October Photo Album

As I looked back at the photos I took in October, I realized it was worth recording a few here. These are mostly chronological throughout the month.

My mother-in-law, Linda Janecke, died in October; she was 81 years old — Judy wrote a loving tribute/obituary to her mom. Linda was a beacon of encouragement and optimism. Though she had bouts of worrying, she had a strong faith. Linda was always quick with a smile or a memory to share. Here’s a link to some photos that Rachel and I put together.


Aaron moved to a house in Lansing and is living with a couple guys.


Rachel makes a wicked good squash soup.


Judy and her cousin, Rob, enjoyed their coffee & tea, as well as the garden.


We visited the lighthouse at the northern point of Old Mission Peninsula.


We also saw a movie (Downton Abbey) at theater in Elk Rapids; Judy met a woman whose children had taken piano lessons from her mother.


The waves were high on East Traverse Bay at Mary Anne and John’s house/cottage — a blessed retreat.


I enjoyed a campfire and a World Series game at the same time.


Tracy the pirate and Aram the clown…and a curious face in-between.

Bonus poem by Bob Rentschler read by me

Let’s Go in a Different Direction

I’ve been struck lately by the amount of people I know that are traveling. Good friends are exploring the Greek Isles. Another friend is doing a fellowship in Tennessee. A retired couple I know are re-visiting Yellowstone Park and the Tetons to experience the wildlife and nature. Another family of adults is in Austria and Germany on a tour. A poet friend is in Italy visiting family. Another couple is visiting their daughter in Japan. A Kalamazoo College student is studying abroad in Germany. A couple took their pre-teens out of school for the year and are RV-ing through southwestern United States. The list goes on. And while I’m a little jealous, I’m mostly just aware of the importance of getting out of our safe spaces and experiencing new environments and cultures. Without travel, our lives are narrow and fear of the ‘other’ festers.

For too many people in this country, fear is what drives them. It’s sad. They fear immigrants and the gifts they bring. They fear imports and the competition they bring. They fear Science and the knowledge it brings. They fear women and the leadership they bring. Their fear leader is taking this country in the wrong direction. Instead of giving him and his negative tweet factory any more attention, let’s change our focus.

The HP ad above, startled me a bit. (You can see the whole thing by clicking on the photo and there’s an article about the ad here) Near the end is this photo and question…Have we lost touch with what’s real? It’s possible. We’ve at least lost touch with what’s important; as I drive around the Lansing area, I notice many people looking down at their phones as they drive. It’s incredibly dangerous. Driving IS real. I admit that I will check a text at a stop light, but looking while driving seems like asking for an accident.

I do think we need to change our focus (I’m talking to myself here, also).

Here are some suggestions:

* Visit a church, synagogue, or other religious institution different from the one that you usually attend. The new minister at the Peoples Church of East Lansing, Reverend Dr. Shawnthea Monroe, was inspirational and challenging in her recent, first sermon. That’s where I sing in the choir; and I do plan to attend regularly. I feel drawn to Congregation Shaarey Zedek, too, though. And the Islamic Center of East Lansing is a very welcoming place also. I’ve attended services at both places of worship as part of the Thanksgiving time interfaith services. This year’s Interfaith Service will be at the Unitarian Universalist Church on South Pennsylvania on Monday, November 25th at 7 pm. if you are interested.

* Get involved politically instead of feeling angry or apathetic. Learn about the candidates (just a suggestion) before you vote.

* Learn something new, whether online, at a college, by reading a book, or going to a film. For example, the East Lansing Film Festival is always an eye-opener for me. The link says the festival starts October 30th, but the Indie festival is going on this weekend…I plan to see Sama and Tel Aviv on Fire in the coming days.

* Travel as often as you can; finding affordable travel is difficult, but possible.

* Use public transportation as a way to change your perspective.

* Participate in a Living Room Conversation as a way to express your concerns on an issue and try to understand the concerns of those who think about the issue differently. https://www.livingroomconversations.org/

* Disconnect from your devices for a day or a few days — look at people, talk with them…even people you do not know. It’s refreshing to talk with people you don’t know (check out the link).


Does the fact that this sign exists mean that someone turned onto the train tracks? Let’s be a little more careful out there, people.

Seattle 2019 Vacation

In a world without physical photo albums, I find I need a space to collect my thoughts and memories. I imagine that if everyone had a blog, the internet might break, but this is the space I have chosen. It’s ‘my space’ to use a reference from over a decade ago.

