Mountain Pasages: The Decline

What happens when your body starts to break down? When trail running is no longer an option? It’s time to simply accept the downhill run. By Alan Stark

For Oliver Sachs

Raging against the dying of the light, while somewhat gratifying, is nonetheless pounding sand and about as useful. In my case, the “dying light” is trail running, a life sport I can’t do anymore. The low-level knee pain afterward is not worth it. Losing sleep because of knee ache makes me grumpy, and too much ibuprofen has the potential to turn my liver into goo.

 The bike route from Breckenridge to Frisco starts in town at the gondola and winds along the Blue River. Over to the left heavy gray clouds pour over the peaks and down to the ski area. The sky is lighter toward Frisco. The bet I am making with myself is that I can outrun the storm. This is not the first time I have made this bet. I seem to not learn much from previous experience, as I often let my enthusiasm override observable facts.

Most of this route to Frisco is slightly downhill giving me the illusion that I might be the strongest person on a road bike today, when in fact, the physics associated with being twenty pounds overweight makes the carbon fiber bike go faster. I am one speed on a bike far superior to my skills…tubby speed.

signThe short-term answer is to see an orthopedic surgeon at the end of the month. He’s the same guy who stitched my quad to my patella. The operation was slick. He drilled holes laterally through the patella, laced sutures through the holes, and then stitched the sutures into the tendon and quad muscles. Then he tightened the sutures and pulled the disengaged quad ligament up against the proximal side of the patella that had been roughed up.

Not so slick was the way I busted the quad running downhill on mud and ice, slipped with the knee under me, and hyper-flexed it, causing a complete separation of the quad tendon from the bone. Ouch! I love it when I look at my medical record and see the phrase “nontraumatic tear of left quadriceps tendon.” I don’t know who wrote that. It may have been the surgeon who obviously has a well-formed sense of humor.

I’m moving past the Flight for Life hanger at the hospital and along the bike trail south of Frisco. It’s raining now and I turn into town for some shelter. One of their choppers went down just before the Fourth of July. I couldn’t stop thinking of the crew as I watched the parade in Breckenridge. Med-evac crews risk everything to save a life. We must always keep moving on but sometimes it is moving on with sadness.

The streets of Frisco are filled with flatlanders, many of whom make me, with my modest pot-belly, look skinny in comparison. The rain slow downs, I pull off a rain jacket and decide I can get to Copper Mountain and if the weather keeps going south, take a shot at Vail Pass for a forty-fvie mile out-and-back ride.

The route from Frisco goes slightly uphill along Ten Mile Creek and is filled with bikes. I like the folks on rental bikes who are indomitably going uphill grimacing at the triple whammy of uphill, rain, and altitude but pushing on with an occasional shout of encouragement to one another. I live hree part-time. Altitude, rain, and steeps are all part of the game. I try to be gracious and almost always say something encouraging as I pass, “looking strong or looking good.” Inane words, but I think they appreciate the thought.

This failure of a body part is most likely due to the earlier injury, but I know the knee problem is indicative of things to come as I get older. I am slowing down. My parts are clearly out of warranty and there are a number of failures looming. This isn’t ominous to me for a number of reasons: I have a good marriage and have finished an interesting career. I have been able to live a number of years doing exactly what I wanted to do in the backcountry and never really had any long-term injuries or parts failures. Add to this a genuine thankfulness to be alive given the early death of some friends and a number of backcountry incidents that could have gone badly.

Sure, just like you, I’ve had some minor injuries. There was a broken wrist when I came unglued from a tree as a kid, a cracked radius and ulna while skiing patches of snow between the sheet ice in Vermont, and a mashed scapula from doing airtime over the handle bar of a commuter bike in the Port of Seattle complex. The dumbest and long-term painful injury came when I was trail running with my dog with his leash looped around my chest. Mac ran around one side of a tree and I ran around the other. I crashed to the ground and broke two ribs. My PCP taped me up and said, “don’t laugh for eight weeks,” Thanks Doc, not helpful.

The sky is grey and angry looking. I’ve beat the storm this far, what the hell, I’ll keep going. The route up Vail Pass from the south is surprisingly easy gaining less than 1,000 feet over four miles. There are several slight pitches that get me out of the saddle and sucking wind but it is mostly a moderate uphill crank. The danger is the tourists who ride to the top of Vail Pass in a van. Then they ride their rental bikes the twelve miles down to Frisco, usually in control. They are not exactly experienced bike handlers. I smile a good deal, but I watch them carefully as they cruise downhill.

The downhill run is always amazing. I’m slower going uphill than I used to be but getting better at managing the speed on the downhill, daring myself to not use the brakes and let the bike just freewheel. I water up in Frisco, munch on some energy food, and head home on the slightly uphill ride back to Breckenridge.

FireweedI’m a Boomer and have lost friends to some bad luck, really asinine wars, sullied drugs, excessive alcohol, and now some god-awful diseases. In the middle of the night I can see their young faces, and remember good times and laughter and exactly where I was when I heard they were gone. There is no good reason that some of them are dead and I am still here.

Did she forget to check the belay point? Did he know it was his last patrol? Would a reasonable person put something down their throat without knowing its provenance? There was always alcohol, there will always be alcohol, often too much alcohol. I never listened when I was taught that the immune system can also kill slowly and exceedingly painfully.

When I was serious about trail running I did the Pikes Peak half-marathon. I started up the Manitou Incline with a guy who said he was seventy. I was in my mid-thirties. I never saw him again until I reached the top. He told me I’d get better with age. My goal was to be able to run Pikes Peak when I was seventy. That doesn’t look like it will happen. I’ll be happy to do Vail Pass on my bike. When the riding, and skiing end the way trail running apparently has ended there is ongoing reading, writing, and gardening. I plan to learn fly-fishing, maybe try golf, and get better at backgammon. I hope to end up sitting in the mountain sun enjoying the passage of time with an old friend or dog or both, for as long as life goes on, until I stop breathing.

Alan Stark is recovering from a career in book publishing and a now a volunteer backcountry ski patroller in the Roosevelt National Forest. He lives in Breckenridge and Boulder.

Mountain Passages: Rants and a Thunderstorm

We get grumpy when choices are made for us by government and corporations without any outside input—particularly our input. By Alan Stark

No one sought anyone’s approval on the following traffic scam, bulletproof packaging, and advertising arrogance. There was no notice of change or alternate choice. There were no hearings or discussion of options. The scams, packaging, and ads simply appeared in our lives without warning, very much like a wart growing on the end of our collective nose without notice.

TRAFFIC SCAMS

Here in Boulder, and no doubt in other cities as well, the local government runs a traffic scam with cameras hidden in cars and on poles at intersections. The unsuspecting motorist, who is slightly exceeding the speed limit or misjudges the length of a yellow light, is greeted with a substantial flash signaling she will be receiving a ticket in the mail from the city of Boulder. The ticket includes a lovely picture of the perp’s face and license plate plus a ticket for a tidy sum.

This is a scam for any number of reasons, starting with the fact that a citation for a traffic violation should come from a certified law officer, not a city government clerk. These cameras take work away from our constables. But what is particularly unfair about these cameras in vehicles is that they are located in spots where there is a ridiculously low speed limit or there is a transition from an in-town speed limit to a county speed limit. In the case of the high volume intersections, the yellow light, which used to stay on for enough time to get through the intersection is now on for a very short period. It is simply not possible to get through the intersection on the yellow anymore.

