One of the most vivid of the moments still lodged in my ever-receding past is the moment you joined us here on earth. I replay it in my mind’s eye like a snippet of movie reel through the old Bell & Howell projector. A little bit grainy and blurry at spots, there’s some frayed sprocket holes that are a bit jittery, but it is intact, it is cinema verite, even these many years later.


I can say it with a completely straight face and full confidence.

That the little creatures are among us daily.

Not only can I say it, but I will say it. Elves. Trolls. Divas, Sprites, and Spirits.

They are among us, and just like the big-as-me-and-you real people in our lives, some of the divas and sprites love us, and some don’t. Some go out of their way to show us a kindness, some would go out of their way to rub hurt into our gaping wounds the way a cajun chef grinds jerk seasoning into a fillet of red snapper.

This is the story of a relationship, an affair. The kind that cannot ever really work, because we came from such different cultures and backgrounds. Me, a person from New England, USA, she, a refugee woodland sprite from the long-razed ancient forests of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

* * *

I had to commute, to drive to survive. There were no other viable alternatives.

The job at the Athaenium House in Cambridge, Massachusetts was a nice job. Good wage, no enemies, no real worries but for one: Parking. This place, where I hard-scrabbled filthy lucre support for my burgeoning family was home to the worst parking on the entire planet. I am not one taken to hyperbole, and it seems hyperbaric or even hysterical to lay claim to “the worst.” During those salad days of relentless employment I also developed a relationship with the City of Cambridge.  I had somehow diligently trained myself (or learned) to park in the exact illegal spot that the meter maid would next manifest. In the view of the City of Cambridge,  it was a bad, dysfunctional relationship. I was a cad, a scofflaw, as guilty and despicable as the deadbeat dads and rapists who’s pictures adorned the post office lobby. I was one of the worst of the worst, a chronic illegal parker.

A meter maid is one of the mythic little creatures. The troll kind. The kind that will go out of its way to grind in the hurt.

My relationship with the city deteriorated and grew acrimonious, due to the malicious and almost daily intervention of the Meter Maid Trolls. I was resigned to have to pay these parking tickets, this tax, this toll, this honorarium, this protection racket money, this usury for the duration of my otherwise lucrative employment here.

The universe is in balance though. Sometimes that balance is hidden from our gross, pedestrian view.

One day, I chanced to break bread with a dear friend of mine that I hadn’t seen in many years. As we bid farewell to the dregs of the wine, the conversation loosened. There being no romantical entanglements between us, thus free of the burden of having to seem fun, cool, and desirable, we regaled each other with tales of self-centered nihilism, of the uncaring ennui of the world around us. She completed a poignant vignette about a potential lover she’d invested heavily in, only to find that he was batting for the other team. It was now my turn to burden the sweet evening air with a fresh story of undeserved insult and affront to our collective metrosexual dignity. I told her about my incredible bad luck with the parking meter trolls.

The conversation drifted, she talked about karma, the universe, about nature, and we wandered into an unlikely sidebar, about the wood sprites and the tree divas, the spirits and sprites of the wood…and whatever must have happened to them when humans built cities and urban blight usurped their ancient homes.

My dinner companion thought that they must simply have moved away.  My imagination lubricated by the wine, I opined that they probably stayed put, with no place else to go. Perhaps the diva spirit that had formerly occupied and cared for a majestic oak tree near the banks of the Charles River would, for example, now occupy and care for the asphalt-covered parking space that had taken its place. How unquenchably ironic and sadly comic.

We were laughing, but into the midst of this jovial atmosphere a moment of extreme, excruciating lucidity came slamming unannounced and not necessarily invited. I could hear the cogs of the universe clicking into place as my sweet companion soberly spoke:

“the divas are vain, and they are petulant. They require constant praise and gratuitous aggrandizement.”

The universe roared through my ears like the Alewife train roaring into Kendall Square Station. Or maybe it was the Shiraz. I’ve always been unable to hold my Shiraz.

The next morning the impossible happened. Right there, at the door to the Athaenium, was an open, unoccupied and un-metered parking space. The best possible spot. None more better. The statistical odds against were astronomical, on a celestial scale. I wondered how many times since the big bang, had this parking spot been open?

I stepped out of my car, closed and locked the door, and started to walk the unimaginable five perfect steps from my perfect parking space to the door. Something made me turn around and look at my car, parked in the most perfect parking spot in this corner of the galaxy. I again felt the universe roaring through me. In an unscripted moment of complete and uncompromised sincerity, I closed my eyes, felt a little spot of beatific joy in my heart, and offered thanks and praise to the diva of the parking space that I had just been given. True joy, true thanks, true sincerity.

The next morning, the parking space was mine again. Surely, lightning does not strike twice. Probability incalculable. Stopping the engine, I again prostrated my gratitude at the feet of the parking space diva. Wednesday arrived, and with it my parking space. Thursday, Friday…through the next week. It was as if an invisible force shield prevented others from parking in my space. I knew though, that it was NOT an invisible force shield, it was my parking space diva.

