August 12, 2008


We're home, with all that entails.

We get to sleep in a comfortable bed, with pillows just so. There are a bathmat and a shower curtain and face cloths and enough towels. We get to see our friends, and, even though they've gotten along just fine without us for a year, they seem eager to see us. I get to see my niece, and watch her delight in the toy I carefully chose for her 2nd birthday present. Edward keeps saying, "I'd forgotten how nice our home was," and I concur.

I also get to spend hours going through junk mail, afternoons hacking at 12 foot weeds in our "garden," and days unpacking and moving things up stairs and down. I have to deal with taxes and put together sabbatical documentation and pick up the pieces of my life.

Edward has it even worse. He has to deal with immediate deadlines at his job as well as my panicked feeling that we have to get the house unpacked right now so it will be done before school starts.

Being home is a mixed blessing. I think I'm glad to be home, but I find myself slipping back into some self-destructive habits. I want to be in the classroom, and am excited about the new year, yet I'm remembering that the last two times I took extended time off from my job for travel, I quit my job very soon after returning.

There's a big difference this time: I hate myself a whole lot less than I did those other times.

I'd like to finish this journal, the first I've ever kept for a sustained period of time, with some feeling of closure. But my life isn't a novel, and I'm not yet ready for closure in my life. Not nearly.

Snapshots From a Drive Cross-Country

Thunder and torrential rains across Missouri.

Catching up with friends and relatives I hadn't seen in a year / 5 years / 20 years, and finding them wonderfully still themselves, only more so. Meeting a friend of Edward's from high school, and having an enormous amount in common with both him and his wife. Meeting my friends' children, some of them already grown up, and wondering where the time went.

Seeing a beaver in the wild for the first time in my life, and, less than a week later, helping to take apart a lodge some beavers were building under Edward's uncle's dock 500 miles away from the first beaver.

Bagging my 50th state: I'd been through West Virginia on a bus, but only through a small corner in the middle of the night. This time, we spent the night.

Watching the giant radio telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Greenbank, West Virginia, as it spun ponderously to a new position.

Dreading the discomfort of Washington in the summer, and finding it sunny, dry, breezy, and 75 degrees.

Breaking the speed limit in our little bay at Lake George -- in a kayak!

Seeing Ground Zero for the first time since 9-11.

Watching my best friend from age ten hold 50 under-five children rapt as she led storytime at her library.

Watching thunderheads build and let loose across the Canadian Prairie.

Saskatchewan Pie.

Finding every motel room for 100 miles full for the opening game of the Canadian football season, and then finding every room in the next big town full for a gymnastics meet. Driving through the middle of absolutely nowhere, seeing the neon sign flashing "Motel" that wasn't in our AAA book, and breathing a big sigh of relief when there actually was a room for us.

Seeing no McCain signs, but lots of Ron Paul for President signs as we drove across Idaho and Washington.

Driving Washington Highway 20 through the North Cascades, and being awed by the beauty. This highway is right up there with Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park or Icefield Parkway in Jasper National Park as one of North America's great scenic climaxes, but I'd never heard of it.

Smelling California burning from well inside Oregon. Driving past Shasta, tasting smoke and able to see only the faintest gleam of her snowfields, utterly unable to make out her shape. Having my sinuses clamp down and my chest hurt from smoke, and wondering how the elderly were managing.

Making our last stop before home a stop at Walmart to pee.

Pulling into our driveway, exulting at being home while dreading my three page to-do list.

June 16, 2008


Albany CA, Winnemucca NV, Provo UT, Lakewood CO, Higginsville MO, Atlanta GA.

Back in a car together, with differences. It's our own car, our little Prius. We're trying to get somewhere, not exploring. (We'll explore later, but we need to make time now.) Gas is $4 a gallon, not $1.50+ a liter. Distances crawl by in miles, instead of speeding past in kilometers. There's traffic, lots of it. Even in Nevada, there's two orders of magnitude more traffic than in Australia. The lanes are wider, and there are more of them.

Even though we're speeding through, we find time for a diversion most days. We have a good Basque dinner in Winnemucca. We visit the Bingham Canyon copper mine near Salt Lake City, run by Rio Tinto, who also have operations in Chile and Australia. I show Edward the spectacular road along the Colorado river near Moab I last drove in 1985, and it is just as wonderful as I remember. In Denver, we visit with a cousin Edward hasn't seen in more than 20 years, and find common ground and affection. We're chased by spectacular clouds all the way across Kansas, and spectacular lightning and torrential rain surround us across most of Missouri. In Atlanta, we spend time with a high school friend of Edward's, and thirty years disappear.

