One of my favorite podcasts is NPR’s Fresh Air, in which host Terry Gross interviews all kinds of interesting people — writers, scientists, singers, film stars. Much like the PBS NewsHour and CBS Sunday Morning, Fresh Air almost always expands my mind, enriches my brain, or opens my heart. Sometimes, it’s all three. If you are not yet a subscriber/viewer, back up and click on those links before you read any more.
Seriously, do that.
Thanks for coming back. So, one of Terry Gross’ most recent guests was Sir Kazuo Ishiguro, the Nagasaki -born, London-raised novelist whose works include Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, and who won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature.
…who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.
I’d not heard Ishiguro interviewed before, so was surprised by his English accent and stories of his British youth. He was a sort of celebrity child singer of church music and thought he’d be a singer-songwriter in his youth, and “voice” continues to inspire writing.
I take enormous inspiration from listening to singing voices. I love to listen to Stacey Kent, whom I write lyrics for. There’s something almost impossible to capture in words about the quality of the singing performance.
Terry concluded the interview with Stacey Kent’s I Wish I Could Go Traveling Again, lyrics by Kazuo Ishiguro. The song is sweet and the message is one so many of us feel very deeply, thirteen months into this pandemic. I wish I could go traveling again …..
A few weeks ago when we were among just a handful of people enjoying the beach at Boynton Inlet, a couple of pale visitors from Minnesota wandered by, camera in hand. After we’d established that I, born in St. Paul, had roots — a word my South Dakota father pronounced “ruhts” — in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the man looked down the beach, where a waterfall of sandy water was spewing from a long pipe.
That’s not sewage, is it?
Absolutely not, I answered. It’s part of sand dredging. I kept meaning to look that up, because I really wasn’t at all sure about my answer, other that feeling pretty offended by the presumption that Florida was throwing crap into these turquoise waters.
What a relief, then, to read an article in The Palm Beach Post that assured me that I’d been right. The pipe is part of a sand transfer plant installed in 1937 to restore the natural movement of sand down the beach interrupted by the man-made Boynton Inlet.
In 1937, the sand transfer plant at the South Lake Worth Inlet, also known as the Boynton Inlet, was built to take sand from the north side and feed it through a pipe that attached to the bridge over the boat channel to the beach on the south side.
Kimberly Miller, The Palm Beach Post
My new word, thanks to Kimberly Miller at The Palm Beach Post
The beaches in the northern reaches of Palm Beach County — in Juno and Jupiter — have been undergoing their own sand project. The changes in the landscape made it feel foreign, almost lunar, when we visited in February.
Mondays are recycling day in our Palm Beach County neighborhood. I used to take take a certain level of satisfaction in filling our blue bin with plastic, just as I make sure our daily newspapers are in the yellow paper recycling bin. Then, I saw Plastic Wars on Frontline and understood that we were sold a myth, a feel-good story created by the plastics industry in order to overcome public resistance to using its product.
Recycling hasn’t worked
The reality is, for all the ads and promises over the years, it’s estimated that no more than 10% of plastic has ever been recycled.
Laura Sullivan, Frontline “Plastic Wars”
The sobering reality gave me a different perspective on the plastic I saw on the seashore this morning, where some (socially distant) beachgoers were picking discarded plastic out of the tangled seaweed.
a plastic industry invention
Making recycling work was the plastic industry’s way to keep their products in the marketplace.
RONALD LIESEMER, Council for Solid Waste Solutions, 1988-2001 (in Frontline, “Plastic Wars”)
To sell more plastic
Coming up with ways to have their product perceived as more recyclable and more environmental makes their product look better. They want to sell more plastic containers.
COY SMITH, Former board member, National Recycling Coalition (in Frontline’s “Plastic Wars”)
Reduce, reuse, recycle
For the last 40 years, the conversation in this country has been about the recycle part of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” It was not an accident. It was created. It was manufactured.
David Allway, Senior Policy Analyst, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (in Frontline’s “Plastic Wars”)
More plastic than ever
And yet despite the backlash, the industry that makes plastic is expanding. The U.S. is now one of the world’s largest plastic producers, and the industry is investing tens of billions of dollars in new plastic plants.
