Monday, July 9, 2018

Sittin' In an Airport Station, Got a Ticket to Our Destination, Hmmm-mmmm

9 July 2018

With apologies to Paul Simon.  But the music is still running through our heads.  Soundtrack of our lives and all that.

We've been visiting Richard's brother and sister-in-law near the Jersey shore for three weeks, though we had planned a short trip to Washington DC.  But one of our friends there fell and broke a leg, and it didn't seem appropriate to go and stay with people when someone is recuperating from all that.

Of course, that didn't stop us from staying with Richard's brother, who had knee replacement surgery six weeks ago - but there, we were happy to help out with driving as needed, icing the knee, picking up meals - everything that Richard did for me last summer when I got my new knee.  

Old people, you know?  We're all aging baby boomers, and the warranties on body parts are beginning to wear out.  We're all up and travelling - but there definitely is wear and tear as we keep going.  So, we just deal with life as it happens.

The Jersey shore is sort of the playground for people from northern New Jersey and Philadelphia, and has been for a long time.  There are beautiful older homes built in the late 1800s, side by side with new modern McMansions sporting nautical themes.  Old churches or possibly old one-room schoolhouses converted to homes.  Boardwalks, casinos, eateries, and tons of tourists.

But also smaller towns inland, on the actual mainland.  The shore part of New Jersey is really a series of barrier islands protecting the mainland area of wetlands and solid land from the storms that come off the Atlantic Ocean.

So there are migrating shore birds along with the migrating tourists.  And seasonal visitors, such as us.

It has been one of those visits where we see various family members of the next generation and their children - and realize that we are now the official older generation, which is quite weird.  But all the kidlets are fun and interesting, and willing to talk about computer programming summer camp, or books they've read, or wishing they had a dog.  (That seemed to be a common theme with a few of them.)  Always fun to see the children growing up, despite the fact that it makes it obvious that we're getting older.

There have been the usual summer events - the occasional concert by the beach, which wasn't bad; walking in the surf (because we're spoiled, and the Atlantic is cold!); and of course fireworks for the Fourth of July, also known as Independence Day in the USA.  Really fabulous fireworks - we arrived at the beach and saw that one section was blocked off, no access allowed - obviously the area where the fireworks would be shot from.  So we set up our beach chairs right at the fence in front of the blocked off area, and had front row seats for the entire show!!!  I LOVE fireworks, especially being that close where the explosions cause a percussive BOOM that you feel reverberating through your body.  Where the exploding fiery chrysanthemums and Queen Anne's lace blossom in the sky almost directly overhead and the residual golden sparks come trickling down.  Where the grande finale is a series of explosions and sparks and fire in hyperdrive.  It was wonderful!!!  And it makes me sorry that we have such displays only once a year.

We also played with the niece and nephew cats, who brought us toy mousies to throw so they could chase them.  You know that you are accepted by the cat when they drop a toy mouse right in your lap.

Last year's young rabbit seems to have become a mama rabbit, with at least one baby bunny who hopped around the yard and nibbled the clover.

We also had a visiting shore bird, not exactly sure what it was, possibly some kind of heron?  But it kept returning to the back yard every day, or nearly every day, just standing in the shade.  The house is not even three blocks from the wetlands, so we thought maybe the bird just needed some shade - days were decidedly hot and sunny, and even wading birds need some shade.

So it has been a rather lazy visit - nothing major or monumental to report.  Some walking, plenty of visiting, catching up on TV and reading, things like that.

But now we're on our way to Seattle and then up to Bellingham, where we'll have our usual medical check ups and visits.  Plus of course visiting with the family in that part of the world, as well as my friends.

In fact, it's sort of the kind of summer we had as children - nothing major going on, just enjoying the hot weather and relaxing.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Still Singing After All These Years

19 June 2018

We spent three quick days in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love.  Although Richard's brother no longer lives there.  But we're familiar with the city, and when we heard that Paul Simon was touring the US this summer on his farewell tour, it seemed like a perfect place for us to go.

We were in Malaysia when we bought the concert tickets online, but we built this part of the summer around the concert date.

Just a short subway ride from our hotel - and the subway is free for Pennsylvania seniors, though the ticket agent took pity on us and waived (and waved) us through - then a bit of a walk to the Wells Fargo Center.  This is an arena, or maybe a stadium - definitely built for sports.  And giant concerts.  The place holds about 19,500 people, depending on the event.  Yeah, giant concert.

We managed to score front row seats in one of the club boxes - we had no idea what this meant, since we've never been to this venue.  Basically, we were at the far end opposite the stage, but to the left.  In one of those boxes with maybe 100 other people, but somewhat closed off from the rest of the huge crowd.  With our own bar and snack counter, and bathrooms for just the 100 or so other people in our club box.  