We need to tell city governments that we are not to be preyed upon as supplemental revenue source–our sales and property taxes are enough.

A thunderstorm is rolling up from the south and pelting the Flatirons to the west of Boulder with sheets of rain. The wind roars over our house. The trees branches in front of the storm fly about spastically as if controlled by a huge collective force. The power of it all is magnificent to watch. The storm makes me smile.

When we travel separately or together my best friend and I often buy each other bells, particularly small temple bells that we hang from the trees in the yard. Each of the bells has a string attached to clapper to which I have added a piece of basswood that flits around in the wind. The temple bells tinkle in the blasts of wind from the thunderstorm. It is a tiny, yet profound sound, against the roar of the wind. 

PLASTIC PACKAGING

Who thought of the idea of encasing thousand of products in ballistics-proof plastic that requires a utility knife or kitchen shears to open? And why is it that the plastic sheeting is usually four of five times as large as the product? Is this to command shelf space or so we won’t stuff the product in a pocket and shoplift it?

Who voted on sealed plastic containers that don’t allow us to actually handle the product before buying it, or is that the idea behind the plastic entombment of products? And is there a nationwide insurance policy to cover those of us who have stabbed ourselves trying to get these packages open?

So plenty of things in life are frustrating and nonsensical–we adjust. But we also have a stewardship issue with this plastic. It goes directly to the dump, it’s not on the recycle list on the lid of our recycling bins. Who knows the half-life of this plastic in the dump?

Why would we buy a product packaged so we can’t steal it, packaging that doesn’t allow us to inspect the product, and goes directly to the landfill once we’ve pried it open? Let’s not—let’s stop buying stuff that we can’t handle before we buy it.

IMG_7950The winds drop off for a moment as the sky darkens. There is this pause before the storm as if this force is taking a deep breath before blowing through the flatlands and on out to Nebraska where thunderstorms go to die for lack of interest.

I stand in the maw of the garage watching the storm and thinking of my Dad. He was a meteorologist who had a chair in his garage where he would sit and watch storms. I move to get my chair. He now watches the storms from his chair in assisted living, but he still watches and marvels at the power of it all. I marvel at him.

I move my chair to the drip line from the garage roof. The leading drops of rain create huge splats on the driveway. Once, on a motorcycle north of Fairplay, I watched one of these drops from way above me arc into the faceplate on my helmet and totally obliterate my vision for several moments. Now, I can feel the mist rebounding from the drops on my bare feet. 

MOVIE ADS

RedbandAt what point did any of us decide to have three or four long advertisements blasted at us at the local theater before the trailers or the movie?

No question, advertising people (a questionable use of the term) will do anything to get their product in front of the public. For years, advertisers have paid movie makers substantial fees to have their product used as props in movies. “Product placement” is bad enough, but inflicting ads on us in the theater is outrageous. We, in fact, have paid money to a theater to see advertisements. A dream come true for advertisers, people paying to see their work (yet again, another questionable use of another term).

We aren’t going to stop going to the movies, but we can stop buying products advertised in movies. We could, for example, drink rum and generic cola from here on out.

IMG_7907And now the thunderstorm gets serious with pounding rain that hits so hard on the pavement that it appears to be going up. If these sorts of storms are stationary or at least moving slowly, they create flash floods here in the High Country. Flash floods have been known to destroy stupid structures built by man. 

Alan Stark is a free-lance writer who lives in Boulder and Breckenridge with this blue-eyed person and her dog.

Photos by Doug Schnitzspahn

Mountain Passages: Insider Info on Travel to Cuba

Thinking of traveling to Cuba anytime soon? Here are some thoughts, possibly useful, that will help. By Alan Stark

When you arrive at the Havana airport there are no jetways, only mobile ramps the ground crews roll up to airplane doors. These ramps look like they were made on a bad day in Romania. The plastic canopy around them has nearly gone opaque with sun damage and age. But here is a warning: It’s always warm in Cuba and mostly downright hot and humid. Don’t get caught behind a slowpoke going through one of these things unless, of course, being slow-cooked is of interest.

Once you are inside the airport, you will encounter immigration positions with a door at the far end. The sense is odd, like walking into a closet with an unfriendly young adult to one side who will decide whether you get the lady (or man), or the tiger. The security door buzzes open to a hanger-like hall with metal detectors and security people wearing starched light-brown uniforms. They are mostly handsome twenty-somethings, and the women have added a twist to their normal uniform—black lace stockings. The incongruity is starting, like encountering one of our bloused-booted, Glock-toting, immigration officers with a three-inch smiley-face pin on his chest.

Cuban WomanThe black lace stockings are a tip-off about what is to happen in Cuba—no, not everyone is going to be wearing black lace stockings. But Cuba is rapidly changing from a drab communist state clone to a multifaceted socialist state. The change appears to be irreversible, if they do it right, and make carefully thought-out changes to avoid huge dislocations. This could be another Velvet Revolution that created the Czech Republic. But, if the party holds onto power and there is no revolution, Cuba will be like Viet Nam, a Socialist government and a highly entrepreneurial population. Call it a the Salsa Revolution—for the Cubans are about to dance their way into the 21st century.

Money
There are hundreds of curiosities within the Cuban government, and many of these curiosities seem to have an antecedent of, “Lets throw this sugar cane at the wall and see if sticks.”

For example, there are two currencies in Cuba one is Cucs (kooks) that the government has set an exchange rate at 87 to US$100. Yup, there is a 13% commission charged by the government to trade dollars for Cucs. This is the currency used by tourists and should be acquired at the hotel on arrival. The second is the Peso that is used by the Cubans as well as Cucs. At this writing, there are no ATMs in Cuba, and credit cards are useless, everything a tourist buys in Cuba is with Cucs. The government doesn’t stop getting into your wallet on the way out of Cuba. When leaving, Cucs are exchanged for dollars at the airport again with a 13% charge. Give them 100 Cucs and they give you back US$87. However, there is a better deal to be had in the hotel lobby or on the street just before you leave. Cubans will pay $100 for 100 Cucs. Dollars come into Cuba as remittances that the Cubans need changed to Cucs and the only way they can do that is through money changers working free lance at and around the hotels.

Cigars
Cigar aficionados be warned, Cuban cigars are as advertised, they are wonderfully fragrant, mild, and smooth smoking. A trip to tobacco growing region Valle de Vinales and a tobacco farm is a couple hours of pure addiction gratification.

The farmer greets you in a curing barn hung with rack of sweet-smelling tobacco.

cigar seller “How many of you smoke?” the farmer will ask sarcastically, knowing that most Americans, wishing to live forever, have given up smoking but relish a puff or two on a Cuban cigar.  He then talks about how the tobacco is grown and cured, and then he goes to work to skillfully make a cigar, holding some leaves in one hand, cleaning and smoothing the leaves into a tent-like form that he then rolls on a smooth surface. Next, he carefully selects fine wrapper leaves and rolls a perfect cigar. Then he cuts both ends and light up for a couple puffs, and then carefully puts the hot end of the cigar in his mouth and blows smoke out of the cigar. Taking the cigar out of his mouth, he passes it to the nearest now-slavering non-smoker and says, “A good cigar, it draws well.”

After the demonstration he invites you to his house for coffee and/or rum or both while a family member sells cigars at one Cuc each from a cardboard box. In a matter of an hour or so, you can indulge in nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol, a socially acceptable addicts paradise, not to be missed on a visit to Cuba.

