28 December 2007

Raising the roof

When we were looking at the house on the hill for the first time, the two most obvious bits of it—from anywhere in town—were that the fake-rock siding was hideous and the roof was rusted through. The siding is long gone, and the house stands proudly naked in its original wooden clapboards. The roof, however, has remained a rusted tribute to the power of time and salt water wind.

Last week, as I towel-dried my hair in my bedroom, I heard the sound of the loudest can in the world being peeled back. This sound—of screeching metal—may not be one that would make your heart beat with joy. My heart, however, was thrilled with it. I called all the family in to listen quietly at the window. Some were not as thrilled as me, “Why are you making me stand here and listen to that obnoxious sound, Mom?” Naomi complained. I took hands and raced to the back porch and pointed delightedly: the can being opened was our new house, the roof covered with people ripping the old bits off. This was, of course, a thrill even for Naomi. We watched the roof—installed in 1988—get peeled back. Then the second roof—installed with the house in 1925 stood in its rusted glory until it too was peeled back. The house, proudly topless, faced the sea with the aging glory of a Mediterranean matron. And then the new roof went on, long sheet by long sheet. Rob and I, checking in on the progress, wondered when the roof with the lovely deep mossy green colour was going to go on as the house’s final proud topping. Alas, though, the pale undercoat finished, the roofers packed up their bags, leaving us to squint at the pale green thing they’d left behind. Could it be? No! Yes! The pale green thing WAS the roof. The tiny inch-square chip, translated to huge sheets of roofing, turned out to be quite a different colour than I had thought. Oh well, it’s only $15000 anyway, and we’ll only have to live with it for 15-25 years. No worries, mate.

In the week since the pale-ish roof went on, I have come to not hate it so much. It beats the rusted roof we’ve removed, and it blends in with other roofs nearby. We’re hopeful that once the naked wood is painted, the pale green roof will be highlighted in different ways and will look, er, better. (For the record, Michael likes it.) In the meantime, I have been practicing non-attachment to the colour I thought it would be, and non-attachment to my dislike of the colour it is. Not so bad, really. And, as I get increasingly agitated about all the sunsets we can’t see from our current house, I am increasingly excited about living in the new house, pale green top or not. (True, it’s only a 20 second walk to the beach to have a great view, which is a totally spoiled brat thing to complain about, but I am something of a spoiled brat about this view.) Our move-in date is early February, and there’s still this house to sell and a book to write and my friend Jane to welcome. I’m loving my Christmas in summer.

Hope you’re all having a wonderful holiday wherever you are, too.

(pictures today obviously of the roof: first, the label on the roofing material itself which should have given me pause: notice the warnings about my new roof!; one roof down; two roofs down and topless (new pink wood over the new Keith-room at the back of the house); final touches on pale green roof. Maybe it'll look better with skylights?)

26 December 2007

A strange noise around every corner

Michael here – I wanted to recount a recent experience Naomi and I had the other day when we were off to her Girl Guide meeting – Girl Guides are the global version of Girl Scouts in the U.S. The Girl Guides are having their annual jamboree in a few weeks and the group of girls from our area met to go over information and preparations. This entire event brings a bit of difficulty for me as a father. It will be Naomi’s first real trip away from us, other than an overnight or a weekend away. She, and 3000 other New Zealand girls from all over the country will be in Christchurch for ten days. That feels like an awful long time from where I sit, but we’ll see how that goes.

So the meeting was in the next community up the coast – Raumati (with the “au” pronounced like ow, as in, “Ow, I stubbed my toe!”) - just about ten minutes from here, at the Scout Hall. Easy enough, Scout Hall in Raumati. A couple of things to know here. For one, there are three different distinctions in Raumati: Raumati, Raumati Beach, and Raumati South. This is a relatively small community, but nicely spread out. As Naomi and I drove into the village, I asked her if she knew exactly where the Scout Hall was. Before we left our house, she insisted that she knew exactly where the meeting was, with the kind of confidence and annoyance that only a ten-year-old can offer. Now that we were a bit closer, she was a bit less so. “Actually Dad, I’m not entirely sure where it is,” she admitted, as the clock showed we had just a few minutes to find the hall.

Another thing to note: There are lots of halls in every little community in New Zealand, at least the ones I’ve seen. A Memorial Hall, a Community Hall, maybe a hall connected to a church or a library. A hall attached to the Bowling Club, a hall for the knitting club, the croquet club. You probably get the idea. So when we asked an elderly couple walking their dog where the Scout Hall was, they asked which one. “The Scout Hall in Raumati,” I explained. Raumati Beach or South?” they asked. Their dog seemed quite interested in the whole conversation. We were getting later for the meeting, as Naomi kept reminding me. We were closer to Raumati Beach, so I opted for the close one. They ended up telling me where both Scout Halls were. We headed off. Two quick wrong turns later in the general correct direction, we saw what clearly looked like a hall of some sort on the other side of a playground. As we pulled in to the hall’s parking lot, we heard that strange, unmistakeable sound that can only come from a half dozen people playing the bagpipes, each warming up to their own bagpipe tune. (A sample and testimony to Pipes in NZ.)

Already thinking that this must be the wrong Scout hall, I noticed the large sign over the front entrance of the hall. “Scot Hall” it read, not Scout Hall. Scot Hall, I thought. You must be joking. I mean, where else would there be bagpipe practice? This must be in a movie somewhere. I went inside just to make sure that there were no groups of 12-year-olds planning a Jamboree. I found one nice, elderly woman sitting at a folding table, sorting through what must have been sheet music for bagpipes. No she said, there were no Girl Guides at the hall. And, No, she didn’t know where “Scout Hall” was, but thought that one of the bagpipers outside did. What that meant was going back out to where the practice was going on. By this time, the Scot Hall parking lot had filled with more bagpipers – clearly, the weekly bagpipe practice was just about to begin. Another interesting note here: there were a whole lot of people playing their bagpipes. Older people, younger people men, women. Bagpipes are either quite popular, or are experiencing a surge in popularity. And the number of people of Scottish descent in New Zealand must be significant, as to warrant a whole hall.

So when everything was said and done, we found the right Scout Hall – in Raumati beach – and we were only a half hour late – a blessing in disguise as the meeting went on for another hour after we arrived. Naomi is all prepared for the Jamboree. I’m more emotionally prepared for her time away. And I know where to go when I decide to pick up playing the pipes!

Caption: Naomi (in the center) with the rest of the Paekakariki Girl Guides in the Anzac Day parade.

