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amy_welbornI am writing this Tuesday night, with the hopes that I can get something else substantive out on the day that’s called Wednesday. 

Reading: 

Well, an unexpectedly long wait at the orthodontist enabled me to finish yet another Goodis novel – this one called Nightfall – very, very good, intriguingly composed, flitting between past and present, between conscious and subconscious. And the more I think about it, the more I sense a bit of a twist on the usual noir theme of existential angst. In this one, the angst and yearning is for something concrete. What bridges the gap? What helps a man see that he might not be so alone in the universe as he thought?

Family.

And once again, really, people  – no, you can’t judge a book by its cover.

amywelborn

 

 

The plot: we meet Vanning – a man living in New York City working as a commercial artist, but is under the burden of being implicated in a past murder out west in Colorado.  There’s really no doubt that he did kill someone, but why? And was it murder or should we define it as self-defense? And where’s the loot from the bank robbery that he somehow ended up with? And who’s this dame who met his eye across the bar? Is she friend or foe?

In that way, it’s of course completely of the genre: a man caught up in circumstances, now on the run. Because this protagonist is essentially a good person, escape from responsibility for his actions is not really what he’s about. It’s more – having been pulled into criminals’ lives by pure accident, he’s trying to sort out whether there is any way he can stay hidden but also own up to his responsibility while bearing certainly fair, but not unjust consequences for what he tumbled into.

In a way, it’s an existential question: here we are in the midst of circumstances not completely of our making – how much are we responsible for? What price should we pay for the harm we’ve been a part of, whether what we’ve done has been accidental or purposeful? What pound of flesh will and should be demanded of us?

The most striking throughline of this novel has to do with the role of family, not only in Vanning’s life, but in the two other principal male characters: John, the leader of the goons who’s entrapped Vanning in their scheme, and Fraser, the New York City detective who’s been put on the case and sense that while Vanning might certainly have killed someone, his responsibility might well be mitigated by other, unknown circumstances.

I’ll start with Fraser. He’s a major character in this novel, and Goodis does a beautiful job of sketching out a solid, interesting, affectionate marriage between him and his wife who truly is his rock, not only in providing an oasis of sanity in a crazy world, but acting as a sounding board as he works out the puzzles he’s uncovering. It’s real, rare and touching.

She studied his eyes. She said, “You never buy yourself anything.”

“I do all right.”

“You do fine,” she said. She got up and walked toward him. Her fingers moved through his hair. “Someday you’ll be important.”

He smiled up at her. “I’ll never be important,” he said. “But I’ll always be happy.” He took her hand and kissed it and looked up at her again. “Won’t we?”

“Of course.”

“Sit on my lap.”

“I’m gaining weight.”

“You’re a feather.”

She sat on his lap. He drank some more lemonade and gave her some. She fed him a little more salad and took some herself. They looked at each other and laughed quietly.

“Like my hair?”

He nodded. He put his hand against her head, played with her hair. “You women have it tough in summer. All that hair.”

“In winter it comes in handy.”

“I wish it was winter already. I wish this case was over with.”

“You’ll get it over with.”

“It’s a problem.”

She gave him a sideway smile. “And you eat it up.”

“Not this one,” he said. “This one’s different. Something about this one gives me the blues. The way he talked. That tone. I don’t know——”

She stood up. “I want to see if the kids are asleep.”

Fraser lit a cigarette, leaned back a little to watch her as she crossed the living room. When the wall cut her off, he leaned forward and dragged deeply at the cigarette and stared at the empty glass in front of him. A frown moved onto his forehead and became more of a frown. The empty glass looked very empty.

A phone conversation, beginning with the wife:

“Do you have a plan?”

“Vaguely.”

“Anything to work on?”

“Just Vanning. I better hang up now. I’m beginning to worry again. Vanning isn’t enough. I need something else. It’s like waiting for rain in the desert.”

“Maybe you can talk to him again.”

“If I could find a good excuse.”

“But there’s only forty-eight hours——”

“Don’t remind me,” he said. “Every time I look at my watch I get sick.”

“Does it make you feel better, talking to me?”

“A lot.”

“Stay there and talk to me.”

“All right, dear.”

“Tell me things.”

“Things you don’t know already?”

“Anything you want to tell me.”

“Even if it’s unimportant?”

“Even if it’s silly,” she said.

 

John is a criminal and a terrible person, but guess what? In an Augustinian way, even he is motivated by a desire for the good. He wants the money so he can buy a boat and just sail the seas with his girl:

 

As if Vanning had not interrupted, John went on, “It was going to be the last. After the split and expenses, I figured on a little more than two hundred grand for myself. And then I’d wait awhile until things blew over and I’d go back to Seattle and get in touch with that girl. Look, I’ll show you something.”

Holding the revolver at his side, John used his other hand to extract a wallet from a hip pocket. He opened the wallet, handed it to Vanning. Under celluloid there was a picture of the girl. She was very young. Maybe she wasn’t even twenty. Her hair came down in long, loose waves that played with her shoulders. She was smiling. The way her face was arranged it was easy to see that she was a little girl, and skinny, and probably not too brilliant.

Vanning handed back the wallet. He bit his lower lip in a thoughtful way and he said, “She’s pretty.”

“Good kid.” John replaced the wallet in his pocket.

“Does she know?”

“She knows everything.”

“And where does that leave her?”

“Up a tree, for the time being,” John said. “But she doesn’t care. She’s willing to wait. And then we’re going away together. You know what I always wanted? A boat.”

“Fishing?”

“Just going. In a boat. I know about boats. I worked on freighters tripping back and forth between the West Coast and South America. Once I worked on a rich man’s yacht. I’ve always wanted my own boat. That Pacific is a big hunk of water. All those islands.”

“I’ve seen some of them.”

