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Before You Bomb Korea, Mr. President

August 13, 2017

Dear Mr. President,

Before you decide to bomb North Korea, please consider carefully the impact of your actions on the people of South Korea. Last year I spent two weeks there, with two dozen other Americans and our two Korean-born priests, celebrating the centennial of my religious community, Won Buddhism. As you have increased the intensity of your threats regarding possible actions on the Korean peninsula this week, I am constantly reminded of the many wonderful people I met, people who will suffer the most from actions you may choose to take.

I am reminded of the retired women Won Buddhist priests we spent a morning with. We ended our time by exchanging hugs. I expected to be the giver of affection, and was deeply moved when instead I received overwhelming feelings of love from these women to whom I could say nothing. The deep-seated joy they radiated defied age and language. Are you willing to let these women suffer?

I am reminded of the family I spent a day and evening with. The father, a retired government minister and now a professor, who spoke to me of his last great professional goal, to free the people of North Korea from the destitution he witnessed during his trips there on behalf of his government. The mother, who welcomed me into her home and fed me wonderful Korean food and even did my laundry. Their daughter, who works as a business translator, helping companies conduct meetings in real time in English and Korean. They spent six years in our country while the father earned graduate degrees. Now they live 40 miles from the North Korean border in a suburb of Seoul. Are you willing to let this family suffer?

I am reminded of the Won Buddhist seminary students we spent an evening with. They are preparing to dedicate their lives to the service of others. Most will stay in Korea, but some will leave behind the familiarity of family and friends and go to America and other countries, as the two priests at my temple did. As we rounded the corner of a building to meet them, we saw them waiting for us outside. They began to cheer for us, like we were celebrities. Once inside, we spoke with them and chanted and meditated with them, filling our meeting hall with mutual affection. When we left, they walked us outside and cheered us again, waving until we were out of sight. Are you willing to let these young people suffer?

I felt this spirit of kindness and generosity and hospitality every day of my visit. The South Koreans are an incredible people. In three generations they have transformed a land devastated by colonization and war into the world’s sixth-largest economy. In two generations they have moved from violent dictatorship to vibrant democracy. They have been our steadfast ally in a crucial part of the world. Should you choose to act rashly in response to a bully’s words and the waving of his fists, the hundreds of thousands of Americans who live among them may be able to board a ship or a plane and leave Korea. But the people I met there will have no such choice. They will instead be asked to bear the consequences of your actions. Please keep those people in mind, Mr. President, and please choose your actions carefully.

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Baseball and the Passing of Time

August 6, 2016
Baseball endures because it feels timeless. It feels timeless because it endures. Or as Jerry Seinfeld said, we’re really just cheering for laundry. The players come and go, usually without notice, but we care while they’re wearing our laundry. Yet occasionally the arrival or departure of a player feels like it’s marking something more significant. And so it was in Seattle for me Tuesday night, watching my beloved Red Sox play the Mariners. This year marks 45 years since my first trip to Fenway (in an earlier post I tracked down the box score of that game against the Orioles), which means I have seen generations of Red Sox come and go. Tuesday I saw both.
Barring any further coincidence between the Sox’s schedule and my own, I will not watch David Ortiz play in person again. No player better marks the transition from the Red Sox I grew up with (so close, but never the big win) to those of the last dozen years (Three rings. Three? Rings!). My boyhood hero, Carl Yastrzemski, did so much for his teams, but twice came up one World Series game short (in fact, he made the last out of both Series he played in, plus the infamous Bucky Dent playoff game in 1978). Big Papi felt the pain of 2003 and the subsequent glories of 2004, 2007, and 2013. He has hit so many clutch home runs that they kind of blur together in a single, late-inning montage of clutch and victory. Yaz bore the unfair brunt of his team’s failures; I remember fans booing him in the early 70s, presumably for not winning the Triple Crown and going to the World Series every year. Papi told the world not to f*** with Boston after the marathon bombing and probably could have been elected governor of Massachusetts while still playing. He’ll certainly never pay for a drink in the Commonwealth for the rest of his life. When he retires at the end of this year the Sox will lose their last link to the curse-busters who overcame the Yankees down three games to none. He helped change the psyche of a city, a region, and a Nation. He gave me memories to last several lifetimes.
Earlier today the Sox called up Andrew Benintendi, the first player they drafted last year. He was tearing up Double-A and was deemed worthy of a shot at the bigs. With a lefty starting for the Mariners, Benintendi began the game on the bench but came on as a pinch hitter in the seventh. He later struck out to end the game (but had two hits in his first start the next night). Watching him in left field alongside Jackie Bradley Jr and Mookie Betts, I thought of Jim Rice, Fred Lynn and Dwight Evans, those kids who gave me such hope in 1975 and who looked to rule the Fenway outfield for a decade or more. My grandfather, who (with my dad) brought me to Fenway on that August night in 1971, would have said it reminded him of Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, and Stan Spence. And so it goes, back to Tris Speaker, Duffy Lewis, and Harry Hooper in the outfield of the brand-new Fenway Park a century ago.
The night was like many of my youth in another way: up 4-0 in the 8th, the Sox lost 5-4. Robinson Cano hit a three-run homer to break my heart again. But no matter. I saw more than a baseball game. I saw the passing of time.
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Mindful Reading

