Category Archives: Empathy

Scrambling, Scrabbling

Week six of UK lockdown is behind us.  Tonight Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, will outline changes to our restrictions.  The Sunday papers have already broadcast what those are likely to be: once-a-day outdoor exercise will become unlimited exercise, it’ll be okay to go to the beach, garden centers will open (all of these assume two-meter distancing).  Boris is likely to advise the wearing of face coverings in shops and public transport.  A mandatory 14-day quarantine for people entering the UK and stiffer fines for violating the rules will likely be announced.

For me, nothing much will change.  It’s snowing in Scotland, but I would be unlikely to request a day on a North Sea beach even at the height of summer.

As I wrote in another post, my flight home was cancelled by Delta.  I scheduled a new one; it was cancelled the next day.  I will be issued a credit, but Delta has ceased flying to the UK so I can’t use the credit to get home.

There are no more direct flights to Minneapolis-St. Paul from the UK.  I prefer not to stop over in New York or Chicago, where there are coronavirus outbreaks.  I found an itinerary on Icelandair that would take me through healthy Reykjavik but my gut told me to wait a few days before booking it.  Two days later, Icelandair was no longer flying to the UK.  I thought about flying from Scotland, which has less coronavirus than the UK south, but Scotland’s airports are shut down completely or offer only two-three stop itineraries.

As I see it, every stop, every additional flight or airport, is a new opportunity to catch the virus if it’s present.

I continue to get updates from the US State Department.  The latest informed me that Heathrow has closed three of its five terminals.

Today was the day I was supposed to join Lynn and Richard and two other friends in Crete, after traveling through France, Switzerland, Bulgaria, and other points unknown and never to be known.  It’s hard to believe that just a few months ago my biggest concern was whether to take the Eurostar to Paris or get off in Calais and take a train down to Bergerac to meet a friend.

Wah, wah!  As usual I pinch myself that I should have such “problems.”  I keep thinking about the Ethiopian refugee camps I visited three years ago for work.  There was no running water.  People lived in tiny cinder-block houses with half a dozen others.  Activities were carried out in groups, sometimes very large groups.  I feel helpless to do anything but “hold them in my thoughts,” which doesn’t mean a thing and just makes me feel guilty.

Meanwhile the days pass, fast but slow.  Until today the weather was fine, enabling outdoor projects and hikes.  On one hike I saw a giant slug crossing the road.

“Now, if this was a turtle, I would pick it up and deliver it safely to the other side,” I thought.  “Isn’t the real test of compassion whether I care for creatures I find repulsive?”  I kept walking.  Another thing to feel guilty about.

Richard and I hiked to Wormy Hillock.  It’s shaped like a donut was pressed into the earth, then removed.  It was probably built by Picts, and probably prehistoric (which just means before there was a written language).  Its purpose is unknown.  Worship?  Sacrifices?  Entertainment?

Back at the house, I moved my finger around on the local map and chuckled at the names: Knappert Knows, Little Riggin, Green Slack, Bogs of Noth, Muckle Smiddy Hillock, The Lumps, How of Slug, Darnie Heuch, Mairs of Collithie, Buried Men’s Leys, How of Badifoor, Grouse Butts, Shank of Badtimmer, Slack Methland, Hill of Glack-en-tore, and my favorite, the Glen of Cults.

Another day, Lynn and I visited a neighbor across the road who maintains the garden her late husband—the former head gardener at Cambridge University—created.

Lynn’s garden is coming on as spring progresses.

A visit from the fishmonger was a highlight.

My award for most creative pastime goes to a friend who has been playing x-rated Scrabble over the phone with friends.

Stay well, and don’t forget to laugh!

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.

Local Color

I’m nearing the end of my Japan narrative.  I returned from Japan in July.  Obviously there’s so much to write about.  Japan’s got it all—natural beauty, great food, art, cultural sites, and Tokyo Disney—in case you’d prefer to feel like you’re in Florida.

