Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Happy Tale of Woe

Coming to live here on Florida’s east coast, early morning walks on the beach quickly became a daily habit, opening eyes to countless sights of nature at work and play and bringing a quiet absorption in the particulars of ocean, sand and open sky. On many days it seems as if every tenth step uncovers a different curiosity or minor marvel. I’ve always imagined that a good part of it is dictated by the relatively slow passage that walking describes.

Last Thursday I reached a landmark of sorts in terms of distance. The first walks were limited to a couple of miles, but increased gradually to three. Over the last month that distance has grown to four miles. Day by day over the course of months since May 1 of 2010 the total has reached 2,000 miles walked, roughly the distance between New York and southern New Mexico.

Any day of the week sees a dozen people riding bikes on the beach, an easy exercise because at certain hours the sand is smooth and hard packed, making it possible to zoom along as you would on a paved surface. Until recently it never occurred to me to buy a bicycle for riding on the beach. I changed my mind because finally I wanted a different perspective in my time of wandering the beach.

On Saturday I came home from Walmart with a giant of a bicycle, a type people in these parts call a ‘beach cruiser’ and built specifically for sandy cruising in salty air. The card that came attached to the bike shows the name as 29" Men’s Onyx, but oddly enough the decals on the frame read Onex 29, making me wonder if the factory in China mismanaged the spelling.        

My first ride on Sunday morning started out well and the rush of wind in my face was welcome balm to an already hot sun. For a couple of minutes the notion of whizzing along at full speed brought a thrill of exhilaration smothering any concern for the small things flashing past. But I hadn’t counted on the fast depletion of stamina and in no time at all was breathing hard and wondering how long my legs would hold up. A little experimentation and I settled into a comfortable speed manageable for five or six miles without a struggle. 

Three miles south of home the hard packed sand gave way to a long, wide expanse of shells, most no bigger than a fingernail and instantly crushed under the big wide 29" tires advertised as “Big Wheels Roll Over Everything.” I never gave it a thought. Not long after that I turned around heading back and right away noticed a bumpy change in the rotation of the back tire. Checking it out I looked down and saw a tire as flat as a sand dollar. So much for the claim of rolling over everything.

Used to walking, I gave it a rueful smile and started rolling the big bike home. Sure, I was a little disappointed in the bike’s inaugural ride, but not enough to let it turn the day dark. Once I got it home, off it went to the return counter at Walmart, and an hour later I was home with a replacement 29" Men’s Onyx, and a tire pump for future emergencies. Say what you will about Walmart, they exchange goods without the blink of an eye.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Flickering Images

A couple of Connecticut friends came to visit this week, one of them living in Japan for the past fifteen years, the other his old hometown buddy. It was their third time to visit, but the first since I’ve returned from Japan to live here, and it produced an interesting dichotomy in my head for the days they were here. Not surprising, I wanted to talk about a hundred things related to Japan, sort of catching up on what’s new, but at the same time they were more interested in talking about life at the beach. I like to think we managed both, that I wasn’t too much of a bore with constant questions about things Japanese. Safe to say they both left with a suntan and full of Florida seafood.

To mark the week of switch hitting between conversational topics, the back and forth talk about Japan and Florida, I put together a couple of thirty-second videos using Animoto and a batch of photos from each place. 

The first is a collection of images and music strongly reminiscent of my old Tokyo neighborhood of Kugayama. The photos rotate between shots inside and out, ending with a view of the street in front of Kugayama Station in 1979. All other pictures are from 2010. The music is “Sora wa marude” by a popular group in Japan called Monkey Majik, a mix of two Canadian brothers and two Japanese.

Make a video of your own at Animoto.

The clips below may be familiar to those who have browsed the photostream connected to Scriblets, and are pictures taken at the beach since I came to live here in May of 2010. The music is once again by a Japanese group called Acousphere, the tune “Daydream Believer.”