“You have?” John leaned forward. He was smiling with interest.

“Quite a few of them. But I didn’t have time to concentrate on the scenery. There was too much activity taking place. And smoke got in the way.”

John nodded. “I get it. But just think of working out from the West Coast with all that water to move around in. All those islands out there ahead. A forty-footer with a Diesel engine. And go from one island to another. And look at them all. No real estate agent to bother me with the build-up. Just look them over and let them give me their own build-up. And let me make my own choice.”

…. “When I have that boat,” John said, “I won’t wait. I’ll get on the boat with her and we’ll shove off. Did you ever stop to think how cities crowd you? They move in on you, like stone walls moving in. You get the feeling you’ll be crushed. It happens slow, but you imagine it happens fast. You feel like yelling. You want to run. You don’t know where to run. You think if you start running something will stop you.”

“I don’t mind cities,” Vanning said.

“Cities hurt my eyes. I don’t like the country, either. I like that water. I know once I get on that water, going across it, going away, I’ll be all right. I won’t be nervous any more.”

And then finally, Vanning himself. He has been caught up in this terrible situation, when all he really wants is just a normal, deeply ordinary life:

 

He worked, he ate, he slept. He managed to keep going. But it was very difficult. It was almost unbearable at times, especially nights when he could see the moon from his window. He had a weakness for the moon. It gave him pain, but he wanted to see it up there. And beyond that want, so far beyond it, so futile, was the want for someone to be at his side, looking at the moon as he looked at it, sharing the moon with him. He was so lonely. And sometimes in this loneliness he became exceedingly conscious of his age, and he told himself he was missing out on the one thing he wanted above all else, a woman to love, a woman with whom he could make a home. A home. And children. He almost wept whenever he thought about it and realized how far away it was. He was crazy about kids. It was worth everything, all the struggle and heartache and worry, if only someday he could marry someone real and good, and have kids. Four kids, five kids, six kids, and grow up with them, show them how to handle a football, romp with them on the beach with their mother watching, smiling, so proudly, happily, and sitting at the table with her face across from him, and the faces of the kids, and waking up in the morning and going to work, knowing there was something to work for, and all that was as far away as the moon, and at times it seemed as though the moon was shaking its big pearly head and telling him it was no go, he might as well forget about it and stop eating his heart out.

Oh, my word.

And even in a chance encounter – Vanning, an artist, takes some time to stroll in some galleries in the city. He has a conversation with a painter, who lets him know where his deepest happiness lies:

“My wife and I, we have three girls and a little boy. Every night I come home to a festival, a beauty pageant, a delightful comic opera right there in the little house where I live. There’s so much yelling. It’s wonderful.”

What a fantastic insight, a marvelous way to look at your life – before you go home tonight, before everyone’s together, consider how you’re imagining the scene: as a bother, a trial, an endurance race? Or how about you’re about to open the door to…a delightful comic opera right there in the little house where I live. …so much yelling…it’s wonderful. 

And know that David Goodis  was only married for a couple of years and never had any children himself.  To know this makes his characters’ yearnings even more poignant.

So yeah, back to the genre – there’s suspense, not only because you want to know what happens, but also – more grippingly – you want to see if justice will be done. It’s why art in a truly nihilistic culture becomes so dull: if there’s nothing at stake, who cares?

Just one more brief note: one of the things I enjoy about Goodis’ writing is his exploration of his characters’ mental processes – how they think, how they arrive at conclusions. He’s really very good at prying into characters’ brains. So here, Vanning’s trying to figure out how to solve his problem:

It kept jabbing away at him, the desire to get out of this city, to travel and keep on traveling. But it wasn’t traveling. It was running. And the desire was curtained by the knowledge that running was a move without sensible foundation. Retreat was only another form of waiting. And he was sick of waiting. There had to be some sort of accomplishment, and the only way he could accomplish anything was to move forward on an offensive basis.

He was part of a crowd on Madison Avenue in the Seventies, and he was swimming through schemes, discarding one after another. The schemes moved off indifferently as he pushed them away. He walked into a drugstore and ordered a dish of orange ice. Sitting there, with the orange ice in front of him, he picked up a spoon, tapped it against his palm, told himself to
take it from the beginning and pick up the blocks one by one and see if he could build something.

There weren’t many blocks. There was John. There was Pete and there was Sam. There was the green sedan. There was the house on the outskirts of Brooklyn. None of those was any good. There was the man who had died in Denver. And that was no good. There was Denver itself. There were the police in Denver. The police.

A voice said, “You want to eat that orange ice or drink it?”

Vanning looked up and saw the expressionless face of a soda clerk.

“It’s melting,” the soda clerk said.

“Melting,” Vanning said.

“Sure. Can’t you see?”

“Tell me something,” Vanning said.

“Anything. I’m a whiz.”

“I’ll bet you are. I’ll bet you know everything there is to know about orange ice.”

“People, too.”

“Let’s stay with the orange ice.”

And staying with the orange ice, he figures it out. He figures out how to begin again.

No, this isn’t Dosteovsky. Got it. But reading this kind of stuff – slightly more substantive mid-century pulp fiction – is a far better use of my time than scrolling through the latest Hot Takes to the latest news. Maybe it will grab you, maybe not. But here it is.

I’m all about sharing more. Not maybe the finest or the most perfect – just…more. I’m pretty convinced that one of the keys to mental, emotional and spiritual health is the proper perspective, and the core to finding and holding onto the proper perspective is the proper perspective: I’m not the center of the universe.  Out there in the present, back there in the past, I find different things, and ironically and paradoxically, in those different things, I find more that’s the same. Venturing out is the place where I find solid ground.

