Category Archives: Joie de vivre

I’m Here

Here I am—yoo-hoo—over here!  Way over here, in Japan.

The 11.5 hour flight was uneventful. I watched five movies, ate three meals, and slept for five minutes.  Every once in a while I glanced back between the seats at my five-year-old nephew, and he was only sleeping once.  The rest of the time, he was hunched up like little kids do when they’re jazzed, his black eyes twinkling with excitement. He and his brother are now attending kindergarten and fourth grade, respectively, in local Japanese schools for two weeks.

I had brought my full-size smushy pillow, and it made all the difference in comfort to be able to lean against the window with some padding.

I had a bit of a rocky start in Tokyo.  My cell phone wouldn’t charge, then died.   I walked in circles for almost an hour trying to find my hotel.  The “tower view” I’d paid extra for was a view of a brick wall, and no one at the front desk spoke enough English for it to be worth my while trying to explain it.  When I logged into my credit card account there were a slew of charges from a company I’d never heard of.

Thank god I’d brought my laptop!  How else would I have been able to find an Apple Store in Tokyo?  The folks at the front desk knew only enough English to point at a map handout (all in Japanese except the name of the hotel), to show me how to get to a local train station.

All is well now.  My experience at the Apple Store was delightful.  My Restless Legs disappeared completely for three nights!  I can only guess that my brain thought nighttime here was daytime due to the 14-hour time difference, and I never get RLS during the day.  It’s back now, bad as ever.

I spent two full days in Tokyo, then moved on to Nikko, a small city in the north.  The advertised reason to come here is to visit the shrines dedicated to the first shogun, Tokugawa, and others.  They are amazing, but the delight for me here has been nature and food.

This was my first meal here; a bento box featuring yuba, a local specialty that is soy rolled out paper thin then rolled up into pinwheels.

Here is a photo from a walk I took yesterday along the Tamozawa River.

You could look at this and say, “Hey, this looks just like the Knife River on the North Shore near Duluth!  Why go thousands of miles away when you can drive two hours and see similar scenery?”

And you would be right, to a point.  I love the North Shore and fully intend to go there this summer, too.  But it doesn’t have red painted sacred wood bridges that are hundreds of years old, or stone bodhisattvas wearing red knitted caps and bibs.

It was on this walk—on my fourth day after arriving—that I felt myself come down off the ledge of worry about my phone, my credit card, finding stations and getting on the right trains….  This is often the way when I travel.

After my two-hour walk I hit the main shrine, which involved another half hour hike up a very steep incline followed by 200 steps where I passed people literally bent over double and clutching their chests.

At the top, in the Temple of the Crying Dragon, I was basically accused of shoplifting a lucky talisman.  Thankfully I was too tired to come out swinging, which would be my usual response.  But I left in a huff wishing bad karma on a Buddhist.  More on that later.

I consoled myself with a bowl of yuba ramen.

I returned to my inn and soaked in the onsen, or hot spring bath, which is 10 steps from my room.  Yes, you do it naked.

As I sat on the edge of the pool and gazed out the window I saw there was a stone Buddha in the bushes.  I could just make out his big fat belly … wait—I was looking at my own reflection!

Dang, guess I better watch it with the giant ramen bowls.

Circles

In one month I’ll be in Japan.  My plans are progressing.  I have been assured that my  investment of over $550 in a Japan Rail Pass will more than pay for itself.  I’ve booked accommodations in five locations and have two more to go.  I’ve downloaded apps like a free wifi finder, a Tokyo subway route finder, an offline map of Tokyo that turns out to be only in Japanese, and Google Translate.  I will test this last one out with my sister in law before using it on the street, just to make sure it doesn’t translate, “Where is the sub-way?” as “Where is the worst route?” or some such.

My aunt’s funeral took place last week.

The young priest at the small-town parish had alienated himself from the townspeople and congregants by firing the choir directors because they were openly gay.

