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The rain was gushing today, but the ample front porch keeps the front of the house dry.

The rain was gushing today, but the ample front porch keeps the front of the house dry.

Bandaged toe.

Bandaged toe.

This weekend I was recovering from a procedure I had on my foot on Friday. Had to keep the foot elevated, but had I been as mobile as usual, the weather was not exactly encouraging to do chores or to do fun stuff. So I guess it’s time for a blog.

I moved to this house in the summer, but thoughtful housewarming gifts keep showing up unpredictably. This post is to highlight the ones I thought of today. I hope I don’t forget any, but if I do, I’ll just add them later.

I’ve got a few friends from the earliest of days, and I love that. One of them has been among my best friends since I was 16 and he was 17. He sent me my very first housewarming gift, a steel fish. I think it’s gorgeous and it was the very first thing I hung on my walls in this big place.

This beauty is perfectly suited for my plum walls.

This beauty is perfectly suited for my plum walls.

Another metal gift is one I have needed for ages! After the woodstove was installed, I found a nice-sized stick that I used as a fire poker. In its early life it was about four feet long. It kept accidentally catching on fire. I can’t tell you how many times I would have to run from the fire to the kitchen, to douse the smoking stick. One night I didn’t realize a tiny ember had remained on the stick and it smoldered and burned down about four inches while I slept. Yikes. Anyway, after a few months, my poker stick was only about 18 inches long. I complained about it constantly, but never found time to go shopping for one of those metal fireplace sets. You know, the ones with the broom and the poker that hang from a gaudy rack that sits beside the fireplace? I was complaining to my step-father while Tara and I were in Idaho the last time, and he jumped into action. He dug around in the shed and came up with a steel rod that had a few nuts on one end. It was too long, so he heated it with a torch and cut it, then bent and tapered the end. He heated the nuts into place, then filed them down smooth. I tell you: I was thrilled! This is a perfect fire stick. I never have to run to the kitchen blowing out flames anymore.

Metal pokers are best. Can you see it, leaning against the bricks?

Metal pokers are best. Can you see it, leaning against the bricks?

In the way that happens so often in the blogging world, it was my turn to be blessed with a gift from a blogger. Marlene, whose unceasing accomplishments astound us all who know her at insearchofitall, made this kitchen towel for me. She said it wasn’t just for show, and I was free to use it as a towel, but for now I like it hanging up. I washed it first, to make it look a little used. This gift is one that brings love into my world and makes home feel that much more like home, you know?

Close up of the kitchen towel that Marlene made for me as a housewarming gift.

Close up of the kitchen towel that Marlene made for me as a housewarming gift.

My beautiful kitchen towel tells the truth: lots of love here.

My beautiful kitchen towel tells the truth: lots of love here.

My Tara is in love with bees, you may recall from the brand new bee tattoo. Anything bee-related is good, so I recently received two beeswax candles that please their tastes as well as mine. From what I am told, beeswax candles are superior. I haven’t had the heart to light either one yet, but they smell divine. It’s like what honey would be if it were a gas. Omigosh sweet goodness.

A bees wax squirrel candle. Can't get more perfect for me!

A bees wax squirrel candle. Can’t get more perfect for me!

The sweetest-smelling dragon

The sweetest-smelling dragon

My Pa said during one of our phone calls, “You know, I am sure I have a book about ponds around here somewhere….” Lo and behold, one day these pond books showed up. I am so excited to get what I can from them. Both are written for people who want to build a pond from scratch, so much text is dedicated to planning and engineering. However, I am sure that if I read them both, I will find reasons for the engineering, and that will give me an education. I really want to know how to take care of my pond. It is important to me to be a good steward to this land.

Pond books that I can hardly wait to read.

Pond books that I can hardly wait to read.

Another long time friend is one I met in college in northern California, before I transferred to Brandeis University. I took an honors Anthropology class, just because I was trying to take all the honors classes, and what a great decision it was because within a few weeks I had decided to major in Anthropology. I loved that class, the beautiful and intelligent professor, and this awesome chick who sat next to me every day. She and I even did a part-performance from the Vagina Monologues in that class, and I was in awe of her bravery for tackling the skit she chose. We have been friends ever since. Anyway, my friend now lives in Sante Fe, and sent a care package filled with wonderful things carefully selected from town, including a little burlap bag of garlic, canned roasted peppers, a sage smudge she wrapped herself, and a bag filled with pine nuts still in the shells. She also sent a two-page letter explaining the significance of each thing, and how she might come across them in a typical day. I have eaten everything that’s edible, but I still have some of the nuts left. They are good to munch on at work.

