Category Archives: daily life

Summer Summary

From time to time, I’ve taken a break from chronicling my travels in far-off destinations to write about small adventures close to home.  I can’t travel abroad 365 days a year, so I try to find new places and things to do in my own backyard.

This summer was no different.  The highlight, of course, we my son’s wedding. I’ve already shared my amateur photos from the day, but here’s one more, of me and my cousin and nieces lining up to show off our green eyes.  It was funny at the time.

This year, spring lost its luster because of my aunt’s illness.  Soon after her death, I walked around the little lake near my house, Beaver Lake, and did something I never do.  I sat down on a bench and actually looked at the lake, the tree branches loaded with buds, and the sky as spring clouds drifted across and changed the colors on the water.  I listened to the jays, robins, wood peckers, loons, and cardinals.  I didn’t have any great insights into the meaning of life or loss but I felt comforted to know that the wheel turns and the world wakes up every year.

I returned to the same spot a few more times as spring progressed into summer.

I met a friend for a walk at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis.  We never did walk.  We got a pitcher of beer and sat at a table for a couple hours, people watched, and talked politics.

On my last visit to my aunt’s house, I took a long walk along the St. Croix River.  It looked to be shaping up as a great year for mushrooms and fungi, with many rainy nights and steamy days.

Molly and I hung out on her deck and laughed at her cat playing secret agent in the tall grass.

Then there was Japan, and then I was back.  I visited my favorite paths along the Mississippi, starting at Hidden Falls Park.   I don’t know why this photo looks like my lens was smeared with Vaseline, or if coyotes are a new thing here, or how they know there is only one.

I spent a rainy afternoon and evening at Irish Fair, an annual event in St. Paul that always has great music.  This year was no exception; there were bagpipers in kilts, of course, but the headliners, the Screaming Orphans, got the crowd whipped into a frenzy.

I hosted a Japanese food-making party for Keiko, my nephews, and my brother.  Almost everything turned out oishi (delicious).

In late July I returned to the St. Croix and canoed with some people I knew from the fabulous mid-Century modern high rise apartment building I lived in for six years.

For once in my life it didn’t start raining as soon as I stepped into a canoe.  I was paired with a woman from Nebraska who had never canoed.  She didn’t follow instructions and had no upper body strength, but she was so nice that I didn’t mind that I basically paddled the canoe myself the whole way.

We stopped for a long picnic lunch on an island.  Afterwards, as if I hadn’t gotten enough of a workout, I did a two-hour hike through the Minnesota side of Interstate Park, which is a park that straddles the Minnesota and Wisconsin banks of the St. Croix River.

A friend and I rented kayaks and paddled around Pickerel Lake; this is not my photo, in case that’s not obvious.

I took some long bike rides, went berry foraging, and sat in my backyard and appreciated the hydrangeas that had been a highlight of Japan and were also profuse in St Paul this year.  I even tried my hand at flower arranging.

As ever, summer closes with two blockbuster events.  First, the Minnesota State Fair.  This is a small selection of seed art.  Winters are long on the prairie.

The poor horses.  Of course they bite and kick, cooped up like that.

Bulls on Parade: not just a song by Rage Against the Machine.

“Eggzibit”—get it?

Then, Labor Day weekend in Wisconsin, paid for by my aunt.  It helped to have a super cute super baby there.

Upside Down

Last night I dreamed that the whole world was—literally—turned upside down.  I was stumbling along the ceiling, with books and coffee mugs falling past me, when someone pulled me into a building where everything had been glued or attached to the ceilings by Velcro. This meant we could hang out on the ceilings, which were the new floors, and everything would feel normal.

But the person who’d brought me along cautioned, “Don’t look out the window.  It’ll remind you that everything is really upside down.”

Like a toddler, I think I am going through a phase.  I left full-time employment three and a half months ago.  Up until now, I’ve been busy with contract proposal writing, working part-time at the Y, and boosting my exercise levels—as long as I’m at the Y twice a week.  I was constantly shoveling and moving my car and scraping my windshield and batting icicles off the roof.  I did about 30 hours of CPR and other training as part of my Y orientation.

Everything was new and different and I didn’t have time to think about whether this was permanent or what.

I stand in the child care center at the Y, watching a group of four-year-old boys play with toy dinosaurs. Their names are Milton, Kash, Zacques and Denzel—Denzel Zhou.  A mom enters and checks in a new boy.  I look at his name on the monitor: βӕrәӦn.

“Umm…” I stammer.  “Baron?”

The mother gives me a withering look as though I am a moron.

“No,” she says very slowly and mock-patiently, “It’s ber-on, the ancient Slovenian god of moss-covered river rocks.”

