19th of April 2015: “This Is What 70 Looks Like”

For CONTEXT, part of a letter (in italics) I wrote  Gloria Steinem’s handler

I saw Gloria Steinem twice in January 2014: first,  in a small Indian airport, where we glanced at one another, then went back to our writing (Truth: she turned back to her iPad, I flipped open my laptop). Ignoring other westerners is a habit I’ve noticed in Asian and subcontinent airports, and besides I wasn’t entirely certain this was Gloria Steinem. I mean, wasn’t she about to turn 80?
The next morning I  walked into Char Bagh, the main tent of  the Jaipur Literary Festival , for the keynote address
Keynote Address, Jaipur Literary Festival 2014

Keynote Address, Jaipur Literary Festival 2014

 Afterwards, I  waited in lines that snaked out of  the tent towards the chai bar at the far end of the grounds, but had to leave before thanking her for what she has and still does  for women and humanity — all of which she hears many times a day, I think and hope.
A day or two later in Jaipur I caught her in Vintage Gloria Steinem mode ( FB and friends who don’t care much for her or what she says, may want to skip this clip).

I turn 70 on Sunday, 19 April, and unlike Gloria, who, I’ve read, expects her funeral to be a fundraiser, I prefer not to wait so long.  Consequently, to celebrate my birthday, I’m  holding  a fundraiser for the school which is near to my heart, BLESS School, Tamil Nadu. 
I have borrowed shamelessly from her “This is what 40 [and last year, 80!] looks like.”  Since I see nothing on her calendar for the w/e of 19 April, I am emboldened to ask if  she would consider visiting Minneapolis, where we expect the snow to be cleared in time for the celebration.
In fact,  the weather will be fine – like Jaipur and Delhi in January!
 Best regards,
Mary-Ellen Briel
Gloria will not make it, but I had  quite a lovely response  from her handler:
Thank you so much for writing and a very happy birthday to you! Unfortunately, Gloria is hard at work on her book manuscript and won’t be coming up for air before the 19th. She wishes you a big congratulations, as do we!!

Who teaches Whom?

Just over a month at Northern School for the Blind, and I’m [not] ready to leave. A K-12 school of 210, all but 10 students board here.

Below are not necessarily highlights, because there are too many, but some idea of life at NSBCM, as I’ve known it.

 Week 1: Teaching  NOUNS to Class 1 Wouldn’t I love to say I’ve gained control over the ensuing days; see Week 4, for  the video-truth

Week 4: Thorough review of new nouns – body parts, this time –  again, videos don’t lie. “Head and Shoulders” and etc.

Yes, the students with whom I’ve worked, especially the littles, are an ABSOLUTE HOOT.

In between, there were field trips, the most notable being the one to  what I thought was an enourmous rice field (photos, Facebook). We spent a long morning and part of an afternoon there, working on that rice. The following week I learned it was not RICE, but MUSHROOMS that had been packed in the straw we heaved into the long, rectangular mold and carefully pushed and pummeled until we could then lift out thebundles and set them  in neat stacks. BTW, that experience was so typical of my weeks here, I can’t begin to tell you.

Still, I’ve learned a lot.

The first week I watched lessons about coconuts:  how they are  opened, where that incredible liquid actually spurts from, and where the meat is, in relation to the skin.   Last week, one lesson I took part in was Sticky Rice on a Stick, which some inventive MN Thai has probably already introduced to the MN State Fair, but until this visit, I hadn’t seen.

This past weekend, I went deeper into the Old City – near where Elizabeth and I stayed for awhile –  for  a haircut. This is the mother of the woman who cut my hair. And the haircut set me back… you don’t  want to know, not if you’ve recently had a haircut in the U.S.

She watches over her daughter (who is not a lot younger than I am).

She watches over her daughter’s work. Her daughter is perhaps 2 years my junior.

MUCH, MUCH MORE TO SAY, as they say, but I’m headed out to dinner with the person who has overseen me/answered every question I had and several  I didn’t, given me driving tours of the area — and last week was in Bangkok receiving an award from the government. In Thailand, that means, of course, from  royalty.

The weather forecast for the eastern U.S. at this moment – see it in top right of this weather forecast screenshot – has been mentioned here with what I can only call disbelief!



                                             THE ART OF WALKING                         

I walk to work, passing many shrines, and sometimes, an enormous monastery. I also pass a 7-11 and several restaurants. If you double-click them, the  thumb-nails should (!) enlarge.



If I’m going any distance – Mass, museums, my favorite EngLish language bookstores – I take  a Songthaew (“2 benches”), one of the ubiquitous Red Trucks of Chiang Mai. As long as I don’t ask, 20 Thai Baht, about 60 cents, gets me just about anywhere w/in the Old City. Here’s how it works for me: When  I  arrive at my destination and climb off, I walk to the front, hand a 20 TB note through the window,  and with a huge smile,  murmur, “Korp-kOOn,” as I walk away.  Very Quickly.  

It’s not always a  quick hop-on or hop-off,however. I’ve been known to flag down 4  or 5 Red Trucks before finding a driver willing to take me where I want to go.

What’s more,  the drive can take awhile. Last  Week,  I practiced, as I always do,  the trick  Elizabeth & Roy taught me in Beijing: have the address on your phone, and be sure it’s written in the driver’s language. Normally, this photo gets me to 7 Fountains, the Jesuit retreat house across town:imageNot quite so straightforward, though, last Sunday. I jumped in, and already in the Red Truck were some German university students. We went first to the airport, where they didn’t want to go (“Plane? No! “), then  to the train station, where they DID want to go – before being dropped at 7 Fountains


                                                                THE ART OF WALKING, cont’d

Around Arak Rd, soi 2 (things I pass on my walk to work) —

Coffins and flowers (wreaths)  Shop

Coffins and flowers (wreaths) Shop

i live on soi 2, a studio apartment (truth? A large  bedroom, with armoire & desk; a door from here leads first to a closet holding a refrigerator and plastic electric teapot; from the closet is a  door to ithe bathroom: toilet, sink, and handheld shower head.). It works for me: breakfast here, terrific lunch at school, dinner, out. Every  night. In an ideal world, if I could have either a personal chef or dinner out every night, I’d be hard-pressed to choose.

