Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Material and the Spiritual

The streets of Paris were filled with shoppers on Christmas Eve. It was difficult to herd yourself onto the escalator to go from floor to floor of the Galleries Lafayette. Lee was shopping for clothes since her baggage had not arrived. I was shopping for myself. I began in the basement. Surely the best bargains would be where the ceilings were the lowest. The basement of this old department store housed mostly shoes; beautiful boots, sexy heels, and more sexy heels. The first lovely pair that I examined was 900 euro. This was definitely not a bargain basement. I began to look at each pair with a different eye, the way you look at art in a museum.
The shoes were displayed in sections according to the designer. To me it looked like the United Nations, shoes were from all over the world. The siren began her song at the red carpeted area designated for the Spanish designer, Pura Lopez. It sat on the top shelf with its friends, sleekly architectural. With a four inch heel, the slender black pump called to me to pick it up, feel the silk, admire the gold leather lining, and ask if anyone, anyone could speak French and find my size. Et voila! It fit like Cinderella’s glass slipper. It was so tall and sexy, and it made my legs looked tall and sexy. Anything that makes me look tall and sexy is difficult to resist. These shoes were in my price range, so the deal was struck. I was handed a large black shopping bag with long black ribbon handles.
On the main floor with the dresses, I knew to avoid the designers whose names I recognized; Chanel, Gautier, Gucci, Hermes. I came across an unfamiliar French designer where the dresses hung between gold silk curtains for dividers. Again I heard the song of seduction, and I wandered in. It hung on the bar, and like the shoes, was simple, architectural and black. It was a sheathe that Audrey Hepburn would have worn in a classic movie, a romantic film from France about a passionate affair. It had long narrow sleeves, a tapered waist, and a neckline that would reveal collarbones. The skirt flared just a bit, and the back plunged tastefully. I looked at the tag, and the clerk smiled. 1900 euro. Goodbye siren dress. You are not in my budget today. I did find a very reasonable Italian bolero sweater with black beads to cover my arms when I wear my strapless dresses. I had two bags in tow, and rendezvoused with Lee who has had a wonderful time with her English speaking VIP attendant.
We gathered her bags and headed to the Champs des L’Elysee, where we walked along wide sidewalks with pink banners and white lighted chestnut trees. This is the most expensive strip of real estate in Europe. At one end of the boulevard stood the Arc de Triomphe and at the other rotated a giant lighted Ferris Wheel, La Grande Roue. This was definitely Paris. We reached my now favorite street, Avenue Montaigne. Many of the chic avenues are decorated for Christmas with unique lights. Avenue Montaigne is lined with orange lights in the trees that rim the sidewalk. The lights are modern and shaped like a cone. Other streets are lit in red, with the twinkling lights that follow the branches of the trees. Others have blue garlands or white snowflakes cascading across the road. As long as it is Christmas and the lights are illuminated, I will be able to reference my location from one Versace store to another. I saw the stylish boutiques that I had previously admired as I made my way to the Hotel Plaza Athenee. Lee and I walked in as if we were staying there, past several doormen who stood in attendance of anyone needing assistance with the revolving door. We strode past the lounge where couples enjoyed tea and fancy pastries to the bar.
The bar at the Plaza Athenee is a place to be seen in Paris. It is a delightful mix of traditional old architecture and hip modern design. The walls were dark oak with carved flowers forming the cornice at the ceiling. Through the sheer window coverings, the orange lights of Avenue Montaigne provided a warm glow. The bar looked like ice lit in florescent blue. The same blue light fell from modern ceiling fixtures, causing a blue atmosphere to dominate the scene. The chairs were covered in pewter silk or leather. They were either a modern design or a French antique. I was fascinated with the niches along the oak walls of the bar. Soft silk pillows on sofas were nestled in Magritte style vignettes of pewter grey clouds. Couples sat close together and enjoyed cocktails in long stemmed crystal glasses. Lee and I ordered our champagne with raspberries and feasted on a platter of appetizers with caviar and lobster. Our French is not good. We ate what they suggested, and everything was sumptuous. We dined by the digital fire with digital smoke that projected on the mirror above the antique mantel at the end of the bar. We were two modern day Marie Antoinettes, stuffing ourselves with the best that Paris had to offer. Let them eat cake. We left the Hotel Plaza Athenee for Notre Dame. It was time for church.