Try our slideshow maker at Animoto.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Grasshoppers & Hammerheads

More this time on a few of the creatures native to Florida’s east coast, some encountered recently in shallow surf, sand, dune and driveway. I’ve said it often enough, but am always surprised by a chance meeting with critters that live either underwater, under shells, under bushes or in the air, sharing this sometimes paradise with those of us who live under roofs. Let’s start under the bushes…

The eastern lubber grasshopper (Romalea microptera) occurs throughout Florida and is known both for its size and its unique coloration. It is incapable of flight and can jump only short distances, mostly quite clumsy and slow in movement, traveling by walking and crawling. The orange, red and yellow coloration is a signal to predators warning them that the lubber is not a tasty mouthful. It contains toxins that can kill a bird and prostrate a small mammal, such as raccoons or possums. And if you are interested in a closer look, better to do it hands off—if picked up the grasshopper emits a furious hiss and releases a foam like discharge which can burn the skin. The specimen above was approximately 2.5 inches long and enjoying the flavor of nearby broad-leafed plants adjacent the drive. 

While still small and vulnerable to predators, young hammerhead sharks swim mostly in the safer shallow waters along the coastline. They are usually light gray with  a greenish tint. Given time and health, the small hammerhead in the photo above, about two feet in length, might have reached a length of anywhere from three to twenty feet and a weight between 500 and 1000 pounds. Hard to guess the reason for its death. When I came across it the body was perfect and unmarked. 

The laughing gull, (Leucophaeus atricilla) is a medium-sized bird of North and South America, and very common to Florida beaches. The name is derived from its raucous kee-agh call, which sounds like a high-pitched laugh “ha…ha…ha….” Normally these gulls stay in groups close to the waterline where they feed in the shallows, splash about and groom themselves. The one in the picture above was sadly in its final hour of life, and for that reason seeking isolation high up in the dunes close to the sea wall. Checking on it a short while later I found it dead.

Most of the time a meeting with turtles on Florida’s east coast means coming across either sea turtle hatchlings or a land turtle scuttling about in the dunes high up above the waterline. While walking at the waterline on Friday, feet in the water as much as out, I came across a turtle that could only have been disoriented, heading straight for the water, misdirected from its natural element. Box turtles (and I think this is an un-ornamented box turtle) are not meant to brave the Atlantic surf. This one—ten inches across—finally got his bearings and turned back for the grassy dunes.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Mom & Dad

In most cases of picking up a book of poems for the first time, my own experience at least has shown that some of the poems in that book are going to impress, some stir feelings to an unexpected level and a few of them leave me unmoved and perhaps quick to turn the page. More than most other genres, poetry is a dicey realm threaded with quicksand on the one hand and thorny barriers on the other, and while it surely isn’t meant to be that way, some poets have a knack for leading us around the complications and taking us to those unexpected levels. George Bilgere is one of them.

George Bilgere has published five collections of poetry. His most recent, The White Museum was awarded the 2009 Autumn House Poetry Prize, while his third book, The Good Kiss won the University of Akron Poetry Award in 2002. Bilgere’s work has garnered numerous other awards, including the Midland Authors Award, a Pushcart Prize and the May Swenson Poetry Award for his 2006 collection Haywire. His work has appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, the Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, the Best American Poetry series and frequently on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac. The poet is a resident of Cleveland, Ohio where he teaches at John Carroll University.

Bilgere has a special genius for shaping eloquent lines from everyday moments that seem small yet resound with near frightening significance. The two poems below are from his third collection, The Good Kiss. Each in turn is a wistful yet tinged with pain memory of parents, reminding us that life is not always a scene from Father Knows Best or Ozzie and Harriet.

I would like to write a poem
About how my father taught me
To ride a bicycle one soft twilight,
A poem in which he was tired
And I was scared, unable to disbelieve
In gravity and believe in him,
As the fireflies were coming out
And only enough light remained
For one more run, his big hand at the small
Of my back, pulling away like the gantry
At a missile launch, and this time, this time
I wobbled into flight, caught a balance
I would never lose, and pulled away
From him as he eased, laughing, to a stop,
A poem in which I said that even today
As I make some perilous adult launch,
Like pulling away from my wife
Into the fragile new balance of our life
Apart, I can still feel that steadying hand,
Still hear that strong voice telling me
To embrace the sweet fall forward
Into the future’s blue
Equilibrium. But,

Of course, he was drunk that night,
Still wearing his white shirt
And tie from the office, the air around us
Sick with scotch, and the challenge
Was keeping his own balance
As he coaxed his bulk into a trot
Beside me in the hot night, sweat
Soaking his armpits, the eternal flame
Of his cigarette flaring as he gasped
And I fell, again and again, entangled
In my gleaming Schwinn, until
He swore and stomped off
Into the house to continue
Working with my mother
On their own divorce, their balance
Long gone and the hard ground already
Rising up to smite them
While I stayed outside in the dark,
Still falling, until at last I wobbled
Into the frail, upright delight
Of feeling sorry for myself, riding
Alone down the neighborhood’s
Black street like the lonely western hero
I still catch myself in the act
Of performing.

