January 19, 2017

2016 Lookback in pictures

In January every year I tend to do a lookback at the prior year with new pictures not used in the blog. 2016 was a big year for the Rising Family™ and I would be remiss in not depicting such a momentous year in pics, no?
The first day of January, we went to Tokyo Tower to begin the new year with a view from the heart of the city. It’s about time we visited this famous landmark—we’ve been here nearly five years!

It gets fairly cold in February. Very occasionally there is snow. Even less frequently we go skating. The experience injects a little bit of Canuck into the kids—the rink even has a Zamboni! And crowds, of course…


I’ve told the tale of my Dad and me starting the 88 temple pilgrimage in mid-March. This shot captures the spirit of my dad!


By this time we are sick of the cold and escape for the warm waters of the Hawaiians hot springs in Iwaki-ken.


April ushers in spring and hanami (cherry blossom viewing). The cherry tree blossoms are as beautiful as my wife (vice-versa?). And the evening light-up at HanamiIlumination was simply amazing.


Marina started a new year at school...


and took no prisoners at the sumo competition.

 Elena had her school sports day in May.

We also went to Disneyland to celebrate Marina’s birthday.

In June, camping season starts!

And that camping weekend at Mother Bokujo farm was where we broke the news to the kids we would be moving…


December 25, 2016

Tropical Season’s Greetings

Christmas Day! Merry Christmas to all our family and friends.
We are doing an "alternative" Christmas this year: no stockings hung over the chimney with care, no gifts under the tree, no turkey…and yet...
Instead, our presents were beaches and warm water in Thailand. But the song remains the same: we are grateful for the day and for our many blessings.
Peace, joy and a Joyeux Noel to all.


December 17, 2016

Lady E. is an athlete

It’s all about equal air time, folks. Like most children, the Rising Daughters™ are sensitive to getting an equal share of…EVERYTHING. Their view of natural justice is made clear to me nearly every day. No parental favoritism here--hence this column.
Lady E. recently came home from school sporting a gold medal from a sprint competition that she won. In prior posts I have regaled you with tales of her running ability at school sports days. She has continued to excel  in her running exploits here in Gurgaon.

At an athletic meet involving three local international schools, Elena took first place in the sprint event. Naturally we are proud of her that she won. Honestly, though, it is more important to us that she was smiling about it. Why? One thing I didn’t fully consider before moving here was the beating her self-esteem would take due to the new environment and the normal challenges associated with living in a new place—language, making friends, new culture, school, and living space e.g. her own room.
That she derives some pleasure from competing and gains back some confidence is a good thing. Win a race, gain a smile=happy day. That’s why we’re glad that Elena is a sprint champion.

November 30, 2016

M is a risk taker

My wacky daughter Marina showed us her inner moxie during a recent school assembly. Every student in her grade had to recite something in front of all the other classes in the elementary school--in English. She has been immersed in English for less than four months. Here’s what she said:
“I am a risk taker because I try new things like new foods and living in a new country.”

We could not have been more proud of her. 
I don’t know why this little episode has struck such a cord with me, but it has. I want it on the record in the Rising Daughters’ compilation of stories.

November 27, 2016

It’s not about the fish


Me and my Dad (late 1970s?) admiring our catch
Usually around Father’s Day dads are often described using flattering words that appear on refrigerator magnets—heroes, teachers, providers, role models, beer drinkers, and BBQ masters. My brother and I are blessed with a great dad. This post is about the last part of my summer trip home in August 2016 when I went fishing and camping with my Dad and Steve-O at the annual father-son weekend trip in Frontenac Provincial Park