Continuing that analogy, I may use this space to jog my memory about events from life…you know, later on when my memory fades. I’ve been writing in physical journals for over 30 years and I use those journals in a similar way. The thing about this space is that since I don’t really have control over it, it could disappear at some point. After I stop paying an annual fee ($40 to be able to put youtube videos on the blog instead of just links, as well as for the option of people subscribing, and more), the people at edublogs might delete this blog one day due to inactivity or for some other random reason. Then, like many of my memories from years ago, my ideas will be gone. I suppose I could write a book…possibly from these blog entries…but assuming I don’t, let’s just say I am more and more aware of the fleeting quality of memories and life in general.

Every day on vacation in Seattle was precious. Every moment really. We spent most of our time in Edmonds, which is about 40 minutes north of downtown Seattle depending on traffic. Rachel and Robbie moved there almost a year ago; one reason was so Rachel only had to drive 10 minutes to work. Robbie is driving for Uber Eats so his work goes where he goes. They had lived in Seattle for around eight years in the same apartment and I think another reason they moved was for a new, larger, more economical space. We all shared one car for the 10 days (plus travel days) we were there — except for a day and a half when we wanted more space and options, so Rachel rented a van. It was fortunate that we were able to find an airbnb two short blocks away from their apartment.

We have never hiked as many different trails as we hiked this trip. In the past, we had been to several trails within the city — Discovery Park, Ravenna Park, Washington Park and Arboretum…there are dozens to choose from — but this time we found five or six new ones outside the city.


Pine Ridge Park was closest, so we hiked it a couple days

Our time in the Cascades was one of my favorite parts of the trip. Even though every park we hiked was a welcome retreat from life’s hectic pace, the Cascades trip was a journey, a destination (about 1 1/2 hours east), and an all-encompassing get-away. The several, bumpy miles up the dirt road to get to the trail was an event in itself; I couldn’t imagine anyone else would be up at the trailhead. There were about 10 other cars there though. After a delicious picnic, we walked the 2.2 meandering miles to Barclay Lake in lush peacefulness. We explored a few side paths and appreciated the tranquility of the lake when we found it; one family was fishing unsuccessfully and it seemed like most people brought their dog on the trail…but I bet we saw less than 20 people total. The way back went by faster somehow, but was just as gorgeous and serene. The journey was enhanced by a stop for dinner in Gold Bar, WA, at a local restaurant called Prospector’s Steak and Ale. I had a flashback to Bob’s Country Bunker in the Blues Brothers’ Rawhide scene but it turned out to be very good food and decent service. We even commiserated with the Seahawks’ fans during their first preseason game, having many years experience as disappointed Lions’ fans.


Judy and Aaron on our Cascade hike

Rachel and Robbie have a couple of cats that were kittens last time I saw them. This time they were a bit less playful and somewhat distrustful of these new people. It was still fun observing them, though. I wrote an untitled cat poem from my few days with them —

Cats can hear
well enough to be
guard dogs.

Maybe we should domesticate
panthers to be
our attentive watchers.

The grace and style of cats
plus that lethal edge
of a Doberman Pinscher.

The way a cat’s ears
turn at the slightest
peep, crack, bump

In the next room
is impressive —
usually a waste of time

But check it out they do,
anyway —
curious homebodies

That they are —
wary of change
like old Republicans.

Another favorite event was our evening at the ACT Theater seeing The Year of Magical Thinking. I had read the book (and since then, have seen the Netflix biography about the author, Joan Didion) The one-woman play was similar to and different from the book: still a not-so-gentle warning that we will all have life-altering grief to deal with; still a distantly emotional, scattered-but-connected view of her grief; and and update regarding the levels of grief and brief clarity she’s had since the book. If you know me at all, you know I’m a book person. However, when a book is given life in play form with the author’s guidance — I’m always a fan. Theater spaces are sacred to me; magic happens there.

You can see more of our photos at this link (though not all the photos have captions, if you want to see the captions, scroll up on each photo).

Many thanks to Rachel and Robbie for sharing their space and their time which led to many wonderful discussions and numerous, new, special memories.

P.S. I went to several Seattle area bookstores and bought as many (mostly used) books as I could fit into my backpack and luggage. That’s part of what makes each destination unique, I believe. One that I found at the Edmonds Public Library also intrigued me: Halal If You Hear Me: BreakBeat Poets Volume 3. I opened it to a poet from East Lansing, Leila — a sign and a gift. It’s a marvelous collection of young, Muslim poets expressing current, honest feelings and concerns. I bought two copies and had them delivered to our house (delivery was free if I bought two); if you want to borrow one, let me know.

P.P.S. If you want to subscribe to this blog, check out Subscribe By Email: if you are on a tablet or computer, it should be in the left sidebar; if you’re on your phone, you may need to scroll all the way to the bottom of the page (sorry).

