Saturday, December 14, 2019

Back from Japan

I’ve been in Japan.

Time zone changes, jet lag, and return-home-catch-up would be enough to explain why I haven’t written, but it’s even harder than that.

How do you sum up Japan?

It’s one thing when I travel for a month and go through the process – in this blog – of learning and discovery. It’s another thing when I’m back, have already dealt with both the panic and thrill of cultural disruption, and now have … reflection.

We arrived at Sea-Tac Airport early, so All Nippon Airways had signs that said “Counter opens at 9:20 a.m.” At precisely 9:20 a.m., the agents stood in front of their individual counters, bowed, and welcomed us to their airline with prepared introductions.

Welcome to Japan.

My first total and complete thrill began on the plane: Japanese toilets! With a lifetime of restroom visits and bladder emptying – with my experience as the Toilet Police – how could I have missed learning about Japanese toilets!

All those buttons! You can spray your front, you can spray your rear, you can change the pressure, you can warm the seat. You can air dry, you can deodorize. You can play sound so no one else hears your “sounds.” There are so many buttons, I’m not sure what some of them meant: pulsate? oscillate? (and that’s the English). And in the accompanying child stalls, there were even optional potty chairs.

It’s only fitting. In a country of clean streets, no graffiti, public transit with immaculate cushioned seats, absolutely pristine garbage trucks, and swept garden lawns (!); it’s only fitting that everyone would have clean butts.

Speaking of Clean
It’s impossible to find a litter box in Japan, but it’s equally impossible to find litter. After a while, you learn to carry your litter with you. Going out for the day is like camping and packing out your own trash. Look around and you realize everyone treats the public spaces as if they were their own living room. Japanese children mop their classroom floors (there are no janitors); Japanese athletes clean their locker rooms.

In Japan, the Commons is cared for. At every level, in every location, at any time, it’s obvious. (And afterwards, when you return to the United States, the opposite is obvious, too.)

And not just clean. Beautiful. So I’ll start with the gardens.

The Gardens
I know I’ve mentioned here that I tire of manicured gardens when I make my monthly trips; that I crave the wildness of Alaska and its “dirty dirt.” But the gardens of Japan take manicured to the level of artistry, of masterpiece, of divine spirit.

After visiting the Kenroku-en Garden in Kanazawa, I heard a BBC interview with its head gardener. He explained that it takes 60 gardeners per tree to pluck last year’s pine needles from each branch by hand. (The interviewer couldn’t tell this year’s from last year’s, but the gardener could.) Gardeners sit on the moss and pick out individual blades of grass that have taken root. Ropes are strung to the trees so when snow falls, it will stick to the rope and make patterns while the ropes support the tree.

We were there – just by luck – during the peak of red maple season, and the gardens were glorious. Beyond glorious. My color hair glorious. I can’t do justice to those scenes, so look at this.

It’s not just the trees. Ryōan-ji in Kyoto is fifteen stones in a garden of white pebbles. That’s all, but the stones were intentionally placed. Leave me there and just let me sit and look.

Just Look
I can’t read or speak Japanese, so the world was filled with signs I couldn’t read, bookstores I couldn’t enter, TV I couldn’t understand. My visual world was just a “look at” world, not necessarily an “understand” world. I walked through streets and saw color and shape and images; I couldn’t receive textual or verbal. Everything became a picture not a sign.

This was really a big change for my word-brain. And that’s even before I entered Zen and became one with the table.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Lefse Lessons: Trial and Error Error Error

A lot of my Quests for New-ness (my method for keeping life from getting stale) involve cooking. Cooking is so prone to staleness – dinner every night over and over and over again – that it needs dedicated intervention to liven it up make it bearable. So there was the Sauerkraut Saga and the Medieval Mustard Mission. Twice, I discovered parables for living with a brand new pressure cooker – once when I bought it and once when I wrecked it. But even if none of those had worked, there was always Barbara’s Ginger Beer Factory, raspberry liqueur, Bourbon Salmon, and further misadventures with alcohol.

Hmmm, cooking Quests for New-ness always seem to involve a certain amount of calamity. Well, New-ness doesn’t come without risk, but how else would I have learned how to whomp mustard?

So when the Sons of Norway put out a call for help making lefse, how could I resist? It was time to call Connie, and that was before I knew that we’d end up covered in flour. Connie and I are really good at getting dirty.

We entered Viking Hall and right off were greeted by Amanda. The same Amanda who’s taught me watercolors and pencil drawing! She teaches lefse rolling, too!

First we have to prepare round boards for rolling on. We cover them with round, pastry cloth covers and pull them snug. Then we have to sprinkle enough flour to cover up the printing on the cover. Lots of flour. We pull a little sock over the special ridgy rolling pins, too. More flour.

At one end of the kitchen, other volunteers are boiling potatoes, ricing them with flour, and making balls to put in the refrigerator. I take a ball from the plate of finished dough balls, put it on the rolling board, pat it, and push it a couple of rolls. Dough sticks to the rolling pin sock. Not enough flour. Get a new sock. More flour.

You have to roll in alternating directions to make sure your lefse maintains Round. My Round is Round-ish. My Round is basically just not square. Or it’s square with bulges here and there.

When your dough is a super-thin pancake, you stick the long, special turning stick under it. One side of the stick is rounded and one is flat. Flat-side down, you scrape under the dough to release it from the board. Then you lift up the pancake.

Then you pick up the pieces that have broken and fallen. Reject!

You roll out another, super-thin. So thin, there are holes in it. Reject!

You roll out another, but it seems most of your flour has been absorbed. You can’t get the stick underneath. Reject!

When you finally get a pancake to stay on the stick, you walk over to the griddle to lay it down and cook. Not so easy! It’s big and floppy and thin, so it falls on the floor before you can make it to the griddle. Reject!
You try to make one a little sturdier, but it’s too thick. Reject!

