Monday, January 31, 2011


it's the last day of January, the first day of this year's immersethrough week in Chiang Mai and north of here, and also this is probably my last post in the year of the Tiger, since the Rabbit is due to come loppety-lop into our lives on February 3. I have nothing against rabbits, in fact precious Dom is a Rabbit, but since my birth year is a Tiger year, I am sorry to see the end of another one.

One more the cycles remind us that there are things to look forward to and enjoy, and that there is also a time for them to be over, for us to move on. I'm moving on by remembering that this Tiger year has given me health and happiness, deepening friendships, a small but growing understanding of culinary and other culture in Burma, and an optimism that even if tomorrow is harsher or more painful than today, I have the resilience to weather hard times. Yes, that optimism may be misplaced. But I don't care, just am happy to be feeling this way.

Today we shopped in Warorot Market, now celebrating its centenary, and then came back to make, under Fern's mother's direction, a wonderful meal: gaeng om (a simmered layered-with-flavor beef soup/stew); gai nung (chicken pieces rubbed with a spice paste and then steamed to make a wonderful broth and tender meat); laap pla northern style (catfish minced with cleavers, then fried with aromatics, then mixed with separately fried heaps of of crispy fried garlic and the fish skin, and topped with more aromatics); gaeng pakat (Chinese kale in a broth flavored with pork ribs etc); ep moo (pork cleaver-minced and then mixed with lemongrass and other flavors, then shaped into small flat patties, wrapped in banana leaf, and grilled); and lots of fresh vegetables; all made and eaten with a great vibe. That's my immersethrough report! Very local doings here in Chiang Mai.

I feel rather cut off here from the huge world events of the last week: the turmoil and awakening in the Arab world. To stay with food, for a moment, apart from all else they have in common, the places where change has happened or is seething at the surface are all flatbread places: Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, Lebanon.

When I was in Tunisia (for an Oldways conference and also to do research for the Flatbreads book), the place felt heavy, authoritarian, much more than Morocco. Once when I was in a car driving north of Nefta, not far from the Algerian border, the taxi driver had some great music on the radio. It was sufi/qawali music, being broadcast from Algeria. He made me promise not to tell, for that radio station was banned in Tunisia. He could be arrested. It was a small thing, in a way, but a reminder that people's lives and thoughts were not their own. And Mubarak's Egypt of course is notoriously oppressive. But for years Tunisia has often been referred to approvingly, in the media and by politicians, as stable. Does "stable" just mean "successfullly repressive?" It seems to, when it comes to US allies in the Arab world and in other places too.

How disgraceful.

Here I find myself on a political path in this did that happen?

And as I write out here on Fern's balcony (she has wi-fi and I don't) I can hear a call to prayer, in the dusk, a call with elegance and intensity both. It's a good reminder. When I think of the people demonstrating in the streets of Cairo and elsewhere, and those injured and killed, I want to think of them not as an abstract mass but as human beings with feelings and aspirations, wanting the freedom to listen to the music they choose, to believe as they wish, to be safe under a secure rule of law.

Maybe the year of the rabbit will bring them that. Let's hope so...

And may the year of the Rabbit be a generous and fruitful one for all of you.

AND AN AFTERWARD: There's an article in the NYTimes by Ross Douthat that engages in a brief way with the guessing games played by the US and other governments about whether or not to intervene, to support repressive regimes for fear of worse, etc. It's here:

Basically everyone would like sure outcomes, but such things are not available...and often then, the US and others tend to stick with the devil they know rather than supporting uprisings, even when the devil they know is deeply authoritarian, undemocratic, corrupt, etc.

Friday, January 28, 2011


There’s a bank of fog on the eastern horizon and some scattered mackeral clouds in the sky, tinted gold against the turquoise blue by the sinking sun to the west. It’s been a lovely day, like its predecessors, clear mostly, bright, and a lot warmer than a week ago, so that I can be in light cottons in the daytime and even into the evening. Running in baggy cotton shalwar-type pants (that date from Udaipur and a nice tailor there, in 2003) and a loose light cotton top before eight in the morning I am running with sweat by the time I’ve done my little two to three mile trot in the morning. The coldest of the cold season seems to be over, is what I’m saying.

