Travel by Train Part II

If you Google Amtrak train trips, you may be as surprised as I was to read the nearly unanimous testimonials about the “most interesting” people you are likely to meet along the way. I was skeptical, but it was true!

My table mates en route to New York City from Chicago aboard the Lake Shore Limited came from the U.S., the U.K., and Japan. On the Empire Builder, the dining car waiter who served my table was a young black man born in Switzerland who happened to be a native speaker of French. I’ve dined with a somewhat reticent literature professor who entered the dining car clutching a copy of Husserl’s tome on the ‘phenomenology of time-consciousness’. “I like to say I’ve had three lives,” he replied when I asked about his choice of reading material, “I’m a contemplative, a philosopher, and a poet.” He explained Husserl’s thesis in terms I could almost understand, though I was most intrigued by the dangling paper clip that replaced an evidently lost screw from the frame of his reading glasses. We enjoyed breakfast while discussing the nature (or not) of time, memory, and the sad state of adjunct professors in the U.S., a part of academia we both knew something about.

That afternoon I shared a lunch table with a young couple just recently married. The new bride was Japanese and spoke very little English, while the husband was a New York native rock musician. Both of them now work with special needs populations doing art and music therapy, and will be moving permanently to Japan where they had been married. They shared their wedding photos with me and taught me the Japanese tradition for saying “grace” before a meal.

On Amtrak, you are expected to share a table with fellow passengers, and the wait staff seats you according to some scheme known only to them. Sometimes a single traveler is seated with couples, but other times you’ll find yourself with other “ones.” For one of the dinner meals, ‘Mary’ found me a seat next to a young man dressed in work clothes, and covered in magnificently executed, beautifully colored tattoos. I learned that he lived in Spokane and was just finishing up a five year contract working in the oil fields around Williston, North Dakota, which had enabled him to save enough money to open his own construction company back home next year. The tattoos were the work of his artist friend in Spokane, and reflected the life changing experiences he had while serving overseas in the military. On one arm an enormous eagle reached down embracing a brightly colored koi, which then came to rest on the Sanskrit word for life. I don’t imagine I will ever see Afghanistan or Iraq, or necessarily understand what profound changes took place in this young man’s life, but I know Williston where he works, it’s is due north about a hundred miles from Beach, North Dakota, where I lived for a few years during the earlier years of my marriage. I wonder if America today shouldn’t take a cue from Amtrak, enabling and expecting strangers who might appear to have nothing in common to share a meal and the experience of interacting in a real conversation, face to face.

On to New York City

We were due in to New York City on the Lake Shore Limited at 6:30 the next afternoon; a total trip time of around nine hours after leaving Chicago. I slept through the rest of Illinois, and through the cities in Ohio, including Cleveland (where I was born). When I awoke, we were just arriving in Erie, Pennsylvania. The scenic landscapes were gone by now, replaced by one abandoned and graffitied factory after the other, all the way through what was left of lake side Pennsylvania and upstate New York. I did snap a few pictures of my childhood town of Buffalo and neighboring Rochester, Syracuse and Albany. Then we arrived in Poughkeepsie for what should have been a brief stop.

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Five hours later we were still in Poughkeepsie, having an unscheduled dinner in the dining car while we waited to learn when or even whether the tracks ahead of us would be passable. That brief thunderstorm in Chicago had turned ugly and hit right to the south of us, toppling trees onto the tracks on its way through to the city. The train was backed up to the previous town where there were supposed to be buses to take us the rest of the way. The buses never came, but after a few more hours of waiting and trying to catch some sleep, the tracks were finally declared passable and we finally rolled in to New York at 4am, nine and a half hours behind schedule. Penn Station is even more congested than Union Station, but I did manage to get my luggage up the escalator and find my way out to the street. Even at 4:30 in the morning there was a falafel truck on the corner with an English speaking vendor who pointed me in the right direction for downtown. It was a short cab ride to the Hilton Millennium Hotel across from the Ground Zero Memorial and Museum. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated a real bed and a real shower as much as I did that night.

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Travel by Train

This week I began my four week adventure to Europe with a cross-country train trip on the Amtrak Empire Builder. This took me up from Edmonds, WA to the little Alpine town of Leavenworth, across the Rockies, through Glacier National Park, across the wheat fields of Montana and North Dakota, and into Minnesota, Wisconsin, and finally Chicago, Illinois.