Notre Dame was just as I had remembered, a breathtaking masterpiece of Gothic architecture shining in the rainy night sky with yellow gold lights. A large Christmas tree with blue lights stood between the two towers of the cathedral. Police with machine guns observed the worshipers that filed in through the heavy wooden doors. Christmas Eve services run each hour. We had come early to try an acquire seats for the midnight mass. As we entered, I ducked into one of the many side bays with candles to say a pray on this holy evening. French carols reverberated around the nooks and arches of the church, and the smell of melted wax filled the air. I prayed for peace, for my sons who were not with me, for the blessing of my friends who stood beside me every day, and for the good fortune to be in Notre Dame for Christmas. Lee and I were lucky to find two seats together on the center aisle of the cathedral. As people continued to enter, worshipers had to stand in the center and side aisles, as well as the crosswalks. Eight flat screen televisions allowed all viewers to see the grand altar with the marble figure of Mary weeping at the base of a large plain cross. Carved marble, soaring ribs supporting medieval, stone vaulted ceilings, flat screen televisions, and Renaissance carols added to the unreal atmosphere of this night in Notre Dame. Perhaps worshipers throughout the centuries have felt the same mystery in this cathedral.
Just before the service began, the smell of incense filled the air. The center aisle was cleared and the procession began. The large grand organ bellowed and continued to crescendo. The great bourdon bell, Emmanuel, rang out. I was reminded of a Rolling Stone’s concert where the sound entered your body and vibrated every cell. I shut my eyes to allow the music to overtake me. The Notre Dame organ could nearly levitate your from the mosaic floor. Bishops, the arch bishop, crosses, the gold holy bible and security guards processed down the main aisle to the apse of the cathedral. Discordant notes blended with the Christmas hymn, while the worshipers sang in French. There was no doubt to the people present, who had traveled from all over the world to be in this grand and important cathedral, that on this night Christ was born, and they were there to celebrate the joy of Christmas Eve. I closed my eyes again to feel the service and prevent distractions in my mind. Just before communion, the crowd prayed the Lord’s Prayer. It sounded like the Tower of Babel, each worshiper praying in his native language and understood by all. Peace was exchanged from person to person in English, French, Chinese and Russian. It had now become Christmas Day. It was time to leave, photograph the altar and say one last prayer.
Lee and I headed into the streets for the metro. The wind was now blowing as it rained, and the temperature dropped. I was thrilled to have entered the metro tunnels. As we inserted our tickets into the turnstile, a man in an orange vest barked French to us. We did not have money to give panhandlers. We kept telling him in our broken French that we only spoke English. He threw his hands in the air, proceeded to the entrance that we had passed through and locked the gate. We were locked in the tunnels. We followed the smell of urine to the train tracks. There on the benches were huddled the homeless who had come into the warm tunnels for the night. They were lying down with dirty dark blankets to keep them warms and newspapers and their arms for pillows. No one approached us for money. They were tired and ready for sleep, for a respite from the cold and the rain. I wondered if they were hungry too.
The meaning of Christmas was clarified for me in that tunnel. The bustle of Christmas shopping, the champagne toasts to the season, and the glittering gold of a cross, all pale to the vision of lonely and hungry people, searching for what little warmth they could find in the tunnels beneath the street, the tunnels that lie under the shadows of one of the world’s most impressive cathedrals. If the Christ child that was born on the evening over two thousand years ago could look with love to the inhabitants of our earth, these would be the people he would embrace. I felt fortunate to remember a lesson that should always stay at the forefront of my mind, a lesson never to be forgotten.
Lee and I found a stairway that led to the only exit not gated and locked. We took a cab back to our apartment along the Seine. We looked forward to our Christmas Day dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel and the famous Le Cinq restaurant. And, I hope that we not forget the souls who sleep beneath the streets of Paris, and in the streets of every city. Blessings to everyone. Merry Christmas, 2009.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Paris- la Femme