When in Doubt, G to the Rescue

Most of the time, life is quite distracting. I have trouble deciding where to focus my time and energy. The circus in Washington is quite disconcerting and tragic; the fires in the Arctic are potentially even more troubling; and then, there are more personal issues like new career vs full retirement and self-actualization in general.

I wish I had written the following, but alas, Garrison Keillor beat me to it. I swear, I was working on something very close to it when I read this today.

“Someday you’ll understand what I’m telling you

My birthday is this week, which I mention by way of saying, “Please. No gifts.” My love and I went through major downsizing in January and we are pretty much done with Things now, even a picture of a wilderness lake taken by you or an inspirational book that could change our lives. My life is good enough. Every day is precious. When you reach 77, you’ll feel the same way. It’s a shame that a con man is in the White House as the Arctic is melting and white nationalists are shooting up our cities, but we’ll be okay, we just need a Trexit vote next year.

I reached my present age thanks to medical advances that didn’t exist for my uncles (than whom I am now somewhat older) nor for Dostoevsky (59) or Thoreau (44). Pharmaceuticals would’ve enabled Dostoevsky to retire from writing agonizing novels and switch over to light comedy in his old age and Thoreau to leave Concord and move to New York and find a girlfriend. He went out on a cold rainy night to look at trees and caught bronchitis, which agitated his TB and he went into a steep decline. As he lay dying, his aunt asked if he’d made his peace with God, and Henry said, “I was not aware that we had ever quarreled.” So he had a good last line, which many people don’t, but think what he and his girlfriend could’ve done with thirty more years. Go into the canoe business, buy a house with a lawn, beget kiddoes, enjoy evenings at home, Isabelle lying with her head in Henry’s lap, reading “Walden,” laughing at the funny parts.

Life is unbearably precious. Two heroes of mine died in car crashes when I was in college, and yet I myself, a couple years later, driving north on Highway 47 in my 1956 Ford, on a straight stretch in Isanti County, gunned it to 100 mph just to see what it felt like. It felt good. Then a pickup truck eased out of a driveway and onto the road. This was before seat belts. In a split second, I swerved to go behind him and it was a good choice — he didn’t back up — otherwise he and I would’ve been forever joined in a headline. I hope he has enjoyed his survival. Whenever I relive those fifteen seconds, all regrets vanish, all complaints evaporate.

I am now older than my older brother, who died ten years ago at 71. He slipped while skating and fell backward and hit his head. I think of him often. He was a scientist and engineer, a problem-solver, a sailor, a family man, and when faced with a personal dilemma, it’s good to ask, “What would Philip have said?” He tends to recommend patience, attention to detail, and taking a break for a few hours, perhaps on a boat, during which the answer may suddenly occur to you.

I don’t brood about death as the actual date approaches. My mother (97) enjoyed herself into her mid-nineties, flew places, saw her ancestral Scotland, cruised the coast of Alaska, and seemed, all in all, happier than when she had six little kids to worry about. We grew up near the Mississippi and she thought extensively about drowning. When cousin Roger (17) drowned, trying to impress his girlfriend Susan, Mother sent me to swimming lessons at the Y, but I couldn’t bear it, the instructor was such a bully, so I went to the library instead, a wise choice on my part, and I grew up to earn my way as a writer rather than as a professional swimmer.

Nature is not interested in my twilight years; past 30, semen develops problems, man becomes irrelevant in the furtherance of the species. God created erectile dysfunction because old men can’t be trusted to raise kids. Living past 70 is an artificial idea, a lovely idea, like flying or anesthesia, but still. So an old man needs to justify his continuance, taking up space and being a traffic hazard on the freeway by driving the speed limit. My reason for living is simply this: I am still working and my best work may be yet ahead of me.

I say, 77 is a fine age, way beyond 17 or 37 or 57, but take your time getting there, and remember to marry someone who is good company and can carry one end of the conversation and sometimes both. There’s the real message. That’s worth reading to the end of the column to find out.”

– – –

Reprinted without permission. I’m more of an ask forgiveness kind of guy.

What’s Next

I won’t be posting on Facebook for awhile. I’ve decided to use this spot.

Facebook annoys me. I’m tired of a virtual life. I need more actual living. I want to…

…hike more
…write more
…sit by a fountain and listen more
…read the Bible more
…pray more
…help out more
…split wood more
…sing more
…go fishing more often
…play my guitar more
…listen to music more
…watch fireflies more often
…drink more cold beer
…play more volleyball
…go for more bike rides
…walk along the beach more
…laugh more
…read the books on my shelves more
…travel more
…go bowling more
…even clean my office more
…talk with flesh-and-blood friends more
(just a partial list)

Facebook has made me ADD-distracted (Gerry Brooks explains what it’s like, below)

Facebook is also too toxic lately. I need a cleanse. Garrison says that “Facebook is okay but if it went away, we could learn to sit with people over coffee and conduct conversations.” I agree with the second half, but I think “okay” is too strong of a descriptor. Facebook is “meh” to use the already-old hip jargon. I think Jerry Seinfeld has made a valiant effort to get people sitting with coffee and conducting conversations on his recent Netflix series (which I love). He’s subtly re-teaching us how to be with each other.

