Wednesday, August 17, 2011

What time is dinner? - Impressions #18

This is the month called Ramadan, when Muslims engage in a variety of practices intended to remind them of their own good fortune and the misfortune of others. It is supposed to encourage in them feelings of sympathy for the less fortunate. All the good practices, such as charity to the poor, are considered even more beneficial during this month.

One of the most important practices is that they do not eat or drink, from dawn to dusk. From the moment of the first glimmer of daylight until the sun just drops below the horizon is the time to fast.

This, of course, immediately gives rise to the issue of the precise timing of these events, thence the title of this post.


This is a major subject of discussion.

Last Saturday I happened to be on the airplane flying from Jeddah to Riyadh, right before sunset. The cabin crew very thoughtfully brought around little boxes for everybody with snacks in them, to break the fast. Each box contained a couple of cupcakes, some dates, water and juice. Everybody sat for about 10 minutes, not touching their boxes. To me it seemed like they were trying to figure out what to do. Nobody wanted to go first for fear of breaking the fast too early.

But we were in a real fix because nobody knew what time it should end.

Here are just a few of the problems. Saudi Arabia is entirely in 1 time zone. So the eastern cities see sunset before the central cities, which see it before the western cities. That means the fast ends at different times in each city.

Jeddah is at the far west and Riyadh is central. A couple of guys sitting in front of me got out their iGadgets and looked on their Ramadan Apps. One found the time for Riyadh and the other for Jeddah. Now we knew the 2 times. But we were still stuck because we didn't know exactly where we were between these 2 cities. So we couldn't interpolate accurately.

And then there's another hitch. I'll make a bit of a side track here.

Just before Ramadan started this year one of the big clerics in United Arab Emirates proclaimed that those people residing above the 100th floor in the soaring new skyscrapers of Dubai should break their fast 3 minutes later than people living on lower floors. The reason is that, as you go up in elevation you can see farther to the horizon and consequently you see the sun a little longer than the people lower down.

So the rich in their new penthouses in Dubai have to break their fasts later than the average folks living down near street level.

Well, there we were in our airplane, at 35,000 feet altitude, at an unspecified point between Jeddah and Riyadh, not knowing what to do.

Finally, the flight attendant, who had all the while been keeping his eye on the horizon, made an announcement over the loudspeaker that the sun had set and we were now free to eat!

Boy, those cupcakes tasted good!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

My buddy Mitri has disappeared

I just got the news that my buddy and companion of almost 19 years, Mitri, disappeared a week ago. He had his breakfast and went out for his morning walk, as usual, but never came back.

He was very old, probably 20 or 21, and had gotten quite weak in the last few months. So most likely he went out for his walk and his nap in his favorite shady spot, then decided it was time to go for good. Some cats know when it's time and know how to go gracefully. I think he was one of those.

Mitri appeared in our backyard for the first time in 1993, just after my mother and I moved to Concord. He was full grown but young. He was born back there somewhere and his world was the group of backyards that butted up against ours. There were lots of trees and bushes, lots of fences to climb and houses to explore.

There were also a few other cats that were very aggressive and it was a hard to world for a homeless cat.

Mom took to inviting him into the house. He would climb up onto the table, right at the level of the stereo speakers and stretch out, facing the speakers. Mom would put some music on and he would fixate on it until he fell asleep. Then he would let out all his pent up tension and shiver and shake to his dreams. The music, the safety of the house, these were his release. His response to the music won Mom over completely.
(Mitri takes a nap)
One day she opened up the piano, all the way, and started playing it. He went mad. He loved it! He wanted to get inside it. He actually climbed up and inside the case so that he could be right up against the strings of the piano.

Mom chose the name "Mitri" which means "friend" in Sanskrit.

He was a very big cat, almost 19 pounds at his heaviest, but he was very gentle and not at all aggressive. The other cats, Alice in particular, would pester and annoy him to no end. He would put up with a lot. But there were a few occasions when enough was enough. I remember a couple of times when he just walked up over Alice and sat down right on top of her. That put her in her place, for a little while anyway.

One of the things he loved to do with his weight was to give a good massage. When he was younger he'd climb up on my back and make me lie down, then he'd massage my back for a good 10-15 minutes. Later, when he got older he preferred to do the tummy massage instead. He was definitely a healer. He'd put all his energy into it. I'd find myself really sleepy after one of his massages.

By the time my mother got sick, he was already showing signs of old age. He was losing interest in going outside and preferred to enjoy the indoors. When Mom was confined to the sofa in the living room, Mitri made his place on the chair just opposite. The two of them would lie around there all day, watching movies, taking naps, reading (in Mom's case, more naps in Mitri's case). He kept an eye on her the whole time.