NOTE: If you want to see our year in review in Photos, go here.

21 December 2007

Leaping off into the next place

There isn't time to write a proper entry tonight, but we've just returned from one of those blissful, i- can't- believe -this- is- my- actual -life evenings. Melissa and her friend K walked up the beach with their beautiful daughters. Michael and I walked down the beach with our dog and kids (Rob was helping out at the new wood-fired pizza place in the village). We met at the midpoint between our two houses and sat on the beach and ate fresh strawberries and drank champagne while the four kids ran and played and finally took turns jumping off the sea wall and into the soft sand. It was too beautiful not to share.

There are many leaping off moments to talk about in the next couple of days, but tonight, just take the bliss of a bunch of kids holding hands and leaping into their summer holidays.

Quake free

Hello all friends and family,
Many many of you have emailed, worried about the earthquake which shook the bottom of the North Island and damaged houses and collapsed buildings in Gisbourne, which took most of the damage. This is just to say that we here at Paekakariki are totally totally fine. I admit that I was icing a cake and hanging with Rob and Michael in the lounge and didn't even FEEL it at all--much less get disrupted by it. (It's also true, of course, that there were no serious injuries at all anywhere on the island.) Now I'm going for a walk on this spectacular chilly summer morning along a stretch of deserted beach in the slanting morning sun and I'll come home to a house filled with children on this first day of summer vacation. Only my schedule and my seasonal sense are shaken here on this Friday morning in New Zealand.
Thanks to you all for worrying. I feel loved from around the world!

20 December 2007

Strawberry Christmas

There is a joke in our house this year. We go to the farmer’s market each Saturday morning and choose basketfuls of fresh summer produce—perfect strawberries and raspberries, fresh juicy peaches, tiny plumbs that look just like cherries. We pass by the Christmas decorations with our arms laden with fruit and sigh, “Nothing says Christmas like strawberry season!” And we eat all the raspberries in the car on our way home and try not to stain our shorts with their juices.

We are seasonally challenged right now. Unlike last year, where it was unseasonably cold here and unseasonably warm in the US, this year the seasons seem to be right for the hemisphere. Which for us feels totally wrong. On Sunday afternoon—12 days before Christmas—I stretched out on steaming hot sand and listened to the waves pound. Then, hot enough, I ran into the cold sea, jumping waves with Aidan and then floating, my purpled toes breaking the surface of the water.

And it’s not just the weather, it’s the light. Here the sun is well up by 5ish and the sky is still fully light at 9pm. They have to schedule Christmas light excursions at 10:30! Our pathetic Christmas tree—now relegated to the back lounge because I couldn’t stand to look at it each day in the front lounge—sits without its lights on most of the time because it’s simply too bright outside to bother.

If this sounds like utter bliss, it’s only because it IS utter bliss. But there are worries too. The biggest worry is that I cannot get my head to believe that it’s Christmas. I cannot get my act together to buy and ship presents overseas (look for gifts in the New Year, Dad). I cannot make a Christmas list and check it twice. I cannot bake gingerbread houses for my children to decorate. I mean, I have to be at the beach! And would you pick gingerbread or the strawberry shortcake I made last night for dessert—I mean, seriously!

Sometimes, though, it seems like Christmas is perfect in the summer. I know it’s a solstice holiday and the lights bring comfort during the coldest and darkest days of winter. But it’s also a family holiday and a time for masses of people to gather together and spend time together. Here, folks set up tents in their lawn for out of town guests. Here you throw Christmas dinner on the barbeque and take a picnic to the beach. Here you can stay up late on New Years eve because it’s only dark for a couple of hours before midnight anyway. So while it’s surreal, it’s the kind of surreal I could get used to over time, I think!

Michael went to a holiday party the other day where there were heaps of strawberries on the table. “Nothing says Christmas like strawberry season!” he joked. A colleague looked at him with a distant smile on her face. “That’s what my mother always used to say,” she said happily, biting into a rich red Christmas berry.

PS In the 24 hours since I’ve written this, the weather has turned cold and nasty and feels seasonally Christmas weather. “Look at this weather!” my cab driver said in disgust today. “You’d think it was the middle of July!” Indeed. Exactly what I was thinking myself…

18 December 2007

Ode to Rob

I think I have not been clear enough about the joys of having a chef live in your house. There was a time in DC when personal chefs were getting popular and people would come to your house and cook you a week or two worth of meals and leave it in your freezer and go. This seemed to me a luxury I would never be able to afford--and maybe wouldn’t really want. After all, I quite like to cook. But if you get the chance, I totally recommend the strategy of having your best friend get trained as a chef and move in with you. It has benefits that are nearly too numerous to count in the length of this train ride. I’ll try though.

The first benefit happens on the nights I work. Last night, for example, I worked in town and got home at 6, as I always do. Coming home to kids who need attention and food that needs to be cooked is always a trial. I know that I should prepare something for E, who looks after our children, to pop in the oven before we get home, but I have managed that level of preplanning only ONCE in the year that I’ve lived here. Last night, though, instead of giving the kids a quick hug, racing to pull off my work clothes and change into my home clothes so that I could throw together something fast and adequate for dinner, I came home to Rob, cheerful in the kitchen, making the house smell delicious. He and E and the kids had already made a “science/ baking experiment” for dessert—seven little chocolate candies, thick slabs of dark chocolate on the bottom with a layer of homemade caramel on top. Dessert finished, Rob was cooking on his own—dinner.

He served the meal 15 minutes after we walked in the house: homemade three cheese ravioli in a sage brown butter sauce. This meal, cooked by my friend in my very own kitchen, was sublime—one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. We sat at the table and drank wine and ate salad with Rob’s fresh honey mustard vinaigrette, and we all moaned out loud with nearly every bite (Aidan had thirds).

There are serious benefits for the nights I don’t work, too. Then Rob will decide what the dinner is and I’ll help, or I’ll decide and he’ll help. We’ll cook together—often with Melissa or Michael or a kid or two—and he’ll make everything I make better than it would be if he weren’t there. I’m a pretty good cook, but he’s fantastic, and he can be totally complementary and supportive at the same time he’s making suggestions that take my cooking to a different level.