Paris is a beautiful, mysterious, exciting, and sexy woman. When traveling to visit her, you can never be alone or bored. She will fascinate you with her different moods around every corner and down each boulevard. I walked with her yesterday, and she did not disappoint me.
Lee needed to remain in the apartment for the morning to handle the exhausting business of locating her lost luggage, one among thousands of lost black Tumi bags at Charles de Gaulle Airport. She was doing an excellent job of remaining calm, despite arriving in Paris during the holidays with no clothes. I Map Quested my walk from south of the Eiffel Tower on the Seine to The Galleries Lafayette near the Paris Opera House. I am not a good map reader, but the nineteen clearly defined steps from the internet seemed simple to follow. Paris was calling me, so I went out for our rendezvous. I would meet Lee at the Guerlain make up counter at noon.
I veered from my directions immediately. The wide pink gravel path that follows the Seine was more alluring than the sidewalk along Quai de Grenelle where I began. I was instantly transplanted into a Manet painting. The path curved with the river and the dark globe street lamps reached over the green wood garden benches that lined the walk. No visitors paused or sat to watch the barges on the river, hold hands or talk. It was a cold day and the gravel was covered in an invisible sheet of ice. I stepped carefully so that I would not fall. Paris was dangerous this morning. With the exception of one figure in a dark coat who walked in the distance before me, barely visible in the fog, I was alone on the path. The sweet gum trees which lined the promenade were thick with seed pods that hung like holiday ornaments. There was no need for tinsel or garlands. How can you improve something so beautiful? I could have stopped my day’s journey by the Seine and painted in the fog and cold. Without easel and paints, and slipping on the invisible ice, I made my way back to Quai Branly, heading toward the Eiffel Tower.
At the Musee Quai Branly where the glass walls on the sidewalk announce the Teotihuacan exhibition, is a building whose façade is covered in ferns and grasses. The architect discarded the typical large block limestone that decorates most Parisian buildings. He had used simple windows which opened into the living shell of the structure. No ornate wrought iron balconies or carved keystones broke the simplicity. If you laid this façade on the ground, you would have the illusion of walking through a garden of bear grass, cinnamon fern, moss and ivy, punctuated with the pond-like windows. Ivy grows up city walls whether planned by designers or planted by birds. Architects create rooftops with grasses for insulation or decoration; however I had never seen a building designed with walls of nature. If moved to the country, this façade would have disappeared into the landscape like a carefully painted Trompe l’Oeil artist’s trick. Thank you Paris. What a delightful surprise.
I neared the Eiffel Tower. The anticipation of being beside her heightened with each glimpse above a roof top or through a line of leafless trees. On my previous trips, I had driven near this incredible icon by taxi, but I had not stopped to stand under the delicate ironwork. She grew taller and taller as I approached. The crowds wander around the base snapping photographs from every angle. I took a picture for a Parisian couple who cuddled on low wall. They photographed me as well. I watched the red elevators angle up the support legs as it they ascended to the fancy Jules Verne Restaurant. The Eiffel Tower is like a holiday advent calendar made of tiny windows that open one at a time to reveal surprises. Today was my first window treat to open. In the evening I will see the magical light show flashing with colors. On New Year’s Eve, I will press into the street with the crowds to celebrate the 120th anniversary of her creation and the special fireworks display. In the New Year, I will dine in her famous restaurant. Before I leave, I will rise to the top in an elevator hung on a single cable to savor the best view that Paris has to offer. With all windows open, and the holidays over, this is where I will reluctantly say “au revoir” to Paris.
I walked over the Pont de l’Alma and photographed the misty river and the barges. I continued on through streets and round-a-bouts, to Avenue Montaigne. Ooh la la! My camera clicked as I recorded for my friends the chic storefronts. Simple windows displayed choice treasures; a Versace purse with pink leather flowers, a silver glittering sheathe on a faceless manikin, a tiny cream child’s dress embroidered in crystal bugle beads. These are boutiques for the world’s stylish shoppers. Embassies and exclusive apartments lined the boulevard. Restaurants with red awnings, red velvet chairs, and brass railings welcomed diners at the intersections. The Hotel Plaza Athenee tastefully twinkled with small white lights and potted Christmas trees. I will be there before church on Christmas Eve. Paris, Hotel Athenee, and Notre Dame, all beautiful ladies.
I arrived at the Galleries Lafayette with fifteen minutes to spare before meeting Lee. I walked along the crowded sidewalk peering in the windows which were a sumptuous display of glitter, snow, fashion and gold. Ribbons of purple and red hung from the awnings as well as giant red globes and white lights. The façade was covered in gold and red lights that dimmed and waved along the boulevard. It took your breath away.
The Galleries Lafayette is famous for the large center dome of stained glass which is the centerpiece of the main building. Underneath the dome stands a four story Christmas tree decorated with enormous pink bows and giant strands of pearls. Huge wrapped presents tumble in the air around the tree’s star. Shoppers stop on each level to photograph the sight.
As I waited to meet Lee, I watched the shoppers, especially the women. Many looked like ballet dancers with slim figures and delicate features. Every woman was stylish, shopping in heeled boots, short swing coats and perfect makeup. I immediately had a makeup artist freshen my lipstick. I noticed that every woman wore perfume. I bought the new Chanel scent and doused myself. I hoped that I was becoming a Parisian woman. One shopper asked me for directions as I leaned against the glass counter, but sadly, I had to respond that, “Je ne parle pas Francais.” I have a lot more work to go before becaming French.
Lee and I missed each other, so I ate lunch at the sky restaurant and looked over the rooftops of Paris. I spent the afternoon investigating the fashions from floor to floor. Paris is so sexy. Provocative underwear adorned the displays along the escalators. Manikins posed in red and black lace stockings and garters. I found a tiny black velvet boustier from Italy. It was perfect to peek out from under a blazer. I was astounded to read the price tag of 450 Euros. I would not be opening this for Christmas. With an unlimited bank balance, this velvety secret would have jumped into my shopping bag with my perfume and new flat iron.
Lee and I rendezvoused at our apartment, had a quiet dinner at a neighborhood bistro, and walked out to the sidewalk in time to see the Eiffel Tower perform. At 7:30 each night, the ironwork radiates in patterns of colors, flashing like a laser light show. Red, white, and blue changed to red and green and then to gold with white shimmering lights. Vendors tried to sell small lit replicas of the tower, but nothing could reproduce the tower’s magic. The old carousel by the Bir Hakim Bridge spun and glowed in light. Decorated barges cut ribbons through the colored water of the Seine. We were bathed in the scene, and this kept us warm in the cold night air. When the show was finished, I sauntered down our street on the Seine, unlocked the large outer apartment door, and leaving the elevator for Lee, walked up the seven flights of stairs, enjoying the creek of each wooden rung beneath my heels.
“C'est un bon Paris de vie. Merci pour partager il avec moi aujourd'hui.”