I’ve been reflecting on my relationship with my nephew, Charlie, and his little brother.  I love kids.  For many years I believed I would never be a grandmother.  Vince was homeless, missing, incarcerated, or just not a great mating prospect.  Even if he had had a child with someone, I figured he would recreate his own origin story, where he had zero contact with his paternal grandparents after age one.  I’d be painfully cut off.

So when my younger brother had two kids, I was all in.  And when you bond with kids from day one, it’s impossible to un-bond.

Then, to my relief and joy, Vince sobered up, got hitched and is dadding two young girls.  I’m a grandma after all!  They live over an hour away so that’s not easy, but I am a grandma.  And a favorite aunt.  And I work part-time at the YMCA childcare center.  I have an abundance of kids in my life.

I have learned that love is not limited, it is exponential.

A few nights ago I attended a meeting with some other Jewish Community Action volunteers and folks from other organizations with the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.  We were led into a large meeting room which contained two mock prison cells.  This must be where they carry out training for correctional officers.  I knew they weren’t real.  I have never been locked in a prison cell.  But I still felt a pang of panic and repulsion.

I sat with my back to the cells.  For better or worse, there were two women at the meeting who have children in prison, and they kind of commandeered the agenda to make their cases to the commissioner for their children being released.  I totally understood their frustration.  Their calls and letters are never answered.  This was their big chance to talk directly to the guy at the top.  But I am very glad I am no longer in their shoes and am able to do my small part to better the lives of all prisoners, not just my kid.

I think my ability to feel freedom, gratitude, and joy is strong because I have lived so many sad experiences.

After the meeting, I huddled with the two moms and said, “Just be very careful and don’t get yourselves banned.  It’s easy to lose your temper with these people.  I was banned for six months from visiting my son because a correctional officer baited me and I rose to it.” They looked shocked and I could see them trying to calm themselves down.

I also like to encourage everyone to explore their local sites of interest. You don’t have to go to Japan or the UK or Australia to find interesting stuff!

I came across this on one of my late-fall walks.

I had driven past the sign for the Ramsey County Poor Farm hundreds of times.  It closed in 1923.  Nearly 3,000 nameless souls who lived and worked here are buried in mass graves in this potters’ field.

Another exciting field trip was to St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, where I joined my cousin for Thanksgiving.  We drove past my aunt’s house, which was now sold and vacant.  This was the scene at the house next door.

Yes, those are dead deer hanging up outside.  I uttered a loud noise indicating disgust.  My niece asked, “What’s the big deal?  Haven’t you ever seen deer hanging before?”  As a matter of fact I have, at Lynn’s place in Scotland.  For some reason it seems to fit there, in the wilds of the highlands, but looks savage and out of place in suburban St. Croix Falls.

Our next stop was the fish hatchery, where I elicited groans of embarrassment from the nieces by saying too loudly, “The young guy feeding the fish is nice looking.”

Speaking of fish, my next post will follow Charlie and me as we visit Shimoda Aquarium.

needs and NEEDS

In real time, last weekend I spoke at a synagogue about my son’s incarceration and its aftermath.  There were about 20 people in attendance and I was nervous.  I rarely speak in front of groups, and this was a sensitive subject.  But it went fine.  Unfortunately, I know my stuff when it comes to being a prison mom, and authenticity carried the day.

They specifically wanted to know about challenges of re-entry into society. I described them in detail: housing (few landlords wants to rent to an ex con), employment (ditto, although some employers are known for be open minded), social support (many ex-offenders have been written off by family and friends), mental health and sobriety (it’s hard to stay on a healthy path when your housing is precarious and you can’t afford food, etc), medical and dental care (thank you, University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, for discount care!) and finances (prisoners net about 25 cents an hour in their jobs; Vince had amassed $300 after working full time for a year).

Supervision makes all of the above more difficult. A revolving door of agents can shop up at the ex-offender’s job or house anytime, day or night, and demand a urine sample.  Vince lived with me, and I had to have a landline installed because the Department of Corrections is not operating in the 21st Century yet.

The agents strictly enforce rules one day and let things slide the next; the capriciousness of the system is enough to drive anyone mad.

“What about voting rights?” someone asked.  It is thought that most ex-offenders would vote Democratic if allowed to vote.