Last Friday I headed north in a car with Fern and Noi, who is also from Chiang Mai, and an American friend visiting from Beijing. We stayed two nights at Fern’s lovely farm (checking things out before the immersethrough crew arrives) where the bougainvillea is in bloom, and the garden flourishes. We ate Jam’s wonderful Shan (Tai Yai) food one night and the second night brought home lots of eats from the Fang market and picknicked on it all, sitting by the fire outside.

Up north at the farm the mountains on the Burmese border are right there, dominating the western horizon and making the air cold, especially at night. It was strange and wonderful when I woke up that first morning to see my breath in great puffs and feel chilly when I ventured out from under the covers. There was dense fog in the morning, frequent in cold season up there. Everything becomes mysterious and dew drips from the trees and bushes. Eventually the sun breaks through and drives the mist away, and the world is transformed. Gone the mystery!

As I was running yesterday morning I was thinking about bad sidewalks and the pleasures of running. What makes it so great? There can be cars and exhaust, and hot or cold weather, and bad sidewalks, and yet it is still such a pleasure to just trot down the street. I guess endorphins truly are an addictive drug, and running is the easiest supplier of the drug, so there we go!

Speaking of pleasures, there’s a new Burmese restaurant in town, a place called D-Lo. Went there last Monday with a small crowd, including J and A, who were the ones who told me about the restaurant. By the time we pushed back our chairs, several hours of eating and conversation later, we’d tasted almost every salad on the menu as well as a number of curries. (Burmese salads are just brilliant. Naturally then, the salad chapter of my Burma book (manuscript due in June, book should be out in 2012) threatens to drown the rest. It’s a nice problem to have!)

D-Lo is so good that Fern and I think we’ll take the immersethrough group there next week for supper. Burmese is another piece of the northern Thai culinary landscape, less embedded than Shan/Tai Yai, but definitely connected. The more I learn here and in Burma, the more I know I don’t know, but at least I’m seeing more of the cross-connections, geo-political and cultural and culinary too.

The cross-connections in this complicated endlessly interesting region were the focus of a seminar I went to yesterday at Chiang Mai University. The Social Sciences Faculty is now putting on a series of talks and events relating to Burma, about one every two weeks it seems. The news about the situation in Burma is not common knowledge in Thailand. These seminars are a chance for university students and others to get informed. This one was titled “A Man Made Disaster: Implications for Thailand of Burma’s Health Catastrophe.”

In Burma the government surplus is in the billions of dollars but government spending on health care is less than one dollar per person per year. Most of that spending these days seems to be on buildings, not on services for patients, and most is in Rangoon and Mandalay. The consequence is that people in eastern Burma on the Thai-Burma border area, and also those in other border regions, have no health care at all. In eastern Burma the infant mortality is staggeringly high (30% death rate for children under five), and one woman in twelve dies in pregnancy or childbirth.

The seminar was concentrated not so much on these distressing statistics as on the fact that because of poor health care and lack of preventative medicine in Burma, and because of the war being waged by the Burmese army against the ethnic minorities in the border areas, diseases that have been all but eliminated in Thailand are endemic in the border regions, diseases like tuberculosis, filariasis (elephantiasis is one version of the disease), and malaria.

There are over two million displaced people from Burma in Thailand, and a constant flow of people fleeing across the border. It’s an ongoing humanitarian crisis. But even for those not moved by the plight of others, the situation bears thinking about: like it or not, the dire medical health situation in Burma can and will affect Thailand in a serious way sooner or later.

One group that’s working to try to help border populations is the Backpack Health Worker Team. They use volunteers from the communities that are being helped (Karen people in Karen areas, Mon in Mon areas, etc). The volunteers travel into Burma on foot carrying packpacks full of medical supplies such as vaccines, antibiotics, etc. It’s been going for nearly fifteen years and now serves hundreds of villages.

