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A very quick, super busy weekend in NYC.

The occasion: For some reason my 17-year old is a Vikings fan. Vikings were playing the Jets. Oldest son, who lives in NYC, said, “Hey, why don’t you bring him up for the game?”

So…sure!

Left Friday, arrived at LGA about 9:30. Took shuttle to hotel #1 in Astoria (picked because of the shuttle). Went out and walked down the nearby Steinway Street, which, for the distance we walked it, is shoulder to shoulder hookah bars that time of night – interesting! We got some fabulous shwarama and falafel at Duzan, then went back and crashed.

Up the next morning, packed up and walked (with our backpacks – we were only staying for two days – it’s all we needed.) down to the Museum of the Moving Image, located in the old Astoria Studios, which for a time (the 1910’s-20’s) was the busiest movie studio in the country. It was good, although I wish they had the history of the place a little more prominently displayed and even used as a framework for exhibits. The special exhibit right now is on Jim Henson, which was very interesting, especially the material about his early career. Jim Henson’s is the only celebrity death I’ve ever reacted strongly too – if you were around and sentient during that time, perhaps you remember? It was because he was relatively young (53) and it seemingly came out of nowhere (it was toxic shock syndrome related to a bacterial infection…although there’s also disagreement about that, too), so it shocked many of us.

Anyway, after that, we caught the train, went across the East River, checked into hotel #2 – the first time I’ve ever gotten a hotel in Manhattan on points, so yay – and it was perfectly located – the Residence Inn that’s very close to Bryant Park. We were headed to the Morgan Library, but on the way we stopped at this chicken place in Korea Town we’d been to a couple of visits ago – and it did not disappoint this time, either. Super quick, too – it’s already

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cooked, and you just grab it from the case. Perfect for what we needed. at the moment.

Then over to the Morgan Library for their excellent exhibit on Frankenstein at 200. I’d figured this would be the main museum experience for J because he’d be game watching the rest of the time – and he read Frankenstein last summer for school, so perhaps he’d relate?

One side was material related to the cultural and personal genesis of the work – explanations of the gothic, of the state of science in the early 19th century, and so on. Included were a few manuscript pages of the novel, written in Mary Shelley’s 18 & 19-year old hand. Amazing.

On the other side were posters and programs and illustrations from adaptations. As with so much else, the popularity of Frankenstein was solidified very early by adaptations.

Ann Engelhart – friend, collaborator and water-colorist – met us at the Morgan. I always enjoy going there – they have good, well-curated smaller exhibits (Frankenstein this time and one on Thoreau last time we were here)  and it’s always wonderful to peruse whatever manuscripts they’ve pulled out of the collection in the library itself – not only the illuminated manuscripts and one of the three Gutenburg Bibles in the collection, but things like a hand-written Liszt transcription of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. 

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At this point, the oldest son met us, and then took J away to watch football (Tennessee-Alabama & Indiana-Penn State about covered it) with him at a bar. The three of us then walked back through Bryant Park and up to Steinway Hall, Steinway’s Manhattan showroom.

A diversion – Steinway, is of course, headquartered in Astoria – the very spot we’d been in the day before. The history of Steinway is a good one to study for a bit of a microcosm of immigrant energy, 19th century social tensions, and the transformation of the urban landscape during this period.

Here’s a short summary of Heinrich Steinweg’s invention and development of the fortepiano and his emigration to America in 1853. 

And here’s a history of the Steinway presence is Astoria/Queens – Steinway (as he changed his name) moved his workshop from Manhattan to Queens in the face social unrest – fears of anarchists and socialists – and the draft riots.

With all of this newfound space, William was able to bring in plenty of infrastructure to support the company and its employees. Victorian row houses were built for Steinway employees so that they could all live close to the new production headquarters. Steinway Village spanned, roughly, from what is now Ditmars Boulevard up to the East River/Bowery Bay; and from 31st Street to Hazen Street. A group of the original two-story brick homes has been preserved on 20th Avenue and 41st Street.

Besides the housing, several amenities were developed to make Steinway Village a place that employees and their families could spend all their time. Steinway Reformed Church, built in 1890 on land donated by William Steinway, still stands at 41st Street and Ditmars. The Steinway Library, started with books from William’s own collection, is now a branch of the Queens Library. A public school (one of the first free kindergartens in the country), a fire house, and a post office were also built.

