The Sex Appeal of Competent and Active Old Men

We’ve been back in the United States — in Brooksville, Maine — for two weeks. Every day of those two weeks has been packed with people and activity; a wedding, a birthday, my father’s interment, the annual family meeting. We’ve had 7 adults and 5 kids in our house. Another score or so were staying across the street at the family’s summer compound, Sea Winds. That crowd created a lot of conversation, a lot of kid chasing, a lot of meals, a lot of laundry and no time to write. The house cleared out yesterday.

About a half hour ago I took my lunch out to the workshop to spend a few minutes chatting with John and watching him do whatever it was he was doing. He was repairing a large window screen that two 4-year-old boys ripped last week while experimenting with a long, galvanized framing nail they’d found in the bushes. The boys discovered that raking a nail across a window screen yields three results; long slashes in the screen (very satisfying), a stern scolding from parents and grandparents (to be expected) and no chocolate cake for desert (serious remorse). Today, as I perched on a chair and ate my yoghurt and blueberries, John bent over the damaged screen and used a skinny plastic roller to press new netting into a channel that ran along the edge of the frame. John worked with his back toward me. It’s a very familiar view and one that I like. As I watched John move, I was reminded of a thought I’d had on one of our hikes in Norway, and of a blog I wanted to write.

There is something very sexy about competent and active old men.

Our sexy old men; Doug, Jed, John and Vincent

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Moscow Contradictions

“We’re in Moscow. Let’s find Red Square.”
“I’m too tired. Let me put my feet up for a few minutes.”
This conversation could have gone either way. From me to Anne or vice versa. We were both exhausted by the two weeks of horseback riding in Mongolia but excited about seeing Moscow for the first time. We decided to go out, but to whine too.

Stayed at the Hotel Metropol right next to Red Square.

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Old Dog, New Trick

Ride day number 8, 4 pm. We crested our last hill and looked down on Kharakhorum, once the capital of Chenggis Khan’s global empire, now a typical confetti-roofed Mongolian jigsaw of a frontier town. In 15 minutes, our ride across Mongolia would be over. We could see the yurt camp where our motley group of 12 would spend its last night together.

At the finish line: Fenella, Dembee, me, John, Boroo, our cook Cegee, Doug, Chris, Tumee and Handa.

I don’t know what I expected to feel; relief that we’d all made it safely, the bone-deep weariness that takes over after extended physical exertion, an overwhelming desire for a beer, a shower and 600 mg of ibuprofen. Indeed, all those feelings were there. But what surprised me was the presence of another sensation; that of a container under pressure whose relief valve or compression bindings had just been released. I felt my chest loosen and tears well behind my eyes. Over the past 12 days there had been so many new experiences, so many things to learn, so many times I’d been pushed out of my comfort zone, that I hadn’t had the bandwidth to think about any of it. I’d lived strictly in the moment, flowing from one event to the next, simply being and simply doing. My container was now stuffed to busting with unprocessed emotions and simmering impressions of new skills and insights into life.
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Fitbit in Mongolia by Chris Matson

I am in a friendly competition with a coworker back in Boston to maximize daily steps to promote good health. We use a Fitbit to measure how many steps we take each day. Our trip to Mongolia presented a challenge; how do you achieve your step count goal while on a vacation that involves a lot of sitting? Well, it turns out, I need not have worried.

Day one of the great horse adventure found us meeting our guide, drivers, and cook and loading our gear and ourselves into two Furgons. A Furgon is a four wheel drive Russian-made van with high ground clearance which was necessary for the off-tarmac travel.

One of our trusty Furgons.

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The Mongolia Series

I had intended to mimic Netflix and Amazon and post all our Mongolian entries at one time, allowing people to binge read the entire series or take it one story at a time. Unfortunately, on the day I’d set as the deadline for submission from Doug, Chris, John and myself, we are all pretty brain dead. A six-hour car ride on bumpy roads followed by a cashmere factory tour, a traditional dance and music folk review, shopping and packing kept us busy until nearly midnight yesterday, the last day of our Mongolian excursion. Then we were up this morning at 4:00 am to catch our Aeroflot flight to Moscow. Consequently, Ten Centuries’ Mongolian Series will be released in installments; three posts today, a couple more in a day or three.

The Erdene Zuu monastery in Kharakhorum.

What is Mongolia like? Vast, mostly empty, mostly treeless. Dense with culture, history and tradition.
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Three Things to Remember About Horses by Doug Matson

It was John’s fault. That’s right, John was totally to blame. Anne warned us. We didn’t listen. John waxed philosophical on the merits of sweeping across the barren steppe astride a sturdy hill pony to re-enact the assault on Europe by the hordes of Genghis Khan. Anne thought it a flight of fancy that would pass once the newest in the long line of home projects was identified. Distract him with shiny objects. It didn’t work. John is stubborn and once an idea is born it becomes inevitable. And like a troupe of rag-a muffin camp-followers, we flocked to his banner.