“Ah, I see!” I reply, trying not to sound too much like Basil Fawlty, and immediately forget how to pronounce it.  I will have to avoid using his name for two hours.

I do love the kids.  I like pivoting from proposals about torture to observing children at play.

My days are also punctuated with emergency room trips for my mother, her husband, and my aunt.

One day I spent three hours at the Y playing with an adorable Hmong baby named Howard, then rushed to the ER because my mom’s husband had fallen and they discovered he had a giant boil on his abdomen he’d been keeping quiet about, hoping it would just go away.

It didn’t.  They had to lance and drain it, and the smell almost caused me to pass out.

So I get to see humanity on both ends of the age and health spectrums every day.

Now the contract work has slowed.  The Y is routine.  The battle with snow and cold is over, for now.

As I sit and watch Howard drool and gnaw on a block, or wait endlessly in windowless ER rooms, I have hours to ask myself, “Is this it from here on out?  Taking care of babies and old people?  Am I taking a break from full-time work, or am I an early retiree?  My sister is moving to Oregon next month.  Why aren’t I planning a move to Belize to escape next winter?  Will I ever have any more adventures?  Shouldn’t I use this time to learn Chinese or write a novel or apply for one writing workshop per day?  Shouldn’t I be setting some goals, instead of reading and doing crossword puzzles and walking in the woods in my spare time?  Damn, I’m so lazy!”

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t feel sorry for myself.  I know I’m super lucky to be able to take this time out.  Or whatever it turns out to be.

And so I have procrastinated on blogging because I just haven’t known what to write about.  Normally I’d be posting up a storm about my trip to Japan in June, but I have also been procrastinating on that.

Here are two last photos from winter.

Can you spot my car?

And here’s a big ol’ nasty possum I encountered on my walk in a city park.  It appeared to be eating a wiener, or maybe a baby rabbit.

Ugh.  Thanks for reading; it feels good to get some thoughts out of my head.

Next post, the Japan plan.

Down Day

I allowed myself one down day in Australia, in Palm Cove.  I didn’t plan anything, I went where I was called.

I took a couple long walks on beach.  I had not realized that crocodiles swam in the ocean, but that helped me decide I would not be swimming here or renting a kayak.

I had wondered, before arriving in Australia, if the whole crocodile thing was overblown—something they played up to titillate the tourists and TV audiences.  But no.  As I wrote before, on the shuttle on the way from the airport I had seen signs that warning people not to swim or wade in streams, and just beyond the signs were people standing in the water up to their thighs, fishing.

“So … isn’t that dangerous?” I asked the driver.

“Yeah, it is.  A ranger was doing the same just last week with her family. She was an Aboriginal. You would think she would have known better.  One minute she was there, the next she was gone. They found her body a couple days later.”

I walked through the jungle around Palm Cove.  There were paths and boardwalks so I knew I wasn’t crazy to be walking here, but there were also warning signs about crocodiles everywhere.

I’m normally a pretty intrepid hiker.  My mother would freak if she knew some of the deserted places I have hiked alone down by the Mississippi River.

All the time I was in Australia, I never felt afraid of crime.  I’m sure crime happens there, but I never saw warnings about crime like one does everywhere else.  You know: “Be vigilant on trains and on the street for pickpockets.”

I would take my chances with a pickpocket any day, I thought, over a crocodile.  I was really on edge, watching for signs of fast movement on the sides of the paths.

It really wasn’t very relaxing, so I headed back toward the beach, past a new housing development. I imagined walking out my back door to find a big croc in my pool, or leaping out at me as I gardened.  No thanks.

I stopped for a fried barramundi sandwich at the corner restaurant/grocery and perused the Sunday papers while I waited.  I don’t know who this guy was, what really happened, or what his greatest triumph was, but he was handsome in a Cro-Magnon Man way.

They had all manner of fried snacks that sounded like exotic variations on fish sticks; I imagine my five-year-old nephew would find them appealing.

There was this sign explaining why they don’t issue plastic drinking straws.  Because of the glare you won’t be able to read it, but trust me—straws are bad for sea turtles.

I checked out every shop along the promenade and bought a few things but it was basically resort wear—nothing I would have occasion to wear in Minnesota.

Back in my room, I pored over the brochures, then arranged with Jim at the front desk to take an excursion through the Daintree Rainforest the next day.  I was excited; it would involve a train ride through the jungle, then a couple hours in the village of Kuranda, where I could buy more trinkets and have a beer, then a hike through the rainforest, then a cable car ride back.  I would be gone all day.  I couldn’t wait.