And then there’s the benefit of having a chef around and thinking like a chef. Even if he never cooked anything again, even if he didn’t pick up a knife to slice carrots into exactly even julienne strips, I would still learn just by going to the market with him and hearing him think out loud about food. He thinks like an artist: How about this ingredient plus this one? I’ve never seen this veggie before, let’s buy one and sauté it. Don’t throw out that too-ripe fruit: let’s make sorbet. And so on. I have the chance to get inside the thinking of a chef and to hear about how things go together and how I could experiment more to see which new combinations there are to create in the world. And I would be a better cook even if he modeled nothing but his thinking.

Ah, but homemade pad thai on the porch after a day on the beach or the freshest spring rolls I’ve ever had on a warm evening (and with no cilantro!) or grilled peaches and apricots, hot and sweetly dripping—these are delights I’ll hold with me a long long time. The fact that he’s our oldest friend and can remember our wedding and our first dog and me at 17—this just shows how careful a preplanner I really am. After all, who needs to prepare a casserole when you can just make friends with a chef a couple of decades before culinary school!

postscript: We've come home from a date where Rob-the-wonderful has taken care of our children and we have gone out for dinner which was totally less good than Rob's food, alas. Pictures today are of Rob's favorite head shot, Aidan climbing the walls inside the house, and Aidan and me in front of the new house.

12 December 2007

One year

Saturday was our one-year anniversary here, and we celebrated by going to a Hanukkah dinner at the Temple With The Beautiful Rabbi (this is not the official name of this temple, which is less artistically just called Temple Sinai like nearly every third synagogue in the world). At the temple there was a fantastic klesmer band, a potluck dinner, and a whole group of friendly-looking jews who mostly ignored us all night. We hung with the rabbi some and we watched the intergenerational dancing, and I found that the trumpet player’s parents live in Chevy Chase, but mostly we just wondered how to break into conversations that seemed to be going really well without us. Still, there were beautiful moments and it was amazingly cool to be in this very international group of jews. I, of course, am on the outside in even a US group of jews, so there was no happy home for me in this group, but there was great beauty in songs and prayers and traditions that spread around the world and through so many different cultures.

So the celebration, as it happened, waited for Sunday. After the open house (one family back for the FOURTH time—we’re going to start charging them rent), we headed back to our place with a sickly Karen and met up with the ever-prompt Melissa, patiently waiting on our front porch for our return (this is the last time she’ll wait on the porch—now that she has her own key she can avoid our constant tardiness in the comfort of our living room). While Karen nursed her herbal tea and tried to breathe, we went about messing up the house which had only seconds before been picture-perfect. I made the messiest of all foods—latkes—and Rob made that December Hanukkah favorite gazpacho to go with the Christmas classic of homemade strawberry ice cream (we are SO much having to get used to these spring food choices during this winter holiday season!). We drank champagne with fresh raspberries and toasted the idea that life changes in uncertain ways and that times can look really dark and confusing but it’s all part of the upwards spiral of happiness we’re trying to construct. And there we were, each of us in these serious life transitions, each of us uncertain about where we might go next, and all of us laughing and hoping together.

This has been a week for looking backwards and forwards. We have been remembering the tumult of our lives a year ago as we arrived in this new country and tried to make our way here. We have been picturing our future in this new house of ours and with these new friends. And we’ve been breathing through the present day, knowing that each of these moments is its own kind of gift. We’re learning that no matter how clear things seem, each element in our lives has its own kind of uncertainty, and no matter how uncertain things seem, each element in our lives has its own kind of certainty.

We never would have guessed, two years ago, that we’d be celebrating Hanukkah 2006 in New Zealand, fresh off the planes, shiny new residence visas in our passports and all our things on a ship. At that Hanukkah, we’d never have guessed that Hanukkah 2007 would be celebrated with people we didn’t know a year ago and also with our oldest friend, come to give NZ life a try for himself. At this Hanukkah I feel utterly certain that I have no idea what Hanukkah 2008 might hold. Who will we celebrate with? What will our life feel like? And at the same time, there are pieces that seem quite likely: there will be a new menorah to replace the broken one, there will be candles and latkes and laughter. And it’s nearly certain the backdrop for it all will be the big sea view out the lounge window and the sound of waves breaking in the distance.

Still, no matter where we are, it’s clear that each celebration brings its own joys and its own tearings. This is a time of year to miss the family and friends we’ve left behind, and it’s also the time of year to go to the beach after school each day, to unwind before dinner with the sound of lapping waves and laughing children. I have learnt that it is very very hard to feel sorry for oneself with sand between ones toes!

And now for you, gentle reader. I am grateful to those of you who turn to this blog to maintain our connection together, grateful for the occasional email asking me to follow up on something I’d mentioned or clarifying a point I made in a confusing way. I’m curious, here at the end of the first year, who you are and why you read this blog. I’ve been surprised at some of the folks who read regularly (and also surprised at the folks who don’t read much at all!). If you think about it in the next little while, drop me a note to let me know who you are and what’s going on in your lives. No matter how uncertain the world might be, it is the connections between us that give it its form and substance. It wasn’t the excellent food and champagne that made the marking of our one-year anniversary feel special, it was the drinkers and the eaters around our table. I like to think that each of you reading is around my table too, only you’re slightly harder to see and hear (and you don’t eat so much). I hope this last night of Hanukkah brings light and miracles into each of your lives, whether you’re in the winter or the summer, and whether you celebrate Hanukkah or not. May we all be connected through cycles of light and dark, cold and warmth, and growing and changing friendships. This are all miracles.
(Pictures today of the miracles of year one: the menorahs at the temple, Michael in the new upstairs window and again on the driveway of the new house. Don't you wonder what pictures you'll see in the next year? I know I do...)

11 December 2007

Conference calls

I have been to my first NZARE conference now, and so am a full part of the educational research world here. The differences between the NZ educational research conference and the US educational research conference (AERA) are much like to the differences between the two countries more generally.

AERA is an enormous conference. Only a handful of North American cities are large enough to host it because you need hotel rooms for 15,000 and conference presentation rooms for more than 200 simultaneous presentations, plus several large rooms to hold more than 1000 at a time. It’s the conference rooms, I’m told, that scuttle the deal—that’s a whole lot of break out sessions. I think there are about nine cities that can do it—probably eight now that New Orleans lost its conference infrastructure.

NZARE is a smallish conference, although bigger than I expected. Still, there aren’t that many cities in NZ, and so the number of cities that can hold the 400 people in hotel rooms and dozen simultaneous presentations is probably close to eight here too. The infrastructure is small enough, though, that at the closing ceremonies on Friday, the organizing committee for this conference looked hopefully to someone who might organize the next one, but they couldn’t find any takers (it was supposed to be a joint conference with the Australian educational researchers but the registration in Brisbane was $800 Australian which the New Zealanders thought was “too dear” for its membership so now they’re looking for someone to hold it here).

