His Hands

When I was in my twenties I attended a concert at the San Francisco Symphony and was so taken by the conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, that I wrote him a fan letter. I told him that I was blown away by the way he moved the music with his hands and body and that if he’d let me I’d like to dance naked while he conducted me. HA! I really wrote that. The NY Times this weekend announced his wedding to his partner of 38 years, Joshua Mark Robison. Ah, no wonder he never wrote back.

Congrats, MTT.

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My Husband Naps

I always feel depleted
when I see my husband nap. As if
his life is all churned up,
a rocky shore stunned
into a smooth submission
without first being asked.
And now where once lay
guarding rocks sharp
and unkind
he simply wants for the smooth
surface of sleep
only to return to his elbowed points
when I open the door.

Check Engine Light

In the early 90s I listened to the Car Talk guys radio show on NPR religiously. I loved hearing them laugh. I loved how they made fun of people and their cars, even while making them feel hugged through the airwaves. When they held a contest to attend their company picnic, I jumped on it. Tell us, they asked, in 26 words or less, why you should be invited. I went out and bought a postcard with an old sticker-covered Jalopy on the cover. On it I wrote, “I work for myself so my company picnics tend to be a little lonely.”

A few weeks later Doug Berman, their producer, phoned to tell me I’d won the contest! They flew me and three friends (Fergus, my boyfriend at the time, and Jacqui and Lorne—a couple we often hung with) from Seattle to Boston where we were picked up in a stretch limousine and driven to the snazzy Charles Hotel down the street from the Car Talk Guys’ Dewey, Cheatem & Howe law offices. On the beds in the rooms were care packages for all four of us: huge yellow felt dice (to hang from our rear view mirrors, presumably); Car Talk hats, T-shirts, and mugs; and maybe some other whimsical items I’ve long thrown out or forgotten.

The next morning I was met in front of the hotel by none other than Tom and Ray. I instantly liked them both. They were driving their famous1962 Dodge Dart. It was a convertible and before driving off to the company picnic we three had to put up with a quick photo op by Doug (Dougie) Berman where we sat on top of the back seat and the brothers Tappet engulfed me in their loving arms. I still have the photograph somewhere of me wearing a white tank top; the boys in shorts and Bermuda shirts, if I remember that right. All three of us wore huge smiles.

 The day was hot and sunny. The picnic on the lawns of MIT was unremarkable. Basic BBQ food. A few booths in which to lose your money—like Dunk the Producer. Lots of paying guests: fans of WBUR come to see their auto heroes, milling about. I met Tom’s wife, a much younger woman from somewhere in eastern Europe, I think. She was quiet, as was Tom, relatively speaking, that is, because his much shorter brother Ray was the life of the party. He and his adorable wife and children greeted everyone as if they were their best friends. His belly laughter echoed off the grassy fields throughout the afternoon. I had to get up on a stage with them and was introduced to the crowd as the winner of the company picnic contest. My fifteen minutes of glow stayed with me for a long time.

On the next radio show I called in to thank them all for hosting me and for showing my friends and me a lovely time. They thanked me profusely for the gifts I’d brought: a plastic ferry boat with toy cars, and a picture book of Seattle written in Chinese. They wished me well and I them.

A few years later, while a producer at Microsoft, one of my colleagues brainstormed the idea of an online version of Car Talk during a meeting. I said, “I know them. Well, I went to their company picnic. They might not remember me.” So I wrote them and, no, they had not forgotten “Lisa from Seattle!” and I put them in touch with the Microsoft people, who eventually produced their website presence, which, I hope made them lots of money.

Tom died this week. Of complications of Alzheimer’s. Tough way to go. Sometimes more so for the family and friends than the person suffering. Last year I spent some time doing activities with ALZ patients at a posh residential home a few blocks from my house here in Burlington, Vermont. The residents who suffered memory loss were in turns happy and confused; angry and content. One of the ladies constantly cleaned the floor with an imaginary cloth. Another woman packed up her room every day and waited for her mother to come get her. It was heartbreaking, especially since she never had a single visitor.

I can’t imagine the pain Ray must have experienced watching his partner, his brother, his friend, tumble down into the darkness. I wonder if he felt a little like his right arm was slowly being sawed off.

I sent condolences to Doug Berman to pass on to Ray and all the rest of the clan there. Sundays haven’t been the same in a long time; not since Car Talk started playing only old shows. Now everyone knows why. Here I thought maybe they were tired of talking shop. But I was wrong—they were just too busy dealing with a rusting engine of their own.

Thanks for the fun memories, boys.

Take The Money And Run

There was a headline in the NY Times this week that sent my short-term memory legs trotting down an almost-forgotten road. It read:

$1.5 Million Sent in Error to Money Manager (Both Are Missing)

Which is sort of what happened when we finally escaped from Bali six years ago. Okay, so it’s all relative and no, the money involved didn’t come close to having that many zeros, but it is interesting to think about what people will do when given the chance to keep someone else’s money. This guy, this Joseph B. Galbraith, an American expat residing in Monaco with his second wife, has probably laughed it off, snickering at the Swiss Bank which made the mistake, as he reaches for another gin-and-tonic while gazing ahead at the azure sea not 20 feet away from his sun-kissed feet. Will he return the money or just stay missing?

What would you do if the Bank of Boston, say, mistakenly deposited $50K into your checking account? Would you call them? Run off to Tahiti with your husband’s boss? Wait? What if it were only $1000? How much would it take till your moral compass went south?

For the UPS man in Bali, a year’s salary is what it took. This is what happened:

In 2008 we moved to Bali, where my husband Victor had gotten a teaching job at Green School, a new international school created by famed jeweler John Hardy. At a minimum we had planned to stay at least one year but hoped it’d be so paradisiacal that we’d never want to return to California.