Update:  After I finished writing this, I read one more Goodis novel (yes, read it all last night) – Street of No Return.  It’s got a really intriguing premise and pretty killer framework: A former Sinatra-like figure whose career and voice were destroyed when he got mixed up with some shady characters has ended up on Philadelphia’s Skid Row, a penniless, homeless drunk. Over the course of one night, he gets wrongly blamed for murdering a cop and discovers a bad cop-assisted plot to fuel race riots so one particular criminal gang can take over a section of the city….yeah it’s kind of a crazy mess and nowhere near as compelling as the others, but bottom line is that I found Goodis’ imaginary world  and his characters pretty intriguing, from the washed-up singer to the elderly African-American bootlegger to the preening dirty cop.

And with that – I’ve had my fill. On to something else. Maybe even some history.

Writing: I’m in Living Faith. Here you go for that. 

Still working on my story! This week. Not that I have a clue what I’ll do with it, but it needs to get out of my brain, stat.

 

 

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Now that we’re back, I have several blog posts on deck related to specific points of our trip. I’m going to start, as I often do, with the practicalities. I don’t do this beforehand because 1) I never know if things are going to turn out as I think they will and 2) I am not keen on letting people know my whereabouts on a day-by-day basis.

So let’s start:

Why Japan?

I think I wrote about this before, but I’ll just repeat myself. It’s summer, both my still-at-home kids will be in brick and mortar schools over the next school year, and one of them is a rising senior – the era of family vacations with these two is coming to an end. So I wanted to do a big trip, and where have never been? Lots and lots of places, but a big place we’ve never been is Asia. Japan seemed to be an accessible, affordable, tourist-friendly spot to begin. So Japan it was!

I’m not going to be even more boring and repeat the saga of the changes in this itinerary that happened because of a) my changing views and b) the AirBnB/Japanese government issue. But here’s my final verdict on the itinerary, in case you’re thinking about heading img_1917over that way yourself for the first time.

You can skip Tokyo. It’s fine.

Look. I don’t regret our time in Tokyo. At all. But if you are going to Japan because you want to experience Japanese history and culture for the first time, and especially if you are doing so with younger people, Kyoto and Osaka are perfect. Granted, there is a great deal in Tokyo – it’s obviously one of the great cities of the world. But it’s also a challenge in many ways, it’s huge, it’s not intuitive for tourists, it’s very modern since so much was destroyed during World War II, and Kyoto, especially, offers a glimpse of traditional Japanese culture in a way that’s easier to experience than it is in Tokyo.  Now, there might be other reasons for you to go to Tokyo – you want to see a specific site, visit specific museums or historic sites or experience a particular aspect of modern Tokyo: style, youth culture, food. That might be what you’re after. But if you want a manageable, not overwhelming, more focused experience of Japanese life – you can skip Tokyo and not feel badly about it.

For comparison, think about what you would tell, say, someone from Japan or from Europe – or anywhere outside the US – who was going to visit the United States for the first time. If they had two weeks, where would you tell them to go? It’s an interesting question that I’ve thought about a lot, especially as I travel around the United States and see groups of Japanese, Chinese or German tourists (the most common nationalities you’ll see – unless you’re in Las Vegas, then you should add Brits to the list). Would you tell them to go to New York City and make that their focus? I don’t think I would. The US is so vast and diverse, I think it’s impossible to get even close to experiencing it in two weeks, but I think I would tell someone (who had no financial limitations!) to probably visit Washington D.C. before New York City, maybe Chicago, and then focus on the West.

Anyway – so those are my thoughts on my vast experience (ten! Days!) in Japan. There’s so much more than just the cities, and an unending variety of landscapes and experiences, but that said – to repeat myself – don’t feel badly about skipping Tokyo.

First: flights:

We flew from Birmingham. Birmingham – Dallas – Narita, and then back the same way. I had spent untold hours trying to figure out other ways. I could have done the whole thing a bit cheaper if I’d done separate flights, doing the main flight to Tokyo from LA. You can fly (depending on time of year) LAX-NRT economy class for well under a thousand. Maybe even around $700. But I didn’t want to fly straight economy – I wanted premium economy, which gives just a little more space in the seat, and a little more pitch in the recline. And when I started doing the math, to try to string together flights from BHM to LAX and then LAX to NRT would have not been much more than just plugging in BHM to NRT and letting fate handle the rest. (And now, Atlanta fares were no better – worse, in fact, for some reason).

Of course, fate had her cruel way with us when we missed our Tokyo flight, but that’s all in the past now…right?

(By the way – I don’t know if I mentioned this – but AA did respond to my complaints on that and deposited 15,000 miles in my account for the trouble we went through. I thought about thanking them and then saying that since the boys also went through the same hassle, maybe they could get 15,000 miles each, too? But I didn’t.)

amy-welbornI should add that after I checked in, I got the offer to upgrade to business – and…I took it. Yup. I mean – it wasn’t free. When I say, “got the offer” – you might think I’m saying that. But I’m not. They offer to sell you a business class seat is what it is  (unless, of course you are at some high-mileage awards level…which I’m not)  But it the cost of it, even with a business upgrade one way, was not bad, it was a 14-hour flight, and I was so worried about being rested for the Beginning! Of! The! Japan! Trip! that I said…what the hell, it’s only money, I might die next week, so why not and did it. First every business class experience and yah…nice.  You know those people you file by as you’re boarding into economy, the people lounging with their drinks and snacks and towels? Yeah, that was us, for once. Little cubicles, fully reclining seats, better food…worth it. Especially after the hassle of having the trip delayed by 24 hours. Absolutely worth it. Decadent, but worth it.