For entertainment, Steinway employees had North Beach, an amusement park/resort area with a ferris wheel, swimming pool and German beer garden located on the Bowery Bay waterfront. The venue did not survive Prohibition, however, and eventually became the site of North Beach Airport (which was later renamed LaGuardia Airport).

William helped develop a whole network of transportation, including ferries, streetcars, trolleys, and horse-car railroads to make the neighborhood more convenient and bring in additional revenue. His influence in the area was so far-reaching that he was responsible for the development of the tunnel under the East River that is used by the 7 train today. 

Someday, we’ll go on the Steinway factory tour – but not for a couple of years – since you have to be 16 to go on it…..

Oh, but back to Manhattan. Steinway Hall has a dedicated room for those who’d like to play a Steinway. There are perhaps some days when it’s more in demand than others, but on this day, we only had to wait about five minutes to take our turn.

Yes, an $80,000 piano feels different….

img_20181020_180038We then did some wandering, stopping in a store here and there (like this one – my son’s favorite), seeing a group doing Capoeira – this Brazilian martial arts/dance thing that is becoming all the rage up here, I guess, then eventually ended up back at Pete’s Tavern, where my oldest wanted to take us to dinner. It’s one of his favorites, and a fun spot to go, it being the longest continually-operating restaurant in New York City.

Sunday morning:

Mass right around the corner from our hotel at the Shrine of the Holy Innocents. It really is just by coincidence that the Masses I’ve attended while traveling over the last two weeks have been Extraordinary Form Low Mass – they’ve both been closest to our hotels at the moment. This one was considerably less crowded than Mass in Kansas City, but that’s not surprising – it’s not a residential area, to say the least. I do wonder how many tourists stumble in there for Mass and settle in, only to be deeply confused, wondering if they’ve entered a time warp of some kind. I think they could probably do a bit more with information directed at people in that situation.

Then a quick breakfast at a deli – we attempted the Andrews Coffee Shop, but it was packed out (not surprisingly), so we just stopped in at a deli down the block, where the guy behind the counter took about five orders before he started cooking, didn’t write anything down and got it all almost 100% correct. “A legend,” as my son said.

Next: Penn Station where my oldest met us, and my fears of my Vikings-gear clad son getting beat up by Jets fans was somewhat alleviated by the waves of Vikings fans surrounding us, also headed to the game. A good weekend trip to NYC, I guess, right?

Then M and I headed to Brooklyn, bearing all of our backpacks – we’d checked out of the hotel, of course. We took the 2 train down here:

…where Ann met us, and we had a lovely afternoon at the Brooklyn Museum – where I’d wanted to go for a while.  They had a decent little Meso-American collection, which M enjoyed – particularly since he found a pretty definite error on one of the placards (I’m going to have him write a letter this week to the museum about it, suggesting a correction.) He also enjoyed the Egyptian collection, which is good-sized, and we were all moved by these large paintings of prisoners during the Russian-Turkish War.

There is some fine American work, including this striking portrait.

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The “Brooklyn Della Robbia” is lovely, and I was..amused by this placard.

My translation: For a while, this piece was deemed way too Eurocentric and Christianist for our eyes. 

Ann and I both took some time to separately go view Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. 

I’ll admit – I was surprised, both by the piece and by my reaction to it. As a young woman, I followed the very controversial beginnings of this piece, as it toured the world, scandalized some and then finally settled in Brooklyn. I was somewhat intrigued, but saw it mostly as a pretty strange concept, and not expressive of any kind of feminism I was interested in signing up for.

Seeing it in person is an experience that convinced me it’s a worthy piece of art, not just a gimmick. And to be honest –  the conceit of it is going to strike a 58-year old woman differently than it will a younger person. We are, in generally, more comfortable and less shockable (some of us, at least) and the body is just…the body. Weird, amazing, singular, life-giving and at the same time, dying. Given the chapel-like setting, of course a spiritual response is expected – but what that is will depend on whether or not you’re looking for the divine feminine or your looking for hints of the desire for Truth, Beauty and Life in what people make in a broken world, through a glass darkly, despite themselves.

 

(If you go to the museum site and read the questions and answers about the piece, you’ll see how the end game to identity politics is clearly in sight, as the museum earnestly responds to a question about the exclusion of “transgender women” from the piece…..)