Cars
Something that also can’t be missed in Cuba are all the antique cars and trucks smoking along the streets interspersed with Eastern Block POS, (remember the Yugo?), a few Japanese and Korean sedans, and the occasional, out of place, fat-cat, thuggish BMW, Audi, and Mercedes. These antiques are the cars from before the 1959 revolution that have been rebuilt many times over, usually retrofitted with diesel engines, and appear to be held together by superb jury-rigging mechanics, imagination, wishful thinking, and wire.

They are a metaphor for how Cubans deal with their situation; don’t go without— make it work—keep it going. Throughout the day and most of the night in Havana, these cars, many of which are for hire (agree on a price with the driver before you get in), smoke and honk their way through the pot-holed streets. They provide a colorful on-going parade of mid-century American engineering, Cuban ingenuity, and entrepreneurial spirit. One note of caution, pedestrians in Cuba are pretty much ignored by drivers. It’s not that Cuban drivers are murderous, but they are a little crazy and crossing a street is an adventure.

Los Cubanos
But the best adventure to be found in Cuba is with the people: Their great love of family and friends, the warmth with which they greet and engage with strangers, and their love of life under a repressive government and a ridiculous embargo perpetrated by morons in our government.

When talking about the future, Cubans recognize that change is coming but say, “it’s complicated, we need to be careful. We need to go slowly.” In the past two hundred years, there have been a number of revolutions in Cuban, some fairly violent.

Cuban WorkerIn spite of Cuban circumspection, change is going to come quickly in Cuba. In the last month, Raul Castro and President Obama met and held a joint press conference. The Cubans are thrilled with the thaw in Cuban American relations, as are American corporations thinking about how they are going to exploit a new opportunity in Cuba. But in past revolutions, American corporations, one of them being the mafia, have taken a good deal more out of Cuba than they have put in. The Cubans are right, they need to be careful. On the business side, they should form their own national corporations that are production and profit oriented on the Chinese model. Or if outright freedom comes, they should limit international corporations to 49% ownership in Cuban corporations along the lines of the Canadian model.

The worst that can happen here is another blood-bath of a revolution. But Raul Cuban turkeyCastro appears to be a smart guy who is probably not going to give up power, and will eventually groom another fat cat to take his place. Cubans now get to vote in municipal elections. The hope is that this vote will eventually carry over to provincial elections, and then national elections and perhaps a formation of a congress or parliament that truly represents the Cuban people. We will all see.

There is much that is in flux in Cuba. In spite of this, still thinking about going to Cuba? Do it for two reasons: (1) Cuban tourism is the financial starting point for a much more entrepreneurial and free Cuba. (2) The Cubans have built a society and culture under difficult circumstance. They are happy and wonderful neighbors who deserve our support.

The fourth of a three-part series on Cuba. Alan Stark is a free-lance based in Boulder who lives with a blue-eyed person and her dog. He can be reached at alanbearstark@gmail.com

 

Mountain Passages: Cuba Tres, Bear Salsas

At loose, sort of, in Cuba, Bear drinks in music and art, gets out on the dance floor (with the help of some rum), and wonders why Cubans like us. By Alan Stark

Cuba is about the music and dancing, the people, and their art. Traveling here is an opportunity to observe a very odd government, try their food, and maybe drink a little rum and smoke a cigar or two.

Flamenco LeaderAt eight in the morning the sound of music from the studios across from our hotel dance into and through the room. Almost anywhere in Havana, at any time of day, there is music. And, at whatever time you tumble into bed, you will hear music until you fall asleep. Most of the music I heard was a Latin-Cuban-African-Caribbean mixture that involves a steady beat, at least one singer, drums of all sorts, a lead guitar, and a bass. But beyond that, the additional members of the band can be playing just about anything that makes music.

This is a communist country where the work of musicians is just honorable as the work of professors—that’s a good thing. So, in Cuba, if you qualify for a musical education based on testing, your eventual job for the state will be as a musician. Sort of like being in the Marine Band in DC minus the shaved head, the uniform, and having to play Sousa marches the rest of your career. There is clearly a great deal of music education in Cuba. It wasn’t the intent of this education, but the consequence is bands with folks playing cellos, flutes, and violins accompanying the usual drums and guitars.

I’ll bet that the base player in a band, who is highly skilled, was classically trained—remember that Cuba was basically a Russian satellite for years. Classical music is just a notch below vodka in the Russian value system. The guy working the bass in a given band isn’t some mountain-town loadie who has mastered maybe a solid ten chords he can pound-out all night. The bass line in a Cuban band can be just as interesting as everything else being played. It all contributes to a toe-tapping, butt swinging, stand up and boogie musical experience.

And the dancing—Cubans dance all of the time and are great at it. In the studio across the street from our hotel there was a recital almost every night. It looked like modern dance, with amazing moves to watch. Part of the cultural tour was to see a Cuban Flamenco group one morning. Seven dancers simply rocked the place with intricate Spanish moves with a huge Caribbean heart.

Afterwards the leader spoke with great enthusiasm but she made us a little sad when she said she had to constantly recruit new dancers, because when members of her troupe reached a high level of skill they emigrated. No country can sustain itself when it consistently loses the best and brightest people.

As mountain people we all have some dance moves that we make, usually fueled by alcohol, generally to the beat of the music. Blue Eyes calls my dance moves, “The Bear Shuffle.” It wasn’t working for me when we were taken to a dance studio for an hour-long salsa lesson that started with a couple of shots of rum.

The Salsa beat goes like this: one-two-three-stop, five-six-seven-stop, going forward, backward and then to both sides. The couple shots of rum I had before the lesson didn’t help that much, Salsa dancing pretty much eluded me.

Because this was a cultural “people to people’ trip, and maybe because we were spending a great deal of time drinking rum before dinner, one late-afternoon we were shuttled off to a choral recital in a church. The vocalists were highly skilled, and while the music left me staring the ceiling, there was one point where the conductor had his choir singing in such a way that individual blocks of notes rolled forth like a single wave of sound filled with discrete tones. I’ve never heard a choir do that before and I’d love to hear that again. I might even show for a church choral recital in Boulder one of these days. Probably not, but what a great sound.

Before I get into another subject I know nothing about but appreciate, that being ART, let me digress a little about the Cuban character. I suppose that if I had a huge country north of me that had tried to strangle my government with a dumb embargo, had actually invaded my country, and allegedly tried to assassinate my leader on a number of occasions, I’d be tempted to be highly pissed-off at the US.

Cigar FarmerCubans have every reason to hate us because the embargo didn’t screw up their government; the fat cats always survive embargoes untouched. The Cuban embargo messed up the lives of common people as blanket embargos always do. Embargoes are a quick fix by incompetent politicians much like cops rounding-up all the usual suspects instead of doing the hard work of finding two or three really bad guys (or girls). The President got it right with imposed sanctions against key Russian leaders and oligarchs who went whining to Putin when their assets outside of Russia were frozen.

Cubans actually like us, even after all the hardships we have imposed on them. I’m guessing it’s because we have figured out ways to help them in spite of our stupid embargo. A couple years ago, my friend Steven called in markers from other orthodontists and dental vendors and hauled dental supplies down to Cuba. Blue Eyes took guitar strings and watercolors kits to give away to musicians and kids. The remittances from family members that keep Cubans going are from Cuban-Americans.

