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As I mentioned, we’ve taken a quick trip to Colorado (first time)  for the weekend, thanks to Frontier Airlines beginning cheap flights out of Birmingham. Of course a part of the “cheap” means you can maybe take a Ziploc on board and you have to pay for the air you breathe, but hey. It works.

(Seriously – you can take a small “personal item” on board as part of the fare. Our backpacks with clothes, etc., fit that fine, and I also took my purse separately without them saying anything about it. Because it’s winter and winter clothes are fatter – and we didn’t want to wear hiking boots all weekend – I splurged on a carry on bag. Just one. It was fine, and we might have been able to do without the carry on. The plane was good, although J found the seat uncomfortable. I don’t know what the plane was, but it was for sure the quietest plane I’ve been on in a long time, maybe ever. They did say in the announcements that it was new.)

Friday night we stayed at a Residence Inn halfway between the airport and downtown. I’d thought about staying downtown that first night, but I’m glad I didn’t – it wouldn’t have been worth the double cost & need to pay for parking, and we got in late enough so that we wouldn’t be venturing out for any night life.

Saturday was rainy and, eventually snowy. The plan had been to spend time seeing things in Denver and perhaps Boulder and then make our way up to Estes Park, where we’d stay Saturday and Sunday night. Part of the plan worked, but I was concerned about the “snow” part of the forecast, considering my rental car was just a regular car – not an SUV or anything like that – and I had no idea what to expect in terms of roads and driving. As the day progressed, I decided it would be wiser to start the journey to Estes Park sooner rather than later, and it was a very good decision – I am not sure if I could have made it up if I’d waited until 5 or so – and the stress factor of driving that in the snow and in the dark would have been high.

So anyway, back to Saturday morning in Denver: very simple – Union Station, the glorious Tattered Cover Bookshop, the State Capitol building – exterior and the mile-high marker only, since the interior is only open during the week, the History Colorado Museum, lunch at Torchy’s Tacos (a good chain) and a drive-by of the Broncos stadium.

Observations: the History Colorado Museum was okay, but was missing a comprehensive, chronological history of either Denver or the state. Interesting stuff about a variety of subjects: Skiing, the RMNP, the presence of the Klan, the Japanese internment camp, the Chicano movement, the Dust bowl – but an organized, comprehensive, you know – history  – exhibit would strengthen the museum.

Secondly, many, many homeless folks around the capitol, with many of their effects scattered on the grounds. I was glad to see what looked like groups offering them help of one sort or another, including a mobile laundry. But still – seeing soaked clothing, blankets, chicken bones, etc. littering the state capitol grounds is expressive of what is left to do.

 

The drive to Estes was not the easiest drive I’ve ever done, but it wasn’t terrible at 3pm. We arrived at our hotel in one piece, checked in, chilled out, walked around a bit, then the younger one and I embarked on a longer walk. Our hotel is about a mile from the small downtown, and even in the sub twenty-degree weather, it was pleasant. Crisp, with the everyone in a cheery mood because, well, it’s vacation time and they were celebrating their Christmas tree lighting ceremony. After a bit, I called the older son and told him to walk down and meet us and we’d find dinner. We did – at a place where one of us could have an elk burger and another could have a game meatloaf.

 

Sunday morning – Mass at the lovely Our Lady of the Mountains. Packed 10 am Mass, intelligent homily.

Then it was time to …do something. I had not done a ton of research into this day, and what I had done confused me, and there was the snow issue – although by Sunday morning the roads in town were clear. Doing a bit more research Saturday night and chatting with a fellow at the visitors’ center five minutes before they closed indicated some direction – basically attempt a hike in the Rocky Mountains National Park, perhaps with snowshoes, and probably around one of a few easier lakes to get to .

So after getting ourselves ready back at the hotel, we headed to a very busy mountain gear supply store, where a conversation with one of the sales people gave me even more direction. We rented snowshoes and poles and set out.

We didn’t end up at any of the spots I’d thought, and the hike was probably harder than I’d anticipated, considering it was 1.2 miles mostly uphill. But it was the first trail we hit after a steady drive that nonetheless unnerved me since the park roads were still snow-covered, and so I really didn’t want to keep doing that not-fun activity. Plus, I saw the name of the trail destination to be a sign: Bierstadt Lake, named after the German landscape artist who painted so much of the American West  – including this lake and this area – and one of whose paintings of Yosemite is a star holding of our own Birmingham Museum of Art. Of course we have to hit the Bierstadt trail and see Bierstadt Lake.

