April 30, 2018

The Traveling Idiosyncrasies

[Readers: sing along after listening to the theme song from The Beverly Hillbillies, here:

Come and listen to my story ‘bout a family from Japan
  an office guy from Canada, three ladies in his clan. 
Then one day company said it’s time to move 
  and so they up and went to learn the Tennessee groove.

Nashville, that is. Country music and lemon tea.

Soon their stuff all made it there, provoking such a grin
  family n' friends said “now we know where you are livin’.”
We’re set up in a place with lots of space and plenty trees
  and some kinfolk have ventured down for a look-see.

Franklin, that is. Suburbs and BBQ.

We been here half a year and I dig the job I’m in
  and we also thank the schools for lettin’ our sprogs in.
Slow, fine  livin’ is everywhere in this locality
  we love the local quirks and charm and hospitality.

Green space, that is. Interstates and  SUVs.

April 15, 2018

The life and death of my Bob Ross Chia Pet

Prologue: I won a Bob Ross Chia Pet during the Christmas secret Santa gift exchange at our office Christmas party last year. Being a semi-stranger in an increasingly stranger land, I did not know who Bob Ross was. The roomful of co-workers chuckled when I opened the gift.  I immediately recognized that Bob Ross was a cultural touchstone.
I decided to learn about him as a way to get to know my co-workers. I dove into the life of Bob and was pleasantly surprised by his method of painting instruction and his endearing thoughts about life.

This post is thus a celebration of the life and legacy of Bob Ross as represented in the brief life and demise of my Bob Ross Chia Pet. It is a testament to the spongy side of my American cultural experience (so far).

He was born into an average working class family in Florida in 1942. Bob spent 20 years in the US Air Force, the bulk of his career stationed in Alaska. Following his retirement from the Air Force he became the creator and host of The Joy of Painting, an instructional television program on PBS that aired from 1983 to 1994.
He died at age 52 in 1995, but influences from Bob's life continue to bubble forth from the wellspring of American culture. Why is that?

To start, what are Chia pets? Chia pets became popular in the late 1970s, the only product of a company based in San Francisco. The idea is to cover a grooved, terracotta figurine of an animal with moist chia seeds that grow and sprout greet shoots that look like hair. Chia Pets help keep that loopy pet rock / hippy vibe from the Bay Area alive. Everyone knows about them, and I think they provoke some deeper connection to the era. I read somewhere that in the late 1990s, a chia pet was included in a time capsule assembled by The New York Times.
Why does Bob Ross continue to influence art and be relevant to present day society? I think it's because he straddles the ideological middle ground between adversarial political ideologies in a society polarized by politics. Think about it: a career military man who transformed into a soft-voiced, slow-paced host of a program which symbolized the belief that anyone could be a talented artist. The show's message was anyone who went with the flow of artistic creation could quickly produce wonderful paintings of trees, clouds, mountains and lakes; beauty is everywhere around you. This combination embraces Bob's personal Horatio Alger-like narrative of rising from a humble background to social prominence, together with societal impatience--wanting difficult things done quickly and conveniently.

When commentators asked Bob why he appeared so serene and happy all the time, he would respond: “That's why I paint. It's because I can create the kind of world that I want, and I can make this world as happy as I want it. Shoot, if you want bad stuff, watch the news.”

Ross completed more than 30,000 paintings in his lifetime. I had the Chia Pet in my office for only three weeks. As long as the Bob Ross Chia Pet was there it drummed up comments from visitors. It also produced smiles from me as I mulled whatever work I was doing. Some more mellow Bob quotes:
"We don’t make mistakes. We just have happy accidents.”
"Remember how free clouds are. They just lay around in the sky all day long.”
“It’s life. It’s interesting. It’s fun.”

Ross's legacy of finding delight in mystic places lives on.
Newborn Bob

Adolescent Bob
Adult Bob, at the peak of his powers, inspired by Jimi Hendrix  

Senior citizen Bob with a few health challenges

Forever in our hearts

March 31, 2018

Weekend in New York

The cosmic tumblers fell into place when I noticed The Rising Family would be touring around Manhattan while the Toronto Blue Jays' hosted its season opener series was against my love-to-hate NY Yankees. 

