October 30, 2007

Serving up gold, Julie goes to Washington

[NOTE: For my audio recap and highlights of events in DC, please go to The Tibet Connection and listen to the October 2007 show; also on the show is an exclusive interview I did with Rep. Tom Lantos]

I feel far from the tree right now, spiritual peace tree hugging bliss tree sweet smelling calming tree. Instead, I'm in a red and white plastic bird flying somewhere over the middle of the US on my way back to the West. Burnt to a crisp exploring the world of politics and pagentry on very little sleep where the mind gets weary, winey and where exhaustion turns into overdrive. I worked to the bone this past month, the culmination being in my journey to DC for the events around HHDL receiving the gold medal. All for this radio show, The Tibet Connection. It was spectacular and dramatic, emotional and historic.

On Oct. 11th, I went on the red eye, my virgin voyage on Virgin America to NYC – I think Virgin America is quite fab except for the fact that they ran out of their blazing red blankets and pillows for the overnight flight and many of the ‘new inflight entertainment systems’ they boast about didn’t work. And the flight is way too short to get a lot of deep REM sleep. The next morning, amidst a cold spell, a downpour at 6 am and then foggy skies, I made my way up to Radio City Music Hall for the start of 3 days of teachings with the Dalai Lama and sat through or better yet, slept through, teachings on emptiness (Nagarjuna's 70 verses); the Dalai Lama gave the lung (reading transmission) for the Diamond Cutter sutra which was great. You know I’ve been 8 rows back from the Dalai Lama on some occasions, 2 rows back, a loge up but this was the pinnacle, in the 3rd level balcony, peering down with binoculars. Still the hall is glorious. And being up so high made me inconspicuous when I slumped down, my aching body finally resting from what was the gargantuan bag I lugged up 5 flights to Carolyn’s apartment, and I let my neck fall back and with open jawed, finally slept. Apparently I even snored in there.

Some call it purification when you’re about to take significant teachings or attend important Buddhist events … because my sleep was interrupted by the red eyes, literally; because of my period or ‘liver imbalance and yin deficiency’, somehow my eyelids got very swollen, looked like I was stung by bees in both eyes, to the point where my eyes felt like they were burning for about 3 days and then the aftermath was this peeling skin all around the eyes themselves. Not too pleasant...like an unwanted chemical peel... So I nodded off for much of the teachings, not the usual. Usually I'm note taking and nodding at every word in comprehension of sorts. Here, not even coffee did the trick…but somehow visiting NY somehow gives me license to drink coffee and it’s everywhere. I spent some time with friends I’d met in Vancouver over the summer and had a NY night, a posh hotel tea (at Hotel Gansevoort) and then dinner in a townhouse in Chelsea...at an artist's pad – strangers became friends On my birthday day, friends and I went to Brooklyn (Williamsburg), ate Italian pizza while ‘am’ radio news blared in the background (the owner didn’t take lightly to us making a complaint about the noise and had that expression of ‘take this or shove it’ on his face.) The pizza by the way, is not to write home about…bitter greens on baked pie crust, um…and an overdose of feta. Well it was really about the company anyways. Then we saw a performance by my friend Nina Rolle (she does something called ‘Zen Cabaret’) as part of the NY Clown Festival; yes she did play an accordion and doned heavy lips at one point...in the middle of which, my friend Carolyn proceeded to do a headstand in the front row. Don’t worry, she was prompted to do so. Waiting for the subway back to the city, my friend Lisa and I must have seen half a dozen musicians – people carrying instrument cases…Williamsburg is the epicenter of the music studio, music rehearsal, music epi-generator for the whole of Manhattan. The street musicians on the platform were phenomenal. I have to admit, however, being it my birthday, it was also poignant because all throughout that very day of my birthday, I felt so so sad...achingly sad and couldn't really say why. I had an apartment all to myself; Carolyn was so generous. But I didn't spend much time there...just to sleep. And to worry about the bed bugs that seemed to be having their day now all over the city and it’s the current favorite topic of conversation; in fact a good friend from just around the corner on Thompson Street has had to fumigate her place at least twice and all up and down the building, her same side, has had to do the same. I don’t think there are any in Carolyn’s place because aside from the peeling skin, I didn't see any red bumps on my body.