We then had a fabulous lunch at Werkstatt – fresh, homemade pretzel, wurst, schnitzel and goulash, with lovely cool little dabs of salads to provide contrast. It’s the kind of place: small, serious yet informal – that is totally the norm in the New York City, that is not a big deal, that just sits on the corner like it’s a Waffle House or something – and would be dominating Instagram as  The Restaurant of the Moment for six solid months in Birmingham. It’s just what happens when you get millions of people living in a few dozen square miles, having to compete, live and express their passions. Everything happens and such a higher level – for good and for ill, I suppose.

A great meal!

Ann then drove us around Prospect Park, showing us some great home architecture as I, as I always do, try to figure out how in the world normal people live there, living in these expensive apartments and houses, eating out all the time, paying enormously high taxes… And they do. I get part of it – salaries are higher, people share dwellings, but still. I really don’t understand!

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Ready for Halloween!

I didn’t get a photo – I don’t know why – but of particular interest was the fabulous Japanese House, constructed in the early 20th century. Go check it out. 

 

Then…..the ordeal of getting back here. Which was only sort of an ordeal. We went back to Penn Station, then the train to the Newark Airport (flying out of Newark because of the kid at the game in NJ). For his part, he was making his way from MetLife Stadium to the airport, accompanied part of the way by my oldest. There was some…confusion, but all’s well that ends well. He made it. Our original flight was supposed to leave at 8:30, but it was massively delayed, assuring that we’d miss our connection from ATL to BHM. When I got to the airport, I immediately went to the gate agent and she put us on standby for another, earlier – also delayed – flight. It was supposed to leave at 7:15, I think, but was now scheduled for 8:05. I really don’t understand how all of this works. There were over a hundred people on standby for this flight, and we were #8-10. How did we get so highly placed? I don’t know. And we got on. I don’t have status of any sort. So no – how we got on is a mystery. But we did, and were able to make the connection (if we hadn’t – we would have taken the later flight, and I would have rented a car in Atlanta and just driven home.)

And now, grumbling, everyone’s back in school, and here I am….phew!

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— 1 —

 

Here’s a public service announcement for you.

I was sitting here at my computer, with my phone on the desk. A new phone (not an Iphone. I don’t do Apple. Just don’t like the ecosystem.) . It kept….pinging. No notifications came up. I cleared it. Made sure Google Assistant was disabled. I put it back down.

Ping. 

Pick it up, look.

Again, no notifications. Put it back down.

Ping. 

So I’m thinking…is it just the action of moving it around that’s doing this? 

What to do? A search, of course. “Pixel won’t stop notifications.”

Ah-ha. 

Now. Look at this photo and see if you can figure out what was happening. This is where I was setting it.

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 — 2 —

On top of that stack of books.

Which – because we are very cutting-edge here in Alabama – are equipped with RFID tags for checkout. The phone has the technology that enables it to be used to tap for payments, etc – and so every time I set the phone down on the books, it sensed the presence of the tag and tried to communicate with it.

(The more you know….)

 

— 3 —

This is going to be quick today. I had a busy day today and am going to San Antonio on Saturday, so my brain is full of that business.

 

— 4 —

I had read a bit about this before we went to Japan – how the country has consciously tried to increase tourism over the past few years – but this article sets it all in context and reaffirms my sense that I won’t be going over there for cherry blossom season…

Ninety-eight point five per cent of the population identify as ethnically Japanese and there are 127m of them. Respect, protocol, correct form – these are the absolute fundamentals of Japanese life. And a devotion to cleanliness, which is revered as a moral virtue. When my wife was a child she, like every other Japanese primary school student, cleaned the floors and windows of her school. There was no hired help, because the students did the cleaning. There was no shame in this act – just the opposite. For what could be more of a source of pride than in keeping your place of education spotlessly clean? It is a uniquely Japanese attitude not shared or even understood by the rest of this slovenly planet, which doesn’t even take its dirt-smeared shoes off before entering the home. Mass immigration was never going to fly in Japan. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hit on a brilliant ruse – let the foreigners in for a couple of weeks at a time and then send them back home. Not mass immigration as a saviour to Japan’s coffers, but mass tourism. So for the first time in its history, Japan was transformed into one of the world’s great tourist destinations. And it has worked. Spending around $1.3 billion, 600,000 tourists from the People’s Republic Of China came to Japan this spring for hanami – the ritual viewing of the sakura cherry blossoms, which bloom and die in a matter of days. Nothing is more essentially Japanese than hanami, a celebration of nature’s temporal beauty, and now the world is taking a selfie in front of those falling pink leaves. Abe was hoping for the number of international tourists to reach 20m by the time of the Tokyo Olympics, which start on 24 July 2020. But Japan shot past the 20m mark five years ahead of schedule. By 2017 the number of visitors had already reached almost 27m a year and Abe’s revised ambition is to attract 40m visitors a year by 2020 and 60m visitors a year by 2030 – which would make Japan a tourist destination almost twice as popular as Thailand.