I sat by the pool and read my book.  I was half way through my 800-page Somerset Maugham short stories.  I was tearing them out as I read not only to lighten my load, but because he uses the N word and other offensive language.  He was a product of his time.  These were the words people used.  But I would not be leaving this on the take one, leave one shelf.

I took a dip in the warm salt water pool, gazing up at the pointillist canopy of gum tree leaves way above me.

I capped off the day with a gag-inducing “Japanese” dinner.  Imagine sushi made with “local fish.” Now think—like I didn’t—that the local fish is not tuna or shrimp or  salmon, but barramundi, which is nice fried, but not raw.

 

Palm Cove

After a 20-minute drive I alighted at the Reef Retreat in Palm Cove.  This was my big splurge. I had read about the place in Frommer’s Easy Guide to Australia; it wasn’t easy to find the website and when I did, it was fully booked for some of the nights I wanted.  I went back and forth for a month before securing five nights there, then I added a sixth night when I was in Blayney.  I felt so lucky to get the place I wanted.

I wanted it because it was one block off the beach, which was traced by a road full of traffic. I didn’t want to stay in a B&B because I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to stay in a chain hotel. I didn’t want to stay in a sterile high-rise where you had to take an elevator and walk down a long hallway.

This was the photo that got me.  The red square outlines the Reef Retreat.  Two stories of rooms were built around a central courtyard with a pool and, basically, a miniature rain forest. I could be close to the action but feel like I was in the jungle.

And it was only $95 a night.

The place did not disappoint.  I checked in with Jim and Joanne, the owners, who would soon become my personal support group.  I loaded up on brochures from the Wall of a Thousand Brochures, then rolled my bag through the courtyard to my room, which was up a flight of about 20 stairs.  This was the only downside of the place—you would have to stay on the first floor if you couldn’t manage stairs.

The rooms were clean and bright and had everything one needed to be a hermit in paradise.  Balcony screened by trees, couch and TV, and fridge.

These are the views from my balcony.  The big screen is to keep people who are using the barbie from being barbecued themselves, by the sun.

I hung up my dank clothes to air for the first time in weeks, then hustled out to buy supplies.  The books in the “take one, leave one” shelf in the laundry room were typical of a resort that attracts an international crowd.

I would pass on “Analfabeten” but I had a couple books with me and I could read by the pool every day!  I could catch up on blogging.  I could sleep late.  I could take long walks, rent a bike, maybe a kayak.  I would alternate excursions, like to the reef, with down time.  This was going to be great.

This was the night I would lose my passport.  This was not going to be great, but I didn’t know it yet.

I walked on the beach and took a few excellent photos, for once.  They somehow vanished off my phone, so here’s a photo from the official tourist site.

I have been to tropical beaches in Belize and Colombia in the last two years, and I have to say that one beach looks very much like another to me.  There’s sand, and water, and palm trees.  But that’s not to take away from their beauty.

I walked along the promenade and bought groceries, then donned my rain poncho so I could keep my bag from disintegrating until I got to the casino/bottle shop where I could buy wine and beer.  The 16-year-old kid who waited on me asked for my ID, and I fumbled with my poncho, backpack, and grocery bag to find it and show it to him.  If you like casinos, you would have loved this place.  I hate them so I hurried to get back to my quiet retreat.

I watched TV; there was the Ernie Dingo Show, where an Aboriginal guy walks around the outback and shows sites of cultural significance to a white guy, whose job is apparently to nod and show keen interest in everything Ernie says.  Megan and Harry were on the news, as they would be every night during the Invictus Games.  Harry was climbing Sydney Harbor Bridge, and it was raining hard.  “Guess I picked the wrong day to cross the bridge,” he quipped.

Overlapping Circles

Under a heavy duvet I was warm but I knew it would be frosty once I got up that morning.

I’ve written about this before.  As I write this it is 13 degrees Fahrenheit (-11 Celsius) in St. Paul, Minnesota. This is normal.  It’s been cold and dark since November, and it will remain cold and dark until April.  And so there’s this psychological hurdle I can’t get over where I believe everywhere else must be warmer.  And mostly, everywhere else is.  But not Melbourne in spring.

I don’t know how cold it was in Melbourne last October—below 50F/8C in the house in the mornings, for sure.  I could hear a feeble whishing of air from a “heating vent.”  My heating vents at home issue forth gusts of hot air that could knock you off your feet.  There was no basement in Dean and Lisa’s house, and the windows weren’t double glazed, so any heat went straight out the windows, literally.

I summoned the courage to crawl out from under the duvet and made a run to the toilet room.  The dog, Penny, a black lab, came loping toward me and I hugged her, if nothing else for the warmth.  Heidi was up making a cup of tea.

