18 Sep

Thank you Ian Frazier!

Once upon a time (a time, btw, before I worked at an investment bank), I fell in love with Ian Frazier. Not physically in the sort of way that I would fall in love with a man who I was hoping to be my husband, but in a career/aspiration sort of way. Ian Frazier is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of some very great books (at least in my opinion).

I still love Ian Frazier but he seems to have written less frequently for the magazine in the past fifteen years. A period of time which coincides with the period of time in my job that has seen a great increase in responsibilities. Thus, I still love Ian Frazier, but have seen much less of him over the years. In many ways, he is very much like my best friend from business school: someone with whom I spent copious amounts of time with 20 years ago and will love always, but over the past twenty years have come to accept that we will only connect live possibly once or twice every two or three years. This is neither good or bad. It is, simply put, life. You make friends (in fact you make very good friends!) but then life moves on, and the relationships morph and change. Not for worse, not for better. They just change.

So it was with great anticipation that I saw Ian Frazier on deck in this wk’s New Yorker, writing about the “elusive, flickering, familiar, sea-polished shade of copper-green” of the Statue of Liberty (click here for the article). And reading it was similar to the time that I reconnected with my best friend from business school earlier this year. It seemed like ages and ages had passed, but then we were there and everything was the same, except that instead of catching up on a day’s worth of news we had to catch up on three year’s worth of news. And in the catching up, you see the same things that remembered from twenty years ago but aged by twenty years.

So it was with Ian Frazier. Here he was writing about the green sheen of the Statue of Liberty. The essay topic was completely Ian Frazier. The language was Ian Frazier. But somehow, I understood in reading it, that it was also an Ian Frazier who had aged the same amount of years that I have since I first met him back in 1997.

This wkend, thinking about all that, made me want to go back and read that first essay I had read of his some sixteen years ago. And I did. In so many ways, I was a latecomer to Frazier (I would argue in fact that I was a late comer to writers and writing, but that is another essay…) and found him through the Best American Essay Series in 1997. As the editor that year, he selected the essays and wrote the Introduction.

It is that introductory essay that remains one of my favorite essays. It combines humor, instruction, compassion, and purpose all in one. And in such great writing! But like all great essay writing, it gives you a window of understanding into the writer. When I read it sixteen years ago, it became my call to writing. For a long time, I have maintained a notebook of favorite writings. That essay is at the front of that notebook.

I went on to build a career at an investment bank in equity research management, not a career as a writer (either for the New Yorker or any other magazine for that matter). And I have done well in this career. Not spectacularly well by Wall Street standards, but pretty well by the average American standard. I do not regret that decision, though I often question whether it was the right decision. The central paradox that always comes to mind when I think about this is that I feel that I have become a better writer by having hadmy career at the bank. Yet that career has also limited my possibilities as a writer, if only because of the time and emotional demands of being a manager.

What a pleasure it was this wkend to travel back in time and re-read that essay. In fact, it wasn’t only a pleasure, it was a reminder!  A reminder that once upon a time I wanted to be a writer. A writer like Ian Frazier. A writer who could be eloquent and compassionate and at the same time humorous.

Timing is everything right? I am only reflecting on Ian Frazier because he happened to have an essay in the New Yorker this wk. At the same time, I am getting ready to announce (finally after over 10 years!) the publication of my first book. Stay tuned here for more details shortly!

So I am in so many ways both honored and grateful to be reflecting on Ian Frazier and my call to writing this wkend. I am so happy to be able to re-read his essay. And I am definitely looking forward to whatever he writes next in the New Yorker…or wherever. Thank you Ian Frazier!

09 Sep

Empathizing with the American Soldier: A Conversation with Doug Taurel

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by Erica L Moffett (first published at www.womanaroundtown.com on 9/7/16). 

Douglas Taurel has never served in the military but he possesses deep empathy for the soldier and the families of the soldiers. It is not an inactive empathy. Though a successful actor in his own right (he got into acting because he wanted to impress a girl!), seven years ago he felt compelled to begin working on a project which eventually turned into The American Soldier, a one-man play which he has been performing at theaters and festivals over the past year. Residents of the tri-state area who were unable to see the play previously will have another opportunity to see it at Mile Square Theater in Hoboken from September 9 -11.

I reviewed the play last year at 59E59 Theaters when it debuted (click here for the review) and had the opportunity last week to talk with Taurel about the play as he gets ready for the Hoboken run.

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There were a few catalysts that drove Taurel create The American Soldier. First, he has always been fascinated with American history and has always spent time trying to understand history through characters. Second, as an avid reader, he read stories of veterans with PTSD and he was very troubled by them. And finally, as a husband and a father and an actor, he could really empathize with the pain of losing a child or a spouse. At a certain point, he wanted to do something. He wanted to give back. The American Soldier is the result of all that active empathy and intellect. “What I really wanted to do was to give a sincere thank-you to our soldiers and to their families,” said Taurel.

In The American Soldier, Taurel wanted to represent the war from all perspectives and the play provides a kaleidoscope of experiences. Soldiers are obviously represented, but there are also mothers, fathers, children, and siblings of soldiers. Not surprisingly, PTSD is a theme that comes up and seems to have resonated the most with audience members, but that is only one layer of the experience that Taurel was trying to convey. “I find it heartbreaking and moving to know that a son is not going to play with his father again,” said Taurel. “Or how a wife can get into bed without her husband for the rest of her life.”

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These are experiences that can resonate with everyone, but it is the power of Taurel’s writing and acting that allows everyone to access those traumatic and heartbreaking experiences. It is because of this that the play has had a much longer life than he anticipated, something that is especially gratifying to Taurel. “It’s like the show that won’t die,” he told me. After an initial run at 59E59 Theaters, he took it to the Edinburgh Fringe where it won a 4-star rating and was nominated for the UK Amnesty International Award for Theatre excellence. The show started to sell out and people urged him to continue to take the show elsewhere. So from Edinburgh to Houston, and then later to the Midtown International Theater Festival in New York. Now it is Mile Square Theater in Hoboken, and he is also scheduled to reprise it in November in upstate New York in performances solely for veterans. To cap things off, he is also in discussions with the Kennedy Center to perform it there early next year.