For the record, I didn’t upgrade on the way back. Got the offer, but didn’t even consider it. The flight is several hours shorter  – 11 hours, which is a lot less daunting-sounding than 14 – and the timing of it makes it less “necessary” to sleep. The flight over to Japan (from Dallas) began mid-afternoon on Thursday and landed at 4:30 on Friday. This flight back left at 11am on Monday and we’ll be back in Birmingham (hopefully) by 1 pm on Monday.  (Update: we were. Early, in fact.) Amazing! A two-hour flight! Well of course not, but the point is, that it’s not as important to sleep. Yes, everyone will be tired, but if they can just stick it out until eight or so, then collapse and sleep for twelve hours, they should be back on track for the next day.

Now – accommodations:

In Tokyo, we stayed at the Richmond Premiere Hotel near the Oshiage station and Tokyo amy-welbornSkytree, which turned out to be, in my opinion, a great place. There are many vibrant Tokyo neighborhoods and areas, and the Skytree area is a bit far from the more well-known (like Shibayu, Ginza and Shinjuku), but I loved it. The hotel is literally right next to the Tokyo Skytree, which has a substantial mall featuring a lot of Japanese goods anda great variety of restaurants. The hotel is also right next to a grocery store and steps from the train/subway station, something that was such a relief at the end of a long day. (View from right outside the hotel.) 

Japanese hotel rooms will tend to be smaller than American hotels – well, globally, that’s the case – American hotel rooms are roomier than what you’ll find in most places, but this one was fine. I requested a third bed, which was all ready when we arrived. We amy-welborndidn’t have a lot of room to walk around, and oddly enough, there was no dresser – there was a cabinet with a fridge, but no place for clothes – but that’s fine. I didn’t go to Japan to hang out in a hotel room, anyway. Everything was immaculate, and yes, it included the famed Japanese type of toilet. Which are a little complicated, but not as impenetrable as we might think: basically, they include bidet features and warm seat. Some feature sound effects to cover up your own…. sounds, as well, but this one didn’t.

One more note on our two experiences of Japanese hotels (and one AirBnB): they do provide more amenities than American hotels. In American hotels, you’ll find the trio of shampoo, conditioner and lotion, as well as soap bars and coffee packets. The Japanese hotels we stayed at also provided toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, q-tips, brushes/combs and slippers (explicitly labeled with an invitation to take with you if you like.)

We were in this hotel from 6/22 to 6/26. I did it through Booking.com, which probably has its disadvantages, but here, made it easy to reschedule, which I had to do twice. No problems or additional charges either time.

In Kyoto, we stayed at this AirBnB house. I will post some of my own photos here, but to get a better (albeit typical wide-angle look that makes it look bigger) – view, go to the website. It was a bit outside the main part of the city, but that was fine.   It was a great little house – very traditional with tatatmi mats, sleeping on the floor and everything. My older son ended up sleeping downstairs because it was cooler – which is easy when your beds are futon mattresses that you can fling about at will. You can see from the photos that the bath/toilet areas were separate. The toilet wasn’t quite as fancy as those we had in hotels, but still had those bidet features. The shower room was an actual shower room  – with a good deep, Japanese style tub, and then a hand-held shower that you could either use in the tub or in the room (see the drain in the floor.)

 

Note: I have some video up about the apartment at Instagram. Go to amy_welborn on the app, or go here to see. 

It was a great location, just two minutes from the train station, and in a real neighborhood.

(A note on lofts and upper bunks and such. Our experience in traveling has invariably been that when we stay in a place that has a loft area or some sort of bunk situation, everyone always thinks it’s initially amazing and so cool – until it’s time to sleep there, and we once again rediscover physics: heat rises. )

The last night, we stayed at the Crowne Plaza airport hotel – which was fine. It was a high-quality space, very clean, with all those amenities and the usual meticulous, painfully polite level of Japanese service – I called to request an extra towel  – there were only two provided – and the fellow on the other end must have said, “So sorry” about ten times. Really. It’s fine.

Transportation:

I probably spent more on transportation but I needed to, but as I always say: everything has a cost, currency is what we use to pay costs, and there are all different sorts of currency: there’s money, there’s time, there’s work, there’s hassle. What currency you use might change at every given moment. For me on this trip, I chose to use the currency that cost the least hassle: the Pasmo card.

Japanese public transportation is pervasive, timely and clean. Buses, trains and subways run on time and are easy to use. I found that in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, almost all signage was in English as well as Japanese. You can certainly purchase individual tickets for train and bus travel, but hardly anyone does. What they do instead is use a card – the Suica or the Pasmo – on which you load money and then just scan at entry and exit gates. I am sorry, but I have no idea how much any of my individual trips cost because all I did was load a thousand yen on the Pasmo when needed, and scan away. (you can also use these cards to pay for purchases and an increasing number of stores and vending machines.)

The only confusion we encountered was in Kyoto, when we ended up on the wrong train one night because we didn’t pay close enough attention to the arrival time. There were several lines – local, express, limited express and so on – that made stops at the station near our apartment. It’s not one of those deals where you can just assume, “This train is stopping at this station around this time, going in this direction, therefore it will make all the stops between here and there.”  We ended up – I don’t know where or how – and had to racewalk to the next station at about ten at night, hoping and praying we’d catch the right one this time – we did! We learned from that – pay attention to the time. If Google Maps says that the train you need is coming at 9:47 – take the 9:47, and believe us, it will indeed come at 9:47. Don’t take the 9:45 or even the 9:46.5! They will not stop and you will end up wandering around Kyoto late at night!

Which brings up the issue of…safety.

There is no issue. I always felt 150% safe in Japan, and would have felt so even if I was by myself. I will write more about this later, but Japan – in my limited, super-short experience – offers a landscape and urban environment that is secure, clean and safe.

img_20180701_0919301We used taxis three times: in Kyoto, from and back to our apartment from the train station, and then in Tokyo that rainy Sunday morning when we were going to Mass. Not surprisingly, the cab drivers were very polite and wore gloves, the seats were covered in white doilies, and the back doors opened and shut automatically. I think Uber operates in Japan, but the taxis seemed trustworthy, so I didn’t even look into it.

