March 30, 2012

At 50, Michael J. Fox Discusses Life and PD

photo by Jake Chessum

Actor Michael J. Fox says, “I know an answer to Parkinson’s is findable.”

The PD research advocate has lots of other things to say in an article by Dotson Rader in this Sunday's Parade Magazine. About coming to terms with the disease, he says:
I don’t look at life as a battle or as a fight. I don’t think I’m scrappy. I’m accepting. I say ‘living with’ or ‘working through’ Parkinson’s. Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation; it means understanding that something is what it is and that there’s got to be a way through it. I look at it like I’m a fluid that’s finding the fissures and cracks and flowing through.
When asked why Tracy Pollan, his wife for 23 years, chooses to stay with him, he says:
It’s hard to explain why this amazing woman would want to stay. People say, ‘Tracy’s a rock.’ She always laughs at that and says, ‘I’m not a rock.’ And she’s not. She’s a living, reactive person. We’ve been very blessed and haven’t had a lot of big challenges other than Parkinson’s. Tracy knows she can count on me when there are issues we face. We still love each other and make each other laugh, which is probably the most important thing. She still thinks I’m smart and funny and sexy.

Those of us “working through” PD are lucky to have this guy as an advocate and inspiration.

See the full story: Michael J. Fox at 50

My Nepali Families Are Adapting Better Than I Am!

It's now over a week since I returned from Nepal on Tuesday, March 20 -- bringing with me Ramesh's wife Laxmi and son Rahel. Then the newlyweds, Nimesh and Bhawana, arrived on Saturday.

I had surprisingly little jet lag after the flight to Nepal. But the return trip has been a different story. I'm only now feeling close to what passes for normal with me. But everyone else seems to be doing much better, as you can see....

March 29, 2012

Death and the Beetle: A Poem by Wislawa Szymborska

Wislawa Szymborska, by Janet Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images

We make such a big deal about death. We can’t seem to talk about it easily and openly with people we love, and we often can’t even bring ourselves to prepare for it – our own deaths… or the passing of loved ones. It holds such power over us.

I recently found a poem I really liked on NPR’s website, in an appreciation piece by Robert Krulwich on the death of Polish poet and Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska. Here’s the poem, "Seen from Above" from Poems New and Collected: 1957-1997 by WisÅ‚awa Szymborska. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company):

A dead beetle lies on the path through the field.
Three pairs of legs folded neatly on its belly.
Instead of death's confusion, tidiness and order.
The horror of this sight is moderate,
its scope is strictly local, from the wheat grass to the mint.
The grief is quarantined.
The sky is blue.

To preserve our peace of mind, animals die
more shallowly: they aren't deceased, they're dead.
They leave behind, we'd like to think, less feeling and less world,
departing, we suppose, from a stage less tragic.
Their meek souls never haunt us in the dark,
they know their place,
they show respect.

And so the dead beetle on the path
lies unmourned and shining in the sun.
One glance at it will do for meditation —
clearly nothing much has happened to it.
Important matters are reserved for us,
for our life and our death, a death
that always claims the right of way.

March 28, 2012

Deep Brain Stimuation: An Answer for Parkinson's, Depression, Dystonia, Essential Tremor?

In my travels across the internet searching for new medical developments, I seem to encounter information about deep brain stimulation (DBS) more and more.

On paper, the DBS procedure doesn’t sound too complicated: doctors implant a “brain pacemaker” that sends signals to very specific parts of the brain. DBS patients with various conditions – including Parkinson’s, severe depression, chronic pain, essential tremor, and dystonia -- have reported significant post-operative improvements. The procedure has also been used to treat people suffering from Tourette syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and phantom limb pain.

So far, DBS has helped Parkinsonians whose meds either don’t really work or create adverse affects. The brain pacemakers don’t cure the disease, but they can help people manage PD’s symptoms -- such as tremor, rigidity, difficulty starting and continuing movement (bradykinesia), and postural instability.

To continue, please click "read more."

March 27, 2012

Reduce Your Cancer Risk!

No question about it: cancer IS scary. One half of all men in America – and one third of all women – will develop cancer.

Yes, we all know people who have lived exemplary lives in terms of diet, exercise, etc. who STILL developed cancer. Nonetheless, there are things we can do to reduce our risk.