“To be honest, that’s the least of their concerns, for sure when they are first released,” I replied.

Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Ex-offenders are struggling at the bottom.

A few days later I was at a friend’s house.  She and a neighbor agreed they want a Democratic presidential candidate who will bring about drastic—not incremental—change. Free college education.  Reparations for slavery.  Medicare for all.  Green New Deal.

I think about my coworkers at the YMCA.  They’re a racially diverse group of mostly blue collar young people who will probably vote Democratic—if they vote.

In nine months since I’ve worked there, none of them has ever talked about climate change, institutional racism, voting rights, or gender-neutral bathrooms.

Their concerns are: Where can I get the best deal on snow tires?  Should I make tacos or spaghetti for dinner tonight?  Should I color my hair red or get highlights or keep it black?

My coworkers aren’t at the very basic level of needs, but I worry.  If the Dems choose a candidate that Trump can paint as “extreme,” I don’t think ex-prisoners or my coworkers will vote at all.

It’s not that they’re incapable of understanding higher-level issues.  It’s that they have more basic needs demanding their attention and they’re not going to get fired up about a candidate who lectures from a flip chart about emissions trading.

In Nara, I deployed my secret weapon, a stash of five pills leftover from one of my Restless Legs Syndrome prescriptions.  I slept well for the first time in 16 nights and was giddy with energy when I awoke.  Lynn was still asleep so I hung out in the huge bathroom and made coffee with this …

… while I talked to Vince on Facebook.

“I think it must have taken five mechanical engineers to design this,” I said as I demonstrated it to my son.

Vince laughed at the thing.  “Bring me one, will you?” he requested, “so I can show it to my coworkers in the kitchen?”

“Will do,” I replied.  The connection failed so I took selfies of myself in the Nara Hotel yukata.  I never take selfies, so you know I was feeling good.

“Why don’t you just take medication every night?” Lynn asked later.  Fair question.

“Because it works, and then it stops working, and then I need to take more and more, and then it starts to actually make the symptoms worse, and then I have to go through an excruciating withdrawal process,” I explained.

“But for today, I feel human again!”

Baby Bodhas

The first Japanese temple I visited was a block from my hotel and was called Zojoji.  I didn’t have a sense at the time whether this was a “typical” temple or not.

As I wrote in a previous post, there are thousands of shrines, large and small, everywhere in Japan.  Zojoji, in retrospect, was an “average” sized temple, with a dozen buildings scattered over what seemed to be a couple acres, and Tokyo Tower looming in the background.

I just learned on Wikipedia—after making my annual very modest donation to support them—that Zojoji is the “head temple of the Jodo sect of Japanese Buddhism in the Kanto Region.”  That’s kind of like saying I am “the greatest travel and prison blogger who lives on the east side of St. Paul.”  I would see a lot of descriptors like this in the weeks to come.

But it was still pretty cool, it being my first.

Most of Zojoji’s current buildings are recent reconstructions except for the main entrance gate, the Sangedatsumon, which has survived many fires, earthquakes and wars and dates from 1622.

1622!  Here’s the gate:

As I also wrote previously, I was in Japan in the off season.  This was thanks to school holidays not having yet commenced and to it being the rainy season.  The downside, of course: rain.  The upside: hardly any tourists.

It had just rained and the buildings were closed, so it was just me and a handful of other people in the complex.  Normally I would be snapping away with my phone, but I was phoneless for now.  I had wondered: would I be able to enjoy this atmospheric moment without capturing it?  (I took these photos later, once I’d got a new charger).

I was pleased to note I felt at peace.

I came across these “baby bodhisattvas”—hundreds of foot-tall stone statues of bodhisattvas.  I’ve found various definitions of bodhisattva online.  The most generic is something like: one who is on the path to nirvana and has compassion for all beings.  Kind of an apprentice Buddha.

I felt a physical urge to reach for my phone to take photos, then relaxed when I remembered my dead phone was back in my room.