Of course Taurel is pleased with the success of the show, but he is more pleased with how the show has been able to reach people and open up conversations that were closed down beforehand. He shared with me the letter of one veteran whose wife had never understood the military and held harsh views on it and the soldiers who joined. After seeing the show though, she apologized to her husband for their previous fights about the military, started to express an interest in his military experience, and then told him that she was proud of him. This is just one of many individual testimonials that Taurel has received.

Taurel called the show The American Soldier because it was based on actual letters by and to American soldiers. (He would build characters based on actual people, but fictionalize the stories since he didn’t have licensing rights.) But he believes that the themes and experiences he explores are universal to soldiers, regardless of country. He experienced this directly when he brought the play to Edinburgh. He admits that he was a little worried about bringing this play, blatantly titled The American Soldier to another country. He worried, rightly, that it would smack of American arrogance. Instead he found that the play was able to transcend the American boundary, and give cause for the stiff British upper lip to quaver a little. In England, he told me, no one was talking about these issues. Once the play started to sell out in Edinburgh, he would start to see mothers of U.K. veterans in the audience. And after the play, they would come up to him and thank him for doing the play and bringing these issues to light. Taurel believes that he would receive this reaction in any country.

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If the soldier’s experience is universal across nations, it is also universal across time. Taurel was amazed once he started doing his research how he would find almost the same phrases and descriptions in letters from the 1700s to letters of today. The biggest pattern he found across all wars was the inability to sleep after killing innocent people. But this was just one of many, the others including loss and anger and post-traumatic stress.

And that is the power of the play. The ability to take military experiences across time and wars and countries and weave them together—through characters—in a way that resonates with both soldiers and non-soldiers, and more importantly, allows people to grieve or understand or simply be a little more at peace and able to move on with life.

If the shows moves on to the Kennedy Center next year, Taurel feels that would be a fitting way to end the great run. But when I asked him what is next, he almost sighed and said, “Oh, there are so many…” The two that are most important to him outside of the military are race and immigration. If Taurel is able to take on those issues as well as he has the military one, then I will eagerly be on the look out for those. For now though, he is busy enough with the final productions of The American Soldier as well as his regular acting work to even think about the next big project. However, I can’t help but think that Taurel, with as much active empathy as he has, will be back at some point to tackle another big issue. And that one will be worth waiting for. In the meantime, there are still another few productions of The American Soldier to savor before we see his next big project.

“The American Soldier” will be playing at the Mile Square Theater in Hoboken from September 9-11. For more information, visit: www.milesquaretheatre.org

23 Jul

Saturday Night at Crave Fishbar

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Saturday evening at Crave Fishbar. Every writer (I like to think anyway) needs a bar to write in. A friendly, neighborhood bar that is not too loud or crowded. Where you know the staff and they know you and they know what wine you like and what food you want and most of all, they know that you write. They make it easy for you to come in, set up shop at one end of the bar, and write, undisturbed. Crave Fishbar is that place for me. It is where I can be found most Saturday evenings when I am in NYC and tonight it is where I have set up shop to get a few thoughts down before they slip away into some subterranean place in my mind.

* * *

First up. We are in the midst of a heat wave here in NYC. This is the topic du jour: the expected high temperature (95 degrees), the expected high temperature with the heat index (over 100 degrees); how disgusting this is (gross is the other word that people are using); how awful it feels (pretty awful); how to stay cool (movies and malls); and how else to beat the heat (drink lots of water, eat lots of bananas, stay indoors in air-conditioning etc etc etc…).

Since I have been spending more and more time in Florida especially in the summer, I have developed the view that 95 degrees in NYC is not the same as 95 degrees in Florida. In spite of the fact that the thermometer reads 95 degrees in both places, 95 degrees in Florida is much, much hotter than 95 degrees in NY. I can’t explain it to my NY friends because they can’t stop talking about how hot it is. And how disgusting it feels.

I, on the other hand, feel great! It’s 95 degrees but it’s not really 95 degrees. I love this weather! Yes, I know I am biased. I hate the cold. I love the sun. I’d take this any day over a cold wind and 25 degrees. But still, I ask my New Yorker friends, it is necessary to complain this much about the heat?

It has occurred to me that the Mason-Dixon boundary line is still alive and intact, and remains the great dividing line, certainly in weather temperament (if not everything else!). If anyone south of the Mason Dixon line can’t deal with snow, then it seems that anyone north of it can’t deal with heat. So there you have it: North and South are even. Though I don’t think that is of any comfort to my northern friends who are sweltering and melting and feeling like they are being gypped out of precious summer days because all they can do to beat the heat is to stay indoors. To this I would respond: head south, go way down south below the Mason Dixon line. In fact, head to south Florida, or Miami at 25 degrees latitude to be precise. Spend a few days there, and then head back north to NYC at 41 degrees latitude and revel in our glorious summer!

* * *

Speaking of summer, one of the things that I love about summer is the switch to crazily fun nail polish colors, colors that can hold their own against a brash, hot, summer sun. This summer I found a delicious sparkly blue-green teal. Essie makes it and what I love about it is that it immediately transports me to some paradisal tropical island. (On this island, btw, it also really hot. Maybe even 15 degrees latitude hot!) I am lying on a white sand beach and being lulled by the gentle waves of the clear, blue-green sparkling waters, the same color as the color on my nails. For a nail polish color to do that. Wow!

Of course nothing is perfect. What I don’t love about the color is its name: Trophy Wife.

I didn’t notice it when I bought it because I was buying for the color. I only took note later because a friend of mine saw it and loved it and then when we both figured out that Essie had decided to call it “Trophy Wife,” we were horrified. I guess that there are women out there who want to be trophy wives, but it is a repugnant idea to me. Certainly and definitively, she and I are not among them. Neither of us could imagine wearing anything promoting the idea of a trophy wife.