Shinkansen:

Yes, we took the famed Japanese bullet train round trip from Tokyo to Kyoto. It’s not the cheapest way to get around – even flying would be cheaper – but you know, you go to Japan, of course you want to take the bullet train if you can. Well, it was fine – it was fast, super clean and…a train. It got us from there to there. I purchased the round trip ticket at a discount from here.  The process of getting the tickets was a little complicated – we had to find the tour office in the Tokyo Station (which was a bit of a challenge), but once we did, the very nice fellow printed out the tickets with exhaustive directions on how to proceed from that amy-welbornpoint, which included getting a one-day transportation pass for Kyoto, as well.

These trains run very frequently – many times an hour. You can reserve seats, but the package I got was for unreserved seats, which are in the first three cars. I was a little concerned that there might not be seats – since they were unreserved – but there was no problem. Plenty of room. It took about 2.5 hours to get from one city to the next. Oh – the other advantage of purchasing the Shinkansen voucher through JapanIcan.com was that it’s good for the fastest train that makes the fewest stops – the Nozomi – which the JR Rail Pass is not.

(I suppose I should mention that we did not get Japan Rail Passes – there are a lot of options and big discussions all over the place as to whether or not it’s worth it, and in doing the math, I decided it wasn’t for us. If we’d been doing a lot of rail travel out and about between cities, it would have been – but we weren’t, so it wasn’t.)

Money:

I got a few thousand yen from our bank before we left. I usually don’t bother to get foreign currency anymore before a trip, what with ATMS being so pervasive, but I had read some questionable things about the availability of ATMS in Japan – that you can’t assume that an ATM will take your American debit card. Well, I found that there was no problem. The common advice is to head to ATMS that are in 7-11 stores (yes) – that they are always, 100% going to take your card and give you money back. I found that to be true, and also found those 7-11 stores everywhere. And where there wasn’t a 7-11, there was a Family Mart – one of the other big convenience store chains  – and they took my debit cards too.

(FYI – 100 yen is about a dollar. So to convert prices, just drop two decimal places, and there you go.)

Airport:

We flew in and out of Narita Airport, which is the big Tokyo airport (the other, original airport is Haneda, which is smaller).  It’s busy, but very easy to get around, super clean and efficient. Immigration and customs both coming and going took five minutes, tops. Security as we left was fantastic – when you can leave your shoes on, it’s all good, in my book.

Oh, internet:

My cel phone is T-mobile, which has excellent international coverage. You will find some free wi-fi in the usual suspects (Starbucks, train stations), but it’s not everywhere. We rented a mobile wi-fi device from Japan Wireless. I went through all kinds of convoluted rigamarole and rented it before we went and picked it up at the post office at the airport, but as we walked through the airport, I immediately saw that this hadn’t been necessary – there are booth after booth of companies offering the devices for rent at very reasonable prices. It was a great little machine: All three of us could be using it at night and it was super fast, faster than the wireless at the AirBnB.  The cost was about $6/day, I think.

 

I think that’s about it for the practicalities. Still to come, posts on:

  • Food
  • Interesting signs
  • Shopping
  • Style and Apparel
  • Spirituality

But let me get home and do massive loads of laundry, drink Diet Coke and sit on my own bed in my own room with the door closed, first, okay? Thnx.

(Update: done. Finished the post at 5 am Tuesday morning, after rising a couple of hours ago….)

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Tuesday morning, first order of business was finishing the laundry that I’d begun Monday night.

img_20180625_233042

Our hotel had a laundry, which was great news, and the instruction panel on the machine was even decipherable, which was good, too, and it automatically dispensed detergent, which was fantastic.

But it was also a combined washer-dryer which, in my experience is never good news.

I was right. The first cycle was two hours. At the end of that, the load was still pretty damp, which didn’t surprise me – so I added another half hour of drying. By this time, it was midnight, I dozed off (in the room!) waiting, got back down to to the laundry at 12:45, found negligible progress, gave up for the night, took the load back to the room, draped the clothes around where I could, and went back to sleep. When I returned to the laundry in the morning to give it one more 30 minute run (which finished it off, at last) I encountered the same heavily tatooed Australian woman I’d shared the space with the night before. “Twelve hours later….” I commented.

Next order of business, pack up and figure out this train business.

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There are any number of ways to get from Tokyo to Kyoto, including buses, regular trains and budget flights, but of course we wanted to do the Shinkansen, or bullet train. Round trips tickets are not cheap, but I saved a bit of money by purchased a “tour” through a site called JapanICan – details here. Cheaper, but of course, there’s a cost to everything, and the cost here is another layer of complication. So the steps were:

  • Check out of hotel, go to Oshiage Station, and from there go to Tokyo Station.
  • At Tokyo Station, find the tour office, present passports, printed e-voucher and “tour application” – after a few minutes, received both sets of tickets, plus a voucher for a day of free public transportation use in Kyoto.
  • Go find a train!
  • These trains run many times during the hour. These vouchers are for unreserved seats, so you basically just find a train that’s about to leave, find one of the cars with unreserved seats (one of the first three cars), line up,  wait for the super-charged train cleaners to finish their work and get on board.
  • Apart from the confusion of finding the tour office, it was a very simple process. The seats are comfortable, the train is very clean. Snacks are offered for sale, but we didn’t buy anything. No wi-fi on this particular train.
  • The advantage of using this voucher is that you could use it on any of the three bullet train lines, including the fastest, the Nazomi  – which is not possible if you use the JR Rail Pass, a popular choice with international travelers. So Nazomi it was, on a clean, on-time train, getting us to Kyoto in a little more than two hours.