July 18, 2016

I love to read. I always have something on hand with me, and I don’t mean skimming Facebook or email on my phone. I mean I sneak a look at a magazine or book whenever I get the chance. But I’ve been worrying that I am too slow a reader. There certainly is always too much to read, and my piles grow, both on my nightstand and by my desk. Thanks to The Productivity Show podcast, I heard about an online speed reading course called Rev It Up Reading.

Last week my family went to the beach, and my favorite way to spend time at the beach is reading. Since I’d have so much time to read, I decided to buy seven days of access to Rev It Up, so I could put the techniques to immediate use. The course was really helpful. Although I was already a pretty fast reader, my speed went up nearly 25%, and my comprehension improved too. And I realized that highly effective reading is really an application of some mindfulness practices to the page and screen.

It’s All About Attention

At its core, improving speed and comprehension are about improving attention. One common obstacle to rapid reading is regression, going back and rereading paragraphs (or pages!) we’ve already read. While we sometimes we reread because of a passage’s significance or complexity, it’s more common that we go back because we were looking at the words but not reading them. This is because we weren’t giving our attention to the reading, but were instead thinking about other things. We did the physical work of reading, but not the mental comprehension that provides us with the meaning in the words.

When I’m not on the road traveling, I often attend morning meditation at my temple. During the session we chant four different dharma passages. I’ve done this enough times now that I have them memorized. Because I’m not always confident I really can remember all the words, however, I usually have my booklet open in front of me. What I now notice is that, if I just read the words, my mind can easily stray. I think about other things. My chanting mind is on auto-pilot. But if I chant from memory, then I am more aware of the words, and I think more about their meaning. The chanting gets more of my attention, and becomes a more fulfilling practice.

Quieting the Monkey Mind

Subvocalization, sounding out the words we read, can also slow down our reading rate. We speak about 150 words a minute, so if we sound out every word we read, we’re reading much slower than the mind can think. The trick to quieting this voice is to read faster, bypassing the vocalization process and moving the reading process more directly from the eye to the brain. At first this can feel uncomfortable, and it’s easy to worry that we’re not comprehending as much. But with a little practice, we end up understanding more. Just as removing the training wheels leaves us a bit unsteady at first, the need to pay attention to our balance focuses us, and we end up being much faster and more effective bicyclists.

I think of the Buddhist concept of the monkey mind as a parallel to subvocalizing. Beginning meditators can be put off when they first notice the seemingly unending stream of thoughts the mind produces. I’ve had friends tell me that, after a single attempt at meditating, they want to give up the whole process. How can we have a quiet mind when there’s so much going on in there? But this internal chatter, often replaying the past or anticipating the future, is only noise. This monkey mind leaps from thought to thought, and appears to have boundless energy. But once we bring our attention to it, we see that the monkey mind can’t sustain itself. Our deeper consciousness stops feeding it. Meditation is just tapping into this consciousness, and returning to it every time we give our attention to our thoughts. With practice, we begin to feel more settled. Similarly, if we give our full attention to the words we’re reading, we can quiet the subvocalizing. We stop giving energy to the internal talking, and we end up reading faster and understanding more.

Won-Buddhism believes that meditation can happen anywhere, anytime. I’m now seeing that reading can be form of practice, too.

