Friday, June 23, 2017


For our latest South Dakota trip, we rented an RV. A “rig,” to be exact.

Yikes, now I guess this really is a Third Third blog. (There are LOTS of retiree RV blogs.) I feel compelled to add that we haven’t given up camping or sleeping in a tent, but the RV was the latest New Thing to try.

I also feel compelled to add that my New Thing was as a passenger. Either that, or we could spend every other day at a spa, massaging my neck and shoulder muscles. Besides, I’m a great navigator, and Tim’s a great driver.

Tim did all the arranging, but we both went to the rental company to pick it up and get whisked through the orientation. This is what I remember: he showed us a minuscule blue speck on the front of the beige hood and marked it on the walk-thru sheet so we wouldn’t get blamed. I don’t think blaming had anything to do with it. I think it was designed to scare us into thinking that any speck could result in Damages. (The capital-D is not an error.) It worked.

This is what we didn’t remember: Somewhere in the RV is a button that slides the side of the RV out, giving us lots more room. We knew it was there – we’d seen it once – but we searched high and low and couldn’t find it. The manual told us how to press it, but not where it was located.

Much later, as I was opening the freezer, I discovered the door above it. Aha! The slide button!

I guess every new RV renter has to face the first trip to a gas station. The passenger person has to get out of the car and find where to put the gas nozzle. The driver person has to fit the 24-feet of RV into the gas station, which means the passenger person has to run around outside, waving her hands and shouting at the driver person. In fact, that’s her job: at gas stations, restaurants, camper sites, parking lots – waving and shouting. She’s good at it.
We blissfully negotiated Colorado and entered Wyoming. Suddenly, the radio and Tim’s iPhone went nuts: Tornado Warning! Hail storm warning! Hail the size of softballs! Right where we are! We passed a car on the road with its windshield GONE, smashed by hail. Oh, no, Oh, no! Where are we going to hide? How are we going to protect the RV???

We pulled into a restaurant to eat so if the hail returned, we could quickly race out and move the RV into the gas station to hide under the awning. The waitress was distraught: she’d canceled her insurance coverage and now her car was wrecked by the hail. Or the tossed tornado debris – the disasters  were compounding. I started thinking fondly of earthquakes back home.

Amazingly, the weather cleared, the sun came out, and we new RV-ers reflected how we didn’t have to worry about non-hail/non-tornado weather. We watched tent campers run after their tent in the blowing wind; we noticed sprinkles without any unease. Even the one night when the campground was full, the town of Hawk Springs, Wyoming (population 45) had a wonderful restaurant whose owner let us camp by the playground. In RV comfort.

Admittedly, we don’t take full advantage of RV comfort: we never used the shower, and we never (ahem) took a dump. We had campgrounds for that, and we’re still a little cautious of that whole dump station thing.

One by one, I watched all the people ahead of us at the dump station, asking questions, observing all the details: “How come your hose is short and ours is long?” “Do you have color-coded hoses?” “When do we put the little blue de-smeller in the toilet?” I’m sure I was a real treat.
It was the same at the self-service car wash. What with pre-soak and tire-clean and wash and rinse and spot-rinse, all the options were very confusing. The rental man had told us we should wash the bugs off so we could make sure they were bugs and not scratches. Tim took over the hose while I waved and shouted to make sure he caught all the dirty spots. I am VERY good at waving and shouting.

Except that neither of us noticed that one of the windows was open till we were all done.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Do you have a Bucket List?

The only bucket lists I know are the ones mentioned in movies, and they all seem pretty extreme if not downright scary to me: skydiving, climbing Mt. Everest, surfing around the world. Sure, those are the ones in movies, but does a bucket list necessarily mean it’s far outside your comfort zone?

What’s on a non-Hollywood bucket list? Do you have one?
  • Is a bucket list just a Santa Claus list of unrealized dreams?

  • Are they things you wish you’d do, but your regular life doesn’t leave room for it, so it implies some sort of major shake-up? Does being on a bucket list mean it’s over and above regular old life?

  • Are bucket lists experiences or accomplishments?

I know many people who have “visit Alaska” on their bucket list. It wasn’t on mine. It’s just something I did. Same with living in Costa Rica for a summer. I wanted to refresh my Spanish; one thing followed another. Spending my month in Manhattan, however, qualified as a Big Dream. It hovered for a long time and I had to engineer its happening. So maybe that’s what a bucket list item is; it starts with “some day....”

The first time I rode a water slide in a water park, I was hooked. Every time I discovered another water park, I’d say, “Some day, I want to cross the U.S. by water park.” In 2002, Sophie and I did: 2½ months, 25 water parks. If I hadn’t already done it, it would still be #1 on my bucket list. It was the Bucket List Item to Top All Bucket List Items.

My friend Connie said rafting the Grand Canyon was on her bucket list. When I bailed out on the trip, it’s because it was never on mine.

So why am I wondering about this now?


Because I’m headed to the Badlands with Tim, and Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial are on my bucket list. Right now, I think they’re the only things on it. I tend to do my dreams one at a time: dream up one, plan it. Dream up the next one, plan it. Or maybe it has to be already possible to even get on my list.
My life may not come in manageable bites, but it seems my bucket list does. And now I’m about to check one off!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Lessons of a Third Third Garden

I know many people who relish their Third Third because it gives them more time in their gardens … and their gardens reflect that. I love their gardens. I go on tours of their gardens. I marvel and compliment and ooh and envy. I write down names of plants. I buy them.