All this would not be necessary of course if the govenment of Burma were providing services or at least not waging war on the border populations. It’s one thing when there’s a natural disaster or endemic poverty; it’s another thing when the suffering is largely wilfully caused and avoidable.

How do people deal with their rage and anguish in this situation? Many flee to where the living is easier, and who can blame them? But many others become involved in trying to help, as teachers or community activists or Backpack volunteers or...

It’s all another reminder that a lot of the pain in the world is caused by people hurting people intentionally. Those of us not born into that kind of situation cannot imagine it. We can only try to stay aware and find our own individual ways of trying to help.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Sometimes a breakfast is so perfect that it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to eat anything else but that particular combo in the morning. There’s great bread lightly toasted and eaten with cold butter and home-made marmalade, and good coffee alongside; there’s my home-standard leftover rice with fried greens and fried egg on top flavored in various ways; there’s mohinga streetside in Burma somewhere, with fresh little crunchies to be stirred into a perfect broth and tender noodles; and today there was “jok”, what we in the west often call by its Hindi name “congee”, or else more prosaically call rice porridge.

I was out for a short jog at about seven this morning, the sun still hidden by dense mist on the eastern hills. (Tashi just asked me on the phone if running here in Chiang Mai is very different from running in Toronto (apart from the snow of course, he said). The answer is yes and no. Yes, it’s different because the sidewalks are rough and uninviting so I often run on the street, dodging oncoming cars when there are any, and watching for bumps and obstacles when I am forced onto whatever passes for a sidewalk. And yes, it’s different because the people who are out on the street give me a smile or a wave as I trot past, in a friendly inviting companiable way, whereas in Toronto I am as invisible as every other jogger. And no, it’s not different in a basic way: I am still stuck with myself, my thoughts and anxieties and uninteresting morning ponderings, including my thoughts about whether to take a break and walk rather than huffing and puffing on at a slow jog, all sweaty!)

A guy I met recently here told me that he does a brisk walk very early, before dawn, past the moat and north a bit to the “stadium” that is used by the PhysEd Department at Chiang Mai University. He goes round the track four times before heading home. I’d never been there and so decided to head out in that direction this morning. I took back streets and found my way to the stadium, ran once around, and then took a winding exploratory route back. Fairly close to home I came on a street-side stall run by an older couple, with pots on the boil, a sign that said “JOK” in Thai, and a couple of tables with plastic stools set out on the edge of the road.

I ordered a bowl of jok to eat there (the person ahead of me took his away in a heavy plastic bag), “sai kai, ka” - with an egg please. The woman took a large ceramic bowl in one hand and gave the huge pot a stir with the ladle in her other hand. She scooped up a full ladle of steaming hot smooth white rice porridge and poured it into the bowl, then set it down while she broke a fresh egg onto it. Then on went several more half-ladles-ful of hot jok, some pork broth with a few meat balls, and a generous sprinkling of chopped green onion and slivered ginger. The egg of course poaches in the middle of the dense hot porridge, so the trick is to leave it without stirring too much, until it has cooked enough for you. I like my yolk liquid and my white set, so it take several minutes.

As I waited for the egg to cook, I explored the table condiments: plain vinegar, powdered dried red chiles, sugar, and rice vinegar with a paste of minced green chiles and a little coriander in it. There was also a bottle of soy sauce and a full shaker of white pepper powder. I spooned on some of the vinegar-chile paste and then started to turn the thick soupy porridge, turning the edges in to the centre. Finally, a first spoonful went into my mouth, hot and steamy. Fabulous. And from there it continued, the egg yolk a rich country-egg orange, the strands of ginger warming on the tongue, and the mild green chile paste too... There’s something about the smooth thick texture of jok that is comfort food, like baby food anywhere perhaps?