This was the explanation of the bodhisattvas:

These are “care guardian deities of children.”  They are dedicated for the safety growth of children and grandchildren, as well as for the memorial service for still birth or miscarried children.  To protect and keep warm their heads, “red hat” “red apron” and “windmill”, were dedicated to the guardian deity of children image.  Please refrain from touching.

I felt a pang of sadness, knowing some of these must represent babies that died. I have four friends or relations whose babies died, and it’s got to be one of life’s worst experiences. I “lost” a baby through adoption, so I like to think I have strong empathy for how it would feel.

Just then a powerful gong sounded nearby and reverberated for 20 seconds before sounding again. It made me jump internally then a calm descended over me.

This was happening just the way it was meant to.  If my phone had still been functional, I might have been hunched on my hotel room bed scrolling though social media to learn that my second cousin’s oldest kid had just graduated from college in Nebraska, or how a guy I met in grad school 17 years ago will look when he’s 100, thanks to a hot new “aging” app.

I gave thanks for my phone being dead—at least for now.

Walking toward the sound I found a monk—yes, with a shaved head and long flowing robe—using a long, thick rope to propel an enormous weight forward into a bell the size of a Volkswagon Beetle.

Why he was doing this—was it a call to prayer?  The “closing” bell? Was he ushering in nightfall?  It didn’t matter.

I crossed back over the road and wondered about this little gem tucked in between hideous concrete high-rises.

I stopped at Family Mart, a ubiquitous convenience store, for some cheap eats before crashing for 10 hours—my first of 26 nights in Japan.

Happy Days

I have some good news.  Last week my son proposed to his girlfriend, and she said yes.  Not that there was any doubt.  It’s just the latest positive development in his life.

The reason I ever launched this blog was because, five years ago, he was in prison. In addition to the predictable emotions like despair, I felt relief that I now would know where his was, and deep shame.  Counterintuitively, it made sense for me to write about it for all the world to read.

He entered prison a drug addled, bloated, overweight, broke, middle-aged chronic alcoholic.  This was just the latest in a 20-year string of bouts with unemployment, homelessness, crime, and broken relationships.

It would have been easy for him to use drugs and alcohol inside, but Vince chose to be sober in prison.  He also started writing alternate posts for this blog.  They were heart breaking, hilarious, and articulate.

He made it through an intensive “boot camp” program, where he worked on self-discipline, attitudes, and thinking processes.  He also started running, something he hated but continues to this day.

He came home a little over four years ago and moved in with me.  That was rough.  He dated a woman but it didn’t work out.  He got a job in a laminating factory and moved in with a couple guys who were also trying—some successfully and some not—to stay sober.  He started his own blog.  He bought my beloved old Mini Cooper from me.  He dated another woman but it didn’t work out.

Two years ago, he was offered a cook job at a country club on Lake Minnetonka.  That’s where he laid eyes on Amanda for the first time, and it was love at first sight.  He moved in with Amanda and her two young daughters.  From the start, he has been all-in on parenting.  He can now put “expert in potty training” on his resume.

One year ago he bought a house in the tiny town of Silver Lake. He traded the Mini for a minivan.  He worked with me to publish the first year of this blog as a book.  He applied for better jobs, and in the end was offered a great promotion at the country club.

The girls’ father is under a two-year no-contact order.  Vince has supported Amanda as she has courageously fought to finalize her divorce, custody, and child support arrangements.  Last month Vince and Amanda were awarded full custody.  The three-year-old calls him daddy.

In court, Vince made a statement to the girls’ father—that if and when he gets his act together, Vince and Amanda will work with him to welcome him back into the girls’ lives.  The guy thanked him.  I was very proud of Vince.  A lot of men wouldn’t have done that.

Here they are, at the country club where Amanda works, after the big proposal.

In June he’ll mark his five-year sobriety anniversary.  They’ll be hitched in August.

All of this is to say that very few situations are ever hopeless.  Similar to my own story, it didn’t happen overnight and it took a combination of working hard as hell and letting go.  Vince has plugged away, working his program, trying new things, taking risks, sometimes failing, but mostly moving forward.