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Swimming Upstream

June 6, 2016

I flew to Seattle this morning. In trying to keep the price of my flights low, or maybe just by rushing things and not reviewing my itinerary carefully, I booked outbound flights with a layover of almost three hours in Minneapolis. There’s nothing wrong with that–as a Delta Diamond Medallion flyer, I get to use their Sky Clubs, with their speedy wifi and free food and drink–but I saw that there was an earlier flight to Seattle. When I landed I got an update that my connection was delayed for another hour plus, so I decided to head to the gate where the earlier flight was parked. As enjoyable as the Sky Club is, and even though an aisle seat awaited me in Delta’s Comfort Plus section (more legroom, and more free snacks and drinks!), I felt a little restless about the prospect of sitting for so long when there was the possibility of grabbing a seat on the earlier flight. Once I get started on a day of flying, I want to keep moving toward my destination (especially when that’s Seattle, my favorite city for teaching). Over the years I’ve had experiences where not getting on the earliest possible flight caused long delays. So my rule is: keep moving. Get on the earliest flight possible. Give myself the greatest amount of time to get to my destination.

So I went to the early flight’s gate and got on the standby list. I ended up with the last seat in Comfort Plus, a middle seat. But I figured that, if I made it at all, it would be in a middle seat in the back row, so I felt like I’d won the lottery. The hardest part was watching almost everybody else get on the plane ahead of me. The main reason I like my Diamond status is to make sure I get on the plane early so there’s space for my bag. I figured this time, no dice for the bag. But the gate agents said no, there’s probably space. And there was, right above Row 31. My seat: 19B. Again, this was not a problem. Me and my bag were getting to Seattle at least three hours earlier than I was scheduled to arrive. The day was gravy.

The only catch, of course, is fetching the bag after landing. I call this process swimming upstream. Everyone is heading for the exit, and I’m trying to reach my bag, which means I’m going the other way. So were a couple of other passengers. Here’s what we did: you stand in your row, and when there’s a gap in the egress (some people take more time to pull their bags out of the bins, or they walk more slowly than others), you move back a row or two, until the slowpokes reach you. Then you wait for another chance to inch closer to your bag. It took a few hops like this, but within a few minutes we all had our bags and headed for the terminal.

Not everyone sees themselves as part of the school of fish, of course. More like we’re crusty soil and they’re a plow. They’re very anxious that their bag is a few rows back, and that they have to go against the rest of us to fetch it. The don’t wait for spaces to appear; as soon as the plane stops, they try to force their way through the crowd to their bag. They slow everybody down. They’ll point and ask others to pass their bag through (often, over) the crowd in the aisle: “It’s the blue one, with the red tag. No, … no, … yes, that one. Thanks!” I suppose a few of those folks are making tight connections, but I think most are just looking out for their stuff. As Crash Davis would have said, they’re being a bit fascistic, while getting off the plane is smoother when thought of democratically. I prefer to wait. I’ve got three extra hours in Seattle; what’s another five minutes? Gotta go with the flow, by slowly moving against it.

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Keeping My Resolutions

March 31, 2016

How are your New Year’s resolutions holding up? I’m batting .530.

The year is now a quarter over, and for two reasons I still remember my resolutions for 2016. The first is that, on New Year’s Eve, Vicki and I went to a “letting go” ceremony at my Won-Buddhist temple. Everybody wrote their regrets and missteps of 2015, and then burned them in a fire on the temple deck. When we returned to our cushions, we wrote down what we wanted to do in the new year. After I brought home my list, I glued it to the inside of my notebook for the year (see photo). I use my notebook to jot down ideas and reminders when I’m teaching, or participating in meetings, or other times when I think of ideas or want to remember to do something. I figured putting the list there would help me keep my resolutions top of mind. Yet I hardly ever look at it.

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Resolutions captured at 2015 “Letting Go” ceremony, Won-Buddhist Temple, Chapel Hill.

I don’t need to, for the second reason I still remember my resolutions: Momentum, a MacOS/iOS app for tracking habits. I love love love this app. Each time I do one of the five resolutions I made for myself, I get to check a box on the app, which turns green and makes a lovely little sound. I can see at a glance how well I’ve done over the past week, and how long my streak is for each habit. If I want to measure my progress, with one click I can export the data to Excel, then quickly total how many days, and thus what percentage of the year, I’ve done each habit. I’m a little disappointed that, overall, I’ve done just a bit more than half of all possible actions (reading and Korean are pulling me down). But those numbers are actually amazing, because I’m meeting way, way more resolutions than any other year, because the app, which sits on the dock of my Mac and the home screen of my phone, is always there. The net effect of Momentum: I’m slowly learning some Korean, I’m reading more books than usual, I’m walking/running regularly, I’m meditating more than ever, and I’m writing more than ever.