It turned out that what John Hardy had shown Victor when he flew him to Bali in April of that year for an interview, was nothing more than a green façade. The school was a disorganized mess. The director was a tyrant with scholastic foresight that hardly extended beyond his nose. John Hardy put more effort into attracting as many $10,000 per year tuition-paying students, than in creating a school worthy of Victor’s teaching expertise. There was no real curriculum to speak of. And, ultimately, teaching first-world lessons in a third-world setting open to the elements exhausted him.

Our home—a hut with no windows or doors, was an aesthetic gem, but living in it proved to be tiresome, unhealthy, and, at times, dangerous. Bugs and bats were a constant, as was noise from the seemingly endless construction projects all around us. Almost the entire house and the furnishings therein were constructed of bamboo, all of which were covered with ever-growing layers of mold. There was no privacy, and worst of all: we lived across the street from a cemetery, where the smoke from the burning funeral pyres—a Hindu ritual—floated into our living room daily, choking our throats and stinging our eyes. The bedroom where our six-year-old daughter Loy slept was invaded nightly by millions of biting ants that climbed down the tree that grew up through the thatched roof.

Of course there was a lot to love about living in Bali, too. We loved our housekeeper, Seni, and I’d like to believe she loved us back. We loved the lot of fellow teachers who came from around the globe with the same excited expectations about making a difference in the lives of their students (and were equally dismayed by the school’s false promises and interminable failings). We loved the beaches, an hour’s drive away, where we could sip Pina Coladas and chat up the honeymooning tourists who lounged beside us. We loved Ubud, the groovy city thirty minutes’ south, where we would eat western food not seasoned with galangal or turmeric or lemongrass, or where we’d stroll the souvenir markets and jewelry shops, eyeing presents for our family and friends back home.

After four months of trying our hearts and minds out, we decided to leave. Victor gave notice and I fell to the floor in relief. I had grown tired of being coated in sweat and insect repellent. Tired of seeing the frustration weighing down Victor’s shoulders at the end of every day. Tired of fighting with him. Tired of fearing that something horrible might happen to Loy.

At one point, after Loy got bit by a Dengue Fever mosquito, our fight turned so venomous, that he actually suggested I leave Loy with him and go back to California.

It was awful.

Which was why, when he finally threw in the sweat-soaked towel, I skipped around the bamboo floor, celebrating our departure from paradise.

Now, all I had to do was pick through, cull, and pack up the many hundreds of pounds of stuff we owned, because this time Green School would not be paying for the move.

I called around. It’d be only a couple hundred bucks to load it onto a shipping container, but our belongings wouldn’t get to the states for three months.

Federal Express would cost $3000.

UPS: about half that.

When Muchlis the Javanese UPS representative showed up at the hut the Friday before we left Bali, he wore a worn suit and didn’t offer to take off his shoes, which is customary in Bali. He talked down to Seni as if she were nothing more than a servant. Something told me not to do business with him, but before I could listen to my gut, Nyoman, his Balinese assistant, appeared wearing the ever-trusting UPS-brown uniform. He had a smile on his face and a sort of computer-tracking thingy in his hand, which, it turned out, was just for show: we had to do all the paperwork by hand. Three hours later we tallied up the weight and cost: $1313 for 13 boxes. I thought the coincidence a bit remarkable, if not a little scary.

“I’m paying cash,” I told Muchlis. We didn’t want to risk having lots of cash on us when we hit customs so it made sense to give him thirteen $100 bills and the rest in rupiah. Seni and Nyoman watched me hand over to Muchlis what was roughly a year’s salary for middle management in Bali. The guilt I felt from it spilled over his palm and dampened my bare feet.

Terima kasih,” he said smiling, the stack of bills now in his pocket.

“You’re welcome. Just make sure it all gets to New York, okay?”

A week after we arrived in New York I got an email:

Dear Customer,

Our records shows that despite repeated efforts to recover the outstanding debt due to us, payment has not been forthcoming. We therefore have no other course of action, but to suspended your credit facilities and commence recovery action. We regret having to take this course of action and hope your efforts allow us to resolve this situation promptly.

Best Regards,

Dian Fitriani

Collection Supervisor

UPS Cardig International

I wrote them back:

Dear UPS people in Indonesia,

Who are you and what on earth are you talking about? We had 13 boxes shipped from our home in Bali to New York City, in my husband’s name: Victor Prussack. The person in charge of our shipping from Indonesia to NY was Muchlis M. Mas. ALL monies were paid in cash. I know that the total was $1313 because we all laughed that we had 13 boxes and the amount was the same. I gave Muchlis Mas $1,300 in dollars and the $13 in rupiah. The 13 boxes arrived 5 days later in NY. Other than the dishes being broken we were very happy with the service Muchlis and UPS gave us. Is Muchlis GONE? PLEASE keep me updated on this.

Thank you,

Lisa Kusel

Their response:

Dear Lisa,

We have cross check and our Courier witnessed your transaction and he admitted that the payment was received by Muchlis. Apparently Muchlis did not submit your payment to cashier to be booked, that is why this shipment appear outstanding in our finance record. We have taken serious action against Muchlis and he is no longer working with UPS Indonesia as this dealt with integrity and it is high concern at UPS.

Once again we apologise for the inconvenience cause you.

Best Regards,

For a short time I wondered where ol’ Muchlis Mas was and how he was spending that wad of cash I’d handed him. I bore him no ill will: after all he did ship our boxes. But seeing that story about the American who absconded with money not his own, I thought of him again and laughed. For all I know he was apprehended as he tried to board a Garuda flight to Thailand. Or perhaps he, too, is hanging with his second wife on a crowded beach somewhere far away from his former life, ordering a drink for the guy in the chair beside him.