In three weeks I’ll be in Japan.  I still feel way behind on the planning.  I created a Google docs spreadsheet to try to keep track of it all and it looks a mess.  I’ve got six out of eight accommodations booked.  I’ve got my JR Rail Pass in hand.  I’m finally able to retain some place names from one day to the next.

Progress, not perfection.  One of the AA slogans that is good to keep in mind whether one is an addict or not.

Last night as I was reading about Japanese baths again (I worry about the baths and the shared bathrooms), I was struck by how many iconic cultural traditions Japan has given to the world: origami, sumo, haiku, sushi, manga, anime, samurai, geisha, bonsai, and Zen.  There are probably more.  Is there another country that has created or adapted so many traditions that are recognized worldwide?

Good Bye

It’s been a month since my last post.  I was going to get back into regular writing about travel—specifically my upcoming month in Japan—but life intervened.

Two nights ago I felt my aunt’s wrist and neck for a pulse while she took her last breaths.

She chose to start hospice services after a year of chemo, radiation, and immunotherapy didn’t cure her cancer but only stripped everything out of her life that made it worthwhile—she stopped reading, attending ladies lunches, knitting, and over-posting on Facebook.

And so a month ago a nurse and an aide started coming to her home once a week, then twice, then 3-4 times, and in the end it was every day plus a private carer.

My cousin Molly, who lives nearby, was there almost 24/7; her brother came from Madison and stayed for the last 10 days. My sister and I made the one-hour drive every other day and alternated overnights.

After two weeks, a hospital bed was installed in the livingroom.  She gradually stopped eating and drinking.  As the pain advanced she receded.  Tylenol and oxycodone were bolstered with morphine and fentanyl.  I know there’s an opioid epidemic, but believe me if you are dying and in pain they are miracle drugs.  She had said she preferred to be lucid over being drugged-up, but that’s easy to say in the beginning.

As her conscious moments became fewer, I admired her practicality and acceptance.  There was no drama, philosophizing, or protesting.  I think I might be a quivering mass, crying and pissed off and asking, “Why! Why?”

She suffered anxiety as death neared—who wouldn’t?  But it was manifested in physical restlessness, and for that there was another drug, and yet another drug for nausea.  She would have hated that other people were performing functions for her that she could not—like applying balm to her lips and swabbing the inside of her mouth.

One of the hardest things was hearing other people cry, like my aunt’s 80-year-old cousin, a former cop.

Molly, on whom the lion’s share of the care had fallen, found inner resources to do things she had sworn she would never do.  We all did.  It takes a village to help someone leave this life.

When our anguish over her suffering peaked, we would consult a brochure provided by the hospice team.   Turns out, dying is a predictable process—except for the timeline.

At the last moment, I had turned off the oxygen pump that had been producing a steady kah-khoosh … kah-koosh soundtrack.  My cousins and I were standing in the kitchen talking about who would want such-and-such household items: the memorabilia from my aunt and uncle’s long careers at a private college, the cut-glass pickle boat, the bisque statuette of a shepardess who had stood on the mantel for decades.  We managed to laugh a bit, probably from sheer exhaustion.

Suddenly we realized she wasn’t breathing.  We watched, frozen, as seconds ticked by.  She gasped and inhaled.  We moved to her bedside and I took her wrist, then felt her neck for a pulse.  She took a few more breaths, then stopped.  I wanted to cry out, “Don’t go!” but my boy cousin was saying, “It’s okay mom, you can go now.”  And of course he was right.

These thoughts run through my head: “She was 89, she lived a good life.  She was your aunt, not your mother.  This shouldn’t hit you so hard.”

But our families grew up three houses apart.  My aunt and mother shared a job for a while and alternated child care. We ran in and out of each other’s houses and went to the same schools. As an adult, I drove up to spend a night or two with my aunt and uncle and cousin on a regular basis.

During her “wave of energy” (see booklet), I told her I had always appreciated how I was able to just be myself around them.  She said, “You’ve been like a second daughter to me.”  I didn’t’ say it but I thought, You haven’t been like a mother to me.  You’ve been a great aunt. 

Never underestimate your value as an aunt or uncle or cousin.