 

— 5 –

A couple of localish links:

I am a sucker for “Abandoned ___________” photo spreads and features. Ruins of any sort are my thing. Hitting close to home is the Abandoned Southeast website which in its most current post features a crazy house not too far from where I live. It’s interesting that since putting up the post earlier in the week, the blogger has been able to update it with the news that the house has indeed been purchased and the new owner is planning to clean it up and renovate it. More photos at the What’s Left in Birmingham site.  I feel like driving over there just to see if I can spot the feral pigs he mentions.

Best news of the week has been that one of my favorite blogs – Deep Fried Kudzu is back. Ginger blogs about travel and food, mostly, with particular interests in WPA public art, primitive found art and grave shelters. I can’t tell you how valuable her blog has been to me in the years I’ve lived down here – whenever we’ve got an adventure on the horizon, I search her blog for information on quirky things to see and good places to eat.

So, for example, it was through Deep Fried Kudzu that I learned about the Amish community up in Tennessee, which we visited a few weeks ago. 

So…she took a well-deserved break, but I’m glad she’s back – see – there’s still a place for blogs in this crazy world!

— 6 —

It’s St. Bartholomew’s Day!

In art, the apostles are often portrayed in art with the means of their death, so you do see Bartholomew holding his flayed skin.  The most well-known is the depiction in the Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.

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Also impressive is the huge statue in St. John Lateran. It stands in the central nave, along with representations of all the apostles. 

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And take a look at this post from the Clerk of Oxford blog on some medieval traditions, with this lovely and true reflection:

This story suggests all kinds of interesting things about memory and oral transmission in eleventh-century England, and the way traditions were perpetuated within communities; it’s unusual to have such specific details of the means by which knowledge was transmitted from one generation to another. Young Eadmer, listening to Edwin and the others tell their story, was not very different from the children at St Bartholomew’s who ran the other day to receive their currant buns, watched over by their elders; one purpose of such ceremonies is to imprint their memory on the younger generation, specifically in this case the principle of St Bartholomew’s ancient tradition of charity. The elders were once children themselves, and one day the running children may be the watching hospitallians in their wheelchairs. With stories, current buns and biscuits, we ensure that our children know about the past so that one day they will remember and acknowledge it as we do.

 

— 7 —

 

Don’t forget – The Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols.

 

NOTE: If you really want a copy soon – I have them for sale at my online bookstore (price includes shipping)  Email me at amywelborn60 AT gmail if you have a question or want to work out a deal of some sort. I have many copies of this, the Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories, the Prove It Bible and the Catholic Woman’s Book of Days on hand at the moment.

Also – my son has been releasing collections of short stories over the summer. He’s currently prepping his first (published) novel, The Battle of Lake Erie: One Young American’s Adventure in the War of 1812.  Check it out!

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Random Japan I here.  I’ll have a big wrap up post on Friday, probably, with a post on food coming tomorrow, I hope. 

Where are the modest clothes? Why is everything so trashy? Where can I find a skirt that goes past mid-thigh but also doesn’t trail on the ground? It’s the parent’s cry – heck, it’s the woman’s cry.

Well, here’s your answer:

Go to Japan.

Skirt length is something on my radar not so much for myself , but more for my 20-something law-school daughter. I’m always on the lookout for clothes for her, and a few hours into our Japan trip, I texted her (still amazed that you can do that…) and said, “Longer hems are definitely the norm here. I’ll find you something, easily.”

And it was the norm: out and about in every day life, I saw Japanese women and girls wearing slacks, skirts and dresses with hems knee-length or longer – including school uniforms – and well, kimonos. No shorts except on children and no mini skirts except for that very early morning in Kyoto when we went to a 7 am Mass and passed many clusters of young people who clearly were clearly not getting an early start to their days, but were rather winding up their Saturday nights.  No long skirts there.