It’s coolish here right now, especially in the morning, and so, though when I sat down I was hot from running, with sweat patches on the knees of my pants and on my back, I was already feeling chilled by the time the bowl of jok was in front of me. The hot soupy porridge warmed me right back up, a gentler version of the direct hit of hard liquor, hitting my gut and then travelling out to my extremities... Perfect winter food.

As I walked on home I thought about this question of perfect breakfast and wonderful streetfood. The thing is, a simple perfect breakfast at home is easy, manageable, but this streetfood, whether it’s mohinga or jok or some other wonderful breakfast, is not so simple. I mean it takes expertise. Part of the pleasure in eating it is that someone else has made it, and made it beautifully. I can just ask for it and it miraculously appears.

Yes, I would be happy to make good jok for myself and others. But that extra treat of being taken care of, especially when it comes to comfort food, adds a layer of pleasure that’s a whole other ingredient.

And speaking of ingredients, I have a new strategy for jet-lag, something I’ve fallen into by chance. Just before I left Toronto last Friday a close friend lent me her copy, soft cover, but still fat and very attractive, of the 2009 Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It went into my checked luggage, as a book to savour rather than to glance through junk-book fashion on the plane. And so it was waiting for me when I unpacked, and into it I dived, head first.

An engaging beautifully written slightly challenging (keeping the names straight and trying not to miss out any of the lovely details) book is a great companion and walking-staff kind of assistance for the jet-lagged traveller, I discovered. I could read it without falling asleep, so I could stay up until a reasonable bedtime. And it could entice me out of an afternoon nap, when needed, so I stayed on track.

Beyond these rather dreary practicalities, it is the most fabulous book. My friend’s spouse had said he was irritated by the dangling “he”, for the author doesn’t dot every “i” in the course of the narrative, so who does “he” refer to in this sentence? is sometimes the reader’s question. But I found it clean, a wonderfully immediate read, with no obtrusive author’s voice in the way, no knowingness to mar the intimacy I had with the scenes as they unfurled in my mind’s eye.

It is truly stunning.

Of course there’s a wild disconnect between the court of Henry the Eighth (the novel is centred on the amazing Thomas Cromwell, who rose to power in that era) on the one hand, and present-day sub-tropical Chiang Mai on the other. That gap between the world I was transported to by the book and the place I was in when I raised my eyes made my dreaming quite disorderly and wild! But why not? since jet-lagged sleep can be so trippy anyway...

In ingredient terms, then, the recipe for long-distance travel includes melatonin (which I always forget about, but which really helps many people get to sleep, even when their sleep-cycle is out of wack); drinking lots of water on the plane and taking it easy with alcohol; having a comfy place to sleep your first few nights after arrival; and now, the last ingredient, having a fascinating book to sink into when you can’t do much else besides read or sleep and you don’t want to sleep just yet.

But I’d also say, don’t wait for a trip to get started on Wolf Hall. And if you can, read it slowly, luxuriating in the tapestry of it all and the style too. I rushed through it, and wish I had it to read all over again for the first time. Maybe in a year I’ll reread it, in a more leisurely way, and reimmerse. Now that’s something to look forward to.

Happy full moon everyone!

Friday, January 14, 2011


Departures and transitions inform so much of this blog; sorry if it gets repetitive! And here I am at it again, for I'm writing this as I sit at the airport in Toronto, on a bright sunny day, waiting for a flight to Tokyo, and from there a connection to Bangkok AND Chiang Mai.

My friend and Honda Fit co-owner gave me a drive to the airport this morning, so generous. That meant I had a peaceful nicely paced early morning of clearing up odds and ends, the usual crowd of pre-daparture last things. In this case there were some jpegs to send to a new magazine that's starting up later this spring, Taste & Travel; a little laundry to get done (better than being greeted by it in six weeks!); last minute book-packing decisions (when in doubt take lots, is the basic rule for me; my friend D supplies me with mysteries etc of all kinds to race through on the plane, then in checked luggage I take more substantial books for once I arrive); writing a cheque to leave for this anticipated bill and that; leaving a long note for Dom and Tashi, still snug in their beds; feeding Silky the cat...