So I am happy to report that we have taken the initiative and re-named it “Mermaid Goddess.” We can’t yet report that we have triumphed over Trophy Wife, but we are very hopeful, working with Mermaid Goddess, to turn any Trophy Wife into a real, thinking, and strong woman. Now that is  and would truly be a very powerful nail polish color!

* * *

Speaking of strong women, can we move to strong girls? I am so excited to report that my children’s book, Erica from America: Swimming from Europe to Africa is close to being finished! (For a sneak peak at the cover, visit the tab The Children’s Book on my website.) I have been working with my illustrator and designer and publisher very intensely for the past two months and we think, we hope, that Erica from America will be ready for sale before the Olympics!

I am terrifically excited because this has been a project long in the making. The manuscript has been sitting on my bookshelf for over eleven years. The little girls and boys I read it to eleven years ago are now in college! I suspect they won’t remember me reading it to them or remember the story, but it is my hope that some good memory of the book broke off and has remained in them, even if only in their subconscious. And even if not, then I am still excited to finally bring this story out, with its beautiful illustrations, to a whole new group of children. These children, after all, are our legacy. These are the people who will be here after we are gone. May we give them great stories to remember and worthy goals to aspire to.

* * *

And on the topic of good stories, I am proud to say that I have finished all four of the Neapolitan novels by the elusive and anonymous Elena Ferrante. All 1,716 pages on my iPad Apple books. It was an interesting read, but it started out slowly. So slowly, in fact, that it took me three wks to read the first 250 pages and I was dubious that I was ever going to finish it. But boy, did I underestimate Elena Ferrante. By Saturday evening of last wkend, I had gotten up to page seven hundred and change, and I was trying to figure out whether I could finish the remaining two and a half books before I had to go back to work on Monday.

This was the calculation that was going through the the back of my mind: with 1,000 pages left, if I read 100 pages an hour, then I can finish this in 10 hours. But I need to allow for some slower reading to savor the books, the language, the story, and, most of all, the friendship between Lenu and Lila. So let’s allow 12-14 hours. So yes, I can finish it all before Monday. But in order to do so, the rest of wkend has to be dedicated to reading it. No eating, no working out, no working (which I did need to do), no swimming, no errands, no cleaning up the apartment, no doing laundry, and no watching the last open of the British Open (which was universally acknowledged to be one of the greatest last rounds in a major ever).

In the end, I was ok with all of that. I was completely mesmerized with Lenu and Lila and their little Italy. I read until I fell asleep on Saturday. I woke up at 6:30a on Sunday and immediately started to read, in bed. I read all day. Mostly in bed and on the sofa. I didn’t get dressed. I didn’t even go out to get my coffee from Starbucks! As I expected, I did nothing of the things that I had planned or needed to do. But I was successful. I finished the quartet of novels around five o’clock on Sunday. Thank god, enough time to get to the gym and get a run in.

I felt a great sense of satisfaction when done. And not just from finishing the books. But mainly because Elena Ferrante drew me in. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Lenu and Lila and Nino and Rino and Enzo and the lost child and all the other great characters in the story. About Naples and Italy and growing up in a poor Italian family. Afterwards I felt (as is typical of the way I feel after binging on a book or a TV series) completely spent and empty and wondering how I was going to build a bridge back from their wonderful, fantastical world to my own reality. I have never done drugs, but now I wonder if it isn’t a similar feeling: having to come down from an intense high and realizing that your own life is still going on and you’ve now got to figure out a way to jump back in and get back to normal.

Just about a wk has passed since I finished the books. Today I did all the errands that I meant to do last wkend. I am back, thoroughly, into my life.

* * *

And so I come around to my life. That means that I am back in the pool again. Finally.

It is hard to believe, but it has been over a month since I have been in the pool. Most of it was due to being away and vacation and then being busy. However, procrastination also contributed. I was going to swim on Monday, but had to stay late at work, so no go. Tuesday I was meeting a friend for drinks, so that was out. Wednesday, I was going to go but I was tired and just wanted to go home after work. And I did. Thursday I was late at work and also another friend had come into town so I met him for drinks instead of the pool. I thought about going on Friday, but I never swim on Friday in NYC, so that didn’t happen. And finally it was Saturday. Five whole days of procrastination and no swimming. I told myself I had to get into the pool.

I was out most of the afternoon running the errands that I hadn’t done last wk. When I was done, I looked at my watch and it was 3:30p. I thought about how easy it would be to go home and take a nap. Or slip into a restaurant and sit at the bar and have a glass of wine and write. Or to head to the nearest Starbucks and order one of their delicious cold brews and read the article about Martha Nussbaum in last wk’s New Yorker. But some little, and silent, but also very powerful, voice, deep inside me, urged me go to the pool before doing anything else. I wondered where this little, silent, powerful voice emanated from. Was it from within me? Or was it instead some higher order voice simply lodged within me? And if so, was its only purpose in life to get me to the pool? I didn’t have the answer, but wherever it came from, I couldn’t quiet it. In a concession to myself and to the voice, I hailed a cab and told the driver to take me to 91st and York, to Asphalt Green. To the pool.

This is the longest period of time I have been out of the water in a very long time. At least in the past five years. In fact, I think the last time I was out of the water for this long of a time was when I was training for Comrades in 2009. Back then, when people asked me if I was swimming, I had the perfectly reasonable excuse of saying, “No. I am not swimming because I am training for a 56-mile run.” But this time, I don’t feel like I have any excuse at all. All I can say this time is that I got busy at work and that I was on vacation and then I came back and was busy at work again. So no, I haven’t been swimming. And wow, would you look at that? Already a month has gone by!

I have mellowed though in the past five years. Because today, all this sounds so reasonable. So normal. Whereas five years ago, I would have felt lazy and incompetent if I had to admit that I hadn’t been swimming month without any Herculean explanation. But now, the answer is, “No, I haven’t been swimming.” And it’s not because I have been training for a 100-mile trail race or that I’m training for another Ironman triathlon. It’s simply that I’ve been busy. I think, for once in my life, I am beginning to understand that that is life.