You roll out another, but it sticks to the pastry cloth. Reject! More flour. One woman volunteer talks to herself, “Flour is our friend. Flour is our friend.” She’s right! I am now covered in flour, but I’m making round-ish pancakes! I turn to the griddle … and my lefse lands with all its sticky sides sticking to each other. Reject!

Connie decides that productivity demands she give up trying to deal with the griddle. She’ll just roll. But Amanda doesn’t give up on us: we have to hold the long stick very low to the griddle and twist it so that the pancake slowly unwinds itself. It’s a balancing act of original placement on the griddle and unwinding over it. Some make it, some don’t.

Once on the griddle, you use the brush to brush off the excess flour. And because flour is now our friend, there’s a lot. Grill the other side and add your lefse to the mountain of lefses on the counter under the sheet. Other volunteers are brushing off excess flour (Flour is no longer our friend.) and packaging the cooled ones.

So much to learn! I am trying to decide if a valuable learning experience for me is a net-productivity-loss for the Sons of Norway, but by now, I’m churning out lefse. Well, I’m producing lefse. I’m not exactly a lefse factory. They can package my round-ish lefse mixed in with properly-round lefse, so maybe no one will notice.

I am exhausted. I whisper to Connie, “Two hours.” She looks at me in shock, “Two hours MORE?” “No, no!” I say. “We’ve been here two hours. I think we can leave.” Everyone else in the room is still toiling away. They were there yesterday and they’ll come back tomorrow. They tell us to taste one
before we leave. (We kindly pick from the pile of rejects.)

We butter it, sprinkle it with cinnamon sugar, and roll it up. It’s delicious!

And now I know how to make it! But first I need a nap. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Back to School (Reunion Version)

I drive onto the university grounds, following the signs for the parking lots on the grassy fields. The first lot, the closest one, says “50+.” Oh, whoa, I think, I can’t park there. That’s for the old people.

Wait a second: I’m here for my 45th reunion. Next time, I’ll be in the 50+!

Nothing like a reunion weekend to bring up the issues of time, aging, memory, way back when, and what next. The place you lived for four years and whizzed around on your bicycle in your sleep is now so full of new buildings – and even a whole new quad – that you are hopelessly lost and disoriented enough to feel disconnected from your own history.

And the class book is filled with so many people you never met that you wonder, Did I really go here? Or did I just inhabit some little insignificant corner?

Nothing like a college campus to generate an identity crisis.

Cindy says, “I worked for Congresswoman Bella Abzug the summer after you.”

“You did? That’s amazing! Why didn’t I know that?”

“Barbara, we know that. We’ve known that. We’ve talked about that.”

Candy is in the photo the night Bella came to dinner. “Candy, I didn’t remember you lived in that house.” “Barbara, you were there???”

The question of identity is time-sensitive. We were who we were once, and some part of us lingers and endures, but what if it’s a part we can’t remember?

Well, then, you still have a great time meeting new people. They have all come back because something interesting beckons, some learning, some exploration, some mystique. I meet Jan (whom I never knew) walking from the parking lot, Ann in a long conversation over lunch, the two aerospace engineers as we discussed the 737 MAX.

And then, there are The Friends. We met freshman year, and we endure. Dennis in from London, Debbie from D.C., Bob from Mill Valley, May and Bet from Oakland. Gayle from Las Vegas, Joy and Jeff from southern California. Neil hurt his hip, so he and Lee Ann can’t make it. Even Jon makes his appearance! We are like Shangri-La: we reopen every five years and we know we’ll always be there. Until, we don’t, and then we’ll miss them each year, like we miss Sally for the first time for always.

There is a class on climate change, a class taught by an ambassador to Russia, a computer musician who built a laptop orchestra, a class on poverty-stricken cities that can no longer even provide 9-1-1. I love all this learning, engaging, access to great thinkers!

But in a class participation session on post-retirement, everyone else seems to have found their rhythm while I’m still … experimenting. I tell them how, in search of something I could repair that wasn’t getting fixed, I couldn’t even get the goose poop cleaned up from a park! I’m looking for my legacy, and it’s elusive. “I’m Barbara, and I waste time.” Everyone laughs.

Afterwards, I hear from LOTS of people: they relate! What a surprise! We are all – always – feeling our way. That’s it. We are all – always – just feeling our way.

Meanwhile, I’m reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake. He writes:
Still and all, why bother [writing]? Here’s my answer: Many people need desperately to receive this message: “I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people don’t care about them. You are not alone.”
We are all – always – just feeling our way! We are not alone.

One of the classes is “Cultivating Calm: Spiritual Practices for a Healthy, Whole Life.” How could I resist? She talks to us about The Tree of Contemplative Practices, and I didn’t know storytelling counted! And volunteering! And marches! So instead of focusing on how I don’t have the patience to meditate, I can see the benefits of what I am doing.

But this is what she says. She says the best thing she can help a student do is to get that student to wrestle with this question: “Who am I and who do I seek to become for the sake of the world?”

That question never ends! That is my question forever. It was my first identity crisis, and it will be my last, and wrestling with it is the point.

I have gone back to college, and I have learned something.


Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Word Wars 2019

When it’s autumn, you know I’m spelling and pronouncing words and Werd Nerd-ing for the annual BizBee, the Alaska Literacy Program’s annual adult spelling bee. Now it’s time for the less-than-instant replay.

Setting the stage for BizBee skill were our highly-qualified judges, three retired kindergarten teachers – the “Killer Bees.” Taking up her usual position of more than ten years was the “Human Dictionary.” Patricia provides precise pronunciations when teams either (1) distrust my New York accent or (2) are stalling for time. She received more requests for re-pronunciations this year than in all her previous years combined! And teams started a new thing: asking for “word origins.” Just playing for time….
All teams made it through the first round, even with a ridiculous word like mizzle (a cross between mist and drizzle). A climatologist in the audience pointed out that it’s an archaic word, never used anymore. What kind of words does he think spelling bees are made of?