The size matters in everything. Here, everyone goes to all the keynotes—because they can. Here, one person presents for 40 minutes as opposed to the seven papers in 90 minutes you’ll get at AERA. Because of that, here there’s real content that gets discussed, which both offers real ideas and also exposes the lack of real ideas. There’s no place to hide in 40 minutes. There’s no place to reveal in the typical 12 minutes you get at AERA.

This all means that I went to far more sessions here because there was much more likelihood that I’d learn something, but each session had just one paper so I saw far fewer papers than I’d have seen at AERA. And maybe that’s the key difference in this tiny size: you have fewer choices, which means that each choice you have is more important than it would be if you had heaps of choices. Here you have fewer people, fewer research projects, fewer ideas. That means that when the folks at my place of work (NZCER) stand up, they are each of them representing the whole organization all the time. I suppose that’s true at George Mason, too, but at Mason, the odds of your being seen by someone who really counts are slim. Here, the odds of your being seen by someone who really counts are much much higher. Each idea gets more currency, which makes each bad idea more wasteful, each good idea more powerful than their counterparts would be in the US.

Thus scale is human and people get to be human together. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the conference dinner. At AERA I don’t know whether there even is a conference dinner; in any case, it has never occurred to me to go. Rather, each major university has a gathering and you go to those where you have connections—where you were a graduate or are employed or are friends with someone in one of those categories. I go to the GMU session and drink wine and eat cheese and see all the people I see in regular faculty meetings. I go to the Harvard session and drink wine and eat hot nibbles and see former classmates and Grand Personages in Education. I go to some of the bigger, more boisterous schools with a colleague or friend and watch strangers do jello shooters and carve their dinner from huge sides of beef.

At NZARE, people go to a conference dinner, and we sit at big round tables like a wedding reception. And then there’s entertainment! I had heard about this, about the fact that there would be a comic and a band, and I had heard that people danced. Still, it was hard to picture. But sure enough, after the dinner finished and the weak comic production was over, the band began to play and the tables emptied out onto the dance floor. And I mean nearly all of them. All of these educational researchers (mostly women, median age in the mid- or late-50s), poured into the dance floor and began to dance in one seething mass of brain and body power. It was most impressive. Here the Grand Personages of NZ education not only brushed elbows with but actually boogied with the nobodies. Here a new layer was added onto the conference-success-metrics: not only did your methodology need to be sound and your analysis convincing, but you had to have rhythm too. Some of the people I had seen earlier somberly discussing evaluations of major government initiatives were now flailing sweaty arms in the air. (Of course my group, who had the most impressive overall body of research presentation, also had the most impressive overall body of dance prowess, too—which I now realize is an entry bar that I passed only by virtue of my across-the-world phone interview.)

I missed seeing the people I used to see at AERA, old friends and mentors I meet for coffee or dinner. I missed feeling like I belonged to the place, if only by virtue of my snotty judgmental attitude about the whole thing. So I felt like an outsider—again—which isn’t all that much fun. But I felt like I was nearer the center (or centre, really) of something that could make a possible difference than I ever have been at AREA. And that’s a key distinction here, too. In the US, I’ll never be able to make a difference for my country. In NZ, I can have the chance to make a difference, but not my country to make it for. Inside and outside, centered and not. Eventually GMU will offer me the possibility to come back forever or not come back at all (I’ll get my first letters before Christmas, and won’t find out anything final until after Easter). But no one will offer the make-a-difference card. That one I have to create on my own and then I’ll have to see in what country it might be valid currency.

(the picture today obviously has nothing to do with anything except it's cute)

07 December 2007

A new Hanukkah era

I am on an early morning flight to Christchurch to go to the New Zealand Association of Research in Education. I’m hoping to meet new colleagues, give a couple of presentations with people I like, and see a little bit of Christchurch. Right now I’m flying past the Kaikoura range of mountains, still snow-capped here in early summer, framing smaller hills and leading down to valleys with farm land. Have I mentioned that this is a magnificent country?

Last night was the first night of Hanukkah, our second first night of Hanukkah in New Zealand. We had Melissa and Ayla over, and it was a magical night. Dinner came after a somewhat stressful day at home where I had to deal with a wide variety of house issues. The kitchen guy needs a heap of money instantly, as does the roofing guy, the plumber, and the fellas who are working on the job. All the flooring for the second floor arrived yesterday to that’ll have to be paid for too. And the plumber, the electrician, and the window guy all gave quotes—some of them three times what we’d expected (the others sliding down towards what we expected). I spent the day trying to stop the hemorrhaging of money.

But after all we live by the sea and it’s December—summer time (?). I took the three kids (mine and Melissa’s) to the beach after school and watched as they rode their boogie boards, bobbed in the gentle waves, and built sand people on the shore. The sun was hot and the breeze was cool and, if I had counted I would have found at least 100 different blues in the water and the sky. I could feel my blood pressure lowering.

We ate dinner on the front porch, latkes and frittata with Melissa-made apple sauce. Rob made chocolate sorbet to go along with the peppermint ice cream he made the day before. We pulled out the two menorahs to light them—Naomi’s small one, which I carried in our luggage last year so that we could have Hanukkah even before our things arrived—and Michael’s big one, which I bought for him nearly 20 years ago and which we’ve lit every year since.

An aside about Michael’s menorah. Rob and I bought that menorah at the Rockville JCC in 1989 or so. I gave it to Michael for Christmas as an interfaith gesture while we were dating. Never did I imagine he’d light it every year for nearly twenty years, and even less did I imagine that he’d have me next to him as he was lighting it. When Rob and I went to buy it, I always pictured Michael lighting the menorah with his nice Jewish wife and surrounded by his nice Jewish kids (who in my visions always had wavy dark hair). Every year I get this sort of shock of surprise that the one he married was me and that it is my little blonde children who light this menorah each year. Last year was our first since 1989 not lighting it because it was on the slow boat from the US, and so this year we took it out with the anticipation of an old friend. To every season there is an ending, though, and this menorah was not, apparently, destined for life in New Zealand: it was the only thing broken in the move. We pulled the shards out of their oodles of packing material in stunned silence. Somehow it felt like the end of an era.