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The roomette I booked was cozy with all the amenities of a teeny cruise ship cabin. There are two generously proportioned facing seats that the car steward turns into a bed each evening, pillows, blanket, tissues, etc. and three bathrooms (with faux granite countertops) and a (very slim) shower just a few steps away. We had a dining car with reserved seating for lunch and dinner. The wait staff and chef were amiable and courteous and the food, though served on plastic ware and usually just above mediocre, was occasionally pretty good. But, of course, you don’t choose to travel by train for the gourmet meals, you opt for this kind of travel for the experience and to see your country up close and personal.

I was never disappointed—the scenery was spectacular. Fellow passengers I met from outside the U.S. all commented on how “big” this country was, and I had to admit it seemed much “bigger” when I experienced it rolling through the vast plains of Montana and North Dakota at 60 mph than it ever has sneaking a peek through cloud cover and a postage-stamp sized window from 30,000 feet. The train’s landscape was real in a way that the abstract shapes of airplane geography cannot be. And, my view of this country included real people, many of whom lived in a rural America that is both beautiful and isolated.

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At one point I looked out the picture window of my roomette and caught a glimpse of an extended family—or maybe a set of neighbors—with kids held up high by their parents, older folks and teens—all standing in the grass in a long row a few yards from the tracks, waving enthusiastically to us as our train sped by. I imagine they had planned to be at just this spot at just this time of day to catch us, and that watching us pass by was a highlight in their day. I wonder what they think of us, what stories they tell their little ones about these daily trains and the people that ride them.

I lived in one of these rural farm communities in North Dakota for several years when my children were small and I remember our lives in the country as circumscribed by the roads and highways and train tracks that traversed it. Maybe once a year we might have the money and time to take a journey on one of those arteries leading to the ‘outer world’ of the big cities; but mostly not – we imagined (or in my case remembered) what they would be like and we watched their trains and cars and planes pass by like bullets whizzing through our town. Ironically, I can remember waving to the passengers on trains just like mine decades ago in what seems now like a different lifetime.


Mysteries and more mysteries

Catching up with that summer reading list would be a lot easier if I didn’t keep adding as I go; I’m still wondering what happened to my one in one out rule? You know, no new books unless I finish one old one first.


Yes, pretty funny, I know and completely undoable. The first book in a series inevitably forces you to read the second one, and then there are those book groups that churn out one read a month each. The Usual Suspects is most indictable I’m afraid, because I am admittedly, confessionally speaking, a mystery addict.

Elizabeth George, whom I had the pleasure of hearing speak last year at Third Place Books (Yes, independent bookstores thrive I Seattle despite the fact that Amazon opened its one and only brick and mortar presence here), first created her long-running detective duo in 2006. Detective Inspector Lynley and his seemingly hapless but brilliant partner, Barbara Havers began their tumultuous relationship in the pages of A Great Deliverancea first novel for George that illustrates how well a tightly written mystery can deliver its punches, create memorable, empathetic protagonists, and pave the way for a financially successful writing career. Ditto for Louise Penney and her Inspector Gamache series, which debuted in 2005 with Still LifeCuriously, Penney’s second book, A Fatal Grace shares a number of elements with George’s Deliverance. It would spoil the fun if I gave too much away, but suffice it to say both stories center around an unlovely pre-teen with even more unlikeable parents.

In a few days I’ll be heading out to board the QMII enroute to Southampton. This transatlantic crossing is part of a Road Scholar program themed around the English murder mystery.  So, of course, I will be binge watching Inspector Morse and Midsomer Murders as well as rereading some old favorites in preparation for seven days at sea with daily lectures on the genre and four days touring around London and Oxford.  I will keep you posted on my progress!

More Art … Journaling

I’ve neglected my blog. Bad. But I have been more or less obsessed with art journaling. For some reason the little 5×7 #Stalogy 365 Journal is compelling while a 5×7 blank white canvas is terrifying. The journal stimulates my creativity but the canvas obliterates it. So, I’ll go with the flow—with what works or at least what gets me motivated to make marks on a page that turn into something where nothing existed before. I even convinced a good friend of mine in Phoenix to join me in going through a new book, 101 Mixed Media Techniques by a group of mixed media artists. It’s basically a compendium of lots of different techniques grouped into general categories like Art Journaling, Gesso and Mediums, Transferring, etc. We decided to do a chapter a week, picking three techniques in the chapter and producing work that utilizes them. It’s been a lot of fun and we can then go back through the book again choosing techniques we passed by before. Here are a few of the spreads I’ve done exploring things like gesso over painting, using found objects, working with texture and modeling paste and creating backgrounds. Next week will be stamping. Such fun.