But if there is anger at the US it manifests itself as a kind of megalomania. Cuban objects are bigger, better, and more beautiful than anyplace else, and Cubans more skilled and artistic than anyone else. For example, Cuban architecture is beautiful, even though the building is now crumbling to a pile of rubble. Cuban rum is the best in the world but I found, in a highly scientific, week-long experiment, that 18-year-old Cuban rum was a little rough. Cuban Cigars are the best in the world. We had a Cuban famer roll a cigar in front of us, light it up, and pass it around. It was the best cigar I’ve ever tasted. Cuban auto mechanics are the best in the world. The early 50s cars that smoke along the streets are wrecks that keep on rolling based solely on superb repair work, wishful thinking, and wire.

Some of the megalomania is justified, but like any people trying to tell the world that they are as good as anyone else, if not better—it gets old after a while. There is a greatness in these Cubans, they have survived and thrived under a stupid government. It will be amazing to see what they accomplish over the next ten years.

But back to art. Blue Eyes has dragged me to a number of art shows, exhibitions, and museums. I pretend that I’m being taken away from something important like sharpening my skis or turning the garden, but in reality, I always enjoy myself, because I almost always see something transcendent, something, like a well-written paragraph or a line from a poem that just takes me away to a happy place.

We saw twentieth-century paintings in the National Museum of Art and none of it moved me. Maybe it was the Bay of Pigs tanks and missiles in the park across the street that got me off on the wrong foot.  The art was mostly dark and somber—maybe taking itself too seriously. Art historians can prattle on (like architects) endlessly about all the allusions and symbols and sources of inspiration of a particular painting. Once I’ve been grabbed by an artist I find a modicum of this information worthwhile, “But geesus Lady, let’s not spend fifteen minutes on a piece that no one appears to care about except you.”

Cuban flag-2So if you’ve gone to France or Japan to eat or Argentina or Scotland to drink you might be a little disappointed with Cuban comestibles. We ate as a group of American cultural tourists and were generally served family-style a good amount of food. Breakfast was Euro hotel food-piles with the best being eggs cooked fresh on the grill. Lunch, as did dinner, started with a welcome drink and an appetizer such as dishes of croquets and plantain chips that look like potato chips and taste like cardboard. Salad was inevitably sliced tomato, some lettuce or shredded cabbage, cucumbers, and maybe cold green beans dressed with oil and vinegar. Next came plates of roasted pork and lamb and grilled fish. Dessert was almost always flan but flan isn’t interesting enough to eat twice a day.

And dinner, was pretty much the same. I’m sure you could do better with food if you ordered a la carte but don’t go to Cuba for the food, they have a ways to go. Even when I ditched the tour and ate out on my own, the food was still boring. Best guess is that foodie endeavors are tough in a country where the food supply is often limited.

Cuban art and food are so-so. The government is repressive. But go to Cuba for the people—especially the people, the music, the dancing, rum and cigars.

This is the third of a four-part series on Cuba. Read #1 here and #2 here.

Alan Stark is a free lance based in Boulder who lives with a blue-eyed person and her dog. He can be reached at alanbearstark@gmail.com

Mountain Passages: Cuba, It’s Complicated

Landed in Cuba, Bear explores the crumbling beauty of Havana, enjoys the country’s fabulous people, and ponders how such an ineffectual government can work. By Alan Stark.

“It’s complicated,” A Cuban says with a half-smile on her face.

Blue-Eyes and I are on a cultural tour of Havana and the western mountain region including the town of Vinales. We signed up for to the trip about three days before President Obama announced a thaw in US and Cuban relations. There was nothing prescient about this, we just wanted to visit Cuba. The Euros and Canadians who have been coming here for years are now all pissed off. “We wanted to see Cuba before the hoards of Americans arrived,” a Canadian said.

What the hoards are going to see first in central Havana is a city that appears to be crumbling before their eyes. Most of the buildings have had no maintenance in fifty or sixty years and are literally falling apart, brick by brick. The streets and sidewalks are in ill-repair. In a way it feels like you visiting someplace in Eastern Europe just after the end of the World War II.

A couple days ago, an architecture professor from the University led us on a walking tour of the buildings around the Park Central. Architects have the unique ability to look at a perfect dump of a building and talk about interesting features, and often ramble on endlessly about the original builders and owners, the period in which the structure was built, the construction materials—in short—more information than anyone save an architect, would want or care to know. Our professor stayed true to form. She would point at a crumbling building over her shoulder and she would say, “And this beautiful buildings…” We looked at thirty or so buildings in our tour, twenty of them were wrecks; some interesting wrecks, but wrecks none-the-less.

CrumblingBeyond the buildings that are falling down, a full a third of the buildings in central Havana, beginning with the National Capitol are “under restoration.” But many of these restorations looked like the crews were pulled off to work on something else shortly after they got started. It is almost like there are a hundred crews working on a thousand restoration projects. So some plumbers are working on one building and across town a water main breaks,  the plumbing crew gets pulled off the restoration to fix the water main and after that they are rotated to an entirely different project, because the government runs almost everything…badly.

The crews that I saw looked like they were really working, but this is a communist country where everyone is paid the same salary, somewhere between twenty-one and twenty-five dollars a month. The local cliché goes something like this, “They pretend to pay me, and I pretend to work.” It was explained that most everyone has a second source of income that involve all sorts of enterprises that are mostly legal. Before you get to scratching your head about the salary, realize that everything in Cuba is subsidized, or as one Cuban said, “We have nothing, we have everything.”

Once into the more modern part of the city to the west Havana looks like your average Latin American city, or Anchorage, where there is only one zoning official for the entire town and she spends most of her time sipping espresso in a café and laughing. Central Havana needs some work.

singerThink of that laughing zoning official and you see how the average Cuban thinks. There is the GOVERNMENT that is omnipresent and clearly oppressive and then there is the important stuff like my family, my friends, my neighborhood, eating, drinking, screwing, laughing, singing, dancing and maybe my work.  The Cubans are proud of the Revolution that made for a much better and more equitable society but they don’t appear to give much of a shit about the government. They simply tolerate it.

Cubans are fabulous people. I stopped on the sidewalk to let an older man on a crutch pass in front of me. As he passed he looked me in the eye, smiled, and with  his free hand patted me on the belly. That momentary connection with a stranger is the way Cubans interact with everyone.

We were sitting in a restaurant drinking Cubatas that are much better than Cuba libres, because they are made with dark rum instead of bar rum. The band was having a grand time as we were. Another crowd came into the room and started Salsa dancing as they moved to their tables. It was a sight to see…one, two three, pause, five, six seven, pause. Damn, Cubans can dance.

I’m writing this on a table in the back of a Chinese bus in the mountains outside of Vinales. The guitarists, and singer who were playing during our lunch, got on the bus to ride with us back to town. The bus is filled with song

P1000253As mountain people, we think of ourselves as laid-back, maybe even pride ourselves on being pretty relaxed about most everything. But compared to Cubans we’re like MBAs in a bank vault. Cubans are relaxed and happy in a way I’ve never seen before. It could be the climate or the culture but I think it’s the GOVERNMENT. When all your basic needs are met by free services and subsidies, worrying about providing for yourself goes away. The GOVERNMENT will provide everything, plus twenty-one dollars a month.