Monday, December 21, 2009

Arriving in Paris

I was in France four years ago with my two children and my then husband. We had come via the Chunnel to see Paris at Christmas, a day tip from London. It was not my first trip to Paris. I had been to this romantic city before, with a girl friend who insisted I accompany her abroad. She had been appalled that despite my extensive Art History background, I had never traveled to Europe to experience western art and architecture first hand. She had volunteered to bring me to the Louvre. She was conducting business for Microsoft. I flew to Dublin for the day and on to Paris with her for the weekend. I had cried at her generosity of spirit. In return, she appreciated my tour of the grand museum. I had made our dining reservations, and we savored truffles at one of the best Parisian restaurants. I wanted my family to see the magic of Paris, the magnificence that I had enjoyed with my friend.
The first class train under the English Channel and through the French countryside met expectations of a family familiar with the finest privileges that excess money could provide. Paris was a different story. To my husband, the cab ride was considered too expensive, the galleries too crowded, the staff of the Louvre did not show the proper respect for wealthy Americans, and the concept of trying to speak a native language was inconceivable. I was told that I was deferential, too adoring of the art and architecture, too adoring of France itself. The children watched and learned. I desperately tried to introduce them to Aphrodite, Mona Lisa, and Venus. They were not in love as was their mother. At dinner, my rapture of the Eiffel Tower view was discarded as trivial. We returned to English speaking London. Perhaps, like the prom queen, Paris was threatening for her beauty and sophistication. I am a lover of beauty. I remained in love with Paris.
Now I sit in a corner bistro eating an omelet drizzled in chocolate. Where can you get an omelet drizzled in chocolate? Simon and Garfunkel play in the background, and the sounds of spoken French wash through the room. This non drinker sips her Bordeaux alone and observes the patrons while she types on her lap top. The couple in the corner kisses. The family beside me utter phrases like, “C’est magnifique.” The small boy turns and watches as I type. I think he is fascinated with the robot figures that decorate my laptop. I smile and wave my pinky finger at him. The waiter speaks his best English to me, and the rain glistening street reflects the red of the stop lights and the white of the car headlights.
I order more to eat in attempt to remain in this corner of heaven.
‘Do you have anything dietetic for dessert? Sorbet?”
“We have mango…” and he lists the numerous choices.
“Mango is perfect.”
“Duex mango?”
“Oh no, I need to fit into my suitcase full of clothes.” The waiter looks at my body. “You are beautiful. You don’t need to worry.”
I tell him that I love French men, and he smiles.
I have walked through the streets of Paris alone, found a bistro, and am enjoying my table by the window. I watch the scooters, the pedestrians with their umbrellas, and vehicles go by. I am so happy to be in Paris. It’s a beautiful city, a city of romance and magic. I vow to savor every moment. every glass of wine, and every smile. The waiter leaves me undisturbed; to allow me the time to enjoy my experience and to feel unhurried.
My mango sorbet is done, the wine is finished, and I will leave for the streets to see where my path will lead. Each step will be an adventure. I will savor them all, one at a time.
Bon appetite from a delightful, unnamed bistro, that could be on any corner of any Parisian street, where chocolate comes with omelets, and everyone utters,”magnifique”, at some point during their meal. The family beside me softly sings Happy Birthday in French to the young boy. The smell of the blown out candle fills the air. Laughter rises from every table, the silverware clinks against the plates, and the beat of the music continues. Waiting for my bill, I watch the tiny white lights twinkle across the façade of the Eiffel Tower like thousands of fireflies gathered in celebration of the holiday. I feel myself becoming bilingual.
“A demain mes cher amis!”