A bit of background. I am allergic to all things furry. Horses are the worst and I violently explode with each sneeze. Chris and I absolutely love the idea of losing ourselves in the vast untamed wilderness of centuries past. But John insisted that it was to be done from a saddle. I’m allergic to horses – what a dumb idea.

I am waiting nervously to meet my horse. Chris is gung ho.

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Random Mongolian Thoughts

The Mongolian Horse is strong and tough. Though smaller than horses in America they seem to be able to go forever. I weigh between 200 and 210 pounds and my horses (one in the Gobi Desert for three days and another in the Orkhan Valley for five) carried me about 5 hours each day covering 30-35 kilometers over sand dunes, up and, possibly harder, down mountains, through streams, walking, trotting, and galloping, in thunderstorms and 95-degree heat. They never gave up. Impressive.

We’re getting ready to follow Baggi up a large Dune of loose sand in 95-degree heat.

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Discuss China, Discuss the World

As we waited to take off on our China Eastern Airline’s flight from Beijing to Xian, the flight attendant noticed our lack of reading material and very kindly supplied us with an English language edition of The Global Times, China’s version of the NYT’s International Herald. Just beneath the magazine title on the front page was the tag line “Discover China, Discover the World.” Another prominent text box next to the title announced, “Discuss China, Discuss the World.”

On this side of the globe, there is no question what country is the center of the universe, and it isn’t the United States. In the pages of the Global Times we learned that “Chinese investors are attracted by the large US markets, but China still has advantages in overall costs as well as innovation capability.” That “the present-day China is no longer a mere listener to the US” as “China and the US are now on an equal footing,” and that “future US development is inseparable from China.” We also discovered that due to the “irresponsible educational behavior” of the Chancellor of UCSD (John’s and my alma mater), who invited the “exiled” Dalai Lama to give a commencement address, that our degrees from UCSD might not be recognized in China. From the Chinese perspective, “the history education the American students receive remains outdated and full of imperial perspectives,” and that failure should have repercussions. Fortunately, we’re not looking for jobs in China.

This is a nation on the go and full of attitude.

China old and new.

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Channeling Bill Cunningham*

This was not my first visit to China, but it might as well have been. What we experienced this week was unrecognizable from the People’s Republic that my mother and I toured twenty years ago. In the fall of 1997, Beijing was a bleak, gray, crumbling, congested, chaotic, smoggy, urban mess. Despite ubiquitous signs prohibiting public spitting, sidewalks were coated with phlegm and respiratory distress was evident everywhere. People were drab, dressed in leftovers from the Mao days; dreary greens, blues and browns, nothing that would draw attention to an individual. They buzzed about on bicycles and loud, pollution spewing two-stroke motor bikes. Crossing the street required playing chicken with vehicles coming from every direction. Whoever blinked, lost. Mind you, Mom and I had a good time in 1997. The food was (and still is) excellent. We loved watching the women doing tai chi in the morning in the scraggly patches of grass that passed for parks and, in the evenings, the couples dancing on wide spots in the sidewalks. As two, tall, white women in China in 1997, we also attracted a lot of attention; sort of like minor celebrities. Everywhere we went, people wanted to have their picture taken with us.

Today is DIFFERENT. Where to start? There are so many possible angles. What struck me immediately, perhaps because I sew and love fabric, was the women. Gone were the colorless, shapeless, anonymous caterpillars. In their place; beautiful, look-at-me, butterflies. For a couple of days, as John wandered through major sights I’d seen before (The Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City), I followed along and had fun with my camera channeling Bill Cunningham.*

Butterflies on the Great Wall and doing morning exercises in the Temple of Heaven Park.

* For those of you who don’t know who he was, Bill Cunningham was a fashion photographer who specialized in candid and street photography. His fashion spreads ran weekly in the New York Times and were a wonderful commentary on sartorial trends. Bill worked until a month before he died last June at the age of 87. There is a great documentary on him. He was also a friend of Doris O’Neil’s (a tidbit for those who know who Doris was).
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Look before you leap

It was Doug’s fault. That’s right, Doug was totally to blame. Wednesday was fully booked. A walk up Diamond Head, a hike up Koko Head, a quick swim and a shave ice. Off we went. The walk up Diamond Head included switchbacks, stairs, a tunnel, a spiral staircase, beautiful views and was sufficiently long and steep to warm us up.

Honolulu and Waikiki beach from the top of Diamond Head

Honolulu and Waikiki beach from the top of Diamond Head

We then went further east to Koko Head. Koko Head used to have a funicular. That is now the official trail. A dead straight path consisting of 1,447 railroad ties spaced unevenly acting as steps of varying heights from too low to too high. It starts off gently then gets steeper and steeper until it feels like you can reach out and touch the ties in front of you. Challenging to say the least.
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