Then I go home to my dirt.

I was going to wax funny about my garden difficulties, my scrawny plants, my fight against invasives, my slugs. This was going to be a ha-ha-ha-woe-is-me kind of blog post. But as I thought about my garden, my perspective shifted in a very Third Third way. My garden was echoing some of the lessons and gifts my Third Third has given me. See if you know what I mean:
  • When I water a plant, I feel it drink. If you don’t know this feeling, I can’t describe it. I am nourishing something and enabling it to live.

  • Every flower has its moment of glory. Yes, mostly my flowers have only moments, but they’re still glorious. The Oriental poppy is big and bright till it isn’t. The peony is spectacular till it droops. The daisies are a sea of white till they’re scraggly. But they all have their moments.

  • Every now and then, there’s a surprise: the daffodils that have come up for 25 years and never bloomed produced one bloom this year! I don’t know why. Maybe it just needed more time.

  • For years, on tours at the Alaska Botanical Garden, I’d taste the sorrel and want to add it to salads. Last year, I finally found a plant for sale and bought it. This year, I noticed it’s back! I am getting this gift again! I didn’t know it would come back, but it did.

  • Years ago, after Sophie and I read Miss Rumphius, Louise and Richard called to say they were digging up their lupine, would Sophie want to come by and get some plants. Miss Rumphius committed to making the world more beautiful, so she planted lupine everywhere. Every time Sophie’s lupine grows, blossoms, and spreads, the world is more beautiful.
  • The back of the house has giant white columbine. One year, one plant produced bright purple flowers. How did that happen? Some years, there are yellow columbine, some times purple again. It is a mystery.

  • My flowers are scrawny. They just aren’t … exuberant. Except one area where a flock of pansies somehow got happy and come back every year. Again, it’s a total mystery how that happens. I don’t know how to repeat it, but it just repeats itself. My happy flock of pansies.

  • I let mint grow wherever it wants (within reason). It fills in my blank spaces and gives me fresh mint for salads. It is pure reward for no effort.

  • One parsley plant solves the problem of needing a bit of parsley for a recipe but not having to buy a whole bunch at the store (which will only go bad).

  • When the lilac is in bloom, every step outside is filled with fragrance. I remember that I have a sense of smell.
A long time ago, I took a lobelia basket class at the Alaska Botanical Garden. We lined a wire basket with black plastic and poked about 35 holes in it. We took a little lobelia start out of its little pot and rolled a piece of plastic around the plant, leaving the root ball hanging. We pushed the plastic tube through the hole in the basket from the inside and tugged till the dirt clump stopped it. (Or till you broke it; accidents happen.)

So then you end up with a basket that looks like a bunch of frightened lobelias. In the top, you plant yellow marigolds.

Eventually, they grow and get bushy and – supposedly – you end up with the giant Alaska-flag-colors, blue-and-gold hanging planters that decorate Fourth Avenue downtown.

Mine don’t ever get like that, but they do get pretty. So every year, I re-use my original baskets from years ago and make two more. They are my big effort/big reward gardening victory. They hang by my front door, and I notice them, pay attention to them, marvel at them every time I come and go. Ah, that’s what a garden does!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Paper Doll for our Times

Do you know those special times when you complete something or create something and you are so happy about it, you admire it over and over again? Maybe you’ve planted a garden or crocheted a pillow or set a table; and you go back to it again and again just to look at it?

These are Golden Moments, and you receive them in rare bursts of well-being and accomplishment. Mostly, you keep them secret unless you drag in new victims to share it with and you get to crow a little.

So here’s my creation.

It’s a paper doll, but instead of changing clothes, she changes her protest signage. Just like me.

In real life, I carry the same sign and stick but just cover it with a new paper sleeve each time. (Just like my sister Allison! And we didn’t even know we both did that.) While I was working on this, Tim was de-cluttering the garage. He found some of my very old signs from the Iraq War. What was going on in Latin America? I’d forgotten I had those colored ribbons, too.
Now I’m at work on a paper doll with a wardrobe of new books she’s reading. Maybe reading to a child. Maybe I’ll make an assortment of the activist dolls like an assortment of Barbies – do you want the brunette, the older one, the guy? All of us, standing up and speaking out.

It all started with this wonderful poster about “creative resilience and the artist’s duty in dark times”:
This led to a mental Third Third flash: was I moving through these “dark times” as an activist or an artist? Or had I never decided – never even thought of the choice – and so was moving through half-assed? And was I really neither anyway?

But then my bricolage group delivered the next assignment: make paper dolls. And I thought of McCall’s magazine and mounting each issue’s Betsy on cardboard and cutting out the clothes with their little tabs. (Did you do that?) And how when my brother wanted to play, we created the Legion of Super Heroes paper dolls and wasn’t it miraculous that when I was de-cluttering Uncle Wiggily’s Story Book, out fell all the Super Heroes (whose clothes were all their normal identities of course and who must have been in Uncle Wiggily only because it was the fattest book)? Why do I have Wonder Woman’s tiara but no Wonder Woman?