So here in Cuba, you have the center of the national capital basically falling apart due to good intentions, overreaching, bad planning, underfinancing, and unmotivated workers. And yet this government has created possibly the highest quality of life for almost all of its citizens that can be found anywhere in Latin America.

And you have happy people on what appears to be a verdant island having a wonderful time with one another and anyone who visits. Their enthusiasm for life is infectious; they just light up a room when they come into it. But at the same time they speak of the collapse of the Soviet Union and say things like, “And then there was no one to take care of us.“

mojitoCubans expect all these services from the government but have absolutely no motivation to work for the Government. However, it is these same unmotivated people who work like crazy for their second incomes and start small business subject to ridiculous taxes. Some of these Cubans would leave this wonderful island in a heartbeat if they could figure a way to do it without taking a long ride in a small boat.

It’s complicated.

Alan Stark is a wordsmith who lives with a blue-eyed person and her dog in Boulder and Breckenridge.

This is the second in a four-part series. Read the first installment here.

Mountain Passages: Cuba Libre!

Our erstwhile reporter jets off to Cuba with a headful of politics, art, music, and questions about what it will be like for an American to travel in a nation that has been closed off for so long. By Alan Stark

While we are waiting at Miami International Airport (MIA), a number of thoughts rumble around my head regarding Cuba. I’m wondering which of them will prove to be true when I get there, and if any of them will prove to be utter horsepucky. That and the knowledge that “MIA” means something entirely different to me, and I hope it’s not the case during our 45-minute charter flight to Havana.

My thoughts revolve around politics, the arts, and the people of Cuba.

As soon as I think about Cuba, Castro’s iconic shaggy appearance just looms in my mind. It is as if Castro is to Cuba like the Pope is to the Catholic Church. Odd that I don’t think of an island nation with a speckled history of freedom and oppression, but I instead think of one banana republic dictator who has always appeared a little larger than life, in a John Wayneish sort of way, as he ranted from a podium for hours at a time.

cuba apartmentsNext I think of the pre-Castro Cuba that was essentially a Mafia colony—a sort of island Las Vegas. Next come thoughts of the highly courageous, clever, and ultimately successful guerrilla war that toppled Batista. This was in many ways a case study for overthrowing a dictator.  And then, finally, the Cuban missile crisis comes to mind. At that time, my family lived close to the DC border in Maryland, not far from Bolling Air Force Base. On that October night when it seemed the world was about to blow up, I watched a great number of planes in the pattern and landing at Bolling—many more than usual. I was just a kid, but I remember thinking that maybe they were bringing in troops to protect the Capitol. Now I think those planes were really there to evacuate political leaders and their families—odd how you get more cynical with age.

It’s alleged that Castro isn’t much of a commie, rather that communism was a dogma of convenience to him. Brother Raul, who is now in power, is the serious communist. But Raul, since taking power in 2011, has overseen a great deal of common sense politics. This isn’t a place for a political rant, but a dictatorship is a dictatorship. It is the American reaction to Castro’s control of Cuba that makes me crazy. Embargoes are one of the worst ideas since Comcast. The people in power aren’t hurt by embargoes, but everyone else in the country is. I travel to Cuba with the belief that our embargo of Cuba has been a very bad idea.

Guban SingerTrying to explain how Cuban music sounds is like describing individual pieces of a puzzle without being able to see the image of the completed puzzle on the box. The Denver jazz station KUVO will occasionally play a piece from Cuba that I often find intriguing enough to stop fiddling with whatever is on my desk or workbench and listen. The music feels like fun—it draws you in and makes you feel like you would want to be right there, standing at the bar, toe tapping with a drink in hand, and watch and listen to the musicians playing.

So I travel to Cuba thinking I’ll very much like the music that I hear. That I’ll buy a stack of CDs long before it occurs to me that we may not have a CD player in The Creak House anymore. Meaning that the only place I’ll play them once or twice is in the car that also may or may not have a CD player. I should have checked this all out before I left.

And art? If you look around The Creak House where we live in Boulder, there are objects sitting in alcoves, on tables, and hung on the walls, done by artists and craftspeople (sometimes not the same) from all over the world. A bowl from Japan filled with round pebbles from a beach in Iceland would sort of give a clue about our artistic tastes. I’m the last person in the world to discuss ART— Joan, my neighbor, and former gallery owner, bristles whenever the word comes out of my mouth. When it comes to describing my artistic taste I’m tantamount to a pirate turned loose in a palace—if something catches my eye I then decide whether or not I like it. And then I move on. If I really like it and can afford it (often two very different scenarios) I sometimes come back and buy the piece. But, in our relationship, it is Blue Eyes who usually buys the art that we have agreed on.

We agree on our art purchases in the following manner:

“You like it?”

“Nope.”

“I do.”

“Okay, but no foul, no penalty. Right?

“Right, we should both like it…too bad all your taste is in your mouth.”

“Foul.”

But every once in a while, Blue Eyes asks the question, and I immediately see what she sees in the piece and wink at her. A Hopi mudhead kachina we found in Scottsdale, of all places, now sits in an alcove in the bathroom. He has his own little light above his feathered head, and sometimes on a cold winter’s morning, I turn on the light and look at him and smile. Sometimes Mudhead smiles back.

Will we come back with any art or crafts from Cuba? I doubt it. While Blue Eyes says there are plenty of places left in The Creak House for displaying more pieces, we have both agreed that we need to get rid of some of our stuff. But that’s an entirely different story, most likely delusional and not worth telling.

cuba streetsweeperI’ve been told the Cuban people dislike our government and love us as a people. That’s a thought I can get behind and it is not one unique to the Cubans. This isn’t a place to rant or justify our government but this, and the next few notes from Cuba will be an opportunity to make some comparisons and maybe take a guess as to what will happen next in Cuba.

Join me?

This is the first of a three-part series on Cuba. Alan Stark is wordsmith who lives with this blue-eyed person and her dog in both Boulder and Breckenridge.

Mountain Passages: Solstice

Portland, Old Friends in the Rain, and the Shortest Day of the Year

By Alan Stark

It’s the winter solstice. A couple minutes ago I was thinking about a friend I lost a long time ago. It wasn’t a warm, fuzzy thought. But I’m in Portland and seeing stuff that makes me smile. There is a sad/happy thing going on in my head. I blame this yin-yang thinking on the holiday season.

The rain is running down my neck, the sort of annoying Pacific Northwest rain that’s not intense enough for an umbrella, but given time, will soak through my allegedly waterproof jacket and polypro pullover. Not that I’d be carrying an umbrella on a run anyhow. It would be an obvious wardrobe blunder in this fashion capitol of Oregon.

I’m running through the burbs near Portland. I turn a corner and see a guy washing his car in the light rain. He’s on the driveway of a normal looking suburban ranch house with a two-car garage. The yard is well kept up, he’s washing a late model Japanese sedan, and there are Christmas lights along the eves of the house. He doesn’t look up as I trundle by. My first thought is that this guy is just nuts. There is much in the Pacific Northwest, and particularly the Portland area, that is weird.

But as I continue running I reconsider. Maybe he’s highly structured and always washes his car on this day of the week. Or maybe he’s unemployed and keeping himself busy or maybe he just had a fight with his mate and had to get out of the house. And maybe I’m getting weird because I’m running in the rain in this strange town and just making stuff up as the miles go by.