All of this is to set the stage for the concert.  Because what we saw in person, and what we saw on the screen, were two very different things.  This was one of those concerts where the musicians are about one-inch tall at that distance, and it would be hard to say exactly who was who.  But on the screen, they were up close and personal and larger than life.

So, Paul Simon.  Roughly 75 or so years old, but sounding amazingly the way he did back in the 1960s when he (and over half the audience) were young and in our prime.  Paul looked older (as do we) and greyer (as do we), definitely with some wrinkles and perhaps a bit drawn about the face (yes to the wrinkles).  Decidedly muscular arms for a short 75 year old, but perhaps all that guitar playing builds biceps.

But the music - ah, the music.  Paul Simon has been accused of "borrowing" or lifting melodies from other musical traditions, such as the haunting South American "El Condor Pasa."  But he also has an excellent ear, and many of his songs borrow traditions and harmonies and rhythms, but the music and lyrics are all his own.  So "You Me and Julio" comes out of Kingston, Jamaica, without really being Jamaican.  "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" comes out of Soweto, South Africa, without really being South African.  So we took a tour of Paul's travels around the world, and heard many of his interpretations of cultures and their music, all in his warm and soothing and soaring voice.

It was a wonderful concert.  There were explanations and introductions to songs.  There was patter.  There were backup musicians playing multiple instruments as well as singing harmony.  One man sang a section in Khosa, with a series of clicks that I can't even describe, much less pronounce.

And all this while, Paul Simon, sometimes looking the way we remembered him, sometimes looking like a time-lapsed version of himself, but almost always sounding just like the Paul we listened to as we went through our teenage angst, rebellious years, defining ourselves, protesting the war, protesting the Establishment, and eventually growing up to be the people we find ourselves to be now.

The songs were a mix of new and old familiar favorites.  Some were more electronic, some were the acoustic folk songs we grew up singing.

While Bob Dylan might be considered the Bard of our Times, especially having received the Nobel Prize for Literature, Paul Simon might come in a close second.   Maybe a less serious and more playful Bard.  

Definitely a part of the Soundtrack of our Times, though.  Most definitely.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Whirlwind That Is New York

15 June 2018

We had a wonderful time in St. Thomas, even if we didn't do as much to help with the long-term hurricane recovery as we had hoped.  But we saw almost everyone we were hoping to see, and as a friend said, sometimes it helps just to talk about their experience and to know that someone cares.

But since this is Phebe and Richard travelling around, we had one of our usual trip craziness events.

On May 30, as we're finishing dinner at a restaurant with wifi (and thus finishing up our internet and email for the day), I receive an email from our hotel booking website saying that our hotel for New York City, arrival date June 2, has had to cancel the reservation.  Say what?  Three days ahead of time, no hotel?  My battery is almost out?  Our hotel, with hurricane damage, has no wifi?  And you want me to call you and fix this????  WHAT?????

We managed to call on our mobile phone and make all of the appropriate arrangements, although it took 45 minutes and I had to explain that no, a hotel 2 miles from our booked hotel would not work because it was in another state and thus not on a direct subway line to downtown Manhattan.  Yeah.

We ended up with a nice hotel in midtown.  But between the two reservations, we ended up paying twice.  And we're still waiting for our refund from the first hotel, the one that cancelled our reservation.  We've been assured that it is happening, but we haven't seen it yet.  So, caveat emptor and all that.  (And you know that if it turns into too much of a hassle, I will do a social media and blog blitz blasting the hotel booking website.)

Anyway, nice hotel not far from the south end of Central Park.  We arrived late on Saturday night.  We emailed all of our relatives and friends in the area, letting them know that we were coming to Manhattan.   

So Monday, I get an email from one of my nephews.  He and his lady friend (they're in their 30s) have planned to get married on Friday, at City Hall.  It's going to be very small, not a big thing, but since we're in the city would be like to come by and attend?

Well SURE!!!  OF COURSE!!!  I don't turn down weddings, we didn't have anything planned, and how could we not?

I also offered to help with something, and got to be in charge of flowers.  FUN!!!  I love flowers!!!

(Matles Flowers on West 57th Street is great - the flowers were gorgeous!)

So between ordering and picking up flowers, getting a haircut, and buying a top that didn't look as if I've worn it every week for the past year, we managed to get together with friends and family.  Walk around and see our neighborhood.  Eat some of our favorite foods.  Just enjoy the very urban environment that is Manhattan.

The wedding on Friday was lovely, though City Hall is not the most organized system for the amount of people getting married there.  It was fascinating to see how many people were there, some being tourists from overseas who apparently thought getting married in New York City would be a fun way to do a destination wedding.  Brides were in tradition dresses, or saris, or cocktail dresses, or cheongsams.  Grooms were mostly in suits, or at least shirts and ties.  My favorite was the guy in a dark suit, white shirt, bright pink tie, and white sneakers.  Formally informal!