My deck of Peter Dunlap-Shohl’s wonderful White House of Cards arrived in the mail, and I thought: Could I make other paper dolls with their signs? Elizabeth Cady Stanton for the vote, Sojourner Truth “Ain’t I a Woman,” Elizabeth Warren “Nevertheless, she persisted.” Would you want a paper doll that looked like you or your friends or family? With a blank to create your own signs?

I think I’m still rather half-assed as an artist and activist, but inspiration struck and now I have paper dolls – a new generation of Super Heroes, but they’re us. Or rather, we have to be them. Let me know if you want one.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Purpose of Laundry

My friend, Judith, walked the Camino last summer, and she’s doing it again this summer. One Friday morning, Judith said she had a favor to ask me.

I perked up. Being asked to do a favor is a gift. Suddenly you feel of use, connected, capable. Someone feels secure enough in your friendship to ask something of you and you can DO SOMETHING for them.

“My Camino shirt – the one I wore every day – has a stain. I want to wear it again this time, but I can’t with that stain,” she said.
“I can do this! Laundry, a stain – I am a master launderer! I get out stains! I can rescue your shirt!” I practically leaped over the table in eagerness.

Indescribable joy flooded me. Just that morning, I’d been struggling through my Third Third search for Purpose, my relentless but unsuccessful quest for the Overarching Theme that would leave me feeling satisfied with my contribution to the world.

Now I had a Mission: clean Judith’s shirt!

My mother taught me how to do laundry in a very specific way. When I went off to college and discovered kids who just threw their whole load of laundry into the machine, I was appalled. My mother taught me to separate my load into three batches: whites; coloreds that take cold water because they’re nice; and dark coloreds that take hot water because they’re dirtier and tougher. Whites take bleach plus powdered detergent; coloreds take All plus Wisk on the collars and stains.

Over the years, I have modified somewhat. Last year, Wisk was discontinued. (Thankfully, my mother was no longer aware of this.) I added OxiClean to the stain-removal procedures, as well as Ivory bar soap. (After washing my face once with Ivory soap and having raw skin for weeks, I decided it was tough enough for laundry. It’s also the only thing that gets acrylic paint out of brushes and palettes.)

I rubbed Judith’s stain with Ivory and put it to soak in OxiClean. It looked gone, but I rubbed more Ivory soap on it, rinsed it, congratulated myself, and hung it up to dry. Oh, no! The stain was still there! This would take more work. After repeating all the steps, I used my specially-designated laundry toothbrush for the Ivory soap rubbing. I put my Wisk-replacement on it, and put it in the laundry.

Tomorrow I will worry again about my Overarching Theme and Purpose; but today I added a little bit to the world’s happiness quotient and can let satisfaction seep in.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Where have all the uncles gone?

Oh, no. They just keep aging. The parents, the aunts, the uncles – that generation ahead of us. Yes, we’re in our Third Thirds, but they’re in their Ninth Ninths or Eighth Eighths. And now Uncle Howie has just died.

Let me tell you about Uncle Howie, who came attached with Aunt Selma. They were the city part of the family when we moved out to the country, but then they upped and moved to Florida. There was an old joke that the Brown boys never traveled further than a block in Brooklyn to find a wife, so Aunt Selma was part of the family before she was actually family.

Uncle Howie was the youngest, talkative brother so he was the window into my dad, too. I still remember his telling me the story of my father and the German field telephones he brought back from World War II. Dad was in the Signal Corps, and the telephones include the printed alphabet: A is for Anton, F is for Friedrich, G is for Gustav, all the way to Z is for Zeppelin. There are two of them, and my dad strung them across the street to my mother’s window when he was courting her. My father?!? Courted my mother? Private phone calls? “Well,” Uncle Howie said, “until ConEd made him take the wires down from their poles and lines.”

Years later, my brother and sisters strung the wires between our bedrooms to “secretly” talk. (Except that they caused static on the TV and my father would yell, “Go to sleep!”) Many years later, I wanted the telephones so we could string them between our house and Sophie’s playhouse in the backyard. They were too heavy for my mother to dig out of the garage, and she didn’t know if they still worked. Uncle Howie to the rescue again: the phones came to us complete with miles and miles of brand new wire.

Eventually, Uncle Howie and Aunt Selma came to visit us in Alaska, and Sophie and I were visiting with them at their room in the Capt. Cook Hotel. Sophie, barely a preschooler, was taking a very long time in the bathroom, so I got up to check. Turned out, she was enthralled with the tiny bottles of shampoo, conditioner and lotion and had stuck her head in the sink to try them out.

Now this is why I love the two of them: ever after, whenever Uncle Howie and Aunt Selma traveled, Sophie would get a giant box of little shampoos, conditioners, and lotions from all the hotels they’d visited. That’s Uncle Howie and Aunt Selma.

This wasn’t the first appearance of little bottles in Uncle Howie’s life. When I was little, he was a Fuller Brush salesman. (If you remember Fuller Brush, you’re in your Third Third!) He gave us little bottles of cologne. Later, when I threw a suitcase on top of the thermos of milk in the family Volkswagen and the resulting sour milk smell lasted forever, we used to hold those tiny bottles of cologne up to our nose so we could stand to be in the car.