But alas, our Distinguished Leaders in Literacy, the “Elemenopees” of First National Bank Alaska, gave way under pressure to yieldable and picked up the Red Lantern Prize. What can you say about a round that gives the Anchorage School Board team the word curriculum? (It’s just luck.)

What distinguished this year’s BizBee? Full bladders. To maintain the fairness of the competition – just in case a team has hidden dictionaries in the restrooms – if one person has to use the restroom, everyone has to take a bathroom break. This year’s BizBee included a record number of restroom breaks! How’s that for a wild night!

But it wasn’t until Round 3 that the carnage started building. The only thing worse than looking at kohlrabi is spelling it, and ServiceMaster suffered that fate. And because the BizBee came in September, the “Phrequent Phliers” of the Alaska Airlines-sponsored ALP volunteers, weren’t prepared for Oktoberfest and lost their pants on lederhosen. But wait! They pulled out the TeamSaver, the secret, one-of-a-kind, Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card for having sold the most raffle tickets. They were back in the game!

No such luck for ConocoPhillips. They may be a Distinguished Leader in Literacy, but their back went out on notochord.

In Round 4, “Pun with Words,” the ALP Board of Directors team, marooned themselves on the archipelago. Alyse for Alaska (featuring candidate Alyse Galvin) wasn’t going to go down easy: they cringed and flattered their way out of gnathonic by passing it to the Anchorage School Board team (who didn’t want it either). Then they mailed off philately, too. Every passed word means more donations to the Literacy Program, but the danger is the replacement word: what if it’s harder than the one you gave away? The heat was on, but they could handle Fahrenheit (with the same cheer that eventually won them the Outstanding Spirit Award).

Only one miraculous rescue is possible, so Round 4 ended with the Phrequent Phliers stopped at the gate by durwan.

Round 5 and Summit Spice and Tea were too explicit for euphemism; Alyse for Alaska lost blossoms on Hemerocallis; the “ALPabets” were carried off to Africa by roodebok; and the “Health Literacy Heroes” of Providence choked on kielbasa. It was an all-out team train wreck.

Round 6 knocked out the biological clocks of MSI Communications with zeitgeber, and witloof poisoned the salad of the DOWL team.

There’s always a moment in the BizBee when the judges and the Werd Nerd have to figure out how to avoid a midnight contest. How do we spell teams out so we’re not there all night? We have to advance on the word list. “Oh, no!” shout the MENSA cheerleaders. “Not #715!”

But it was word #716 that would have drowned the whole crowd: liman (especially hard if you consider it’s pronounced lē män) was passed by five teams. With no more teams left to receive it, it went into oblivion, sunk into the lagoon of its name.

Ravens’ Roost moved too slowly for tardigrade, and the School Board (the last rookie team standing) had no divine connection for afflatus.

So now it was down to the Big Three: 2018 champions Arctic Entries; 2017 champions Holistic Hands (the Rosie the Riveters); and runner-up both years the Anchorage Unitarian Universalists “In Fred’s Name” (for longtime literacy volunteer Fred Hillman).

Arctic Entries lost in the upheaval of geanticline, and the Rosies drowned in the chresard, but could the wildly-colored Unitarians escape their runner-up fate? After years as #2, could they finally claim victory? They successfully launched their Siamese fighting fish betta, and now one word stood between them and victory. With a sharp gravette ... they took the championship!

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Other Inhabitants of Bear Land

I’ve entered another parallel universe. This one was populated by bears.

But that wasn’t even the parallel universe that amazed me the most.

Tim and I are back from five wonderful days in Katmai National Park, where the bears hang out in Brooks Camp. They catch returning salmon, hoping to gorge out and get fat for their coming hibernation, and there are lots and lots of bears.

Katmai is the bears’ domain; humans are only the visitors. If a bear is roaming around – it’s called a Bear Jam – the humans have to get off the path and scurry into the woods so the bears have a clear path. It’s their path. We get to look at them from platforms (if everything is working right) and up close (if the bears get curious). Mostly they don’t care about humans because there’s lots of salmon.

We get to watch three “subadult” bears playing in the river every day, bears trying to catch salmon jumping upstream, bears sitting in the foaming “jacuzzi” at the Falls, bears just sitting in “The Office.” The bears are so busy with their fish-catching that they stop seeming ferocious. You could almost forget that they could tear you apart in seconds. It’s Bear Land, and they’re just calmly going about their business (tearing apart salmon in seconds).

Around these bears are Bear People. Bear people know a lot about bears. They know which bear is dominant and grabs the best spot at the Falls, which bear has a scar around her neck from a wolf snare once removed, which bear has a big hump. Which bear has widely spaced ears, spade-shaped large ears, blond tipped ears, upright ears, triangular shaped ears, large and round ears, short and round ears, tall brown ears, ears perched high on head, round peg-like ears, etc. etc.

It’s this universe of bear people that I found so … startling.

Some bear people are park rangers. Others – the really compelling ones – are just bear fans. They’re volunteers who come to Brooks to help out, perform tasks, and watch bears. They work long hours and spend their days off … watching bears. If they’re not at Brooks, they’re watching bear cams. They know each other through years of commenting on the bear cams; they have created a community of bear people. They talk in numbers: Bear #435, #910, #284, #410, and they know each of them individually!

This is a whole parallel universe of bear people that I never knew existed. Thank you, Naomi, for introducing me!

Parallel universes lurk undercover in unexpected places. My friend Robin discovered the universe of dance competitors. Angelo introduced me to the universe of train travelers. Jim occupies the universe of Winston Churchill buffs.