Laura Sullivan, Frontline “Plastic Wars”
Be careful! Not everything that looks like plastic is man made. The shoreline was full of Portuguese Man-Of-War jellyfish, whose blue and purple gas-filled air sacs help them travel. They almost outnumbered the litter.
Trapped between the winter storm and high pressure to its east, South Florida stood out like a chili pepper on nationwide temperature maps Monday-a red hot poker against the cooler hues of blues and purples.
Kimberly Miller, The Palm Beach Post
Skating is back in holland
While we are basking in beach weather, a polar vortex has dripped down on much of the United States and Europe, sending temperatures plunging. However, while others shiver indoors, the Dutch have rejoiced in the return to skating on canals.
My friend Anne, one of the dear nurses who cared for me as I recovered from a near-fatal illness in Amsterdam, wrote me to share the joy of recovering this national winter sport.
For the first time in more than 10 years we really had a winter!!! I was skating today on the canal and thought of you. I wanted you to taste a little bit of our Dutch culture.
Anne Berkhout, OLVG nurse
Ice is not good everywhere
When ice skating is your national sport, it stands to reason that the Dutch would have terms for all the related activities.
This picture of us crawling on our knees is called “klunen” in Dutch. If the ice is too weak, you have to go by foot or knee so that you don’t fall through the ice.
Anne Berkhout, OLVG nurse
But when you DO fall through the ice, you become a Twitter sensation under the hashtag “Ice is not good everywhere.”
Perhaps we’ll skate together
Maybe someday you can see this with your own eyes and skate with us!!
Anne Berkhout, OLVG nurse
My ice skates, which I wore for many winters in upstate New York, are in my Florida bedroom closet, so who knows? It’s Anne’s passion for life that I treasure. So many enthusiastic, tall, smiling people are certainly something I’d love to experience again.
However, I also hope that Anne can someday join us around our lanai fire pit under the palm trees.
I’m going to add a little beach experience from right here in South Florida, where, if we time it right, my husband and I can catch some rays, fresh salty air, and brain-clearing breezes without breaking pandemic protocol. Here are shots of our favorite get-away, the shoreline of Juno Beach and Jupiter.
Sending you warming spring air and color to ease the northern bleak winter!
Here is a photo journal from that trip. Put on your sunglasses, turn your heat on high, and come with me to these Caribbean ports of call. Enjoy!
We met a man in Cartagena who was making his living by letting people hug — and be hugged by — a sloth. My husband became quite taken with this dear, and we later saw his relatives hanging out in Costa Rica.
We spent a day entering the Panama Canal, sailing halfway across the isthmus to Lake Gatún, before turning back around to exit at Colón.
We enjoyed a beautiful day in the mountains of Costa Rica at a coffee and hazelnut finca.
As is so often the case, our best memories of this trip are the people we met, including this congenial and genuine Costa Rican farmer.
Two years ago, my husband and I sailed the Caribbean over the Christmas holidays. From over-the-top decorations to hilarious ugly sweater contests to heartwarming musical interludes, it was a celebratory week. Others may have prepared by creating wonderfully tacky sweaters, but we made a statement by wearing crazy Walmart hats and jingle bell slippers to breakfast on Christmas morning. “Nice hat,” a passenger said. “You with the guy in the other hat?” Yep, I have one very good sport of a husband.
That memory was nearly wiped out by my dramatic illness in 2019. Had we been in the middle of the ocean instead of docked in Amsterdam when I took ill, my story would have ended abruptly. We’ve kept an eye on the cruise industry this year, shuddering as ships became floating Coronavirus incubators in the spring.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ended cruising in March and forced the industry to develop new protocols to protect crew and guests from COVID-19 when sailings resume. It all means new challenges for the on-board medical team.
Pandemic cancelled Cruising
There was no cruising for anyone these holidays. The CDC issued a “no sail” order on March 13, that infamous Friday last spring when the reality of the coronavirus was suddenly unavoidable.
Just before Thanksgiving, the CDC issued its highest warning against cruise travel, according to a USA Today article by Morgan Hines. Passenger operations out of the United States continue to be suspended, and the CDC recommends avoiding travel on any cruise ship worldwide.