 We visited them and stayed with them in Florida during the National Waterpark Tour. Although my poor cousin nearly got a concussion after I dragged her to Rapids Water Park, what I still picture is Sophie sitting on the kitchen counter as Uncle Howie taught her how to make matzoh brei his way. Then, because she had an incredible knack for finding money on the ground, they gave her a metal detector. She hunted for money the rest of the trip. It’s still in the closet here. (It has nostalgia resistance to de-cluttering.)

I don’t know how to tell people who are far away that I love them. I’m far away, I don’t really call. We lose touch. I’m not there to help. But they hover in my heart and the pictures in my memory are vivid and warm. All I can do is write and try to say, “You figured in my life and the life of my family. You opened windows, showed love. You mattered to me.”

And as I searched the kitchen cabinets for the recipe for Uncle Howie’s matzoh brei, and I couldn’t find it, I thought, “Oh, no! Is it gone?” How much will be gone with this generation, and then who are we going to ask? What stories will we miss?

Monday, May 22, 2017

Buckets of Fun!

Today, I got a New Thing, an exciting New Thing. Free from Solid Waste Services, I got a bucket.

I fill up the bucket with vegetable scraps and when I drop it off, I can get a bucket of compost in exchange.

Tim says, “It doesn’t take much to make you happy.” Actually, I think I require a lot to make me happy, but this bucket is A LOT! It’s a 5-gallon bucket! It has a twist top so it will lock in smells.
I already cleaned and clipped a bunch of strawberries. I can just toss the green tops right into the bucket. It’s so big, I don’t even have to aim them.

I can hardly wait to snap the asparagus stalks for tonight’s dinner!

My friend Mollie of Valley Community for Recycling Solutions is so inspirational about moving towards a life of zero trash, but composting has always been a failure in our house. We have a big wooden box of it in the backyard, but somehow it never achieves compost status and so it became a big box of dirt and rot and we lost motivation. But I still want to move towards zero trash, and now I can – someone else will make the compost!

I already recycle everything recyclable, and after last summer’s marine recycling, I have been eliminating and/or reusing single-use plastic in my life. Now I get to subtract the vegetable scraps, too. Some weeks, our entire trash fits into one re-used pretzel bag. I am still confounded by the big plastic Costco packages for my grapes and apples because they’re only taken if you have pick-up service. There’s a limit to how much of it an art teacher will accept for “projects.”

But right now, I’m not worried about that because I am SO HAPPY with my new, giant composting bucket. If you want one, check with to see if any are still available.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Someone Else's Adventure

In your Third Third, the idea of relocation gets bandied about. Maybe you want to be nearer family, maybe nearer health care facilities, maybe you just want an exciting change. You look for good spots, but maybe you decide you really like the spot you’re in after all.

The danger of all this relocation talk is that someone else may take you up on it. Someone else may decide to relocate. And if that someone else is a good friend, suddenly your good spot at home is changed. It’s missing that good friend.

Jinnie moved to Idaho.

Jinnie and I go back to my Second Third, but that was sort of peripheral. We just cruised by each other’s lives. It wasn’t till my first venture into Third Thirdism (?) – taking a fiber arts class together – that we moved into each other’s lives. The class led to playing art in each other’s houses which led to my introduction to all sorts of new materials and ideas which led to monthly art group meetings which led to movies and double dates and playing games. She introduced me to unbelievable hot chocolate and glow-in-the-dark 3-D miniature golf.
And now she went and moved to Idaho.

Compared to Jinnie, my art is cautious. I think and think about it, grapple with how to get my ideas to take shape. While I may have interesting ideas, without experience I’m weak on execution. Jinnie throws everything she has at the paper. She has jars and bottles and tubes of things that she experiments with, tries, plays with. While she’s on layer #6, I’m still planning my first brush-to-paper. So, of course, she ends up with art while I end up with … plans.

When I learned the word bricolage in New York – “something created from a variety of available things” – we adopted it for the monthly meetings Jinnie organized. We put ideas into a jar, and we draw one out monthly. One month: things made from corks. Another month: things beginning with a poem or quote. This month: paper dolls.

And now she went and moved to Idaho.
Jinnie lived near enough I could bicycle to her house. We’re from different decades, religions, health concerns, and political awareness; but all those things were topics for discussion, not topics for dissension.

When I went to London, Jinnie thought I was brave, but I was just doing my usual quest for new-ness. She’s leaving family, home, friends for the challenge of new opportunities. She is doing a big, brave, leap into New-ness. I returned to discover her house was sold, the date set, and the airplane ticket purchased. Once the packing had overtaken her house, she was “Done!” And yes, I’m jealous of her big, bold, adventure.

The bricolage group is continuing, and Jinnie and I are starting some sort of long-distance simplicity challenge she came up with, so I know she’s not “lost.”

Alaska is a place where people move in and out, but if you’ve lived here a long time, your friends have, too. Our kids grew up here. We talk about the difficulty in relocating, in leaving lifelong friends behind. But Jinnie taught me that you can make a friend three years ago and they could become Good Friends. That the friends of our Third Thirds are special because they are the friends of our new creativity, our new interests.

I wish her only to grow where she’s now planted … but I still wish that didn’t leave a hole in my garden.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Have I read this book?