Friday, December 18, 2009

Learning to Dive Blog – Day 5- Dive Buddies

I walked into the classroom worried again about rising to the surface of the sea too quickly, this time in my dry suit with its air lined interior and extra valves to manipulate. My new dive text was complicated, and discussed the many ways that the dry suit could burst you from your depth like a large inflated balloon. I have learned now that my lungs won’t explode if I just remember to breathe. However, if dive lessons aren’t heeded, nitrogen will bubble in my body and show up uninvited in my brain. Here I go again, testing my courage and trying new adventures, this time in an outfit appropriate for a Jules Verne novel.

After I had handed my home tests to Alec, our instructor, Galena entered the room with her daughter. Galena is a year younger than me and looks like a pixie with auburn bangs. She is my height and greeted me with a huge dimpled smile. Her daughter immediately began to translate to Alec that her mother had many concerns about the homework. The top of her text was punctuated with yellow Post-It notes, marking numerous questions that needed answering. As her daughter translated, Galena pointed to the questions with a worried expression.

“Do you speak English?”

“No. I don’t speak English,” she responded in English.

I saw her certification card beside her textbook.

“You have been diving in open water?” and I pointed to her card.

“Oh, yes,” she responded with a big grin, and showed me her Dive Log with her four dives proudly recorded.

“I saw giant octopus. Monster. Six meters long.”

She stood up and hunched her shoulders, as she dangled her arms like a large octopus. “I want to see him again.” We both laughed.

“You are better than me. I have only been in the pool. You are an expert.”

I spoke slowly. Galena loved being called the expert diver. We were becoming friends. I showed her where to write her name on the disclosure form, how to answer “no” to all medical questions, and helped her copy her homework onto the answer sheets. Her caretaker daughter left as Alec’s lecture began. Galena and I were classmates, schoolgirls rolling our eyes when there was something we did not understand. As Alec left the room to fetch dry suits, Galena whispered that they wanted us to buy the equipment. She is smart.

“Tula,” she said deliberately and slowly, repeating my name as often as she could, “Why do you take lessons to dive?”

How would I condense a long and complicated explanation?

“I am divorced.”

Galena nodded, “Yes, I understand.”

“I wanted to try something new. A challenge.”

“Yes, I understand.”

“I am a writer. I will write about this in my book.”

I made silly walking motions with my fingers, as if to visually explain that I could write.

“Yes. I understand.”

I looked at Galena’s hand. There was no wedding ring. She did understand.

“Galena, why are you learning to dive?”

“Challenge. I will explain to you another day.”

I know why she is diving. We have a lot in common. Our age and our ringless left hands bond us together in experience, despite the difference in our backgrounds. We were born one year apart, but a half a world away from each other, speaking two different languages. Galena moved from St. Petersburg to help with her daughter’s new baby. She has been in this country for only nine months. She had worked as an accountant in Russia, and spends her time now learning English. We have become friends, and are both happy to be sitting together in dive class.

“When I get my certification,” and again I pointed to her card on the table, “we can dive together.”

“Yes. Good,” and Galena bobbed her head in joy. “We will dive together.”

I felt the same joy. I have a dive buddy. We drove together to the pool, sharing power bars and planning future adventures. Galena offered to teach me to ski when I return from Paris in January, and to take me to St. Petersburg one day to see the art. I asked her to share a room on the dive trip to Indonesia in the spring. It’s nice to have a buddy.

The dry suit class went well. Galena saved me, and I saved her. At the bottom of the pool, we practiced our skills. We removed our vests and cylinders. We took off our masks, and discarded our regulators. We signed to Alec with our hands that all was OK, and he clapped continually for our progress. He flipped us upside down and sneaked air into our suits. We righted ourselves and floated downward by flexing our biceps and releasing the air. It would not be long before I practiced this again in open water. I am looking forward to diving in the Puget Sound in January. My suit kept my shorts and shirt completely dry, and my body warm. Watch out giant octopus. I will be wearing a dry suit and will be on my way.

My dive lessons are over until I return from my travels. It will be the beginning of a New Year when Alec takes me to the open water, and I earn my certification. Deeper than I have ever been, in a fascinating new world, I will signal that all is OK. All is OK with me. There have been many beginnings for me recently. New beginnings are my way of life now; new adventures and new experiences for a life to be lived as if each day is New Year’s Day.

I hugged Alec and Galena goodbye and wished them a Happy New Year. We agreed to email each other over the holidays. We made our promises to dive together when I return in January. As I walked up the hill and back to my car in the cold night air, I turned and waved to my dive buddies, smiling at the limitless beginnings that life presents, and eager to start them all.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Learning to Dive Blog-Day 4- Spinning in the Water

When we walked through the revolving doors and onto the pool deck, we were immersed into a thick steam that blanketed the water’s surface. This December night had brought one of the coldest recorded temperatures to Seattle. Perhaps the fog was a byproduct of the extreme cold. The road had been blocked with ice, and all the equipment had to be carried down the walking path. The fun tropical atmosphere of the turquoise tiles and blue water had been replaced with an eerie feeling. This evening looked more like London in the time of Jack the Ripper. I shivered as I piled my equipment in a chair and sensed that this lesson would be the hardest one yet. My sixteen year old classmate, Jennifer, was shivering too. We had both been thinking of the dive charts and air embolisms discussed in our classroom earlier that night. I was armed with my 800 dollar dive computer, new hood and gloves, and my personal regulator. I was prepared.

