Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

A powerful lesson for a privileged white woman

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Every now and then, an experience comes along that slaps me upside the head.  I had one a week ago in my effort to get to Portland, Oregon. After 7 hours of waiting at the airport gate, then getting on and off the plane on the tarmac, our flight was cancelled.  I figured sleep would be a good idea as 3 AM approached.  No airport hotel rooms were available, so I went to Ozone City, which is in Jamaica, Queens, 15 minutes from JFK airport.  It was at that moment, that I began to notice how alive and aware I felt, in spite of my exhaustion.  Everything was totally different from what I’m used to, from the time I felt stranded and realized I would not make it to the west coast to meet my husband and 2 sons on Thursday night, until the time I finally met up with them on Saturday at 12:30 PM.

From the moment that the Econolodge clerk asked for cash instead of a credit card,  to the hard bed and persnickety climate control, I began to appreciate my ridiculously privileged life even more than I already do, (and I really do count my blessings every day).

The myriad of things I take for granted each day were turned on their heads. Forgive the banality of these daily details but here are some things I now appreciate even more.

Thanks so much for my wicked comfy bed, pillows, sheets and blankets.

Thanks for the perfect temperature in my room at night, and ability to open my windows.

Thanks for the quietude of Newton, complete with occasional sirens and trains, but not equaling the loud voices and TV of my next door Econolodge neighbors, even at 4 AM.

Thanks for the privilege of being able to sleep in the same bed with my husband of 33 years.

After 4 fitful hours of sleep,  I bemoaned the 8 AM (which is a perfectly reasonable hour for those who haven’t gone to sleep until 4 AM)  loud bangs and knocks that came from construction in the next room on the wall against my bed.  When I asked the carpenters next door if they could quiet down, they said they only had 5 more minutes to finish. About 15 minutes later, the banging was replaced by vacuuming for 15 minutes. Giving up on sleep seemed a good idea as I plotted my escape from New York.

Again, I was struck with the good fortune I enjoy in my day-to-day life. Thanks for the privilege to be where I want to be at any time with freedom, mobility, ability, perspective and free will.  Thanks for productive, meaningful, and interesting work that makes me feel good every day I choose, and access to the fitness activities that make me happy. Although I had free will and some mobility in Jamaica, it was not where I wanted to be at that time.  It’s a real life lesson, and makes me think of those who are refugees, fleeing from violence.  Of course, there’s no comparison whatsoever, because so many people are running for their lives, but if I felt stranded, how must they feel?

On the way out the door of the Econolodge, I met Dolores, who is a security guard (pictured here). We had a great talk about breakfast places and how, of course, she wouldn’t know good breakfast places, because breakfast is the easiest meal to make, and it’s best made at home and she lives around there. We also discussed gambling and how we’d both rather save or invest our hard-earned money- she was a lot of fun and very smiley.


Although I didn’t get a picture of Nugget, the next person I met, he was getting some provisions at the same corner convenience store where I got my most excellent breakfast sandwich.  When he dropped his change, and I bent over to pick it up, he told me thanks, because he couldn’t do it;  he’d had a stroke and went to rehab once a week at a nearby hospital. His breakfast was a can of beer, and the mother in me couldn’t help but ask him if it wasn’t a little early to drink.  He said,  “It’s already 11:30 AM!” and we proceeded to humor each other and talk about rehab and life for a few minutes. His nickname comes from his affinity for Chicken McNuggets from McDonald’s.

I had the day in Jamaica ahead of me, and I considered my options. I hadn’t been able to get a good internet connection for several hours, so thought I’d catch up on my email and writing my blog.  I figured the library would be a good place to get all this done, so my luggage and I set out to find it. Every person I met on the street was friendly and helpful, and happy to tell me where to go (in the nicest way possible!) I happened to be wearing my T shirt that says Bike, Eat, Drink, Sleep, and one guy that I walked by on the street called out, “I got the last 3 down pat !”

When I arrived at the library, the staff were very accommodating, and I was able to use the computers for an additional half hour, for which I was very thankful.  A parade of homeless folks drifted in and out of the library, and were sitting in a circle of chairs behind my perch at the computer. A few of them were very talkative, but I noticed that one man was speaking quietly and pragmatically to the rest of the group. I decided I’d talk to him, and when my internet session timed out, it turned out that he was the only one left in the circle.

I sat down across from him, and we proceeded to have a 2 hour visit.  Ramprasad turned out to be a delightful and engaging man. He told me about his origins in British Guyana, and his Indian ancestors’ emigration to that South American country. He also told me that French Guyana, Dutch Guyana and British Guyana all kept some of their imperialists’ culture, but that France is the only country that maintains jurisdiction over French Guiana, which has kept that name.  The two other Guyanas are independent states.  Dutch Guiana is now called Suriname, and British Guyana is now just called “Guyana”, and is the only country in South America where English is the first language.


Ramprasad also told me about the people from India, Africa and other countries in the Western hemisphere who were brought to Guyana as slaves, and that slavery was abolished there decades before it was abolished in the U.S.A.  He told me that he’s proud to live in America, and believes that opportunity abounds here, if you’re not lazy.  He is a retired math teacher, and was able to buy a home not far from the library.

It was no coincidence that he was sitting in front of a chess board, as he’s almost a chess master.  He said that kids these days are not patient enough to learn to play chess, and he thinks it’s a great loss, because the game teaches patience.  Each and every move you make has consequences, which is a lesson lost on most kids and teenagers.  I took this rare and perfect opportunity to re-learn how to play chess, which I hadn’t played in many decades. Ramprasad was incredibly patient and was an excellent teacher, and told me why the moves I made were either good or bad. We had a lively game and discussion for the better part of the afternoon, and I really felt honored to be in his presence. Besides feeling almost competent playing chess again, I so appreciated being able to spend time with someone who I never would have had a chance to relax with and talk to at length.


I have to say, although I missed a day and a half out of a 5 day vacation with my family, the lessons learned from my day in Jamaica, and subsequent 11 hour train ride from Sacramento to Bend, Oregon (which was another worthwhile experience too lengthy for this blog) gave me perspective that escapes me in my normal routines.

Gratefulness in a vacuum is impossible. It’s essential to do what Thomas Friedman, in his book, “Thank you for being late” describes. It is those unplanned, unexpected breaks in normal activities when you find yourself with extra time, when you can have a true experience of “being in the moment”.  Here was a rare opportunity to absorb, process and really reflect on those things that were happening right in front of me, instead of trying to discern what’s important from the million pieces of information that we’re confronted with each day.

“Friedman concludes that nations and individuals must learn to be fast (innovative and quick to adapt), fair (prepared to help the casualties of change), and slow (adept at shutting out the noise and accessing their deepest values).”

I’m interested in all 3 ways of being, but am most enamored with the last one, which occurs all too seldom in my busy life. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on similar experiences. Thanks for reading!


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