She loved me.

And I never once took her for granted, never once failed to take a small moment to offer praise. The parking space diva had changed my life.

Time went by, as it is wont to do. I reveled in my new status quo, born of a whim but brought to fruition in the fullness of real life in that dingy Cambridge side-street. Then came that day, the day that would live in infamy. The day that my life was again changed, forever. Like so many of us in these trying times, I allowed myself to be overcome with the stress, push, and storm of modern daily life. I was buffeted in the maelstrom of family, work, and friends, and my mind, my stupid mind, was full of stupid thoughts, stupid cluttering thoughts. I parked in my parking space, leaped out of my car and up the steps through the door with ten thousand useless petty grievances vying undeservedly for my undivided attention. It was only later in the evening, when I got back to my car to leave for the day that I remembered. But I hadn’t remembered. I had forgotten.

My car had an odd look to it. Something was amiss. I walked around it, staring in the waning light of sunset, trying to put my finger on it. My car had an “expression” about it. It looked as I imagine the spouse of a lousy drunk would look, to the other party guests: Embarrassed, humbly begging for forgiveness for something that clearly deserved no forgiveness. The air itself had a slight ostracizing cold bitterness to it. I knew that exact moment, deep in my heart, that the damage had been done, but I tried to fix it anyway. I apologized and praised the parking space diva with the fullest extent of my being. But the sincerity was missing, it was tainted with panic and cover-up. The parking space diva could sense this, like a cuckold senses the rug burns on the cheating spouse’s knees.

The next day. There. Was. A. Car. In. MY. Parking. Space. I accepted the rebuke. After all, it was clearly my fault. I deserved it. It was only as I drove on, that the full horror of the situation became apparent. The parking lot diva is vain. She is petulant, She is true to her nature, the nature of the spirit diva. She can feel hurt, and can hurt, too, and scorn. Compared to the divas, mortal women are rank amateurs at hurt and scorn.

And she has friends. Content in our love affair for so many blissful months, my parking space diva cried out in her grief and betrayal, and she had given out my number. They ALL had my number. There was not a parking spot to be had within ten blocks, no matter the point of the compass. I had to park clear away across the Charles River, and walk. Even the sound of the Charles River regatta boats passing under the Longfellow bridge below me seemed to mock and admonish me: “For shame” the oars swishing through the water seemed to whisper. “whssssshame”

Oh, the divas are vain. And they have long, long memories. She has a new love, and that love is not me.


It was a packed house. Every seat full, a sea of expectant and exuberant faces in the courtyard of the Korphe mosque in the mountains of the Himalayas, eagerly awaiting the evening’s main event. Greg Mortenson, famous the world over for his work bringing the opportunity of a better life to the children of the world and best-selling author of the book “Three Cups of Tea and Some Salted Nuts” was about to take the podium. An affable, easygoing man, possessing a quiet grace, a stoic charisma grown from his years of naming, claiming, and shaming the world’s great mountain summits.

Mortenson takes the stage, with a little skip and an endearing oafish clumsiness. There’s an aura of sincerity emanating off him like cheap after-shave. He’s a mountain climber, a special breed. He begins to speak.

“I was halfway through my descent” he intoned, “when I became separated from my sherpa. The seatbelt light had turned on and he had to return to business class, far down the narrow, serpentine trail. I was alone in first class. I didn’t see him again for a long time. There I was, in seating group A, walking alone down the boarding tunnel of gate K2 in the northern terminal of the O’Hare region, without any of the amenities we take for granted in our daily lives. I hadn’t showered since the Istanbul Marriott, what seemed like an entire world and a lifetime away.”

The audience was listening with rapt attention. Women in their aquamarine burkhas twisted in their seats from the tension. Men nervously fingered the stocks and sights of their Kalashnikovs as the tale unfolded. It was a tale of personal courage. A tale of adversity overcome. It was the story of how one man reached a personal epiphany about his life mission, deep in the middle of a strange land. A land where the value system we take for granted scarcely exists, a place with strange, consonant-poor tribal names: Illinois; Narragansett; Dallas/Ft. Worth; Puerta Vallarta; Acapulco; Hilton Head; Cheyenne; Bozeman. Logan, LaGuardia and LAX. Taking a sip of water from the gourd in front of him on the podium, Mortenson continued.

