July 1, 2018

"Sorry"


Canada turned 151 today and I have never been prouder to be a citizen. To my many non-Canadian friends I can only say “sorry ‘bout that.”

I learned in Grade 11 Canadian History class that “Peace, Order and Good Government” (POGG) was a phrase used in the British North America Act of 1867. This Act proclaimed the Dominion of Canada, making it a country. POGG defined the federal government’s authority to legislate in matters typically considered to lie under provincial authority. Usually it is invoked when there are disputes between the feds and the provinces. It’s still in the Canadian Constitution.

Are you still with me here? Don’t leave. Give me two more minutes of your time to make my point.

Unpacking what POGG has meant for Canada is easy. It’s legalese that boils down to “be nice to each other, stay out of trouble, respect each other’s privacy, and let the government do its thing.” It sets the tone of our national character. Now extend that philosophy further to the use of “sorry.” I still say sorry frequently. It’s a cliché by now but Canadians do say sorry a lot, in our work and everyday interactions, usually as a social lubricant rather than an apology. It’s a fine instrument for communication in a tolerant civil society. The Japanese preface pretty much everything they say with their version of it. The British don’t mean it. Americans rarely say it.

Other novelties make Canada an agreeable and unique place. They range from national policies (e.g. liberal immigration, embracing multicultural policies, bilingualism) to the wacky (e.g. Homo milk bags, Caesars, Letterkenny, Ashley MacIsaac, and poutine/beaver tails). But my contention is that POGG and sorry are the linguistic epoxy that keeps the Canadian puzzle together, and thriving.
One more thing. I read this article in April that captured the essence of how Canadians approach their governing: with a laugh and a grain of salt. “Stephen Harper spotted at an Ottawa McDonald's — possibly where a 2014 brawl involving a raccoon took place” was the National Post headline. Former Canadian prime ministers are often spotted in public walking around like an average citizen. Sometimes it is deemed safe enough for them to forgo RCMP security staff. But I laughed when I read one of the tweets the Post article quoted: “Ran into Stephen Harper at McDonalds, and everyone ignored him.”
I’ve heard firsthand accounts that Montrealers would usually leave former PM Pierre Trudeau alone as he walked home from work, too.
Says it all, doesn’t it?

Sorry for taking so much of your time to read this. 
Happy Canada Day.
From the temporary (one day only) Canadian Consulate in Nolensville, TN

June 30, 2018

Keeping in Touch

The evolution of technology has been changing our lives the same as most everyone else in the world. When I first lived overseas as a middle schooler, our bi-monthly phone calls home to family in Canada were expensive, carefully timed, and considered a luxury. Letter and postcard writing was the norm. Now we have Skype video calls for free from anywhere on the planet that has connectivity. Yet being connected is so pervasive it feels that we don’t have time to write each other emails? It’s a paradox.

Think about the choices we have: Telephone. Voice over Internet. “Old school” emails. Facebook Messenger. Snail Mail. Actually sending a postcard or present through the postal mail. Smartphone chats (e.g. WhatsApp). Instagram. Snapchat…

Then there is the different level of importance we place on physically visiting someone. When planning a trip, with who will you spend limited facetime becomes a real dilemma. Who is the most important? Who are your priorities? Do you run yourself ragged keeping up relationships, or do you try to relax and focus on certain people?

I daresay technology has a positive impact when you want to stay in touch. The trick is to pick the right tech to fit the relationship. Keeping in touch can mean reaching out minute-to-minute, a couple of times a month, or even just once a year—Christmas cards or New Year Greetings.

Anyway, I’ve pulled together some photos that I think are amusing and which highlight the immediacy of our visual communication or the importance of being there with the person.
One day Lady E. was adamant she did not want to join us on a weekend jaunt. It would be boring. She would rather read by herself. If we forced her to come, she clearly telegraphed she would make it unpleasant for all. So we figured she was old enough to stay home by herself for a few hours.