Nevertheless, I was happy to be back in the water. I miss swimming when I’m not swimming. I miss the horizontal-ness. I miss the weightlessness. I miss the rotation of the body. I miss the dedicated effort to breathing. I miss the feeling of gliding in the water. The feeling of stretching out and the ability to participate in a 3-D world. I miss, so much, the water itself.

I definitely felt the effect of not swimming for over 30 days. That was not such a happy feeling. But I was happy, even if I was slow.

Outside it was hot. It was summer! I was back in the water, wearing my Mermaid Goddess nail polish, and, if not quite mermaid or goddess, definitely swimming and well on my way to being normal.

26 Jun

Summer Sporting Season Is Here!

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13438838_10153763506277183_7394456432051238323_nIt is late June. The summer solstice has come and gone this wk and we are in the thick of summer sports: the NHL finals finished up early in June; the NBA finals concluded last wk (delivering Cleveland its first championship since a loaf of bread costs 20 cents!); the French Open concluded in early June and we are preparing for Wimbledon (the v exciting news is that Djokovic is in the hunt for a calendar year Grand Slam and I have the odds on him doing exactly that so definitely worth watching); the U.S. Open is done (congratulations to Dustin Johnson who closeted some disappointing ghosts of his past lost championships) and it will be the British Open in two weeks; and then of course there is the Tour de France, arguably the most underrated grueling of athletic events. This year we are not only in the thick of it, but we are literally wading through the thickest of the thick. In addition to the normal summer thick, there is the Copa America (which I had no idea was even going to happen until it was suddenly happening on U.S. soil); the Euro Cup (probably the second biggest soccer—sorry football—tournament next to the World Cup); and then the most exciting of them all: the Summer Olympics in Rio.

If I was always a little bit of a summer sports junkie, this soccer and Olympic plus year are just deadly. If I was already glued to the TV watching tennis and golf and the peleton as well as the occasional baseball game, now it’s soccer and the Olympics. But the Olympics aren’t just the 17 days in early August. The Olympics means Olympic trials plus the Olympics in August. So today, off-sports junkies (by that I mean, non-baseball fanatics) can watch the final of the Copa America, quarterfinal matches for the Euro cup, the U.S. Women gymnastics championships (Go Simone Biles!!), and Olympic trials for diving, along with the first day of the swimming trials. Btw, the swimming trials end Sunday, two days after the Track and Field trials begin, which also overlap with the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Trials. Oh lord! So many great sporting events to watch. What to do?!!

(And let’s, btw, not forget about that all critical and important political race that is also occurring this summer…I, for one, am trying to keep as much distance as possible from all those unfortunate political shenanigans.)

NBC is broadcasting the swimming, diving, and gymnastics in prime time this wk. I suspect the track and field trials will be broadcast prime time as well next wk. It seems appropriate that I spent all of yesterday at a swim meet here in Florida yesterday. But now that we enter swimming, gymnastic, and track and field trials and head into Wimbledon, the tour de France, and the British Open and then the Olympics, I wonder how in the world I am going to have the time to fit in my own training amidst this steady stream of great sporting events.

It’s not for lack of discipline. After many ultra-distance events, I know how to get out and train. And it’s not for lack of motivation. After all, watching these elite athletes is inspirational and motivational. In fact, all I want to do after watching the trials is to jump back into training.

But it’s the time! I can handle one or two sporting events. That would certainly motivate me and give me the time to get back out and train. But it’s not just one of two. This summer it’s swimming and diving and gymnastics and tennis and cycling and track and field and golf…it’s a full time job just watching all of these great athletes.

And for that matter, forget about the question of how am I going to find to time to do my own training. There’s the larger question of how in the world I am going to have the time to doing everything else on my plate outside of training. Oh lord is right!

Btw – just a little aside for the swimming – this is the first year that the Olympic Swimming Trials have been completely sold out for every night. That’s 14,000 tickets for tonight and the next six nights. Wow! These trials are in Omaha, Nebraska, not exactly the most bustling metropolitan center, so that means that people actually made a conscious decision to travel to Omaha to watch the swimmer. This suggests an increasing popularity of swimming, which is great and which makes sense. I’ve seen it at the USMS meets as the rosters have only grown in the past few years and the competition has gotten very stiff.

What is one to make of this increased attention to swimming? Certainly, Michael Phelps, and then later Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin, had a large part in this. I would love to think that Katie Ledecky also had some part in this, but her name brand outside of swimmers is right now far less than Phelps, Lochte, or Franklin (I am hoping that changes significantly after the Olympics because she is truly will go down as one of the great swimmers of all time). I also have to think that the increased popularity of triathlon has also helped. Which is somewhat ironic since a little bit of a rift has developed between triathletes and swimmers. But for now, I’ll leave that for later contemplation.

I would note that the swimming boards have been buzzing recently about the difficulty of the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials. If the Tour de France is the most underestimated grueling sporting event, the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials could be argued is the most underrated competitive event, simply because of the strength of U.S. swimming. This could just be dismissed as self-serving commentary. Even Rowdy Gaines noted in his commentary today that the NCAA swimming championships produce more Olympic caliber athletes than the Olympics themselves. But if that really is the case, then it is worth noting. It’s certainly puts a lot of pressure on all the swimmers, and much more so for the top 10 or 15. Especially since their glory days only come around every four years. So in all, and regardless of whether they are the most underrated competitive event, the fact that Trials are sold out is great news. And great news a long time in coming.

All this is a long way of saying that I am hereby officially checking out of training and of any other responsibility until after the Olympics and the U.S. Open (tennis, that is) officially closes the summer season of sports on September 11. (Ok – maybe not completely checked out, but you get the picture.)

It’s going to be a great summer. Go out and revel in the games wherever you are and whatever they are!