And so it was an end of an era, all of us eating on the front porch in a summer December Hanukkah night, the three children and four adults finding our way through this new world. The adults are all American, half of us are Jews, all of us in love with this New Zealand life. We opened presents to the squeals of delight of the children. For the kids there were three kites from Bangkok, and beautifully drawn set of coupons from Rob with promises of things like a piggy-back ride to school or a boogie-boarding session. For all of us from Melissa there was a song about friendship, written and performed for the occasion (and soon to be posted on the blog). We walked up the hill to the new house, and the kids flew their kites in the park. I suppose there’s no mistaking that it is a new era. We’ll need a new menorah for the next twenty years.

(pictures from today: Melissa playing the guitar in the sun--with help; two pictures of the new house--one with the upstairs room and one without (notice the new window above the new floorboards in what used to be just the attic; Naomi standing in the new upstairs room, looking out that new space which will be the new upstairs window)

04 December 2007

Sunny Sunday

Sundays are currently strange but magical days. In the morning we go to the little synagogue we seem to have joined (not much choice in Wellington which has two little synagogues—one liberal and one conservative). There, the kids have Sunday school with a woman who must be the most beautiful rabbi in the world—a woman about 40, with lovely wavy blonde hair and an easy laugh. She looks like a California girl, but she was born in Dupont Circle, about half a mile from where I grew up. The kids stay with her and the other kids and teachers and Michael and I—or Michael and Rob and I—go out for breakfast. This morning again we went to a place where they serve magical food. I had poached eggs on sautéed spinach on crispy hashbrowns and covered with hollandaise (I can hear you moaning from here Dad—these are just one 24 hour trip away from Augusta!). Michael and Rob had meals almost as perfect. We sat in the restaurant and moaned and drank coffee and talked about how wonderful our lives were.

Then—after a quick stop by my office and a quick hello to R who shouldn’t be working on a Sunday but does anyway—we picked the kids off and whisked ourselves back up the coast to finish putting the finishing touches to get the place ready for our billionth open house. The house isn’t selling yet, but there’s no good reason for that. When Rob and Michael and I are finished, it gleams and shines so much you just can’t believe anyone is stupid enough to sell it. On a day as perfect as today, with azure skies and hot sun and cool breezes, the whole house opens up, all the windows unfolding—in some cases whole walls unfolding—until it becomes one magnificent shady space to sit and welcome the sea breezes. Seriously—you’d have to be crazy not to want to buy this place. So we left the perfect house and walked up the perfect beach to do our surf club penance. Even in early November when it was freezing and rainy, I knew that mostly surf club would have this feel—forced time to sit and do nothing on a sunny warm beach while Naomi ran up and down and did her workout and learnt her ocean swimming skills. Little girls took turns walking Perry up and down the beach, Aidan got to play in the sand for hours, and I got to meditate on the perfection of the soft waves, turning translucent and illuminated before curving into a water ring. Melissa and her daughter joined us, and J and his, and Karen came out from town to spend the afternoon and evening with us. We laughed and talked and dug in the sand (everyone other than Michael, Aidan and I went swimming). We couldn’t leave Naomi alone (surf club requirement) and we couldn’t go back home anyway (open house) so we sat on the beach for hours. If you think you’re hearing any iota of complaint in that, you can retune your ear. There are any number of things it might not be fun to have to do, any number of places it’s not fun to wait for Naomi to finish an activity. This perfect Sunday on the beach, however, does not make the list!

We took extra kids home with us and Karen and I walked along the beach, marveling. Although it was just barely 5 when we got home, everyone was weak with hunger, so I opened the fridge full of leftovers and let the hordes descend. It was like locusts in my kitchen, sandy sun-pink children eating plate after plate of food and stuffing fruit after fruit in their mouths. Then, finally sated, we headed back down to the beach to boogie board in the slanting evening sun, the only sound the slapping of the waves and the occasional squeal of delight of a child who had made a particularly good run on the board.

This week will mark the beginning of our second Hanukkah in this country, and my first attempt at the annual meeting of the New Zealand Association for Educational Research, which I am desperately hoping I’ll like better than the American Educational Research Association meetings, which I abhor. And Saturday marks our New Zealand birthday—we’re one year old Kiwibergers then. We’ll keep you posted on birthday and Hanukah and all other summer festivities as the winter snows fall in the northeast. Want to come and visit us in the December summer sun?

01 December 2007

Blissed out in Wellington, too

Ah, I've been quiet since I got back from Thailand, but it's mostly been me feeling blissed out about being here at home. I've been catching up with friends and having WONDERFUL food cooked by Rob and doing cool things at work. And I've been walking on the beach with Michael and tickling the children and scratching the dog. This is an amazing life!

So, pictures from a day so lovely we all thought we would burst from the joy of it. We headed into Wellington to pick out all the fixtures for the new bathrooms, and we stayed there because there was a big festival next to the water and the day was so clear and the water so blue and the sun so hot that there was nothing to do but watch the kids on the bungee and lie in the grass and eat gelato and look at the harbour.

27 November 2007

Meditating on love

One more wat story before we leave Thailand behind. On our second morning there, Aeh and I got up to go to the morning chanting. I had heard the gong and the chanting on the first day, but I was nervous about climbing out of my sleeping bag and stumbling through the dark to the chapel. I set my alarm for 3:50, afraid I’d sleep through the gong. No worries, though (I don’t sleep particularly hard on the floor) after the gong. It wasn’t until after I brushed my teeth (with bottled water) and washed my face with icy tap water that I looked at my watch. 3 am, not 4. This was the first wake-up bell, a fact that had escaped me in the half sleep of the night before. But I was up, so I sat in the dark hut and listened to the chickens and meditated. The scampering of creatures on the ceiling was not wholly conducive to deep contemplation, nor was the memory of the enormous spiders in the bathroom (I don’t think spiders should be so big that you can actually hear them walk across a floor). Still, I managed to sit there in semi-deep contemplation, only occasionally pausing to see whether the several spread toes of a hidden creature were still nestled in the crack above my door (we each kept our end of the bargain, though—the creature didn’t climb into my hair and I didn’t sweep at it with the brush broom and the next night it was gone).