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Five stars, or maybe 4 or . . . taking the mystery out of rating a mystery?

We all enjoy being asked for our opinion. On Facebook, for example, there are the occasional polls where you can click on a radio button to register your vote for or against some current social fad, or you can amuse yourself with one of the endless quizzes that promise to help you identify everything from your selfie style to what kind of Mexican food you are. Sometimes I even take the bait and have a good laugh at myself. But then there are the pesky, persistent, and usually annoying surveys that want you to rate—usually on a scale of 1-5—your recent dining experience, or that can of hairspray you just bought and have barely had time to put away let alone use, or whether your bank teller was nice to you when you made your last withdrawal.

Ratings, ratings, ratings! Books fare no better than hairspray or bank tellers, do they? Please tell me what it means to give your last book read 4 stars as opposed to 5 stars? I struggle to be objective and fair, but really it’s an entirely subjective system. Out of frustration I’ve decided to try my own hand at creating a way to rate the books I am reading that is more useful and relatable to someone who asks for my opinion (or in this case those who read my blog). Here is my first draft followed by a few examples. I think it’s working:

☆ I started to read this but didn’t make it through the first two chapters

☆☆ I made it through the first few chapters or so but lost interest before the halfway point.

☆☆☆ I finished it or almost finished, but the book was lacking in language, plot, character or depth.

☆☆☆☆ I finished the book; it was entertaining, even well-written, just not compelling for me.

☆☆☆☆☆ I found it a sophisticated and compelling read on multiple levels—language, plot, character, etc.

Now, using my newly created rating system, here is how the last batch of books on my summer Bucket List stack up (uh-oh, sorry about that bad pun).

  • The Last Days of Night, Graham Moore. Historical fiction. Tells the story of the late 19th century ‘current wars’ between Edison and Westinghouse for control of the “lightbulb” market. I admit this one sentence synopsis is a bit of oversimplification on my part. I like legal thrillers so though it was missing the thrills it made up for the deficit with good writing, good plotting, and larger than life characters determined to one up their opponents. If you think Edison was a nice guy from Menlo Park, think again! ☆☆☆☆
  • Still Life and A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny. Detective fiction. Penny’s first and second Inspector Gamache novels. Set in “cozy” Three Pines, Gamache and his team eat their way through two puzzling murders in this idyllic Canadian village. Five stars for making my mouth water with each meal our protagonists have at Olivier’s Bistro and for a regular cast of empathetic and charming characters. Three stars for the plot in Grace, which shares (I feel) too many elements with another mystery by Elizabeth George. Let’s average them out at  ☆☆☆☆.
  • The Translation of Love, Lynne Kutsukake. A novel. An oddly benign coming-of-age story given its setting in post-WWII occupied Japan and the “mystery” surrounding a young woman who leaves home to earn extra money by entertaining lonely GI’s in a seedy nightclub. Kutsukake’s novel could pass for young adult fiction given its superficial treatment of what were excruciatingly difficult times for many Japanese citizens after the war. The book meanders, has too many loose ends, is written at about a middle school level, and lacks depth given the subject matter available. However, Kutsukake’s intimate knowledge of her protagonists’ life situations and the fascinating snippets of Japanese language and culture she peppers her story with redeemed the novel from my 2-star rating. ☆☆☆
  • A Great Deliverance, Elizabeth George. Mystery fiction. George’s first Inspector Lynley novel. This is a compelling page-turner; tightly written and plotted, its detecting duo—a properly titled (eighth Earl of Asherton) Scotland Yard Inspector, Thomas Lynley, and an irascible Detective Sargent Barbara Havers—are engaging and relatable characters with a long series life ahead of them. This is no cozy mystery, however; the denouement will remind you what it means to loathe and abhor. Enough said. If you enjoy a well-crafted contemporary British mystery as much as I do, you will probably agree with my five-star rating. Sadly, not all of George’s later novels are as well edited or compelling. This one, however, nails it. ☆☆☆☆☆

Now it’s your turn to rate the rater. What criteria do you use to determine how many stars a book is worth in Goodreads or at your local reading group? Would mine work for you?

Tomorrow will be a new walk

. . . enjoying the freedom that
scope eludes my grasp, that there is no
finality of vision,
that I have perceived nothing completely,
that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.

