Departing 0°Longitude. Circumnavigation has begun.
I eat the chickpea pate and tomato sandwich delivered by the male flight attendant with a British sing-songy "here you go my love" and take pause that England will soon be off our radar for a while. No more tiny bites of ingredients placed together on crustless bread like egg & cress, brie & cranberry, cheese & chutney. No more cookies parading as biscuits, hot dogs parading as sausages. No more broad reaching terminologies like tea and pudding to encompass numerous times and articles of consumption. Its feels kismet that we start our lap around the globe in London- the home of Phileas Fogg AND the home of the prime meridian. Sorry Paris, you may still have the plaques embedded in your Davinci code tour, but Longitude 0° is irrevocably recognized as passing through the Royal Observatory, Greenwich in southeast London, United Kingdom.
We jetted off from Greenwich Mean with an immense number of well wishes and blessings, last minute hugs and participation in our rally for Cambodia. These little kindnesses steadied the nerves in the final days before we set out. Thank you. One's familiar space and collection of favorite things neatly packaged with a front door and windows are something you leave behind with feelings. Psyched to escape the associated chores of ownership intermingled with fear of the vulnerabilities you will find yourself unprotected from without your fortress. Stoked to experience new people and places yet cognizant that you tread where no one has your back.
Perhaps mixed up in these emotions is some logic why we are so in love with our packing cubes. They bring some order, consistency and convenience to our new living space- the suitcase. Instead of digging thru the temporary confines of a rectangular holding bin sending articles askew with each visit, we have luggage drawers ..freedom to visit our articles of daily hygiene without having to go through our pants to do so. Just grab the desired cube and leave the others be. We are all color-coded so quick inspection yields ownership. Our goods are rolled up by like-item soldiered next to each other, zipped closed in neat net-topped rectangles. The netting presses out the air and lets one view contents without having to rifle through. A little bit of control, neatness and order feels sublime. Even if you're not in the market to backfill illusions of security, we HIGHLY recommend these gems- Eagle Creek packing cubes. Google it.
Start spreading the news- and I'm not referring to the packing cubes. I'm referring to our first destination- NYC. As we make our way there I continue my longstanding contemplation comparing London and New York. The obvious have already been pondered- I am now into the minutia….
London is the gateway to France, skiing in the Alps, German Christmas markets, Spanish sunshine. New York is the gateway to … Hoboken? Or is it just the gateway to New York….not relying on piggy backing with other A list stops….standing alone in its greatness, fully support the weight. I reserve my conclusion on this realizing it may rely heavily on the quality of experience at baggage claim and the cab driver.
Not subject to reservation is when you add NYC into the mix, you know something fun is going to happen. Just meet up in the city- something will evolve..it always does. Admittedly, aesthetics can be appalling with the sidewalks freckled with gum stains and perfumed with occasional trash piles. But, one must understand it is not a city that strives to give goosebumps, like London does. It won't raise your flesh; but, it will earn your respect. It's multidimensional. Raw. Clever. It's a refreshing sprinkle of rudeness with talent, ignorance with brilliance, self-centeredness with worldview all mingled on equal terms.
New York thrives on individualism; whereas the Brits are gutted if social order does not prevail. I once read an essay illustrating this very point (Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson). It went so far to make the humor-charged argument that the European experimentation in social organization referred to as Communism would have succeeded if instead of left to the Russians it was left to the Brits. Upon examination he uncovered that all things necessary to the successful implementation of a rigorous socialist system are second nature to the British. For a start, they like going without. They are great at pulling together, particularly in the face of adversity, for a perceived common good. They will queue patiently for indefinite periods and accept with rare fortitude the imposition of rationing, bland diets and sudden inconvenient shortages of staple goods. They will wait uncomplainingly for years for an operation or the delivery of a household appliance. They have a natural gift for making excellent jokes about authority without seriously challenging it, and they derive universal satisfaction from the sight of the rich and powerful being brought low. Conditions, in a word, are right. The British would have done it properly with a good heart and without excessive cheating.
Attempt that experiment in New York? Hahahaha.
The socialist nature of Londoners and individualist nature of the New Yorkers extends to their approach to underground transportation. The New York subway is an industrial visit to the bowels of the earth. Numbers and letters plot your waypoint and you descend like a mission- knowing dangers and unpleasantries may be encountered along the way. A run in with a sewer rat or one of the mole people would not surprise you. Conversely, the London tube is like a secret pathway under Disney. Again, I recall some Bryson essay imagery and entwine it with my own- you pass under Parsons Green where the white church and green lawn exist overhead, Stamford Brook where you are sure children are swinging over babbles on a rope swing, Bromley by Bow which solidifies your suspicions you have now entered the part of the park that simulates a Jane Austen novel. Swiss Cottage is a gingerbread dwelling in the midst of the great Oak forest known as St John's Wood. Blackfriars is filled with chanting monks. Oxford and Piccadilly Circus have a big top. Barking is where the Hounds of the Baskerville live.