I am using other apps and web sites to help me reach my daily Momentum goals. If I have 15 minutes to learn Korean, I launch Memrise on my phone. I use RunKeeper to track my walks, runs, yoga classes and meditation sessions. I alternate between “hard copy” books and my Kindle (a must-have for a frequent flyer) and track my progress on GoodReads.

For my writing habit, I am using 750words.com, which I learned about from Vicki. This site, which I’m using right now to draft this post, gives you a blank screen on which to type (at least) 750 words a day. This number is based on a practice recommended by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. She suggests starting your day with a 750-word free write, to get the creative juices flowing first thing. Possible side effects: the processing of dreams and otherwise unearthing of subconscious stuff that may or may not be important to surface, but which help you see what is really on your mind. You earn “points” each month for each day you write, and you earn more points if you write for consecutive days. It’ll congratulate you for streaks of 5 and 10 days (and, I’m guessing, more–so far my best run is 13 days). 

Thanks to methods both old school (writing down goals on paper) and new (apps and web), I’m feeling like I’m using my time this year more effectively than ever before. Even better, I feel like I’m slowly becoming more of the person I’d like to be.

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Dharma Talk: Air Travel as a Form of Practice

January 24, 2016

On Saturday and Sunday mornings, our temple holds a dharma and meditation service. One part of the service is a dharma talk, when either a kyomunim (priest) or member of the community relates some part of the Won-Buddhist scripture to their life experience. A few months ago Rev. WonGong asked me to consider giving a talk. Friday I sent her a draft, seeking some feedback. She replied, “How about giving this talk this weekend?” I had not planned on going to the temple, because Jonas had dumped enough snow and ice to make travel dicey. But I figured there would not be many people there, reducing the pressure on me, and Vicki was willing to help me get her car out of our driveway. It took us a while, but Vicki was determined to get us on the road. Off we went, and after I gave the talk at the Saturday service, Rev. WonGong gave me some feedback and passages to include in the Sunday service. Here is the talk I gave today.

Notes: Quotes are from The Scriptures of Won-Buddhism. The Founding Master is Sotaesan, who established Won-Buddhism 100 years ago in Korea. “Son” means “meditation.”

The Founding Master said, “Ordinary people consider practice to consist of always sitting quietly in meditation, reciting the Buddha’s name, and reading scriptures, and do not realize that there exists a practice conducted throughout everyday life” (pp.147-8). My everyday life involves air travel. I fly for my job, and I fly often. I began my job of teaching workshops and training trainers to teach workshops in 2004. Since then I have flown about 1.8 million miles. This work has opened up the world to me. When I began it, I did not own a passport. Now, when I go to Korea with the temple group in April, it will be my 24th country to visit. I am grateful to have work that is so interesting and has offered me so many opportunities.

But to balance this life in the air, I need grounding and stability. I have a family that supports me. I have colleagues who make my work easy and enjoyable. And for almost a year and a half, I have had this sangha. Maybe it is not a surprise that I love coming to a place where I spend a lot of time sitting on the floor. In the front of The Scriptures of Won-Buddhism it says, “Timeless Son, Placeless Son,” which means we can meditate anytime and anywhere. Later, the scripture says, “Even a farmer wielding a hoe can practice Son, as can a carpenter wielding a hammer, a clerk using an abacus, and an official seeing to an administrative matter; and we can practice Son even while going about or staying at home” (p.62). For me, this teaching means airplanes and hotel rooms should be just as conducive to my meditation as this temple.

The main principle of Son is that “Ever-alertness within calmness is correct … ever-calmness within alertness is correct” (p. 152). Rev. Ginger included this principle in a recent dharma talk, and it helped me to look at air travel as a place for my practice.

When I prepare for a trip, I need to be alert within calmness. When you make as many trips as I do, it is easy to slip up. To reduce the possibility of forgetting something, I have two checklists, one for domestic travel and one for international, that I use when packing for my trips. This way, rather than wondering if I have forgotten anything, I can focus on what I am packing, counting shirts and socks to make sure I will have enough. The list allows me to relax and focus.