Regarding my non-virtual life and being with flesh-and-blood friends…

I was recently part of a committee that recommended a new head pastor for our church (She’s amazing by the way…come and visit us in a couple months when she starts). I take pride in my ability to listen and contribute when I’m on committees. And I made some new friends along the way; a fun way to volunteer my time for an important task.

I am part of a men’s group at our church that meets (most) every Tuesday morning at 7 am. to discuss a book and to connect. I have enjoyed getting to know each of these men as we walk on our faith journeys.

I’m in a gospel choir called the Earl Nelson Singers that meets on Monday nights to practice singing and to get to know each other better. We sing in concert sometimes too. All fun (and praise).

You can’t do these things on Facebook. And these are the things I want to do more.

I’m not saying I’ll never look at Facebook. Just look, not lurk (or post). What’s next for me is less and less screen time. Yes, I like to play a few games, and communicate via email and text some, but I am consciously disconnecting from Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. I’ll see you here…or in person. Garrison goes on to say that “Comedy and compassion are what you need to make your way in the world.” Makes sense to me. Maybe I’ll go find Garrison and see if he wants to talk about comedy over a cup of coffee. Or I could start my own show: Armenians in Restaurants getting Meze (appetizers); or Kabodians in Bars drinking Beer; or Wanna-be Comedians in Nightclubs getting Booed.


P.S. If you’re continuing on Facebook, here’s a couple tips about talking with difficult people. First of all, good for you, for sticking with it. I jumped ship as my method. My friend, Troy Hicks, wrote a piece on Peer Review in Public that used four things to keep in mind when commenting on a peer’s text, which I believe is good advice for most any communication —

(Troy’s piece is worth reading and you can also annotate the book, Annotation, and feel a part of the larger project)

And I recently read The Faith Club in men’s group; it’s a welcome reminder that, while some conversations (for example, about religion) are difficult, we shouldn’t avoid them. It’s not necessarily advice I am following in my life right now, but I aspire to it.

Good Things Come in Threes

I get a lot of junk mail everyday. Both the snail mail and email variety. I don’t even see the really terrible stuff because the good people at gmail collect it all in my Spam folder so I don’t have to look at it. On the other hand, Garrison Keillor sends me mail electronically every day via The Writer’s Almanac and weekly via the column he writes on his website. Those personal messages from GK not only far outweigh all the crap I get, they also keep me turning on my computer every morning.

His recent column called “So that’s over, and what’s next?” is a fine blend of old man humor and spicy politics with a dash of musical fun. In the column, Garrison explains that he attended three amazing musical events in a week. He notes that “…all three had moments that threw me out of the plane and opened my parachute.”

After reading the column, I realized that I, also, had three parachute-opening experiences (though not musical) this past week. Here are my recent top three OMG, felt-like-I-was-flying moments:

#1 — The MSU Spartan men’s basketball team made it to the NCAA Sweet 16. I really hate to agree with Jay Bilas, but “the Spartans should not be this good.” We have had so many injuries to key players that we should just be mediocre this year. Once the team’s health started unraveling, so did my expectations. But we found a way to beat Michigan THREE times and win the Big Ten title and tournament. Starters and bench players alike have stepped up their game; who knows what tonight holds in the Sweet 16 game against LSU? It’s been an amazing run for a gritty team. I’d like to see Winston score and pass like crazy. McQuaid and Goins hit three-pointers with ease. Tillman block shots and disrupt passes. Nick Ward step back into his mid-season shooting proficiency. And Henry and Loyer could shine also. I’m just proud of their effort to get to this point. Go Green and White!

#2 — I read Michelle Obama’s memoir, finishing it this week. Reading her book, Becoming, it felt like she was sitting in the room talking with me. I enjoyed her direct, frank writing style. Michelle’s unique perspective on motherhood, friendships with Jesse Jackson’s family, Barack’s Presidency, the Secret Service, and service in general, were very engaging. She’s a classy, intelligent person. And her humor is refreshing, even encouraging, in the midst of her place in history. With every page, the book got better and better, bringing me to tears at times, laughing out loud others. Mostly, I was just sitting there listening intently, soaking up her story.

Though I felt like starting the book over again when I finished, I gave it to Judy to read. It is true that I’m writing a poem based on the book…partially so I can keep it on my mind.