Tonight we would be striding into the pool as if we were at the back of a boat. I stood dressed in my wet suit with cylinder and added weights. I calculated the weight of my cylinder to be about one hundred pounds. Our instructor, Alec, would have disagreed with my assessment, but he wasn’t standing in my flippers. I was thinking of new inventions, light weight Styrofoam air cylinders, while I looked down and stepped the six inches from the pool deck to the lip at the water. I was carefully balancing all the weight carried by my body. What am I doing here? My fins extended out over the water’s surface. Alec looked silly. We all did. We were a family of frogs, Jennifer and her father, Alec and me.

“Be sure to step far enough out, and to not hit the side of the pool with your tank,” warned Alec just before he strode vertically into the water with barely a splash.

He resurfaced and smiled at Jennifer. It was her turn. Off she stepped, executing not the desired upright entrance, but a 45 degree face first splash. Oh dear, it was my turn. I can’t remember if I stood on the ledge for a while, or time stopped momentarily. I have the shortest legs of the group. Here’s hoping that that tank clears the pool. I am sure that I produced an enormous splash with my face first entry. As everyone inflated their vests, I seemed to manage to do the opposite of what was instructed. On the surface, I sank. When diving to the pool’s bottom to practice skills, I floated. I tried not to get discouraged.

At the depths of the deep end, we practiced again, this time with giant black rubbery gloves, something that Mickey Mouse would wear. In the gloves, my fingers expanded to twenty times their normal size,and I couldn’t get my mask strap around my rubber hooded head. Alec helped. The fat fingers had trouble stretching the hood open to enclose my face mask, sealing my head from the water. Alec helped. We were asked to sign with our black rubber fingers the amount of air in our cylinders. I couldn’t read the small digital numbers on my dive computer. My vision must be too old for this. Alec swam over and signaled how much air I had left. If I could have focused on his eyes in the murky water, I would have been able to see them roll with frustration. I made a mental promise to never dive without Alec, the expert.

I did much better when we swam without our masks; however my practice rescue of Alec was a disaster. We tried again. It was still not perfect.

“Tula, when did you think you had to always be perfect?”

I thought about Alec’s question. It must have come from my parents. Doesn’t it always come from the parents? Just ask my kids!

We continued to practice. If I could remove the black novelty gloves, I could feel the button to inflate my vest, or deflate my vest. I should start wearing dive gloves in the Seattle cold as practice for my fingers. I wondered if they would match my mink. I rose up and sank down in the water like a carousel horse from an amusement park, constantly adding and subtracting air from my vest as I searched for the illusive neutral buoyancy. If I was not tangled in the pool’s lane dividers on the surface, I was scraping the slimy bottom with my stomach. Perhaps I should attach sponges to my stomach and clean the pool while I am bottoming out. At least I would be useful.

We were finally finished our drills and allowed to swim. I watched Alec as he rotated and floated on his back just above the bottom of the pool. I tried it. Suspended on my back, I stared at the misty lights that illuminated the water’s surface in the fog. I played in my weightless state, turning in the water and spiraling like a dolphin. I wanted to swim summersaults and tumble in the deep end.

I remembered the mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs in Florida. The water nymphs, who swam to the glass of our underwater viewing windows, turned summersaults with ease. They sipped air from hoses strategically placed around the springs in which they performed. They were beautiful young girls in two piece swimsuits, stunning beauties from the 1950’s. Even under the water, their lips were red and their cheeks rouged. They wore white rubber bathing caps filled with yellow centered daisies. To me, as a young girl, they were the prettiest women I had ever seen. Now I swam around the cold Seattle pool like a Florida mermaid.

This is what these dive lessons are all about. I am having fun. I need to stay focused on the beauty I will experience in the depths of the Puget Sound. I will see marine life at play. I will turn on my back and float beneath the surface, as I wait for the sun to illuminate the water at sunrise. I will swim above a forest of kelp, the redwoods of the sound, and glide through the top of its canopy. These are some of the reasons to drag the cylinders of air through the icy night, to struggle under the weight of equipment, and subjugate the fear of air embolisms, currents, and predators. All of this, in order to experience the elation of weightlessness in the vast unknown, and the excitement of what lies waiting beneath the water.

