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Qasr Al Sarab

Husband and I decided on a splurge during our visit to Abu Dhabi – a splurge underwritten by some research monies he has for an article he’s working on (seriously! About Arabian Sands, a book written by an Englishman who wanted to map the part of the Arabian Desert known as Rub Al Khali, or The Empty Quarter.  This section of desert is shared by Saudi, UAE, Yemen, and Oman, and is larger than France, Netherlands, and Belgium put together.  It has more sand than the Sahara, even though in square miles Rub Al Kali is smaller.  More important than any of those facts? It’s stunningly beautiful.  Gobsmackingly, jaw-droppingly, did-you-see-that beautiful).

Underwriting—or as we like to call it, corporate sponsorship—firmly in place, we made a reservation at Qasr Al Sarab.  We reserved a car service to drive us out there—it’s about two hours outside of Abu Dhabi city, and neither of us are equipped, legally or psychically, to drive in the UAE.  First surprise: when you reserve “a car” in New York, you get some version of an over-scented Lincoln Town Car.  Here? We got a beat-up Toyota station wagon with anemic air conditioning.  We also got an upclose and personal introduction to highway driving, Arab style:  drivers pass one another whenever they want, wherever they want, with a simple flash of headlights to indicate their intentions.  The vehicle in front slides over to the right (without slowing down), the driver behind speeds up into the lane of oncoming traffic (regardless of traffic in other lane), goes around the too-slow vehicle in front, and then slips back into the correct lane.  I stopped watching after a while because I didn’t want my panicky gasps to distract the driver and get us all killed before we arrived at the resort.

Wait. “Resort” is TOTALLY the wrong word for where we arrived after our death-defying desert drive.

We arrived at…time out of mind? A place out of time? The corporeal equivalent to you-have-been-reborn-as-Brangelina? Continue Reading →

Continue Reading · on November 26, 2010 in environment, fun…what a concept, Travel

Landing in Flyover Country

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It’s green here at Camp Grandma. Grandma’s house is surrounded on three sides by trees that look like children’s drawings: brown trunks topped with puffy green circles. Judging from the noise, each tree houses about a gazillion cicadas, which the boys and I have occasionally found on the ground, legs waving helplessly in the air.  The boys are fascinated by the bugs but they don’t ever want to get too close–it’s pretty clear than a career in entomology is not in anyone’s future.  Because I am a complete lily-livered coward when it comes to bugs, I totally encourage bug-scrutiny from afar, and I admit that we’ve been responsible for cicada death: flipping the bugs (using a very long stick) into the pond across the street from Grandma’s house.

Except for the cicadas, it’s quiet here, and so still you can hear the ducks flapping in the pond. We’ve had a few huge midwestern thunderstorms, which I just love: the air gets incredibly still and even the cicadas shut up for a minute or two; the sky gets sort of purplish gray and then the wind whips up, flipping the leaves to their silvery undersides–it’s like everything is holding its breath and then whap! lightning! and wham! thunder!  Total drama. The picture at the head of this post is from the beginning of one such thunderstorm. Even though it looks like evening, it was in fact about 8 in the morning. After the rain, the air was clear; it smelled like earth and grass (and corn from the corn processing plant).

We come to visit my mom every summer and I love it: the quiet, the green, the fact that we do pretty much nothing other than walk to the pool and watch the kids play. Mom has all the suburban pleasures: a yard, a deck, a garage, an upstairs. Everyone has room to spread out and although the boys do their best to be the Bicker McBickersons, it’s harder for them to keep it up when one or the other of them can do that thing called GOING UPSTAIRS.  There are lots of closets out here in flyover country, and an entire room dedicated to laundry. There is even–wait for it–a pantry.

Earlier this year, Husband and I were recruited by a large Midwestern university–a big-name place in a small post-industrial midwestern city, but not one of those “cool” midwestern cities like Madison, Ann Arbor, or Columbus. The offer was sort of tempting–a bit more money and the idea that we could have one of these houses with all this damn space–but ultimately, we said no. The schools for the boys were problematic (public schools with absolutely no art program–none. No music, no art, nada nothing zilch. It made NYC public schools look good, in comparison, and that’s saying something); the jobs themselves didn’t quite make sense; we’d be giving up a lot in New York…  We felt bad about saying no to the nice midwestern people (and gosh almighty they are nice out here), but said no anyway, and so now here I am in flyover country, once again a visitor.