Here are a couple quotes that stood out to me. “Time, as far as my father was concerned, was a gift you gave to people.” And later, when she was campaigning for Barack, the more she met with small groups the more she “learned it’s harder to hate up close” — though she did feel hated at times.

Her book is really a call for optimism in the midst of these crazy times.

#3 — I experienced Arizona in March. I realize that Arizona in March happens every year. It’s just that I’m usually in Michigan when it happens.

I soaked up every moment of sun, getting up at 6:30 and writing while sitting amidst their ‘chilly’ 48 degree morning — I saw a road runner dart across the road — And Judy saw a skittering salamander — We took several hikes (in shorts), appreciating the exercise as much as the remarkable views — We had time to talk with family and friends that we don’t see often — We enjoyed Gilbert’s diverse Farmer’s Market with fresh fruits and veggies — I checked out the A’s Spring Training camp last game (from the road)…they don’t seem ready to me — The Desert Botanical Garden was spectacular; then, at night they cranked it all up a notch with lights and music…with a bonus sunset in-between — Rob and I fit in 9+ holes of desert golf and I didn’t do half bad…

It’s all a blur now. Here are a few photos to help bring it into focus for you (more on my Facebook page).

The backdrop to these joys is that “a man is tweeting on his phone and primping his hairdo while at the wheel of our national government careening down the highway.” Garrison suggests that we “get off at the next exit.“ For me, reading 45’s tweets (and listening to him talk) is like opening my SPAM emails and trying to take it all seriously. And there are too many joys in life for that.

Poetry Month Prep

As April approaches, I’m going to be focusing my poetry on haiku. One helpful thing about writing haiku is that it requires me to include many of the key elements of poetry: brevity, emotion, nature, and a celebration of the moment.

Recently, I rediscovered one of my favorite collections of haiku poetry. Haiku Mind: 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness & Open Your Heart by Patricia Donegan had fallen behind some other books and I had thought I lost it. Having it back and reading it nearly daily is one way I try to stay centered. And the haikus are inspiring. Both as a poet and as a human. Here are a few examples…

no flower can stay
yet humans grieve at dying —
the red peony

— by Edith Shiffert

the warbler poops
on the slender
plum branch

— by Onitsura Uejima

the shell i take
the shell it takes
ebb tide

— by Vincent Tripi

Such beauty in capturing a moment and seeing into the moment with wisdom, humor, perspective, or whatever the poet wants to share. Only the first haiku follows the 5-7-5 syllable rule; relatively few in the book do. I like the structure but others experiment with sharing moments not bound to syllable lengths.

I entered a haiku contest today at the Washington Post. Follow the link if you have one that has something to do with life in Washington D.C.

Here’s one I wrote years ago that had enough of a Washington D.C. theme to it in order to enter.

pink teardrops fall from
magnolia limbs — helplessly
form cemetery

And another I wrote today…

distant train whistle
calls to nearby fire siren —
a chat of warnings

Write On!

P.S. Here are a couple public service announcements. First, if you know of a young person who is looking for a chance to write over the summer, follow this link to the Red Cedar Writing Project website. The Spartan Writing Camp has several options for students in grades 1-8 and Greenrock Writers Retreat has two options for students in grades 9-12. Also, if you are looking for a great read, I suggest Michelle Obama’s Becoming book; I’m entranced by her writing style and by her telling of the story of her upbringing and rise to the White House.

We Are Done With the LSJ

Getting the morning paper delivered to our doorstep has been part of our routine for many years. Starting Monday, though, we will be finding other things to do while drinking our first cup of coffee. This decision has been in the works for months, but an upcoming increase of $7 a month (to $41) helped push us over the edge. Over the years, the paper has become mostly advertisements and the few articles are written mostly by outsourced writers. While the actual delivery of the paper has been quite good (only a few missing or late papers), the customer service has been ridiculous, bordering on non-existent. Though I could go into depth about our reasons for cancelling our subscription, my most pressing issue is how hard it was to actually cancel the paper.

I first called the Lansing State Journal’s (LSJ) Customer Service phone line over a week ago. Within a few moments, the recorded message let me know that my wait time would be one hour and thirty minutes. As I recovered from the shock of that statement, I listened to the recorded message’s reassuring, upbeat communications: if I didn’t want to wait, I could “simply” head over to their website and chat with someone about my concerns; it was “easy” to access my account online; and emailing the office was an option too.

I took their advice. No one ever responded to the chat. I tried it many times over the course of the last week. I received messages similar to this one.