Few things rival the delight I feel when the MLB season opens. One of them is travel. And yet we have our own double-header of fun going into this last weekend in March. 
Munenori Kawasaki, expounding on baseball with his unique verbal style, back in 2015
On a random note, one of my favorite Blue Jays players, Munenori Kawasaki, will probably retire this week from professional baseball. He had so much enthusiasm for the game and exuded cheer—the best qualities that adults should display when playing what is, after all, a kids' game. Kawasaki is a true ambassador of the game!
After a work event in New York City ended, Naomi and the girls joined me for a few days of exploring the Big Apple. While this is very much a PG-rated tour, we are hitting the sights and enjoying another side of America.

Here's a taste of Day 1 of our tour.
Empire State building from the outside
The view toward downtown and the Freedom Tower on the right

SpongeBob on Broadway: will we or won't we partake?

March 23, 2018

Comment without commenting

I have spent roughly half my life so far living outside Canada. It’s been a conscious choice. I relish exploring the world; going to new places and learning about the local society and culture. To stay out of trouble in unfamiliar territory my parents taught me to mind my manners.  And keep religion and politics out of polite conversation. So far that formula has worked well!

The Rising Family™ is blooming now in our new home in The Volunteer State. We like it. Yet there is an undeniable thread of heated political debate-cum-invective in these United States. 
It feeds the spectacle of what is happening on Pennsylvania Ave. and in other government institutions in Washington, D.C. Living in America is lifestyle-friendly, but culturally perplexing at times, even for Canucks. There are real differences between what I accepted as normal growing up and how things work here. So when in doubt, I leave it out. To evade social potholes and dark thoughts, I think of new places… 

Like ASGARDIA! The world's first organization of a human society in space. In fact, long before recent controversies I, media-chugger and word lover, grew so tired of the relentless vitriol and bad news I chose to become a citizen of Asgardia, population approximately 183,000 souls. It's my show of disdain for our earthly plight by casting my hopes aloft. 
I am a dual citizen. (In all transparency, I was accepted in Asgardia because the main requirements are a utopian streak with a dash o’ Arthur C. Clarke. I pay no taxes and receive no benefits. I can vote. Asgardia has a mission statement but it suffices to write that it stands for Reason and peace in space. In a word: hopeful. 
Asgardians in the Americas

I pondered these Big Thoughts About The World and the cosmos. Then I realized during 2017 I had traveled around the world for the first time. I went from Delhi to Tennessee and back last June.  Then, a few months later I hauled it from Delhi to Japan to Vancouver to Tennessee. It’s not particularly unique. People circumnavigate the globe without stopping in a single flight all the time now. But for me, a bit of a personal milestone. 

I am making an effort to be friendlier to people I meet but don't know very well. And being more assertive with assholes. If the world's attitude improves, I won't have to move to Asgardia in the future.

Aloha for now.

February 28, 2018

Becalmed for a week

The past few blog entries have been mostly rearward looking. I have yet to offer any impressions about our new living space or place. So this post will be the last one for a while chronicling what’s done. It describes a thought-provoking week in a State of Uncertainty before I could leave for the United States. Let’s capture this one just for me, for posterity.

As written in the prior entry we departed India in the evening of October 31 with only a few hours left on our visas. I was on the ground in Tennessee by November 8. The week between was a bit of a blank space. Let me explain:

I recall landing in Tokyo and then taking a 737 that hugged the coastline of Honshu as we veered southwest. The skies were eggshell blue and cloudless. From my window seat it looked like a real-life version of Google Earth because I could recognize the major cities and coastline below. It was a bright, shining welcome back to Japan, our way station until new instructions and visas would move us to the next gig in America.