The gong rang again at nearly 4, and I rushed out of my room, flashlight bobbing in the black night. There were seven monks and five of us chanters (well, four of the chanters and me, a listener). The deep voices of the monks and the higher voices of the women merged into some ancient harmony with the roosters to call out a random rhythm. When the chanting was done, the head monk, the guru of the place, talked about the practice of meditation and how we all needed to focus on our practice and be mindful all the time about all things. This seemed like a high standard, but who was I to mention it. At the end of the talk, he called over to Aeh and me (I stand out in this country, and in a crowd of five, I’m irresistible). He spoke in gentle Thai, which Aeh translated in my ear. He wanted to know why I was there, how I was finding the place. He wanted me to be sure to keep meditating when I got home and told me about why that was so vital. He wanted me to know that he’d been to the US to teach about meditation many years ago. And, finally, he said something like: “You have a home in America, you have a home in New Zealand, and now you have a home in Thailand. This is your home now, and we will welcome you back whenever you come back and you can always stay as long as you like. You now have a home at every wat all over the world.” And he smiled at me with great vitality and warmth and then he told us that he was sick and he was going to the doctor and maybe he would die soon. He seemed untroubled by this, and laughed at his stiffness as he stood up to go.

The sincerity of his offer—and the truth of it, since you can go to a wat and stay as long as you like—carried me home along the dark path. I went back to my hut, filled with images of home in expanded rings around the world. I meditated in the dark quiet (after first checking to see that my many-toed friend was still in his crack). I began to feel that the air around me was viscous and electric, that it was charged full of love and that I was breathing in and out the love in the air. I thought about my family and friends, about each of you reading this blog, about Aeh and Gig, about my hutmate, about everyone whose life touches mine. I felt tears running down my face as I breathed in the simple and clear truth that the only thing that counts is love, the only reason to live is love, and our only job on this planet is to love one another well. At 7 am, I walked slowly to another breakfast the nuns had prepared for me and watched the lotus flowers bloom with the first touch of the sun.

I didn’t have an experience of that meditative space again. The monk had also given me other directions for my meditation which, when followed, made me alternately frustrated and intensely bored. Sometimes simultaneously. But I made many slow and mindful walks across the old wooden bridge, and I followed my breath on a pier over the lotus flowers. And I made a beginning, and felt it charged with love. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Pictures today: Walking meditation path through the forest; village women preparing breakfast for the monks; ever present roosters on the path in front of my hut; the many toed creature who didn't walk in my hair (but did sleep in my room); my hutmate and me on the steps of our hut. The admittedly boring video below is taken so you can have a sense of the bridge where I spent oodles of time in sitting and walking meditation.

26 November 2007

Last day in Bangkok

I woke up early on Saturday morning—and I was nervous. It was the day for my big seminar, a day when about 40 people (I was told) would come and hear about “transformative learning and contemplative practice” from me. After a hot shower and an “American breakfast” (eggs, fruit and toast), I was off to the seminar. We walked through the university building surrounded by posters, in Thai, advertising my talk. I could tell it was about me because the only English characters were “Assistant Professor Doctor” and my name (seems like an awful lot of titles). The seminar room filled—and then overfilled—with dark-haired people speaking a lyrical and utterly foreign language. I felt completely out of place and wondered how I would make it through the next three hours.

The seminar began with mediation and then suddenly me. I bumped my way though the opening, not having any of my regular beginning-of-a-seminar teaching tools to rely on: the translation was not simultaneous, so I would speak for a minute or two to about half the group who understood me, and then I’d wait for a minute or three (Thai takes a long time!) for the rest of the group to hear. It was like being on an international phone call where the voices don’t quite line up with each other, and I was awkward during the times when I wasn’t speaking. This is a hard way to get into the flow of the room. But eventually I did get into a flow, and there were enough English speakers in the room to laugh at my jokes and descriptions which loosened me up some (and then the funny echo of laughter after the translation would come). And as time went by, even the ones I was pretty sure didn’t understand a word of my language would look at me so attentively and hopefully, waiting for the next thing they could understand, that the seminar ended up feeling as warm as any I’ve done in a long time. Then finally, in a rush of good questions and a pause for ending meditation, it was over.

After lunch (here even the food they serve in university seminars is delicious—fresh and flavorful), I met with the curriculum committee of the new masters degree in Transformative education and contemplative studies. Sitting on mats on the floor, with green tea and sweets (and bugle corn snacks which I remember from my youth), we talked about the goals for the center, about my work at IET, about what had brought these folks to this work. The committee is a volunteer group of contemplative practitioners who work in science, engineering, the arts, and peace education. They were playful and serious and smart and wonderful. Three of us broke off to get massages (yum!) but we most of us met up for an impromptu roof-top party to celebrate the yearly river festival Loy Krathong.

Everyone brought food and drink, and we took it to the most beautiful house I’ve seen here, brand new and taking full advantage of its riverside location. We ate on a rooftop terrace, the music from the wat across the river providing a fitting soundtrack. There was another American there (the first I’ve seen since I’ve been in Thailand) and several of the folks from the group had lived in or visited the US. The chatter was a mix of Thai and English, peppered with booms from the fireworks always going off somewhere, and flavored with ready laughter. We lit our krathongs down by the river, and laughed as the wind blew out the flames or the current sent them to be netted in the water hyacinths that cover the river here. I couldn’t believe how at home I felt at this party with these people, nearly all of whom had been strangers before. They seemed genuinely sad to be saying goodbye (I know I was), and I think I will see at least some of them again. I hope so.

This morning, my last here, Aeh and Gig picked me up and took me to a floating market. We walked through amazing stands of produce to find ourselves in what seemed to me to be a movie set meant to display the glories of rural Thailand. How else could you explain all of the colors and smells and sounds—and the fact that nearly all of the stalls, food sizzling or smoking or steaming—were floating, these ancient boats tied to our pier filled with sweets and savories like I’ve never seen before. I watched a woman in a boat make the best pad Thai I ever tasted and I bought it for less than a dollar and ate it in front of a floating stall with smoking fish and grilling chicken. Gig and Aeh and I took a boat trip down the river to a nearby wat. We threw bread into the water for the masses of fish so thick they made the river churn and boil. At the wat, I took a fistful of orchids and put them on an altar, lit incense, and prayed a deep prayer of thanksgiving to any god who was listening. I have eaten and prayed and laughed and talked and meditated my way through these eight days, and I am sated and content and so happy that I think maybe tropical flowers will sprout from my fingers.