While I read lots of Sherlock Holmes and derivatives, I don’t solve international quizzes on the Holmes “Canon,” I don’t follow a gazillion blogs, and I’m not even a Baker Street Irregular. Sherlockians wouldn’t call me a Sherlockian. I study Time (physics and literature, time travel and Einstein), but while I may be more than a dabbler, I’m not an expert. I’m only a tourist, a visitor to those universes.

I’m a little jealous of parallel universe people (and not just because they have an escape from this one). They have such passion! They have such motivation! My friend Connie says that’s not all: they have a focus for learning and development of expertise, and they have affiliation. They belong to a group of like-minded folks who are interested in exploring the same thing. Really interested in exploring the same thing. Deeply.

At one time, I guess I was utterly and completely fascinated by waterparks. But even that doesn’t count as a parallel universe because it was just me.

Lots of people can have interests, but it takes a roomful of them to become a parallel universe. Parallel universes are in the eye of the beholder, the outsider who stumbles across them, marvels at their intensity of fascination, and can’t believe there are that many of them.

So which one do you occupy? Which ones have you discovered?

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Gizmos: Part II

Gizmos are taking over the world.

Right after I wrote about the discovery of all sorts of “added features” in my Subaru, after many of you reported stories of features you’d discovered; I went for a ride.

Without doing anything, without bumping something or getting close to something or breathing wrong; an alarm went off. A high-pitched squeal. I frantically looked for the icon that was supposed to tell me what was wrong. Where was the icon supposed to be? Which of the 32 different icons in the manual could it be? What was wrong?

And then it stopped.

I don’t know what caused it. I’m left with a slight unease wondering what hazard is percolating, waiting to spring on me when I least expect it.

And then yesterday, in my kitchen, the same alarm went off. Could I hear it all the way from the garage?! This was harrowing. I tracked the sound down … to my watch.

The watch I bought a couple years ago. I needed to replace my simple watch that had a dial on the front, but this was on sale, and it had digits. Not to worry: it still told the time. And it came in purple.

When I went to Toronto, I had to advance the watch four time zones. I had to pull out the eensy-weensy instruction paper. Then I had to read the eensy-weensy writing on the eensy-weensy paper.

I had to get in Time Telling Mode and hold ‘A’ until seconds flashed, then press and hold ‘D.’ To get minutes and hours, I had to press ‘B,’ and then back to ‘D.’ There’s a little diagram that shows what ‘A’ and ‘B’ and ‘D’ are. Notice that they run counter-clockwise.

This is all very hard because ‘A’ and ‘B’ and ‘D’ are just little purple bumps along the edge of the watch. It’s hard to keep pressing without falling off the bumps, and if you hold, it “will advance digits rapidly.” That means you’ll pass your intended digit a few times and have to start the whole sequence over to set seconds then hours then minutes.
Needless to say, I have remained on Toronto time for four months rather than face my ‘A’s, ‘B’s, and ‘D’s again. My watch comes with a special Dual Time Zone Mode which should accommodate both Anchorage and somewhere else, but that involves pressing ‘B’ three times before getting to ‘A.’

Well, a couple weeks ago, I finally faced down the watch and moved myself from Toronto back to Anchorage. That must have been when I activated the alarm. The alarm gets set if I only press ‘B’ once: One ‘B’ = Alarm Mode; three ‘B’s = Time Telling Mode.

My watch can also clock my running time as a stopwatch. It can also do split times. It can also light up (but that involves ‘C.’) It can do all these things if it didn’t have me as the owner.

Yes, “when I am an old woman I shall wear purple,” but I’m just not sure that should apply to purple watches…. I just need to know the time.

Friday, August 23, 2019

My Car of the Future

My car has gizmos.

Last year, when I bought it, I didn’t know. I didn’t realize I’d traded my Flintstones’ car for George Jetson’s. I specifically chose the “non-loaded” version of a car for simplicity. My friend Sharon’s brand-new Subaru beeped and chimed constantly, warning us about things approaching us, us approaching things, flies flying too close to the windshield, who knows what else.

I’m not a gizmo person.

So I ended up with a key fob that beeps and a reverse camera. That’s it. I had to check the manual to learn how to program the radio. (The things in red are things I still haven’t figured out.)

Then I got a letter in the mail from Subaru. My Distance-to-Empty logic software needed updating. I thought they’d made a mistake: I don’t have features like that. I don’t have Blue Tooth or satellites or whatevers.

Nevertheless, Subaru made an appointment with my car. They didn’t say, “Oh, no, your car isn’t eligible.” This would be kind of useful, finding out how many more miles I have left in my gas tank. Today was my appointment.

Very-helpful-Eric told me he’d show me how to find my gizmo, but first, he said, check YouTube.

Oh, WOW! There’s a little lever on the steering wheel – with up and down arrows – to switch my dashboard screen to show Distance-to-Empty. It can also tell me how long I’ve been sitting in the car.

It’s just that there are SO MANY little levers and buttons all over the steering wheel, I just ignored them. I thought they all had something to do with cruise control (which used to be the only thing sticking out of the steering wheel). With all those levers, I decided even cruise control was now too complicated. (Distance-to-Empty is the little red arrow.)

Eric showed me I could change the volume on my radio, switch stations, do lots of things from my steering wheel. Aiiieee! I thought the only problems with technologically-distracted driving were cell phones and texting. This is an airplane cockpit (and remember, this is the non-loaded version). I use my steering wheel to steer. It was even hard to find the horn when I first looked for it.

So all this reminds me of the women who have been honored by the Anchorage Athena Society for their valuable contributions to our community. They each received a Saturn car for a year. I overheard one of them commenting to the others after her year was up, “I just loved those heated seats! I’ll miss them.” Looking baffled, the others said, “Heated seats?” After she explained, one groaned, “I can’t believe it; I always thought I had terrible hot flashes in that car.”

