Category Archives: daily life

Missing Things, Noticing Things

What are you doing with all your time at home?

You would think I would be writing 10 blog posts a day, but I’m not.  I’m too busy with other endeavors!  I am working on the novel I’ve always wanted to write.  I spend at least an hour a day on mastering German verb forms.  I spend another five hours using online resources, like a class about the philosopher Nietzsche (“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”) to tours of the World’s Greatest Museums to the Complete Works of William Shakespeare performed online by the Royal Shakespeare Company of Peoria, Illinois; I’m learning how to play the didgeridoo from YouTube videos.  I don’t have a didgeridoo so I have to mime it.  I make sure the curtains are closed first.

Seriously, I’m not doing much.

Most of what I have written about the You-Know-What has changed.  I got this notice yesterday.

We are allowed to go to stores for food and medicines; all other stores, pubs, restaurants, and other venues are now closed.  We’re also allowed to get out for exercise once a day.

It could be worse.  Starting on Monday, 1.5 million Britons got notified that, because they have underlying conditions, they must stay in their homes for the next 12 weeks.  For this “shielding operation,” the government is also recruiting 250,000 volunteers to ensure the home bound have food and medications.  I just signed up.

I take a long walk every day.  There are many routes to explore in Oxford, especially along the Thames.  My favorite encompasses Iffley Village, a quaint village with thatched-roof cottages just 10 minutes from me.

Iffley’s Church of St Mary the Virgin was built in 1160.  It’s unusual looking for an English church.  If you want to read why, here you go.

I was fortunate to get inside before everything shut down.  It’s tiny.  I admired the modern stained-glass windows.

They had a blind organist for 40 years!

The vicar was setting out prayer books on the benches.

“Can I ask a dumb question?  How do I tell if a church is Church of England or Catholic?”

I noticed he didn’t say, “That’s not a dumb question.”

“Look for things that are missing,” he said.  “No images of Mary.  No stations of the cross, no holy water fonts.

“But the main factor is the age.  Anything built before the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII around 1540 is going to be C of E.  Catholic churches all relatively new, because they were banned for over 200 years, until the late 18th Century.”

I know this has nothing to do with Coronavirus and that’s kind of the point.  I am looking for other things to keep my mind occupied and at peace, but things that don’t require a lot of concentration.

I walked around Iffley yesterday. This sign greeted me at the gate.

The church is closed now so I sat in the churchyard.  It was quiet before but now it was silent except for the birds, which I had not noticed before.  No airplanes overhead, no street traffic.  For a jarring moment I felt like I was in a movie set in the 1910s.

I walked around the church, looking up, and saw this Where the Wild Things Are face for the first time.

Back in the street, I stopped to admire a classic Morris Minor.  It’s much smaller than a Mini Cooper.

I stepped into the tiny community shop, surprised it was open.  The elderly lady at the till seemed nervous; was that sheen of sweat on her brow a symptom of the virus!?  Another woman appeared in the doorway, looked at me, and asked, “Do you have a guardian?”

I panicked.  Did I look like I needed a guardian?!  Was the government coming to take me away and lock me up?  I rushed out of the shop, then I realized she was looking for The Guardian newspaper and she had thought I worked there.

Thankfully this was steps away, and restored my sense of humor.

I snatched the toilet paper.

Just kidding!

Let’s all try to notice things around us—beautiful, strange, and ab fab.

 

Boat as Bolthole

As I was cleaning up my work area because, well, now I have all the time in the world to do that, I came across a program from a piano recital I attended at St. Hilda’s College about six weeks ago.  I had written a few notes to myself because the visiting performer, a professor from some university in the US, said things like, “the piece I am about to perform place exemplifies the dystopian and utopian poles of Beethoven’s variations on Sonata No. 32 in C Minor.”  As I sniggered at this rarefied language, people around me where murmuring, “Ah, yes, so interesting.”  I’m glad someone knew what the hell he was talking about.

My life—and probably yours—has suddenly become dystopian.

In my last post I laid out the reasons that the UK had not closed schools.  Last night Boris Johnson announced schools would close indefinitely starting at the end of the day on Friday.

I attended my usual free lunchtime concert at the old church in town on Monday.  The program, two Beethoven sonatas, was performed by a visiting Japanese pianist.  There were about half the usual people in attendance, and we were all seated as far as possible from one another, until at the last minute an old man shuffled into the pew behind me and proceeded to cough and sneeze.  Maybe I should have moved, but I kind of wish I would just get the damn virus so I could get it over with.