It turns out that the best thing about this trip to Thailand for me isn’t the magnificent food, the lovely scenery, the ever-present foreignness of the place. The best thing for me has been the people. The people who have brushed against my life—sometimes in tiny vignettes, sometimes for more extended conversations—have been so warm and friendly, so smart and interesting. I found myself overcome with admiration for so many people doing such wonderful things in the world. I have been moved by their kindness, their generosity, their warm welcome. I know that much of this is because Aeh and Gig are themselves so admirable that hanging out in their circles put me in a good crowd. But the quality of people here is remarkable, and I can’t help but believe the strong Buddhist faith here is at least partly responsible for the high level of reflection, of orientation towards making the world a better place.

24 November 2007

Wat Sukato

Driving through Bangkok after the long journey home from the wat. These packed sidewalks and bumper-to-bumper traffic seem especially odd after the empty rural spaces of the wat. I will have to take it slowly to understand what the experience at the wat meant to me. Today, still in the car 11 hours after leaving the wat at sunrise, I have done remarkably little processing of the experience—probably because meditation practice pushes you away from analysis and reflection and into the mindful awareness of the moment and the quieting of the brain. I think I’ll go the Buddhist way and describe the experience first—to name my physical experience and then see if something arises for me to say about the emotional experience.

We were traveling to a province about which my guidebook had said “You’re more likely to see a tiger than a foreign tourist—and this is not a province known for its tigers.” We arrived at the wat after a full day on the road (rather than the 4 hours the monk says it takes!), a couple of those after-dark on red dust roads with more potholes than flat. The nun who had traveled with us from Bangkok had gotten hopelessly turned around, and in a place with no lights or street signs (or street names) it finally meant getting out of the car at each intersection to ask anyone who might be visible for directions to the wat (since many of the houses didn’t have solid walls, there were often people visible). I had surprisingly few moments of panic—we were hours after dark, hours from the last village—but I figured we were likely to find our way to someplace at some time. The only real trouble was how bad bumps are for the bladder. (One word here about toileting issues: zowie. I have still not quite learned the rules in this new land.)

Finally, we found the wat—a far cry from the magnificent “town wats” we had toured or passed in Bangkok and on the route north. This was a rough concrete structure on a red dirt road. The kitchen area was behind it, a concrete block floor with some chain link walls and a rusted metal roof. As we pulled up, we could see through the mesh walls to the bald nuns sweeping with twig-bunch brooms. They had cooked us a vegetarian dinner—most generous since the nuns cook (and eat) only once each day at breakfast. I was exhausted and not a little overwhelmed, and wanted food like I wanted another couple of hours on the back roads. But we ate to be polite (Aeh ate much more than he wanted to make up for my eating so little), and then I was shown to my hut. This hut had two rooms—each about 8 cubic feet. The first thing I noticed about the room was how clean it was—immaculate. Then the cause of the cleanliness—it was utterly empty. Not a table, not a lamp, and, alas, not a bed nor a cot. I was grateful for the screened windows. It wasn’t until the next morning that I would discover the hut’s two best features: the occupant of the hut’s other room who was a marvelous woman of about 75 who had been to and loved New Zealand and who had a handful of English words in her vocabulary, and an honest to goodness flush toilet. (It was later that day that I discovered the showerhead from the wall in the bathroom, the hole low in the wall for drainage and the sorry single tap, for cold water on hard or soft.)

It was a surreal first night, the roosters believing that the best time to begin their pre-dawn crowing was at midnight, six hours pre-dawn (the next night was to prove that they had slept in). I huddled in the sleeping bag Aeh had brought me (it’s the winter season here and gets actually chilly in northern Thailand) and rued my decision not to bring my travel pillow on this part of the journey. At 3am, the sound of the good-morning gong reverberated through the forest, haunting and magnificent. At 4 am, the gong again, quickly followed by the chanting voices spreading through the trees. With only a few hours of rough and uncomfortable sleep, surrounded by the chorus of chanting and crowing, I felt joy spread through my body: I had come a long way to be in a different world, and baby, I had arrived! I stayed awake until I heard my hutmate make her way up the stairs and into her room, and then I fell asleep long and hard to find the sun shining and Aeh knocking gently at my door. 7 am. Time for the breakfast ritual.

The walk from my hut to the kitchen was down the red dirt road and past the lovely ponds which would be my favorite places during my stay. I was starving but anxious when we arrived to find mostly old women in rows facing the two rows of orange-clad monks. I would later learn that these women were mostly from the surrounding area, and they come to the wat each morning to deliver food in lovely baskets, to stay for the morning chanting, and to watch the monks begin to eat the food they had brought. Then, their baskets empty, they head back into the town. Before anyone eats, though, there is chanting. While others chanted, Aeh taught me how to bow before the Buddha. Forehead to the tile floor with the murmured sounds of Pali all around me, I had a nearly out-of-body experience. For real was I here in a forest wat in Thailand bowing in front of a golden statue? The nun we had traveled with came to tell us that the nuns had prepared a vegetarian meal for us—the second of many meals they would prepare, unrequested, just for me (the bags of food we had brought with the assumption that there would be only one meal a day were donated to the wat when we left). I watched the monks eat their meal (first) and then went into the kitchen to get mine and then bring it back to eat in silence with the others gathered to worship on the floor of the wat. Breakfast, day one.

Aeh and I took off on our own (after washing our plates in the incredibly rough but systematic washing system) and wandered around the pond, wondering what to do first. His mobile phone rang (his worked, mine didn’t), with our friend the nun telling us that the abbot of the wat (the monk who had come to my seminar) had arrived briefly and was free to talk to us. We came in, bowed three times, and found the monk waiting for us next to the Buddha. In deeply accented lovely English, he gave me my first teaching. His message was, mostly, to be playful. Meditation was a kind of “serious play.” Nothing to be forced, nothing to make you stressed. Mistakes, wandering of the mind, emotion, all this is about learning, and practice is about learning, so “pay it no mind and just go on.” He showed us how he meditates when he’s tired, slumping against a pole and showing us seriously sub-prime mediation posture. He told us about how thoughts and emotions come to him and he just sends them away. And then he said something like:

Imagine that you are on the shore of the ocean. You watch the waves going up and down, in and out. You watch them, you see the motion, you don’t have any control over the up and down, the in and out. But neither are you wet, sitting on the shore. Sometimes the water calls to you and you go into the ocean, and now you are wet. Now the waves move you up and down with them. Now you are controlled by the waves. This is like the practice, watching your thoughts move but not being controlled by them. And if you are called into your thoughts or your emotions, you feel yourself going up and down with them. And then you remember to be mindful, and you go back on the shore. And you are wet, but you are not in the water anymore, so you will dry. There is nothing to be worried, just to watch the waves going up and down. This is the practice.

