Books

Book Review: A Year in Japan by Kate T. Williamson

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I have had this graphic travelogue on my Amazon wishlist for almost as long as I’ve had an Amazon wishlist (so, ten years? The copyright on this book is 2006, so that checks out). Recently I have been dreaming of visiting my cousin Laurel who has been teaching English in Japan for the past three years. Now, more than ever I’ve been trying to get my hands on a copy of this book. Sadly, every bookstore I’ve been in recently hasn’t had it in stock.

While logged into the San Francisco Public Library App, I got the bright idea to see if it was anywhere within their system, and it was! After missing my hold opportunity and re-ordering it, I finally got to take this elusive book in my hands!

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Parts of this book are so beautiful, I’m considering buying my own copy just so I can leaf through it any time I need some inspiration. If you’re going to invest in physical books for a personal library, I highly recommend graphic novels, because they do not translate well into digital media. It was a challenge to even take these photos!

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Williamson has a gift for turning small details into thoughtful insights. My favorites are her observations about Japanese socks and fabrics. I whipped out my traditional Japanese furoshiki cloth for this photo shoot. You can read an article I wrote about this traditional art of wrapping here on my website or KQED Arts.

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If you have any interest in Japanese culture, I highly recommend this book. Check out the book’s website, where you can order prints and stationary with illustrations from the books and learn more about Williamson’s other projects!

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Arts & Culture

I Locked Myself in a Cinema All Night

At noon on Sunday, March 13, a crowd of bleary-eyed locals poured out of the Del Mar theatre into downtown Santa Cruz. This group wasn’t merely under the influence of marijuana — although, that can’t be ruled out — it had been inside the theatre since midnight the night before.

Not only did we pay $25 to forgo sleep and watch six movies in a row, we did so without knowing any of the movies’ titles.

“Why?” you may ask. For the glory.

An hour before the Santa Cruz Secret Film festival was set to begin at midnight, the power went out. Thanks to El Niño, the Del Mar theatre and the downtown block it inhabits had gone dark.

Nonetheless, dedicated film nerds formed a line to get into the theatre. One block over, closed businesses sparkled ostentatiously with garish lights. Chilly without a jacket, damp from the rain and tired after my road trip to Death Valley, I was less than ecstatic about the prospect of a 12 hour movie marathon. So I was a little miffed when the power went back on. I’m no humbug though, I joined in the collective cheers.

For years I have wanted to check the Secret Film Festival off my Santa Cruz to-do list, but it had never seemed feasible until this year. Is there ever really an ideal time to pull an all nighter though?

I am not exaggerating when I say sleep is my number one priority. Even so, I was able to make it through all of the movies, taking a brief, purposeful nap during a film I did not care to watch (Tales of Tales). Unfortunately, it was still going when I woke up. Those who stayed up through it said it was not unlike a dream in that you had no idea what was happening and in the end it didn’t matter.

Luckily, most of what I saw was really great and inspired me to write this post! Here are my reviews organized under the following headers: “Must See,” “Probably Want to See,” and “Must Miss.”

Must See

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

If you have ever wished Rambo was a comedy…

Therapy for a Vampire

If you hate Stephenie Meyer but love Freud…

Probably Want to See

Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

If you grew up watching Spielberg and tried making movies of your own as a kid…

Operation Avalanche

If you want to see how Canadian film students think the 1969 moon landing was faked…

Confetti of the Mind

If you like the following short film, and want to see more by Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo…

Must Miss

Tales of Tales

Unless you’re a Dungeon Master, like my friend Steven…


I offer these hard won insights so that you may use your time more wisely, perhaps, than I did. I still maintain, it was worth it for the glory!

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Travel

Waiting to Be Born in Death Valley

“One day, in the Time When Animals Were People, Coyote came to the valley. The people were small then, so Coyote kept them in a large basket he carried on his back. After a long journey, Coyote grew tired. When he came to a place at the north end of the valley, he set his burden down on the earth. The moment he fell asleep, the people climbed up out of the basket and ran away in all directions. The place where they emerged is called Ubehebe Crater today, and it’s hollow like the shape of a wosa, or basket. After Coyote woke up, he walked up and down the valley naming the places where the people could live. That’s how the Timbisha knew where to find everything they needed.”