This is an all-too-common Third Third story, an interjection while I work on my other posts.

After I returned from London, my friend Carol suggested I read the Bryant and May mystery series, set in London. I checked the library website to make sure I started with the first in the series, Full Dark House, and checked out the book.

As I read, I became convinced that someone else had stolen some ideas from the novel and put them in their own. I remembered reading about a pair of detectives where one was blown up. Little by little, I was convinced someone had committed a terrible act of plagiarism. It wasn’t till about page 100 that I finally acknowledged I’d read Full Dark House before. But since I couldn’t remember who’d done it, I had to read it again. I didn’t know the answer till 4 pages before the end. I didn’t even know the clues.

The thing is, I’m not sure it was as enjoyable the second time around because I was so inflamed with the audacity – the horror – of such blatant plagiarism.

Sunnie says Amazon reminds her when she’s ordering a book she’s already purchased. I keep a list of the books I’ve read. Yup, there it is: Full Dark House, September 2010.

A month later, I’d even read the sequel….

Monday, May 15, 2017

Reflections on Return #2: Things I Loved about London

    47% of London is green space. London’s parks are flat, wide, open expanses of lawn … except when they’re little, quiet spaces tucked into corners here and there. In the middle of a busy intersection, there’d be a square with lawn, flowers, benches, and always at least one statue. Everything clean and beautifully maintained. Something in me loved the openness, the flatness, the far-as-the-eye-can-see illusion. As an antidote to the big city, it worked.

Little nooks and crannies
    Gene taught me the word flâneurie, the act of wandering into secret courtyards and tucked-away corners as you explore a city on foot. In my own neighborhood, I walked behind the church and discovered Kensington Church Walk, a little alley with shops, a school, a little garden oasis. It was like entering a storybook. I couldn’t resist an alleyway in London.

British “Schemes”
    Unlike in American English, British schemes are not just secret or dishonest ones, they’re “a plan for doing or organizing something.” My favorites:
  • the Considerate Constructors Scheme: construction sites follow the Code of Considerate Practice which governs the appearance of the site and the construction workers, respecting the community, protecting the environment, etc. Construction workers dress in full neon jumpsuits – yellows, oranges, greens.
  • the Community Toilet Scheme: Local businesses make their clean, safe, and accessible toilets available to the public. There’s a pocket map, window signs, and an interactive map online. I only discovered this after carefully creating my own restroom directory, but what a great idea.
The buses! (of course)
  • The main entrance to the bus is on a level with the street so strollers, walkers, wheelchairs board easily. Then the able-bodied walk up the stairs to the upper deck. In the U.S., why does the main entrance require going up stairs, which then requires lifts and kneeling and all sorts of workarounds?

  • The upholstery on the buses is beautiful and pristine! In the U.S., we had to give up on that because they were carved up with knives. America is reduced to hard plastic.
  • Every Tube car has a readable map and an understandable voice announcing the stops. Every bus has a digital sign and voice announcing the stops. They’re not broken, out-of-order, or garbled.
The signage
    You figure this one out:
I loved that street signs are giant-size and way up on the sides of buildings so you can see them easily. No signs on poles blocked by trees or people or missing.

  • Their signs say “Way Out” instead of “Exit.”
  • All those life-saving, easy-to-understand, ever-available “You Are Here” signs!
No goose or duck poop at the ponds!
    I don’t know how they do this, and I’ve asked everyone I can. There are swans and geese and ducks and even a heron. The ponds are encircled by paved areas, but right next to those are the wide, grassy lawns. People lie on the lawns! They have picnics and play games! I don’t see them shrieking over landing on goose poop. In all my time in the parks, I only saw maybe two goose poops. Do they wash off the pavements? Vacuum the lawns? How do they do it?!?

Museum engagement programs and tours
    Every hour, the Tate Modern holds a different tour. Every day at 4 pm, the National Gallery has a 10-minute tour of a single painting; twice a day is the regular tour of five paintings. In between is “Listen and Look,” “Talks for All,” “Talk and Draw.” While everyone is just cruising through the museums, you have the option for greater engagement and immersion.

North End Road Market, Jaffa Bake House, Aly Mir’s tours, Time Out weekly magazine
    I took three of Aly’s free tours, ones he privately researches and orchestrates. His devotees are locals who come back for the new ones he adds to the repertoire. Not only did Aly remember me from tour to tour, but this was always the place people talked with me and reached out.

My friend Lynel just told me that on her recent visit to the Jaffa Bake House, they asked if I’d gotten back to Alaska all right and when was I returning! This is the happiest news of all, casting a warm glow over my whole time there.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Reflections on Return #1

I’m back – semi-recovered from 10 hours of time zone change and 14 hours of flights – and I’m reflecting. What did this month in London do for me in my Third Third?

First off, it was harder than I’d expected. One friend says, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone,” and I hovered at my edge for quite a while. Life may begin at the end, but self-awareness comes from the edge.

I learned I’m not a hermit.
Mostly, when you’re a writer or artist, you spend time alone. After a while, you can think you’re not very social, you’re pretty autonomous, you’re a loner. So you think you can spend time in a new city all by yourself and still thrive.