That stream of chores and errands and tidyings-up gave me time to think about why leaving is always difficult even as the horizon beckons. It's not just the thought of missing those I love, though that is huge of course. It's also a child's or maybe animal edginess about launching myself into the void. The daily round, wherever we are, is what we know and are comfortable with at the moment. The transition is a form of free-fall. Once begun, I find it exhilarating. But the immediate lead-up is a little fraught. I suppose it's a very mild version of what the sky-diver feels before launching herself out the plane door?

Now that I'm out the door, it all feels easier. I am starting to be able to look forward to what awaits in Chiang Mai and Burma, rather than being reminded of what I'll miss in Toronto.

I know that in December, just before leaving Chiang Mai to fly back to Toronto, I was having regrets about breaking my flow there, tempered by the thought that I'd be seeing Dom and Tashi and friends. And here I am playing the tape in reverse.

This morning I posted on Facebook a little thought about the good luck of being able to feel at home in more than one place. The other side of that is that wherever I am, and you must all be familiar with this, there are people missing, people who are far away, living lives elsewhere. We can't have it all. Of course not. But that doesn't stop the child in me from having trouble sometimes navigating these transitions, the times when something is lost as something is gained.

How selfish and self-centred all this thinking is! But I feel it's worth talking about, for surely each day we experience smaller-scale versions of the same thing: separations, rejoinings, choices of one place or person or course of action over another, which means we leave behind us a trail of "roads not taken".

Perhaps, to get to something concrete for a moment, perhaps that's why cooking can be a relief and pleasure for many people. Yes, there are choices to be made, but if we don't love the result we have the chance, often, to do it differently next time, to improve or change our choices. In cooking, unlike in life, there are second and umpteenth chances. And isn't that a wonderful thought!

FOOD FOOTNOTE: There's a brand of sprouts etc called KIND, I think, now selling sprouted chickpeas, a great food. In the Indian subcontinent, sprouted legumes (just two or three days of sprout, a tiny tail) are used to make salads. When they sprout the legumes become sweeter, as their starches are converted to sugar, and more digestible too.

I have been playing with the sprouted chickpeas, heating whole spices, Bengali style, in oil with shalllots or garlic, then tossing in the chickpeas and sauteeing a little, then adding some liquid and simering them until they get a little less chewy. A dash of soy adds depth, as does a splash of vinegar or wine or lime juice. The other day I stirred them into some cooked wheat, Senatore Capelli variety wheat that Potz had at 4-Life. It's now coming in from Italy, and cooks up like brown rice, with great flavour, in about thirty minutes.

All these experimentings with hearty flavours are pleasing in winter, and mushrooms and a little chopped carrot are great possible additions, ginger too of course. These cooking decisions are play, not fraught: "why not try this? or that?"

How to make life-decisions as pleasurable and un-loaded?? hmmm Still looking for the recipe for that!

Sunday, January 9, 2011


I've just walked in the door, through snow and chill, returning from a short trip to New York. Snow delays at both ends mean my flight arrived about two hours late, but somehow there was amiability rather than short tempers at the airport and on the plane, so it felt relatively painless. Another treat was a pleasurable conversation I had at a bar at JFK while waiting for the flight, with a young woman who was also headed to Toronto.

SO what about flight hassles, when the day's been so wonderful. Earlier today I got to the Met and saw the exhibit of photos by Stieglitz, Steichen, and Strand. SOme are soft and tender, other formalistic; Georgia O'Keefe's hands and breasts and neck and everything; reflections and buildings and geometries, as the images moved through the first decades of the twentieth century. I loved the effects Strand got by using a gum something-or-other to add colour, hints of colour, to some of his black and white silver prints. I know nothing about printing techniques, but the results were haunting, some of them. The most famous image using this technique are the three versions of the Flatiron building print, each coloured differently.