Yes, we were in these cities mostly during the work week. We weren’t at the beach or at Tokyo Disney, where the dress code was probably closer to what you’d see here. But yes – if you want longer hems and higher necklines? Japan seems to be your spot.

So I did pick up several skirts for my daughter, judging the size the best I could, and telling her when I handed her the bags upon our return that she was under no obligation to like them or keep them (they weren’t expensive – I paid maybe an average of $15/each at various stores, including Uniqlo), that I wasn’t going to check up on her or ask her. At least one of them fit, though, and looked good when I saw her in it.

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That woman in the center? That was the norm. 

And of course, you do have that cosplay/infantile angle, as well:

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Now, kimonos:

Shrines and temples are an important aspect of the fabric of Japanese life, and what I’m guessing is that wearing a kimono is a way to experience that historical and spiritual connection more deeply. For there are loads of kimono-wearing women and some men at shrines and temples and, because these sites are always surrounded by shops and food stalls, there, too. When were in Kyoto, I did see women in kimonos away from the shrines, shopping, but I don’t know if they were dressed that way just because or if they’d been at a shrine earlier in the day.

And yes, a few of them are probably tourists who’ve rented them – there are loads of kimono rental outfits around the historic sites. No, I wasn’t tempted. That would be stupid – I’m not Japanese – cultural appropriation! –  and they look insanely uncomfortable: cumbersome, hot and with narrow skirts and wooden thong sandals, shuffling and clopping along? Nope.

Which brings us (somehow) to…shopping.

  • I’m hardly ever overwhelmed by anything anymore, but I must say that the level of commerce and devotion to shopping I was constantly encountering was astonishing to me. I wondered if I were being stereotypical in my judgment until I read – somewhere – a blog post from a Japanese fellow joking that for his people, shopping was secondly only to sleeping for a favorite pastime. If we’re not snoring, we’re shopping, he wrote.
  • I mean – I’ve been in big cities. This is America, right? Driving down the road past mall after strip after strip? Sure. But this was at a whole other level. It’s hard to explain. Multi-level department stores or shopping malls everywhere, joined together by either covered shopping arcades above ground or endless underground shopping streets. I kept thinking: Aren’t Japanese apartments and houses pretty small? Where do they put everything that they’re buying?
  • I still haven’t figured that out.
  • I was reading an article the other day about the closing of something in Manhattan – maybe Lord & Taylor – and one of the experts said that there’s no place for department stores in big cities anymore. Well, tell that to the Japanese. They’d laugh at you as they waved from the escalator going up yet one more floor.

I didn’t photograph a lot of stores/shops – it just never occurs to me to do so. But a couple of things:

These are school bags. Remember to convert to USD, drop two zeroes. So yeah. A thousand bucks. They were Kate Spade. And we saw a lot of these. I guess they are the thing this year. 

In the electronics stores, there were loads of these: electronic dictionary/translators. I am assuming they are a necessity for school. So many. 

And then:

  • Gaming: Many, many gaming arcades, everywhere (Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka where our locations – can’t speak outside of those areas). We ventured inside a huge one in Osaka called Round 1. Six floors.  And it was just down the block from another multi-level gaming center. Many arcades are owned by video game companies (like Sega) that use them to test new concepts.
  • A quick glance at these places shows all the usual types of games, with some that seem to have particular Japanese appeal: drum games, some games where you tap lights in front of you in response to prompts on screen – experts can do this amazingly fast and draw crowds, photo booths with all kinds of themes, and, of course, claw or crane games.
  • Should you even call it a “game?” I don’t know. All I know is that every arcade featured dozens of crane/claw machines, ranging from those for small figurines to those where you attempt to grab a mega-container of Pringles – or something bigger. It was insane. While I was waiting for the boys, I stood and watched one little girl feed coin after coin (I’m assuming 100-yen, which is about a dollar)  into a machine, after a pretty good-sized stuffed hedgehog. In the time I watched, she tried fifteen times – and she was still at it as we left.
  • Another popular gaming venue features a pinball-type game called Pachinko. I never saw it in action, but we were constantly passing Pachinko centers as we traveled about on trains or buses.
  • And yes, capsule machines. EVERYWHERE.

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All right. Got to finish this Japan-Blogging – this week. So, every day – every day  –  I’ll be here with a little something. Finish it up, then move on.