I spun through the pool’s deep end one last time before we heard the clinking of the dive tool against Alec’s cylinder. It was time to leave and retreat to the warmth of the hot tub. I bobbed around the hot bubbling waters and speculated how much more weight would be added to my vest on the next lesson. I looked at my bleeding hand and wondered when I tore the skin beneath the black rubber gloves. As I showed off my injury around the hot tub, I realized that I could hardly wait to try it all again the following week. I may be the shortest, oldest student in the class, but by god, I will be a scuba diver soon.

The image of Scarlet O’Hara jumped into diving hooded head. Standing just before intermission in the fiery glow of burning Atlanta, all hope lost and clutching an onion, her only source of food, she declared to God as an oath, that she would never go hungry again. You got it Scarlet! You may have had a lot of other problems; you lost Rhett and you never got Ashley, but you didn’t go hungry, and that was your goal. I took my hot tub oath that I would be a scuba diver, come hell or high water. I hope it’s the later, high water. That’s what I am in training for. Spin on kid!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

In Anticipation of Hemingway’s at the Ritz

Paris- 01-01-2010

Roses are red,

Violets are blue,

I’ll be with Ernest,

Who’ll be with you?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Learning to Dive Blog- Day 3- Swimming with Shark

For years I lacked the self awareness to realize that I am a shark swimmer. Perhaps it was because I was swimming too fast to think about what was in the water. Perhaps I never wanted to peer down into the water to see where I was heading. Whatever the reason, I know now that I have always had a fascination with shark. In French Polynesia, I was the only one of our family who plunged into the ocean to watch them feed.

The then Salisbury family had paid, at my insistence, a huge sum of money to hire a Polynesian guide to take us beyond the safety of the surrounding coral reefs of Bora Bora and into the ocean. Within the Motu, sharks lie on the sandy bottom of the lagoons, well fed and docile. This is how Polynesian guides allay tourist’s fears of snorkeling in their electric blue waters. Predators outside the coral reefs are never discussed.

On the day of our feeding excursion, whenever we asked about safety, the guide smiled and shook his hand from side to side in the universal hang-loose sign. Danger was never mentioned. As we left the calm lagoons around Bora Bora and entered the dark blue waves of the South Pacific Ocean, I could see the eyes of my sons filling with fear. I never looked into my husband’s eyes to see his terror. Ned, the guide, displayed a large toothy smile, as I stared with wonder at the waves and the diminishing distant island landscape.

When we arrived at our destination, Ned emptied a metal bucket of fish parts into the water at the back of our boat. This is when the male members of the family voiced their refusal to follow behind by diving into bloody water. Ned was already swimming and beckoning us to enter with our fins and snorkel masks. I was not about to waste the hundreds of US dollars, or tens of thousands of French Pacific Franc, it cost for our adventure. I pulled on my flippers and jumped off the boat’s ladder. I assured myself that the power of the United States would keep me safe. No country would dare endanger a US tourist by putting them in harm’s way. I floated on the surface like a delicious stuffed turkey lying on a Thanksgiving Day platter. If shark liked women, they would love me. Through my mask in the crystal clear water, I could see Ned far below holding a fish part in his hand. I was amazed that he needed no scuba equipment and could hold his breath for so long. I floated and watched.

Ned surfaced and with excitement in his voice. He described the shark that was swimming toward him along the bottom. I calmly floated and smiled my approval. He dove under again. From above, I could see two sharks near him. He swam up to the surface, and with water bubbling out of his mouth, he reported that more sharks were coming. They were over fifteen feet long. Down he went. I watched. Below Ned, the sharks began to form a large choreographed circle. I could feel my heart rate accelerate. Circling sharks are not a good thing, especially in chum filled waters. I knew this, but my fascination kept me calm.

As everyone watched, I on top of the water and my family in the boat, I saw the largest shark turn with one flick of his tail fin. He was rising straight up to the surface where I was floating. I had a New Testament moment. A miracle occurred. I walked on water. From a vertical position, on the tips of my fins, I crossed the waves to the boat, hurling myself to safety without using the ladder. I flopped over the boat’s side and landed on the deck like a large snared halibut. I wondered if Jesus had been able to walk on water because of the shark swimming beneath him. As I evoked God’s name several times from where I lay, my husband, without sympathy, exclaimed that the day’s outing was over. The guide would be told to return us to the safety of our five star resort. Ned was disappointed. The children were happy to soon be in a swimming pool. My husband was furious that money had been spent for such an activity. And I was pleased that for a little while, I had been swimming with sharks.