Besides the funeral shop on my walk to work, I pass those places at the top of this page. The gods of technology are against me right now, so I’m forcEd to end here. I say: GO BACK AND LOOK AT THOSE NICE PHOTOS OF FRIED  BANANAS AND WHITENERS AND WATS!

Happy New Year (+ What about these Wats?)

New Year’s Greetings from Chiang Mai, where it’s already another year, and where lanterns in the sky during the day and  night marked the transition to 2015!

I’ve met some of the children from the Northern School for the Blind – and their lovely teacher/my connection to the school. We met at a festival surrounding a wat – a temple – on the other side of town, where the students were selling crafts they’d made. I took no photos of them and their wares, because it just felt intrusive on a first meeting,  but I did get a chance to observe them, and how they interact with one another. They are all just kids (k-12), so unlike our Vision Loss Resources clients,  have a different relationship with one another, and with their teachers; in any case, that’s my first impression. I’ll have a month to see what’s what.

I visit Wat Dok Eung every day — a good place to sit for meditation, and brilliant; also,  it’s out of the heat and far away from other westerners! I’ve been to Sacred Heart Cathedral, and I’ll go again, but the larger-than-lifesize Santa Claus putting ornaments,  on an even larger Evergreen, wasn’t as compelling as what I have at  Dok Eung


Elizabeth and I travelled together from Beijing through several cities in SW China. We spent time in  Kunming, then Dali, and finally, for Christmas, her friend’s wonderful teak-and-marble guesthouse in Lijiang. Along the way, instead of comprehending China, I became increasingly puzzled. The first couple photos reflect this, and nearly all the others are moments when I could, how shall I put it…Relate?

And the photo at the end? The enamel cup was a gift from Elizabeth. In this fast-moving, wealthy (yes, for some that is true) , avowedly atheist country, well — note the title! — this attitude prevails, or seems to, anyhow. 

Just when I thought I was getting the hang of things, I wemt to breakfast and looked around for utensils. Nothing. Then, this —

Sanitizing chopsticks (breakfast, Kunming)

Sanitizing chopsticks (breakfast, Kunming)

i have no comment…

Above the airport toilet (Kunming)

Above the airport toilet (Kunming)

Everywhere in the Southwest..

...soon to become Pomegranate Juice!

…soon to become Pomegranate Juice!

Lijiang’s warren of streets held linen, silk, antiques, and —

Ubiquitous in Lijiang

Red Tea, Lake Erdai


Elizabeth and I had some great meals in Dali; Cafe de Jack gave us the best view – yes, cherry blossoms in mid-December!

Dinner in Dali

Dinner in Dali

Christmas Eve dinner, Lijiang

Chef's wife offering me yet another piece of Buche de Noel

Chef’s wife offering me yet another piece of Buche de Noe

And finally, a gift from Elizabeth…




Hello, from this town of a little over 20 million (I’m told it’s officially several million less than that), where today’s AQIndex suggests it’s better to wear the carbon-filter mask outside,  than to risk trying to breathe freely.

This week’s flight from MSP was wonderful, as was being met at the airport by Elizabeth, and coming back to the flat a few moments before Roy arrived on his Hybrid. The pedal-powered and electrically-powered bikes he and E. ride to work offer the workout they seem to relish. Their place is an oasis.

I’ve not been to a hutong, though I’ve eyed those mazes  of alleyways from a cab.

I have, however, paid my respects to the Chairman at Tiananmen Square and the 24 emperors who lived in various parts, over various centuries, of The Forbidden City.

No photos. Maybe the ones I’ve taken will show up in a couple weeks, but not in this country which so despises Google and all social media that they’re   inaccessible except by Virtual Personal Network, which I [stupidly] didn’t bother to arrange before landing in Beijing!

Will this post “send”?  It’s a great game!

[Only] Mad Dogs and Englishmen

My wonderful English son-in-law mentioned Noel Coward’s song the first day we started work. Yes, the sun is warm, the work (for Roy and Elizabeth; much, much less so for me) is long and hard. And, yes, currently, much of the interior work is still in process.

A Vision...in process

A Vision…in process

Yet, it’s amazing to be in this Sicilian hill-town again, this time with Roy and Elizabeth, and working on – not living in – the studio.

I’ve done some painting in my day. Whitewash is NOT paint. Ask me sometime about using the calce Elizabeth mixes up in one, often two, buckets for the day’s work. Also, in my day, I’ve seen bricks delivered — but tufa? Who builds things with volcanic conglomerate? As it turns out, the Romans did. Speaking of bricks, I will state the obvious: Ordering bricks – whether tufa or terra cotta – or getting cement or piping delivered here, is not like placing the order with Home Depot.

So, yes, I’ve done some water-spraying and whitewashing, and I’ve done it in the sun. However, when it got to be too much…? I mean after two hours? Three? I’d walk away from the job, heading for the nearest bar or gelateria.

And more than once, the end of the day meant the wonderful Ristorante-Pizzeria Halykos, just up the next street.

Pizzeria Holykos, Via Siracusa

Pizzeria Holykos, Via Siracusa

Escaping the Mid-day SunE

Americans Escaping the Mid-day Sun

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