Saturday, May 30, 2020

Texas notes: Oyster

The Aegean Sea by Frederic Edwin Church (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
    Our Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey is a woman of parts, without question. Still, today's report ventures off in a totally unexpected direction, as you will see.

     During the summer of 2005 the man I was dating got a phone call. The King of Jordan, who was once a boarding school buddy of his, was inviting him to come for a visit to help support the building of a new boarding school in Jordan. The idea was for the King’s previous classmates to help fund and support the up and coming King’s Academy, which was modeled after the school in the States where the King had spent some of his formative years. Since wives and partners of his classmates were also invited, I was beyond excited to learn I’d be joining my boyfriend on this trek to The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. My ex and I were not exactly a solid couple, though we lived together in his gigantic rental loft in the West Loop of Chicago, and we did our best to make things work between us. Even though he did not always like me — once calling my “histrionics boring and pedestrian” when I was passionately expressing my innermost feelings — apparently there were some perks to my presence, despite what he saw as my somewhat plebeian tendencies. We had almost nothing in common and to this day I can’t quite explain how we ended up a couple, though I remember clearly how it started.
     The first time I saw his six foot seven inch stature adorned in high-waisted hand tailored trousers that seemed to come from a distant and more magical era, and the long black braid cascading down his back contrasting against his fashionably wrinkled white linen shirt, I was enamored. I was not used to such unusual eye candy in the city I’d lived in for most of my life when I spotted him on the outdoor dance floor of Summer Dance on South Michigan Avenue. I discovered that a good friend of mine was there with this tall living sculpture, so we had a chance to meet. He was an odd bird, wildly interesting and intelligent, and I loved it. He was self taught on the baby grand piano placed with a view out of a huge plate glass window of the loft, and would whip out a ragtime hit in between other acts of prowess. I joined him at dinner parties in Chicago and New York with artists and brilliant thinkers, doers and creators, and my life became a French movie. Everything was amber and tawny, we had a demanding orchid that simultaneously could not tolerate too much attention, which was casually and somehow perfectly placed in a pot full of mulch that hung precariously from a giant exposed brick wall. We made tofu with vindaloo sauce and used molasses, whole wheat flour and dark chocolate nibs in the banana bread. Our visitors were the curators of jazz festivals on islands in Europe and famous musicians, poets, actors, and inventors. We once spent a summer working on an art project on tobacco farms in the South where we were taken on a four-seater private plane to an island in Georgia with a pilot who did loop-de-loops while I squealed with nervous joy and my boyfriend and the pilot’s wife screamed at him to cut it out and right the plane. Being in this man’s life opened the world up much bigger than I had ever known it to be.
     It was not surprising that now I’d be joining him on a trip as the guest of royalty. One big question loomed large in my mind: what on earth would I wear? My wardrobe of tie dyed bell bottom yoga pants mixed with funky dancing and club attire would not do. A solution quickly surfaced — a warm and generous woman who lived in a penthouse that we frequented for wine-laced never ending dinner parties on Fulton Market jumped right in. She was all too thrilled to help this comparative pauper become a princess. She invited me over and into her closet, which was larger than most apartments I’d lived in, and started pulling out colorful zigzag designs of Ottavio Missoni and flowing silk and linen garments, and buttery leather designer sandals. She didn’t skimp at all, and outfitted me with elegant jewelry and a handbag too. I was ready to face this once in a lifetime adventure properly.
     As was the case with many big dreams in my life, the expectant picture I held in my head proved to be much grander than the real thing. Don’t get me wrong — riding camels through the Wadi Rum Desert and snorkeling off the King’s yacht in the Red Sea were as wonderful as anything I could have possibly imagined, but at my core I knew I was only a temporary fixture in this magnificent life. My boyfriend and I were not connected as some couples are, like best friends. This was temporary. Knowing that, I felt a bit sad, but more than that I was grateful. The King put us up in Disney-like castles of hotels where the housekeeping staff would sculpt swans kissing each other out of towels and surround them with rose petals placed on our bed until I asked them to stop. We spent the trip mostly apart. I bonded with a woman — another partner of a former classmate of the King — who was to become a dear friend, and my boyfriend got lost in creating his art.
     I never did meet the Queen who was too busy for us, but I did get to spend a little bit of time with the warm and welcoming King and his son. The rest of the trip was spent exploring Petra, the city carved into the sandstone you may have seen in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, floating in the warm thickness of the Dead Sea, exploring the ancient Roman city of Jerash and the port city of Aqaba. We ate lamb and vegetables that baked for hours in huge metal pots that were buried in the hot desert sand, and dug out ceremonially by Bedouin men and women who were hired to take care of us. We sat in tents in the desert, woven rugs beneath us and hookahs and beverages at the ready. We learned that delicious cardamom flavored tea would be continually poured into our little glass tea cups until we shook the cups from side to side, indicating that we were done.
     A week before our trip we learned that three missiles had been launched from the Jordanian city of Aqaba towards a US naval ship in the Red Sea. One missile had landed in the Sea, one in Israel and thankfully harmed no one, and the third mistakenly landed in a warehouse off the coast of Aqaba and killed a Jordanian man. Family and friends begged us not to go on the trip after hearing of the violence aimed at Americans, but we were not backing down and would not be frightened out of taking this trip. The absurdity of war continues to ripple though our nations. Even with the danger that always loomed, I once felt that the world was my oyster and I traveled at every opportunity. For now it seems there is less talk of war among my friends and even in the news. Now a global threat has taken on a new form, an all but invisible organism that is not only keeping us from distant shores but even from travel within our own borders and even from our own families. It’s keeping us away from or warily distanced at civic centers, meeting halls, places of worship and all of the little places we once took for granted — markets, mom and pop shops, libraries, book stores and even our own sidewalks. As distancing relaxes successfully in some parts of the world like New Zealand who has handled this pandemic with clear and sane leadership, we can only hope that even with our hiccups and strange partisan fights we will beat this thing and once again have the freedoms we were accustomed to, or at least some semblance of them, and perhaps with an even deeper sense of gratitude this time.