These father-son August weekend gatherings first started over three decades ago with a group of young dads who worked together and decided to take an annual fishing/camping trip to spend time with their sons. My uncle Pat introduced Dad and Stephen to it after I had left home for Japan, but I have enjoyed both times I have been able to go with them. It’s a way to bond with my Dad and maintain the bonds to my Canadianness.
How does it work? All the "elders" (the original young dads), their sons and grandsons form up vehicle convoys and head out. They meet for a casual greeting and beer at a favored gas station along the way. The convoy arrives at the park’s campsite registration office. No vehicle access—you either hike or paddle to the camping areas. Put in the canoes, load ‘em up with gear, grub and beer, and head off on Big Salmon Lake. (The lake's name alone would make Tom Thompson proud.) What campsite is selected depends on the number of participants. The two times I’ve gone on the trip the father-son group has numbered somewhere between 15-20 dudes. 
We sell these weekends to the womenfolk in our lives by emphasizing the importance of fathers spending time with their sons. The relationship a boy has with his father greatly shapes the man he will become in the future. Camping, canoeing and fishing allow you to spend some needed one-on-one time with your old man. There’s no overt face-to-face “talking about their feelings” (not that there’s anything wrong with that…nod to Seinfeld here). It’s much easier to impart life lessons to your kids when you’re doing something side by side, and just let the talk flow naturally as you cast a fishing line or tinker with tools, set up tents, or light camp fires.

Most of the time on these father-son outings the action involves a fair amount of beer drinking among the adults. And there is definitely nothing wrong with that. So the basic line of activity goes like this:
Paddle out to campsite. Set up the tent, tarp and cooler. Quench thirst. Maybe drop a line in from the shore, maybe go for a swim. Uncap, quench thirst, repeat. This past August, the first day on site was wet. It rained overnight. I was bunking with my polymath cousin Mike, his friend Mitch and assorted kids. The rain delayed things but eventually the skies brightened – and thus did our mood -- and I went fishing in the canoe with Dad for several hours on Big Salmon Lake. I caught six bass but they were all too small to keep. About the same level of success for the Old Man. 

Some random thoughts I scribbled down:
- The assembled group changes slightly every year but they are all great guys from every walk of life.
- Chili for dinner one night, beer battered fish the other. Yum!
- I spoke a lot about Nissan cars with the guys—our common ground for conversation. Some chatter about the Toronto Blue Jays. I can talk with real live Blue Jays fans, not just listen to Mike Wilner’s Sportsnet 590 The Fan podcasts from halfway around the world.
- Dark nights and stars above, campfires, quiet, and unhurried conversation which starts with who caught what fish and where.

Sunday:
- I got up at 0530 to take in the morning sun and absorb the quiet. I make a note to self about modern working life defined by 24/7 connectivity and the tyranny of passwords.

- More fishing with Dad; Steve and I get equal time. Dad needles me: “You gotta keep the rod, up. Constant tension on the line.” I am a father myself, well into my mid-40s...and you gotta laugh, because regardless of age or life stage fathers cannot help but continue to dispense wisdom in the form of mild critique. I love my Dad.
- Pancake breakfast on the day we go back to real life. Dad’s spicy sausages. I take a break from the tent and gear tear down to read about Dirk Pitt’s sea adventures in a Clive Cussler thriller while I lean against a fine-smelling cedar tree.
- Bro Bonding: Went out with Steve-O in the canoe. What a great person. We canoe into the headwinds. Neither of us are coureur des bois. But this time we did not tip over and soak his iPod. Progress! 

- We canoe back to the dock/access point. Everyone does a methodical and logical tear down, say goodbyes, and pack our cars for the trip home. Steve-O heads off in the Impala, I go back with Dad in his new Nissan Maxima and we stop at the Dairy Queen in Carleton Place for manly vanilla cones (no sprinkles, please, we're men), hit the Beer Store, and cap the trip with a dinner at Shawarma Palace in Britannia.
- I savor a final Bud Light and watch the Jays one last time that evening. I am on the plane back to Japan the next morning. 

So, these father-son outdoor adventures are about much more than fishing!

November 13, 2016

Breathless and cashless

The air we breathe lately is the same as smoking two packs of cigs a day, and we have no cash --seriously.