I've been a long-time  subscriber to a "Wellness Letter" published by the University of California-Berkeley. In a recent issuue, Drs. John Swartzberg and Jeffrey Wolf discussed “Preventing Cancer: Strategies That Can Reduce Your Risk.” The authors label their ideas the “big 12.” While such lists are sometimes pretty obvious, I found some of the suggestion thought-provoking. Here they are:

March 26, 2012

Fresh Powder!

Our winterless winter has come and gone. We passed the first day of spring the other day, and it has already felt like summer, with temperatures well into the 80s. The early flowers -- including DC's famous cherry blossoms -- are past their prime. The wonderful "tulip library" on the Mall is kaput -- the delicate flowers zapped by a string of hot, sunny days. Our forsythia now is filled with green.

So... farewell to the winter that wasn't. Yes, we dodged the inconvenience, the high heating bills, the shoveling, and the cold, clammy feet. But the two snow-loving dogs in this brief clip remind us of what we've missed, too:

Ah, the joy of winter!

March 23, 2012

More Wedding Photos: It's a Wrap!

This long-running saga of my trip to Nepal for the Nimesh-Bhawana wedding will come to an end on Saturday, when the happy couple arrives at Dulles airport and heads for my house. Correction: OUR house.

But before we close this chapter of my involvement with Nepal and its people, here's the "official" photo of the new couple:

March 21, 2012

Do Arranged Marriages Still Work for Young Educated Couples Today?

"A picture is worth a thousand words." 

Here are photos I took of Nimesh and Bhawana last Sunday when the three of us finally had some quality time together, after meeting only in crowds of hundreds during the events of wedding week.

We spent the day on a drive into the countryside outside Kathmandu. We first visited the village where the Thapa family has its roots, and where Nimesh spent his first seven years before the family moved to Kathmandu. Then we went for lunch at Dhulikhel -- which competes with Nagarkot, another hill town, for being the best place in the KTM valley to get a view of the snow-capped Himalayas. I've been to each town several times, even getting up at dawn, supposedly the best time of day to catch a mountain view. I've yet to see a mountain from either place.

But seeing Nimesh and Bhawana's solid, loving relationship was more enjoyable to me than any mountain view.

March 19, 2012

Sad Goodbyes in Pokhara

Saturday , March 17, was a day of sad farewells in Pokhara.

It was a goodbye, probably my last, to a place on earth where I’ve felt the deepest serenity: cabin number six at Hotel Fewa, overlooking the lake by Mike’s Breakfast. Here’s my peaceful, private balcony, upper right:

Surya and his sons joined me for breakfast on my last day. I met Surya and Ramesh during my first visit eleven years ago to Mike’s, where they were both working as waiters. Surya helped care for Mike during his last years of failing health in Nepal. 

March 17, 2012


One of the joys of my "Nepal Decade" has been watching Rahil -- Ramesh and Laxmi's son -- grow up. Early on, I knew it would be best for Rahil to spend his early years in Nepal, not in the U.S.

Here in Pokhara, he's been surrounded by extended family and friends, lavishing him with love and attention since the day he was born -- November 2, 2004.

Since I lived in the same house with Rahil for weeks at a time during my visits to Pokhara, I got to see him more often than my own grandchildren (and now great grandchildren). We’ve developed a special bond.

When the family was recently talking about the impending move to Washington, Rahil announced that he didn't care what his mother and father did; HE was "going to live with John!"

Here are a few of the many photos I took this past week of my buddy Rahil. He joins me for breakfast at Mike's:

March 16, 2012

Remembering Mike Frame

Today, I finally got to move into my favorite room at Hotel Fewa. Up a short flight of stairs from the terrace, it has a lovely porch overlooking the lake:

But I can't help feeling sad when I also look across the terrace at the roof covered dining shed. Being here again brings back memories of the many cool mornings when I'd have breakfast inside the shed, and Mike would join me for extended chats -- ranging from world affairs to our own affairs. My contemporaries will remember the regular features in Reader's Digest on “My Most Unforgettable Character.” I've met many real characters, and I'd be hard pressed to pick one as the most unforgettable. But Mike would certainly be a prime contender.

My Adopted Family in Pokhara

I have a terrible time remembering names, even at home. But keeping track of Nepali names is almost impossible for me.

Last week with Nimesh's family in Kathmandu wasn't too tough -- a younger sister, an older brother and wife, parents and grandparents. But this week in Pokhara with Ramesh's much larger family is a greater challenge. I hope they will forgive me for misspellings and missing identifications on the photos below.