There are surprises, both good and bad. Globalization and national media have not eliminated regional differences. There are Asians and Latinos everywhere, not just in the Southwest and Texas. Travel seems cheap after Australia. There has been an enormous amount of exurban infilling since I last came through some of these places in the 80's.

This mad dash east has been grueling but interesting. Now we can slow down and enjoy ourselves as we work our way North towards Boston and Lake George, and then west and home.

We've given our house-sitter/tenant a move-out date: we'll move back into our home on July 26th. The trip will be over. The journey? It continues.


We've been driving across Nevada and Utah, through the great American Desert. and all I can think is, it's so green! I don't remember it being so green here. Have my eyes permanently changed after our drive through the Atacama, or has it just been a wet year?

Thinking About Home

We passed through San Francisco for a few days last week. We're not done traveling yet, but I got to thinking about home and what it means.

East Africa was the furthest we got from home both geographically and culturally. Since then, we've been getting closer and closer to home.

Hong Kong and Guangzhou are very different from mainstream America, but our home isn't in mainstream America -- it's in San Francisco, a plurality Asian city. I was weaned on won ton soup. I teach math in a San Francisco public school, and that means I teach some classes where a majority were born in China. Hong Kong was comfortable and familiar. I could eat comfort foods, hear speech with familiar rhythms (even if I couldn't understand it) and buy familiar brands of shampoo.

Australia felt even more like home in some ways. They speak English there (well, sort of) and have many of the same cultural assumptions and attitudes that we have in the US. We went on a road trip, and though the scenery was different, the sense of possibility given by a full tank of gas, a comfortably full wallet, and time, felt very American to me.

Then we got to Hawaii, American soil. There is a moderately active secessionist movement there, and it's the only US state with its own national dress and music. But it was the US. We'd had some immigration hassles in Australia and Japan (that story is Edward's so he'll have to tell it) but home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in; they had to take us in here. We spent a couple of days in paradise, visiting two old friends, people who knew us and our history. We didn't have to introduce ourselves anymore. We were definitely beginning to feel like we were home.

Then we arrived at SFO, back to our starting point. We visited our storage locker (more socks and shirts, yes!) and stayed with our oldest, best, friend and former roommate Liz and her family. We've cooked together for almost 26 years, been in and out of their house since they bought it, shared all the major crises of our adult lives. We felt so at home, but we weren't home, not yet. We went to our house, but my colleague is living there; we had to ring the door bell.

Now we're driving east, to my mother-out-law's home near Boston. We are welcome there: If we said we were moving in tomorrow, she'd be delighted, but it's not my home, and I don't think it's Edward's now, either. We'll spend time at Edward's family's lake house, Edward's mother's childhood home. It's comfortable and familiar -- I've spent a week or two there every summer for almost 10 years -- but Edward's mother is there as a guest now, and it's not our home.

So where is home? It's certainly our wonderful house in San Francisco. But it's also the circle of Edward's arms, and I've been home all year.

June 4, 2008

Almost Home

Honolulu has never seemed like a particularly exciting destination to me, at least, not compared to some of the places we've been this year, but every time we've been there, I've really relaxed and enjoyed the Aloha.

This time was special. In 27 flights since we left Washington last July, this was the first time we'd seen a friend's face greet us at the airport. Seeing Hermine's smile and feeling her hug as we stepped out of the arrivals hall was wonderful. Seeing our friend Ron later that day was even better. It's liberating to leave home, to have entirely new conversations without old baggage, but it's even better to pick up a twenty year conversation as though you'd never been apart. We've never lived in Honolulu and we won't be home to stay for another six or seven weeks, but I felt I'd come home, and it was good.

Hello Kitty

Perhaps you've seen the Hello Kitty face, a line drawing of a smiling kitty cat face. They've been all the rage with pre-adolescent girls in the US for at least 15 years, and with girls and women of all ages in Japan for at least that long as well. There are whole stores devoted to Hello Kitty. I had a young friend who was quite attached to Hello Kitty, and I thought I'd seen everything Hello Kitty one could possibly imagine.

I guess my imagination is limited. At Narita, Hello Kitty rose to new heights, literally: there was an EVA Air passenger jet in Hello Kitty livery. But that wasn't even the most extreme. We were killing time waiting for our flight, browsing a kiosk near our gate. Edward noticed it first: the vibrating Hello Kitty hairbrush. Imagine the possibilities.


Electric City is a warren of electronics stores, large and small. Fry's the week before Christmas doesn't begin to capture the sense of frenzy. Everywhere you look, there's another specialized shop with goods spilling out into the aisles.

Then there's the doll store.