The next phase of my travel requires calmness within alertness. The process of travel to the airport, checking bags, proceeding through security, and boarding the plane can be stressful. I am tempted to resist things I cannot change. I cannot change when the plane leaves, so I must give myself plenty of time to get to the airport and to navigate the lines. I cannot change the length of the lines or their speed, so I just bring my focus to my breath, let go of the tension I accumulate, and move when the lines allow. I cannot change how many security stations are open, or how long it takes my fellow passengers to remove their belts and shoes, or how slowly the TSA agents respond to those who need extra attention. Again, the breath gives me a place to let go of stress and remain calm. When the gate agent announces boarding has begun, the passengers swarm toward the gate. We are all wondering–will there be space for my bag? I try very hard not to move until my zone is called. I try to use my calmness to overcome the anxiety in the air.

Once we are all on board and the flight begins, my focus shifts back to remaining alert within calmness. Air travel is not easy for most of us. We’re sitting in a small space among strangers. It’s difficult to move around, and even harder to move without disturbing others. I believe that, even though flying is common now, we know sub-consciously that we are sitting in a small tube high in the sky, and that hidden awareness produces fear. In these challenging conditions the temptation is to numb the mind, to make the fear go away and the time pass as painlessly as possible. So people order Bloody Marys at 6:00 am. They play solitaire and watch movies and sleep. While I too sleep on flights, and on long flights I watch movies and TV shows, most of the time I try to use my time well. Because I fly so much, I cannot numb myself. Instead I choose to engage. I read–and not junk but good stuff, novels and books about my work and of course books on Buddhism. I sometimes write, and I tackle my inbox, and in all ways try to be present–alert amidst the calm.

What can I gain from approaching my travels in this way? Master Sotaesan says that we too “must advance still further in our practice in timeless Son of ‘one suchness in action and rest’ so that we too will gain the three great powers” of Cultivating the Spirit, Inquiry into Human Affairs and Universal Principles, and Choice in Action (p. 149). No matter where I go now, I try to bring this practice with me. I always travel with The Scriptures of Won-Buddhism, my Meditation Chants booklet, and my dharma journal. And I have a small Il Won Sang image I place on the desk of my hotel rooms. This community has given me a place of grounding, which I then try to bring with me, timeless and placeless. I am grateful for the dharma that guides my travels, and for this sangha which keeps me balanced even when I am far from here.

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New Year, New Me

January 7, 2016

On New Year’s Day I accepted a dharma name, making a formal commitment to join the Won-Buddhist temple in Chapel Hill. I hesitate to write about this, because it feels egotistical (and thus not particularly Buddhist) to draw attention to such a commitment. But accepting the dharma name was a public culmination of a 15-year spiritual odyssey, a path which I traveled mainly on my own (though with the consistent and inspiring support of Vicki), a path along which I kept swinging between Buddhism and Christianity.

Vicki and I both grew up Catholic, but as we prepared for married life we knew we wanted to raise a family in a different faith. We didn’t look for an acceptable doctrine first, then a community that fit it. Rather, we found a community we loved (Aldersgate United Methodist in Chapel Hill) whose theology we could also accept. In the same way, I decided one Sunday night in October 2014 to check out the web site of the Won-Buddhist temple that I had been driving by for nearly a decade. At 6:30 the next morning I attended my first meditation, and since then I have begun many a day there. I have also attended regular services on Saturday and Sunday mornings, joined tai chi and qi gong workshops, participated in dharma studies, and even begun to learn some Korean. Again, I was not seeking a community that would fit my beliefs; instead, I found a community whose beliefs I could accept.

Won-Buddhism is a fairly recent branch of Buddhism; it began in Korea only 100 years ago. While the dharma (teachings) of the Buddha are its primary texts, like other forms of Buddhism it also integrates aspects of the culture from which it springs. For Won-Buddhism this means it contains Taoist and Confucian elements that are prevalent in Korean culture. Like many religious communities, ours has a small core of dedicated members surrounded by a others with varying degrees of participation. After ten months or so of active attendance, I wanted to make a formal declaration of my commitment to this community, so in the early fall I told our two priests of my desire to receive a dharma name. My preparations included a one-on-one session with Rev. WonGong, and a weekend in retreat at the temple. Since the New Year’s Day service was a public declaration to this community and its practices and precepts, it feels acceptable to write about it here, too. Won Bup Sung (“The Nature of Dharma”) has found his spiritual home.