Well, we first discovered that the snowshoes were unnecessary, at least for the hike up the mountain. The trail is a series of switchbacks up the mountain, down a much shorter distance through woods, and then to the lake. It wasn’t easy – but I did it! The youngest ditched the snowshoes first, followed by me about halfway up. The trail was packed, and moreover, it was narrow, making the snowshoes mostly an obstacle. They’re light, though, and it was less hassle to carry them than wear them. However, when we did the trail around the lake, the snow was deep, and the snowshoes fulfilled their promise – although they still weren’t necessary, honestly.

But getting to the lake? Worth it. Gorgeous, humbling and stunning. (Don’t worry – it looks like they are standing on the lake in the photo, but they are well on the shore.)

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The idea of cold weather activity has never appealed to me – I frankly never understand why people want to do it. Perhaps I’m still suffering from the ill-effects of my Maine-raised mother tossing me out to play in the snow in northern Illinois winters, assuring me that it would be enormously fun. I hated it.

But this? It was good. I finally understood that with the proper equipment (snowshoes excepted)..no, freezing and misery is not the only possible outcome of going outside in the cold. Took a while, didn’t it?

Oh – one more thing. On the trail, I spied a group of two men and one woman heading towards us. One of the man was wearing a UAB sweatshirt. Turns out he and the other fellow were Australians studying at UAB – So there we were, two groups from Birmingham meeting there in the Rocky Mountains. It’s pretty crazy, but to tell the truth, every time I travel, I run into someone with some connection to either me personally or wherever I’m living at the time. I imagine all those degrees of connections are far closer than we think – we just don’t know it because we’re not stopping to talk to every single person – and we’re not all walking billboards advertising our home.

img_20181118_160610Back into town, return equipment, stop at the grocery store, as well as at the Stanley Hotel, which is the inspiration for The Shining – King was staying there when he got the idea for the novel. Photo is of the son who’s read the book and seen the movie a couple of times (much preferring the latter, btw) doing his best Jack Nicholson-in-The-Shining performance.

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Now? Football one one TV, The Dark Knight on the other, and me here. Home tomorrow, but hopefully one more small adventure before we have to be at the airport.

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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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I won’t do a reading/watching/listening digest today – how about a trip digest instead?Or perhaps a museum digest, for that is what this amounts to, I think.

This past weekend, we headed up Kansas City way for my older son to take a second look img_20181006_140933at Benedictine. We attended a Raven Day last fall when he was a junior, but now as a senior, he’s been accepted there for next year (as well as three other schools) and we thought it would be good for him to experience it as a seriously potential student – spend the night in a dorm, and so on.

I was originally going to drive up, as we did last year, but then I thought…why? It’s a solid 11-hour drive from here, which is comparable to what I used to do when my daughter attended William and Mary, and I didn’t mind doing it last fall – we saw Sights along the way and back , but for this three day weekend, I decided…nope. We’re flying.

(I lived in Lawrence for five years of my childhood – so this was a familiar sight.)

So, in and out of Birmingham with pretty reasonable fares. We left early Saturday morning, arrived in Kansas City about 1, rented a car and made our way down to, first, the College Basketball Experience for people to stretch their legs, then to a barbecue place for people to watch the Gators, and then to our hotel down in the Country Club district, which is this quite lovely early 20th century faux Spanish/Italianate shopping area. I’d booked this hotel, envisioning an evening of wandering around, but rain interfered with that plan – so there was some walking, but not much and it was wet.

(Note: the College Basketball experience is not worth the money. I guess if you are local and are having a birthday party, it might be, but not for a visitor – there just wasn’t enough to do.)

Sunday morning, youngest son and I went to Mass at the closest church (older son would be going with students in the evening), which just happened to be an FSSP parish. It was very interesting – a small church and packed for the 9 am low Mass (one of three Sunday Masses celebrated there) We didn’t hang around, but the people we encountered were friendly and welcoming and, yes, normal, in case you’re wondering. A majority of the women wore veils, but when I say “majority” I mean over half – by no means all. But veils are becoming an increasingly common sight at my own Cathedral parish, so that’s no big deal to our eyes at this point. Since it was low Mass, there was no music, of course. The church is beautiful and charming, but wow, it’s small and they could definitely use a larger facility.

img_20181007_123746Next stop, after checking out of the hotel, was at Winstead’s Steakburgers for a solid breakfast, then right up the road to the absolutely wonderful Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. What a treasure – with free admission, to boot. (Parking in the garage costs $10….)