Mostly I am sure we made the right decision; New York at this point makes sense for us. We’ve lucked into two good public schools; we have amazing friends; good jobs. Furthermore, in a blind taste test our kids could distinguish Two Boots from Totonno’s from Postos from Patsy’s, and god knows that’s an important life skill. They can also hail a cab at ten paces; they are intimately acquainted with any number of museums; and they understand that the world is comprised of lots of different kinds of people.

As I know from my non-conservative mother, living in this conservative state (that briefly flirted with progressivism by going for Barack in the election), would be tough. And I don’t regret saying no to Large Midwestern University.

But as I sit here writing this, soaking in the stillness, listening to the sound of the cicadas and the tree frogs and the little creek that burbles behind the house, it’s hard to imagine resuming my regularly scheduled life in that loud, sweltering, cement-box of a city.

Clearly someone will need to buy me at least one cocktail to ease the pain of re-entry. Or a country house. Whichever.

Continue Reading · on August 7, 2010 in environment, family, NYC

Corn Land

IMG_1874I’m at Camp Grandma with the boys this week, out here in what those on the coasts like to call “flyover country.”  Should you find yourself flying over these middle parts, before you get to the rumpled mountains further to the west, and if you look down (wondering perhaps how much longer you can stand sitting in coach with the seat in front of you reclined practically to your lap and the circulation slowly vanishing from your extremities), the earth is measured off in tidy squares of greenish brown and brownish green, like some monochromatic chessboard.

Down here, though, in the flown-over states, those checkboards are green green green, with soybeans and corn, corn and soybeans.  There’s the occasional cow or horse roaming around, just often enough to make city boys sitting in the back of grandma’s car yell out “A HORSE!”  “A COW!” with the same excitement I imagine Edison felt when that damn lightbulb finally went on.

Camp Grandma is surrounded by corn. Everywhere is corn, corn, corn, baby, and while the sweet corn I’ve been getting at the Union Square Farmer’s Market is good, it’s not as good as this stuff. Sweet and crunchy and creamy, all in one bite.  Hot off the grill, sprinkled with a little salt and pepper, a smear of butter dripping down the side…heaven.

When I say corn is everywhere, I mean everywhere: it’s even in the air.  There are two corn processing plants here and when they cook the corn, the scent wafts over the entire city: an acrid smell, a bit like, well, burned corn, and a bit like burned sugar. It’s not an entirely unpleasant smell, but it’s pervasive, just hanging there in the air above the corn fields, which are all marked with red and green and yellow signs indicating which Monsanto seeds are being used in that particular row.  The corn processing plants cook the corn so that it can become high fructose corn syrup, corn sugars…the list is endless.

In the midst of all this corn is… a water park, which we went to yesterday. Liam was thrilled because he is now finally 48″ tall, which is the baseline for all the big slides and water chutes. Every year we come to Camp Grandma and every year until yesterday, he’s not been tall enough for the “big kid” part of the park, which infuriates him.  So he disappeared into the scrum of kids waiting to fling themselves into a dark watery tunnel, while Grandma, Caleb, and I settled for the gentler pleasure of bumping along a “river” in big inner tubes.

Over the entire park hung the delicate scent of corn being processed, and as we floated past the snack bar, I realized we were inside a kind of closed circuit of corn.  At the snack bar, people waited in line for their burger-fries-soda combos; teenagers stretched out in the sun, clutching their cans of diet soda; more kids than I could count wandered around swigging gallon tubs of soda or “fruit drink.”  That’s the circuit: from corn in the fields, to the corn scent in the air, to the high fructose corn syrup in those gallon cups…and as we move through the circuit, we pick up diabetes, obsesity, heart disease, and environmental damage (did you know that it takes about a half-gallon of fossil fuel to produce one bushel of corn?)

I’m feeling a little apocalyptic these days, not because I’m in the flown-over lands, but because I just finished The Passage–a thriller set in some not too distant (but dreadful) future, sort of like The Stand but with really nasty vampires instead of Randall Flagg. In The Passage, the author imagines the entire Gulf of Mexico as a petrochemical swamp and New Orleans as a toxic dump. It’s not an image that’s central to the novel (which is really a pretty good beach read; you should probably click on the amazon link over there to the right and buy it for yourself, or download it or whatever), but it’s stuck with me as I think about (and smell) all this corn.

At what point does our desire for a habitable planet trump our desire for a Diet Coke?

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Continue Reading · on August 5, 2010 in environment, food

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