Naomi’s folks provided their wonderful hospitality. However, we had no cellphones, no landline Internet connection, nor even a notebook computer—all were left in India and need time and a residence to re-acquire. We were thus technology and connectivity naked. I only possessed my permanent private email account and public phones to reach out and annoy someone.
Initially, it was liberating. I did not feel compelled to respond to buzzes and beeps, or check messages.
I felt less connected to the Matrix.
I found time to read silly books like World War Z, An Oral History of the Zombie War and Dolores Claiborne.
No more WhatsApp and email reflex checks!
When Naomi and the girls went out I was alone and disconnected from the world and all its tedious anger.
I took pleasure drives.
I had coffee with a few old friends and just spoke with them without sidelong glances at a phone or whatever gadget drove my day. 
After a few days of wallowing in this beautiful inertia my addled brain registered that it was nigh time to reconnect with the world. I found a new internet café in Hatsukaichi that is less scuzzy than the Popeye I used to frequent. Although it definitely had some semi-permanent residents, it had fewer adult-themed posters on the bathroom walls and smelled less like a college dorm. 
The “business suite” computer/phone/fax rentals offered a comfy chair, printer, and the means to check on my visa status. And so began the next phase of this becalmed week: twice-daily trips to the same internet café to check my email and send replies to my friendly “relocation associate”, Julie, in Texas, and the company’s legal team who were arranging my visa-related paperwork. Julie became an e-friend who offered morale-raising advice and stood by me (figuratively) while we both awaited the two Ps: permissions and paperwork. I sent Julie a note of sincere condolence when 26 people were murdered in mass shooting at a Texas church. It felt more real now that I was bringing my family to the United States. She was one of those people that you meet by chance for a brief time in your life yet leave you lasting memories. She is a nice person who did a tough job on my behalf.

After several days of this email tag, bad coffee, a modicum of angst, and seclusion in my internet cubicle, the message came with my visa waiver information. My flight was set within minutes, and I departed that week of stasis the next morning for Seoul, Vancouver, Seattle, and finally, Tennessee. Another new beginning beckoned.

February 8, 2018

2017: What a trip (May-Oct.)

(More) April In late April we took a family fandango to Dubai. It’s a cliché, but everything in that metropolis truly is immense, expensive, impressive and world-class. Superlatives everywhere! 
Except when I think of the SuperCrap breakfast at our economy hotel (blech!).

May was Marina’s month. She had a role in her class's performance of Aladdin and certainly dressed the part. 
We celebrated her birthday by renting out a game center for a gaggle of her friends to party with her! I think this was the first time that we have done a biggish party involving friends—and it was fun. I think she loved the attention but would never admit it later when I teased her about it.
Otherwise, May highlights were weekend pilgrimages to the Southpoint Mall and the Fun n' Food Waterpark to escape the escalating temperatures and pervasive humidity.

June: Amid India’s summer peak heat, we escaped the high temperatures by viewing a Bollywood-style live musical at the air conditioned Kingdom of Dreams
This jaded, cynical scribe enjoyed it tremendously!! KoD is highly recommended; it offers live song and dance numbers every five minutes during the two-hour spectacle which convey a morality tale intertwined with coltish romance. These performances are just an incredible visual spectacle.
Also in June, we went back to Japan for the first time in just under a year. 
Besides visiting family, we had a dash of Japanese-style storytelling at a kagura festival (Shinto-styled theatrical dance accompanied by music) in Shimane-ken, and kickass fresh seafood and together with dip in a hot spring, too.

July: The Rising Family™ ladies stayed in Japan, and I went back to India to work. 
I was a part of a media test drive for a new car in Goa, a state on the western coast of India. Goa has Portuguese colonial remnants in its local culture and is renowned for its white sand beaches, nightlife, and world heritage architecture. 
After the work was done I got to drive, a rare treat for me while I was resident in the subcontinent! And I was introduced to “the real Goa” by my mystical co-worker and friend, R. What an amazing trip and experience in one of India’s best places to live.