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Around the World in 11 Days, Leg 4

December 20, 2015

Route: Hyderabad to Raleigh-Durham
Flights: 3
Stops: London Heathrow, Philadelphia
Airlines: British Airways, American
Air Miles: 8678
Time Zones (inclusive): 11

The only drama of this trip took place before it started. I was eating dinner at my hotel in Hyderabad Friday night, feeling very happy to have completed my 71st teaching day of 2015, when I started getting texts from British Airways regarding flight delays. Each one pushed back our departure time further than the previous one, until I was going to miss my connecting flight to JFK on American. When I returned to my room I hopped on Skype to see how I was getting home.

I mentioned back in Leg 1 that I am an elite flyer on Delta. One of the many perks that comes with my diamond status is access to the “Diamond Desk.” This special service even recognizes my phone number, so I don’t have to type in my SkyMiles number every time I call. Instead, I get a “Welcome, Robert” message, then a live agent, in about 15 seconds. I mention this to you now because while I have been an Executive Platinum flyer on American Airlines in the past, I currently have no status with them, and I was about to discover the difference between having status and just being another passenger calling with a problem.

My situation was compounded by my ticket, which I purchased from American’s web site and included a code-shared British Airways flight from Hyderabad to London. The airlines will tell you how wonderful their “global networks” are, letting you buy from one partner while flying with others. While it is great to fly on, say, Korean Air, as I did last week (see Leg 2) and earn miles on my Delta account, it’s also great for Delta and Korean Air because they don’t have to compete with each other between, say, Seattle and Seoul, allowing them to charge higher fares. These alliances also make it tricky when, say, one partner has a delayed flight that impacts your ability to make a connecting flight on another partner. This was my fate Friday night.

I’ll spare you most of the details, but the core problem was that it took me six calls, three to BA and three to American, before my situation was resolved. Twice I called BA and they said, “Your ticket’s with American. Call them to get rebooked.” Twice I called American and they said, “BA’s flight is delayed, have them rebook you.” The third BA agent actually did try to get me rebooked, but when he found flights for me, he could not gain access to the system. I asked him for flight numbers and times, wrote them down, and called American for the third time. By this time American’s system was automatically rebooking me–hence the BA agent’s inability to help me–and I had new flights shortly.

I am usually a patient person, but I will confess that I got pretty upset with American Agent #1 (call #2). First he told me my BA flight was not delayed, even though I had already received emails and texts to that effect. (I do not understand how I could have more updated information than an airline agent had, but there you go.) Then he put me on hold for about 12 minutes before telling me that I had to call BA to get my ticket rebooked. Then he stopped answering my questions. Each time I asked him to explain why, after trying to help me for 12 minutes, he no longer could, or what my options were for getting home on American if I got to London on BA and missed my connection, or any of my other half-dozen questions, his answer was, “You’ll have to ask BA about that.” Like he was staring at a script and would not engage with my problem. This is what does not happen when you call the elite “desk,” because they know you’re a frequent flyer and you’re not going to settle for scripted answers. But this does not excuse my impatience with him, and I very intentionally was very patient and appreciative with the next four agents.

After my ordeal ended, I figured out two things. First, if I got to Heathrow when my delayed BA flight was scheduled to arrive, then American had no way to get me home Saturday night. This meant they’d have to put me up at a hotel and get me home Sunday–and I believe they wanted BA to bear that cost, because it was their flight that was causing the problem. And that is a reasonable request. But American never told me that, they just kept saying, “Call BA and have them rebook. It’s their fault.” If they’d just said, “Here’s the situation,” or even better, if they had called BA for me, then I would have been a happy guy. But their stonewalling ticked me off. Second, BA kept re-estimating the length of the original delay, and when it improved to the point where I could get home Saturday night, their system triggered the automatic rebooking, which was going on during Calls #5 and 6.

Once I was rebooked, I could focus on the upside: after six days of teaching in three countries on two continents, I was going home. I had my first two flights on Boeing’s newest jet, the 787 Dreamliner (see my Hyderabad to London plane below). En route I finished two books (All the Light We Cannot See, and The Martian, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed) and two NY Times crossword puzzles (it always feels extra satisfying to finish a Saturday puzzle), and watched one meh movie (Ricki and the Flash) and one very funny HBO special (Amy Schumer’s). And because I was flying west, my Saturday lasted almost 30 hours. An extra-long Saturday that ends at home with Vicki is my kind of a long weekend.