I left on the train to DC on Monday night with a good friend from Britain, Jane Moore. My luggage looked like a big blue log...enormous...packing for 'business' presentation is not my forte so I brought EVERYTHING. And plus my audio visual equipment. I love Jane, she's so splendidly vibrant in her bright red nikes and so sweet and loving; that in itself was soothing. We had all our gadgets out on the ride, plugging in her cell to charge it up, laptops open to think out questions for the days ahead. Besides the fact that she’s my friend, Jane is a photo editor in London and was also coming to gather stories, and generally help out International Campaign for Tibet’s press corps. Over the next few days, Jane became my right and left hands and my heart. If it weren’t for her, I don’t know how I could have done it. Speaking of good friends, in the quiet of the night of arrival, I took at taxi to Chevy Chase, MD to stay with Gillian Karp an old friend I hadn't seen since 1991- we were best friends in high school, went to college together and lived in NY together. She's since married a second time, has a 2 year old son named Jack and a very Republican, kind of boorish but efficacious British husband named Ian. On the outside the house is very New England, shingled, huge tree, porch; on the inside, it's the pet sanctuary. A cat named George is now residing in the basement because he's scared of Rosie the dog who has the run of the living room. And Ginger the other cat hangs out upstairs; she’s quite snobby. In the faint light of night, there was my old friend Gillian looking much the same. Circumstances have changed but much of the comportment has not.

From Tuesday on, it was hit the ground running time. I went to a Pray for Peace press conference at the National Cathedral in a suit, graciously borrowed from Christal, the senior producer on our show. I met David Crosby, heard from Graham Nash and Jackson Browne. Then I took off for the Capitol and interviewed Rep Tom Lantos - amazing! His wife looks like a Eva Gabor consort of Guru Rinpoche...but reborn from Egypt by way of Hungary. Annette Lantos was the first to be captivated by the Dalai Lama 30 years ago and them being pre-high school sweethearts, she convinced Tom Lantos to meet with His Holiness and so it all began. He's one of the principal sponsors of the resolution to grant His Holiness the medal. In his office, he sat on a dark mahogany colored leather couch with his dog, a big many sailed model ship encased in the background in front of a huge map of the world. In his thick Hungarian drawl, he spoke strongly about how Beijing should just quit their stubborn ways and let the Dalai Lama come back into the country to visit. Meanwhile, I stood up to leave and noticed some toilet paper coming out of my pants...apparently right before the interview, I had failed to flush the stuff down the toilet. So in the hall afterwards, I kept pulling strand after bundle of TP out of my pants. What was flush at that point was my face. Then we entered US bureaucrazy - we meaning Jane,... and Vanessa Smith, a filmmaker from NY who also was with us getting an inordinate amount of footage for 2 days. We were a team, for sure. So we all needed credentials, starting with the House press gallery and then moving through the buildings to the Senate press gallery. Guess what, the book shelf and curtains and all that behind the politicians when they do press briefings for CNN etc, all fake. A totally Hollywood set, in a small room on one of the floors of one of these buildings. In fact the inside of Washington is a special 'fabric' of less than laid back mostly males in suits....inhabiting all the halls. Finally after getting the credentials, we were starving so we went to the basement basement for some Gov't catered lunch of macaroni and cheese (Jane had baked beans). In the Gov't allocated cafeteria. Apparently the Senate side still has this but the House side now has private franchised vendors...so the food is better on the House side.

Then we went back to the National Cathedral where I interviewed David Crosby in the back on the grass, under some gallant trees. Another stupid Julie Moment - he had on this blue shirt with the red felt letters 'CSNY' sewn onto the front and I asked what they stood for, thinking they were for a university perhaps of one of his grandchildren...um...try Crosby Stills Nash and Young, he replied...then my comeback was that somehow I missed listening to their music as a child because I was forced instead to listen to Barbara Streisand,...and he said, well that's okay - she has a great set of pipes. What a twinkling speciman of a man. Very forthright and basically saying, 'boycott China'. Basically, for him, everything else is nonsense. When asked if music as activism really has helped for the better, he replied, 'no, not at all'. Even though he claimed to have hope, he thinks things are miserable all around.

The concert later that night, Pray for Peace, was interwoven with chanting by the Namgyal monks, heartfelt speeches from clergy and spiritual teachers. But the press was stuck up in the balcony and we were more concerned about the mult box that was not working up so well. My spirit was roused however by this really cool guy, Keb 'Mo and then later, Jackson Browne whose voice is still so beautiful and he sang a song that made me cry - 'The Crow on the Cradle' - of course about being oppressed. Then the finale was 'Teach your Children well' and you know, that's one of the most inspiring songs...well it was that night...and I got it -that loving human feeling.