You can see some landscape on the way, but a great deal of the journey is between barriers and some even underground, so it’s not incredible scenic. What sticks out to me from the space between the cities? Rice paddies and batting cages. Everywhere.

We got to Kyoto around two and couldn’t get into the apartment until 3, so we parked our luggage in storage lockers, grabbed some McDonalds and set out to see some of the area around the station.

First, on the McDonald’s:  No shame! I mean – I don’t eat it, just because I don’t have any interest, but it’s quick, reliable fuel for others who hadn’t eaten much all day. Secondly – it’s fascinating to eat at American fast food chains overseas. One son reported that the chicken nuggets are actual chicken parts, not the American reconstituted chicken sludge. Other son got a ginger-pork burger, which had a good ginger bite to it.

We had a brief conversation with an older couple from Florida – drawn to us because of son’s Gator gear on his body – who’d been in the country for their son’s wedding on one of the smaller, scenic islands. They’d been in the country for ten days. I asked if they had any tips. The woman shrugged, studied her french fry and said, “The island was pretty.”

I guess someone was ready to go home….

The Kyoto station is very impressive, with a rooftop observation deck.

 

There’s a large department store that’s part of the station. Here is a thousand dollar school bag for you. J flipped the tag and discovered why – Kate Spade.

 

Then out – we looked at the Kyoto Tower from the outside (can’t avoid it! It’s retro and funky, but you have to pay to ascend and we’d just taken in the views for free) then headed to a couple of the thousand temples that are in this area.

There are two Honganji temple complexes, about six blocks apart, not far from the station. They are temples for sects of Pure Land Buddhism..

(If you were in Kyoto yesterday and saw two teenaged boys nursing cokes with a middle-aged woman trudging behind them droning about the Four Noble Truths and bodhisattva and such – why didn’t you say hello?)

 

It was a far more peaceful scene than the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo, but it was also late in the day. These are enormous, gorgeous wooden structures, and yes, you must take off your shoes to enter – they provide plastic bags to carry about your shoes if you wish. Don’t forget to check out the rope made of hair:

 

Before we reached the station, we had an ice cream break – rolled ice cream, which is not, of course, unique to Japan – we have a couple in Birmingham now, and the newest one has a Japanese theme, though – so is it a trend that started here? I don’t know.

 

All I know is that sitting there in front of Starbucks watching them eat their ice cream, I didn’t feel as if I were in a foreign country at all. There, in Kyoto, which is, they say, the most Japanese of all the major Japanese cities, I felt as if I could have been anywhere, img_20180626_171649including Birmingham, Alabama. I think it is not only because, well, I was sitting in front of Starbucks, but because the ratio of tourists to locals here is higher – or lower? Not a math person, but what I’m trying to say is that there are fewer inhabitants than Tokyo and a lot of tourists, so looking out at a crowd around the station, the demographics don’t seem much different – except for the miniscule number of black faces – than they’d be in New York or Chicago. What makes it even more so is the commonality of culture now – everyone has a phone, everyone dresses the same and I swear, even Japanese teens walk with the same exact gait as American teens.

Then back to the station, get luggage, get taxi and then make the trek to the apartment – which is not in the center of Kyoto, took about twenty minutes by car to reach, but is also a block from a train station, so I think (hope) getting around should be efficient.

I’ll do a post on the house later, once I get more photos. Just know that it’s utterly charming – a traditional Japanese house with tatami mats, sliding doors, and sleeping mats. No daily housekeeping, but more space – everything’s a tradeoff, I tell you.

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Dinner was great. As they were resting, I did my usual reconnaissance walk, and within seconds found our dinner spot – a yakitori place right around the corner. Yakitori is grilled meat on skewers – bar food, basically. But it was enough for us, and a great experience – the place was tiny, smokey (grilling smoke) and full of locals.

 

The staff was very friendly and in a sweet gesture, after I paid the bill, the waiter said, “A present” – and handed me this teeny-tiny lucky cat.

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Here we are –  For help in preparing the kids, let’s go to one of my favorite sources – this wonderful  old Catholic religion textbook.

The short chapter on Pentecost is lovely and helpful.

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This volume is for 7th graders.

What I’m struck by here is the assumption that the young people being addressed are responsible and capable in their spiritual journey. They are not clients or customers who need to be anxiously served or catered to lest they run away and shop somewhere else.

What is said to these 12 and 13-year olds is not much different from what would have been said to their parents or grandparents. God created you for life with him. During your life on earth there are strong, attractive temptations to shut him out and find lasting joy in temporal things. It’s your responsibility to do your best to stay close to Christ and let that grace live within you, the grace that will strengthen you to love and serve more, the grace that will lead you to rest peacefully and joyfully in Christ.

Pentecost is one of the events in The Loyola Kids Book of Heroes. 

(The book is structured around the virtues. Each section begins with an event from Scripture that illustrates one of those virtues, followed by stories of people and events from church history that do so as well)

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This hasn’t been published in a book – yet – but it’s a painting by Ann Engelhart, illustrator of several books, including four with my writing attached – all listed here. It’s a painting of the tradition of dropping rose petals through the oculus in the Pantheon in Rome.

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(The Cathedral of St. Paul is doing this today as well – I won’t be there to see it, but hopefully will have information from parish media tomorrow.) 

 

Finally, hopefully today you’ll be hearing/singing/praying Veni Creator Spiritus today.  I have a chapter on it in The Words We Pray. A sample:

 

 

 

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— 1 —

Other than Writing Things (look for me in Living Faith on Monday, by the way) – a music-heavy week around here. The big state competition is Friday – and may even be over as you read this. So there’s been a lot of practicing, especially of the Kabalevsky concerto movement that he is playing with his teacher.