I came across these provocative lines of poetry in an old issue of Harper’s Magazine. Immediately I connected with the poet; I’ve been on that walk too, not in A. R. Ammons’s neck of the woods, but in my own little piece of Eden—North Creek Trail—which is about three miles from my suburban apartment, which is about three blocks from Interstate 5, the main concrete artery that transports people and goods between the Pacific Northwest, Canada and southern California. I am never so aware of the constant din from the perpetual ebb and flow of its trucks, buses, autos, and the occasional passel of Harley hogs as I am in its absence, whenever I walk along this Trail, shaded by old growth trees and scented with wild roses, apple blossoms, lilacs and cedar pine.

If you are a walker like I was, living in a hot desert climate where the shopping mall was your best bet for chalking up those 10,000 steps and still avoiding heatstroke, then you will understand how easily that kind of walking venue breeds boredom. On the trails here, every walk can be a new walk, a unique sensory, or even social experience.

Continue reading

More Visual Journaling . . .

This week’s workshop was a winner. Finally, someone was able to explain and demonstrate how in the heck art journalers create those fabulous layered pages I have always admired but never been able to create on my own. Thank you to Karen Dawn for putting together this Visual Journal Meetup group in Edmonds, WA. If you are curious, the technique depends on using very thin, tissue paper like layers, stencils, spray bottles of ink and acrylic paint, patience, and, at least in my case, that reckless (lol) spontaneity that young people seem to have in spades.

IMG_4252The finishing touch on my collage paper is the white drippy stuff that runs from one corner all the way to the focal point. Across from me at the table this week was a young lady (maybe 12? or so); when I tried (oh so carefully) to add a couple of drips of white acrylic liquid to the paper project, she said, “Here, let me show you how this works,” and proceeded to make three LARGE drips of pure white paint onto one corner of the paper. Then we quickly held it up so it ran down in rivulets, and I was left to figure out how to “make it work!”

I think it ended up pretty well for a first attempt at collage. But, more importantly, I was gently reminded how easy it is to take your work too seriously, to forget what it means to play, and that the often the best art comes from working out those ‘happy’ accidents. You should only be so lucky as I was to share your workspace with a child who so effortlessly shatters your pretensions of “making” art.

A Buzz in the Meadow

Dave Goulson is a gifted storyteller. He is also a scientist. In my experience there are only a handful of people who can effectively sync both sides of their brains well enough to write something that a non-scientist could read and (possibly) enjoy. Stephen Hawking is oIMG_4191ne, and Dave Goulson is, thankfully, another. Although the subtitle to A Buzz in the Meadow invites you to learn about the natural history of a French farm, it is more a series of vignettes about the secret (and surprisingly seductive) world of some of our planet’s tiniest, most plenteous, and seriously at risk denizens—insects.  Who wouldn’t find the life cycle and mating rituals of the death-watch beetle en-GROSS-ing? Seriously, you will like this book and you will learn things your mother couldn’t possibly have told you.

Imagine a timber-framed cottage, grandad lying in bed . . . slowly dying from . . . some indeterminate (at the time) disease, the family gathered around his bed in respectful silence. A faint drumming can be heard coming from the walls, from the ceiling. Five or six beats in quick succession, like someone drumming their fingers, or the tip of a pencil being tapped on a wooden table. Legend had it that this faint sound was the Devil, impatiently drumming his fingers as he waited for his chance to snatch the soul when it departed from the body. . . Of course it was not the Devil—at least not most of the time. As you might have guessed, it is actually the mating call of the death-watch beetle.

A Buzz in the Meadow, p. 110

Each of the chapters in this book stands on its own, and each is introduced by a diary entry from the author that takes you along on his morning run through the meadow he has recreated in rural France. “9 May 2008. Run 39 minutes 6 seconds.” People spotted: 2, dogs 4, butterfly species 11. I compared this to my Saturday morning walk in the Edmonds, Washington farmers’ market. People spotted: too numerous to count; dogs: also too many to enumerate—mostly friendly; butterfly species: conspicuous now by their absence entirely. I did see 1 tiny fly and 1 fuzzy bumble bee nuzzling in a flower. This leads me to the author’s point, which you will find in the last section of Buzz. The insect world is at risk, and it is critical that human beings learn about these fascinating creatures and appreciate their invaluable contribution to our common ecosystem. All of them, dung beetles to dragonflies.

I have only one caveat to the potential reader. If, like me, you are in the habit of multitasking by catching up on your reading while you munch on your lunch, you might want think twice about picking up Goulson’s Buzz lest you risk sharing your turkey sandwich with the Filthy Flies of Chapter Five. I found it to be just a bit too much to digest.