I got back to Chevy Chase courtesy of Don Farber and slept with George the cat, who is so starved for affection, he drools and constantly rams his head into you and claws at your chest wanting to grab on for dear life.

Okay so Weds was the big Medal day and I had to be on the 'hill' very early...with donkey pack of equipment. Just lil- me. And about 100 other press corp dudes. Amazing gear they lug around. Like army supplies. We all had to be in place before the security sweep and inside the Rotunda. As the dogs and Secret service came through, Jane and I swiftly went into the basement cafeteria for some caffeine because the ceremony wasn’t to start for another two hours. I made it a special point to wear a fuscia blouse and matching outfit…Jane said later that it made it easier to spot me if we got lost from each other. The crowd of old friends, Lamas and Rinpoches, dignitaries started to pour in just before 1 pm and the rotunda became a vault of voice. Then we all stood in abeyance as the Senators, Congresspersons and President escorted His Holiness into the room. I stood in the back by my audio recorder…that thing became this precious object…praying to it constantly not to shut down or for some reason not record. We were all stumbling over wires and audio plug in places. Well, I couldn’t just enjoy the moment…instead, I had made the stupid mistake of videotaping for over an hour, with a hand held device in my hands whilst also recording the audio on another device. The historic moments were concentrated in my shaking arms and back muscles and aching hips. At one point I wanted to throw my shoes off, take off my panty hose and roll up my skirt. I was sweating and trying to breath through the pain. I managed to take in a few moments however, like the one where I almost lost it when Elie Wiesel talked about the Jews finally going back to their homeland after 2000 years, that it will happen for Tibet and all nations who desire it no matter what and that he would companion His Holiness back to Tibet - that they would be there together. The most amazing thing was hearing (which TV audiences would never hear because audio goes through direct 'boxes') the echo and flutter of camera shutters each time His Holiness and Bush leaned in towards one another to whisper something or look and giggle...those were the money shots...To be in a room with all these folk and then to feel this aching body...where is the guru, who is the guru...all pervasive and then seeing this murals of our founding 'fathers' of the US on the surrounding walls...like personages constantly witnessing these events, hearing every word...trippy.

Then we went out 'as press corps', escorted onto the Capitol back porch overlooking thousands gathered for the public address, waiting for His Holiness to come out and descend to the stage; it looked like peering into the valley from the Potala. There were monks with horns, Tibetans with offerings (Lama Zopa, Sogyal Rinpoche, and bunches of other lamas I don't know); Snow Lion prancing, dancers, musicians...and lots of porta potties in the distance. The dignitaries and Pelosi, Gere, Lodi Gyari and His Holiness all came down to the platform. Pelosi was presented with a beautiful stupa and a mound of katas. Gere roused the crowd and then His Holiness spoke in Tibetan with English translation for the benefit of all the Tibetans present, thousands of them.

It's wierd, I never once pinched myself in disbelief that I was there! I was too tired and too concerned about equipment, getting the audio, the shot. I was on the job. It's interesting to be in this position. You feel like you must accomplish your duties so there is no time to eat the 'meal' really. I mean, the minute I got 'home' for the night, I was cataloguing audio, recharging batteries and writing important emails. Even in the Rotunda under the press platform, moments after the event ended, reporters were emailing their photos in to their bureaus. It’s happening this fast nowadays. This is the modern way - I can totally understand why people have Blackberries and all kinds of devices now...they work SO much, it's the drug of today, I really think. It's like you start using it and it then uses you...no separation, no down time, no space. After the West Lawn event, I was cruising around accosting people for their impressions. Then Jane and I jumped in a cab and went and got Indian food. For whatever reason I was craving ‘nan’ and a mango lassi.