August: Y’know, I was somehow fine with the heat. As you can see, the peak heat had crested by August, the family was back, and I could feign being in shape at the Freedom Run on India’s Independence Day. 
The rest of the time we beat the heat in the family-friendly waterparks, the local pool, and sometimes playing ping-pong in the Park Place club’s icey-blast air conditioned common room.
The other great memory I have is traveling to Chennai for a work event and having a terrific time. What happened was this: my return flight's departure was delayed so much I had time to go see Chennai’s miles-long beach with work friends and catch a movie (Dunkirk) at the local movie theater. Seeing movies in India is great—super-modern multiplexes with most of the latest Hollywood flicks at very reasonable prices. Faced with hours until our flight departed, we ate together, went to the beach to see the stars and hear the ocean waves, and watch Dunkirk on the big screen. This is the image that I will carry with me of Chennai and Tamil Nadu.

September: India's annual celebration marking its becoming a sovereign nation happens in August. 
In September, Elena celebrated her own flourishing independence by taking a school trip to Sri Lanka without her parents and little sister! 
By this time, we also knew we would be moving again and the countdown began, reluctantly, to our impending departure. I worked on another car reveal event and went to a public relations conference with my co-workers--both terrific experiences.

October was a melancholy month. After we arrived in August 2016, Naomi had quickly become a member of a group of ladies involved in our kids' school activities and philanthropic work. She truly loved being in India. So leaving was not an easy thing for her, or for any of us. Truth be told we wanted to stay longer. So the girls started the separation process with a great goodbye party with their closest friends. A proper farewell. This happens a lot in expat communities, and it was our turn. We also were honored by being invited to have dinner with my friend R’s family during the Diwali holiday near the end of October. 
The craziness of Diwali that time was more muted than the previous year's fireworks blitzkrieg—or maybe it was our realization it would our last Diwali for the time being.
I also had goodbye drinks with co-workers. The girls bid so long to Kidzania, an interactive theme park where kids can gain an appreciation for over 100 different types of work through job role-playing. Lady E. liked making her own pizzas at Dominos.
In the end, the final days were a maelstrom of paperwork, hasty moving, many goodbyes, laughter and tears, and for me – beer. Ah, Kingfisher!
The death of Gord Downie in mid-October hit Canada, and me, hard. He was a revered rock star who transformed into a cultural shaman later on in his artistic career, and he was an interesting, thoughtful guy. I’d seen the Tragically Hip at least five times or more given the years I spent in Kingston and shows I’d seen in Syracuse, N.Y., Halifax, and in Ottawa. So maybe it was the fact that I’d not seen the band play live since 1996 (one small price to pay for living overseas, but a price nevertheless) also signaled the two decades I have lived overseas collecting other experiences. But what a great Canadian and genuine person in spite of his celebrity.
Bobcaygeon is one of my favorite songs ever. It's a quintessential Ontario cottage country tune that begets bigger thoughts about the universe.
            I left your house this morning
            'Bout a quarter after nine
            Coulda been the Willie Nelson
            Coulda been the wine
            When I left your house this morning,
            It was a little after nine
            It was in Bobcaygeon, I saw the constellations
            Reveal themselves, one star at time

We left India with only a few hours left on our visas. Back to Japan to regroup and get the paperwork done for the next destination...

January 27, 2018

2017: What a trip (Jan.-Apr.)

People form habits and patterns as we go about our regular activities. One of my habits is to kick off the first couple of blogposts of the new year by describing the year just passed. The rearview mirror rarely disappoints. Memories are still fresh and not yet cloaked in rosy-colored hues.