“I wandered down from Gate K2, alone. As I passed through the ceremonial entrance gates, into ‘The Lobby,’ I found myself in the center of the village. There were children everywhere. They followed me, all 47.33 of them. The people of the village welcomed me, they nursed me back to health with Au Bon Pain and Starbucks. The indigenous food agreed with me: Simple, honest peasant fare, unchanged for hundreds of years. I slept a fitful, deep sleep, occasionally waking to find that there were 13.75 children leaning over the backs of their chairs, peering into my sleeping face. I approached one of the elders of the village, an aged, wise black man wearing the ceremonial rainbow colored robes of leadership. ‘Where are your schools?’ I asked. He replied, ‘man, we is OLD-SKOOL round these parts.’ He took me over to see the children scratching their lessons into etch-a-sketches and Gameboys. I felt my heart fill with a sudden flood of emotion, as I suddenly knew my calling. I would come back, I promised. I would come back and establish a NEW school here, with iPads and mp3 players, so that the 87.33 children would have someplace to learn, someplace to grow, some sense of hope and opportunity to illuminate their empty lives of poverty.”

Mortenson made good on his promise. Returning the next year to O’Hare Lobby, he built that school, between the American Airlines Executive Club and the baby changing station. But that isn’t all. He’s made it his life work, and founded an organization, the Canadian American Institute (CAI) to help. He’s built more schools within the North American Airlines Duty Free region than any other organization, breaking down bureaucratic walls and political barriers to do so. To date, he’s visited over 170 international airports, bringing funds and resources to the children there, creating hope.

The talk concludes, and the crowd pushes toward the front of the dusty apricot orchard in the side yard of the mosque, hoping for an opportunity to buy one of Mortenson’s books and get it signed by the author. Mortenson stays late, until the last person in line had come through. The mosque then sends all the women home so that the nightly prayers to Allah could commence. All who attended were inspired by the will and perseverance of Mortenson, who has over the years built CAI into a multi-million rupee organization.

But depending on who you talk to, all is not well in this inspired story of charity and hope. Another climber, who was present for Mortenson’s Jet Stream ascent from LAX to BOS, says that there’s more than a handful of falsehoods, and even outright lies in Mortenson’s story. Richard Branson, a mountaineer with more than a little experience in the areas that Mortenson claims to have worked in, tells a tale of lies, prevarication, and embellishment that paints Mortenson in an entirely different light.

“He’s a complete fake.” says Branson. “He says he was coming off gate K2 that day. Well, K terminal is at O’Hare airport. If you check the flight manifests that day, you find that Mortenson flew into Midway on Virgin Airlines. He was never even in O’Hare Lobby, because Virgin doesn’t even fly into O’Hare.”

And all those schools he says he built? In a recent expose aired by Al Jazeera, investigative reporters went to those airline terminals to find those schools. The O’Hare Lobby school which Mortenson uses in his inspiring story? It’s a broom closet between the American Airlines Executive Lounge and the Baby Changing Station. Al Jazeera asked the locals if they had seen any school activities, and they all just shook their heads. Branson doesn’t mince words.

“He’s a liar and a cheat.” Branson says. “His charity, CAI? Go look at it’s books sometime. They’re a sham. He doesn’t spend money in those airports. He blows it all on his tours here in the middle east. He uses that charity as his personal ATM.”

The muslim faithful in Afghanistan and Pakistan find these allegations troubling. Abdulla Nabal Chandra, a businessman in Kirkut and a large contributor to CAI, is cautious in his assessment.

“He is doing great works, I am sure of it. But the reports coming out in the media cast a cloud on his operations,” Abdulla says in measured tones. “I do find it extremely disturbing that CAI spends almost 60 percent of it’s revenue here at home, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, apparently on promotional activities, with only 40 percent of it’s operational budget going toward it’s stated purpose, the airline terminals in the impoverished western world.”

That sentiment was echoed everywhere we spoke with people. Recent revelations haven’t helped Mortenson’s cause. A photo in his second book, “turning gravel into taxiways” showed him surrounded by armed men, apparently kidnapped by the group, in the traditional garb of the terrorist group, TSA.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Leon Hearst, one of the men in the photo. “He was our honored guest.” Hearst produced a photo of his own, showing the group presenting Mortenson with a tray containing his wallet, keys, laptop computer, and iPhone. “It’s not only a lie, it’s slander.” said Hearst.

Mortenson has recently installed a new executive director for CAI, in an attempt to manage the adverse publicity. Upon taking up the Directorship, she released this statement:

“We don’t dispute that only 40 percent of our operating budget went to North American Airports, and that a full 60 percent was spent here in the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan. There is not a shred of impropriety in the spending, we are a completely transparent organization and welcome an external audit.”

Mortenson was steadfast in his own defense.

“We have always, and will continue as an organization, to work tirelessly to bring education and enlightenment to the hotspots of terrorism in Canada and America, to build bridges with books; to break the deadly cycle of hate using stones, mortar, chalkboards and the multiplication tables.”

Legacy

By David Wozmak

Essay

I fidgeted in my seat, my seventh grade teacher reviewing my IQ test results. He looked over his thick rimmed glasses at me, frowning, as if the words he would speak made no sense to him.

“You have a great potential.”