On the third floor of a typical Electric City shop-building, in between the cable store and the connector store, there's a doll store. The halls outside are lined with glass doored cases full of dolls in costumes. Most of the dolls are about the size and improbable shape of Barbie dolls, but with jointed knees and elbows. There are dolls in nurses costumes, in school girl costumes, in kimonos, in business suits, with farm implements, in stewardess outfits. Some of the dolls are in pajamas, sprawling on toy beds. Most have very short skirts and a lot of cleavage. Edward pointed out that all the customers were men. I went inside, and happened upon a rack of spare body parts. A man came around the rack, and sort of grunted and started breathing heavily. His eyes bugged out.

I left.

May 30, 2008


We arrived in Japan at about 4 in the afternoon on Thursday. We'd left Darwin, Australia, at 1 that morning, and I'd had maybe an hour of sleep. I wasn't feeling well, and the thought of dealing with Tokyo, a mega-city where I'd be illiterate, without even a phrasebook to ease my way, where the forecast was for rain every day we'd be there, was overwhelming. I knew I couldn't handle it at that moment, but what should we do? I couldn't make the slightest decision, not how much money to get from an ATM, or even whether to get money from an ATM, whether we should just skip Tokyo, whether we should see about getting onto the next flight on or getting a hotel room. I melted down. I didn't quite lie down on the floor kicking and screaming, but I sure felt like wailing some.

We decided -- or perhaps I should say Edward decided -- to see about getting on the next flight on to Honolulu, that evening. It was full, as were Friday's and Saturday's flights. That simplified things considerably.

We went to the airport hotel booking service, and they found us a surprisingly inexpensive room near the airport: 8500 yen, $85, with breakfast and free transfers. We decided to retreat and see what the world looked like in the morning.

When we got up after a comfortable sleep in our surprisingly roomy hotel room, the world looked much less overwhelming.

The airport is named Narita after its location, near the town of Narita. about an hour and a half by train from downtown Tokyo. Narita was just a farming village with an important temple before the airport was built, but Tokyo has grown, as has Narita, and now Narita is a bustlng exurban city.

One of my travel principles is to enter a country somewhere other than the capital whenever possible. The bigger the capital, the more of a difference it makes, and Tokyo is the biggest city in the world. We spent Friday exploring Narita. There's a pleasant market area between the civic and transportation hub and a wonderful temple. The two together provided a good introduction to cultural and commercial Japan.

Today we took the train into central Tokyo, and overwhelming was the only word for it. Thank goodness today was a rainy Saturday and not a fine weekday! Like the good bay area geeks we are, we headed first for Electric City in the Akibahara neighborhood. We had a shopping list, but mostly we were looking at the people and the presentations. Then we moved on to Ueno district, where we wondered and people watched some more. Edward told me I had to see a pachinko parlor, and that's where I hit sensory overload. A pachinko machine s a sort of combination slot-and-pinball machine. I couldn't get more than a few steps in the door because of the noise, a fierce combination of rolling and bouncing steel balls and pop music at volumes exceeding that of a jet engine, and the desperate concentration of the patrons as they worked the machines.

Tomorrow we'll head back to the temple, then on to the airport to try to go on to Honolulu.

May 27, 2008

From the Red Center to the Top End

Yesterday we left the Red Center, and entered the Top End, the north western peninsula of Australia. It happened gradually, over a couple of hundred kilometers. The trees and grass grew taller, the species mix changed, and (gasp) we even saw water that didn't come from a tap or a bore. We stopped at Mataranka Hot Springs, where the hot water was a whopping 34 degrees. Since the Top End is quite a bit warmer than the center at this time of year, it was actually perfect. The timing was perfect as well, as my back had been acting up. The warm water was the perfect balm.

We spent the night in Katherine, and the day paddling a rented "canoe" in the Katherine Gorges. I put "canoe" in quotes, because the advertised canoe was actually much more kayak-like. The gorges were lovely: vertical walls about 30 meters high, with spring-fed vegetation and occasional slot-canyons letting in the light. There was hardly any current, so we could paddle up or down river as we pleased. It was lovely and lazy, and made me long for our own kayak and long, lazy days at Lake George.

We walked down to the river from the parking area through a field of big gum trees whose upper branches were filled with bats. The bats hung from their toes, gently swaying in the breeze, chittering to each other or the sky. From time to time one would yawn or stretch their wings. They were much bigger than I expected, perhaps a foot long, with a wing spread of two feet or more. I stood watching and listening for quite a while.

Tomorrow it's on to Darwin. Then, the vagaries of stand-by flights permitting, it's on to Tokyo, Honolulu, and San Francisco. We plan to spend just a few days in SF, retrieving our car and seeing family and friends, before setting off on another road-trip, this time across the US. I'm looking forward to seeing the US with eyes opened wide by my time in other countries. We'll be back in SF for good by the end of July.