I’ll begin with a couple of days of randomness.  Just remember, too: when I utter pronouncements like “In Japan…” or “Japan is…” it reflects about ten whole days of life in Tokyo, Kyoto and oh, that one afternoon in Osaka. So, yes – vast experience.

I wanted to go to Japan because we’d never been to Asia, and it seemed that this would be a tourist-friendly place to begin. And it was. I found it very easy to get around and the places to which we traveled were all very clean and felt safe. I’d have no hesitation about traveling to Japan by myself.

So, first: clean and quiet.

Yes, Japan is (here we go…) very clean. I only experienced a couple of even near-shabby areas: tourist-heavy and insanely busy Shibuya and some back areas of Shinjuku – around the famed robot restaurant and, I think in an area where there were a few love hotels. That felt sketchy and was a little grungy.

But other than that: no trash anywhere, no graffiti.

Also, no public trash cans. (Something that’s happening in increasing numbers of cities because of terrorism fears, I know) None. I don’t think they exist except right near food stalls or convenience stores. So how does that work? Wouldn’t the lack of trash cans make it more likely for there to be trash on this street?

Not in Japan. First, the Japanese have a very deep, strong culture of personal responsibility and respect for public spaces. You may have heard that in many, if not most Japanese schools, students share responsibility for cleaning the school (I have read that many workplaces operate with the same expectation). At the end of the school day, students and teachers work together to clean classrooms, shared spaces and restrooms. When this is how you’re raised from preschool, no, you are not going to see a public street or park as something to use any way you please. It is such a common sense practice, isn’t it? I’m sure there are schools – perhaps Montessori – that practice this in the US, but really…why not everywhere?

Secondly, consider – what does a trash can do? It collects trash. It gives trash a home right there in your public space – like it deserves to be there. If you, as a culture, want a super-clean public space, it makes sense to evict trash – in any form – from that space.

Supporting this practice is the fact that walking down the street eating or drinking (or smoking – but I’ll get to that in a minute)  – is just not done in Japan. It’s a serious breach of etiquette to eat while walking down the street. Drinking is not as rare, but still not common.  I saw a bit of water/coffee consumption on trains, but not much at all, and no eating.

Which makes the prevalence of street food in Japan seem…awkward at first. I get my fish-shaped stuffed pancake or my okonomiyaki or my ice cream, for pete’s sake –  from the vendor – what do I do?

You stand right there and eat it, Missy, is what you do. If the vendor isn’t quite sure that you know this, he or she will point to the stool or shelf with condiments nearby and say “Eat there, please – no takeaway.”

And then you throw away any trash, right there.

In my (brief) experience, Japanese shopkeepers of any type are also always prepared to take your trash. I stood in a souvenir shop in Kyoto with a fistful of crumpled up paper for some reason, and the cashier made eye contact with me, smiled, and held out her hand.

The only exception to public trash receptacles that you see – and you see a lot of them – are recycle bins for plastic bottles that are always right next to drink vending machines – of which there are a lot in Japan. Maybe one or two every block? Yep. Selling water, tea, iced coffee, soft drinks and juices. With the little recycle bins right next to it. I suppose you were expected to just chug whatever right there? I’m not sure about that.

Oh, smoking. People do smoke in Japan – perhaps at higher rates than they do in the United States at this point. You can even still find candy cigarettes in Japan. Exotic! But of course – of course – you don’t see folks walking down the street smoking. Every train station (and, I presume office building) has smoking rooms and there are even smoking “rooms” right on the street – enclosed spaces with benches where people stop and grab a smoke.

So there. You can compare the two cultures – the US and Japan – and wonder how much money we can spend, how many more people we can hire and how much more education we can offer to make our public spaces cleaner. You can do that, sure, but it’s useless. The difference isn’t funding or staffing. It’s cultural: Clean public spaces are going to happen , in a culture in which children grow up cleaning their own schoolrooms – and in a culture with a strong sense of personal responsibility and social cohesion and conformity. As is common to observe, those cultural and social norms have a shadow side, to be sure, but well, at least those shadows know where  to put their food wrappers, right?

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— 1 —

Yes, we have returned. The trip back was completely uneventful, thank goodness. So much easier than the trip over, even discounting the problems, mostly because of the difference in time: the trip west is about 14 hours and the return back east was around 11 (that’s from Dallas to Tokyo and back). Thanks jet stream!