“Oh hi there, how’d you sleep?”

“Really well,” I replied.  “I think I’m so tired here every night that even my Restless Legs are taking a vacation.”

Dean and Lisa had left for work.  They work at a nearby Aboriginal girls’ college, a boarding school, and—I’m not going to get this all right—but there is a branch component for Aboriginal kids in the outback.  So Dean flies to the back of beyond and stays for weeks at a time.  He loves the kids and the job, but there is nothing to do when he’s off duty.

“We don’t have a ute,” (a truck) he said, “although even if we did there’s nothing in town to do.”  Dean teaches maths and science and Lisa is the school’s e-learning coordinator.

Before leaving Minnesota I’d spoken with my cousin’s wife, who is Native American, about maybe bringing some Native American-related gifts for the girls at Dean and Lisa’s school.  “They’re Black, aren’t they?” she asked.  “Then get them some magazines like Ebony and Teen Jet.  They probably don’t see Black faces in ads or billboards or magazines.”

That was an excellent idea, so I had handed Dean a stack of teen mags.  But the one I had bought on a whim, a publication about how to live off the grid, would prove to be the most popular.  There was a full-page ad for guns on the back cover.  “But it’s got good articles on starting a worm farm and making lamp shades out of animal hides,” Dean had observed as he’d flipped through it.

How do we all know each other?  Simple.  Heidi was in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt looking to go diving and someone said, “You should go see Dean; he’s an Aussie and he’s the Mayor of Sharm El Sheikh.”  The unofficial mayor, of course.  Dean had been living there for some time and knew who to talk to.

Eventually they both wound up living in London, where Dean met Rob, who is from Bemidji Minnesota.  A mutual friend introduced me to Rob when I was living in Oxford, and one day he said, “Hey Annie, wanna go to Greece next week?  There are these two Aussie girls who teach with me who want to go and we need four to avoid the single supplement.”

Heidi was one of the Aussie girls.

Dean and Lisa being at work gave me the opportunity to snoop around. Not that I looked in any of their drawers.

The house is perched on a steep hill.

I couldn’t get over all the fruit trees growing—just growing!—in their yard.

This appeared to be a giant daisy tree.

I have this plant in a pot at home but it’s 12 inches tall, not twelve feet.

The three of us faffed about for hours, then Dean came home on his lunch break to take us to the train station.

Hoppers and Hunters and Kookas

The plan was to leave by 8am for Melbourne so we wouldn’t be driving in the dark.  However as things sometimes happen, we didn’t leave until 1:00pm so I had time to nose around the farm while Heidi and Danielle made sure Des and Hedy would be okay during the girls’ brief absence.

I ambled down the lane to the main road.  I gazed over the fields and thought, “This looks just like Minnesota.”

Except for the kangaroos.

I spotted this mother and her joey, and a couple other adults, and was entranced by the way they hopped.  It looks so inefficient and tiring.

Back in the house I reported my sightings to Hedy.  “They’re coming in closer and closer to towns and houses because of the drought,” she said.  “Last week I opened the blind on the kitchen door and there was a joey napping on the patio.  He looked up at me as if to say, ‘What are you looking at?’”

“There’s a Huntsman in the hall,” Danielle said casually, “If you want to see some proper Australian wildlife.”

Thankfully I am not afraid of spiders.

“Do you kill them?” I asked.

“Nah, we just let ‘em be,” replied Danielle.  “They’re good for hunting bugs, as their name implies.  That one’s been hanging around for a couple days.”

I walked around the house and noted the boxes of photo albums and strongboxes stored by the front door, ready to load into the car and spirit away in case of a bushfire.

“We keep the grass cut really short,” Heidi had told me.  “It’s not for appearances. It’s a fire deterrent.”

Scary stuff.  Australia routinely deals with deadly bushfires; the worst was the Black Saturday fire in 2009 that killed 173 people.  Two months after I returned home, we Americans would be watching in shock as the Camp Fire in northern California killed almost 90 people and nearly wiped the city of Paradise off the map.

As an aside, while reading up on fires I learned that the largest one in US history was in Cloquet, Minnesota in 1918—453 people died, 52,000 were injured or displaced, 38 communities were destroyed, and 250,000 acres were burned.

I admired the family photos on the baby grand piano, Hedy’s collection souvenir spoons from her travels, and shelves full of books.  I could easily spend a couple months here, curled up on the couch reading.

The only photo I took of the interior was one which illustrates an Australian oddity.  At least, it’s an oddity to Americans.