Yesterday my older sister and I were walking through the Pearl District at dusk and saw a shopping cart person staring into a store window. The cart was filled with bags of junk, and he looked like he had on four layers of heavy clothing. I wondered what he was looking at. When I passed by I saw he was watching a large screen TV showing tropical images. I’m sure that if I were barely surviving on a rainy Portland street, I might be standing there wet and transfixed by pictures of beaches and palm trees.

There are way too many people like him out in the rain in this country.

I’ve known a good number of people in this life and drifted away from some of them. The drifting away was almost always about alcohol and drugs. Sure—guilty as charged—but I never dropped in to anything without knowing where and how I would land. They made their choices. They dropped in and crashed; time and again.

I can name names but won’t. If they are still alive, the naming would embarrass them. But when I saw that guy watching TV in the rain I thought of an old friend that I lost. I whispered for her “if the fates allowed” in this holiday season.

She was one of my best friends. We hung out together. What I remember and cherish was the laughter. She eventually married another friend of mine and moved to Colorado long before I did. They had a kid and then a really ugly divorce. By that time I’d moved to Boulder. I had one of those civilized divorces at about the same time. You might know what I mean…As the divorce proceeded I often had my teeth clenched down hard when all I really wanted to do was scream.

My friend and I hung out together again. There was always way too much drinking and doping; too much for me. She found someone else, I found Blue Eyes. My friend and I drifted apart.

Several years later she called at three in the morning. She was stranded at some ratty old house with her kid, too strung out to do anything else but call for help. I picked them up and took them to her place. That was 20 years ago. A couple years ago I ran into her at Liquor Mart. I didn’t know what to say. Still don’t.

My taller sister and I walked all over Portland stopping once for an Irish coffee. I live in Boulder most of the time, a town that has somewhat of a reputation, so I’m real careful about making fun of other places for fear of cosmic retribution.

“So Sis, I don’t mean to be insulting but is Portland just weird.”

“What do you mean?”

“ For starters, how about folks milling about in the rain wearing butt ugly stocking caps, huge lumber shirts, pierced nostrils, and clunky boots.”

“Oh that…that’s nothing. Weird is the Facebook page for the airport carpet.”

This is a true fact. Look it up. The Portland locals have a thing for the aquamarine carpet at the airport. Seems about four acres of it were designed by some person who mimicked the runway layout—clever, in a penny loafer sort of way. But now the carpet needs replacement and the locals have dropped in with no idea of where they are going to land. My sister claimed that some of the carpet will be salvaged and made into doormats for the true Portland airport carpet aficionados. This is a true fact.

This run needs to come to an end, my left knee is talking to me and it’s not talking about old friends or Portland. It’s still raining as I slow up and stop. I fly home on this shortest day of the year.

Portland signIt’s the winter solstice; a magical time of year that can be both sad and happy. For me it is a time to remember lost friends and maybe mumble some hopeful words for them. A time to make sure my family and friends know how much I love them. And maybe a time to say a nice thing or two about Portland…they have a really great looking mountain northeast of town…and when the weather breaks, two or three times a year, you can see it.

In a week or so most of us will get back to our routines and maybe our 423rd weight loss plan. We’ll have most of the ski season in front of us and some amazing days with powder up to our noses. And then it could be down to the islands for mud season and then on to summer in the mountains when we look up and think that maybe the blue sky goes on forever in all directions.

But on this shortest day of the year, it is time to gather friends arm-in-arm around a huge fire somewhere in the woods…a time to dance around the fire and howl like wolves in the pure joy of being alive together.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year

Alan Stark is a volunteer backcountry ski patroller in the Roosevelt National Forest and freelance writer. He lives in Boulder with this Blue Eyed person and her dog.

Mountain Passages: Japan, the Tour

I’ve been traveling Japan with Blue Eyes for two weeks, first on an art-and-crafts tour, and now here in Kyoto with friends. The tour included 16 boomers, and two guides, one of whom spoke fluent Japanese, and who also had a firm grasp of art, history, culture, and group dynamics. If you remember the kung fu movies, he is like the counselor monk in the background who advises the principal monk and who gets all the important stuff done… food, housing, laundry, transportation, sword sharpening, etc.

This is only the second time I’ve been on a tour. The first was several years ago on the White Rim Trail out of Moab, an easy, leisurely mountain bike ride through some magnificent red rock country. That tour was for four days with six riders and two guides. Eighteen people on this trip seems like a crowd, a nice crowd, but a crowd nonetheless.

The people on this tour come from essentially the same demographic and age group; both of these factors tend to lessen the potential for conflict. But we’ve been together for a long while and I’m not good at it. Add to that a tightly packed schedule, plus travel by bus, train, and taxi, plus a number of group meals, and the conversation starts to go round and round.

There isn’t a whole lot of central heating in Japan and we thought the houses we visited looked like they’d be cold in the winter.

“The human body generates 400 BTU in a day,” Thomas said.

“Wow, I had no idea.”

“Yes, it’s important in calculating heating for a building.”

“Of course.”

“I’ve been wanting to use that fact for years.”

“Thank you for sharing that information.”

Blue Eyes is my life friend and mate. There is no one else one else on the planet I’d rather spend extended periods of time with, but—and it’s a big but—being alone for a while is often a good thing. I need to walkabout solo. The aloneness gives me time to sort through all the ideas running through my small brain and toss the thoughts that are dumb, wrongheaded, or useless, and maybe write down the thoughts that may lead somewhere interesting.

Blue Eyes and friends head off for another site that will no doubt include iconic Japanese structures and, because it is late autumn, brilliant red maple trees. I turn left at the front door of the hotel and start walking north toward the Imperial Palace. I know a reservation is needed for the tour. If I had an Imperial Palace I wouldn’t let just anyone come gawk either, particularly me. While I don’t have a reservation, I think I’ll go anyhow. Who knows what I’ll discover?

Being on your own in an unknown city is pure adventure in the sense that what you see and do are absolutely driven by your curiosity and timing. At one intersection, a bike rider crossing the street passes too close in front of a car. The car nips her back tire throwing her off balance for a moment. She regains her balance and rides on, not looking back… as if that sort of thing happens all the time in Japan. In North America, that same encounter would involve some hand gestures and an exchange of opinions. And if there were any lawyers around, and they are always loitering at busy intersections (sometimes with cardboard signs), they would be falling over each other handing out their cards.

Kyoto gets in your brain the way Paris does. On this trip I’ve only seen two big cities, Osaka and Nagoya and both seemed a jumble of buildings and warehouses, many on narrow streets. The first thing that stuck me about Kyoto was the wide boulevards, just like Paris. Looking at the map it became clear Kyoto was built on a grid. The buildings are still a jumble of sizes and styles like the other two cities, but Kyoto is elegant.

I’m hungry, so I start looking for a place to eat. A number of less expensive restaurants hang a red lantern outside and either post pictures of their food or put out actual plates of food, or at least realistic models, in the windows. As a patron, you simply point at the picture of the food you want or you haul the waiter outside and point at the displayed food that you want. It’s a struggle to covey the diversity of appearances and tastes in Japanese food. Last night, we had Shabu Shabu, where you dip thinly cut meat in boiling water and watch it turn gray. Then you boil vegetables until they get soft. While the process and resulting meal sounds slightly dreadful to western tastes, the meat and veggies were superb.