The Pariyar Family
Ramesh's family is from the mountain village of Warchok, a two-hour bus ride from Pokhara, followed by a two-hour climb up the mountain… two hours for them. It took me twice that long when I made it (barely!) in 2001.

Ramesh has an older brother and sister, two younger sisters, and a younger brother. Ramesh and his younger siblings, like so many young villagers throughout Nepal, left home after finishing school and headed for the nearest big city -- in their case, Pokhara.

Residents of Ramesh's Pokhara house -- while I've been there -- have included his wife Laxmi, son Rahel, younger brother Suman, the son of Ramesh's older brother, and the daughter of his older sister. The older brother remains in Warchok and the older sister and her second husband live in eastern Nepal. 

Pariyar Family Photos
The rooftop of the Pokhara house is where the family gathers to celebrate Dashain, Tihar, and other occasions (like when someone comes down from the rooftop to announce that there's a great view of the mountains). So that's where we gathered this week when I wanted photos of my Pokhara family.

March 14, 2012

A Killer Combo in Pokhara

Together, Hotel Fewa and Mike's Restaurant create THE prime location on Pokhara's beautiful Fewa. I stayed here during the first years of my "Nepal Decade," until we finished building Ramesh's house.

There's a Small Hotel
In its Nepal edition, Lonely Planet describes Hotel Fewa this way:
In a town with little variation between lodgings, Hotel Fewa gets full marks for its rustic mud/stone cottages set right on the lake. A long-time favorite, the cottages with loft make for a memorable stay, and include a fireplace and Buddhist motifs.
I've stayed in several of these lakefront cottages, but this time I got to try a new one. It's more modest than my room at the Kantipur Temple House in Kathmandu,  but this place has its own unique charms.

Here are two shots of my first floor living room:

Up the ladder we go -- to my bedroom in the loft. As you see, the hotel maid had not yet arrived:

A Fishtail Story

There are many reasons I’ve always loved coming to Pokhara. At the top of the list: visiting Ramesh, Laxmi, and their son Rahel – my “adopted” Nepali family. 

Another friend I’ve always looked forward to seeing is Mt. Machhapuchhre, otherwise known as Fishtail, for its shape. Only 17 miles from Fewa Lake, it is thought to be a sacred mountain – where climbing is restricted – and it is certainly a feast for the eyes and a muse for poets from around the world.

And, in all my previous trips to Pokhara, at different times of the year, it has been covered in snow.

Here’s how I’ve always seen it. At this angle, you can see the fishtail shape along the right top:

Or, another snowy view of my good friend:

The Wedding Reception

With Nimesh and the beautiful Bhawana: why I made this trip.

On Sunday, March 11, the Thapa family hosted a wedding reception for about 1,000 of their closest friends. Bhawana's family had thrown a similar party earlier in the week.

These wonderful Nepali weddings are not for the faint of heart. They are week-long events, chock-full of ceremony, fellowship, and fun... and they often go from morning til night. Being young and healthy isn't a requirement, but it surely helps. I did pretty well, even if I had to cash in my chips a little early on the wedding day Nimesh's grandparents -- my contemporaries -- sailed through it all like the champs they are.

The reception reminded me of something I've always admired about Nepali culture -- the strong, central place of family and community. The happy gathering also gave me a chance to get some shots of the Terrific Thapas.

March 13, 2012

Happiness: Kathmandu's Kantipur Temple House

In the KTH garden courtyard, reading, sipping a banana lassi.

Just like so many cities in America, Kathmandu is a crowded, noisy, chaotic, polluted place. For that reason alone, I’ve come to love staying in the capital city’s Kantipur Temple Hotel (KTH). While it’s only a quick walk from Thamel -- Kathmandu’s bustling tourist district -- KTH is a soothing island of quiet, smack dab in the middle of the hubbub.

The Tranquil Oasis
What a pleasure to check in here, after the long flights from the USA... and the crazy ride into town from the airport. Here’s my room:

Once I got settled in, I headed for the courtyard patio, to relax, read, and check my email. That’s what I’m doing in picture at the top of this post. To give you an idea of my view from there, I scanned my camera around the courtyard. Some nice flowers:

Please click "read more" below.

March 12, 2012

The Big Day: The Marriage of Bhawana and Nimesh -- Part One

Wednesday March 7 -- The Wedding of Nimesh Thapa and Bhawana Khadhka -- the event that had brought this decrepit old man half way around the world  This photo post is Part One of the wedding day (which lasted from early morning to nightfall). The reason this is Part One will be explained at the end of the post.