And then there was the man who had no idea he had a CD player because the disk loader was in the trunk. He could load five CDs.

But just this past weekend, I rode in Frank’s car. Frank could readjust the height of the shoulder harness so it wouldn’t cut into his neck. He could slide the harness anchor up or down. I wish I had that feature.

I looked again: I have that feature! My shoulder harness moves, too! My car is “loaded” after all.

Just go ahead, ask me how many more miles I can travel on my tank of gas.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Invasion of "the Other"

My husband has retired.

[Pause for those of you who’ve already experienced this and are either cringing or just waiting to hear what I write next.]

It’s an adjustment. First came panic, then came hostility, now there’s … contentment.

The panic had to do with my space. I have my own office/studio, but pretty much, the Whole House has been mine for the last few years. He left in the morning and came back in the evening. I wasn’t observed.

For the first days after he retired, he didn’t just observe, he hovered. That must have been when the hostility surfaced. He thought I was going to be available, and I had my own agenda, I owned my own days. [Look at all these words in bold! These are strong feelings.]

According to quantum theory, observation of something changes that something; and I know that’s actually happening: his observation of me is acting on me, changing me. I can get really existentialist about all this and quote my own philosophy thesis on Sartre’s horror of objectification by “the Other.” My “Other” is looking at me.

Whoa, I just now realized how my two main areas of intellectual interest actually overlap!

Anyhow, we got that straightened out. He mostly leaves the house in the morning, and I can share the house by going somewhere else in it. Thank heavens for rooms, multiple rooms. (Although he has observed that while he keeps all his personal items in his office, my personal items manage to migrate to every single common space in the house.)

When my mother first visited us and met Tim, she was enthralled. She and I were sitting at the dining room table, and Tim was wandering around the house, looking up and around. He was looking for light bulbs that might need changing. My mother oohed, “Oh, he’s handy! He’s looking for projects!”

Right now, as I write this, Tim is trekking the lawn, looking for dandelions that need pulling. Tim relaxes by doing things.

I relax by doing nothing.

I know what you’re thinking: she’s not doing nothing, she’s writing. Well, I only interrupted my doing nothing because I needed to tell you about doing nothing. I’ll go back to doing nothing.

I’ve always had issues with productivity and categorizing myself as lazy. Mostly, I try to consider a day productive if I’ve done two things. It used to be three things, but in the summer, I reduce my requirement to two. I count lying on our deck as the extra because I’m outside and not on the couch.

Yesterday, I picked up a paint chip to see if the color would work for our front door. That counted as one productive effort, so I lost momentum because I was also doing laundry; my productivity quotient was met. I thought today I might wash the door, but since I’m writing this, my door-momentum has faded. Besides, I also returned a book to the library when I was picking up the paint chip.

I am married to a man who will get the paint chip, wash the door, paint the door, clean up afterwards, and count all that as one productive effort. And he would have finished it by now – in one day! – except that I claimed the door as MY (eventual) productive effort. But with one mumbled comment, it’s clear he has observed my inactivity, thus proving Sartre’s – and my – horror of “the Other.” I am seen doing nothing! It doesn’t help that I am also forced to observe his activity.

Fortunately, “the Other” has other benefits, such as companionship. Today’s second productive effort will be going on an outing with him. I adapt.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow?

My hair is in its Third Third. Not just the color, and not just the texture.

It started with sparse bangs on the right side of my head. At first, I thought it was just unruliness, another hair rebellion. My hairdresser thought it was because I slept on my right side, but now it’s yet another sign of Third Third-itis: my head is downsizing my hair.

After my daughter was born, I had little baby hairs sprouting all over my head. They were the signs of recovery from pregnancy hair loss, and I was like a little, furry tennis ball of new hair. Yeah, well, that’s not happening now.

My bangs are getting wispier. (Why mostly on the right side??) I have no idea what’s happening in the back or top of my head. My doctor says it’s only visible to people taller than I. Which I guess is a growing number as I shrink, too.

So first I noticed the bangs problem – which could have been debatable –  but the hair in the shower drain catcher is unequivocal. Instead of cleaning it up with a tissue, I have to use a paper towel. It’s a wad of red.
And then there’s the hairbrush.

My hairdresser suggested Costco’s 5 Percent Extra Strength Hair Regrowth for Men. For men! So I had to think about this: how far was I willing to go to defy age and Nature?

Yes, I dye my hair. But that didn’t begin as a means to cover gray or age; it began as a theatrical requirement for a particular role. It morphed into an identity signature long before age had anything to do with it. So I’ll keep the color. In fact, I’ve noticed that white roots make hair loss appear worse, so now I have to be even more prompt about coloring my hair. [And if anyone is going to Costa Rica, please let me know and I’ll place an order for my hair dye with you.]

But I’m stopping short of putting Extra Strength chemicals on my head. I’ve decided: I’m prepared to lose my hair. I wonder what I’ll end up looking like?

Sometimes, when my hair is looking particularly bizarre, I’ve said I look like Bozo the Clown. But I just checked images of Bozo, and he was bald on top! He had no bangs! And he was actually pretty scary looking.

On the good and very lucky side, I am not losing my hair because I’m undergoing cancer treatments. I am truly grateful.

And then I remembered the Velveteen Rabbit:
By the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.
My hair has been loved off! I’m becoming Real!

Monday, July 1, 2019

Crazy is scary

This is not a funny blog post. There are no pictures. It’s about mental illness. Most of the time, I’m only 40% mentally ill.

That’s not right; it’s not illness when it’s only 40%. At 40%, it might be called creative or unorthodox or imaginative or intuitive. Or fun or uninhibited or outspoken. Maybe even probing and problem-solving.