And yet, having said all this,
I must also say that this summer evening
Is very beautiful, and I am older
Than my father ever was
As I coast the Pacific shoreline
On my old bike, the gears clicking
Like years, the wind
Touching me for the first time, it seems,
In a very long time,
With soft urgency all over.

I can see her in the kitchen,
Cooking up, for the hundredth time,
A little something from her
Limited Midwestern repertoire.
Cigarette going in the ashtray,
The red wine pulsing in its glass,
A warning light meaning
Everything was simmering
Just below the steel lid
Of her smile, as she boiled
The beef into submission,
Chopped her way
Through the vegetable kingdom
With the broken-handled knife
I use tonight, feeling her
Anger rising from the dark
Chambers of the head
Of cabbage I slice through,
Missing her, wanting
To chew things over
With my mother again.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Glow of Old Rooms

On those occasions when in Maitland, a suburb of Orlando fifty miles west of my location on Florida’s east coast, I make it a point to visit (usually more than once) Bright Light Books, a treasure trove of new and used books, movies and music. In the ten or more times I’ve been there, not once have I left without at least one surprise find, more often than not a hard-to-find first edition, sometimes signed. My last visit was over the 4th of July holidays and as usual, I left the store with a big bag of books. Among them, an out of print 2006 title from Taschen GmbH, one in the Lifestyle Series titled Living in Japan. An especially handsome book filled with sumptuous photographs by Swiss photographer Reto Guntli.

The problem with sharing the photographer’s fine work in this case is the size of the book. Weighing four pounds and measuring 12x10.6 inches, scanning becomes a difficult problem, and in most cases I was forced to take a photo of a photo. Certainly not the best of conditions or results, but something still worth sharing.

Yoshida Sanso is one of the few remaining princely estates left in Kyoto. The house was built in 1932 and since 1948 has served as a ryôkan, a traditional inn and restaurant. The house was built using hinoki cedar. Reflecting the modish style of the 30s, it incorporates art deco touches in its chandelier and stained-glass windows. The photograph above shows low-trimmed azalea bushes leading through the garden to the main hall. In the traditional style, windows are hung with reed blinds called sudare.

Above is a room in the Yoshida Sanso arranged for sleeping. We see the bedding, a tray with water and to the left of the tokonoma alcove a lamp with a flaring rice paper shade.

The Japanese inn Tawaraya in Kyoto has a history dating back 300 years, and counts among its guests James Michener, Rudolf Nureyev, Pierre Trudeau, Marlon Brando, Betty Ford, Jean-Paul Sartre, Leonard Bernstein, Simone de Beauvoir, Alfred Hitchcock and John D Rockefeller IV. The inn’s street entrance is so small one can walk past it without noticing. There is no lobby, just a small reading room, some nooks to sit and relax in, corridors with flowers, and then the rooms, all looking out on a private corner of a perfectly tended garden. It represents classic hospitality compressed into eighteen rooms situated in the heart of busy modern Kyoto. The photograph shows a stone lantern (ishi-doro) and a tamba ware pot in a corner of the garden. In back is the engawa or veranda outside one of the rooms.

Off Kyoto’s central Karasuyama Avenue is a townhouse (machiya) called Nishirokkaku-cho and built in the latter half of the twentieth century. The house is now another of the city’s traditional guesthouses. In every room flower arrangements bring the cycle of seasons indoors, a hallmark of traditional life in the old city. Above, guest bedding lies in front of the tokonoma alcove, with grasses and wildflowers in a bamboo vase. Light from the garden flows in through the low shoin window.

Onsens, or hot spring resorts have been popular for centuries in Japan, and continue to attract modern Japanese, as well as visitors from abroad. The above photo, Hoshi Onsen in Niihara, Gunma Prefecture shows the view from a guest room looking through trees to the Hoshi-no-yu bathhouse. The onsen was built in 1875 and stands alone in a national park among the mountains of Gunma, northwest of Tokyo.