My loner life at home includes a husband who comes home every day, friends in the same time zone and on the same phone system I can call whenever. I may work quietly by myself, but it isn’t endless quiet. During my month in Manhattan, I had a mother every weekend, a daughter and sister visiting, cousins and friends sprinkled all over. I may have traveled solo, but I wasn’t living solo.

London was solo. Tim was unreachable on the Grand Canyon, and my only phone was British. The people sitting next to me in theaters and at lectures were British.

I re-learned I’m an Alaskan American with ethnic roots. Very not-British.
Yes, I cringed at the American who kept whining during a lecture, “I can’t understand what he’s saying.” I didn’t learn that I was a rude American or an insensitive one. I’m just an American who talks to strangers …

… and that is not done. This is an ad to sell newspapers:

The connections I made with strangers – the ones that were warm, engaging, sharing, and acknowledging – were made with Indians, Middle Easterners, other Jews, and a guy married to an American. So mostly, I was rebuffed until I learned to just sit there by myself.

I learned self-confidence is not a permanent human characteristic.
Given social isolation, unfamiliar geographic features, a different currency, and inexplicable cultural habits; and the formerly self-confident become scared little rabbits.

I became a scared little rabbit. Worries swam relentlessly in my head, unrelieved by human interaction. Worries compounded till they were just free-floating anxiety. Free-floating anxiety only stopped when it turned into outright panic. I diagnosed myself as a basket case. I worried for my mental health.
I re-learned that I get up.
Little by little, things improved. I learned my way around, connected with my three friends in London, was welcomed at a Passover seder. Tim became Skype-accessible; my sister visited. Going to a play with her meant I had someone to laugh with.
Every time I walked outside, I’d feel the flush of wellbeing as London’s spring drove out my Alaskan winter seasonal affective disorder. My runs got longer. The flowers got more colorful.

I went back to talking to strangers, but I picked them better. Besides, I had friends to spend time with now, to have real conversations with.

When I got hopelessly lost getting both in and out of the Barbican Centre, I only escaped because I saw some funny lines on a map and discovered the skywalks and ended up at the Guildhall. Weeks later, in a conversation with the director of The City Centre, he said, “Everyone gets lost in the Barbican,” there are design issues. Oh, it’s like surviving Kincaid Park here in Anchorage! I am not a total nincompoop; it’s a confusing place!

I’m still processing all this. (It’s what I do.) Learning that I get back up hasn’t overshadowed the surprise to my psyche that I crashed, but there were also so many wonderful things that intrigued and enriched me. Those are the next post.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Bye-bye, London

I didn’t realize how sad I’d feel leaving until hearing from my friend, Alyse. She’s just arrived in London from Alaska, and I shared some “must do’s.” She’s doing all of them, and I realize: she has it all in front of her.

So when I spent a lovely day in Richmond Park yesterday with Gene and Jay, we had to say goodbye. They saved me from loneliness here in London, and it was SO GOOD to have day-long conversations – and even texts! – with them. Later on today, I’ll say goodbye to Lynel, who gave me homeyness to relax in over dinner and conversation. We’ll meet at Jaffa Bake House, where I’ve already stocked up on manakeesh to bring back to Alaska.

I’ve run my last run through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. Yes, I still get hopelessly lost. Between diagonal paths and my innate sense of misdirection, I tend to crisscross the parks and double my mileage, but how else would I discover Reformers’ Tree (or where it used to be) or Peter Pan? And yet, there are still undiscovered corners.

I got here with exactly 50.0 pounds of luggage, and I’ve added three books. When I met the author of the Cityread London book, Prophecy, she explained that the next in the series aren’t available in the U.S., so what was I going to do? Leave behind the one she signed for me?

So now I’m trying to decide whether the Costco bags of my pumpkin flax cereal and raisins, which I brought here and consumed, equal the weight of three books (and six manakeesh). I wish I hadn’t brought the never-used heavy coat and raincoat, but maybe having them allowed for the great weather I had.
Mostly, I have to decide which of the memorabilia is crucial and which will only qualify as clutter in a couple of months.

London phone number 077 1966 1868 will expire and move on to someone new. I will not get to do Aly Mir’s free walking tour of “Suffragette City” out of Holborn on May 12. Not “Learning to Look” on May 6 at the National Gallery, either.

This is the third of my longer-term stays in other places. After Costa Rica and New York, I had the same feeling I do now: that I was leaving some life behind. I’d managed to carve a little space for myself – my bus routes, my favorite places, my running route, my less expensive grocery store – and then I let it go.

I’m going back to a special dinner, two luncheons, a workshop, and my Friday morning women. I’m going back to Transformed Treasures, the Thursday morning group, my bricolage group, and David Sedaris.

Mostly and happily, I’m going back to Tim.

I’m going back to our own bed, the couch in the living room, cars that drive on the right side of the road, and being around Alaskan Americans. I’m still reflecting on this whole experience and what I take from it for my Third Third, but I’ll write about that later.

Right now, it’s London that I’m leaving and I feel sad.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Bombs Fell Here

War happened here. You can’t spend an hour in London without knowing that bombs fell here, that World War II was very up close and personal. People tell you that newer buildings mean that the previous buildings were bombed out. Over dinner, someone mentions that the house next door was bombed out. Henry Moore’s drawings of crowds of people camped out in Tube stations are on display in several museums. Sixty percent of London homes were bombed out during the Blitz.