Here's your wedding invitation:

Family and Friends Gather at the Thapa House 
The band is already playing in the courtyard:

And the groom's chariot is  ready for the procession to Bhawana's house In India, he might ride a decorated horse or elephant. But Nimesh will have to make do with a festooned Mercedes. The "N-Heart-B" on the rear window was his idea:

March 11, 2012

"Thinness" at Boudha: A Postscript from today's NYT

A few hours after posting the recap of my Thursday visit to Bodhnath (Boudha), I noticed that it was featured in Eric Weiner's article "Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer" in the today's New York Times Travel Section. Wiener discusses the power of experiencing "thin places," where "we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world." He writes:
After decades of wandering, only now does a pattern emerge. I’m drawn to places that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again. It turns out these destinations have a name: thin places.
After describing several of his favorite "thin places," he startled me, since I'd spent this past Thursday at the very place he saved until last:
Perhaps the thinnest of places is Boudhanath, in Nepal. Despite the fact that it has been swallowed up by Katmandu, Boudha, as many call it, retains the self-contained coziness of the village that it is. Life there revolves, literally, around a giant white stupa, or Buddhist shrine. At any time of the day, hundreds of people circumambulate the stupa, chanting mantras, kneading their mala beads and twirling prayer wheels. I woke in Boudha each morning at dawn and marveled at the light, milky and soft, as well as the sounds: the clicketyclack of prayer wheels, the murmur of mantras, the clanking of store shutters yanked open, the chortle of spoken Tibetan. A few dozen monasteries have sprung up around the stupa. And then there are restaurants where you can sip a decent pinot noir while gazing into the All-Seeing Eyes of Buddha. It is a rare and wonderful confluence of the sacred and the profane.
If Weiner had just taken the five-minute walk to the beggars camp with its quilting women, I'll bet he would have found his experience at Boudha even thinner. That magic place sure jolted me out of my old ways of seeing the world.

An Inspiring, Memorable Day with the Pied Piper of the Bodhnath Begging Camp

Here's the Pied Piper -- my pal James Hopkins -- just before we walked down into the tent camp behind him that houses a community of beggars from India. Six years ago, James started a micro finance project -- Quilts for Kids Nepal -- to provide work for the mothers, and educational opportunities for their kids. I've been intrigued by this project for years and was delighted that this visit to Nepal gave me the chance to see it first hand.

James and Buddhism and Beggars
James spent 23 years as an investment broker. I first met him because he had been the investment adviser for one of my good friends. Not cast in the traditional Wall Street mold, James was becoming increasingly absorbed in his Buddhism studies. He and his girl friend (they lived in a houseboat on Washington's waterfront, not in a Fifth Avenue condo) had made several trips to India and Nepal, learning about Buddhism. 

Eventually, James experienced the classic professional "Is this all there is?" moment and decided to retire early (real early, since that was eight years ago when James was just 43). He moved to Kathmandu to pursue his study of Buddhism at a monastery associated with Bodhnath, one of the remaining places in the world where Tibetan Buddhism is openly practiced and studied.

March 8, 2012

Dodging Colored-Water Balloons in Kathmandu

This picture shows a Holi celebration yesterday, March 7, in Vrindavan, India -- a locale famous for its Holi observances. According to legend, Krishna played Holi with his consort Radha here. Celebrations in Nepal yesterday were more rambunctious... and deadly.

The Hindu Festival of Colors – Holi – took a tragic turn yesterday when two young Kathmandu residents died while participating in the holiday. A ten-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl both fell off the roofs of buildings while engaged in the practice of hurling balloons filled with colored water at passers-by.

In addition, reports indicate that four people were injured, and another 665 merry-makers were arrested in the capital for indecent behavior. It’s a sad story, but it will not dampen the joyous festivities surrounding Nimesh’s wedding tomorrow -- Friday – to Bhawana.

The describes the holiday – based on Hindu mythology -- this way:
The ancient Hindu festival of Holi falls on late February or on early March [at the full moon]. Allegedly named after the mythical demoness Holika, it is a day when the feast of colours is celebrated…..People can be seen wandering through the streets either on foot or on some vehicle, with a variety of colours smeared over them….Families and friends get together and celebrate the occasion with a lot of merry making. This spring time celebration is also an outburst of youthful exuberance in which throwing colours and water bolloons (lolas) on passers-by is acceptable.
Please click "read more," below.