After she died the house was chaos. Mitri, Bailey and Taffy were all real troopers through it though. They saw she wasn't coming back. Piece by piece the house got emptied out. All their familiar furniture disappeared. Mitri's calm example helped keep Bailey and Taffy from stressing out too much.

On a few occasions, in an attempt to keep something normal in my life, I got my string quartet together at the house, so we could make some music and have some companionship. Ayako took these 2 photos of Mitri, trying to figure out how to get comfortable on my lap while we played. He still loved music as much as ever.

Finally the house was totally empty and it was time to move. Valentina helped me. We filled a rented minivan with stuff to take up to Portland. We gave the 3 cats a sedative from the vet, put each of them in a carrier, and one cold clear morning last February we went on the road. Taffy and Bailey were definitely nervous and scared. But Mitri was perfectly calm, though very curious. He just knew, if I was doing this then it must be alright. He had complete trust in me.

On the drive up we made a couple of brief rest stops. The others stayed in their carriers. But Mitri wanted to join me. I took him out of the car and we walked around together at the rest stops. He'd sniff around at all the interesting smells. Then he'd have a snack. We'd get back in the car and keep on driving.

When we arrived in Portland he understood in minutes this was his new home. He immediately found the most impressive and cushiest chair and got comfortable in it. From then on he was king of that house, just as he had been in Concord.

By the time of the move to Portland it was clear he was aging quickly. He found it hard to climb the stairs and preferred to stay on the ground floor. But right up to the end he was in control of his life and his world. Right up to that last morning when he decided not to come home from his walk.

I hope he found a cool, quiet, peaceful place to take his nap. I have a feeling his head was full of beautiful music as he dozed off.

Things could be worse! - Impressions #17

Things could be worse!

It's the weekend. I've got my cup of tea and some shortbread. I'm thinking about the next painting I'm going to do. I'll start sketching tonight. The sketch in the photo is from one of my recent paintings, just there to illustrate my thoughts for today. I think I'll do a painting of Kenwood House in Hampstead, overlooking the heath. I'm going to work a pond into the picture, and some venerable old trees.


Outside my closed windows the rest of the city immerses itself in the "holy month" of Ramadan, which started a few days ago. This is the month when everybody tries especially hard to be good. The muezzin sing especially loudly, and for longer periods. Nobody eats during the day time, then they gorge at night.

I stuck my camera out the window to catch the sounds floating over the city, a couple of dueling muezzin mixed with the buzz of a hundred air conditioners and the ubiquitous honking car.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Conversation About the Future - Impressions #16

Recently I had the good fortune and honor to be invited to dine at the "Officers Club" in Riyadh. This is a little resort right in the heart of Riyadh, strictly for the use of Saudi military officers, their families and guests.

There is a small luxury hotel that visiting military use when they're in Riyadh. There are gym facilities, pools, covered arcades and walkways to make moving around the site in the desert heat more pleasant, and there is the main club building. This is an expansive, single story building that spreads in every direction under a roof of barrel vaults and domes. The floor plan is entirely open, with the vaults supported by columns arranged on a grid. So you can just wander through the space in any direction you wish, under this undulating ceiling of 3-dimensional curves. The appearance combines a rather baroque sensibility with forms that go back to the beginning of Islamic architecture. The whole however, is made possible by 20th century building technology. It was built in the 1970s.

This image suggests the mood of the interior, though this is NOT a picture of the Officers Club. It's just some random image I got off the net. It would have been extremely inappropriate for me to take pictures inside the place.

Anyhow, back to my point ... Dinner ... There were about 16 of us in the party. We at in one of the private dining rooms off the main lounge area, and had lots of delicious food and pleasant conversation. We were about half westerners and half Saudis.

At one point I had occasion to enjoy a tete-a-tete conversation with a rising young officer. In another 15 years he will probably be one of the top ranking officers in the country. He was a delight to chat with. He was so animated and excited. He wanted to spill out all his thoughts to this outsider from the West.

He immediately touched on the issue of women driving. He found it ridiculous that they were still not allowed to drive. He made a point of telling me, more than once, that more than half the people graduating from Universities in Saudi Arabia are women and that they are skilled in all the professions. He wanted me to understand that he felt they were perfectly capable of doing all the things that men do. He was almost embarrassed about what he felt was a kind of "backwardness".

Conversations like this give me hope for the future. If people like him are thinking this way, the future looks a little rosier.