The momentous year-plus the Rising Family™ spent in India deserves more storytelling. We all forged friendships and had life changing experiences. What an amazing country! What wonderful people. And what tremendous good luck for us to have had the chance to go and live there in the first place.
Enough rhapsodic tall talk. 
January: Akshardham” means the something like the divine abode of God. We had heard many great things about it through the expat grapevine and were eager to visit this magnificent-looking temple in South Delhi. Oft described in brochures and online as “an eternal place of devotion, purity and peace,” I had the impression it was yet another old temple. What astounded me was that Arkshardham's construction only began in 2000 and the complex opened in 2005. It is a terrific introduction to Indian culture and Hinduism. The Hall of Values is a cavernous theater featured a movie depicting Swaminarayan’s seven-year pilgrimage as a teenage yogi across India in the late 1700s. The movie highlights his efforts to bring about a revival of Hindu principles. Visitors then take a mechanized boat ride through a water route inside the complex with murals showing India’s history. This provides visual exposure to India’s antiquity and Hindu foundations. The entire visit takes many hours, capped off with a laser light show in the evening. With content and architecture celebrating India’s past, Arkshardam’s slick marketing reminded us we were living in India’s present. Even our easily bored daughters paid rapt attention during this visit.

February: By February, we had settled into our apartment and had a semblance of rhythm to our lives. We wanted to take advantage of the relatively cool winter weather in February (still short-sleeves for me during daylight hours!) to see different parts of northern India. Off we went to visit Jaipur, Rajasthan, some five hours south of Gurgaon by National Highway 8. Sometimes pristine highway, occasionally jittery, bump-filled unpaved roads, we navigated NH8 with our trusty Terrano SUV, local driver “R.” at the helm. 
First stop was the Amber Fort, a huge red sandstone and marble behemoth at the top of a hill outside the city of Jaipur. Oh the history! After that, on to Jaipur, with its Pink City at the center and relentless commercial buzz in the downtown. 
One memory is that I forgot my passport and our hotel’s manager refused to let us check in. As always, we managed some workarounds after some friendly banter and promises of sending paperwork later. “Of course, of course, later is tikke," he said. Tikke is my favorite Hindi word, meaning a blend of “OK, all right, no worries.”

Regular life often hinged on the girls’ school activities. They steadily became more comfortable with English, largely due to their excellent teachers, the support of friends, and their own Herculean efforts in extra language classes. Things began to flow a little easier. 
In February, familiar school events such as Sports Day provided some continuity. Both Lady E. and M. shone in their sprint races. I enjoyed assessing the differences in how the school approached organizing large-scale events compared with the ones I had seen before in Japan.

March was madness! My Dad took the opportunity of our living in Gurgaon to opt into a trip across India’s major tourist sites with a bunch of other Canucks. Upon its completion, he joined us for a week’s visit. I got a day off from work and took him to the Dilli Haat traditional market (but for foreign tourists, wink wink nudge nudge) followed by our usual banter and beers. 
More importantly, we all got some great family time with Grandpa, including some fun at the Worlds of Wonder amusement park in Noida.

Later that month we braved the fierce local traffic and took a few family trips into Delhi and other suburbs. 
One was to Humayun’s Tomb, a huge sandstone mausoleum built in the late 1500s. For us, it was hard to grasp the expanse of time and the history, but the tomb was impressive, the weather warm and inviting, and the grounds seemingly constructed for a family walkabout. It was another shot of India’s rich history for us to ingest.
The Holi holiday is fantastic. It is the way to say goodbye to the cold-ish season and embrace spring. It has cool elements such as flinging water balloons at each other, tossing dry colored powders, dousing strangers with water in a welcome way. General merriment abounded. We all got wet in the warm sun, vanquished the lethargy of winter and got multicolored with our friends and neighbors. Such a terrific holiday—my absolute favorite. I was heartened to hear that small Holi festivals have sprung up in Vancouver and Toronto!

April: How can you not get excited about visiting the Taj Mahal? 
India’s most famous tourist destination, World Heritage site, with the backstory of it being a mausoleum built by an emperor in memory of his wife. And for us, easily accessible via the Yamuna Expressway out of Noida. I’ve already recounted our adventure in Agra here in the blog

Let me add the one anecdote from the trip that I still find amusing but unrelated to the Taj Mahal. We traveled to Agra on April 1, and on that day my company began its new fiscal year. As we were going from Gurgaon to Agra I had a team member, a solid millennial type, announce his retirement from the company via social media channel WhatsApp. It being April 1, I was sure it was an April fool’s joke. I was wrong.