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Around the World in 11 Days, Leg 3

December 15, 2015

Route: Singapore to Hyderabad
Flights: 1
Stop: none
Airline: Silk Air
Air Miles: 2057
Time Zones (inclusive): 3

When I started traveling internationally in 2006, my second stop was in Singapore, where I experienced what many claim is the world’s best airport. When I arrived at Changi again last night, I saw a poster celebrating its 500th award as the world’s best. The distinguishing marks I’ve seen include short passport control lines, suffusive lighting, and lots of low ceilings and carpeting. Most airports are harsh and cacophonous, but Changi calms and quiets. It has corners lined with lounge chairs that are perfect for passengers stuck with long layovers. It even has a free movie theater. It has lots and lots of shopping–which some call Singapore’s national sport–but not more than lots of other airports. In many international airports, you survive long lines at passport control, only to go straight into a second queue for security. Changi instead moves the security line to the gate, so you get into the terminal faster, and share a line only with the other passengers on your flight. Schiphol in Amsterdam does this more often, too; it used to take forever to go from gate to gate there, even though you were just connecting, because they had a single point to get passports checked.

I cleared security at my gate and sat down near a TV; though it was not blaring, say, CNN, like plenty of US airports do (because people aren’t tense enough about flying, so they need the adrenaline boost from BREAKING NEWS!), it still drew my eye because it was airing Wheel of Fortune! Not a Singaporean version of the franchise, but “America’s Game Show” (it said so right there on the spinning wheel) with Pat and Vanna. After the show finished came an ad for a huge New Year’s Eve party at one of Singapore’s massive new casino/resort sites. The show would include seven hours of live music, featuring a lot of local acts, then the headliner: “international sensation” Adam Lambert! And as if these two “What the …?” moments weren’t enough, the next show topped them both: “A Minute to Win It,” which I think I had heard of, but have never watched, hosted by … Apolo Anton Ohno! Seeing this terrific athlete now emceeing a weird game show, and seeing him while sitting in the Singapore airport, completed my twilight zone trifecta. Maybe I was just tired from teaching.

I flew to Hyderabad on Silk Air, a no-frills cousin to Singapore Air, which is to international airlines what Changi is to airports. This is my fourth time in India, and there are two primary cautions when you’re an American flying into here: getting secure transportation and not getting sick from the water. Each time I’ve come I’ve had my hotel send someone to pick me up–this is nothing special, as all the big hotels have drivers and labelled cars at the airport.

The best thing about India is the people; I’ve met fantastic people every time I’ve come. Last night I started chatting with my driver as we headed to the Westin. He was pretty reserved, but answered all my questions. We talked about our kids (he has three between the ages of 11 and 15), and then I asked him how long he’d lived in Hyderabad. He’d moved there when he was 11, the year his mother died. He’d already lost his father at 3, so his village, about 200 kilometers from Hyderabad, basically told him they could not afford to raise him themselves, but made arrangements for him to take a steam(!) train–this was the mid-1980s–to Hyderabad and to live in a hotel. The hotel put him to work but told him he was too young to get paid. When he was 14 he started earning 5 rupees a day. Today that is about 7.5 cents, so back then maybe it was 15 cents a day? Years later he took his kids back to the village, so they could see his roots. They were unimpressed. Because he’d left so young, no one recognized him until he mentioned his mother’s name. His daughter works really hard at school, but he worries that his boys don’t care enough. He tells them he wishes he’d been able to go to school (he learned English from watching and rewatching movies). They remain unimpressed. The conversation was a pleasant diversion from the chaos of driving in India.

My flight was much less interesting than either its start or finish. I slept the whole 4.5 hours. It probably was from the teaching.