Then, I tried to access my account on their website. It looked promising but upon clicking on every imaginable link, I was not able to cancel my account or find/change my automatic withdrawal option. I always got this message in red at the top of the page ——

I tried the poorly-named Customer Service phone line again. I waited for awhile this time. NOTE: When I wait on the phone, I always have a cold beverage, a snack of some kind, often my own music playing in the background, and I usually have a book to read…for sanity’s sake. Even all of those passing-time distraction methods didn’t work, however, and I hung up after a time.

Next was an attempt at email communication. I shared the following email and received no response (it’s been more than a week). No “Thanks for the email…we’ll get right back to you.” No confirmation that my account had been canceled. Not even a “Hey, we want you to stick with the paper so we are going to offer you 25 cents off a week.” Nothing.

About this time, I was considering just stopping payment on our automatic withdrawal. Instead, I decided to go the Lansing State Journal office and talk with someone. Surely, the old-fashioned route — face-to-face human contact — would be the best remedy. Like some sort of 20th century robot, I went to the only place I associated with the Lansing State Journal — the building that says their name on it on Lenawee Street in Lansing across from the CATA bus station. As I stood outside the building I noticed how dark it was inside and then that the door was padlocked. I checked my phone, but didn’t see the new address that was on the contact page (maybe subconsciously I didn’t want to see it…I don’t know). I walked across the street to an office building and asked the first secretary I met where the LSJ had moved to. She said she heard that they were in the old Knapp’s Department Store building on Washington Avenue.

(photo from http://www.grangerconstruction.com/project/knapps-centre-historic-rehabilitation/ )

It’s a beautiful, retro space and I found them on the third floor. (if you ever want to cancel your subscription, here’s the address: 300 S. Washington Square, Suite #300)

The woman I spoke with at the desk was quite polite and friendly. Within two minutes, she canceled my account. It was quick and not-so dirty. I felt a great weight lift from my life. She asked why I wanted to cancel.

Pausing, I came up with “The cost…and we get our news other places.” But I could have gone on for an hour. I did, though, ask to share a complaint. I told her this story of trying to cancel but being thwarted at every turn. She said she would pass it on.

I celebrated with a delicious sausage, egg, and cheese bagel at the New Daily Bagel across the street. I recommend the Everfresh Pineapple juice too. When you get around to ending your relationship with the LSJ, I hope you skip right to the end of this blog and avoid all the frustration, time, and customer disservice. Go see Penny at the front desk. I hope your experience is both easy and simple.

P.S. Here’s where I will be getting my news:
* the New York Times app on my phone (I purchased their digital service)
* East Lansing Info (we have financially supported this online, local news source for awhile)
* CNN online And occasionally on TV
* Fox News online And occasionally on TV (though admittedly quite infrequently)
* listening to what my friends are talking about and then checking other news sources or blogs of varying credibility
* once in a great while, we’ll get the Sunday Lansing State Journal (heck, the coupons are good, Judy needs to check the obituaries, and I like to do the Sudoku).

Joys, Challenges, & Revelations from Traveling

I grew up traveling. Our family went places together. Sometimes my Baboo and Grandma Godoshian came along (I can still hear Baboo cracking jokes on that trip to Syracuse; Grandma didn’t think he was funny, but she laughed under her breath anyway). My mom had our Green-Go (green & gold, paneled station wagon) tooling down one highway or another toward Walt Disney World or Gettysburg or Boston relatives most summers. I have to say it was mostly about the destination and less about the journey…but then again, I was a pre-teen and then a teen.

This recent vacation started off focused on a wedding at a distant destination (for us. More later about how fantastic that turned out to be.) Our first day in Stockholm, we realized that each day would bring surprising, enjoyable moments. Arriving at Central Station on the train from the airport, we bought a T-ban transportation pass that would be good for a week. Though it seemed pricey at the time, that investment opened up the city to us. We felt comfortable getting on any subway, bus, tram, or ferry that we needed because of the ease of access the pass card gave us. And that, in turn, ended up making the trips relatively freeing and inexpensive. We used it within 15 minutes of purchasing it to take a ferry across the bay to our hotel (and I didn’t ‘drive’ anything for two weeks).


The boat hotel where we stayed a couple days is in this photo on the left. I didn’t know it was in the photo when I took the shot.


“Self portrait after days of travel on planes, trains, and automobiles. Adventure wins over checking the mirror, every time.” CVH, RIP

Rick Steves had prepared us well. We watched his video about the areas we would travel. We perused his book on the city. He mentioned a floating youth hostel as a possibility and, though we didn’t find the exact one, Rygerfjord Hotel and Hostel had comfortable rooms and priceless views for affordable prices. Soaking this place in was one of our first joys. It is true, though, that it was one of our first challenges, too; I had it in my mind that it was docked to our right when we got off the ferry and we pulled our luggage a couple hundred yards out of the way before we realized it had been 50 feet to our left off the ferry. A sobering laugh at ourselves to start. While we were staying there, Sweden played in the World Cup. We experienced the popularity of soccer/football firsthand: every time Sweden scored, we could hear the fans cheer from the outside viewing venues around the city —— we were on the boat and could hear the cheers across the water in the downtown area a mile away.