This excerpt from Indian Country, God’s Country: Native Americans And The National Parks by Philip Burnham retells the Timbisha Shoshone story of how the indigenous people came to find their home in what we call Death Valley. Burnham’s writing explores the fraught relationships between Native Americans and national parks. He goes on to explain that pioneers came through the same valley and saw it not as a gift but as a death sentence. Their hostile relationship to the land was reflected in the name Death Valley.

Standing above Ubehebe or “Tem-pin-tta- Wo’sah,” (Coyote’s Basket), I was surprised that I was not made uneasy by the site’s explosive origins. The crater was formed by what is called a maar volcano, where magma bubbles up to the earth’s surface, heating the ground water and causing an explosion that leaves a crater behind.

I can understand why this crater would seem like a great place for a heavy basket filled with humankind. There was something welcoming and comforting about the spot. Although we were not carried by a coyote, I did feel like Philip and I were carried to the crater by a certain force. An interesting encounter we had with a raven just moments before entering the crater intensified this feeling.

While eating yet another peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Philip and I sat facing away from the crater. We watched better equipped cars make their way on unpaved roads to a site we were going to have to wait to see: the Racetrack.

Both of us were having a hard time finishing our dry sandwiches in the dry weather. Philip dejectedly showed me two pieces of crust he couldn’t bring himself to eat. I pointed to a raven in the distance, which prompted Philip to throw his scraps out as an offering. The raven quickly flew over to where Philip had thrown the crusts.

After eating the first scrap it jumped up and flapped its wings before taking the next scrap in its beak. We were surprised when it started walking deliberately towards us, while holding the second piece of bread in its mouth. With its head cocked to the side, it was giving us, and particularly Philip, an assessing look. We were close enough to see the raven blink several times as it came closer: a black marble never disappearing, just briefly covered in a gray film.

It almost seemed to be asking us whether we had really intended to give it this food. Or maybe it was trying to gauge our intentions. Who knows what kind of discriminations Ravens have endured? I have heard that Ravens are capable of memorizing people’s faces. When it finally flew away, I whispered to Philip, “the ravens know your face now.”

Watching the raven fly into the crater, we felt we had been given a cue to get moving. Here are some pictures of Philip as we walked into the crater. You can see how steep the descent was, and how much smaller the people already in the crater appeared in the distance.

After hiking (read: sliding) down into the crater, we were met with a stillness that did not exist at the top, where the wind whipped aggressively. Nestled in the valley of the crater, it really did feel like we were in some sort of cradle. Looking up, we could see that our raven had a friend and a nest in the crater. It had probably brought the second piece of bread to share with its mate.

Once at the bottom we were the only ones there. We laid down on the cracked mud and basked in the sun. Feeling restored after our nap, we got up and prepared ourselves to climb out of the Coyote’s Basket.

At some parts it felt more like crawling, but there were beautiful purple and yellow flowers lining the path. There’s no better feeling than pulling yourself up to a great height. Climbing out of the crater felt like a huge accomplishment.

We returned to our campsite for our last night. We watched the sunset and the fighter jets and drank instant coffee out of scalding enamelware.

The next day we packed up camp and made one last stop at Zabriskie’s Point before driving the eight hours home.

Another El Niño storm was rolling, held back from the valley by the rain shadow created by surrounding mountains. As we drove through the changing weather, a lyric from one of Philip’s favorite songs by John K. Samson (“Heart of the Continent“) resonated:

“Inky bruises are punched into the sky by bolts of light and then leak across the body of tonight, while rain and thunder drop and roll, then stop short of a storm, leave the air stuck with this waiting to be born.”

I overheard a man say that all the flowers we saw in Death Valley were the result of one storm on the night of October, 18 2015: thunder, lightning and flash floods. The seeds of life patiently wait for their time, but when given the opportunity, they climb out of Coyote’s Basket and spread through the Valley.

This trip to Death Valley was the perfect way to celebrate turning 25 years old. I cannot recommend trips to national parks enough. I look forward to finishing Burnham’s book to learn more about how national parks can better serve the native people who knew the land before conservation efforts became necessary. Why should we value people any less than landmarks?

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Travel

Death Valley Lizard Friends

If you know Philip, then you know that he wants to be friends with all the animals — especially those that are difficult to catch, like lizards. His ability to wrangle lizards has earned the praise of naturalists and frightened indoor dwellers alike.