15 Mar

Encounters with the Jellyfish

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Petit & Grand Pitons (the cove is nestled between the two)

The most recent one was in St. Lucia, in late February 2015. I was in the cove between between the two volcanic Pitons, those two pointed green mountains that adorn every tourist brochure for the island. On the evening of our first day there, I went for an impromptu swim with my swim partner, Andrey.

It was only half a mile or so, not long in open water swimming terms, but long enough to qualify as one of the most scenic swims of my life (swimming around the Cape of Good Hope and around Manhattan also make the list). The water was a clear, deep indigo blue and, less than 100 meters on either side of us, were the two sharp volcanic peaks rising straight up from water. The light was transitioning from day to dusk. The air temperature was 70 degrees fahrenheit (versus the 15 degrees back in New York City). I couldn’t imagine any other place I would rather be.

Except that, as we stopped for a break at the end of Petit Piton, we noticed that we were getting pinpricks all over.

“It must be pieces of jellyfish that have broken off and are being washed into the cove,” I said knowingly to Andrey.

We started swimming back to the boat, and by the time we got there, the pinpricks were became more frequent and sharper. “Leave it to the jellyfish,” I thought, “to ruin the swim.”

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The rash by the third day had subsided a little.

Everyone in our party had gone into the water and gotten pinpricked. Once back on the boat, we compared our jellyfish sting marks. Mine were among the worst. And they continued to worsen. While everyone else’s jellyfish stings dried up and disappeared that night, mine just deepened and reddened and became terribly itchy.

I wasn’t in agony, but I was discomfited. I was also alone in my misery. The rest of the party would look sympathetically me as I scratched and scratched the red rashes that had materialized on my skin. Eventually, someone convinced me to take an antihistamine. The itching finally started to subside. But I still had the sting marks, over three weeks later.

“Ahh, it’s nothing,” I told them. “It’s just part of open water swimming. I’m used to it.”

* * *

The worst one was in South Africa. It was 2005, and I was going to swim around Cape Agulhas, the most southern point in Africa.

Swimming around Cape Agulhas is not a must-do swim for an open water swimmer. For one, it’s not particularly challenging, with a modest distance (4.7 miles) and moderate temperatures (approximately 60-65 degree Fahrenheit water). A decent swimmer, depending on currents, should be able to get around it in two-plus hours. But it’s also a hassle to get to, being at the most southern point of Africa. And, it’s a hassle to arrange everything, like the day to swim, the boat, the pilot, the crew. So Cape Agulhas remains relatively unswum.

I had gone to Cape Town to train in cold waters for a potential swim across the English Channel. Since I had already traveled the 4,800 miles to Cape Town, it didn’t seem that much more of a hassle to add another 110 miles to get down to Agulhas. And, after the difficulties of exiting my job in New York and getting down to Cape Town and finding a place to live and figuring out how to drive on the wrong side of the road, the difficulties of arranging the swim around Cape Agulhas didn’t seem all that difficult.

I was also enchanted with the concept of swimming around the bottom point of Africa. At that most southern point, there would be nothing between me and Antarctica except the warm Agulas current battling it out with the cold Benguela one. Currents that had, over the centuries, wrecked, and sank, hundreds of ships. Currents that were also famous for attracting a rich and varied marine life. I was fascinated with the idea of swimming in those waters.

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The town, Agulhas, at the bottom point of Africa.

When I arrived in Agulhas, a desolate town at the end of the continent, I was not thinking about jellyfish. What I was thinking about were the large predators that were definitively known to inhabit those waters. All of South Africa is known for its great white sharks, but I had heard that the waters around Agulhas were “particularly sharky.” I was anxious. Even though there has never been a case of a shark attacking a swimmer swimming next to a boat (which I would be doing), and even though I would be swimming with an electric shark repellant device, I was still anxious. After all, there is always a first time for everything.

I was with Peter Bales, my crew member and representative from the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association in Cape Town. He was responsible for ensuring that my swim was official, meaning that I had swum the distance I said I would swim; that I hadn’t received any help from anyone while swimming; and that I swam in a bathing suit, goggles and cap without any swimming aids. We went to meet Trail, a fisherman in Agulhas, who would be the boat pilot for my swim. We walked into the front hallway of his house, and immediately on display, were two dozen pictures of great white sharks with their jaws wide open. Their sharp jagged teeth were very visible. I took a sharp, deep breath. Trail laughed.

Some of Trail's photographs of the great white sharks he has tagged.

Some of Trail’s photographs of the great white sharks he has tagged.

“I’ve caught and tagged over 200 great whites,” he bragged. I nodded. This was not really a conversation I wanted to continue.

“But you don’t need to worry,” he said. “I know their patterns. And where you’re swimming, they don’t really come.” I nodded again. His friend George came in behind us. George and Trail had grown up together, and George was going to be helping Trail on the boat.

“And if any come,” George announced in a thick South African accent, “we’ll just push them away. All you need to worry about is swimming.” I nodded again.

 

 

 

 

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The morning of the swim

The next morning, we got up early and went out to the boat. The sea, thankfully, was relatively calm. The sky was immense and layered with long silver, grey, and white clouds. We started to make our way to the starting point.

I was quiet in the boat. The dinner discussion the night before had finally moved away from the great whites, but it was still hard not to think about them patrolling the entire coast of South Africa, from Durban all the way up to Namibia, with a special concentration around Cape Agulhas.

My anxiety was not helped by the fact that this was my first, real, solo swim. All my prior swims had been with other people, either as part of a race or in a group. But, here, down at the bottom tip of Africa, it was just me and the boat. In just a few minutes, I was going to jump into the water and swim by myself in waters that had snapped steel tankers in two and that sheltered long, sinewy predators that like to attack slower moving creatures.

All this I was contemplating when I heard Peter suddenly call out. “Erica, I think we have a problem.”

I looked up.

2015-03-15 22.32.18

A brief glance at some of the blue bottles.

“How well do you do with blue bottles?” he asked.

“Blue bottles?” I said. “What are those?”