Weddings exude joy and hope regardless of location, but being in such a bustling, novel place with friends did ratchet up the excitement. As a matter of fact, we had a small herd of people carrying flowers on the subway to the wedding, which was fun. Hallie Reed, formerly of East Lansing but now teaching and residing in Stockholm, Sweden, married Joakim Slettengren in an ornate church; they then had us transported (via bus and ferry) to an island for the reception. I kid you not. Swedish custom involves sharing many toasts at the reception. I bet there were over a dozen toasts (Rachel gave a very sweet one) sprinkled throughout the night. It didn’t seem like too much —— we all felt closer to the couple after hearing from a diverse group of familiy and friends. Another Swedish custom was to split up parties at the reception; we sat next to people we didn’t know and thus made new friends. One more way Hallie and Joakim personalized the experience: Each person at the wedding had a few sentences written up about him or her in the program explaining his or her relationship to the couple. Pretty damn cool. A friend asked what they served and not until I was writing this did I notice that they had the menu at the front of the program.

The second place we stayed was the same as the myriad American guests: Hellstens Malmgard. It was Queen Christina’s Hunting Palace back in the 18th century. Our room was carved out of the attic space but was still plenty of room for the three of us (though the bathroom was hard to stand up in and a bit of an obstacle course). The breakfasts were buffet of deliciousness: soft & hard-boiled eggs, cheeses, yogurts, salami and other meats, croissants and other breads/crackers, jellies, at least one fish (usually herring or salmon), and always coffee and tea.

Our third spot (and first airbnb of the trip) was in Hagersten-Liljeholmen, right outside of downtown Stockholm. Since Rachel (and later Courtney) would be staying with us for part of the time, this space was larger. And just grand. On two floors and with a gorgeous view from the balcony, this was my favorite of all the places we stayed.

It was very helpful that most everyone we met knew how to speak English. It’s so accomodating that it could make one feel inadequate. We did have a couple incidents, though, where language issues made life interesting. At a Thai restaurant, since the menu was just in Swedish, our waiter/cook asked us (in English) what we liked and made each of our meals to order. The food was so delicious (especially the spring rolls), that we went back a couple days later to order more spring rolls. The previous waiter wasn’t there and the woman who helped us didn’t know much English. Judy pointed to the spot on the menu and asked for two orders of spring rolls. We clarified with her and she seemed to understand. However, when she brought out the spring rolls, there were 14 of them. She brought us two large orders instead of the small. We decided that it was a happy accident and ate as many as we could and saved the rest for the next day at the train station.

One of our frustrations was that our train to Oslo had been canceled and the train company had neglected to email us. Many people were in the same holding pattern as we waited four hours for a train traveling the five hours to Oslo.
Our Oslo airbnb was minimalistic, but just enough. It was in the Grunerlokka neighborhood, which had a hip, international feel to it. We heard many languages spoken as we searched for coffee in the mornings and slept with the windows open (no screens) each night; it was only semi-dark from 11:30 PM to 3:30 AM and blackout curtains were a must. We visited the Nobel Peace Center and it was enlightening (follow the link for a quick look). From Oslo, we took trains, a bus, and a boat on our Norway in a Nutshell fjord cruise. Basically, breath-taking views in every direction for most of a full day.


This bathroom was extremely efficient use of space —— the shower walls folded in to give just enough room to stretch out when you brushed your teeth.

The one night we were in Bergen, Norway, our airbnb turned out to be somewhat hard to find, despite being very close to the train station. We passed it once and then circled back, partly because the “street” it was on was more like an alley. It was very clean and comfortable though, and within walking distance to everything we needed (coffee, Indian food, the funicular up the mountain, a salad & wraps place for lunch & ice cream).

On past trips overseas, we have exchanged some of our American dollars for the country’s monetary unit (in this case, krona). This time, though, both Sweden and Norway seemed virtually cashless. A few places actually had signs that read “cashless.” We didn’t need krona on us. It helped to know the exchange rate, so that we had a general idea of how much we were spending; I had it written down for awhile, then moved to just dividing (in Sweden by 9, in Norway by 8). Though it seems a long way from happening here, one thing did occur to me: if the American business community could be shown that people spend more money when it’s digital, then it may happen sooner (as a tourist, especially, the amount sometimes doesn’t “matter” as much when it’s not tangible).