Death Valley presented Philip with a unique opportunity to encounter new lizard species. While walking through Titus Canyon, one of Death Valley’s largest canyons, Philip befriended three lizards — and by befriended, I mean mercilessly stalked.

While a walk through Death Valley’s largest canyon is worth the trip in and of itself, Philip and I needed a little more convincing that our midday hike through Titus Canyon would yield a return on our sweat investment.

I had read on the National Park Service website that there were petroglyphs in this canyon. Meanwhile, an illustrated Chuckwalla lizard on the Death Valley map had caught Philip’s attention.

It wasn’t until we admitted that we were searching for these things aloud to each other that they manifested around the next bend. My eye caught a white etching on a nearby rock face, while Philip saw the slightest movement out of the corner of his eye.

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I have not verified the authenticity of this petroglyph, but from what I could tell, it was clearly etched into the stone. It appears to depict a bighorn sheep, which are endemic to the area, and a crescent moon.

When I turned around to show Philip, the photo below illustrates what I saw: Philip carefully crouching at the mouth of this rock, engaged in a staring contest with a lizard hiding in the furthermost corner of this boulder. It was a Chuckwalla!

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I like how Philip’s hat balances on the boulder here. For a closer look at the lizard from Philip’s point of view, here is a picture Philip posted to Instagram:

 

Later we would encounter what Philip believed to be a Desert Spiny Lizard. Here you can see Philip trying to act natural, while only succeeding in completely freaking this lizard out. This was as close as he got. I have edited the photo to make the location of this well camouflaged animal more clear.

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While Philip was engaged in lizard standoffs, I was keeping an eye out for new wildflowers:

I don’t have a positive ID for the tiny white flowers I found, but they may have been Scented Cryptantha (Cryptantha utahensis). We also saw more purple Notch-Leaf Phacelia (Phacelia crenulata) and white Desert-Star (Monoptilon bellioides). And when there weren’t flowers, there were rocks. Luckily, even rocks without petroglyphs are still interesting to me.

Thanks to me keeping an eye out for wildflowers, I was able to see a flash of bright turquoise that turned out to be a kind of Skink lizard. Philip tried over and over again to catch this little guy in his hands, but he was just too quick.

Just as I was ready to give up hope, Philip was able to secure it against a rock that he picked up. With his own little piece of the desert to cling to, this lizard let us have a closer look. You can see some yellow Golden Evening-Primrose (Camissonia brevipes) in this first shot of the lizard.

 

We deemed our short jaunt into the canyon a success. Our next adventure that day would not allow us to so passively achieve our goals.

To read more about our Death Valley adventures, stay tuned for more blog posts and read:

Dorky Hats in Death Valley

No Sleep ‘Till Death Valley

Death Valley Birthday

 

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Travel

Dorky Hats in Death Valley

There’s nothing like waking up to the sound of fighter jets breaking the sound barrier when you can’t remember where you are. After driving all night to arrive in Death Valley for the sunrise, we had set up camp and slept for five hours. Meanwhile, our yellow tent had become an Easy-Bake Oven in the desert high noon.

Turns out those UFO’s Philip and I were keeping an eye out for the night before probably would have been pilots from nearby Mojave military base. Or at least, that’s what they would have wanted us to think ;-P

We were lured out of our cave by the promise of cooler air outside. It didn’t get hotter than 90 degrees Fahrenheit during our trip, which is quite pleasant for Death Valley, but Philip and I both have icy Scandinavian blood running through our veins.

After slapping some sourdough PB & J’s together, dousing ourselves in sunscreen, and donning our hats, we felt fortified enough to begin exploring the park. You can’t go to Death Valley without stopping at the lowest point in North America: Badwater Basin. But we made a few stops along the way.

We took a quick look at the remnants of an old Borax refinery. The most important thing I took away from our tour was that Borax cannot crystallize at temperatures above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. So this refinery could not operate during the summer. That’s right, Death Valley consistently gets hotter than 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.

Our camp neighbor had suggested we stop at the Devil’s golf course. He told us that it didn’t look like much from the road, but once you got out to the fields of crystallized salt, it was the closest thing to another planet as he had ever seen.

He was right, the turn would have been easy to overlook, but with his recommendation in mind, we decided to take the detour. Much like the lava fields of Iceland, “moon like” is the descriptor that comes to mind when looking out over these jagged landscapes.