The subwayish bowels-of-the-earth must have been a cakewalk to map. It's a giant grid. On the contrary, creating a schematic for the sprawl of Camelot had its challenges. In 1931, Harry Beck tackled this tall task employing the idea that when you are underground it doesn't matter where you are as long as the right sequences and interchanges are marked so geographical scale was totally abandoned. His schematic, still used today, makes the tube the easiest underground in the world. Of course if you try to navigate from Bank to Mansion House it will take you 2 lines and 6 stops whereas overhead it is just a 200-foot walk further down the same street. But hey, the extended trip gave you a chance perhaps to run into some hens or stags having a fancy dress party, or a busker that is some distant cousin of a Beatle, a Stone, a Led Zep. Am I the only one with goose bumps?
No matter how London and New York stack up on aesthetics and offerings, New York will always come out on top for it is the residence of family. While only 3 of the remaining 5 of us core blood relatives were able to assemble we still had the potential for fireworks. The offspring of a psychologist we are all in touch with and freely express our feelings- which can be very good, or very, very bad. We have a solid history of both to draw upon. My sister in law particularly loves this about our family (wink). I recently read a blog by a guy named John Cook- it was probably an alias. He took on the topic How To Pick a Fight With Your Relatives. He acknowledged that family get togethers are like brief military deployment after months and months of training. You've prepared all year in Internet comment sections and by yelling at Fox News on the television screen, and now you find yourself face-to-face, in close quarters, with actual Republicans, right across the table. They're not going anywhere, and neither are you. Despite what you've heard about avoiding holiday conflict, now is your time to fight.
Although my side of the family could have written this book, he gives some good rules to follow to make sure the holiday event descends into a screaming match that mortifies your loved ones and makes you feel superior to all your troglodyte cousins. I share them verbatim here:
1) Select Your Target. Obviously, you need to find someone who disagrees with you politically. But not just anyone: Close relatives present perilous risks. Your parents or siblings can drag all sorts of emotional baggage into the fight, muddying the waters and making it more about how your veganism ruined that family vacation to Yellowstone in 1999 than whether "job-killer" is a racist code word. It's safest to go with relatives you only see once or twice a year. Your angry drunk uncle, if he's game. Or that weird cousin who joined the Civil Air Patrol when you were in college.
2) Getting Started. First off, you should wait until everyone's seated at the table before you try to get things started. That way you have a captive audience that has to watch the fireworks, and everyone is settled in for a nice long time. Getting the topic of conversation to politics shouldn't be too hard. Stick to short, sarcastic, tendentious remarks to get things going. "I'm thankful for all that free stuff Obama gave me." Once you've engaged the enemy, it won't take much effort to pivot to whatever particular subject you feel most comfortable with. A good holiday skirmish will scamper from topic to topic wildly and without warning, but it's best to begin by digging into one particularly contentious subject to get tempers flared. Which brings us to …
3) What Should We Fight About? Israel. You should fight about Israel. Particularly if you are Jewish or are married to a Jew or are the child of an Evangelical Christian. If you can find a way to work your way backward to the Clinton impeachment, that's always a gold mine of long-repressed rage and conflict. Otherwise you are stuck with the election—amateur hour.
4) How Much Should I Drink? As much as you can.
5) How Do I Know If I'm Winning? Think of it as one of those blue vs. red military exercises. When your adversary gets frustrated and inadvertently sputters out a transparently racist epithet (I once got my uncle to shout "because they're swinging on trees and eating bananas!" during a holiday fight about the Sandinistas), that's like capturing their flag.
6) When Should I Toss My Silverware Onto My Plate and Stalk Dramatically Away From the Table? This is an important moment. Pulling the trigger too soon can make you seem petty and overly sensitive (you're really going to run away over a Joe Biden joke recycled from Dennis Miller?), but disengaging too late risks letting things get out of hand. Plus, it's wise to build in some time between the end of the fight and the end-of-dinner goodbyes to let everyone cool off. And it's crucial that you walk away before your adversary does—if he leaves first, everyone else at the table is left looking at you and seething. I like to time things so that I walk away in a huff right before coffee is served.
But remember: Keep it light. You're providing entertainment/mortification for the rest of the table, so try to hit a tone of bemused contempt rather than righteous outrage. And be thankful that you have a retrograde family to make you feel better about yourself.
Ah, good stuff. Hate to disappoint, but after 4 days of amazing family time, the Rockettes at Radio City, St. Patrick's Cathedral, wading through the mosh pit to the Rock Center Tree, Bowling in Times Square, snowman dishes, roast meats, champagne and a New York bender we were all still friends this year. I think the kids growing up and starting to experiment with alcohol consumption may be giving us a new form of entertainment. With family solidarity maintained, my group followed an ancient migration instinct and moved from 64° to 80° West and a whole bunch further south. Just as the Conservatory has a hidden passageway that gives direct access to the Lounge for Colonel Mustard and his lead pipe to move often and freely through, so does such a passage exist between New York and Florida. Equal in expectation as their pledge to root the Yankees. We warped through the passageway and left snowflakes for warmth.
Off tomorrow to LA to stage a hop across the Pacific.
Happy New Year!
From now 80° West