— 2 —

I didn’t watch any movies on the flight over, being determined to get my money’s worth out of that full-reclining business class seat. On the way back, however, I watched two:

Borg/McEnroe

This was not a great movie by any means, but I enjoyed it nonetheless (it’s not long, which makes even an okay movie more endurable.)

Starring Shia LaBoeuf as John McEnroe and Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason as Bjorn Borg, the film recreates the circumstances leading up the 1980 Wimbeldon singles final, in which the 24-year old Borg would play for a fifth title against the brash American McEnroe.

My late father was a huge tennis fan, played quite a bit, and taught me to play. We watched a lot of tennis in our house. One summer in Maine, my dad took me to a

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1975, defined.

tournament in North Conway,  New Hampshire where I saw Connor and Ilie Nastase play, and yes, Nastase did play up his nickname of “Nasty Nastase” for the crowd.  Those of you who are younger might not realize how big tennis was back in the 70’s and 80’s – the era of superstars like Borg, McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert and Martina Navarilova and so many others. It was a time (she said, rocking in her chair on the front porch, eying those kids on her lawn) when huge audiences watched the Wimbledon and US Open finals and there were some very dramatic matches played out.

So, I was drawn to this movie, partly from nostalgia, and yes, those first images of late 70’s/early 80’s tennis gear and garb did make me a little verklempt. And I found the movie pretty absorbing, even though I also don’t hesitate to say it doesn’t work.

The point is that Borg was, of course, a superb player and maintained that level through extreme personal control, while McEnroe, in contrast, was out of control on the court and off. The “twist,” as it were, is that we see that Borg had his own struggles with temper as a young man (played by Borg’s real life son Leo at one point) and had to channel that in order to succeed. So, there’s your situational irony, I guess.

— 3 —

The movie goes back and forth in time for both players, highlighting Borg’s growth and giving a glancing view to McEnroe’s domineering father, which is not enough to even come close to fleshing out McEnroe’s story.

In fact, there’s not a lot of depth on either side: it’s an atmospheric collection flashbacks that superficially dramatize one corner of a couple of tennis players’ motivations and psychological makeup.

The most amusing thing to me was the script’s offhanded self-critique. At one point, McEnroe leaves a talk show interview (I think it’s supposed to be the Tomorrow show with Tom Snyder) in a rage saying something like, Why is it always about how I act? Why isn’t it about the tennis? Which, as it happens, one could ask about the movie, too. Yes, the personalities were dominant at the time, but there were also changes occurring within the game of tennis at the time, changes that found expression in what was happening between Borg and McEnroe – not just different personalities, but different games. None of which comes through in the movie, of course.

So, yeah. Not a great movie, but I don’t regret the 90 or so minutes I spent watching it, either.

— 4 —

And then, finally, Lady Bird, which definitely did not live up to the hype.

At all!

Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical movie is about a high school senior in Sacramento who wants, more than anything else, to not be in or perhaps even from Sacramento. Her family is struggling middle class – her mother (the always fabulous Laurie Metcalf) is a psychiatric nurse, her father unemployed, but they manage nonetheless to send Lady Bird to a Catholic high school (because her brother – it’s mentioned twice – had someone be knifed right in front of him in public school) where, it seems, she’s surrounded by mostly wealthy girls.

The movie’s been highly praised both as a coming-of-age movie and as a “love letter” to Catholic schools – since most of what Lady Bird experiences at school is presented in a positive – albeit realistic – light. It is, I will say, one of the few movies that gets all the Catholic Stuff right, in terms of gesture, lingo and what little ritual we see. The one false note – and not just from a Catholic perspective but filmmaking – is the priest character who’s brought in to replace another priest who was the theater sponsor. This new fellow has been a sports coach and treats the play production that way and it’s just too sit-comish and doesn’t match the more naturalistic tone of the rest of the film.

The basic idea is that Lady Bird is struggling – as we all do – to figure out who she is, which she is pretty sure has little to do with where she happens to be from. She’s rejected her given name – Christine – and she just wants to get the heck out Sacramento. Her parents are loving and supportive, but her mother is somewhat brittle and a pragmatist, and for some reason, she and her daughter area just not clicking right now.

There are loads of quality secondary characters – so much quality, in fact, that you really would like to spend more with them than with the fairly insufferable Lady Bird. I’d rather know more about  Janelle, the friend Lady Bird rejects for a time and also more about the priest who, the kids say, used to be married and had a child who died – and we get a tiny glimpse of this reality in another 30-second scene, but it calls out for more.