Why couldn’t they stay closeted, like him and his “assistant,” Lance?

One day a month ago, my aunt had said to me and my cousin, “I hope you don’t think it’s weird, but I still want to be buried out of the Catholic Church.”  We assured her it wasn’t weird.  She’d been raised in the Catholic milieu of Small St. Paul in the 1930s and 40s.  She attended Catholic schools through high school and worked at a Catholic college.  There was, and still is, plenty of good work being carried out by nuns and Catholic lay people.

But she didn’t want the young priest saying her funeral mass, so my cousins imported a more liberal-minded visiting priest from St. Paul.  Other than calling her by the wrong name, he did a fine job.

You would think that a funeral would be the saddest part of a death, but this was a Catholic funeral, so it was all about Jesus and not my aunt.  Lance played the organ and belted out the hymns like he was in a broadway musical, so at least the music was good.

It’s the little reminders that catch you off guard.  Like seeing her knitting lying abandoned—the baby hat she’ll never finish. She knit baby hats for the local hospital.  I teared up when I came across her glasses, which she wore to read or work on crosswords, two of my own favorite pastimes.

While my aunt was dying—in pain or during moments of indignity she would have hated if she’d been conscious—someone asked, “What’s the point of all this!?” and I thought, “There is no point.  It’s biology, physiology, pathology at work.  It’s “nature, red in tooth and claw.”

And in my mind I start going around in circles like I always do, asking, “What’s the point of life?”

Some people seem to believe that the point is to be productive.  “I’m so busy!” is their refrain, as though that’s something to be proud of.  Others believe the point is to change the world for the better.  But I’ve seen so many well-intentioned do-gooders make things worse.  Is the point to live in the moment and be appreciate whatever is good and beautiful?  That seems a vapid, not productive….  Like I said, circles.

There are infinite details to figure out for the trip.  I need to get my duplex ready for the Chinese couple who are renting it while I’m away. And figure out how will I meet up with my sister in law’s parents to retrieve my nephew when the time comes.  And how do I buy tickets for a baseball game?  My nephew would love that. Must remember to register with the State Department.  Would it be worth going to Yokohama, where my dad was a sailor with the US Navy before I was born?  Should I get travel insurance?  What kind of gift should I bring for the in laws?  Japanese gift giving is fraught with peril.

And what is the deal with the baths?  Are they for health?  To get clean?  To socialize?  To relax?  There are so many types, and so many rules.  This CNN video clip about Japanese baths features Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who quips, “Having to say a prayer before you do something?  Makes me a little nervous.”

Explorers, Convicts, and National Sorry Day

Are you familiar with the Morrissey song, “Throwing My Arms Around Paris?” I hear it in my head sometimes when I am throwing myself out into a city—joyfully embracing as much as humanly possible in however much time I have.  The actual song is a downer, obviously—it’s Morrissey after all, the miserablist. But I re-mix it in my head to be uplifting.

I visited the RBG every day for three days.  There’s that much to see and do, and it’s just a lovely, peaceful oasis in the middle of the big city.

On my first day I caught a walking tour.  The morning was fresh from a night rain and the sun had not yet burned the heavy dew off the leaves.

My group included some Canadians, Melbournians, and Germans.  The guide was giving her first tour and said she was nervous.  She was still getting used to holding laminated photos of flowers and referring to them; they were upside down for her.  She was doing her best but kept saying, “I’m not sure about that, I’ll have to check it later.”

She thought this astounding tree was from South Africa.

After 20 minutes I carved off into an inviting-looking dark path through thick trees.  Have I mentioned I was enamored with the trees?  I emerged to see this banyan with knobs drooping downward; they would become buttresses for the growing tree.

What I hadn’t expected to find in a garden were story lines about three important populations in Australia’s history—explorers, Aboriginals, and convicts.

There was a garden named for Daniel Solander, a Swede who sailed with Captain Cook on The Endeavor around the Pacific and collected 17,000 species of plants, 900 of them from Australia.  Most of those were found around Botany Bay, just five miles from where I was standing.