Industry and florida suffer economic losses
South Florida is home to the cruise industry, which has suffered record losses during the shutdown, and hundreds of employees of support organizations have lost their jobs, including longshoremen, travel agents, shuttle systems. The economic impact on the industry has also been felt in Miami-Dade County, as these harmonious quotes demonstrate.
A ship can be safer than anywhere else in the world.
A cruise is a hotel in the middle of the ocean that the doors and windows open all the time, and we have an incredible amount of wind coming in and out making it a safer place.
Rebeca Sosa, Miami-Dade County Commissioner
Cruise industry covid protocols
The Miami Herald reported that the 74 recommended protocols submitted to the CDC by the cruise industry include testing all passengers and crew before boarding, requiring social distancing and masks, and expanding medical capabilities on cruise ships. A protocol that was floated [pardon the pun] in March would have barred passengers over 70 years old, who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. It was scrapped. We old people are huge component of the cruise industry’s customer base.
That seems like a really unnecessary addition. We’ve been terrified for months. Why would we go on vacation and purposely put ourselves into the very situation we’ve been trying to escape from? After a year like 2020, do we really need more ups and downs?
Nah. I’m sitting with the images of holiday cruises past, waiting for the day when the harsh 24/7 ER light of 2020 has shifted into the benign healthy glow of a sunset at sea.
I recently shared a post from the American Foreign Service Association about summer travel in the diplomacy business. It’s the time of year when Foreign Service officers and their families typically move to their new post and/or return to the United States to reconnect with their country and visit family. This periodically required family vacation is called Home Leave. This year, Home Leaves and transfers to new posts have been upended by the Coronavirus.
Similarly, my summer travels to reconnect with family — a connection grown even more dear after the death of my mother and father — must be postponed. I suffered a loss in immune protection when I became ill last year, and we both fear returning to hospitals. Still, just looking at the photos of family and flowers from our last visit to Minnesota — for my cousin’s wedding — fills me with longing.
My sister recently negotiated a road-trip from Colorado to Minnesota, visiting with family at a distance. She snapped the cover shot — a classic South Dakota view — for this post on the trip home, and inspired me to share what Home Leave felt like in 1962, when I was seven, my sister was five, and home was Rome. This is an excerpt from my current work-in-progress, WHEN THE DICTATOR FLEW OVER OUR HOUSE & OTHER TRUE STORIES: AN AMERICAN EMBASSY FAMILY MEMOIR.
By the summer of 1962, we were overdue for a month’s home leave. We’d been in Italy for almost three years — moving three times in eighteen months — and we were nearing the statutory requirement by which a Foreign Service officer must return to the United States for a month’s reorientation. The State Department would pay for roundtrip travel to Dad’s address-of-record in South Dakota.
We follow the Mississippi north to the Twin Cities, the road high matching the river like soprano harmony following an alto melody. Dad sisters, Aunt Snooky and Aunt Jeanie, and their husbands, the uncles, laugh and hug and eat and sing. I watch Mom re-do her French twist, bobby pins in her mouth, licking her finger to slick back a few stray pieces and smooth down Susie’s bangs. Dad’s laugh mingles with the happy chaos of being with kid sisters. We barely make a dent in bowls of potato salad and bean salad, platters of fried chicken, piles of steaming sweet corn, and baskets of those wonderful American roll with salty butter. Aunt Snooky gets out her guitar and the party shifts to the living room. I settle into Mom, feeling the gentle rise and fall of her ribcage. Susie wanders over to the couch as Dad flips through the songbook for another cowboy tune.
We caravan west on a ribbon of gray sunlight splitting the endless deep green cornfields. Somewhere in front of us is South Dakota and more family. The tires bump a rhythm like a heart beat.
The sky arches overhead and to every horizon much wider than ever you could see at home, though just as blue. Ragged columns of clouds in various stages of puffery parade by. Shimmering silos and red-painted barns, twinned like Romulus and Remus, appear here and there, the pop-up cluster of trees hiding the farmhouse completing the set. Dad says the trees protect the houses from being covered by the winter snows, but that a summer tornado could uproot a tree and drop it right onto the house. I check the sky.