He pointed to the water. It was an apt description. I saw strings floating in the water with translucent blue bottles about the size of of a giant gumball attached every six inches to the strings.

“What are they?” I asked. “I’ve never heard of them.”

“They’re a type of jellyfish,” he responded. “Do you know if you’re allergic?”

 

I looked at him blankly. I am always the first to get bitten by mosquitos. I have a terrible reaction to poison ivy. I had had some mild encounters with jellyfish at Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, New York, and a terrible reaction to the jellyfish in the Strait of Gibraltar. But those encounters were with normal jellyfish, not a jellyfish that merited a special, and exotic name, like blue bottles.

“I don’t know,” I said dumbly.

“They can be very poisonous,” he explained. “If you’re allergic, you might not be able to breathe.”

“Do you want to swim?” he added.

That, I felt, was a trick question. Of course I wanted to swim. But my swim had been predicated on swimming with the great whites. Not the blue bottles!

He and I looked at each other for a minute. He said that we’ve come all this way and that I might as well get in the water and swim. He said that if it looked like I was really having trouble, he could always pull me out.”

“Ok,” I said, somewhat reluctantly. “That sounds like a plan.”

It was, I knew, the best plan. Despite the relative easiness of planning this swim, this was going to be my best shot at completing it. Trail fished by day and wasn’t always available. The weather would not necessarily be this kind the next time. I was here now, in my swimsuit, on the boat, ready to swim. The only thing standing in the way were the blue bottles.

2015-03-15 22.31.29

At the start of the swim, I was procrastinating getting into the water.

The starting point was located right next to a shipwreck. Trail moved the boat in as close to shore as he could. Peter gave me his instructions about how to get to shore, and what I needed to do to start. The water had started to kick up by now, and I was a little more nervous. Trail, George and Peter could see that I was procrastinating. Peter finally realized he might need to help me get in. “Do you want me to help you swim in?” he asked.

Finally, I smiled. “Oh! Yes, I would really like that!”

We both put on our caps. He jumped in first, and I followed. He swam with me, close to the shore, and then told me to swim out to the shore and walk out, making sure to clear the water. I was supposed to raise my hand when I was ready. That was the signal to start the clock. He swam back to the boat. I swam on to the shore, walked out, raised my hand, and then started my swim.

In the water, all I could think about was the blue bottles and when I would run into them. On the remaining time on the boat, after Peter had pointed them out to me, I had secretly hoped that a great wave would come and suddenly wash the blue bottles away from me. Of course that didn’t happen.

It took an hour before I ran into them.  They were impossible to fight. It was as if I was swimming through strings of Christmas lights, except the lights were little blue bottles emitting tiny little electic shocks. They wrapped themselves around my arms, my legs, and my torso. I would free myself from one strand, only to wrap myself up in another. I could feel the stings, but they weren’t that bad. They felt like all the other jellyfish stings I had encountered before: sharp, but fleeting, pinpricks. My body was being pinpricked everywhere, but I seemed to be swimming fine and I could breathe. So I kept going.

I finished the swim. I didn’t see any great white sharks, and my encounters with the jellyfish only lasted five or ten minutes. The swim took me two hours and three minutes, and I was the third swimmer to have swum it. Even though it is not a must-do swim, I am proud to be able to say that.

The first day there were some welts on my skin, but they didn’t bother me that much. The second day, there were more welts on my skin, and now they were beginning to itch. The third day, my whole body turned into an angry red rash (fortunately only my body, not my face). Everything itched, and I was in agony. I was on the verge of becoming crazy.

I called up a swimming friend who was a doctor and begged him for an answer. “Blue bottles,” he said. “Yes. Those can be really bad.”

He sent me to a pharmacist, who looked at me and said, “Hmm. A lot of toxins must have gotten into your skin.”

“Toxins,” I thought. “Toxins in my body. All from these little blue bottles that could be mistaken for blue Christmas tree lights. All from wanting to swim in the same waters as the great white sharks.” I took the medicine and prayed that it would start working immediately rather than the twelve hours that the pharmacist had told me it would take.

The pharmacist was right of course. It took about twelve hours before the itching subsided, and another 12 hours before the red rash began to recede. I started to feel normal again.

Normal enough, anyway, to start planning my next swim.

08 Mar

In Remembrance of Uncle Sam and His Great Escape From the Chinese Communists

On Thursday, March 12, the Moffett family will gather at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey to attend a memorial service for Samuel Hugh Moffett. He was my father’s uncle. My great-uncle. He was also my father’s second cousin once removed, and my second cousin twice removed. But in the Moffett family, we simplified family relations. To most of us, he has always been, Uncle Sam.

Uncle Sam was born on April 7, 1916 in Pyongyang, Korea, and he died on February 9, 2015, fourteen months shy of his 100th birthday. He was the third of five brothers born to Samuel Austin Moffett, one of the first Presbyterian missionaries in Korea. My grandfather, also born in Pyongyang, was the oldest of the five brothers. And because Samuel Austin Moffett’s second wife was also the cousin of his first wife, my grandfather and Samuel Hugh Moffett were simultaneously half-brothers and second cousins. It has been said that the five brothers liked to joke around that they were not half-brothers and second cousins, but instead three-quarter brothers.

Uncle Sam was a missionary, preacher, historian, professor, and ultimately, a Presbyterian statesman. But in my mind, he was first and foremost, a great storyteller. On Thursday, the memorial service should not be a sad occasion, but instead, a joyful celebration of his long and very productive life. We should not be sad that he has passed away, but instead, happy that he passed away peacefully and rejoice in his ability to touch so many people during his lifetime. But in all this celebration, there is one thing I cannot be joyful about. And that is for the loss of the great storyteller and all the stories that lived within him.

Uncle Sam was an American, but his stories were not the typical American ones of white picket fences, carefree picnics, apple pies, and Fourth of July parades. No, having been born in Pyongyang in 1916, his stories were of the exotic. In fact, they were not just stories, they were full-blown tales—peppered with Korean words and Korean tigers; the Taedong river; the Japanese, who did their best to kill his father and eradicate the missionaries and the church; and later, of his life in China and his own battles with the communists who, like the Japanese, could not tolerate Western religion and earnest missionaries.