At the end of the performance the vicar announced the series would be suspended indefinitely.  I felt sad.  How will I know what day it is now?  No more Monday concert, no Wednesday Pilates at the gym, no Friday yoga class at the community centre.

Am I the proverbial frog in the pan, the one that’s oblivious to the rising temperature until it’s too late?

While I get urges to just go home, my rational mind says I am safer staying put than getting on a bus to Heathrow, hanging out in an airport full of tourists from all over the world, then spending eight hours packed into a plane—potentially surrounded by people who have the virus.

I keep imagining myself with the virus, slumped against the plane window coughing and sweating while my fellow passengers glare at me and contemplate throwing me out the emergency hatch.

I haven’t been able to get through to Expedia for three days, and my duplex is sublet until the end of May, so leaving is sort of a moot point anyway.

I walked for three hours in the rain on Sunday.  In Oxfordshire, the Thames is unfortunately called the Isis.

I thought this graffiti under the train bridge beautiful.

Also this boat, one of many narrow boats moored along the Isis.

I had lunch at a pub near the lock where I crossed to the other side of the river.

Every time the server came to my table I thought, “I could be giving her the virus right now, or vice versa.”  In the UK, we hadn’t yet been encouraged to avoid pubs, but now that’s changed.

On another walk, I was thrilled to stumble upon this outdoor gym, since I will not be going to my real gym any time soon.

There will be no grand UK tour as described in my last post.  I searched Air BnB for boats and there was one—one I had passed many times—for rent.  I booked it for a week when my house sitting ends.

I may have to cancel it, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

After that?  Anyone’s guess.

At night I watch the news, transfixed.  Bertie, the affectionate cat of the trio for whom I am responsible, creeps up onto me seeking love.

“I can see you, you know,” I tell her.

She kneads me with her paws, then sinks her claws in, at which point I shove her away and we start the cycle again.

I watched University Challenge one night.

The pianist who specializes in Beethoven’s dystopian and utopian themes would have done well.  I didn’t get a single answer right.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Is this it?  Is this the moment I will look back on in a month or a year and ask, “Why?  Why didn’t I get out of the UK while I could!?”

There so much loaded into that question.  Half a dozen people have asked me a version of it.

“Are you worried about being trapped there?”

“Are you okay there?”

“Are you staying there?”

“Are you coming home early?”

From the people from whom I am house sitting: “Do you need us to line up emergency cover in case you have to hot foot it back to the US?”

I think these questions are a reflection of the askers’ anxiety, and I totally understand.

I too feel anxious, but I feel safe here.  Would it be better if I took a crowded bus into London, spent time in a massive airport, and eight hours on a plane?

I wrote a version of the following on Facebook so some of you will have seen it already.

Britain is doing things differently. For instance, they are not closing schools. The thinking is, if schools are closed, 20% of the NHS workforce won’t be available for patient care because they’ll have to stay home to take care of their kids.  Also—and I have seen this backed up by the head of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota—kids just don’t get or pass the virus on the way adults do.  There is also the panic-inducing factor, which I have begun to see among my American family whose children’s schools are closed.  “They’re closing the school?! This must be even worse than I thought!”  Fourth reason: This won’t peak for 10-12 weeks; schools closed now may have to stay closed for months.

Is the UK getting it right?  Time will tell.

In this interview with Mike Osterholm, head of CIDRAP, he describes in lay terms how it is thought the coronavirus is transmitted.  “Think about the last time you looked at the sunlight coming through the windows of your house, and you saw all that material floating, that dust, and you think, ‘Oh my, my house is dusty.’  That’s an aerosol; that just floats.  That’s not falling to the ground.  And we now have increasing evidence that coronavirus is likely doing the same thing.”

I honestly think I am better off “sheltering in place,” an option international organizations deploy when there is a security threat.

I may be wrong.  This morning’s news is that American Airlines has cancelled all its long-haul flights except two a day to Heathrow and Narita.

Is the noose tightening?   Will I have to take the Queen Mary home? That’d be okay, assuming I could afford it.  It’s on my bucket list.

In 1918, two of my grandfather’s sisters died in the global flu pandemic. They were 5 or 6 years old.  In the early 40s, my mother attended her cousin’s 5th birthday party and within hours he and another little boy were dead from meningitis.  My mother’s family was isolated for a week with a QUARANTINE banner circling their house and yard.

I Do Not wish for our elders to die. But I am grateful that the current pandemic doesn’t kill children and young people. Can you imagine the additional panic if children were dying? And the grief of parents and others would last for decades.

