Category Archives: Joie de vivre

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.

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.

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.

Good-Bye, Minnesota

Has it really been a month since I’ve written a post?  Writing about Japan took a ton of time and energy.  I needed a break.

I returned determined to cook and eat Japanese-ish.  I bought tiny dishes at the Salvation Army to add to the Siroton dishes I bought at the airport, then tried my hand at making pickled vegetables, tofu, and eggplant with dengaku, the super oishi (delicious) sauce.  I arranged everything beautifully on a bamboo tray and ate with chopsticks.

It was okay.  I did this for a few weeks, then reverted to my usual habit of making crock pot and hot-dish-type meals.

I will turn 60 in a few weeks.  I’ll be in the UK, so I threw an early party for myself.  I made big pans of vegetarian lasagna and moussaka.  My cousin Molly made two cakes—chocolate torte and cardamom lingonberry.

Vince brought a charcuterie board with so much cheese I sent friends home with baggies full.

It was a fun night.  I requested no presents, and most everyone took me at my word.

In a few hours I’ll board a plane to London.  My subletter will roll in this evening.  I’ve been cleaning and packing and doing laundry and taking care of business at a nice steady pace for a couple weeks.  I didn’t need any more stuff to make decisions on, thus the “no gifts” request.

I don’t need anything except warm clothes and books, and I have plenty of both.

I was super happy to see, when I checked in, rows of empty seats.  If it’s really true, I may actually be able to lie down across four seats and sleep a couple hours.  Shhhh…don’t tell anyone, but a certain family member is slipping me a couple Restless Legs prescription pills for the flight.

I’ll arrive in London at 7:30am, catch the bus to Oxford, and stay in a guest house for a couple nights before I move in to the house where I’ll be a cat and chicken carer for three months.

I’ll also be very busy working on proposals for my former employer, the torture rehabilitation NGO.

Believe it or not, I will miss working at the YMCA.  Child care is on the opposite end of the spectrum from my proposal work as far as pay, benefits, and prestige.  But I love little kids, it got me out of the house, and I took full advantage of the free Y membership that was the one perc of the job.

I will have to work to find things to do to pry myself away from the house in Oxford.  One thing that will help is that it’s already spring there—daffodils are blooming!  I will not miss the snow and cold of Minnesota.  I’ve shoveled the walks nine times thus far this year, and it’s now snowing again.  Blech.

I’ve gone through my usual phases of preparing myself emotionally and mentally for this sojourn.  The initial excitement.  The panic of organizing it all.  The last-minute thoughts of, “I don’t want to go!” and finally the readiness.

I feel guilty about leaving my mother.  She and her husband have so many health problems and she has depended on me to take her shopping, etc.  But it’s my youngest brother’s turn to play this role.  And my mother and her hubby have both told me, “Go!  Go while you can still do it.”

I will miss my friends and Vince and his wife and (I admit) most of all my new granddaughters.  I spent New Year’s Eve babysitting them, and it was a blast.  We went to a confetti drop at the zoo, gazed awe struck at manta rays and baby giraffes, waked through the St. Paul Cathedral and looked up at the stained glass windows, did art projects, went to the library, and (they) played with blue slime, a product that produces farting noises and is impossible to remove from sheets, pillows, hair, and clothes.

Please, try not to be jealous of my whoop-dee-doo NYE.

I didn’t want to write a post, but I did, and I’ll keep doing so once I’m on the other side.

Happy New Year!

Tofu Nirvana

Today was the day.  I had not touched my cell phone for 48 hours and now I could check to see if it was dead or alive.  It was alive!  The screen looked weird, like water had dripped down inside and smeared it, but it worked.  It would die eventually, once I was back home, but for the rest of my trip it worked.  Hurrah!

I felt grateful that it worked, and also grateful that I had been forced to not use it for 48 hours.  If your phone has to die, a mountaintop Buddhist monastery is the perfect place for that.

There were some new guests next door to me; from the guttural exclamations I could hear through the wall, they must have been German or Dutch.  They sounded aggressive, which I realized was just their language, but I took my laptop with me just in case they turned out to be thieves.  This is the type of irrational thinking I do when I am sleep deprived, which is just about every day.

I wanted to buy a gift for my Keiko’s parents.  Koyasan is considered sacred to the Japanese.  I didn’t know Fred and Hiromi were believers and if so, in what, but they had never been here and I thought it would be nice to bring them a little something.  But what?

At the information center, I asked the friendly staff of three for advice, but none of them spoke much English.  From the back office, a tall, stout man appeared and thrust out his hand.

“I’m Patrick O’Leary.  How can I help?”  An Irish American! He was the fourth employee.  After my initial surprise, I explained I wanted gift advice for my Japanese family.  He translated for the other employees and they conferred.

“I’ve lived here 30 years and I still don’t understand it completely—the gift giving thing,” he said.  The advice was to buy a special kind of dehydrated or freeze dried (is there a difference?) tofu made only in Koyasan.