The sign post warns explorers to climb the salt formations with care as any fall could result in broken bones. Emerging unscathed, we were off to Badwater.

282 feet below sea level becomes much more real when you look up a cliff face and see a tiny sign marking sea level. I have lived near the ocean for most of my life. Even when I studied in Switzerland for four years, I was still living at sea level in a valley surrounded by alps.

I had to chew gum as we drove through the park just to encourage my ears to pop with all the elevation changes we were making. Thankfully, my ears finally equalized by the time we arrived at the basin.

Badwater is another one of those names that gives Death Valley an edgy feel. Just as Death Valley is actually full of life, it turns out the water in the basin isn’t poisonous, just really salty. “Notgreatwater Basin” doesn’t have the same ring to it though.

After peering in the pools of murky water, we walked out as far as we could along the beaming white salt flats. Our goal was to make it further than the other tourists, although we were not willing to go as far as some other dedicated photographers on the horizon.

Once back in the car we decided to pull off onto Artist’s Drive. Before taking a loop through the park’s colorful mountains, we stopped at a view called the Artist’s Palette. This is where we snapped our dorky hat selfie. There were also some beautiful flowers growing in an around this area.

While touring Artist’s Drive I remembered Grizzly Bear’s music video for their song, “Knife.” I now realize it was filmed in Death Valley (possibly by Zabriskie Point?) and clearly inspired by the desert refineries of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

This song is from one of my favorite albums, Yellow House, and I was pleased to find that the rest of the songs perfectly suited the desert landscape. If you ever need a good desert road trip playlist, I recommend including songs by Grizzly Bear, Nick Drake and Jose Gonzalez.

Death Valley is set up to accommodate tourists who want to stay in their cars. With the risk of heat stroke so high, this makes sense to me. Philip and I only wish we had come in a car with tires suited for off-roading or at the very least, one with a full-sized spare so we could get to more remote sights like the Racetrack and Eureka Dunes.

We were surprised by some bold compact cars speeding on unpaved roads. We took it nice and easy and kept an eye out for the numerous road signs warning about road conditions. Rangers warn that the highest number of park fatalities come from single car rollovers.

For sunset, we found a nice spot on the Mesquite Dunes. The sand on these dunes was unbelievably fine and soft. In Death Valley, you are especially aware that this sand is the result of millions of years of erosion. Alluvial fans of eroded rock spill off the surrounding mountains, continually filling up the valley even as it sinks with every tectonic shift.

Even among the extremes of desert life, there’s a strong sense of equilibrium in Death Valley. Being able to see the effect of time on even the most indomitable landscape reminds you that nothing is permanent.

As we laid in the sand and watched clouds drift past, we made plans to get out of the car and experience more of the landscape on foot the next day.

To read more about our Death Valley adventures, stay tuned for more blog posts and read:

No Sleep ‘Till Death Valley

Death Valley Birthday

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Travel

No Sleep ‘Till Death Valley

Driving eight hours through the night to be in Death Valley at sunrise on my birthday was a decision Philip and I made without hesitation.

By the time Philip was ready to hand off driving to me at about 4 am, we had entered into the kind of landscape you would associate with a road trip through the desert. A two lane road with an ever-stretching yellow line pulled us forward over dips and through sharp turns.

With the moon nowhere to be found, we could only see as far as the headlights on Philip’s car (named Clyde) could reach. In our delirious state, we could have been on another planet for all we knew.

The only thing bringing us back to reality was the local Spanish language radio station 95.1 — the lone frequency emerging from comprehensive static. Its Mexican polka music was the best soundtrack for our excitement and confusion.

At night, the refineries and factories of Trona were lit up like golden honeycombs. As we left this small industrial community and started winding through craggy rocks, Philip insisted we pull over to take a look around.

The way the cold air whipped around us, we could tell we were standing on a ledge overlooking a valley. Just how far down, we couldn’t tell. The feeling of being exposed was overwhelming.

Despite how much I would have loved to stay and look up at more stars than I had ever seen in my life, my instinct to seek shelter was stronger. I rushed back into the car and turned my seat warmer on.

During our return trip in daylight I would discover that a somber cross marked the same spot we had pulled off on the road. My sense of foreboding was not merely in my imagination.

Not long after, we encountered road construction and signs indicating “end paved road.” Following a zippy Camry, we were not so brave on this washboard, taking it below 5 miles per hour at times.