IMG_20180508_174857.jpgI’ll have more to say after it’s over. I’m superstitious that way.

I may even post some video.

(If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen it in Stories – snippets through the week.)

It’s not that I’m any kind of stage or Tiger Mom as far as this business goes. It’s simply this: He’s been working on these four pieces for almost a year. He’s performed them in various settings (including retirement homes and a temporary residence for cancer patients as part of the requirements for being in the Honors Ensemble). I don’t give a flip whether or not he “wins” – I simply don’t want him to walk into this, bearing the fruit of a year’s worth of hard work, and then blunder in a way that throws him off and then throws off the piece – the consequence being that in this particular setting, the fruit of his work won’t be evident.

— 2 —

The work is bearing fruit in other ways, to be sure. He’s just begun taking jazz piano, which is coming fairly easily to him – but only because of the kind of work he’s been doing in classical piano for three years. Same with rock – his friend down the street takes rock guitar lessons, and they’ve invited M to play with the band for the recital – and he can pull it off with not much time because of Beethoven and Kabalevsky.

But still….dozens, if not hundreds of hours on this Kabalevsky, in particular….it sure would be nice….

— 3 —

So there’s that. Stress levels have also been heightened this week because of

AP Physics exam

The end of the 2nd year of law school

Ready for the school year to be over. Oh, and you know how parents of older children always say to parents of younger kids: You’ll look back to the years of no sleep and potty training and think…that was easy.

There’s a reason. It’s true. Cleaning up a puddle of urine on three hours of sleep is nothing compared to the stress of giving counsel to young adults worried about the course of the rest of their lives and their relationships  and then watching them drive away in 2-ton death machines.

— 4 —

And then there’s son #2 who has his own news – a writer of many stories and a few novels, all unpublished, he has decided to go the e-book route, and going about it in a very methodical way. He’s publishing short collections of stories over the next few months, and then releasing a novel in the fall.

You can find his website here. There are links to all the collections.

The collection you can purchase now is here.

And here he is on Twitter, chronicling the process of writing his next book.

Please go check it out!!

— 5 —

 Okay, this is fantastic:

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Come to Birmingham for Pentecost!!

— 6 —

The Lumen Christi Institute:

Founded in 1997 by Catholic scholars at the University of Chicago, the Lumen Christi Institute brings together thoughtful Catholics and others interested in the Catholic tradition and makes available to them the wisdom of the Catholic spiritual, intellectual, and cultural heritage.

They’ve just started making podcasts of their sponsored talks available as free podcasts. The page with links to the various podcast sites (Itunes, Google Play store, etc.) is here. 

— 7 —

Mother’s Day is  Sunday, so it’s too late to order this online, but I’d bet your local Catholic bookstore has it: 

It would also be a great end-of-year gift for a teacher or DRE! 

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First Communion

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It’s early January, yes, but temperatures today were supposed to get into the 60’s. And since the next few days promise rain followed by a precipitous drop in temperature, it seemed like a good day to get out of town.

Where to go?

I have a slew of daytrip ideas stacked up, but here’s what’s bugging me: I’d really like to take my 16-year old with us on most of them, too. For example:

  • M and I went to Memphis two summers ago and had a great time – and when the older boy (who’d been at camp, I think) heard about what we’d done, he said, “I want to go next time…”
  • During World War II, there was a huge POW camp in Aliceville,Alabama. Not a scrap of it remains, but there is a museum – that’s supposed to be rather good.
  • We’ve not yet made it to the important sights in Selma or Tuskegee – again – those are trips I’d like the older boy to be on, too.

So cross those off the list (well, and Memphis is too far for a day-trip anyway). Since it was going to be pleasant, we’d want to be outdoors. But somewhere different…where to go?

How about…here?

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It didn’t take long. We left well after the older son went to school and beat him back home, but it was just enough, and it was amazing.

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge is a large area that embraces the banks of the Tennessee River and tributaries around Decatur and Huntsville, Alabama. If you’ve driven on I-65 across the Tennessee, you’ve touched the Wheeler Refuge.

Here’s the story:

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge was established July 7, 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife. It was the first refuge ever superimposed on a hydro-electric impoundment and in the early stages, considered an experiment to determine the possibility of attracting migratory waterfowl onto a multipurpose impoundment. 

 Although designated as a waterfowl refuge, Wheeler provides for a wide spectrum of wildlife. Its great diversity of habitat includes deep river channels, tributary creeks, tupelo swamps, open backwater embayments, bottomland hardwoods, pine uplands, and agricultural fields. This rich mix of habitats provide places for over 295 bird species to rest, nest and winter, including over 30 species of waterfowl (ducks and geese) and an increasing population of Sandhill cranes and a small number of Whooping cranes. 

 

I’m glad I honed in on it this week – the cranes will start migrating again soon. It had been on the edges of my radar for a while, but crept closer to the center this week because I saw a notice about a “Crane Festival” up there this weekend – I’d considered doing that, but then thought – why attack the place with thousands of others when we can just run up there during the week? I’m very glad we went.

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It was an astonishing sight that our cameras couldn’t capture – perhaps with a better telephoto lens, we could have. Also – a lot of the photos were taken through the glass of the observation building, which is, incidentally, apparently suffering from the same infestation of ladybug type beetles that we are down here.

Just know that to see, even from a bit of a distance, thousands of Sandhill Cranes hanging out, occasionally taking flight and making a lot of noise, is fascinating. There were apparently some whooping cranes in the crew as well, but I didn’t see them.

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Again – not a great photo, but just know – that mass of gray? Sandhill Cranes. Thousands. 

(If you want to hear them – or at least what I was able to capture – go check out Instagram.)