There was a shop in the midst of all this marriage mass of people, selling tee shirts and flowers, although I suspect the flowers were artificial.  No cake or cupcake vendors, though - I would think this is the perfect spot for mini cupcakes, to sub in for wedding cake.

The wedding was a bit delayed, but the actual ceremony was short and sweet.  Seriously, possibly five minutes.  We all cheered and went outside and took photos, then caught taxis to the cafĂ© where they had a lovely reception.  I think there were nine or ten of us all told, which was perfect for spending time chatting and getting to know each other.  

Of course, everything after that was less dramatic.  I mean, how often do you attend a vaguely impromptu wedding?  

I managed to walk around Central Park and ride the 100+ year old horses in the carousel.  (While this is the fourth carousel to be used on this site in Central Park, the horses and actual carousel were discovered by the Parks Department, abandoned on Coney Island.  Stein and Goldstein, a company in Brooklyn, crafted these gorgeous horses and the housing in 1908!!!  This carousel is still one of the largest in the USA!!!  No wonder it's one of my favorites!!!)

We didn't get to a show on or off Broadway - after my phenomenal success last year, well, I couldn't top that.

But we did see and hear a wonderful drumming band in the subway!  They were great!  Everyone was grooving to the music and enjoying the drumming - one of the happiest subway rides we've been on in a long time!!!

So we had a great time absorbing the vibe of the city, seeing family and friends, and enjoying the wedding.  Plus of course the architecture - our neighborhood seemed full of churches, with spires and steeples and stained glass windows and incredible brass hinges.  And flowers planted around the small trees lining the streets.

It was a quick trip, but it was fun-filled and truly a whirlwind of activity!

Then a short (90 minute) train trip and we're now in Philadelphia for a few days.  We're here to attend a concert - but I'll post more about that next time.

Oh, I found this church near us to be totally fascinating.  This is St. Paul the Apostle church on the corner of West 60th and 9th.  It has Gothic arched windows and doorways, Norman exterior (the boxy bell tower is the give away), and this crazy vaguely Art Deco frieze!  Turns out the church itself was built in the 1880s, and has a magnificent interior.  The frieze was added in 1958, carved white marble over blue Venetian tile.  Definitely a mix of medieval architecture and Americana, but pretty powerful.  Apparently it is now the mother church of the Paulist Fathers - no idea what that means, but that's what it says on their website.

We also spent an afternoon getting SIM cards for our phones - not a big issue, but the man who owns the shop makes wonderful models of circus and carnival rides out of popsicle sticks and straws and such. I loved his carousel!!!

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Life in Hurricane Alley

22 May 2018

Richard has often called the US and British Virgin Islands "hurricane alley," because so many tropical storms turn into hurricanes as they pass overhead, and so many hurricanes come straight through this region.  It sometimes feels like we have a target drawn on some celestial map, and both sets of islands are in the bull's eye.

So I thought I'd include photos of both the beauty of St. Thomas, USVI, as well as some of the destruction caused by Irma and Maria in 2017.  Some people call the storms Irmaria, because they were only about ten days apart.  And what are the chances of two Category 5 storms coming through the same islands in one year?  (Unfortunately, the chances are better than anyone would hope.)

The first photos show the damage at the little hotel we're staying at.  I don't know how many rooms are okay - our room is fine.  No leaks, no visible water damage, windows are fine.  But the room next door is missing the back.  Really, the entire sliding glass door, which makes up most of the wall, is just gone.  The windows are missing glass.  Pieces of the ceiling are gone.  Paint is peeling off the walls.  No furniture is standing, there's just a jumble of broken glass, broken ceiling, pillows, curtains, and slats of blinds in a sodden heap on the floor, awaiting insurance adjusters or someone. 

At the other end of the building, parts of the roof are missing, and are covered with the signature tarpaulins of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency).  Walls are good, but there are some missing pieces.  I can't get around the back of the building to see how many rooms are missing those glass sliding doors that lead to the balconies and decks, so I really can't say how many rooms are damaged. 

The building we were in last year is missing the entire roof.  Really, a three story building with probably 25 or so hotel rooms, with no roof.  A few doors were open, so I peeked in - again, the sliding glass doors that make up the wall of the rooms were missing, and the interior was a mix of furnishings and broken glass/ceiling/debris.  Totally unusable at this point.  

Plus I shudder to think about what animals might wander in and out of these rooms at night.  Our friends who own this hotel feed and take care of stray cats, and a friendly black cat accompanied me in and out of the rooms.  I'm hoping he and his friends are keeping the rats and mice away - but hurricanes damage trees and the bush, and then the rats and mice move inside wherever they can.  (At least we don't have poisonous snakes here - just some nasty things like scorpions, tarantulas, and giant centipedes.  When we lived here, we've had all of those inside our various apartments.  Plus a tarantula in my car one season.)