It was a major shift of gears to walk from that into the Gossart exhibition. He was an early Renaissance painter from the Netherlands, late fifteenth and early sixteenth century (he died in 1532). There are Mary and Christ-child images, some very intimate-feeling, others more formal and stylized, but also portraits that are astonishingly humanistic and modern in feeling. Worth a long look, both exhibits, though a little indigestible viewed in the same visit (like eating oysters and chocolate ice cream in one sitting perhaps?)

In for a penny... so I hurried on to MOMA to see the "On Line: Drawing in the Twentieth Century" exhibition. It ends February 7; get there if you can. You begin with line and gesture, Picasso and Braque and then Jan Arp and Sophie Arp and lots of names I don't remember... Calder is there of course, line suggesting volume, and Agnes Martin and others in pure linearity but nuanced and thoughtful, deeply absorbing. Then the more recent works by still-developing artists are another surprise: Julie Mehretu's huge piece there grabbed me, and so did a huge layered hanging web of threads connected by small beeswax balls that hangs in the entrance to the show (artist's name not in my mind right now, sorry).

I am going on and on, apologies, but it was just one of those "art is so transporting!" days and I am still bursting with it, as you can tell.

My last stop before heading to JFK was to hang around in T's welcoming kitchen for an hour. Such a good friend. She fed me an array of yummy leftovers and made me a neatly wrapped sandwich to take on the plane. What a great thing to have when the plane is delayed, a prosciutto and dried tomato and mozzarella sandwich on multi-grain bread.

And there was a bonus to arriving late in Toronto: no line-ups at passport control.

I came rushing out of the airport at nearly midnight, my handcarry slung over my shoulder, to see the TTC bus just rolling past the terminal. I waved and the driver took pity and stopped for me. What a lovely thing that is, when a bus or streetcar driver stops specially! It makes me feel rescued, cared for, attended to. And tonight after that delayed exit from NYC, the driver's flexibility felt like a extra-welcome gift.

Now here I am snug at home with Tashi and with Silky the cat. No energy to make tea or do anything but lumber to bed, feeling grateful.

Monday, January 3, 2011


Tonight is the new moon that marks the start of the last month in the Chinese lunar calendar...the last month of the Year of the Tiger, my birth year animal. I'll be sorry to see the tiger year go. it feels special, a birth year, and of course will only roll around again in another twelve years. Yikes! We'll all be so much older...

I discovered recently that the days of the week in Burma are also associated with animals. Every temple has a series of small shrines, eight altogether, each associated with a day-of-the-week birth animal. (Wednesday has two: morning is an elephant with tusks and afternoon an elephant without.) Everyone, at least every Buddhist, in Burma knows what day of the week she or he was born on. I had to google my birthdate to find out something that if I'd been born Burmese I'd have known from an earliest age: that my birth day is Saturday. Saturday's animal is a dragon. My friend Trisha, like my son Dom, is a Monday, a tiger. That means she's a Tiger by year and also by day. grrr!

All these associations get filled in, coloured you might say, by us, by the meanings we attach and the interpretations we choose. Any and every year sign or day of the week animal or horoscope sign can be read as good luck and a positive thing. We know of good attributes for each. We can also read in warnings about risks and hubris and all sorts of other dangers.

Somehow I associate all this with the idea of karma. We have a destiny perhaps, but we shape it too. Life is unpredictable, but full of potential, and so the idea of karma or horoscopes or fortune-tellers is that it's up to us to try to realise the good potential and avoid the harmful or less life-enhancing possibilities that are inherent in each of us and in many life-situations. Maybe that's what some of the churches of various kinds are trying to tell us, but they lock it into dogma that feels so unreal and binding that the wise-living part of the message seems to get buried most of the time. Too bad for all of us.

Especially when organised religion feels empty of meaning and unreal, we are driven to look for meaning elsewhere. And in our search for meaning and connection, we look for patterns. If I feel a closeness with someone, it's comfortable to relate that to the fact that we share a birth sign. Maybe our shared birth sign is in fact part of it. Or maybe somewhere way back we share an ancestor. Or is it pheromones? Or shared culture? It's funny this business of the people we choose, those we feel an immediate affinity for and those who feel much more like strangers.