The Rising Family is genuinely happy in India. Then again, we also knew and accepted there would be challenges that came with the opportunity to experience life here. Let me describe a few of the problems that we face along with everyone else in this huge, vibrant and chaotic land.
Courtesy of Times of India
Physical environment: Misty, smoggy skies, hard to breathe
The World Health Organization recently confirmed that Delhi still tops the list of the world’s most polluted cities. The ranking was based on fine particulate matter (PM2.5) levels that were almost four times above daily safe levels. This past week, a thick, pungent smog settled over Gurgaon. It was a combination of smoke from crop burning in surrounding agricultural states, construction, gigantic fireworks celebrations held on the Hindu festival of Diwali, and accumulated dust. The pollution peaked at 800 micrograms per cubic meter, later decreasing to 423. I now have a new app on my iPhone to track air pollution right next to MLB.com; have to keep things in perspective, right? 
Courtesy of Times of India
Needless to say, due to the terrible air quality schools closed and the government took certain measures, but it was ultimately Mother Nature that helped bring it down to the present “tolerable” levels of between 250-400. Life goes on, wheezily:
- Lady E. and M.X.’s school was canceled for a few days.
- All the schoolkids are encouraged to wear masks to school. A city of mini-Dr. Lecters!
- Temporary halt to outdoor activities, and an increase of potted plants inside the school.
- At home, Naomi shrewdly had shipped air purifiers from Japan when we moved, and we added a local one this week, so we battened down the hatches of our apartment like a submarine and kept the air purifiers running all the time.

If the cloak of haze and eye-stinging atmosphere weren’t enough, I was genuinely amused to read that sustained exposure to anything over 600 ug/m³ at PM 2.5 is equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes a day. It was described as the worst smog event in two decades. I’ve been told this is the reality until early spring; typical for this region. Hack, wheeze, and cough. All the more reason to hate winter.

Fiscal environment: Can’t use your cash
Courtesy of AFP
On Nov. 8, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi called a snap press conference and announced that 500 and 1,000 rupee currency notes would no longer be accepted as legal tender as of midnight. Whaaa? Anyway, my WhatsApp started buzzing, and honestly I thought it was a hoax. 500 rupees is about $CAN 10 bucks, 1,000 rupees twenty. Replacing them is the new 2,000 rupee note--“coming soon.” Imagine the Canadian PM saying within a few hours' notice that the $10, $20 and $50 bills were banned, banks will be closed for three days and the country will have to get by on Twoonies until they reopen, and you must exchange all your abolished cash notes to boot. Not a ticket to popularity, that’s for sure.

But this is India. My take is that this very sudden move by the government is focused on culling back the proceeds from tax-evading black market deals, graft, and some political dimension which I will not opine about in this blog because what the hell do I know? I’ve only been here 2½ months.

I do know one thing: cash transactions have wound down to a minimum, credit card and debit card deals have gone up. But for the many exchanges that cannot be done electronically, what do you do? You don’t. In my company’s cafeteria we’ve resorted to I.O.U’s and running a tab for the curry lunch fans among the 200 employees. For any cash actually paid, the change is doled out in candies or packs of chewing gum. It’s like a prison barter economy.

My colleagues have displayed a British-style resigned humor, grin-and-bear-it approach. Yet there is a cash crunch. On Saturday morning, like hundreds of thousands of people across the nation, the Rising Family ventured out to banks in an effort to get some much-needed cash. There were long queues of people all trying get new notes and exchange old ones at every bank and working ATM in Gurgaon. 
There were varying levels of organization and blatant line cutting that happens here. But no riots. Well, one near-riot… 
This is a country of 1.3 billion people. There are people EVERYWHERE, and many of them were agitated to have to try and secure their cash situation.  We went to one sort-of mall with several banks in it but were thwarted at every turn. One matronly-looking lady offered us some advice to try another bank in the mall, but it was saturated and would not exchange money for non-account holders. We ran into the same woman on our dejected slog out. She clearly had been in the line for hours to get her allocation of 4,000 rupees. After she’d heard we’d been unsuccessful this gentle soul immediately offered us her 4,000 rupees broken out into the approved 100 rupee notes, saying she didn’t really need them because her kids were grown up, and she’d exchange more tomorrow. What a display of generosity and selflessness. We were taken aback—did she really mean it? Yes, she did. And frankly we were down to our last few hundred rupees so we thanked her and accepted 25 percent of her offer. Her act was pure altruism, and we have experienced many such wonderful examples of the warmth and kindness of Indians since we arrived here.