At our boy cousins’ farm, we eat again — fresh-picked corn, jello-mold salads, layered fruit bars — and Susie and I put on their jackets that smell like grass and smoke. We shovel green food pellets out of a little wagon for the sheep, and balance on the wooden fence slats watching enormous grunting pigs slurp slop. Aunt Marie shows me how to reach under the sitting hens for their warm eggs, but I’m pretty sure I’ll get pecked.
There is a bar of soap in the bathroom that grinds the dirt right off. The stairs leading to the boys’ bedrooms are like the steps to the loft where Laura and Mary lay on their straw-filled mattress. Aunt Marie makes bread and pie while Uncle Eugene sits at the kitchen table smoking his pipe and making conversation as the Farm Bulletin plays on the radio.
Growing up as the perpetual new kid in school gave me the ability to quickly make new friends. That may be one of the reasons that I so enjoyed teaching exercise, and when I moved to South Florida and the venue became outdoor pools, I was a very happy camper. Trust and guided support allowed my adult students to relax and discover the joy of moving in a pool. Buoyancy and resistance are a marvelous combination.
There is nothing better that witnessing 60+ year-old women overcome their fear of the water and float for the first time in their lives, smiling ear-to-ear like happy kids. And when adults progresses from being unable to put their heads under water to swimming the freestyle across the pool, there’s no stopping that kind of confidence.
Today, I want to share another person’s story. It combines my father’s chosen career and swimming. I came upon this delightful anecdote in Bonnie Tsui’s new book, Why We Swim. I am a complete fan.
Why We Swim is a gorgeous hybrid of a book. Bonnie Tsui combines fascinating reporting about some of the world’s most remarkable swimmers with delightful meditations about what it means for us naked apes to leap in the water for no apparent reason. You won’t regret diving in.
Carl Zimmer, New York Times science columnist and author of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity
Bonnie Tsui writes about Joseph “Jay” Taylor, an American diplomat in Baghdad who received an award from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009 for teaching his fellow Green Zone colleagues to swim. The Green Zone was where the international community lived, and where the American Embassy was housed in Saddam Hussein’s royal palace, which included a luxurious pool.
… adorned with eight-foot fountains and lighted with standing chandeliers for nighttime swimming. Jay couldn’t believe that he got to swim in it, even if on more than one occasion he had to jump out of the deep end at the scream of an air-raid siren and, still dripping, clamber hastily into a concrete bunker as the boom boom of exploding mortars vibrated around him.
Bonnie Tsui, Why We Swim
The swim lessons began when Jay offered to teach a colleague from Madagascar who thrashing about the pool without much success. Soon, he was teaching two classes a week.
Cooks, drivers, translators, peacekeeping troops, helicopter pilots: People from all over the world, from all kinds of places and backgrounds, wanted Jay to be their swim coach … Honduras … India … Ukraine … Lebanon … Mexico. It was a miniature United Nations, a global diaspora of people who had never learned to swim.
Bonnie Tsui, Why We Swim
They called themselves the Baghdad Swim Team. They formed a community, forging bonds and finding solace in a common pursuit. I get that. Some of my most intimate friendships have begun in a pool. More importantly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recognized Jay Taylor’s efforts with an award for teaching those wartime swimming lessons. For building community.
My Dad could have been one of Jay’s students. He almost drowned as a kid in rural South Dakota and was never comfortable in water, making this memory so much sweeter. It was the only road trip I ever had with just my father. We drove from the East Coast to Iowa for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. It was hot summer, and the small outdoor pool at the Illinois motel where we stopped for the night was perfect temperature for after-dinner relaxation. We bobbed in that pool for about a half-hour. It was probably the longest Dad was ever in a pool, and I got to be there.
Dad built community with music, a habit learned on the South Dakota prairie. From hootenannies with expats in Rome, to música folklórica in Bogotá, to flamenco guitar sessions in Madrid, Dad loved nothing more than an informal gathering of music-makers. He celebrated his 80th birthday with his siblings the way they grew up — harmonizing!