14 comments:

  1. Excellent. I thought the novelty of Caren and her unique approach might be wearing off by now, but as advertised this essay is "totally unexpected" and delightful, full of elegant phrases and riveting forays into unknown and exotic experiences.

    john

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    1. I thought the same thing. Caren is turning out to be a high-caliber wordsmith. Just one word of journalistic advice, and it comes from a writer, proofreader, and former copy editor. And that word is--paragraphing. Breaking up the monolithic blocks of type into smaller chunks of copy would facilitate readability, as would shorter sentences. If Caren doesn't do that herself, perhaps Mr. S, with his decades of experience (and being a Medill grad) might be of assistance. Not a snark, just a suggestion

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    2. Phew! I thought that too! :)

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  2. I fear the gratitude will be short lived. I, on the other hand, recently came face to face with death, related to the virus only by the timing and my refusal to go back to the ER after the second incident of losing a frightening amount of blood because i had decided to die at home rather than the hospital where i had spent 6 days getting transfusions and listening to the coded announcements that told of another death. I could sense that the nurses and other healthcare workers that cared for me wanted desperately to do more but quite a few of them looked obviously exhausted from the long hours and the amount of suffering they were forced to witness and the realization that their ability to ease that suffering was severely strained.
    So far I've managed to survive, grateful for every moment but still extremely fearful for the life that once was.

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  3. Paul- thank you for sharing that. I agree on many levels. I am a health care worker and I will do anything I can to pitch in. Thank you for reading.

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    1. Thank you for sharing. Neil has gained more of my respect. Not only for sharing his platform, but for the willingness to recognize talent other than his own or the already well established.

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    2. And he was already such a respectable fellow! Lucky me though, seriously.

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  4. What a life you have led, Caren. Each week your magic carpet of writing takes me on a different journey. Your pieces are oases in the desert of boredom and frustration which is Lockdown Britain. I long for things to come through into what can only be a new normal, for I fear there will be no return to the old. A lot of the freedoms I took for granted will not return. But others will replace them. We will emerge and rise again. Meantime, thank you for the great escape you are providing each Saturday!

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    1. Thank you Ian. I can hear your voice as I read this. It's very good being on this journey with you.

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  5. This is not the first time your work has taken a very interesting, and meaningful, segue.

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  6. This story is magnificent. Thanks for taking me with you and then letting me reflect on our current landscape. Love it.

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