As an aside: When my mother’s family was quarantined, Mr. Goldenberg, who ran the five-and-dime store down the block, would deliver groceries at the back gate, then run back down the alley.  Yesterday I knocked on my next door neighbor’s door to give her my phone number.  She’s an elderly lady who lives alone.  She reciprocated.  We agreed, we hope we won’t need to call on one another for food deliveries, but it’s good to know that we can.

This morning, I found a note slipped through the letterbox.  Another neighbour has organized a “Charles Street Connected” group.  It’s meant to help us connect, pool resources, and support each other.

Look out for one another so that a month or a year from now we may look back on some positives that came out of this.

Torture and Gremlins

Despite the title of this post, it’s been a really good week.  I put in many hours of editing on proposals that will yield a couple million dollars for my former employer to carry out torture rehabilitation.  It’s that time of year where I get to read things like this:

(Skip this if you think it will upset you.)

Clients reported beatings with heavy or heated metal rods and guns, and beating while hands and legs are tied to a pole of while hung upside down. Other abuses included threats, humiliation, or other psychological torture; deprivation of food, water, or other necessities; being forced to watch someone else being tortured; forced labor; forced postures, stretching, or hanging; rape or sexual abuse; wounding or maiming, including being shot; sensory stress, such as exposure to extreme temperatures; asphyxiation; burns ; and electrical shock.

I share this because it’s reality all over the world today.  America did lots of these things to suspects in secret detention facilities overseas and at Guantanamo Bay.  It’s sobering.  It makes me feel even more grateful for my cushy life and more determined to continue “being political,” despite my urge to stick my head in the sand.

Then there were the gremlins.  It is weird how things happen all at once.  In the space of five days, the shower in my house stopped working—abruptly, while I was standing in it.  It’s proving difficult to find an electrician to replace the pump.  For decades now, young people have aspired to master’s degrees in International Studies, not apprenticeships in the trades.

I put a new filter in the water purifier and it worked for one day then quit.  I can buy a new apparatus.  But the water is really hard here, so I’ve got to do it soon.

I couldn’t get the printer to work. My laptop is on the ground floor and the printer is two stories up.  I would hit “Print,” then stick my head out the door to the hall to listen if I could hear any action upstairs—being careful not to allow cats to slip past.  I heard nothing, so I ran up the two steep flights of stairs to check.  No joy.  I repeated this five times, shutting down and rebooting, blah, blah, blah.  Now today it worked.

I was suddenly unable to access my work email on my phone, after years of no problems.  I fiddled with it until I was ready to throw it across the room, then left it for a couple days, and now it’s working again.

I had a really great yoga class on Friday.  As I was walking home—in front of the Black Swan pub—my right calf suddenly seized up.  I had to hobble home, about 10 blocks, like a wounded bird.  Was it the yoga?  All the stair climbing?  Who knows.  I spent the next 24 hours wondering how I would get by if I couldn’t walk for the next two months.  Oxford is not a city for sissies. But the next day it was better, and now I keep forgetting it even happened.

So many things do work, so it’s hard to get upset about the gremlins.

Brits keep telling me “It’s not spring!” But to this Minnesotan, it sure feels that way.  There are more and more 50F + days (10C).  There are blooming things everywhere.

And it’s green, green, green.

I try to enjoy the moments, like this cat v. chicken stare down in the back garden.  The cat lost, distracted by me.

At the store, I chuckled over this product name that sound like a villainous Star Trek race.

In the US, this box of Ritz crackers would be a single serving.

I must find one of these for my car.

If I am in the locker room, am I a tart?

I made wild mushroom soup.

And had dinner with an Aussie friend at a Palestinian restaurant.

The highlight of the week was when “my” Polish house cleaner gave me an Avon-like beauty catalog.  It’s her side hustle.

The world-famous couturier Valentin Yudashkin has provided me with so much entertainment I feel compelled to buy something, anything.

The Hours

The days roll by.  How can time go so fast when I don’t feel like I’m doing anything very exciting?

There is a phenomenon of time moving faster as you get older.  I turned 60 last week.  It doesn’t get much older than that!  Well, let’s hope it does.

A friend and I had dinner at the Randolph Hotel, a posh place that was reasonably priced.  I had gnocchi and it was okay.  But the room was splendid and the company was good, and they brought us complementary prosecco and birthday cake festooned with red currants, so it was very nice.

After dinner we walked next door to the Oxford Playhouse and saw the play Educating Rita. It’s also an old movie with Michael Caine and Julie Walters.  This version starred Stepehn Thompkinson, who starred in Ballykissangel and lots of other TV shows.