In our family, there is a legendary story of Uncle Sam proving that George Washington was a Korean. He told this story sometime in the early 1960s, in Korea, and both of my parents who were in Korea at the time, heard him prove it. They still talk about that story today, and how brilliant it was. Unfortunately, that story is now gone. The legend of that telling lives on, but no one wrote the story down and now there is no one else to tell it. Even if someone had written it down, it is doubtful that anyone would have been able to tell it like Uncle Sam.

The last story I heard Uncle Sam tell was at a Moffett family reunion in 2010. My notes are very slim, but here is what I piece together from them. If you are reading this and you know Sam, close your eyes and imagine, once again, his great voice recounting this. If you don’t know him, imagine a, still mischievous, 93-year man, with a soft, but solid preacher’s voice, and an innate, true historian’s desire, to tell a really good story.

* * *

“The year was 1949. After getting my Ph.D., I decided to go to China instead of Korea. Mao was in power at the time.

“You see, it really was very difficult being my father’s son. Dad had died, but his influence in Korea was still very great. I could become my own person much better in China. So in 1947, I went to language school in Beijing and taught at Yenching University. But eventually I ended up in Nanking, teaching at the seminary there. Soon after I got there, the state department closed. Things were not looking good. The Mission decided that families with children should go. I stayed, but we were on the wrong side of the line. And I was always very careful what I was saying. From Reader’s Digest, we knew that the communists could come in and kill the foreigners at any time.

“Then, there was also a rule that no foreigners could teach for more than two years. And after two years, they arrested me for embezzlement and I was taken down for a people’s trial. I was sent to a dark room. I don’t know for how long. Then, one time, a guy came into the room and spoke in Korean to me. They had me adding up long pages. I lost track of the days.

“One day, they brought me out for the people’s trial. There was a huge crowd assembled. Someone, he must have been the man responsible for running the trial, he was shouting for at least an hour to the crowd. He must have been laying out the case against me to them. Finally, he stopped. He asked them, “Is he guilty? This running dog of the imperialists?”

“The crowd shouted, “GUILTY!”

“I wasn’t worried about being found guilty. Because what really counted was what the man was going to say next and what he was going to charge me with. Was it going to be espionage? Or sexual sin? I was really hoping for embezzlement because the punishment for that was much less than the others. Then he asked the crowd and they all shouted, “EMBEZZLEMENT!”

“I was so happy I almost shouted “Hallalujah!”

“After it was over, the man walked past me and said, “I was a graduate of Nanking University.”

“They took me back in, and asked me to sign a letter saying that I had $100 and that I would leave tomorrow morning. I went home and packed. I looked all over for the money, but all I could find was $97. I knew that if the communists stopped me on the way out and saw that I only had $97 when I was supposed to have $100 that I could be arrested again. But I didn’t have time and I didn’t have the money. The next morning I took my things and went to the train station to catch the train which was going to Hong Kong.

“At the station, I met Guinness, one of the British missionaries. He and his wife were sending their son, Oswald, out of the country, and they asked me to watch him on the train to Hong Kong. That first night, I wanted to say prayers. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I knew my papers were going be examined sometime. With us, there were also three Methodist women. They played bridge all night.

“We finally got down to Canton. The communists boarded the train and started examining all the passengers. I still only had $97 and the letter stating that I had $100. While we waited, I started talking to Oswald. He looked at me and he said, “But I have three dollars in my pocket. What do I do with it?”

“Well! I took the three dollars and told him everything woud be fine. And when the communists came around and examined my papers, everything was fine.

“When we got into Hong Kong, the one thing I really wanted was a milkshake. And so I went and got one.”

* * *

Though there will be many ways to remember Uncle Sam, I think this one is as good as any. Uncle Sam, in Hong Kong in 1951, after being tried and found guilty in a people’s trial in communist China, and being allowed to leave the country alive. His arriving in Hong Kong, and spending perhaps one dollar of the precious one hundred dollars that he had in his possession on a milkshake. I hope it was vanilla, and I hope it was the best milkshake of his life.

 

15 Dec

12.15.12 – Consumed by Sandy Hook

Sandy Hook Elementary School is all the news. It is the rage. It is the topic du jour. It raises so many questions. And many of them not good.

 

01 Oct

New Hampshire Fall Weekend

Copper, gold, and rust tones, muted by the mists and steady rains throughout the wkend. There was a chill in the air, but this was, after all, New Hampshire the last weekend in September.

I had wanted a classic, sunny fall New England wkend where the sun sparkled down from a blue sky and illuminated the changing leaves and gifted us with a brilliance of colors: red, orange, yellow, and green. Green turning into winter. I had spent so many summers and fall weekends in New Hampshire I was dismayed (and subsequently grateful) to find that I had forgotten about the white birch trees. The romantic way to look at them would be to imagine them as resting posts for the invisible wood nymphs flitting around us. I am no romantic, but I find a renewed appreciation for them. Their slender white trunks, almost like stalks, rise up and provide a freshness to the dark woods.

It has been so long since I’d been up in New England, that I’d  also forgotten how New England it is. For me, it’s the houses that give it away. The rectangular two-story white wooden boxes with two sets of windows on either side of the front door. Of course, the narrow roads and the rolling fields interspersed with the dense forests and the old barns and farm stands all contribute to the New England feel. But the houses fascinate me. These houses are where people lives 250 year ago. Did the floors creak when the houses were first built? Then, there were fireplaces in every room, and it tires me to think about all the energy it must have taken to keep those fires going. 250 years ago that was their heat, and New Hampshire, New England, is not a warm place in the winter time. It must not have been an easy life. In 2012, in our current life, not only do we forget how difficult it was, we don’t even know. Sometimes it is good to take a moment and think about this.