But even that 40% comes with a struggle to maintain. I have to watch that I don’t tip over. I don’t touch, taste, or take anything that would mess my mind. I stopped reading Hermann Hesse novels in college. I exercise, I try to straighten out messed-up sleep patterns, I try to expend creative energy. I am a high-functioning crazy person.

But every now and then – rarely – I become 85% of whatever it is. And then, it’s just crazy.

Crazy is scary.

Nothing looks the same when I’m 85%. Reality leaks. The fronts peel off and sadness leaks out. If I look too long at it, it un-reals itself. Or maybe none of that happens outside of me, but inside of me, I know it’s lurking. It’s just waiting to leak. I have to be vigilant.

And then I succumb. I examine it, stare at it, poke it and prod it. I want to get inside this other-ness. It is so complex and compelling, but whether it’s sad or not, it consumes. I can either get to the alive-ness in the world (up) or the sadness in the world (down) …  if I just probe deeper. And deeper. I’m not sure if I’m seeking to understand or if I’m beyond understanding and just merging with unreality. Things “appear” that may or may not really be there.

Have I lost you yet? I’m pretty sure the rest of the world is not 85-percenters. The problem is, you still only know my regular-old 60% which is now down to 15%, and so I’m not even me (to you). So if the me you know is not even present, then I am isolated. There is the world of people … and there is me, without connection.

85% is lost in a mental world, so 85% can’t write or talk or draw. 85% is not creative or productive. 85% can only hide. 85% faked being normal.

The little 15% keeps trying to push on. It always makes sure to wash my hair. With dirty hair, I might be a full-on 100%, and then I am lost. But if 15% pushes too hard, enters a practical world, there’s the possibility of failure. “No, I cannot buy stamps. I will have to talk to the post office lady.” And maybe I can do it, or maybe I have to leave with the crushing realization that I’m probably down to 10%.

I went out to lunch. I think I blathered, or else I froze up. I fell to 10%.

I could talk to my friend Laurie, and she would understand; but Laurie jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, so I can’t. My friend Jennifer told me once that she had no one to talk to about it, and I said (because I was at 60% and feeling good), “Jennifer, you just need more crazy friends.” I was her crazy friend, but Jennifer died, too.

I think I need more crazy people in my life. Crazy people can sniff out other crazy people, but I must have stopped sniffing. How did I get so normal?

Ha ha. That is a funny line.

I am married to a reality anchor. Thank God. He looks at me, utterly clueless. Maybe he’s not clueless, maybe that’s just me being trapped in my head and positive no one’s head can ever be in the same place. He suggested a walk in the woods. No, no, no! Too much seeping reality and free roam brain! He suggested orienteering, and once we got past the registration table, it was just us and clues. My brain had to work on clues and could escape all its other workings.

Afterwards, I washed my hair.

When our daughter was very little, we stuck glow-in-the-dark stars on her bedroom ceiling. She screamed at us to turn the light back on. We thought we’d have to pull them down, but she ran to get her fairy wings, climbed up on her dresser, and told us to turn the lights back off. Then she flapped her arms and flew amongst the stars.

I cried. She was my daughter. She was flying, but maybe she’d crash. Maybe she’d just be “troubled.” Maybe she’d inherited my 40%. I told my doctor, and she said, “Maybe you just have to teach her to land.” I hope I have.

For myself, I’m always trying, always landing (so far). Today, I’m back up to 40%. I thought you might be interested in the craziness among you, about where I go when I’m gone.

That’s all.

Monday, June 17, 2019

It's MY Body

My grandmother was left to die on an illegal abortionist’s table. She pulled herself up, dragged herself home, and raised her five kids.

It was the Depression, and she couldn’t afford another mouth to feed. Eventually, my grandfather left her, and she raised the five kids. She’d also marched down Fifth Avenue as a Bloomer Girl for the vote for women. She is the matriarch of our family, and my daughter is named for her.

When I told this story to a long-ago boyfriend, he was shocked. Then his grandmother spoke up, “I had an abortion, too. How do you think I kept from having too many children?”

So how do we think women made do before effective birth control? How do we think they made sure their already-born children had enough to eat? Did you ask your grandmothers? Those women did what they had to do to raise that Greatest Generation, and they had abortions.

I know women who, after being fitted professionally for cervical caps, became pregnant. I know women who consented to abortion should in vitro fertilization yield multiple embryos. I know women who were told they were carrying fetuses with genetic abnormalities. I know women who became pregnant in college and would lose scholarships if they had to leave school. I even know a girl pregnant by her father.

These women – all these women, all of us – had control of our own bodies and had a legal option: abortion.

We women in our Third Third know these stories; we know that legal abortion saves lives – the lives women want to have that an unplanned pregnancy would disrupt.

I’ll say that again:

I’m going to stop here before I march down my fury road. I’m going to stop here before I go on about poorly-funded budgets to work with hungry children, abused children, and homeless children. Before I go on about slaps on the wrists for rapists, for unfunded birth control, for de-funded childcare.

I’m stopping here just to stick with that one thought: many of us have the lives we have because brave and desperate grandmothers or mothers faced illegal abortionists so there’d be enough food in the mouths of their children.

The lives I want to save are the potential lives of the young women with dreams. Dreams to go to school, dreams to get out of an abusive relationship, dreams for their futures. Who is anyone to say they deserve less, that their lives get deferred?

So some law wants to force a vulnerable 14-year-old to a nine-month sentence of prolonged occupation of her body while rapists are still getting slaps on the wrist? These are the same people who covered Viagra with health insurance, but not birth control. These are the same people who want to eliminate maternity care from lower-cost health insurance.

I know people who stretch poorly-funded budgets to work with hungry children, abused children, and homeless children. Low-income women have to find jobs, but childcare is de-funded. I know people who work with rape survivors, women suffering domestic violence, women sold into sexual slavery. Indigenous women just “disappear,” rape kits get lost, and yet the big issue is what’s in a woman’s uterus? My own uterus – which is no business of yours.