I was invited to a lovely Passover dinner in the home of a London rabbi. I sat next to Gabriela, who told me of her family’s escape from Germany in the nick of time. In a car ride home, I listened to Wanda tell me of her family’s escape from Milan.

On a tour of Farringdon, a neighborhood in London, the tour guide pointed out which blocks were destroyed. There are maps showing which bomb fell on which house on which date. He pointed out where the market was, that casualties were high because housewives had received notice that a supply of rabbits had come in for meat. He told us the difference between the V-1 and V-2 rockets; you could hear the V-1 Doodlebug, but the V-2 was silent. You would hope you could keep hearing the Doodlebug because if it stopped over you, that meant it was falling.

Everywhere, there are war memorials, big, stone monuments to valor and courage and tenacity. We have those in the United States, too. But other than Pearl Harbor and the Aleutians, war did not land on our soil in the 20th century. (Although I think I might count New York City.) That makes a difference.

We did not hide in Anderson shelters or Tube stations; we didn’t listen for the buzzing of Doodlebugs. We didn’t clean up rubble afterwards or overload our hospitals. And if we did, it didn’t permeate our national consciousness. Here in London, at first they didn’t let people camp in the Tube stations; they thought it would lead to a “deep shelter mentality” with people refusing to come back out.

In the United States, our government didn’t have to consider what to do if Americans became so scared they would be afraid to come out. War wasn’t on our soil. We haven’t known the invasiveness of this fear, the way it would pervade daily life.

Jane Churchill created an art exhibit here titled Echoes Across the Century, and I’ve gone back to it several times (once to meet her!). With the exhibit – and the help of 240 school children and their art – Jane ties together the experience of soldiers, families, and the workers on the home front who supplied them. We follow a fiancée (Jessie) as she mounts her moth collection and remarks on the “…thousands of men pinned forever to the map of France like moths pinned lifeless in boxes, unable to fly again.” We follow the makers of eyeglasses who began to issue spectacles to recruits because the Army could no longer reject soldiers with poor eyesight. And the students imagine what those soldiers see with their mind’s eye.

Jessie created lachrymatoria – tiny bottles filled with her tears – describing each memory she had of Will. We don’t know what of the exhibit is real and what is imagined – intentionally. Did Jessie make the bottles, or did the artist? Or did the students? It doesn’t matter: all of it rings true and all of it hurts. Fear and loss are very real, and everywhere we see and feel what happens when a whole country – all its people, sectors, laborers – are part of that experience every day.

I went to the movies and saw Their Finest; bombs fall on homes and people camp in Tube stations. Of course, I think, being here has readied me to watch this movie. The tours, the conversations, the exhibits have prepared me.

In the U.S., war happens to the unlucky few and their families. It’s something “somewhere else” to “someone else.” It occurs to me here in London that we Americans need to remember that. We need to understand our different feelings about War and Allies and Treaties and Protection. And always, we need to thank our lucky stars.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

This Slightly Different Barbara

Why do I do this? Why do I pick a city and find my way around it for a month? It’s for Art! Capital-A Art. (Okay, Capital-C Culture, too.) Art that blows my mind with creative thinking and new ways of looking at the world and human existence. Art that, at the end of my month, still lives inside me and has changed the Barbara that is. It may be my Third Third, but my world expands to feel as if I have six or seven Thirds to go!

Right away, I signed up to experience two hours of Slow Art Day at the National Gallery. On April 8, hundreds of museums around the world celebrate what Thoreau described: “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” After a brief introduction about mindfulness, focusing ourselves, and removing distractions, we were taken to a quiet gallery to sit in front of a painting. I picked Monet’s Water Lily Pond. I looked at it. It’s a bridge over a pond, lots of water lilies. I looked.

Our museum guide asked, “What does the air feel like in your painting?” Oh, wow! That air was a bit muggy, humid, but there was a breeze. Suddenly, I’d entered the painting. I kept looking, and then the painting turned liquid, turned into water. I realized that all of it wasn’t junk and leaves in the water, it was just light reflecting in it! Monet had found the light and the liquid and made water!

Mostly, she was silent, but then the guide asked, “Where are you in the painting?” and I was on the bridge. She asked, “Are you moving?” and I was in a kayak sliding through the pond, and the lilies were separating and there was so much liquid water. Sometimes I’d lose Monet’s liquid, but then – after looking again – it would come back. It would turn into water. Paint into water.

So it wasn’t that I’d found new Art; it was that I found a new way into the Art. They called the day “Relax with Paintings,” and it was all about taking the time and quiet to just look.
To find new Art, I go to the Tate Modern. Free tours of specific galleries are offered hourly, and I take a different one each time. Grace took us to Lee Ufan’s Relatum, 100 flat bands of 2-meters-long stainless steel. She said they didn’t come arranged or numbered; the museum curator had to lay them out. It was a way of making the art relate to its new environment, that the art wasn’t pre-determined and self-contained. It lived, and I liked it.
I’d managed to score a ticket to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Yes, I went because Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) was in it, but I’d read Tom Stoppard plays and was curious to see if they could be comprehended in performance. They’re so loaded with philosophical inquiry and lines of thought, I just couldn’t imagine being able to process them thrown out on stage.