Chiiori (“Cottage of the Flute”) is a thatched farmhouse on the island of Shikkoku, located in the Iya Valley, a remote spot among deep mountain gorges. Built in the eighteenth century, the interior of the cottage is one vast cathedral-like space. From hundreds of years of smoke rising from the three open hearth fires, the interior has darkened, with floors, beams and pillars now a shiny black, called “black glistening” in old Japanese.

In 1976, architect and antique dealer Yoshiro Takeshita moved an eighteenth century minka (farmhouse) from the Gifu area of Japan to Kamakura. The photo above shows the west gallery with a Qing Dynasty Chinese chair and dantsu carpets placed in front of sliding shoji doors going out to the garden.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Taste of Wackiness

Since 1916, each year on the 4th of July at Nathan’s Famous on New York’s Coney Island an event is held that draws a huge amount of attention. Of course, it’s the famous gorging contest politely given the name ‘competition’ and in which contestants race to stuff the most hot dogs down their throats in a certain amount of time. There doesn’t seem to be a time limit, but rather a stomach or body limit, each contestant eating until he or she can’t force another bite down. The hysteria usually lasts no more than ten or twelve minutes and the winner has for the past several years gobbled down about sixty-nine hot dogs including the buns. This past 4th of July, defending champion Joey Chestnut continued his dominance by eating sixty-eight hot dogs in ten minutes. A few years back Takeru Kobayashi managed sixty-nine.

Even more surprising than the fact that some people want to compete in this and other eating contests is the endorsement the competitions get from a host of sponsors, including an organization (a world body) facetiously called the MLE or Major League Eating. The MLE actually developed competitive eating and serves as the “sport’s” governing body—the International Federation of Competitive Eating—helping to develop, publicize and present world-class eating events involving a variety of foods from birthday cakes to sticks of butter. The organization likes to call this type of eating a ‘discipline.’

With this example is there any wonder that obesity is a major health problem in America?

Believe it or not the MLE’s first consideration is safety, insisting that all sanctioned competitive eating matches take place in a controlled environment with proper safety measures in place. They will not sanction or promote events without the proper safety regulations and have set an age limit at eighteen or older. Rules also state that an emergency medical technician must be present at the competitions. (The operative word here is ‘technician.’) The MLE also strongly opposes and discourages home training, cautioning interested people not to attempt speed eating at home. Well, good for them.

Considering the health effects of the calories, cholesterol and sodium—not to mention the sheer volume of food—that these competitors gorge themselves on, it isn’t hard to see that this is not an activity for those with a weak stomach. One hot dog with the bun is 309 calories. Given that ratio, sixty-nine hot dogs adds up to a gut-busting 21,321 calories—in ten minutes time! That’s more calories than the average person consumes in two weeks of normal eating.

Consider the fat intake of sixty-nine hot dogs: 1,380 grams. Cholesterol? The average person should eat less than 200mg a day. The amount in 69 hot dogs is 2,436, which averaged out over two weeks comes to 180mg per day.

The average stomach can hold between two and four liters of food. But when you’re talking about forcing down a stack of sixty or more hot dogs in ten minutes, it’s fairly obvious that for most of us, something has to give. The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine ran some tests and determined that professional speed eaters are at risk of morbid obesity, profound gastroparesis, intractable nausea and vomiting, and even the need for a gastrectomy, the surgical removal of part or all of the stomach.

Curious? Below are ten of the current world records:

Butter:   Don Lerman managed to eat 7 quarter-pound sticks in 5 minutes.
Mayonnaise:   Oleg Zhornitskly scarfed down 4 32oz bowls in 8 minutes.
Chili:   Joey Chestnut gobbled up 2 gallons in 6 minutes.
Moon Pies:   Patrick Bertoletti wolfed down 60 in 8 minutes.
Chili Spaghetti:   Bob Shoudt slurped up 13.9 pounds in 10 minutes.
Cow Brains:   Takeru Kobayashi munched his way through 57 (17.7 lbs) in 15 minutes.
Jellied Cranberry Sauce:   Juliet Lee inhaled 13.23 pounds in 8 minutes.
Doughnuts:   Eric Booker demolished 49 glazed doughnuts in 8 minutes.
Eggs:   Sonya Thomas chomped up 65 hard boiled eggs in 6 minutes, 40 seconds.
Grits:   Patrick Bertoletti polished off 21 pounds in 10 minutes.

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America