And I loved this man and he made me happy, and the happiness carried me through the first day. Now I’m at my hotel where, to my terrible dismay, my hot water was BROKEN! But they’ve fixed it and I’m headed to bed (ahhhh, how beautiful it is to mean that literally tonight!). More stories tomorrow. This is just to let you know that I survived—and maybe even thrived—at the wat.

20 November 2007

Blissed out in Bangkok

So it was another fantastic day in Bangkok. The seminar went well and I was awed and amazed at the quality of questions the people asked, by their stature (many seriously impressive people, including the monk at the wat where I'll go tomorrow), by their warmth. Then Aeh and I went to another wat, perhaps more spectacular than any others I've seen. After the wat, it was time to visit a night bazaar, although it wasn’t yet night. Our goal was to get me home and in bed really early because it’s an early morning start tomorrow. Ahhh, but the shopping was astonishing—unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. So we stayed there for hours, listening to the rain pour outside, feeling it leak through the roof and splash on the Thai silk scarves and shirts and skirts. Tomorrow we’re off to the wat in the north, so I’ll be quiet for the next couple of days and then have quite a lot to say about a whole other piece of Thailand.

19 November 2007


5:30 Monday morning in Bangkok

Last night I was so tired I couldn’t even wait and see whether the video had finished loading! I slept hard and well and now am awake enough to do some writing here before heading off to give my first (of two) seminars. The place we’re going for the seminar is 30 minutes away by car without traffic. But this is Bangkok so we’ll leave 90 minutes ahead.

I have come to Thailand to see a friend, to give some talks, and to learn to meditate here in a land where 95% of the population is Buddhist. And of course, there’s the thrill of being in Thailand, a place that has always sounded like a wonderful way to start a relationship with Asia. I think of this as a developmental experience for lots of reasons. I’m wanting to learn meditation because more and more research is showing that it’s one of the best presents you can give to your brain and body. I am well aware that they teach meditation in Wellington (and have also read enough books on the subject that I have a grasp of the basics). I wanted to set a meditation practice in stone, though, to begin with a commitment that I thought would root a practice deep in my mind and body. So my friend Aeh, who lived with us for 4 months three years ago as he studied development with me for his PhD, has arranged this schedule of seminars and curriculum consultation, in great measure to pay for the three days at a forest wat (= monastery) in the northeast of Thailand.

Yesterday it was Bangkok day. I slept in a little after my late night, and then Aeh and his wife Gig picked me up for a day on the town. We drove the 75 minutes from my Bangkok hotel into the Bangkok city center, and explored on foot, by boat, taxi, and rik-rik. As we walked through the markets, rode on the boat, flew kites in the park, I was utterly blissed out and felt like a sponge, pulling in as many sights and sounds and smells as possible.

The most important thing to say is that Aeh and Gig are magnificent human beings, and so being with them is incredibly safe and wonderful. Aeh has a PhD and works (for not much longer) at a university; Gig is a trained counselor and has worked with the orphans in Phuket, with HIV sufferers in Bangkok, and now works with alcoholics and drug addicts. Together they are beginning a business which is cultivating love in organizations and about bringing more compassion and a higher consciousness into the world. These are two people it would be fun to hang out with in a stuck elevator. Walking through Bangkok with them is a joy.

And Bangkok is an astonishing city. It is such a blend of everything imaginable that it’s hard to think of how I can capture it here. Just lining the river itself are the many layers of life here: new and incredibly expensive high rise hotels, small metal shanties with no glass in the windows, lovely restaurants, ancient and magnificent wats. They live shoulder to shoulder along the banks of a river teeming with boats and barges and long tailed speed boats unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

Bangkok is about a full assault on the senses: the bitter tang and rich scents of all the Thai cooking from street vendors everywhere. The feel of cool marble or wood on bare feet in the wats. The constant churning noise of talking, haggling, cars, tuk-tuks. The colours and images of the wats, as breathtaking as any cathedral I’ve ever seen but utterly different from those. The taste of the best Pad Thai I ever had, on a restaurant next to the river, the hot humid air pushed around by cool river breezes. I spent the day feeling like my tank was constantly full.

I think probably Wat Pho was the place that was most surprising to me. Aeh told me we would see the “reclining Buddha” which sounded good to me. The surrounds of the main wat are so beautifully covered in shards of pottery and intricate floral and geometric designs that it hardly mattered how wonderful this particular Buddha himself might be. Or so I thought. But the sight of the reclining, gilded Buddha was out of scope with any image I would have had of him. Enclosed in a building that is just large enough to hold him, he lies peacefully shining—46 meters long and 15 meters high. For those of you who don’t do much metric, perhaps it’s enough to say that his ear (which, as a Buddha is admittedly large) was way taller than me. I was breathless.

Then out through the tiled stupas to the golden statue that represents compassion (she always moves me) in a courtyard under a Bhodi tree (which is where the Buddha found enlightenment). Aeh and Gig and I lit incense and kneeled in front of the golden, smiling compassion, who stood under the tree and was garlanded by flowers. As I kneeled, I was overcome with joy. Here I was in Thailand in a courtyard with school children playing soccer in the background and orange-robed monks watching. Aeh had told me to ask for something, to be blessed in some way. I was so blessed in that moment that anything else would have been greedy. Then, on the wooden wall behind the statue, a tiny kitten—grey and white—began stalking something through the grass at the foot of the tree. She took big steps and was stealthy and serious. Finally she approached her goal—her two littermates, who all leaped in the air and raced around the tree trunk. It turned out that I could have more joy than just with the statue and the monks and the tree—add in three kittens. I could feel Jamie with me all the while.

The other unexpected high point of the day was flying kites in a big field which Aeh tells me is always covered with kite flyers. And a high point I expected—but was awed by—was going to Gig’s house to have dinner with her family (who have been practicing making vegetarian meals for a week). But those stories will have to wait. I’m off to give a seminar. As I’ve been writing, I’ve ordered my bowl of porridge—this time with sugar. The fellow on the phone was confused by the request, but said it would be up soon. The room service man who delivered them with a smile didn’t ask me to sign anything, which surprised me. My head in this essay, I walked in and sat down to find that they had delivered me two empty bowls with four packets of sugar. Not exactly the wholesome breakfast I was hoping for. I’ve sent the order back down and we’ll see what happens. In Bangkok, there are surprises everywhere.