By lunchtime we were getting a regular stream of WhatsApp photos (above) indicating she was OK but bored, perhaps a tad lonely, but never second-guessing her own decision to not join us. Elena’s amusing facial expressions and burgeoning creativity are evident from that brief separation.
M. is just crazy sometimes. She will preen. She will dance. She will bob and duck, twist and run into walls. She makes my day with her exuberance. She likes to capture that energy with smartphones. Of course we egg her on. Here’s a few of the results.
Now, here we have Grampa visiting us in Tennessee. This is the guy responsible for giving me the travel bug, God bless him. Grampas are mythic creatures in our house. They command respect, yet rarely yell (like daddy does when he loses it). They often give presents and treats. They get hugs before going to bed. We like it when Grampa visits, wherever we may be living. Or when we visit O-jichan or O-baachan in Japan. The downside of living far away from each other is improved by technology that keeps the bond intact until the next visit. And hooray for that.
And here is my brother in his bearded phase on a Skype call with the whole crew. Grizzly Adams redux. We need to get the Rising Daughters some face time with Uncle Steve.
Then there are far-flung friends such as S. Merklinski, whom I tend to see on my almost-annual visits to Hiroshima. Another case is hoisting ales with D. Tulowitski, one of my old housemates from college days, whom I hadn’t seen in some time. Usually, such reunions involve beer, catch-up chats with just a dash of reminiscing. You can’t live in the past, and making fresh memories is what counts.  I also do regular calls with Billy Bob McTheory in Nevada, James Sillywalk, and M. Penilski. We all make an effort to stay in touch.  

There are some who say instant communication technologies are affecting family relationships in negative ways. Our daughters are not teens yet. So far we’re all good, as they say in these parts. For now, tech is a net positive. What happens when jet packs, personal drone taxis, hyperloop trains, VR headsets or IC chip skull embeds become that latest thing? Let’s find out, shall we?

June 24, 2018

Summer Solstice, Summer Game

It’s officially Midsummer. The summer solstice means one of the Earth's poles has its maximum tilt toward the sun. Warm weather = baseball in full swing = happiness galore. This short prelude aside, I have been lucky to see several Braves, Reds and Cubs games on TV when I can elbow the Rising Daughters™ off the remote. 
Alas, there is no regular Blue Jays coverage available in the South. Atlanta Braves fans of a certain age do remember the rivalry with the Jays in the early 1990s, though.


I was also present at a Hiroshima Carp/Nippon Ham Fighters game in Hiroshima in early June. It involved copious amounts of beer; a long bullshitting session with Merklinski to catch up on a year of life; kibitzing about our jobs, rugrats, and married life all while watching the game from exceptionally good seats. We were 13 rows behind home plate! Sometimes you could hear the thwup of the ball hitting the catcher's mitt.
Later in June I took in a Nashville Sounds game with my boss and his son. The Sounds (Nashville is country music central—get it?) are the AAA affiliate of the Oakland A's.

This is the first minor league game that I have seen since a fandango to see the Durham Bulls in Raleigh, North Carolina, before I left for Japan in the mid-nineties. And yeah it is great to be able to enjoy see some southern style baseball. Nashville’s First Tennessee Park seats about 10,000 people and has terrific sight lines. 
One novelty is a mid-inning “Country Legends” race with giant figures of George Jones, Johnny Cash, Reba McIntyre and Dolly Parton entertaining the fans.  They trot from the periphery of the outfield down the first baseline to home. Watching the giant, ungainly bobblehead-like figures haul ass during the “race” is funny to say the least.
The seats were even better at this game—maybe eight rows behind home plate. Rickey Henderson was guest coaching at first base and we caught his attention at one point during the game with shouts of “Rickey.” I sang take me out to the ballgame. I turned out to be a fine evening in the summer heat. My cup runneth over. I will conspire to have M. join me at a game here in the future!
Lastly, one of the things I adore about the national pastime is the literature it inspires. Decades ago, after I saw "Field of Dreams", I devoured W.P. Kinsella's short story that inspired the Costner film of the same name. I read a few of his novels, relishing the creativity and whacko magical realism around the rituals and personalities that gravitate to the game. I am currently reading The Essential W.P. Kinsella, a prototypical midsummer book if there ever was that genre.

In other words, taking it as easy as I can. With some iced sweet tea, only half sugar.

May 30, 2018

Big Apple Getaway (Pt. 2)