Empty garlic bag and mostly empty nut bag.

Empty garlic bag and mostly empty nut bag.

My last gift has to come with a story, so you can understand why I love it so much.

Out of the blue, I got a box from another friend from the early early days. I went to school with this kid starting back in 1980 and we graduated together in 1988. His dad owned “the” lumber/hardware store in our tiny Idaho town, called C&M Lumber Company. It was absolutely the only place to go for tools, for 2x4s, for paint, for glass, you name it. “C&M” we called it, was a hub, and I was like a kid in a candy store there. I belong to that quirky group that loves hardware stores (I know you’re out there!). Anyway, I have these beautiful, sweet, childhood memories of bemused adults interacting with me as a 14-year old customer, and treating me with more consideration than I’ll bet the adults got. For example, I wanted to paint my bedroom once, and my dad said it was ok. He wouldn’t buy me any paint, but I could use anything in the garage that I found. I found about five containers of mostly-empty, close-to-white paint, from different brands, who knows what it all was. It hadn’t occurred to me to tell my dad that I planned to paint with coloured paint. One of the containers was a 5-gallon bucket, and I dumped them all (plus a pale yellow one) into the big one, and stirred. Then I lugged that thing (it wasn’t full, of course) across blocks and blocks of dirt roads, all the way to C&M Lumber Company. Without any concept of how it was usually done, I explained to the person working that I was there to get it coloured. “We don’t usually do it that way…” the salesman began. But in no time, he had agreed to try to make it a shade of dusty rose I liked, and it was like a little chemical experiment, as he dumped in some of this, and some of that,  stirred it, and then painted a bit of it, to see what it looked like as it dried. All totally FASCINATING to me, as I watched eagerly. I had money, and was ready to pay, but at the end I was released without spending a penny. I was oblivious. But what a great place, to put that much effort into a kid’s project. I ended up painting my room dusty rose with dark grey trim and proudly showed my Pa, who flipped out because it was a forest service house, and residents needed to get permission to paint any colour but white, pale yellow, or pale Forest Service green. After a few days, he relaxed, and decided that no one would find out till after we moved, since I had an attic bedroom.

If I wear this hat, I'll fit right in among the locals in Rainier. But I'll be the only one with the gorgeous goose embroidered on the side. Look at that!

If I wear this C&M Lumber hat, I’ll fit right in among the locals in Rainier. But I’ll be the only one with the gorgeous duck embroidered on the side. Look at that!

There was also the time when I was into a kick of etching artwork into glass. I had found a thick, tinted, and huge mirror at the dump, that had broken into about six unwieldy pieces. I carried these carefully to C&M to get the sharper points cut off and cut in half so they would be easier for me to play with. This time it was the owner himself, my friend’s dad. He began the same way as the paint guy. “Well, we don’t usually…” and before I knew it, he had cut all the pieces for me. Then he took all of them to a power sanding machine and ground down the edges of every mirror piece so I wouldn’t cut myself. Again, my parents had no idea I was there. Again, I tried to pay and was shooed out the door. For years I understood hardware stores as places where you did not spend much. Funny, that’s no longer the case for me.

Today, my school friend runs the place. I haven’t been inside since I was a teenager, but I have been through town, and I have seen the brand new big building outside of town. It must still be as vital today as then. In the country, the hardware/lumber/tool/garden store is critical.

I did my friend’s son a favor a few years ago, and he promised to make it up to me. Viola! Favor returned:

Look at all these shirts! I am so excited to get them!

Look at all these shirts! I am so excited to get them!

In closing, I am including this short video of my woodstove. I tried twenty times to get a photo to show what I was seeing, but I couldn’t do it. I had to use video. What you see is not flames, but smoke, lit up orange from the coals in the back. Cooooooolll.

 

Waiting for my train to Hachinohe at track 21 in Tokyo station.

I hadn’t even time to settle into Iwakuni when it was time to hit the road again. Or, should I say, hit the rails, because I traveled by train. The Shinkansen is called the bullet train for good reason. It’s FAST! I envisioned spending my day leaned back in a comfortable seat, gazing out the window and watching the Japanese countryside roll by.