He did this 70 years before Charles Darwin made his famous voyage on The Beagle. Solander didn’t live to read Darwin’s Origin of the Species; he died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage at age 49.

Next I crossed what appeared to be a dinky, unremarkable bridge over a tiny stream.  But no!  It was built over culvert of “high cultural significance” built by convicts in 1816 so the Governor’s wife could cross the stream in her carriage.

I turned around to find about 15 placards about Aboriginal history.  I already knew about the 1967 vote in which white Australians decided to count Aboriginal people in the census for the first time.  I guess it took that long for them to decide that Aboriginals were actual humans.

I didn’t know there had been a Freedom Ride in Australia in 1965, similar to the ones in the US about five years earlier.

I was pleased to see that one of the leaders had a Jewish name—Spigelman.  When I Googled him I learned he had immigrated to Australia from Poland as a three-year old with his parents, who were Holocaust survivors.  His parents are featured in the graphic novel about the Holocaust called Maus, by his American cousin Art Spiegelman.

Spiegelman was born in Sweden after the war.  His five-year-old brother had been poisoned by their aunt, who then poisoned herself, in order to save them from being taken by the Nazis.  It gets worse, believe it or not.

I have Maus sitting on my bookshelf.  If everyone was required to read Maus, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, I wonder if we would ever have another war.

Spigelman went on to become an Australian Supreme Court Justice and patron of many humanitarian and arts causes including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

It’s no surprise that Jews are overrepresented in human rights causes.  But why should it take something as horrific as surviving a Holocaust to motivate people?

Lastly, I was moved to tears to learn that Australia has a National Sorry Day, which “gives all Australians an opportunity to express their sorrow” about the stolen generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were forcibly removed from their families “for their own good.”

Wow, who expected so much sad stuff in a botanical garden?

I hastened toward a more uplifting exhibit, about carnivorous plants.

On My Way

I love it when I know a city well enough to not worry too much about getting lost, but not well enough that I feel I’ve seen it all.

I set out with no goal in mind except to stop at the dreaded Apple store to see if they could fix my phone, which was apparently confused about my whereabouts and wouldn’t let me check email or What’s App or any other useful thing.

I found the store easily enough—it was like a cathedral, with hordes scruffily-dressed but probably wealthy people lounging around and looking worshipfully at the goods.

I like to think I am not one of the Apple Zombies.  I happened to buy an iphone as my first smart phone.  I kept that one for five years, so I’m not exactly one to jump on every new passing model.  When Apple did that thing where it purposely slowed down all the older models to the point of forcing people to buy new ones, I did not want to go through a new learning curve by switching to an android, so I bought the cheapest iphone, the SE.

I can’t believe I just wrote that.  I think I paid $499 for my phone.  Five hundred dollars, for a phone!  Plus $53 a month for the privilege of being able to check Facebook in the middle of my workout at the Y or during a walk in the woods.

I realize it’s a computer as well as a phone, but still.

The few times I’ve gone to an Apple store in the states I have felt about two inches tall and dumb as a box of rocks.  The “geniuses” have been deficient in people skills, but at the Sydney store a very friendly young woman fixed my phone in 15 seconds and smiled as she handed it back to me.

“You just made my day!” I told her, and I meant it.

I passed a gritty photo exhibition that was mounted on the brick walls supporting the train tracks.  There was an Aboriginal theme.

A white trash theme.

And my favorite, the Sydney punk scene.

As I have from time to time in the past, I expressed silent gratitude that I’d not crossed paths with any punks back in the 80s.  I know I would have taken to the lifestyle with zeal, and probably would have ended up dead from a heroin overdose or infected nose piercing.

If you know Sydney well, you’ll know I couldn’t have walked past all the sights I’ve listed here without retracing my steps or walking in circles.  Ya caught me—they’re not in order. Just take it as a representation of my memories of those last four days, which are a jumble.