I met a woman in the airport in Rangoon a month ago. We were trying to check in for the same flight - a plane to Chiang Mai. And it was one of those encounters with a stranger where there was instant connection, a meeting of minds, yes, but also of spirit somehow, though we come from very different places on the globe and different generations... Surely the possibility of meeting fellow-travellers or unknown cousins-in-spirit or sisters-under-the-skin is one of the things that keeps me looking around the corner and anticipating tomorrow. It's fun. And perhaps the connection lasts only a short while, or maybe, with internet, we stay in touch. It's a nice idea, not empty, the possibility of staying in touch, but that matters less than that initial sense of possibility and connection.

If I were in a room full of people born in the year of the Tiger, in the sign of Cancer, and on a Saturday, would there be a greater likelihood that we'd connect with each other than if the room was full of random people of every sign? I dpn't think so. But I do think that when we know there is an overlap of "destiny markers" such as birth year or sign etc with someone else, then we are predisposed to find and feel a connection with him or her. It breaks the ice. It makes us less strangers to each other; it gives us a relationship of some kind.

I'm not sure where this line of thinking is leading me. This naming of the years and the months is another way of giving time a geography, making markers for ourselves in the flowing stream of passing time, helping us feel less helpless occasionally. In earlier times, when the stars shone brightly without competition from electric or gas lighting, the stars kept people company and could be "mapped" and known in some way. Now we read about them but don't often see them. And for sure we don't generally know our way around the night sky the way our ancestors did.

Every map, every landscape, actual or metaphorical, that we learn to navigate, gives us confidence because it gives us a sense of context. And so the geographies of lunar months and years and weekdays, with their animal and other associations, like the saints' days of the catholic church and the calendars of feasts and fasts in the other religions, from Hinduism to Islam to Judaism, are human-invented structures that shelter us; they're maps that give us a sense of our place in time and social space.

A young friend of ours dropped by this evening. We got to chatting about her exam anxieties and her general anxiety, which is occasionally crippling. We talked to her about trying to treat exams as a game, doing anything possible to feel some control in what is an inherently coercive and stressful situation. (One way is by answering questions in reverse order or mixed order, for example.)

I guess that earlier conversation about managing anxiety about life is what led me on this exploration. Humankind's efforts to take charge of a feeling of destiny by making maps of time and assigning properties to days and months and years have been pretty successful for many people. They want to believe and they do believe, either in life everlasting or in the power of prayer or offerings, or in the possibility of rebirth in a better form of life. And all this belief makes the fear of everyday dangers less strong.

How amazing, the human imagination, that we have the power to rescue ourselves from fears. Of course if we lacked imagination and the power to anticipate, perhaps we wouldn't be crippled by fear and anxiety. So our weakness and our strength arise from the same source, from the very attribute that distinguishes us from animals: our power to imagine. How wonderful.

AFTER THOUGHTS: I've been out for a couple of runs in the cold weather of the last days. They're exhilarating, but not as easy as runs in milder temperatures. I came across a small article that explained that part of the difficulty is that muscles all over are less limber in the cold, so that everything, from leg muscles to those it takes to draw breath, are stiffer and less powerful. It's great to have an excuse for feeling a little feeble in winter! I've found too that the cold is making me ravenous. Today, for example, I had two fried eggs, not just one, on my leftover rice. I fried some chopped shallots in oil with a dash of turmeric and the usual mustard seeds, before adding the eggs (all in a wok). There was green from rau ram (Vietnamese coriander) leaves left over from the bunch I bought earlier to make chicken salad for the dancing party. It's a wonderful herb, and keeps flavour even when fried. On top went my standby Burmese hot-sweet-tart chile sauce (the bottle now nearly gone so it's time to make more; maybe tomorrow?).