Instead, I had to restrict my time gazing out. Things whipped by so quickly, in and out of tunnels (bright! black! bright! black!), view blocked by buildings, then wide open for miles, then blocked by a fence, then a short view to a hill, etc., that it was easy to get a headache while my brain tried to make sense of the quickly changing scenes and my eyes tried to adjust to the constantly shifting depths of vision.

Security guard plays a little air guitar to pass the time

Though I am primarily based at the Marine base at Iwakuni, in the southern part of the mainland of Japan, I am also responsible for providing VA benefits information to the Navy base at Sasebo (south of Iwakuni) and to the Air Force base at Misawa. I am currently in Misawa, which is at the very northernmost tip of the mainland. It took me two taxis and four trains to get here!

Students waving to me when they spotted my camera

Inside the Iwakuni train station

Need a travel brochure?

It was a long day of traveling, and I was wise to put my supplies for a whole week into a small carry-on suitcase. No one told me to do this, but my instincts were good. Though I must wear the same pair of pumps with every outfit at work this week, and the same pair of jeans for all my leisure time, it was worth it to be able to easily drag that small piece of luggage all over the country instead of trying to manhandle a regular-sized suitcase on and off trains and up and down stairs all day.

Rice fields in all the flat areas, and houses tucked against the bases of thousands of lush, green hills

Looking directly at the sun from my room on base is not a problem in the haze.

Though I stepped into the first taxi at 6am, it was already fully bright out. It starts getting light in Japan at about 4:30am. I say “bright” not “sunny” on purpose. It hasn’t been truly sunny since I arrived, because it’s so humid here. Like east coast summers, the sky is white, and even if there were clouds, I would not be able to discern them because it’s so thick with airborne moisture.

I have learned a little trick about giving gifts to Japanese people: keep things on me at all times and look for opportunities to hand them out. My taxi driver wouldn’t accept a tip (I was warned ahead of time not to insult anyone by offering a tip), so instead I brought an extra pastry and gave him one. He brightened up so much, with a huge smile, I have to believe I maneuvered through that particular custom appropriately. On my second train of the day, I sat next to a woman who set to work applying makeup as soon as she sat down. She had bags and bangles, rhinestones on her cell phone, and the most incredible sculptured roses on her fingernails. So, I pulled out a fashion magazine (I never read those myself, but I bought a bunch to bring here.) and flipped through it for awhile, then gave it to her. It was funny watching her puzzle out the front of the magazine, which in western publications is with the binding to the left, and open pages from the right. Not like Japanese magazines, which have the binding on the right, and you open pages from the left (in our minds that would be starting at the back).

A typical valley scene from the windows of the train

From end to end, Japan is mountainous and green, with rivers galore. Beautiful, beautiful country in every direction. The cities are more congested than I prefer, with things smashed together and stacked up high, and signs and fences, railings and wires criss-crossing all through and over and in front of the buildings. A cacophony of objects in a city becomes too much white noise for me and it’s tiring to look at.

So, I mostly took photos of the countryside. That is, when we weren’t going through a bunch of tunnels. John Henry would have met his end if he was building a railroad in Japan, I think, even if he wasn’t trying to race a machine.

View from the Tokyo train station

I also took photos at train stations because they fascinate me. Partially, because Tara and I just went to see Ocean Waves at a Studio Ghibli festival in Portland, and the train features in the movie. And also because I had a little anxiety at each train station, worrying about getting onto the proper train (I made no mistakes due to the reliable kindness of strangers). Train stations here are filled with things that are new and mysterious. There are little glassed-in cubes where people are allowed to smoke. In an open-air train station! Ha! There are vending machines with coffee in cans and milk tea and peach juice and lime water. There are sushi and noodle shacks on the platforms. Some people are dressed in $2000 suits and some are in flip-flops and capris and floppy hats.

Smoking hut, filled to capacity

My last train of the day was not the Shinkansen, and the ticket was an easy 550 JPY (about $7). It was a cute little two-car train, that goes clackity-clack, clackity-clack, and stops at every single station, like the train in Spirited Away. I had to watch out the windows carefully for station signs, to know when to get off, since everything on board was in Japanese. Then, I stood at the door like an idiot, waiting for it to open for me, before learning that I must touch a button to make the doors open. Ha!