I loved this contrast between the Victorian architecture and stark modern high rises.

And this grand old department store, which sold corsets, gloves, “mourning” wear, and costumes.  Swimming costumes?  Halloween costumes?  Costumes for fancy galas?

I passed other buildings from bygone days—a police station and union HQ.

I gazed up at Sydney Tower from different angles in different weather.

I passed this art installation. Or was it another war memorial?

In Hyde Park, I admired this deco-era fountain.

I stepped inside St. Mary’s and felt “meh.”  It was gargantuan, but it felt stodgy and plain compared to some of the cathedrals I’ve seen in Malta, Italy, and Spain.  Of course when I was in Europe I complained that their cathedrals were too ornate.

Making my way along a great boulevard and series of parks, I spied a statue of the Scottish poet Burns dwarfed by yet another giant Australian tree.

And across the street, a trumpet tree.  I don’t know it that’s what it’s called but that’s what I’m calling it.

And then, on into the Royal Botanic Garden or RBG, which I found amusing because a movie by that name about US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was about to be released and there were posts galore promoting it in my social media feeds.

Grateful

Today, February 4, is the 59th anniversary of my birth.  59?!  How did that happen?

Ten years ago, when I was in the grip of a decades-long depression, I heard about some research that found older people are happier.  I remember scoffing: “No way!  How could you be happier, when you’re decrepit and inching closer to death, and can’t do anything you used to do?”

But in my case, at least, it’s proving to be true—the “happier” part, not the “can’t do anything” part.

Since leaving my job in mid-December, I’ve caught myself thinking on a regular basis, “Today was a good day,” and “Life is good,” and even, “I’m happy.”  These weren’t “if you believe it, it will be” exercises.  These thoughts come unbidden.  And it’s the first time in my life I’ve ever thought them.

And why shouldn’t I be content?

I am working on contract for my former employer.  This month I will submit something like $2.7 million worth of funding applications for Ethiopia and Jordan to the UN and US Government. It’s interesting, challenging, and meaningful work.

Somehow, doing the same work but from home is far less stressful and I am more productive.  I don’t get into office chit chat—which I enjoyed but which ate up time.  I don’t attend meetings except via Zoom and I’m not reading all the corporate communiques.

I no longer commute.  My drive was about 25 minutes each way, and by the time I got through rush hour I had usually yelled “you moron!,” at another driver.  I would arrive at work shaking from being cutting off or just listening to the news of the world on NPR.  I feel agitated writing those sentences.  Now I only drive before and after rush hours.

I am working two short shifts a week at the YMCA.  I love it.  I make 1/10th at the Y as I do writing proposals, but it is something different and it gets me out of the house, very important during the recent polar vortex.  I work in the childcare center.  I can see some of you grimacing at that—your worst nightmare.  But I love little kids, and being around them puts me in a zone—I don’t have to teach them anything; I am just there to play with them and keep them from biting each other.  I am now certified to provide CPR and if you knock out a tooth I’ll know what to do.   I get a free Y membership, so I am enjoying trying out all the different locations and classes.  The sauna was a godsend last month when I had a cold.

Maybe part of my contentedness is my keen awareness of how fortunate I am.  When I had that cold, I was propped up in bed one night feeling sorry for myself and I thought, “Somewhere there is a woman my age in a refugee camp who has a cold.  She can’t prop herself up to breath because she’s in a fucking tent and doesn’t have four pillows.  It’s dusty.  She doesn’t have Breathe Right Nasal Strips or eucalyptus essential oil in her humidifier.   She probably doesn’t even have Kleenex to blow her nose.

I shouldn’t have to make myself feel better at the expense of a refugee, but there you go.

My son and I received our first royalty check last week for the book we published in November.  We’re not going to be able to quit working or make big donations to refugee charities with our proceeds, but hey, we did it—we wrote and published a book!