As I march down my fury road, I start inventing scenarios. I imagine some rich and powerful guy – maybe a legislator or a judge – a guy who “can do anything” – having an extramarital affair. Many of them do. What would he do if that other woman got pregnant? I am pretty sure he’d locate a quiet and confidential abortionist. What do you think?

I am in my Third Third and pregnancy fears are long behind me, but they’re always present for a new generation of women. I am in my Third Third, and I cannot believe women still have to argue for control of our own bodies. I am in my Third Third and this is my body.

These are dangerous times, and I’m marching down my fury road because abortions save lives.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Why I Do It

Why do I go to a city all by myself and spend a month there? On the one hand, there’s attraction: the search for capital-A Art and Capital-C Culture. On the other, there’s prevention: not wanting to become stale, avoiding stagnation. Both of these fall under my Quest for New-ness.

Basically, during the month, I can walk to more places, experience more things, and learn more things than on the average day in Anchorage. I wake up not knowing what the day will bring. Nothing is familiar; everything requires preparation or resourcefulness. I have to be on my toes, and for me, that’s a very pleasurable feeling.

In Anchorage, stimulation has to be personally created. Sometimes I feel like I have to work hard to remain curious because it’s all so familiar. Maybe it’s lazy to ask a new place to add zest to your days, but if the goal is zest, then I’ll take it however I can get it. And in my Third Third, the goal is zest.

So what did Toronto do for me? What gave Toronto its 10-out-of-10?

    I stayed in Cabbagetown (named that because it used to be the farm area, and there was still a farm behind my street). But even a Martian would know this was Cabbagetown: the big welcome sign, the cabbage flags flying in front of houses, the murals on the side of buildings.

No matter where you are in Toronto, the street signs will tell you what neighborhood you’re in.

In Leslieville, the rainbow-painted benches will let you know you’re in Leslieville. In a big city, you belong to a little corner of it.

Ethnic Food
    Guidebooks and magazines wax enthusiastic about Toronto’s food scene and recommend all sorts of restaurants, but I could count the number of restaurants I ate at on one hand (maybe with six fingers). Instead, I eat “street food.” So I had my vegetable roti from the lady in the Absolute Bakery around the corner, my falafel from the guys at Zaad, my focaccia from Sud Forno, my souvlaki from the guy in Greektown. I even had the knish shaped “like a hockey puck” from Pancer’s Deli, but my only absolute and total bust: the famous Peameal Bacon sandwich which caused a gag reflex at the time and bad dreams afterwards.

    New York has Broadway and London has the National Theater, but Toronto has dozens of smaller, intimate theaters doing brave things. I went twice a week and still fell behind.

The only challenge: the proliferation of 90-minute, no-intermission plays: panicky women line up at the restrooms washrooms beforehand. I once had to escape through an exit sign … and ended up outdoors in an alley. (I got back in.)

Restrooms are called “washrooms.”
    Does that inspire more people to wash their hands? Some of the uniformly clean, readily-available, beautiful, designer-quality public restrooms washrooms even have high-tech automatic door locks/lights/openers.

100 Branch Libraries!
    After a while, I just started going to anything because they all turned out to be so interesting. Some of the highlights of even the less-famous events:
  • Free Tuesday afternoon documentaries (Faces, Places such a wonderful French film)
  • The “eh list authors” (Barbara: What does E-H stand for, electronic what? Librarian: It’s our A list. Took me a while…)
  • The author of Woman Enough dealt with a challenging question: if there are many, many human variations on the spectrum of chromosomes, hormones, and testosterone levels; how do we begin to create a level playing field when sports only has two categories: male and female?
The sign in Type Bookstore
    Other bookstores have the usual: History, Cookbooks, Graphic Novels, etc. This one made me laugh.

The Dish with One Spoon wampum covenant
    This is an agreement made between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the allied indigenous nations of the Anishinabek in the area: everyone is eating out of the same dish (shared hunting grounds) so they have to limit what they take to one spoon so there is enough for everyone. A land acknowledgement precedes every event in Toronto, but I especially like this imagery.

Bata Shoe Museum (shaped like a shoe box)
    Who would have thought to create a whole museum around what shoes can tell us about history and anthropology? From The Gold Standard and all its golden footwear to the U.S. military Reconnaissance Boot from the Vietnam War (which left a Viet Cong footprint, not an impression of an American boot); a whole afternoon easily slipped by. I only wish I could have taken my mother to see that.
The Impact
    Toronto: I’m going back.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Jumping Hurdles

When I was in high school, I was the manager for the boys’ varsity track team. Somehow I got the idea that when I reinvented myself at college, I could tell people I did the low hurdles. I was going to lie to be someone I pictured myself to be but wasn’t.

I don’t think I actually did the lie, but Wikipedia says, “Low hurdle races are a now, generally defunct form of track and field hurdle racing.” I find it fitting that now in my Third Third, my first third aspiration is … defunct. But low hurdles are still in operation for women’s track, so I guess I’m all right (if I were to reinvent myself).

I think of low hurdles as obstacles in my path that seem more do-able than impossible. A high hurdle – a whole foot higher – might stop me dead, like a wall. But the low hurdle is a challenge to get past. And what’s a low hurdle for me might be just a blip for you.