The other side of culture coin: people aren’t afraid to argue forcefully in public. Traffic accidents often draw crowds. So as we went around to many bank branches to try to withdraw money from ATMs or deposit all our now no-good cash, we saw some pent-up frustration and yet more rueful resignation. Our final Hail Mary branch visit saw me get to the threshold of the service area when the staff rolled down the steel curtain and told us to wait. We waited. Some line-crashers were verbally accosted. Some people with connections with the bank staff were whisked to the front. The temperature rose in the crowded space. Finally, after some 45 minutes of waiting and sweating (it is still about 30 degrees during the day here), the bank manager came and announced in Hindi and English that the system wasn’t functioning and the bank would be opening on Sunday morning at 10:00, terribly sorry and all that. Again---whaaat tha $#@*!!.  
Then a red-faced and clearly pissed off guy started banging on the steel curtain divider and the security guards came in. This resulted in high-decibel yelling and a brief flurry of mild punches between two silver-haired pugilists—bedlam, baby! I left my place in line for a much-deserved iced Americano. The barista claimed that “business has never been better” as he swiped my debit card with a knowing smile.

...and yet we are happy and are fortunate to be here 
We left without any cash and went home, chalking the experience up to forces beyond our control. It’s something we are getting accustomed to (boo-yah!). Both the air quality and government financial curveballs thrown our way are things we have to take in stride. Part of the adventure. So I suppose we have our own grin-and-bear-it quality, too. And I daresay the entire nation was experiencing similar cases of good and bad behavior as people adjust to the new currency reality and the more dire environmental challenges that await. And yet we all smile, the hazy sun comes up, and life goes on. Namaste! 

October 29, 2016

Florida Fandango II

The real fandango couldn’t begin without some black coffee in white porcelain mugs brought to us by professional waitresses murmuring “whattya ya’ll be havin’ today, honey” at Lester’s Diner. Sheer male bonding as we scarfed the sclerosis-inducing breakfast nosh and plotted out the days ahead. With a minimal amount of time available, the three of us were keen to maximize it. We drove 100 miles the first day averaging about 45-50 mph. Not exactly burning rubber. But speed and distance weren’t the reasons we were taking this road. Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West, Mike Penilski’s 50th birthday, motorcycle touring and – for me – going off the grid for a week were the main attractions.
All three of us are old-school misers, too, so we camped at the Southernmost KOA Campground in Sugarloaf Key, just over halfway along the Overseas Highway. The Campground had its fair share of low-end tourists like us, and a few long-term residents in elaborate motor homes. When we decided to cool off in the ocean swimming area, an avuncular, friendly gent ambled over to tell us that he had thrown a pig head into the water just outside the swimming area, and that a harmless small sand shark had been feasting on it. That piqued our man-interest. We swam out to see the oceanic food chain in action when he yelled out (as a bonus) that a barracuda had been spotted swimming underneath the big inflatable plastic watermelon float in the swimming area. “You ought to take off any shiny things like them wedding rings—the glint underwater draws unwanted attention sometimes,” he said with a wide I-like-to-scare-Northern-tourists grin.