Finally, yesterday my sister-in-law and I bought four tickets to Japan for June in a big sale through a Chicago travel agency.  It still wasn’t cheap, but it was $600 less than anything posted publicly.  So use a travel agent for big trips—they really can see things you can’t.

It’s my brother’s busiest season as a wedding videographer, so I will go with Akiko and my two nephews and chaperone the second one back home after a month.  I have no idea where I’ll stay or what I’ll do yet, but that will be the fun part.  Suggestions welcome!

Suspended

Last summer I took swimming lessons in hopes of feeling confident enough to get scuba certified, but observing the dive instructors on the ship, I knew it would have been too much for me.

The ship was a “speed catamaran” with “state-of-the-art computerized ride control systems.”  This meant we got out to the reef faster, with less choppiness, and for that I was grateful.  It still took an hour to reach the reef, and one hour of seasickness would have felt like eternity.

The dive instructors had convened the tourists who would scuba in the front of the ship.  Most of them weren’t certified—they would get one hour of instruction and dive with the instructors.

As I watched, I recalled my mother exhorting me, 50 years ago, to finish my food with her mantra, “Think of all the starving people in China.”

They aren’t starving anymore.  All the divers were young Chinese.  The base tour wasn’t cheap—$176 US—and they would pay extra for each dive.

The instructors were hunky, sun-browned he-men.  They demonstrated scuba hand signals, “This means low on air,” said one as he held his fist to his chest, “and this means out of air,” as he slashed his hand across his throat.

No thanks.

Suddenly a crew member yelled, “Dolphins!” and everyone rushed to look.  Dolphins indeed!  There were a dozen cavorting in our wake, and when a crew member went out on a wave runner they jumped for joy around him. It was absolutely delightful.

Everyone around me was taking photos and video but I desisted.  There was no internet out here, and I had decided to leave my phone wrapped in a plastic bag with a small amount of cash and my Minnesota driver’s license. For all I knew my passport had been stolen.  Maybe Aussies weren’t as honest as I’d thought.  Would someone pay $176 to spend the day on a ship and pickpocket their fellow passengers?  Probably not, but I wasn’t going to leave my phone in the open.

I took two photos of the sea all day, at our first stop. Then I decided to just enjoy and not try to capture it.

We snorkeled and dived for an hour at a site called Stonehenge, where rock formations jutted from the ocean.  I understand the naming system, but Stonehenge is part of Agincourt Reef 3.  The ship stopped at three sites out of 35 in the vicinity, depending on weather conditions.

The fish were astounding.  There were angel fish with yellow, blue, and white vertical stripes and yellow tails and beaks.  Whatever kind of fish Nemo the cartoon is, it was there.

I glanced down and make a muffled exclamation into my mask, “Giant clam!” My dad had played Giant Clam with us when we were little—sitting akimbo on the floor and pretending to eat us—the little fish.  Giant clams really are giant—maybe four feet across.

When I am fortunate enough to be in an environment like this, I feel a peace and oneness with everything.  I don’t believe in god but I do believe in heaven-like places and states of mind, and this was one.

The horn sounded and we exited the water for lunch.  There was an enormous buffet with fresh seafood, fruits and veg, and healthy hearty salads.

As I ate, three women in the adjacent booth invited me to join them.  They were Lebanese-Australians from Melbourne.  They appeared to be my age but they all rocked bikinis. Was it their Lebanese skin they should thank for their faces being without a wrinkle?  They were well-educated, smart and funny world travelers who were very kind to invite me to join them.

After lunch we stopped at Barracuda Bommie.  A bommie is an underwater tower.  I floated face down, mesmerized as I watched thousands of barracudas swirl around the bommie—down, down, down into the darkness until I couldn’t see anymore.

Why do scenes like this bring on such a feeling of peace, at least for me?  Perhaps because it’s so humbling.  I realize how vulnerable I am, and how insignificant.

At our last stop—Blue Wonder—the sea began to swell and I hit a wall of exhaustion and nausea.

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.