go? and How Much More can you Possibly Squeeze into One Spot?

Toni picks us up outside the airport and drives us into Manhattan. Toni was my roommate for two years at BYU. She has always been beautiful and petite—she falls somewhere in the middle of my kids in height—but has the energy and tenaciousness of the mother and nurse and Italian-blooded Catholic BYU graduate that she is. She talks like a New Yorker. She drives like a New Yorker. She has a red minivan which she weaves expertly though traffic, one hand on the steering wheel and one on the horn (it’s not a myth). We find a parking place near Battery Park (and anyone who’s ever been in NYC can appreciate the elaborate back story behind the simple phrase “find a parking place” but I’ll leave it to your imagination because I have better things to talk about). It’s a Friday evening and there is surprisingly little going on in the park. We wander. We snap photos of the Statue of Liberty from a distance and a sign on the grass that makes us laugh.

What, precisely constitutes “No Active Recreation” we wonder. Tossing a frisbie? Rolling on the grass? If you accidentally start walking too fast do security guards rise out of the bushes to take your blood pressure?

We make our way to Wall Street and the site of the World Trade Center which is nearly impossible to access. It is full of cranes and fences and concrete foundations and much evidence of construction but little hope of completion any time soon. It’s like a wound left deliberately open to delay healing.

Whenever I visit either place (and I’ve done this 4 or 5 times now with each) I can’t help but compare walking in Manhattan to hiking in the valleys of Bryce Canyon National Park. In both, you’re down inside slot canyons, surrounded by impossibly tall, beautiful formations. True, one is formed by nature and the other by man, but the feeling is the same to me. The way the wind squeezes between the cross streets is the same. The way you find yourself craning your neck to look up is the same. The way all the light is on top and the shadows and sounds fall to the bottom in unpredictable angles is the same. It’s like you’ve found yourself on another planet entirely.

Which brings me to compare both (in what I hope is not too annoying of an interruption here) to a De Chirico painting I studied in grad school. In the painting, the walls of two tall buildings form a narrow canary yellow street that cuts diagonally down the middle of the scene and leads to something open and bright and totally unknown just around the corner. The buildings almost overlap each other as they recede into the distance, but not quite, leaving a gap where a figure casts a shadow in our direction. All the odd shadows, the open doors to what looks like an abandoned circus cart, the arcades that retreat at different speeds, the geometry that seems precise until you look closely and then it’s totally improbable and broken like cracked lenses, it all creates a sense of claustrophobia. But it’s not a creepy kind of claustrophobia. It’s a good mystery, albeit one that you’ll never get to solve. In short, it’s a typical Surrealist painting.

Part of the strangeness of New York City is that you just can’t take it all in. You’re in this corridor of space and you know these crowded streets go on for miles in every direction and these tall buildings are full of millions of people with millions of distinct lives. You’re trying to soak it in but you know you’re catching the tiniest clue of an enormous mystery. I guess it’s all about perspective. Linear perspective for sure. But also the sense that our personal viewpoints severely limit us. It’s why flying (or Google Earth-ing) can be so fun: we don’t know how things look from above until we get up there and then it all seems so foreign. And isn’t this why we travel? We are taking this trip to Spain to show our kids a totally different part of the world. It’s important for them to hear another language, to eat new foods, to see another side of history. We want to expose them to a huge variety of new things but we also want them to understand what a tiny piece of the world they have known up to this point.

We eat “real” New York Pizza (according to Toni) at a joint named Dave’s and walk up Church street for at least 10 blocks, finally catching a taxi (another new experience for the kids, and yes, all 6 of us squeeze into one taxi with poor Toni practically squatting on the floor, good thing she’s petite) uptown to the Empire State Building. Here we all enjoy another lesson in perspective.

And here the comparison to Bryce Canyon ends because everything from that height screams “manmade and proud of it.” There are no trees or landforms. The rivers are only distinguishable by the gaps they make in the carpet of lights and the bridges that span across them like chains wrapped around darkness. Millions of people below us. Millions of tiny glowing lives. I’m resorting one last time to the term surreal because it simply does not seem possible to be up this high and in this mythical city and on the first leg of a trip that has been a fantasy for so long. Surreal: adj. over or above reality. The height is dizzying but the view is worth the climb.