But I’ve had enough Japanese food. Checking over my shoulder to make sure I’m not being observed by anyone on the tour, I duck into McDonalds for an Egg McMuffin with Sausage. Wonderful, and only 450 calories and about half of my daily recommended consumption of salt.

As I walk, I note a propensity to avoid eye contact by both the bicyclists on the sidewalk and my fellow pedestrians. I don’t see any bike lanes in Kyoto even though I’d guess that Japanese have been commuting by bike for a good deal longer than North Americans. They simply weave through sidewalk pedestrians on cruiser bikes that are a tad thinner and thus more maneuverable than our cruiser bikes.

Like all cyclists everywhere, the riders watch everything happening in front of them and to their sides with a constant, sweeping eye movement. The riders see my eyes but there is no recognition in their eyes other than that I am an object to be avoided. I’m amazed that pedestrians aren’t routinely run down but it never appears to happen.

I’m not big on eye contact, or at least I don’t have that weird compulsion to look everyone in the eye. I think my feeling about eye contact is born of a sense of privacy. Eyes convey a good deal, often eyes convey what a person is thinking. I’m not sure I want anyone to know what I’m thinking. Not that what I’m thinking is particularly unique, it’s just that they are my thoughts that I don’t choose to share. That’s what writing is for.

So for a non-eye contact person like me to note a lack of eye contact in another nationality is indicative of a cultural aversion, something innate in the Japanese. It could be shyness, it could be superiority, after all I am clearly not Japanese, or maybe it’s just fear that I’m going to ask them something that they will be unable to answer because they don’t understand my mountain patois.

When you walk a major city street in North America it is absolutely clear that we, as a people, came from everywhere. In a sense we are all mongrels and that’s a very good thing, one of our many strengths as North Americans. Japan is a heterogeneous society. It’s a good bet a researcher could trace most Japanese back to five hundred families 10,000 years ago. Point is, you don’t see many other nationalities in Japan, Japan doesn’t take in refugees, emigrating to Japan is difficult, and Japan has a long history of subjugating other nationalities with great prejudice…ask the Koreans or Chinese.

Even when I tried to make eye contact with bike riders or Japanese pedestrians I just couldn’t make it happen. It could be that one of the Japanese outside rules is not to make eye contact with anyone. Later in the day I was walking through food stalls in a covered alleyway and saw a cook in a glass booth frying dumplings. He sensed I was watching him and looked up. I smiled and he smiled back. It was a nice moment across nationalities. But on the street there was a sense of being studiously avoided.

My rambling includes a bookstore. Having spent my entire career in the book business, I’m curious about the bookstores of other countries because I miss being in big North American cities and cruising bookshops. These selfsame independent bookstores have been run out of business, first by corporate, chain-store greedheads and now by internet-discounted sales from another set of megalomaniacs. But it is nice to note a resurgence of sorts in the North American bookselling business. Reading a real book is an all around better experience than reading a book on a screen of any type. Yeah, I know I just bit the hand that feeds me because you are reading this on a screen. But hey, technology is a tool, this technology has probably helped more people read, but to really enjoy the full experience of reading, you need a physical book.

The real difference between North American bookstores and Japanese bookstores is that while Japan is all about esthetics and in many ways is a design-driven country, Japanese book design is pretty rudimentary and most books have plain but readable spines. The racks in a Japanese bookstore look like journal collections in a library. I thought to buy a kid’s book because the interior art was so fine but settle on a finely bound blank notebook and one of those pens with four colors of ink. I look forward to causing trouble with both.

The walk continues to the Imperial Palace that is entirely surrounded by a high wall. I’m a backcountry person. Fences, walls, gated communities all offend me. This wall was built as a military installation, there are 180 degree fields of fire stretching three hundred yards in all directions from the walls of the Palace. I marvel at how imposing the walls must have looked to an attacking foot soldier.  Like an old rock climber looking for a route upward, I look for weaknesses in the walls, places that could be breeched or climbed. I laugh at my neurosis of always being the outsider trying to get inside. I walk all the way around the Palace and then head back in the direction I had come I except that I’m walking side streets back to the hotel instead of on a boulevard.

These streets are about a car and half wide with a white stripe along either side like a bike lane in North America, but in this case, the white line indicates a sidewalk of sorts. I imagine that if a taxi nailed you inside the white line there might be trouble. I like small streets in other countries because that’s where folks live. Amazing what you can see, hear and smell if you pay attention on these streets. I find a number of restaurants worth visiting on the next trip, small shrines, gates to beautiful courtyards, a bike shop, flower shop, soshi screen shop and end up in a covered alleyway filled with food vendors including a number of fishmongers.

Just as I am about to head back to the hotel and the shuttle to Osaka I pass a fish stand where sashimi is being sold and walked on by. I get about a100 yards away and turned around, grumpy at myself for not taking the chance to eat raw fish from a food stand in an alleyway. There are three pieces of fish on a stick with a couple squeezes of lemon that cost 200 yen or about $1.80. I buy two. They are delicious.

Blue Eyes was waiting for me in the lobby.

“Where did you go?”

“Walkabout.”

“What did you see?”

“Many wonderful and curious things.”

“Time for you to go home.”

“Yes, Grasshopper.”

Alan Stark is back from his travels in Japan with this Blue-eyed person. He’ll wrap-up this five part series with the last installment sometime soon. He is a freelance writer and volunteer backcountry ski patroller for the Forest Service who lives in Boulder and Breckenridge.

Mountain Passages: Bear Takes a Japanese Bath

Chances are, I wouldn’t be a very good Japanese person. I understand taking my shoes off outside, but I don’t get the cultural reason behind shoe removal. The communal bath is not something I’d make habit a habit, and there are several bumps on my head from unintended encounters with low beams.

At some homes in Boulder we leave our shoes at the door. It has always seemed to me a good idea for keeping street dirt out of the house. But Willy the dog doesn’t much care about tracking dirt in the house. After a snow or rain, the wood floors look like we are running a dog hotel. Because we have Willy, we don’t bother to remove our shoes at The Creak House.

Apparently the Japanese view the world in terms of inside and outside. Shoes are for outside but not for inside. An extrapolation of this idea of outside and inside is the idea of dirty and clean; or to take the idea further, the profane and the sacred. But now I’m culturally in way over my head. All I can do here is observe and comment in a western context. To understand the Japanese mindset might just take a lifetime.

So I’m fine with the shoes outside thing, but then when I start hearing additional rules about outside things never touching inside things, I start scratching my head and possibly rolling my eyes. For example, I’m carrying a wonderful old Mountainsmith pack that has been with me for more than twenty years. It has been on the ground for hundreds of hours.  I need to bring the pack inside the inn to get to my shaving kit and clean clothes. So where do I put the dirty pack in the clean room? I’m trying not to be a Philistine, so I leave the pack by the door to my room, but it was definitely a dirty thing in a clean place.

The gender-separate communal bath I tried was spotless. It wasn’t that I dislike communal baths, other than the fact that I’m soaking in someone else’s bathwater. It’s just that given the choice, I’d rather be with the girls than the boys.

Remember that in Japan it is about process. So there are these written instructions that tell you how to behave in a communal bath that start with an explanation of how to wash yourself before you get in the bath. I don’t know about you, but I’ve done an okay job of washing myself for about the same number of years as the candles on my birthday cake—less maybe three. That’s a lot of experience washing myself. I don’t need to be told how to do it.