We had no idea how long the road, or lack thereof, would continue. So we bumped along for what seemed like hours. Even when we were back on paved road, space and time did not make any more sense.

We would think we were following the tail lights of a car in front of us, when it would turn out to be an approaching road sign. Surreal lights in the distance beckoned from unexpected angles and made us feel like we were driving in circles.

Philip and I tried not to think about the X-Files for the first time in our relationship.

As we pulled into Death Valley and past the Stove Pipe Wells camping ground, it was a relief to know we were around people once more, but there was not time to stop as we raced the sunrise.

Our goal was to find a patch of flowers to sit in as we watched the sun come up. The only problem was that we still couldn’t see what the landscape around us had in store. As flowers started popping up in Clyde’s headlights along the side of the road, we cheered.

We hadn’t wanted to acknowledge the possibility that the flowers could’ve been gone by the time we arrived, but now that we saw them, we could justify the arduous trip.

Keeping in mind reports of where flowers had been sighted in lower elevations, we kept going blindly into the valley until we thought we had found a decent patch. I got out and began taking blurry pictures of a flower on the roadside.

I was so absorbed in this task that I took me a moment to respond to Philip’s whistle. Looking behind me, I saw a hillside covered in yellow flowers, waving to us in the breeze: without knowing it, we had hit the jackpot!

To come so far and be rewarded with such a show of flowers was incredible.

The yellow flowers dotting this hill are known as “Desert Gold” or Geraea canescens, but closer inspection revealed a range of other beautiful species. Purple Caltha-Leaf Phacelia (Phacelia calthifolia) and Purplemat (Nama demissum) provided an excellent contrast as complimentary colors to the prevailing yellow.

 

I realized that I needed to start putting my hand in the picture for scale, since so many of these flowers were unimaginably small. I’m glad I didn’t start with the Caltha-Leaf Phacelia though, because as the wildflower guide I later bought at the ranger station warns, “contact with skin can cause rash.”

The white flowers in the mix were dainty varieties like the Desert-Star (Monoptilon bellioides), the whimsical Pebble Pincushion (Chaenactis carphoclinia), which I found next to an old-fashioned can, and the Shredding Evening-Primrose (Camissonia boothii ssp. condensata). I was lucky to see the Shreding Evening-Primrose so early in the morning because it was still open from its night blooming.

Aside from the wonderful array of flowers, the rocks were just as fascinating to me.

Seeing life spring from the cracks between these rocks made me appreciate the tenacity of life in the desert.

After the sun came up and turned the flowers and mountains to gold, we backtracked to Stovepipe Wells to set up our camp and sleep the hottest part of the day away . . .

. . . or, so we thought.

To read more about our Death Valley adventures, stay tuned for more blog posts and read:

 

Death Valley Birthday

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Travel

Reflecting on 2011 Travels to Greece

In the fall of 2011, I went to Greece as a part of an academic travel at Franklin University Switzerland. Guided by Professor Caroline Widener and her husband, Professor Raf Newman, our travel to Greece was meant to reinforce the study of Homer and Aeschylus.

At the time, Greek citizens were protesting new measures taken by the government to address its debt crisis. This Anti-Austerity movement disrupted the typical tourist experience of Greece, and I am grateful for that.

The following visual journal documents some of the observations I made during the trip.

Athens was where the evidence of riots and protests was most striking: garbage in the streets going uncollected by public workers, police buses rushing off to arrest protesters en masse.

Our tour guide Panagiotis, gave us some valuable insight into the local struggles.

The displacement of Greek artifacts to places like the British Museum, made me think about culture in a new way.

We arrived on the island of Mykonos during a lull in its tourist season. We had planned to continue on to Santorini, however, protests had halted all ferry service.

Walking around this tourist ghost town made me reflect on my own role as a tourist.

It was a relief to visit historical Delos.

The acoustics of the amphitheater were incredible. From my position at the top I could hear my classmates whisper from the round below.

The history of great men and great nations:

I cannot claim to understand Greece from this brief travel, however, I am grateful for the opportunity I had to see Greece through a modern and historical lens.

Recently, a Fox News correspondent stated that viewers shouldn’t care about economic struggles in Greece because they do not affect Americans directly.

There’s nothing that makes me sadder than that kind of ignorant isolationism.

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