Lady Bird follows a familiar arc. As I watched it, I thought…here’s the part where she rejects her old friends….here’s the part where she pretends to be someone she’s not….here’s the part where she gives herself too hastily to a guy and here’s the part where she realizes what she did and regrets it…here’s the part where she realizes who her true friends are…here’s the part where she thinks she has gotten what she wants and then stumbles into a situation in which she realizes the value of what she had…here’s the part where she casts aside her youthful pretension, answers the question of what her name is with her actual name…and GROWS as a result. Or, well…comes of age.

I suppose my problem was that it was slight. A coming-of-age film is admittedly going to be a slice of life, but this slice was way too thin. I would have liked to have a little bit more family dynamic stuff so I could understand more of why the mom was the way she was and why Lady Bird was, and was the dad really such a saint?

— 5 —

I’m almost done blogging about the Japan trip. I think I’ve posted on each day – I just have  couple more thematic posts I want to get up. Here’s a list of posts

. You can take the easy way, and just go through all posts with a “Japan 2018” tag. Click here for that. 

Or:

Also check out Instagram for photos. 

Some previous trip entries:

Mexico – spring 2018

London – spring 2017

Belize and Guatemala  – summer 2017

— 6 —

Depressing? Symbolic? Obviously, the answer is: both. 

For more than a century, St. Catherine of Siena Church was a cornerstone of the Image result for dollar tree catholic churchCharlestown neighborhood, a close-knit parish that seemed impervious to the change that swirled around it.

When the Catholic church closed a decade ago, it took a piece of the old Charlestown with it, residents said.

 It had stood vacant ever since. But now, the church has taken on new life — if a decidedly secular one — as a haven for bargain shoppers known as Dollar Tree.

— 7 —

Coming in July:

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Signs and symbols…Bible stories…saints, heroes and history. 

More book reminders (for those who only come here on Fridays) – I’ve made How to Get the Most Out of the Eucharist available as a free pdf here. 

Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies is .99 this month in honor of her feast (7/22). 

(One of several free ebooks I have available)

And don’t forget Son #2’s Amazon author page and personal author page.  

He’s released his third set of stories, called Mutiny!

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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

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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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Well, that didn’t last long.

I saw the mama Robin sitting on the nest Saturday morning…went out Sunday morning, saw no robins about, so I took advantage of the moment and stuck my phone up there to get a shot.

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Oh.

Well, whatever got up there did a clean job of it – there were no shells about, nothing amiss.

And, it seems, they might have nabbed at least one of the parents, too. For over the past weeks, every time we’ve ventured out there, one or both of the parents have perched nearby, letting us know we were in their territory and, if we refused to obey their warnings, swooping down in our direction.

This morning? Silence and not a robin in sight. Plenty of mockingbirds, as per usual, but this robin couple either was so demoralized that they gave up and move on, or…well.

I have absolutely no right to be sad about this considering a) I am not a vegetarian and b) one of the day’s tasks was going to purchase a rat for Rocky. And Rocky don’t play with warmed-up dead rats.

But I’m still sad.

****

So, here’s an article about my Loyola books! The inspiration is the new one – The Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols – but the interview covered my thinking behind all of the volumes in the series, as well.

I’m not sure if you can actually read it without subscribing…but you can sure try!

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All right then: Japan. There, hope revives.

Brief recap: For some reason, we are going to Japan for our big summer trip. Leaving soon. Rented an AirBnB for Tokyo, legal issues mandated a change. (More here and here.)  So we’re splitting the trip between Tokyo and Kyoto. I have no idea what we’re doing except wandering around and eating.

Of all of the zillions of videos out there about 10 BEST THINGS TO DO IN SOME NEIGHBORHOOD OF TOKYO THAT ENDS IN A VOWEL AS THEY ALL DO! I’ve settled, for some reason, on those produced by one Paolo de Guzman, aka Tokyo Zebra. His personality is quirky, but not annoying, he’s kind of fun and – most helpful of all – his videos feature maps, which he also has on his website.

I’ve been reading guidebooks and discussion forums for weeks, but the city hardly made sense at all until I started watching these videos. So thanks to Paolo, I finally sort of have a plan – for Day 1.

And beyond that?

Are you kidding? Me? Plan??! 

Check out Instagram for updates…soonish….

 

 

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