Day 3: Another exceptional day started with bagels and coffee at a corner shop. The touring kicked-off and we executed a clockwise loop of Central Park on the TopView bus. I thought of John Lennon’s “Imagine” when I saw the Dakota Apartments. Took in the views of Harlem and Spanish Harlem in the bright morning sun. Thought of James Brown, Otis Redding and other African-American artists when the Apollo sign came into view. I was excited to be on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd and Malcolm X Blvd, thanks to exposure to Spike Lee movies and epic history that was made on these boulevards.
My overall impression of Manhattan was the streets and neighborhoods seemed smaller than the legends they spawned. So much history contained in just a few city blocks. We came around the east side of Central Park got off at The Met. Traversed the park on foot, grateful for the exercise. Marina occasionally bolted to chase chipmunks or birds. 
We slowly headed in the direction of the American Museum of Natural History ($72 for all four of us). Once inside, we maneuvered through the weekend crowds and viewed the geographic sections and attractions of interest: the Moon, Asia, North America etc. Alas, the girls were semi-interested. I think videos and instant knowledge always available on YouTube rival for their full attention. Perhaps the old ways can’t compete. However, you can’t truly grasp the physical immensity of a baleen whale by watching it on a screen. I hope that sinks in, if nothing else.
We went by cab back to Times Square and walked around again enjoying the human carnival around us. Yes, we saw the singing cowboy and a trio of cowgirls all doing their thing. Angry Disney characters posing for pics with tourists. We dropped our gear at the hotel room and prepared for the Blue Man Group show at the Astor Place Theater.
Getting there wasn’t easy. Traffic was snarled but our cabbie was a pro, and we arrived just in time. It was a full house of about 200 souls in a long and narrow space. The show features three deadpan men with amazing imaginations in skintight plastic suits. There was minimal dialogue; it was a visually centric performance. The threesome drummed on open tubs of paint, creating splashes of color. They consumed Twinkies and Cap'n Crunch for no apparent reason. The toilet paper grand finale is memorably meaning-free. Audience members in the rear seats unroll long lengths of toilet paper and pass it forward to the people ahead of them until it reaches the front of the stage. Meanwhile, the audience is bombarded with loud techno music and strobe lights. 

Blue Man was terrific. They are Smart Coneheads merged with a dash of social commentary.

Day 4, The Return: We slept in. Close quarters in the hotel room inevitably generated sibling fights and bottled-up parental exasperation. This equaled no morning cartoons until the Rising Daughters™ changed clothes from their pajamas and packed up.
We had brunch at the Benash Delicatessen that my coworkers introduced to me the prior week. Before noshing at Benash I had always judged any IKEA food court’s cheesecake and coffee combination to be the best. (When you chew the cheesecake and wash it down with hot black java the blend is orgasmic.) My view changed irrevocably after my first visit to Benash. I knew had to share this joint with my family, who do enjoy The Sweets. The girls loved the food, Naomi understood why I love the ambience. It isn’t fancy, nor is it cheap, but in my humble opinion it looks and tastes like the New York of our dreams, indifferent waiters included. We’ll be back.

To cap off our trip we did gift shopping at the huge M&M store in Times Square and scoffed free Hershey’s kisses at their flagship store. Our last excursion in late afternoon was for a meal at Bubba Gump Shrimp--why not?
The liftoff from LaGuardia was gorgeous, featuring a spellbinding sunset as we cruised into the night over Manhattan and New Jersey. I’m rarely giddy from plane seat views but this time it was truly a visual feast.

So, yeah, we enjoyed our time in the Big Apple.

May 25, 2018

Big Apple Getaway

In late March I previewed this lengthier post of the Rising Family’s trip to New York City. Why did we go? I had completed my work assignment at the New York International Auto Show. I was there already, so the Rising Family™ re-formed in the city. None of us had toured the Big Apple before and it was a chance to see one of the world’s greatest cities. Simple as that.
Day 1: We booked a room near Times Square on 8th Ave. We picked the TopView hop-on hop-off double-decker tour bus company to get around Manhattan . We soon dubbed it “StinkoView” owing to its quirky management. Yet the tour on our first night in the city was excellent. 
We rode on the upper deck. Saw the night scenes from Times Square all the way downtown, then out over the Manhattan Bridge, into Brooklyn and back. It was a cool, misty and rainy evening, but the novelty of seeing the city at night made up for it. For whatever reason I thought of one of the first Martin Scorsese movies I’d ever ingested, After Hours. This flick invaded my imagination again after lying dormant for decades. The brain works in mysterious ways.

Day 2: Next morning we boarded the StinkoView bus and traced the same route from the night before amid grey skies. It took us to lower Manhattan and the September 11 memorial. There were many “guides”, many genuine “I was there” personal recollections I overheard. Likely more than a few hustlers, too—very New Yawk that way—but the somber feeling was palpable. A long line to get into the museum meant I will do this tour solo at some point in the future. We skipped the museum and departed after observing the Freedom Tower and the reflecting pool embossed with the names of all the victims. I was taken aback by the smaller scale of the place where the twin towers once stood, because the carnage wrought in that space loomed so large in my head.