Here we are, toting our gear, poking around in the grasses, and there they are en masse, finding whatever it is they find, always together, never alone.

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There were, of course, a lot of waterfowl as well, and high up in a tree we spotted bees swarming around a cavity in the trunk.

There’s a decent little visitor’s center with exhibits to get you going. There were many other visitors, mostly older (ahem) folks as well as two school groups. It seems to be a well-used facility.

We drove north, along 565 (which takes you to Huntsville), and pulled off to walk a couple of other trails – we were told there were a lot of some type of waterfowl on a particular branch – which we saw, but from such a distance, even with binoculars, they were impossible to make out. The Beaverdam trail didn’t, unfortunately, have any beavers, or dams, but during our twenty minutes or so there, we walked through something different – a swamp populated, not by cypresses, as we usually see, but Tupelo trees.

And then back home, reading and being told about the Mayans, once again, as well as his latest read, Dune in which – he reported  – “Something happened. Finally.”

Next stop – eagles!

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— 1 —

This is a very link-ish quick takes. I’m writing other things, thinking about other things, so I’m just going to toss out links to recent reads and listens.

But first, let me bring a bit of sunshine to your day, via a wallpaper mural in the basement of a home in which an estate sale was held last week:

 

 

What would you say? Late 70’s?

— 2 —

Planned Parenthood’s Brutal Century – a good synopsis of the deeply embedded anti-human eugenics presumptions of not only Planned Parenthood but so much of “enlightened” American intellectual culture of the late 19th through mid-20th century.

 

 

— 3 —

You have perhaps heard the story of little Charlie Gard, born with a rare and fatal genetic disease. 

Charlie Gard suffers from a very rare genetic condition, and is now living in Great Ormond Street Hospital with the help of a ventilator. When doctors there determined that they could not save his life, the hospital made a decision to remove the ventilator. His parents objected, and raised enough funds to transport the child to the US for experimental treatment. But their right to find treatment for their child was rejected in a series of court decisions. This week the European Court of Human Rights, the parents’ last hope for relief, ruled that the experimental treatment offered “no prospects of success” and the baby was “being exposed to continued pain, suffering, and distress.”

The court affirmed the hospital’s right to remove life support. “Our parental rights have been stripped away,” protested Chris Gard, the child’s father. The parents reported that Great Ormond Street Hospital had refused their request to have Charlie brought home for his last night, or to allow him to die peacefully in a hospice.

The English bishops and the Pontifical Academy for Life have issued statements on the case. Neither statements addresses the issue of state power over medical decisions. 

The injustice is that Charlie will die when the hospital administration wants, and where the hospital administration wants. His parents have been deprived of their right to supervise his case. They could not take him the US for experimental treatment. They could not take him home, to die in peace. As one of our readers observed, Charlie was essentially kidnapped, so that the authorities would be sure that he died on schedule.

Two tepid statements, from the local bishops’ conference and from the Vatican, might have been appropriate if the discussion had centered on the decision to turn off the ventilator. But they missed the essential point of the controversy entirely. The state—the hospital, the courts—had seized the power to preside over a child’s death, regardless of the parents’ wishes. Sadly, the Catholic hierarchy did not protest.

Catholic Hierarchs yesterday: An individual’s and family’s right to make decisions regarding freedom, justice and a living supersedes a State’s civil arrangements and legal borders.

Catholic Hierarchs today: A State’s civil arrangements supersedes a family’s authority to make decisions regarding the life of its members. 

I mean, I thought bridges were better than walls, and we’re not supposed to erect walls to keep people from exercising their freedom.

Pick one, guys. Pick one.

Another commentary:

John Paul II was well aware of the ways in which governments can steal the legitimate authority of parents and families: in “Familiaris Consortio” he affirmed that “the church openly and strongly defends the rights of the family against the intolerable usurpations of society and the state.” One would imagine that one such “intolerable usurpation” would be a government denying two parents the right to try to save their baby boy’s life. And one would imagine that an institution entitled “the Pontifical Academy for Life” would recognize that.

 

 

— 4 —

On a more cheerful note, our local new source, the Birmingham News, has given good coverage this week to Catholic matters: the ordination of two priests last Saturday, and the celebration of the Mass in the Extraordinary Form last night in honor of the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.

Here’s the story of one of the new priests.

And the other.

And the Mass. 

You can view the list of music from the Mass here (it’s a pdf – scroll down for 6/29) at the part of the parish website where orders of worship eventually get posted. 

 

— 5 —

I found this interesting – Does God want you to spend $300,000 for College? …in which a NYTimes reporter asks Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins about the moral implications of high tuition. In my opinion, he’s not tough enough on Jenkins. The question has implications, not just for Catholic higher education, but Catholic education at all levels.

 

— 6 —

Related, by the same author in the same article series on faith and money: The Monk Who Left the Monastery to Fix Retirement Plans. 

So has Mr. Lynam concluded that his former colleagues need him more than his former students? Not exactly. “I’m not irreplaceable in the classroom,” he said. “But I did not see another company serving teachers in the way that I can serve them. It’s not that one form of service is higher or lower.”

It is a very different role, though — one he describes as being a “suffering prevention specialist.” His professional conversations now feel a lot like confession, he said, with people sharing stories of unpaid debts, betrayals and sure things that were far from it. He listens, and then he must hold the mirror up to those who may not want to see the truth.

“Perhaps one of the cardinal sins that I see the most, though it’s not a popular one to talk about, is sloth,” he said. “Some people are afraid but also a little lazy, and they don’t really want to do the hard work of facing their mistakes or lack of organization and knowledge on these subjects and take responsibility.”

— 7 —

This week’s In Our Time listen – in between all the rain – was on Pushkin’s poem, Eugene Onegin.  

Well, that’s it. That’s all I have left, folks!

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