I was very impressed with the collection, and we probably only took in a third of it (I’m thinking we’ll be back in the area regularly over the next five years, so…no pressure). I’ve put images of some of my favorites below with a bit of commentary.  You should be able to click on every image and get a larger one.

I didn’t know this about Rouault – that he had been apprenticed as a stained glass artist. You can see it.

I was moved by the descriptive note on this Manet. It prompted me to consider, once more, all the poor excuses I make….

On the far left, the work of a local artist, Wilbur Niewald, whose work I loved. It’s interesting that his work has become more representational over the decades – this is an early work called Facade I.  On the right is a fabulous lectern support – description in the middle. The fellow is struggle with the serpent, bracing himself, his clunky feet pointed inward.

On the far left, with note next to it, is an aquamanile – a water vessel used for ceremonial purposes, either secular or religious. Then a gorgeous terra cotta Madonna and Child (and others) from Tuscany. I didn’t take a photo of it, but the explanatory note was very good, explaining the symbolism of the various fruits on the border and even the frogs that are scattered in the group (a symbol of resurrection). On the far right, a small Bosch that was part of an exhibit about the layers in paintings. 

A wonderful and pretty large Asian collection. Enlarge that top left photo and see why I found it so enchanting – it flows with gentle, steady energy, and the figure embodies quiet joy. To the right up there is detail of a Jain chapel, then we have an amazingly thin jade disc with dragons and a wild Chinese funerary figure.

Also from China was the amazing statue I highlighted yesterday – from the 6th century: “Central Asian Caravan Woman Rousing her Camel While Nursing.” The best.

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Finally, these two John Singer Sargents – the top one, at least, is a study – not sure about the bottom. Both are completely absorbing.

All right then…

Then to the excellent and quite interesting museum dedicated to what’s been salvaged from the sunken Arabia steamboat. From the museum’s website:

The Arabia Steamboat Museum is a unique Kansas City attraction: a time capsule of life on the American frontier in the mid-nineteenth century.  It is not your typical museum.  Visitors have the one-of-a-kind opportunity to experience the everyday objects that made life possible for pioneers in the 1800s.  It is the largest single collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world.

The Steamboat Arabia was one of many casualties of the perilous Missouri River.  The Mighty Missouri, as it was often called, is the longest river in the United States and has claimed nearly 400 other steamboats over its 2,500 mile course.  In September 1856, the Arabia was carrying over 200 tons of cargo intended for general stores and homes in 16 mid-western frontier towns.  The steamer was still fully loaded when it hit a tree snag and sank just 6 miles west of Kansas City.  Due to erosion, the Missouri River changed course over time, and the Arabia was buried underground for over a century – along with all of its precious cargo. Lying 45-feet deep beneath a Kansas cornfield, the Arabia’s payload was protected from light and oxygen and was thus remarkably well preserved.

Using a metal detector and old maps to guide the search, an amateur archaeologist began the search for the lost steamer.   Located a half-mile from the present river’s course, 5 men and their families would begin the adventure of a lifetime … recovering the Steamboat Arabia.  What they found will astound you.

Being a private museum, it’s not free, but it’s worth every penny of admission. Begin with the tour – it’s very helpful and engaging to have a human being set the event and objects in context. It’s just amazing to be able to walk amid this array of quite ordinary objects, clean and looking as if they could be put to use right now.

(By the way, no human beings died in the accident. The only life lost was a mule.)

We then made our way up to Atchison, with a stop to watch some Vikings football and eat. Once in Atchison, I dropped my older son off on campus, and my younger son and I were able to visit with one of my former students, from ages past, who happens to be married to a Benedictine faculty member – delightful.

Since I’d been to the event last year, I didn’t feel the need to go through it again, so after checking in with the older one on Monday morning, younger son and I headed up to St. Joseph, Missouri. We might have done some nature in one of the local state parks, but it had been raining so much over the past two days and still looked a little threatening, so I thought – I really img_20181008_115443don’t want to tramp around in the mud and wet leaves and perhaps get rained on again – so St. Joseph it was.