Most people go to New Hampshire in late September to soak up the miracle of the turning leaves. I went to run 39.2 miles in two days: a half-marathon on Saturday in the hilly Lakes Region and a flatter full marathon on Sunday by the sea. I also wanted to soak up the miracle of the turning leaves and thought it would make for good running inspiration. As I said, I wanted a classic, sunny New England weekend where the sun was bright and the air was crisp and the leaves were showing off. Those types of days pull you up out of bed and demand that you get out and do something outside! The weekend I was up, it was damp and rainy and a little chilly. Those are days that invite you to stay in bed, make a big pot of soup, light a fire and settle down with a good book.

But getting up even when you don’t want to will bring its rewards. When the mists hang over the mountains which overlook the lakes, the waters are still and reflective. The mountains disappear into the clouds and as you are running past the lakes and streams, a meditative spirit arises and invites reflection. Even when you’re running. In fact, even more so when you are running and trying to find a good rhythm. It is as if the landscape were entering its own melancholia about what is coming. Like the difficult life our countrymen and women lived 250 years ago, sometimes it is good to take a moment and think about this.

Running on the pavement, but through the woods, occasionally we would come across people cheering us on with their dogs. These were hunting dogs or retrieving dogs. Good country dogs. Living in New York City, I see many similar dogs being walked everyday. In New York, living there every day, they don’t seem out of place. They just seem big, cute, lovable dogs. But up in New Hampshire, I realized the dogs are so out of place in New York City and so perfectly matched for landscapes like New Hampshire – with miles of field and forest and small creatures for them to go chasing after. I desperately want a dog in the city, and I want a country dog. I want a good sturdy hunting dog. But after my wkend in New Hampshire, I have realized this is making life difficult for the dog. I thought about it over the 13.1 miles and decided this is not something I should do. It would be good for me but it would not be good for the dog.

New Hampshire prides itself on its political heritage, being the first state to hold a primary. This year, being a presidential election year, the signs were out in full force. If the country were going to choose its next president by the signs in the front yards of the houses I ran past this weekend, Romney will be the winner. But New Hampshire is a conservative state and Romney has a vacation home in the Lakes Region, so New Hampshire might not be representative state to use for the country’s decision.

The next day, down in Hampton by the sea, in a steady, one could even call it dreary rain, I ran 26 miles in and around the town and by the sea. There wasn’t as much open landscape here. It was a bigger town and there were neighborhoods and suburbs, typical of any bigger community. But the houses were still built for fires, and on this rainy dreary day, we ran past several houses with fires in their fireplaces. I couldn’t see the smoke, but I could smell the wood burning and it was comforting as we were running in the rain. I can’t describe it now – the specific description has escaped me –  but the feeling it evokes, the desire to go in, have your mother take your coat and then go sit in front of the fire and have a cup of butternut squash soup (made from the squash grown in the summer garden) is inescapable.

I had no invite to any houses. I was running my 26.2 miles. As we came down into the last four mile stretch, we ran up a short hill which ended overlooking the sea. On a bright sunny day, the water would compete with the sky for brilliance and the sea scene would would also be inescapable. On Sunday, it was dreary and as we run up the crest to the sea view, the sky and the sea were interchangeable – shades of grey mirroring each other. It was hard to tell where one stopped and the other began and it was brilliant in its own way. It didn’t invite the same kind of meditativeness that the mists of the lake did (the sea, after all, is continually moving whereas lakes have the capacity to become absolutely still), but it invited thought. Maybe thoughts about life 250 years ago. Maybe thoughts about where dogs thrive the best. Or maybe thoughts about the coming winter season and how it will be long and dark and cold. Whatever it will be, it won’t be as difficult as it was 250 years ago. And whatever it will be, there will be the confidence of the seasons and the knowledge that next year, the leaves will come again and we will live this whole cycle over again.

 

15 Sep

In Memoriam

11 September 2012. Such a beautiful night on this 11th anniversary of 9/11. The memorials were quite muted this year – no public speakers, just the reading of the names by the family members and a moment of silence before the opening bell. If one didn’t know this was the anniversary it would be hard to find out from the daily clues. It’s almost as if the city has put it behind us, boxed it up and stored it in the attic. Even the newspapers hardly mentioned it. But the city knows. It is buried deep within its city bones. Even though we cleaned up and carted the dust and ashes of the twin towers and the blood and bones of the victims, the city carries this tragedy deep within. For those who lived through the day we will never forget. For those who have yet to be born and who will only hear the stories of the airplanes flying into the buildings and the great fires and people jumping to their deaths and the final collapse of those two buildings, they will hear of the anniversary and think about it as I think of Pearl Harbor: a momentous date in our country’s history but nothing that draws any emotion. It’s hard to imagine that all future generations will simply not know the fear that we felt that day and the days afterward. But then I remind myself, this is just an egocentric, narcissistic view. Forgetting and moving on from great events is just the natural course of life. The one thing that gives me comfort tonight is the knowledge that the fear and terror and heroism that was born that day is buried deep within this city and will not be forgotten.

09 Sep

Welcome

8 September 2012.  I am in the throes of setting up my existence on the Internet thanks to my brother Chris who has come over to do the heavy lifting of getting me set up with a web site, email, spam and spider protection, etc etc. We also have a bottle of No 2 vodka, distilled by Industry City Distillery in Brooklyn, no less! We pour our drinks from Bottle 1012 and it is very smooth and a great complement to the task at hand.

Setting up a new existence is an appropriate way to think about this series of writings since existence has been a constant theme throughout my life: understanding and accepting my existence in the face of not knowing my Korean biological existence and randomly being thrust into an American one. In between these two existences, I was a baby, alone, without a mother and without a family. Someone, I don’t know who it was, named me Sohn Soon and assigned me the number 6998 so I could be adopted from Korea to America.

Tonight, on the Internet, I choose to be Erica from America which I find funny since the picture and history clearly says I am from Korea. Chris and I laugh about the irony of this. But in the end, there is no other place to begin. In res media. Welcome to the paradox of my existence. ELM