FullSizeRender-4Nonetheless, the instructions tell me to sit down on a stool that is about six inches off the ground. After multiple unintended encounters with the ground, hard snow, or boat gear, there are parts of my body that don’t bend well and are not operating at optimum design standards. This means that squatting on a stool six inches off the ground is awkward for me.  Once down on the stool, I turned on the shower to wet myself down, and then scrubbed top to bottom, rinsed off the soap, shut off the water, and attempted to dry myself with a towel about half the size of a dishtowel. Then I eased myself into a large pool filled with hot water with a couple of other guys, all looking slightly embarrassed. Admittedly, the bath is relaxing; my old parts that were a tad sore from squatting in the shower just mellowed out in the heat. The sign near the pool reminded us that the towel must never touch the water. Rubber duckies and other bath toys are not allowed either. I lasted about fifteen minutes and called the communal bath experience good.

I’m sort of an average-size North American male at barely six feet tall. I’ve spent some wonderful time on small sailboats, and understand crouching in a cabin or ducking in the cockpit when the helmsman yells “Heads!” Here in Japan I bump my head on a beam about four times a day. The first time stuns me and really hurts. The second time is less of a surprise and by the third or fourth time I am mostly feeling glancing blows to my head. None of this does any more damage than has already been done over the years. But I have now developed a sort of sixth sense to be constantly looking up before leaving yet another impression on both an overhead beam and my skull. I suppose that when I get home I’ll spend a week or so watching out for low ceilings.

Someone tried to explain to me the concept of boxes in the Japanese way of thinking. Apparently, everything in life has a box, some quite large such as family, and some quite small such as car keys. So as an example, let’s take getting a cup of coffee at the inn. We’ll call this the coffee box example. There is one coffee machine in the reception area of the inn. The machine grinds the coffee, brews the coffee, and pours it into your cup very quickly when the green light is on and pressed. The red light means the machine needs additional water or coffee or whatever. It is available to guests at 7:00 am. It is 6:50 in the morning and I need a cup of coffee. I go to press the green button and the hotel manager says, ”no, no, no, no,” and points at his watch. Even though the coffee machine is ready, in his mind the coffee is not available until 7:00 am. Those are the rules for the coffee box.

Curious.

I’ve just spent a couple of hundred words complaining about this country but here is what I have learned. In a highly structured society with rules for just about everything, I have become much more conscious of how my actions are perceived, and more perceptive about what may be an infraction of Japanese rules. In other words, I have become more mindful.

I’ve also learned to duck my head.

Alan Stark is traveling Japan with this Blue Eyed person. He will be sending irregular dispatches for the next several weeks.

Photos by (top) Mark Going/Courtesy Columbia Sportswear, (bottom) Alan Stark

Mountain Passages: Art and Order in Japan

In his ongoing posts form the Land of the Rising Sun, Alan Stark

 

There are magical places all over this blue planet—then there is Japan.

As North Americans, and particularly as mountain people, we tend to thrive on chaos. Maybe it’s our weather that makes us a little nuts, or the mountain terrain or that dream that drove us to the mountains in the first place, but here in Japan it is all about order. Almost everywhere you turn there are examples of purposeful order, from the way Japanese interact with foreigners, to way food is served, to the gardens and architecture. And even in the large tacky cities where you would expect chaos, there is always order and often pockets of beauty.

People speak of the Japanese aesthetic. Millions of words have been written about this aesthetic. My words will add nothing to the definition. Save to say that if you watch a Japanese prune a tree you will see him use a small pair of clippers with which he will take off single pine needles at a time to attain the shape and texture that suits his aesthetic—or better yet, the Japanese aesthetic. North Americans use chain saws for tree pruning.

FullSizeRender-2Order is curious word that it can mean thirty other things including a command or a definable structure of things. Order in Japan seems to be an accepted mandate among a homogenous society just as a definable organization of things is an agreed upon aspect of Japanese life. I might have just gone off into a philosophical swamp here so let me give another example.  To my eye, the rows of raised beds in my Boulder garden represent order in spite of the fact that toward the end of the summer the tomatillos, tomatoes, and zucchini’s are a jumble of vines and leaves. I suspect that a Japanese would never let that happen, that under Japanese stewardship my garden would be neat and orderly throughout the season, not just in winter and spring when the ground is bare or when the seeds are just starting to come up in neat rows.

The large cities I’ve seen are perfectly in tune with North American chaos. Superficially, they appear to be totally unorganized as if the zoning department had been closed down early in the twentieth century. But if you look closely in the jumble of buildings you can find both order and small spots of beauty such as an open courtyard of stylized pine trees or well-tended plantings along the median of a street.

And the architecture? The inventiveness of Japanese architecture is something to see and marvel at. I just saw a building obviously modeled after the Taos Pueblo only much taller and larger. I note the architecture because of the building being done now in Boulder by architects who seemed to have been trained someplace in East Germany by blind people before the wall came down. This trip isn’t very much about cities except for Kyoto that will come at the end of these reports, but now on to some small, out-of-the-way places worth seeing in Japan.

We are on the Island of Naoshima in the Inland Sea that is essentially a contemporary art center, that is if you can call “contemporary art” ART.

Let’s not get me into a definition of art that will embarrass or possibly enrage some, or all of us. I’m probably among a minority who see contemporary art as a bit of a cosmic joke on those who build word piles of art obfuscating prose in appreciation of a stack of sticks in the corner of an expensive art space.

Here on Naoshima, take for example some of the work of Lee Ufan that involves large rocks and plates of steel arranged in a concrete bunker-like building. The building by Tadao Ando shows a great deal of imagination not to speak of ingenuity, superb design, and engineering with all sorts of curious angles and odd shaped rooms. Ufan’s rocks and steel plates, not so much.

At another bunker, James Turrell messes with our sense of perception but, to be honest, the installations felt like an elegant physiological psychology experiment. One room has semi-sloped walls leading to large square hole in the ceiling. That evening we came back to the room just before sunset and sat there watching the hole in the ceiling as light banks in the wall changed our perception of the color of the sky in the square hole.

“So what you guys do for cocktail hour yesterday.”

“We sat silently in a concrete room contemplating a hole in the ceiling.”

“And then what happened.”

“The walls and sky changed color.”

“And?”

“Please don’t tell the boys and girls at Nederland Fire that I was staring at a hole in the ceiling for 45 minutes.”

The Teshima Art Museum on the island of the same name is memorable. This huge, flat, water-drop-like structureIMG_1102 of white concrete covers a football field-sized area. The structure, with two large ports for light, is a stunning piece of work unto itself. And then I noticed droplets of water bubbling up from the floor that randomly formed larger droplets that either snaked across the floor or became pools of water. The droplets and drops seemed to randomly move across the polished concrete floor. The effect was calming, contemplative, possibly transformative, but certainly magical.

“So what did you think?”

My friend Linda looked at me quizzically for a second.

“I was relieved,” she said, “The randomness of it all reminded me that all was not lost in the last election.”

Maybe contemporary art is at the crossroads of chaos and order.

Nah.

We are due to for some travel tomorrow and will visit the sculpture studio of Isamu Noguchi, a Japanese-American—more a citizen of the world. Then on to what may be tourist trap called Shikoku Mura where 19th century Japanese houses have been relocated and end with a walk through a formal garden in Takamatsu on the northern coast of Shikoku Island.

Alan Stark is traveling Japan with this Blue Eyed person. He will be sending irregular dispatches for the next several weeks.