We struck up conversations with many delightful people on trains and in restaurants. We met Janne from Bergen on her way to her cottage; Kenneth from Oslo who worked for a tech company; we met Eesa from Stockholm while we all watched a World Cup game (Eesa asked me point blank what I thought of our President and the first word that came to mind was an “embarassment” and he agreed saying that our other recent Presidents had at least been gentlemen); I talked with a lawyer named John from Oslo getting away to the mountains to hike for the weekend (he was exceedingly taken with puns, idioms, and sayings from the English language and how understanding them could help him in his job); and we met Lorne and Audra from the San Francisco, CA, area — as a matter of fact, we kept running into them so much that we hung out with them several times after that, enjoying their company enough to exchange contact information. So many wonderful memories that the fact that Aaron, Judy, and I were starting to get on each other’s nerves by the end of the trip seems almost insignificant.

Each person had their own story. Traveling does that for me. It reminds me of the diversity of the human experience and that I should never try to make someone’s lived experience smaller by stereotyping them based on one attribute. We are all so much more than we seem. If you need a song that supports that notion, check out May Erlewine’s “Never One Thing” from her new Mother Lion CD.

Peace and joy on your journey,
Aram

Why I Enjoy the Outlander Series

Once in awhile, a book doesn’t hold my attention and I stop reading it. The book may have too much or too little of one thing or another — too much politics or swearing or war or too little humor or reality or adventure. Looking for Alaska by John Green was like that. I didn’t like the main character, so I stopped reading.

The Outlander series, by Diana Gabaldon, has held my interest for each of the eight books — well over 7,000 pages. I just finished the eighth book, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, and I must say the books are an artful mix of all those elements I mentioned above…with several dashes of time travel added which make it even more intriguing. Gabaldon wonderfully balances all the elements of story-telling and keeps me (and millions of others) anticipating the next book. For those who like comparisons and haven’t read the series, think Barbara Kingsolver (for writing about nature & science and for story telling) meets Dr. Who (for his tardis) meets Ann Rinaldi (for historical fiction) meets Dr. Ruth (for spice), though that’s still not the whole picture.

I’ve always been a curious person and I learn new words on practically every other page in Gabaldon’s books. The photo, below, has just a few examples of the breadth of her vocabulary. She mixes in jargon from traditional and herbal medicine, gardening and mountain life, and a vast amount of Gaelic (Starz has several Youtube videos on how to speak Gaelic that are fun). She throws in quite a bit of French, Mohawk, and some German along the way, too. Each book is a lesson in language.

I’ve never read a novel that had so much romance in it until the novels of this series. Our daughter, Rachel, suggested I read the first book. She may have realized I needed a bit of spicy, dicey literature because it turns out that those are the scenes I reread most often. Go figure.

The term Outlander is a connection for me too. An Outlander is an outsider. The term Sassenach is a synonym for outlander in the books. We’re talking about foreigners and more specifically, an English person, which Claire is in the books (though the term sassenach can be used in an endearing way at times). Growing up Armenian, we had a similar word that meant “non-Armenian.” I always thought it was odd, but I’ve come to see that most languages have this type of term. The thing is, though, that we are all outlanders. Anytime we step out of our normal routine into another environment or culture we become an outlander. So I see the book as a reminder to welcome and learn from the “other” or different people in our experience. Claire, as an outlander, has much to offer the new communities she encounters and so do we in our travels and so do immigrants to this country.

(SPOILER: Stop reading (or skip the next paragraph) if you don’t want to know a vague telling of the end of the eighth book)

The eighth novel focused mostly on the Frasers and Greys as they made their way in the late 18th century in our newly emerging America (though the 20th century travels of Briana were of much interest at times). In a glorious, eventful way, Claire and Jamie end up back on Fraser’s Ridge and as the book comes to a close, Gabaldon re-introduces characters from several hundred pages earlier in an unexpected, triumphant, subtle, masterful manner that actually made me tear up. Her writing is a testimony to the power of story. To the intricacies of living. To the inventive imaginings of hopeful time travelers. To the richness of history and its potential power in the living of our days.

While it’s true that I’ve skimmed a couple chapters here and there and second-guessed Gabaldon’s overuse of time traveling, part of me feels like starting over from book one tomorrow. And I recommend you go to your local bookstore or library and jump into the series yourself. As diversions from life’s craziness go, it’s a winner.

Outlander news:

Gabaldon hopes to finish book nine by the end of the year, but a publication date has not been set.

Starz says that Season 4 of the television show should be out by September of this year. (There’s also a slideshow of 10 Reasons You Should Watch Outlander on this link; the slideshow says the series is based on a Doctor Who episode, which I did not know.)

If you’ve read the series and want a (relatively) quick skim back through a timeline of events for the whole series, check out this timeline.