As I was preparing to leave Toronto, my sister phoned. My month there had been a 10-out-of-10, but I was in the middle of my hurdle accounting: I had to get on the plane ... with less than fifty pounds in the suitcase. I told Elizabeth the trek to the airport was rife with hurdles:
  1. I had to pack less than fifty pounds in the suitcase without a scale to measure. And I had accumulated a lot of paper: theater programs, books for my friend Mark on Toronto’s urban planning, four magazines on Toronto’s culinary treasures for my friend Judith, library handouts, maps, more maps.
  2. I had to get the suitcase on the 65-Parliament bus, and if the old style bus came, it would be hard to get in the front door. I needed the new kind of bus to pull up to the stop.
  3. For some strange reason, Toronto’s subways only have escalators that go up and stairs that go down. Usually that’s no problem, but not with fifty pounds of suitcase. I could always bump it down one step at a time, à la Winnie the Pooh, “bump, bump, bump.”
  4. And then, here it was, the Big Hurdle, the one that chilled my blood: weighing in at the check-in with my suitcase. What if it were more than fifty pounds?!?
Some of you might be thinking: what’s the big deal? So you pay extra or you move some stuff around.

No, hurdles are personalized. This was my Big Hurdle, maybe not yours. You may have problems going to live in an unknown big city all by yourself for a month, but that’s a blip for me. My Big Hurdle was facing an airline agent with a suitcase to be weighed. It kept me up at night.

My other sister said, “Mail stuff.” I had already been that route. Canada Post, even with its lovely pink mailboxes all around town, cost A LOT. It took me $30 to mail a 1-pound picture book to a friend. A woman I met said there’s a service called Chit Chats; they drive your stuff across the border and mail it in the U.S. for way cheaper. My sister said, “Use Chit Chats.” Uh, oh, new thing, new thing! That’s another hurdle alert!

When I think of my Urban Infusion months, I think of my first time using a borrowed cell phone, my first time using VRBO and Airbnb, my first time using Lyft, my first time not knowing my geography, my first time all alone; and they were harrowing. But they were low hurdles and I made it over. Once you make it over, hurdles become blips; but they still start out as hurdles.

Chit Chats was a hurdle.

So I prepared: I isolated my paper products in a bag inside the suitcase, so if it was too heavy, I could move it to carry-on. I chickened out and left the culinary magazines behind in the apartment. I departed the apartment a hurdle-fearing nervous wreck.
  1. The right kind of 65-Parliament bus came.
  2. As I approached the stairs of the subway, a man reached out, grabbed my suitcase, and took it down the stairs.
  3. At the airport, I mustered my courage and thought, “Project confidence. Be friendly, and she’ll let your overweight bag on.” I slid the suitcase on the scale: 47 pounds exactly.

Monday, April 29, 2019

What Taxes Buy

Buying anything in Toronto comes with a moment of surprise. I think I’m paying $2 to scan my artwork, but the clerk turns to me and says, “$2.26.” I ready $3 to pay for my $2.99 beverage, and the clerk says, “$3.42,” and then I have to fuss around in my wallet again.

It’s called tax, something tax-less Alaskans are not used to.

Now I’m going to describe a sample day – yesterday – in Toronto. First, I walk out to catch the 506 streetcar on the corner. Within a minute, it shows up. There are seats available – red plush upholstered seats – and I can tell when my stop comes up because the recorded announcement is clear and the sign showing “next stop” works at the front.

[This was so shocking at first: in New York City, the public recorded announcements sound like this: “ssshhhhXXXchchchhsssdsttt.” Here they say, “The next stop is Yonge Street, College Station subway.”]

So I get out at College Station and switch to the 1 subway at no extra charge. It comes within a minute, too, but that’s because it runs every 2-3 minutes. Every 2-3 minutes! I am in transit heaven – with more plush seats!

I’m going to the Deer Park Branch of the public library. I’ve never been there before, but Joanna Goodman, author of The Home for Unwanted Girls is speaking. There are 100 branches of the public library, and I have three within blocks of my apartment. I am always stumbling over yet another branch library in my wanderings.

Every few feet, I pass a litter/recycling box. All the litter boxes include recycling. At first, I thought people were just throwing litter in the recycling hole, not separating their recyclables, and it annoyed the daylights out of me. But then I discovered that here they recycle EVERYthing: any rigid plastic like plates and cups and containers (as long as they’re not black), juice boxes, milk cartons, pizza boxes, foam coffee cups and takeout boxes. So it’s not messing up the recycling; it’s DOING the recycling.

The compost bin even takes my dirty, food-covered napkins!

After the author talk – where every seat is taken and we’re all impressed and enthralled – I dawdle around downtown. I pass a homeless person asleep on the sidewalk, and two community service women are talking with him, asking him to stand. Yes, I’ve seen homeless people in this city of three million, but not to the numbers I’ve seen in Anchorage (one-tenth the size). I have also passed many clinics, social service buildings, detox centers. One storefront had a sign that it was a Sewing Repair Hub offering classes in sewing repair and then helping the women set up mending businesses (while keeping textiles out of the waste stream). They are addressing their social ills.

I stop at Soufi’s restaurant because I see that it’s a Syrian restaurant and I can have manakeesh, which I’d loved in London. Then I head to the main Toronto Reference Library where about 500 of us have been lucky enough to reserve a space to hear Sally Rooney, author of Normal People. (Did I mention that all this is free?) I pass the Newcomer Services Desk, where a woman is helping a new immigrant. Many of the libraries have those desks.

I’m sitting next to Joan, who turns out to be a major theater-goer, seeing two plays every weekend! Two plays every weekend! She turns me on to a play I hadn’t heard about, and when I get home, I immediately buy a ticket for it.

I could have waited till Saturday morning, when I go to my branch library and get a free MAP, Museum + Arts Pass. That’s how I’ve been to the Art Gallery of Ontario, for example. I can get one pass a week, but I didn’t want to take a chance the performance would sell out.
Heading home is no problem because even at night, the buses and streetcars and subways still come frequently and there are nice shelters that say when the next one is due.

A friend of mine lives here and says the taxes are very high, but his husband is very sick, and they can receive many, many services and quality care.

That’s what taxes pay for. This is what a community looks like when its citizens and businesses contribute financially to its operation. This is what a government can provide when it has financial resources. Only Alaskans believe it has to come free.

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