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Around the World in 11 Days, Leg 2

December 13, 2015

Route: Seattle to Singapore
Flights: 2
Stop: Seoul
Airline: Korean Air
Air miles: 8088
Time Zones (inclusive): 11

I don’t talk much when I fly. Because I travel so often on one airline, Delta, I’m almost always sitting with other very frequent fliers, either in first class or in an exit row. The latter usually provide more leg room and, until 24 hours before departure, are only available to passengers with at least silver medallion status. We just don’t have much to say to each other. Most of the chatter is of the “this one time I was trying to get from Austin to Allentown, and of course there was a delay,” etc etc. I am tired of these war stories because there’s usually an implication that the airline is so much dumber than the person telling the story, and while the airlines are far from perfect, especially when it comes to customer service, they really do know what they’re doing when it comes to scheduling, weather, and other logistical parts of flying. I am quite glad they put safety first, and that crews have rules regarding how long they can fly in a day, because I don’t want them taking chances when the consequences are so high. I also have a hard time hearing about how tough these road warriors have it when they’re sipping on their second free gin and tonic in a cushy first class seat they didn’t pay for. I’m not alone–most of us just enjoy our drinks while looking at email on our phones or making a last call to a client, assistant, or spouse before takeoff.

I never noticed how little I talk while flying until this week, when a cold and a fairly packed teaching schedule (I’ll amass 13 teaching days and 8 travel days between November 8 and December 13) left me with almost no voice on Thursday. I realized I’d need to minimize conversations until Monday’s workshop here in Singapore–and that’s when it dawned on me that I would have almost no reason to talk during that time. I would eat meals by myself, travel by myself, sit on two planes for about 18.5 hours, then spend today in my hotel room here. I would have to talk only to servers, agents at airports and hotels, and flight attendants. None of these conversations would involve more than a few words. Today my throat feels pretty good, and my voice, while still a bit hoarse, is better. I hope it can hold out until Friday–four workshops in the next five days will provide a real test.

All this time saying so little to other people means that internal dialogs take over. I debate whether I should have alcohol and caffeine on these long flights. All the travel web sites say they make it harder to sleep, and they dehydrate, which is a real problem because airplane air is really dry compared to most climates (it’s so humid here in Singapore that even walking slowly outside made me sweat in less than 20 minutes on a cloudy day). On these flights I opted for Korean beer (not great, but the only other choice Korean Air offered was Bud), and a glass of wine, and a coffee and a tea. (This was over two long flights.) I debate meal choices–should I have the Korean option, since I like it and I’m going to spend two weeks there in May? Or should I have the more familiar chicken and noodles? I go for the latter–sitting among so many Koreans on both flights, and still new to the cuisine, I would feel like a real poser if I’d gone for the bibimbap. I debate how to spend my time: read for work, read for fun, watch movies and TV, listen to podcasts, etc etc. I ended up doing most of these–again, lots of time to try lots of things–and even played some Bejeweled while waiting to take off in Seoul. I was happy with myself that I finished One Second Ahead, about cultivating mindfulness at work. I watched three movies (Bridge of Spies, Match (resisting Patrick Stewart is futile) and American Ultra; I liked them in that order) and two Big Bang Theory and two How I Met Your Mother episodes. I switched to podcasts (mainly On Being and Effectively Wild, both of which I strongly recommend) when my eyes tired. Reading and watching so much can give me headaches, and my eyes are where I feel the lack of moisture in the cabin. Of course I slept, too, off and on.

The flights were easy. It was my first time on Korean Air, and they are top-notch. Not as glamorous as Singapore Air or even Cathay Pacific, but the food was great, the cabins clean and comfortable, there were plenty of media choices, and the attendants were friendly and professional. I am starting to learn Korean, and they tolerated my practicing “hello” and “thank you” and “fish, please” with my gravelly voice and rookie pronunciation. With less than an hour’s layover in Seoul, I was nervous that my bag would not make it. The travel sites all say to pack extra clothes, just in case, and I did that this time, moving non-essential stuff out of my computer bag to make room. I thought my odds were pretty good when the gate agent at Sea-Tac put a “short connection” tag on my bag, and sure enough, it was there to meet me in Singapore.

I forget how far south Singapore is; it lies just a single degree above the equator. Here’s one way to describe the distance: the flight from Seoul was over six hours, and yet we crossed just one time zone. But the destination is well worth the journey. From the mints waiting for you as passport control reviews your paperwork, to the warm weather, safe conditions, prevalence of English, and wonderful food options, I regret only that I’m here for such a short time, and that, because my workshop site and hotel are out by the airport, I won’t get to walk the city. I think this is my seventh time coming here, so I expect to have another chance on another trip.

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