Educating Rita is about a young woman from a working class background who is thirsty to learn.  Tompkinson plays her crusty alcoholic tutor.  It was an appropriate theme for Oxford, I think, since the vast majority of the students here are from upper class families and everyone else is literally and figuratively shut out of the 38 colleges.  By that I mean that the campuses are all surrounded by high walls and the gates are guarded by porters who won’t let you in unless you’ve got some official connection.  Some colleges do promote tours of their campuses.

Then there are the free concerts, which I attend about twice a week.  I can walk up to the porter’s lodge, say “I’m here for the concert,” and they wave me through.  I enjoy walking past the hordes of proles craning their necks to get a look inside.

I’ve attended concerts at Christchurch Cathedral most often.  In one of the naves (I think that’s what it’s called, is the Lady Chapel.  It’s named for the patron saint of Oxford, Frideswide.  She was a nun born around the year 650 somewhere along the banks of the  Thames.  Her miracle—every saint needs to perform miracles—was restoring sight to the blind.

Poor Frideswide caught the eye of a king who wouldn’t take no for an answer.  You know, the age-old “Me Too” story.  There are multiple versions, but he abducted here, she got away, she hid in a forest, he ended up going blind and falling off his horse and breaking his neck. That may not have been the exact order of things, but you get the picture.

I thought this stained glass window in her chapel was particularly colorful.  A volunteer guide cornered me—not for the first time, and not that I minded—and gave me a mini Master’s Degree in the fine art of stained glass window design and production.

Another day I attended an organ concert there and we sat in the pews, which are richly decorated with carved “grotesques,” like griffins.

I’m not sure what this scrawny fellow is but he makes a nice contrast to the enormous organ in the background.

It must be an organist’s dream to play here.  The program said, “The organist has permission to play loudly” and he did.  Sadly there were only six people in attendance.

As I wrote last week, in contrast to the city centre my walk to the gym is through the low-rent district.  But I manage to find beautiful and interesting things along the way, and it’s not like I’m in any danger.

What a charming street name.

And what a cost-effective way to make more room for parking—instead of spending billions to widen the streets, just repaint the parking lines up onto the sidewalk!

More and more trees and shrubs are blooming.

Back at the house, I do my laundry, hanging it to dry in the spare room.  I have stayed in a dozen British homes and even the few people who own tumble dryers, as they call them, have an aversion to using them.

There are non-working fireplaces in the living room and dining room; originally there were probably fireplaces in every room, including the kitchen and bath.

The three cats do … cat things.  This day they were having a stare down.

Settled In

I am now fully settled into my house-cat-chicken sitting and remote-work gig.  I guess I’m what is now called a digital nomad.

I have crossed some hurdles that I dreaded.

How would I ever figure out the trash and recycling system?  Just look at the “helpful” aids!

I did it, but the hardest part was getting it through my head that the green bin is for trash, not recycling.  All my life, green has equaled recycling.

I like how the A to Zed wheel suggests composting tissues.  I use a lot of tissues.  My nose starts running as soon as winter comes and drips continuously through May.  But I will not be composting my tissues.

Laundry.  I made the mistake of putting in a load of sheets and choosing the Cotton setting.  Four and a half hours later, they were done.  From now on I’ll use the Super Speed setting for every load, which on this Samsung machine still takes an hour.

I am a good foot shorter than the home owners, so I have had to stand on a footstool to hang laundry in the spare room that’s set up for that.  I couldn’t find the light switch for the cocktail lounge, and finally messaged one of the owners about it.  It’s located just above my head so I couldn’t see it.

Small challenges overcome, small mysteries solved.

A bigger psychological and financial hurdle was joining a gym.  I finally settled on FeelFit, which seemed to be the cheapest and closest.  It still cost $80 for one month. On the website it claimed to have state of the art equipment. Yep, state of the art for 1987.  The treadmills have dot matrix displays!  The weight machines take me back—I feel like I’m in a museum of weight lifting equipment.

The gym is in a mall in a very chav (low rent) district.  Lots of teen mothers hanging around smoking.  Lots of young men with tattoos on their necks and faces and wearing all black.  Many very obese people buying packets of crisps (potato chips) and biscuits (cookies) and giant bottles of Coke.  If I walk home, the neighborhood is also run down and it’s depressing.

I figured out how to take the bus so I can bypass the run-down people and houses and get in and out quickly.  The bus is expensive, about $5 for a one-mile round trip.  So on top of $80 I’ll spend $40 to get to and from the place twice a week.