What a delightful surprise. A surprise, but not surprising, because every time I travel, even five miles from home, I encounter something new to me, some corner of human life that’s intriguing, a chance to learn about more ways in which human beings do things differently – and are so deeply the same.

This time it was the Patee House Museum – a HUGE local history museum in building originally constructed as a hotel, but over the years used as a women’s college (three different times), headquarters for the Pony Express, the Union Army and, for most of the 20th century, a shirt factory.

It’s now filled – and I mean filled with artifacts from St. Joseph’s history. Much of the downstairs has been divided and fashioned to be like period shops and businesses, other rooms (the ballroom, bathroom, ladies’ parlor and so one) furnished to look as they would have in the hotel’s heyday. There’s a train engine in the former courtyard. Exhibits cover topics like the Pony Express (headquartered here during its short history) and the Buffalo Soldiers. There’s a carousel. And cars. And Walter Cronkite’s father’s dental office equipment. And a piece of rope from the horrible final lynching that happened in the town – in 1933. And just… a lot of stuff.

Well worth the $6 admission.

Next to the Pattee House is the house where Jesse James lived and was shot by the Ford brothers. It’s been moved here from its original location, but it’s also filled with interesting memorabilia from the period and from the exhumation and DNA confirmation that the body was actually Jesse James’. Made me want to read Ron Hansen’s book, which I never have.

Then it was time to head back to Atchison, where we stopped by the river – in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, who rested there on July 4, 1804 and, as the placard said, “ate some corn.”  The head of the music department had kindly responded to my query about M having some practice time, and so we headed up the hill, found the department and he spent an hour getting to play on a nice Steinway baby grand  – very much appreciated!

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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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I’ve been asked about the famed Japanese toilets, so here goes – our limited experience:

  • I don’t know if it expresses some deep-seated cultural priority or is just for the tourists’ sake, but after we disembarked from the plane at Narita Airport in Tokyo, the first thing we saw as we made our way to customs was dozens of ads for toilets – from the Toto company, specifically. They lined the walkway to customs. Priorities!
  • Every toilet we encountered was just a bit different, but they all included the same basic features: the ability to flush varied volumes of water, bidet features – and I use plural there because they included more than one, contoured for the differences in male and female anatomy, and seat warmers. Some included a sound feature – that is, the ability to generate sounds (like nature or even music) to cover up…er…sounds. For all I know, they all included this feature, but I just couldn’t interpret the buttons.
  • So here’s  a tour. This was the toilet in our first hotel room in Tokyo (the Richmond Premiere Oshiage).

 

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The two buttons on the top row are for flushing – the one on the right for less volume, the one on the left for more.

The three buttons below that are for the bidet function, the one on the far right being for women.

And that’s all I can tell you. I’m guessing the buttons on the far right are for temperature regulation of both the seat and the water and maybe pressure. But I didn’t fool with them…I didn’t want to break it!

  • This is the toilet from our Kyoto house. I had to grab a screen shot from a video. It seems to me that the electronic bidet stuff is an add-on to an older toilet here. You can see the buttons on the left side – those are all bidet (you can buy that kind of accessory here, fyi). The tank reminds me of an old-fashioned high tank. You might be able to see that there’s an external faucet – when you flush, the water comes out there and fills the tank – something that greatly confused some of us at first, who thought it was some sort of extra sink. You can see the flusher below it, and it controls the volume of water  – push it to the right, you get less, to the left you get more, and the longer you hold it, the more water you get coming through.

 

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I tragically did not take a photo of the bathroom at our last hotel, but here’s one more from a different place.

The Toto company has a “gallery” of their machines at the Narita Airport. I had thought it was like a showroom where you walk around and see amazing space-age toilets, but it’s actually a restroom to use – men go left, women go right – with separate cubby/rooms. There were only two free when I went, and both the toilets were the same. So here you go:

First, check out the nifty little toddler seat for you to set your kid in so he or she won’t wander while you’re occupied. (There was a changing table, too). I have  video  – of me pointing to the buttons, freak!  – that I’ll put on Instagram in a minute. Okay, here’s that post. 

One more: this was in one of the train stations – Gion-Shijo in Kyoto. It was a “Kid’s Toilet” – like our family restrooms, but more kid-sized, with a stall for privacy.

So there you go – a not-exactly exhaustive look at Japanese toilets. I will say that after experiencing this…we must seem absolutely barbaric in our personal habits…and perhaps we are!

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