We “ubered” over to the nearby Battery Park City ferry terminal to catch the WaterStinko tour of the Manhattan skyline. This aquatic circuit took us down the Hudson River past the NJ shore, Ellis Island, and then to the Statue of Liberty. 
Even with clear blue skies, the wind was chilly with supremely-invigorating sea air! At one point, Naomi and I giggled because the “ride past important harbor attractions” sales pitch meant “from a distance.” The TopView staff had always been friendly but not exactly attentive to detail or 100% truthful about what our $150 had bought us. It turned out fine. We took in the sights of these world-famous places which symbolize the American experience. All the while, we were politely jostling with other tourists for the best photo and selfie-taking spots on the boat.
Lunch in Chinatown (Shanghai 21) was yummy, then a stressful subway ride to 34th street. Toured the Empire State Building which was a throwback to our trip to Dubai and scaling the Burj Khalifa. I enjoyed the 1930s vibe.

More to come...

April 30, 2018

The Traveling Idiosyncrasies

[Readers: sing along after listening to the theme song from The Beverly Hillbillies, here:

Come and listen to my story ‘bout a family from Japan
  an office guy from Canada, three ladies in his clan. 
Then one day company said it’s time to move 
  and so they up and went to learn the Tennessee groove.

Nashville, that is. Country music and lemon tea.


Soon their stuff all made it there, provoking such a grin
  family n' friends said “now we know where you are livin’.”
We’re set up in a place with lots of space and plenty trees
  and some kinfolk have ventured down for a look-see.

Franklin, that is. Suburbs and BBQ.

We been here half a year and I dig the job I’m in
  and we also thank the schools for lettin’ our sprogs in.
Slow, fine  livin’ is everywhere in this locality
  we love the local quirks and charm and hospitality.

Green space, that is. Interstates and  SUVs.

April 15, 2018

The life and death of my Bob Ross Chia Pet

Prologue: I won a Bob Ross Chia Pet during the Christmas secret Santa gift exchange at our office Christmas party last year. Being a semi-stranger in an increasingly stranger land, I did not know who Bob Ross was. The roomful of co-workers chuckled when I opened the gift.  I immediately recognized that Bob Ross was a cultural touchstone.
I decided to learn about him as a way to get to know my co-workers. I dove into the life of Bob and was pleasantly surprised by his method of painting instruction and his endearing thoughts about life.

This post is thus a celebration of the life and legacy of Bob Ross as represented in the brief life and demise of my Bob Ross Chia Pet. It is a testament to the spongy side of my American cultural experience (so far).

He was born into an average working class family in Florida in 1942. Bob spent 20 years in the US Air Force, the bulk of his career stationed in Alaska. Following his retirement from the Air Force he became the creator and host of The Joy of Painting, an instructional television program on PBS that aired from 1983 to 1994.
He died at age 52 in 1995, but influences from Bob's life continue to bubble forth from the wellspring of American culture. Why is that?

To start, what are Chia pets? Chia pets became popular in the late 1970s, the only product of a company based in San Francisco. The idea is to cover a grooved, terracotta figurine of an animal with moist chia seeds that grow and sprout greet shoots that look like hair. Chia Pets help keep that loopy pet rock / hippy vibe from the Bay Area alive. Everyone knows about them, and I think they provoke some deeper connection to the era. I read somewhere that in the late 1990s, a chia pet was included in a time capsule assembled by The New York Times.
Why does Bob Ross continue to influence art and be relevant to present day society? I think it's because he straddles the ideological middle ground between adversarial political ideologies in a society polarized by politics. Think about it: a career military man who transformed into a soft-voiced, slow-paced host of a program which symbolized the belief that anyone could be a talented artist. The show's message was anyone who went with the flow of artistic creation could quickly produce wonderful paintings of trees, clouds, mountains and lakes; beauty is everywhere around you. This combination embraces Bob's personal Horatio Alger-like narrative of rising from a humble background to social prominence, together with societal impatience--wanting difficult things done quickly and conveniently.

When commentators asked Bob why he appeared so serene and happy all the time, he would respond: “That's why I paint. It's because I can create the kind of world that I want, and I can make this world as happy as I want it. Shoot, if you want bad stuff, watch the news.”

Ross completed more than 30,000 paintings in his lifetime. I had the Chia Pet in my office for only three weeks. As long as the Bob Ross Chia Pet was there it drummed up comments from visitors. It also produced smiles from me as I mulled whatever work I was doing. Some more mellow Bob quotes:
"We don’t make mistakes. We just have happy accidents.”
"Remember how free clouds are. They just lay around in the sky all day long.”
“It’s life. It’s interesting. It’s fun.”


Ross's legacy of finding delight in mystic places lives on.
Newborn Bob

Adolescent Bob
Adult Bob, at the peak of his powers, inspired by Jimi Hendrix  

Senior citizen Bob with a few health challenges

Forever in our hearts