Up north, I was able to see snow on the distant peaks

My sponsors from the base picked me up, helped me get checked into billeting, and then invited me out with a group of women to a ramen noodle house for dinner. By this time, mind you, I was hungry enough to eat my napkin while waiting. All those train stations had food but I was too concerned with making my connection to get in line and buy any. My huge bowl of ramen was incredibly delicious and I knew my Tara girl would be jealous! I took home the leftovers.

 

Bolls

Terra and I were at the Festival of the Last Minute, which is really Portland Saturday Market, and during the week before Christmas, it’s open every single day for those last-minute shoppers. We picked up two small gifts for friends of hers from school. Little did we know, the smallest and most inexpensive gift was to give us days of entertainment, despite giving it to it’s intended recipient as planned.

Bolls waiting to "grow up"

The gift in question was labeled “Seven Color Crystal Boll!” a tiny clear plastic packet (maybe 1 1/2 inches by 2 inches) of teeny tiny colored beads. (Sorry, my pathetic point and shoot camera can’t do close-ups, so the images are blurry). This packet is one of the finer examples of languages translated into English that simply don’t cut it. I imagine that the translation was from China. However, this remains firmly in question, since the front of the package states, “Designed in Korea,” but the back of the package counters, “Made in China.” So… if my complaint is with the writing on the package, I may need to take that up with Korea.

goo globs

As you can see, the small plastic package is brightly colored and many of the phrases are followed by exclamation points, in order to show you how awesome it is. The front of the package says: “Seven Color Crystal Boll! 500g Designed in Korea. OK!! OK!!”

On the back we get instructions. “Product use information:

  1. add water 400g on the product about 4 hours it will grow up
  2. one clear beauty satiety face will grow up
  3. when the flower want to oxygen and nutrition, I will help you too much.

Made in China.  OK!!”

Fine, I’ll admit it: Terra and I had to look up satiety. We even used the audio option on Dictionary.com to figure out how to pronounce it. Fine KOREA!! Just USE an English word I don’t know. Be that way.

Question: use less water than the weight of the packet itself? Just wondering. My scales for measuring grams are still packed…

And, um, instruction 3.? Honestly, I am not satisfied with anything my poor brain imagines is the intended meaning here. Are the beads lucky? What flower? Oxygen?

We could not stand the raging curiosity any longer, and discovering a small note on the side “this flap to open,” we realized there was no other option but to confiscate a few tiny bolls for our own use. We unstuck the sealed flap, poured out six bolls, and resealed. (Timmy will never know)

Terra dripped water onto the bolls in a small pyrex dish. Since I have no concept of grams other than knowing they are individually small, I can’t tell you how close we matched the instruction of 400g of water. We sat back to watch them grow up. First they get fuzzy/gooey on the outside, sorta like frog eggs that molded before they got a chance to turn into pollywogs. And yes, in about 4 hours, we had six jelly globs, less firm than eyeballs, but eyeball-like.

sparkling, eyeball-like, crystal bolls

The woman who sold them to us told us they would last forever. Just let them dry out, and they will turn into beads again. Or, bolls, excuse me. Its several days later and we still have six multicolored eyeballs in a pyrex dish in the kitchen.

…because I know exactly what I want, right?!

I turn 40 January 9th. Forty. wow. It’s a significant landmark, and I decided to do something amazing. So I’m taking my daughter to Egypt. It was my 4th choice of a destination, narrowed down by January weather and price tags. I think our choice will be excellent, though.

I’m taking the laptop and crossing my fingers for a wireless connection or two along the way, so I can update you ON SITE. How fun would that be?

I’ve been practicing my Arabic, got our immunization records together, renewed my passport (whew! It had almost expired, good thing I checked).

What will we learn? This wide world has so much to teach and I have a mere speck of time in this life to learn it and see it. I told my grandmother that it’s frustrating sometimes because the planet is so large I’ll never get to see it all.

My daughter is leaving North America for the first time, and I am dying to see the effect it has on her. She already has a much broader view of the world than I did when I was 12. She is an incredible human and I can’t wait to see how she incorporates this experience into who she is.

We leave for NYC on the 11th. I’ll keep you posted!

One of my many guises

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