March 7, 2012

Men Holding Hands: OK in Nepal (still), Not OK in the West

In yesterday's photo-post about the Nimesh / Bhawana engagement celebration, I mentioned being pleasantly surprised when, as Nimesh's family was walking down the road to Bhawana's house, Nimesh's grandfather took my hand and kept holding... as you can see from this photo.

Displays of affection between men are common in Nepal, and have nothing to do with homosexuality. It's the same in other cultures, including many Arab countries.

The custom of men-holding-hands can cause discomfort in Western countries. I remember how many Americans were shocked when President George W. Bush kissed and held hands with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah in 2004. This clip is classic!

March 6, 2012

Nimesh and Bhawana's Joyful Engagement Day

Monday, March 5, brought the first big event in Nimesh and Bhawana’s wedding-week festivities: the traditional Engagement Day, when the groom journeys from his house to the bride's for a special ring-exchanging ceremony.

I joined Nimesh and his family at their home as they prepared for the drive to Bhawana’s. Here's Nimesh with his brother Ritesh:

And here's an ugly duckling between two beautiful swans -- Nimesh's younger sister Sona and Ritesh's wife Salina. Sona studied for her nursing degree in Malaysia and completed it in Australia, where she's now working on her master's degree in health management. Ritesh and Salina were married last year -- another happy arranged marriage. Both have their degrees from the leading (only?) medical school in KTM. Salina got a scholarship for a master's degree from a Chinese university, where she and Ritesh are now studying.

I was moved and honored to learn I would ride with Nimesh in the caravan’s lead car. As we negotiated the typically chaotic traffic, I realized that today marked the 12th anniversary – exactly – of my first visit to Nepal. On that day, I could never have imagined that this country and its people would become such an important part of my life.

March 5, 2012

Nepal and Load Shedding and Me

The Kantipur Temple House staff placed this slip of paper in my hotel room. Power outages (“load shedding” here) are a fact of life in Kathmandu and Pokhara, especially in winter, when water levels -- and hydropower -- are at their lowest.

In the capital, electricity is rationed, shifting from district to district every eight hours or so. The outages can last up to 16 hours in both Kathmandu and Pokhara. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that hotels can now post a schedule. In the past, I had only a rough idea when the power would be on or off.

Load shedding doesn’t mean total blackout. Street lights remain on. Hotels, restaurants and shops use generators to provide essential lighting. While the Kantipur lobby and restaurant are fully lit, my own room is illuminated with a single bulb when the power is off. So, during evening load shedding, I head to the lobby to read, or I use a flashlight in bed… like a kid who can’t put his “Hardy Boys” mystery down after mom and dad have issued the final “lights out!” ultimatum.

I was delighted to find that this hotel now offers wifi, but it’s not available during outages. My usual routine is to blog and check email early in the morning or late at night – a perfect schedule during this trip, when I’m busy during the day visiting old friends and exploring. The load shedding schedule might challenge my blogging plans a little, but, let’s face it: living life always trumps writing about it!

A Rough Start: Day ONE, Back in My Beloved Nepal. Slow Down, You Move Too Fast!

The Kantipur Temple House, my home in Kathmandu.
When I arrived, the panic was kicking into high gear.

Slow down! Stop and think! Easy does it!

I've been repeating these mantras for years. At age 82, I need to practice – not just say -- them. But a lifetime of “act first, think later” is tough to reverse.

The start of my return to Nepal for Nimesh's wedding was a classic example of the trouble I cause for myself. Fortunately, I'm also usually very well-organized. Days before the trip -- whenever I thought of something to take -- I'd toss it on the bed in the guest bedroom. The day before the trip, I went through the pile, discarding anything that wasn't really essential, and sorting the rest into separate piles – underwear, socks, handkerchiefs, pants, shirts, etc.

Organizing my important medications for the trip was important, so I bought a pill organizer with 28 compartments. It offers four compartments (morning, noon, evening, and bedtime) for each day of the week. This arrangement is perfect for me, since I take my key Parkinson’s med (levadopa/carbidopa) four times a day, every six hours. That med helps keep me steady, so staying on schedule is important.

My planning was good, but I didn’t allow enough time on Wednesday for an easy, smooth packing process.  A friend picked me up at 6:30 for the drive to the airport. When we got there, I realized I'd forgotten the sport coat I'd planned to wear to the wedding and on the plane. In the pocket of the missing jacket, I had an envelope with Nepali rupees to use for tips, until I could get to an ATM. OK, not the end of the world….