I’m just going there to lift weights, and I’m thinking of it as a trip down nostalgia lane.  I’m actually enjoying it because it’s hilarious and hey, the old machines do the trick.  Weight is weight.

I have committed to two yoga classes per week.  One is a new format called Tara Yoga that is new to me and quite a workout.  It’s taught by different soft-talking people each week.  On Fridays I do Iyenegar, my favored type of yoga, with a guy named Toby.  He kind of yells at us, “No, Penelope, no, no, no!  Pull your bum back and tuck in your tum!”  I would pay just to watch him yell at people.  I brought Toby a half carton of eggs last week and that seemed to mellow him out a bit, at least towards me.

I’ve run into a few finance snags.  Toby wants to be paid by standing order, which means an auto deducted payment on the first of each month from a current (checking) account.  This would require me to have a British checking account, which ain’t gonna happen.  I tried to hand him cash and he recoiled, “I certainly don’t take cash!” Not sure what that was about.  We compromised with PayPal.

I’ve been unable to deposit a check using the fabulous Zelle mobile app because it doesn’t work outside the US.  Foiled!  I had to mail it to my US bank, hoping it doesn’t get lost between Royal Mail and the USPS.

And now, some food photos.

The obligatory fish and chips.

It’s easy to be vegan in Oxford.

You could eat cock instead of chicken

But burgers with onion rings and chips (fries) are better.

Back in the Shire

Oxfordshire, that is.

I’ve put off writing because I didn’t know which angle to take.  Should I document all the things I’ve seen and done in the last 10 days?  Should I write about odd happenings, like me falling on an escalator and attracting the attention of dozens of shoppers and shop keepers, all asking solicitously, “are you all right?”  (I was embarrassed and bruised, but otherwise all right.).  I could contract American and British things. I could write about the history of Oxford and its famous university, or chronicle my inner journey of relocating to another country.

All this was a good excuse to procrastinate, but to be fair to myself, I’ve been putting in a lot of work hours and keeping busy gadding about town.

I’ll start with my base, the house where I am house sitting, which affords me a sanctuary from which I emerge and explore.  I will share some photos eventually, but I want to be careful about not creeping out the homeowners.

It’s a terraced house, a typical type of housing in the UK.  Probably dates to the Edwardian era, named for King Edward VII who reigned from 1901-1910.  There are windows and doors front and back and neighbors on either side.

I haven’t heard much of or even seen the neighbors.  I heard water whooshing on the other side of a wall one day, a door slamming once.  Last night around 3am I smelled toast.

On the ground floor, which in America we call the first floor, there’s a living room, which they call the lounge.  There’s a dining room, kitchen, and sunroom, which my homeowner calls The Cocktail Lounge. Up a steep set of narrow stairs is what they call the first floor and Americans call the second floor.  Here there are two bedrooms and a bathroom.  In this house, the owners have very cleverly opened up the rafters to build a loft office.  Getting up there involves climbing an even steeper set of stairs.

There’s a back garden, which in America we call the back yard.  With terraced housing back gardens are very long, narrow spaces.  In my case, the back garden has been bisected by a fence.  The front half is for people and the back half is for chickens.

Yes, I am tending four hens who my homeowners rescued from a laying factory.  They make adorable noises like “bwaaaaaaa, buh buh buh” and the usual clucking.  Every morning I go out to collect one to three eggs.  I let the hens out to free range and top up their food and water.  Once a week I clean out their little house and hose down the sidewalk that has become mucky with chicken poo (Americans say poop—why?).

One of the hens is hen pecked by the others.  She has hardly any feathers except on her head, which makes her look like a little pot-bellied naked person wearing a chicken-head costume.

There are also three cats, one of whom rarely makes an appearance.  They poo outside so I don’t have to deal with a litter box.  They have a smart cat door which reads their microchips and won’t open to neighborhood cats.

My seven housemates are low maintenance.  Caring for them gives me a little routine to ground myself each day.

I live in Cowley, the vibrant, diverse neighborhood east of Oxford city center where real people live.

I live a half hour walk from Oxford city center.  Since my arrival I’ve walked at least an hour a day just to get around.  I could take a bus, but why, if I am able to walk?

There is so much going on here, and it’s cheap or free if you look.  The highlight so far was a free concert at Christchurch Cathedral.

The program was Chopin, and the pianist played the funeral march from Sonata Number 2.

This piece has become almost a joke, but if you listen to the whole thing you will hear it is not only a beautiful piece of music but a celebration of life with all its ups and downs and frustrations and joys.

Which pretty much sums up my life so far.

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.