I swam back and took off my shiny thing. Alas, no sand shark was visible, and the pig’s head was gone, too. We washed off the sweat and road grime, cooled down in the warm seawater, and soon departed for the local restaurant, Mangrove Mama’s, where we ordered girly margaritas and seafood. Lots of history etched into the tables and hung on the walls of that restaurant. To cap the evening and celebrate another day of life on the road we had some beers at the campsite’s plastic picnic tables, chatting amiably about the day’s drive, when I suddenly realized my wedding ring was not on my finger where it should be. ZOINKS. I‘d forgotten it on the beach chair when we left our stuff during the swim. I was freaking out a bit, I must tell you, but collected my wits and did the whole retracing-my- steps-to-where-I-last-saw-it process. Beach chair! Took my flashlight and slowly patrolled the space. No ring. Oh shit. Already concocting excuses and trying to recall the name of the German ring maker that made them (just in case), I sifted through the sand several times. Fortune smiled on me and I saw a familiar flash of metal. I was saved!
Tropical insects ruled the night – their high-pitched buzzing sound and occasional jabs for blood on my face or arms made sure that I was up early. A dip in the campground pool (with wedding band on!) perked me up. Began the morning drive to Key West. First order of the day was to go to the southernmost point in the United States. Why wouldn’t we? Hola--Cuba only 90 miles away. Then we walked around the old town at a leisurely gait, taking in the sights, and observing the other tourists, scouting the beachfront, ogling the old mansions. One hyper-social woman who reminded me of my mom quizzed us on our bike journey. We had a lively chat with two crazy, cheerfully fouled-mouthed Polish-American women who owned a novelty clothing store. Every time we offered a quip in response to their sales pitches they upped the ante with even racier stories to keep us talking. But it worked—we bought T-shirts for Penilski.

As an example, one T-shirt read: “I would appreciate if your boobs would stop staring at my eyes.” Happy 50th, Mike. He and I took in a terrific tour of Ernest Hemingway’s Key West mansion conducted by a very dedicated guide, a man passionate about his work. Short staccato sentences. Lean prose. Papa would be proud. We were abashed. Ended our time in Key West reluctantly, but the road back north beckoned. We spent our last hour there eating Cuban sandwiches, not Cheeseburgers in Paradise. But the town presented itself precisely as Jimmy Buffet’s stomping grounds.
Barreled down the highway back toward the panhandle. More male bonding as we talked our way into a discounted entry fee for the History of Diving Museum. (Mike, Bill and I originally went together to Guam in December 1996 where they acquired PADI licenses.) We bunked for the night outside Key Largo. It has an underwater hotel but we opted for the Key West Inn. Next day I got up at 0500, residual jet lag methinks, nursed my coffee in the silence while I watched the charter fishing boats heading out to sea, and counted my many blessings. Back on the hogs, Billy following with his chase van, I confess I was more than a little crestfallen when we went back over the bridge to Florida City. That meant our hours together were coming to a close. This feeling didn’t last long, as Slim Jim’s from a grimy gas station truck stop (and Mike speaking in Spanish) revived the positive vibe.
We opted for a trip to one of the alligator parks on the edge of the Everglades. Took the tour, saw one alligator – sort of – and celebrated with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Ice Cream and, later on, a smoothie. God. Bless. America.
Got tickets from a scalper for the night’s Miami Marlins game. We thought we might have been scalped ourselves because the “tickets” were a QR code on a print out. But he came through, so we later watched the ballgame, drank many beers, made many jokes and recalled various old stories of our motorcycle/camping trips in Japan (we missed James S!). The Marlins were playing the SF Giants and with only seven hits, somewhat low on excitement. But we saw Ichiro Suzuki play only two days after he secured his 3,000th hit. Then, just like the good old days, Mike fell asleep. Some things do not change.
My flight back to Ottawa the next day was at an absurdly early hour so we booked a room at a Motel 6 near the airport. It had a perceptible buzz around it; like the old Ramones movie, “Rock and Roll High School.” There was a spring break vibe there despite it being August. I almost expected someone to call out “hey, look at the old nerds” as seen in the Revenge of the Nerds movies in the 80s.

I’ll tell ya, real friends are the ones who get up at 0400 to deposit you at the airport without fuss or fanfare, even facing hundreds of miles of driving ahead. Thus ended our trip. No tearful farewells, no hangover-induced moans of going back to real life. Just simple, genuine “until the next time” gruff expressions of jubilation over a trip well done, and man-hugs. My thanks to these friends for making this trip happen. Until the next time, gentlemen.