Now as I put on my wetsuit to plunge into the covered swimming pool and begin my second dive class, I try not to think of my swim with sharks. They will be there, but not swimming beneath me as they did in French Polynesia. Tonight, they will come in the form of air embolisms, pneumothorax, mediastinal and subcutaneous emphysema, and of course the bends. These are the overexpansion injuries that we learned about in chapter three of our dive text. Our pool depth will keep us safe, but we are asked to take our simulations seriously. We are to practice emergency ascents. If we are designated to be out of air, then we are told to grab our partner and shake him as if we have no air. If we are designated to rescue our partner, then we must remain calm. We will be in control of our partner’s life as well as our own. Whatever the emergency situation, panic is not an option. It’s just a swimming pool. I am sure I will be fine.

Alec, the instructor, is my partner. I am relieved. He is qualified to rescue me. I plan to go limp in his arms, and he can do the rest. We review our basic skills at the bottom of the deep end. I go last of the three students, so I carefully watch each step and repeat when it is my turn. I can discard my regulator and take my mask off. I am not fond of doing this, but I know I won’t panic if I my mask fills with water.

Alec turns to me and motions with his hands, “Are you OK?”

I sign back, “I am OK.”

I guess.

“Are you OK to be out of air?”

“I am OK to be out of air.”

No, not really. I want my air.

“You are out of air.”

Oh, now I can act. What fun. I grab Alec’s BC vest and shake it as hard as I can. I am simulating no air, thus I am about to drown. He’ll see my passion, as I clutch at his vest for air. He does not hand me his regulator. Damn it. I need air. I told him I was ready. I grab at the secondary regulator from his hand and put it in my mouth. There’s no way I am going to be denied air. I grab his vest shoulder strap. He grabs mine, and he swims me to the surface. As he holds me in position, I blow and blow to manually inflate my BC. Most drownings occur on the surface, when the victim slips back into the water. I am slipping back down. I did not inflate my vest fully. I cheat and add air from my cylinder and float happily by Alec.

“Why didn’t you give me the regulator?”

“You forgot to sign that you were out of air.”

“Oh yeah, but I was shaking your vest.”

“You could have seen a big fish and wanted to make sure I didn’t miss it.”

I guess my acting skills are not good under the water. I will make sure that I don’t forget the hand gesture, knifing across my throat, when find myself out of air one day. However, I do know how to grab that regulator if necessary!

Now it’s my turn to rescue Jennifer. Jennifer is only sixteen but despite her fear, appears calm.

With my hands, I slowly ask, “Are you OK?”

I smile through my mask. This is easy.

She signals back, “I am OK.”

“Are you OK to be out of air?”

“I am OK to be out of air.”

“You are out of air”

Jennifer shakes my vest and slashes at her throat with her right hand. I calmly remove my secondary regulator and hand it to her. Our underwater conversation continues.

“Are you OK?”

“I am OK.”

“Are you OK to go up?”

“I am OK to go up.”

Well, I have to get her up. She is out of air. I inflate my BC, and we rise to the surface. I stabilize her while she inflates her vest. Alec swims up beside us as we beam over our success.

“How do you think it went?” and Alec waits.

“Great, don’t you think?” we both respond.

“You are both dead. You inflated your vest and did not swim to the surface slowly.”

“I forgot. I just wanted to get her up.” I remember the shark. Calm, I must remain calm next time.

Our lessons continue. On the emergency buoyant ascent, I run out of air to vent my lungs. How did Ned in Polynesia have so much air in his lungs? I make a mental note to start training more, jog father, run up hill. Our last lesson is to remove our vests and cylinders under water. Everyone plants themselves on the bottom of the deep in with no problem, except for me. I float around like a fishing cork. Alec comes and holds me down. Oh dear, I fear that more weight will be added to my vest next week. My back is already sore. At least now the guys carry my air cylinder for me. I need to find a scuba buddy who is as accommodating. We finish our lesson by sitting in the hot tub and reviewing our progress. I apologized to Jennifer’s dad for having killed his daughter, explaining that it was an accident. He accepts my apology. I am sure that he is also making mental notes. They will not ask me to be their dive buddy.

At the dive shop Christmas party the following Friday night, everyone cheers when I enter. “We know who you are,” seems to be the theme of my greeting from the divers I am meeting. I choose wine from a box rather than beer from a bottle and slip to a calm state.

“So why did you decide to take up diving at 58?”

“We think it’s so cool that you are doing this.”

“You can dive with me every day, or whenever you want.”

“The dive girls are getting together for drinks next week. You have to join us.”

I have another glass of boxed wine, and smile at my new buddies, some with long pony tails, some with beards, all with grins and a love for adventure. They are shark swimmers looking forward to when they can plunge into the sea again. One day I will be with them.

I am learning about myself. I did not know how mesmerized I have been by shark. I dated them in college. I found them swimming in the corporate world, big shark that fascinated me with their power. I supported political shark. I married one. I am told that if you fish in shark infested waters, you will probably land one. I am learning to watch from the surface and know when to walk across the water to the safety of a boat when a shark begins to circle.