The pool deck and the side of the pool structure are damaged, and the walkway from our building to the pool is gone.  Tile, rebar, cement just collapsed and sort of hanging there.  So we go the long way around.

One building of rooms is just fine.  The other pool is wonderful.  The office building, and the little casino downstairs, all seem to be untouched.  And the murals my students painted years ago, exterior paint on plywood, are all looking bright and cheerful, despite the damaged buildings.

There's a new restaurant, so we can get lunches or dinners.  But the little store and coffee shop is missing part of the roof and the entire back of the building.  Again, just gone.  Disappeared in pieces into the bush, or blown away to somewhere else.  

Hurricanes as big as Irma (the size of France!) and as powerful (sustained winds of 225 miles per hour) just blast through and create a path of destruction similar to that of a tornado.  Actually, a hurricane is basically a giant tornado or cyclone, but with rain in addition to the wind.  So, yeah, there's a lot of damage.

And everyone has a story.  Roof broken in half and flapping all through the storm.  Windows blown in or blown out.  Walls caving in.  Flood waters rushing through.  Coming out of the broken houses to see bare ground, because these winds blow the grass right out of the earth.

But people are resilient.  People rebuild, and start over again.  Items that can be salvaged are dried and saved, other items are replaced.  Businesses start up again, eventually electric poles and lines are repaired or replaced, and life slowly gets back to normal.

That's the point the islands are right now, slowly getting back to normal.  Several schools are on double session to accommodate another school where the buildings were destroyed, or because the one school had so much damage that only half of the classrooms can be used.  Schedules and people adjust.

But major hotels won't re-open for another year, because they need to be rebuilt.  Some of the large stores caved in, roofs collapsed, and the buildings have to be gutted and rebuilt.  Some items are difficult to find, and prices are high because everything has to be flown or shipped in.  Life on an island.

The most worrying thing is that there is still debris all over, with HUGE piles of metal debris in a few strategic areas around the island.  One pile looks like cars that were damaged, as well as galvanized metal from either storm shutters or roofing.  I'm talking a pile of debris that is the size of a one-or-two-storey building, possibly the size of a city block!!!  Huge amount of garbage that cannot be burned or buried.  And no place locally for recycling.  

The official beginning of hurricane season is June 1.  Yes, nine days away.  So all of this debris is really worrisome.  In another storm, all that metal garbage, plus all the debris hidden in the bush, will go flying in those 100-200 mph winds.  They all become lethal objects at that kind of speed.  This much debris can take out windows, shear roofs off cars, and you don't want to even think about what happens when a person is hit by roofing or a flying car.

Yes, people are on edge.  Stressed from the storm, a little bit of PTSD, stressed about the coming season.  Trying to keep cheerful and maintain normal life while living in improvised shelters and rebuilding their house upstairs, or around them.  

It isn't easy.

Friends have said that it helps just to be listened to.  So while we haven't done the kind of volunteer assistance we thought we might be doing, we're doing a lot of listening to hurricane stories.

The other photos - Frenchtown, always colorful and picturesque with the small fishing boats.  This is a small peninsula on the outskirts of downtown Charlotte Amalie (pronounced Charlotte a-MAHL-ya), once home to much of the island's French population (from St. Bart's).  We have several favorite eating spots down here, so this tends to be where we hang out and run into friends.

And the beach is Magens Bay.  This beach was once named one of the world's top ten beaches by National Geographic magazine.  From end to end, the beach is just about one kilometer (.6-something miles), and beautiful.  Sandy, tree-lined, with a long peninsula at each end.  This is called a pocket beach, because those two peninsulas (maybe a mile or so long) form the sides, and the beach is the bottom of the pocket.  The peninsulas help protect the beach, but in a hurricane they really don't help.  So the water brought the sand up and covered the road, plus brought broken coral and small rocks up from the bottom.  This once sandy and smooth beach now has some rough spots, with that rock and coral mix littered on the sand.  Trees blew into the bay, and there's also house debris in the water as well.

But it's still a gorgeous beach, and our Sunday ritual is to have a late breakfast at the snackbar, then play in the water or walk the beach.  Magens is one of the best spots on island to run into friends while relaxing - the quintessential island hang out.

So, we're enjoying our time on island.  We're helping where we can.  We're boosting the island's economy.  And, as always, we're finding our own fun.

After so many years living here, our hearts really have been with the people of the VI.  Watching the destruction and aftermath of the storms was emotional and depressing.  Seeing the rebuilding, as well as the cheerful faces of friends, former co-workers, and for me, former students, has been one of those events that renews our faith in the human spirit.

Yeah, this has been a worthwhile visit.  Maybe more for us than for the islands.