Really?  Tofu?  Now, I like tofu, but I had never considered giving it as a gift.  I asked them to write down the exact name in Japanese since I assumed it would be difficult to find.  They giggled a little up their sleeves, and I realized why as I entered the first gift shop I came across to find thousands of boxes of gift-wrapped dehydrated tofu.

Here’s the good thing—dehydrated tofu is light, unlike the broth-packed yuba tofu I had bought in Nikko.  Once I saw it I realized this was something I’d been enjoying at every meal in Koyasan. Once it’s reconstituted, it has an even spongier texture than regular tofu.  Call me a weirdo, but I like that, so I bought a package for myself too.

I returned to the monastery and did some work, wrote a blog post, ate an instant ramen lunch, and packed for my departure the next morning.  Then I sauntered out for a last visit to the cemetery.

This time I followed some of the tantalizing trails that led off from the main paths.  They wound up, up, up from one terrace to another; on every level there were loads of old tombstones as well as signs that people still visited, like gardening tools and stools and obviously-recent offerings of coins or flowers or incense.

One path turned out to be a cross-country hiking trail. A very serious woman through hiker hoofed it my way, barely nodding at me.  The path opened out into a meadow, and I could see where it reentered a woods on the other side.  So tempting!  But I turned back.

I got lost and ended up in an area where Japanese tour buses arrived.  This was the location of newer graves, including “corporate graves” for people who dedicated their lives to their companies.  Probably they literally worked themselves to death.  I will never understand why this is considered admirable.

That afternoon I attended the fire ceremony, which as I wrote turned out to be a two-hour meditation.  That night I slept eight hours straight!  I guess all I have to do from now on is meditate two hours a day.  Right.

In the Monastery

I waited on the platform for the train to Gokurakubashi, from whence I would take a cable car, and then a bus, to the monastery.  It was unclear to me, and still is, why I would take a cable car—not a train—directly to Koyasan station.

I had to hold myself back from jumping onto a waiting train. I must not have been the only one to feel this impulse, because a recorded announcement kept repeating in English, “Do Not board the train on platform x.  If you are going to Koyasan, there will be a later train.”

The monastery registration had stated that “visitors must arrive by 5:00 pm.”  It was only 3:00, so I wasn’t worried.  Who am I kidding?  My mind was busily generating worst-case scenarios.  But then the train came, and the scenery was vertiginous and spectacular, and I forgot to worry.

These signs were everywhere.  I’m not sure to what they referred.

I had imagined a rickety old gondola creaking and swaying up the mountain.  Instead I boarded a sleek, very expensive-looking car—as it should be, since it held dozens of people and their luggage.

In five minutes, it lifted us up a thousand feet. Or maybe it was 300.  I have no idea but it was steep and high. Whee!

The station at the top was decked out with glass globes and strips of paper fluttering in the breeze—maybe for the Tanabata festival?

Spiffy uniformed guides waited at the exit and efficiently pointed us to our respective buses.  Twenty minutes later I stepped into the monastery, where a man in black led me on a march around the facility.  In staccato English, he pointed—“Shoes, no!”—then point elsewhere—“Shoes okay!

“Meals seven in morning, six thirty evening.  You come down.  Women bath open, four to seven.  Gates close nine o’clock.  Meditation six a.m.  Yukata, no!”

This last part I would screw up the next morning.

He led me to my room which was up a steep flight of stairs.

The room was quiet and spacious and there was a view of the koi pond.  The man in black left me and I inspected the features.

There was a sink!  This small amenity would save trips down the hall to the shared bathroom area to fill the kettle, and I’d be able to wash my clothes, which by now were crunchy with dried sweat.

But why, why couldn’t pink champagne come out?

The internet was easy and fast, and there was a bean bun snack.  By now I was famished, and the snack fueled my hunger.  I rooted around in my suitcase, wondering if maybe I’d forgotten I had a pizza in there.  I came across a gift box of yuba, the specialty tofu I had been toting around since I left Nikko two weeks before.  It was heavy, so why not do myself a favor and just eat it now?  Turned out it was heavy because it was vacuum packed in broth.  I wolfed it down.

The best food is when you’re really hungry, which most of us aren’t, very often.

Several hours later the man in black served me dinner in a private room.  As someone who loves fruits and vegetables and beans and tofu, I was almost so enthralled I forgot to eat.  Except I didn’t, of course.

I tucked in to the 15 foods in 24 dishes.  The food was fab but I felt a bit isolated.  I had imagined a communal dining hall where I would meet interesting fellow travelers.  I could hear a pair of Aussies talking on the other side of this screen.

But never mind.  I had exploring to do.

In real time, I attended a training last night to volunteer as an election judge. I didn’t realize that part of it could involve “challenging” people who may not be eligible to vote, including felons.  I felt very sad, imagining anyone with a record caring enough to vote, then being questioned in front of dozens of his fellow citizens.

I hope I don’t have to do it, but if I do, maybe I am about the most empathetic person for the job.

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.