Yes, the toilet is in a separate room.  I don’t know what the thinking is behind this.  Entering this room removes any doubt about what activity you may be performing.  You are prevented  from running the water to cover up any awkward sound effects you may need to produce.  [And may I just insert here—Australian toilet paper is really thin.] Then, after you have finished, you have to exit the Toilet Room and into the Bath Room to wash your hands.

It ranks up (or down?) there with the Dutch toilet’s “viewing platform” and the English deep-bowl sound-enhancing toilet.

We made half a dozen stops on the way to Melbourne, but Facebook unhelpfully deleted almost all my photos.

Before exiting Blayneyshire, we cruised through the historic town of Carcour, population 200.  You will have to take my word for it; it was very picturesque.

We stopped at several botanical gardens, since I had clearly established a reputation as someone obsessed with flora.  And why wouldn’t I be?  Here’s another massive tree.

GPS was intermittent, so there were some false starts and turns.  We passed Mandurama, Wattamondara, Koorawatha, Wombat, and Wallendbeen.

We stopped at a park in Cootamundra so I could receive a tutorial in cricket.  Cootamundra is the hometown of Donald Bradman, Australia’s most beloved cricket captain, and the park featured busts of every captain since the dawn of time.

Suddenly I was startled to hear insane laughter coming from the trees.  “My God, what is that!?” I called to Heidi.  It took her a few seconds to realize what I was talking about.  “Oh that?  That’s just kookas.”  Kookaburras.  Here’s a sample from YouTube.

Next stop: Wagga Wagga and the Sandrakan Memorial.

Summer Summary

Today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  It’s as good a time as any to re-start writing.  I’ll join some friends at synagogue this morning, then have a free day.  The weather is always beautiful on Rosh Hashanah, so I’ll spend as much time outside as possible, doing as little as possible, which is really hard for me.

It’s been three years since my son was released from prison.  I saw him yesterday and reminded him, “When I called you the day before I picked you up, I asked if there was some food you’d like me to bring along for you.  And without hesitation you said, ‘an avocado…or any fresh fruit or vegetable, really.’”

He laughed, remembering this. I had brought an avocado, and some oranges, and he wolfed them down.  Then he had asked to stop at a MacDonald’s, and to buy a lottery ticket. I wasn’t happy about either of those but I bit my tongue. I did a lot of that in the months that followed, as we lived together in my tiny, dark flat over the winter. A couple times I lost my temper and screamed at some inanimate object.  Vince would draw himself up to his full height, look at the floor, walk to his bedroom that doubled as a laundry room, and shut the door.  It was a very long winter.

Vince now has four years of sobriety.  He’s got a job at a country club with good pay and benefits like health insurance—for the first time in 20 years.  He bought a house this spring.  He has a girlfriend with two young children, and he is thriving at playing a father role.

It’s complicated.  I love kids and I am cautiously forming attachments to these two cuties.

It’s been a great summer. As I’ve written over and over, I’m a big advocate of seeking adventure at home. Sure, I would love to travel nonstop, but that’s not in the budget.

This was Pola-Czesky Days, the annual festival in the tiny town where Vince lives. Small town parades consist of marching bands and floats featuring veterans, civic groups, politicians, and other towns’ princesses.

There was also a tractor pull, which I didn’t understand.  It was basically just tractors roaring down the street over and over, making a lot of noise and belching out fumes.

As a life-long city person, this type of thing is more exotic to me than London or New York.  I loved the classic cars.

Other summer doings: I won tickets to a St. Paul Saints minor league baseball game. They were playing Winnipeg.  I don’t know why the Saints mascot is a pig, but hey, never pass up a photo opp with a mascot.

I went to Irish Festival, which always has great music and strange performances involving little girls wearing curly wigs, Irish dogs, and men in kilts hurling things and playing bagpipes.  Then were the Christians at the gate.  I already knew I was in trouble so their Good News wasn’t news to me.

I went to Wannigan Days in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, the highlight of which was human foosball. Unfortunately I didn’t get a good photo so you will just have to use your imagination.

There was a memorable happy hour at Lake Monster Brewery sponsored by Jewish Community Action, with which I am still doing my very small part on their campaigns to reduce mass incarceration and injustice against immigrants.

Inspired by the Great British Baking Show, for my nephew’s birthday I made a cake with layers of sponge and crème patisserie covered with whipped cream and fruit.  It slid sideways in the car on the way to the party but it still tasted good.

I hung out in the backyard of my apartment, which is wild and secluded.  I have come to love where I live, but then I love anywhere in summer.

My summer summary will have to be continued, as will an update on my Australia trip, which starts in two weeks.