Then it started all over the next day at the hotel where His Holiness was...a swank b'fast catered think tank event hosted by Asia Society and the Brookings Institution, where I found His Holiness most articulate (perhaps I was just more awake that morning?) and I really got to just let the audio roll and listen. This was the most informed meaty discussion on Tibet, humanity, the environment and spirituality that I’ve heard from him. This felt to be the beginning of a wonderful next day …but then just as I turned to pack up my bag, my audio recorder disappeared and so there went all my plans of going back to the Capitol to try and get audio from Pelosi and Feinstein, et al. It was stolen, my main instrument, my reason for being there! So bizarre...amongst an intimate room of Secret service, hotel security and high dignitaries, the recorder vanished. Big obstacle, big purifications? I of course just wanted to sit down and cry -so weary by this point. Instead, with the help of Jane and Amanda Noonan, another incredible generous being, (Brit, I might add!), I found a guitar dude 30 miles away to deliver a new recorder to me (Tseten Phanachuras came through with financial assistance here!) while we got ready to turn around and go to the Gold Medal Gala. Of course because of this debacle I had nothing to wear and no time to go back to Chevy Chase to get something so I ended up with Jane at Kate Saunders’ apartment looking for a nice shirt and pants. Bless their hearts, I found something but not without a fluster…here I was on the floor trying to figure out how to operate the new recording device. And we only had 20 mins to get it all together. That’s when Jane and I tested our friendship with a screaming match. I tended to wimper and cry, she tended to scream like she does with her children –both of us extremely exhausted from our travails. I didn’t even know my legs could keep moving as they did. Thus we cabbed it again to Mellon Auditorium for the Gala – hosted by International Campaign for Tibet with the likes of Martin Scorcese, Richard Gere, Marvin Hamlisch, Mickey Lemle and countless others I didn’t know. I was still in a daze and I again nodded off in my chair as His Holiness took the stage. Perhaps it was the soothing lilt of his voice? The actual speeches at the lectern in the Mellon Auditorium were wonderful - Geshe Gyeltsen from Long Beach gave a kick ass speech for such a usually quiet monk of 85 years! Richard was crying. And then I made my way back to Chevy Chase, and while I was showering, Ginger the cat took a liking to my borrowed bag with clothes still in it and proceeded to piss all over it. So I was up til 2 am washing everything.

Up by 6 am and out the door with Ian, Gillian’s husband giving me a ride, we went to N Street Village, a Washington homeless shelter for women. His Holiness was coming to visit the women and the event was also hosted by the Washington Humane Society. In this small rec room, amidst the speeches, one woman came up and introduced herself and her dog, ‘Daisy’ who had been born with only three legs. She exclaimed to His Holiness that she used to prefer animals to people but with the help of this center, that has changed. There were Jane and I again with tears in our eyes, as His Holiness got up to give her a hug. And then in the corridor, I asked the women what they thought of the 'dolly'. They just loved meeting him and it seemed to make a big impression – each wanting now to really work towards improving their circumstances.
Then I rushed off to the ICT office to meet and interview Sogyal Rinpoche. His assistant made us well aware of the fact that this would be a short one and that they were pressed for time but it was a blessing to finally meet Rinpoche and make the connection for a more in depth interview with him in the future on his work with death and dying.

With the afternoon free, Jane and I went to Amanda’s for some rest and good food – the air outside was thick and humid with some rain dropping here and there. I was beyond tired…the legs pumping it out all the way back on the metro to Chevy Chase where Gillian had prepared dinner for us and a neighbor who’s husband had died. She showed up with a plastic bottle of bourbon in her arms.

At about 5 am, again on 4 hours of sleep or less, I got in a cab and made my way to Dulles. It’s like being packaged up, and thrown into a go go go vortex. As a reporter, I'm learning quickly. Growing pains. As a Buddhist practitioner, I feel like I was going on faith and kept reviewing in my mind, what is ‘tired’, who is ‘tired’?

You know it was tremendous being with His Holiness, close. More than once, in fact quite a few times, he mentioned how important the press is and looked over at us on the risers, cordoned off, with our gear. Without us, there is no education, he said. We are the education. I have a renewed respect for those who make the effort to communicate to the world. I also find it strange to honor non-violence and peace when it's so seemingly the base line. Why do we have to create medals for peace? We all want it, we all know it's so pleasant and beautiful to feel and we all have it within us. It's amazing we have to go to such trouble to 'create' peace when it totally is in there. This is what I find so tragic in our world. Don't get me wrong, this stuff is necessary - but there is a disconnect...applauding those who are beacons of peace while not aiming for that inside. The Dalai Lama is free because he is unencumbered most of the time...he carries no 'baggage'. He is concerned but perhaps he doesn't obsess or worry or get anxious and get so caught up in himself that he forgets others around him. He makes others all around him all the time be the obsession. This is fantastic and we can all do the same.