Oh, wow, I shouldn’t have worried. The play was extraordinary … and devastating. In Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (only minor characters in Hamlet who end up dying for no real reason) immerse themselves in existential questioning about meaning, about dying, about living. It’s brutal … but you laugh OUT LOUD. It’s brilliant.

So then, I’m back at the Tate Modern. In A Pot of Boiling Water, Song Dong of China started way back in an alley with a kettle of boiling water. As he walked, he poured it out in a stream. A line of water appeared until it evaporated and was gone. Only 12 photographs – from back in the alley to right up front – record the event. Our marks in the world are temporary. It was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern again!

The following week, the free “Listen and Learn” talk at the National Gallery was on Monet’s painting, and I was excited to hear what the curator had to say. But when I arrived, I was told there’d been a switch; now they were going to talk about some guy named Constable. Who’s he?

A couple hundred people were in chairs around a big, gloomy, jig saw puzzle painting. Yuck! The curator asked if everyone loved it, and everyone else said yes. He explained that the painting, The Hay Wain, was engraved in their DNA. He joked that after Brexit, that painting would be a test of whether you were British or not. Not-British Barbara learned to appreciate that painting. To appreciate it. I even got up to look at it close up.

I could go on and on. To not describe Marina Abromavic’s Rhythm 0 is to leave out a piece of art (performance?) that will haunt me forever. I’d seen Picasso’s Guernica in Spain, but his Weeping Woman – and the guide’s information about it – broke my heart.

Back to the National Gallery for the free “Look and Draw.” Forty of us were seated in front of Holbein’s The Ambassadors. First, a man told us what to look for in the painting (including the secret of the skull!). Then a woman passed out boards, paper, and pencils (but no erasers). She told us to look for the shapes in the painting, to map out the visible circles on our paper. Only after that, should we try to add detail and shading to specific images. The goal, she said, was to look. Mapping out the shapes first would help us see the painting in a new way. She’s absolutely right; I never would have thought to look for circles in that painting, but it worked!

Every piece deserves its own quiet Slow Art experience. I can’t crowd them all in here and do them justice. But they have all enriched me, changed me, made me this slightly different Barbara in my Third Third, and I am grateful.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

I got this!

A few days ago, I relaxed. Not relaxed as in spending a day reading or lounging, but relaxing as in “I got this.” My whole psyche relaxed. The you-are-in-a-strange-city feeling that never went away … went away.

I had run through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, getting lost a little, but never feeling like I couldn’t find myself. Afterwards, I’d walked to Harrod’s (more an event than a shopping trip; I cannot imagine anyone finding anything they would actually buy in Harrod’s) and when I got outside, I noticed a #414 bus sign that said it was going to Putney Bridge, and I got on. I was going to visit my friend Lynel in Putney Common, and my little paper with Journey Planner notes didn’t have me going that way, but I still got on this new bus. And it worked.
Lynel mentioned a wonderful market, the North End Road Market, with very cheap grapes, and I discovered on Journey Planner that it’s a short #28 bus ride from my apartment. I’d never been on the #28 before. When I set out, I realized I’d left my Journey Planner cheat sheet at home, and I didn’t go back to get it. Not only that, I found “my” market for the rest of my stay.

I don’t need cheat sheets anymore. I know to look for the bus stop on the left side of the street, not the right. I know that if the ATM can’t dispense cash, it doesn’t mean I’ll be left destitute; it just means I have to try the machine next to it. I know good rest rooms in several corners of the city so I’m never desperate. They reopened the footpath that takes me right into Kensington Gardens so I don’t have to walk the long way around. I know how to send and receive texts on the iPhone.

Now I’m really enjoying myself!

After my fabulous month in New York City, I expected that I’d arrive in London and revel in excitement and pleasure right off the bat. But it wasn’t that easy here. In New York City, I felt like I’d entered my DNA environment, that I was surrounded by “my people.” I felt at home, a part of the culture and the way of being. I fit in right off the bat.

Before spending a summer in Costa Rica, I knew I’d be speaking Spanish, using a different currency, entering a different culture. I was prepared and ready to give it the time to become comfortable. I wasn’t prepared that way for London.

They may speak English here, but they’re British and I’m not. I haven’t figured out all the manifestations of that – and it’s interesting to reflect on – but I know it’s true. I’m a fish from a different ocean. I understand that, and it’s okay.

Important thing I’ve re-learned about myself in my Third Third:
       I need a certain baseline comfort level before I can appreciate my own adventurousness. Before I could feel relaxed in the apartment, for instance, I had to know where the light switches were, that this window opens more easily than that one, that the converter is more convenient in this outlet than that one. I needed to know that I kept underwear on this shelf, paints on that one. And knowing it automatically without having to re-think it each time. Once I could put 10% of my day into the routine column, I could handle the 90% of newness the rest of the day threw at me.

When I worked at the Anchorage Museum, I remember reading research on the best preparation for school field trips. Kids learned more on field trips when they were given instruction ahead of time not in content, but in where their coats will go, where the restrooms are, etc. It reduced their anxiety.

Now I know that every adventure either begins walking down Kensington Church Street to the High Street or up for Notting Hill Gate; turning left for the bus, right for the Tube. I don’t have to look at a map or plan my route. I just have to walk out the door.

So I do!

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