Apr 25, 2018

Medium is the message

I moved the blog again. I deleted the Tumblr account and moved everything to Medium.com, a more writing-centric website.


Feb 21, 2018

the soft closing

I'm planning on ending this blog.

Not with a big closeout with a lot of fanfare but just letting it go quietly dormant, until a few years down the road, Google is going through old web apps remembers it has this blogging platform they totally forgot about and they pull the plug for good.

It's a good moment to end- it feels like a major chapter of my life has ended, and a new one begun. A new book even. I started blogging in 2003 as a way to keep relatives informed about how I was doing and feeling in undergraduate, and it transitioned into a travel blog when I traveled, went pretty dormant for the time I was working after I graduated, and kicked up again a bit in graduate school.

Education comes in good life-sized chunks- when I graduated, my education at an end, that was a definitive end to one chapter of my life. The next five years made up another chapter, loosely titled, Alec Gets Started where I traveled, developed myself professionally, made some big personal and relationship moves, and ended up ready to dig in and stay awhile. At the end of that tumultuous five years, I was married, living in a city I could see myself staying in for awhile, setting up all the adult things for the long term, and with a baby on the way.

We're still sort of settling in, but it's the long, slow growth of roots rather than the rapid adjustment to a replanting. With the birth of Momoko, we're in a new book entirely. Functionally, I don't think I'm going to have time to blog, but I think it's time for a change of medium anyway.

I'll still figure out a way to write, since it still has cathartic and metaprocessing purposes for me, but I think it's safe to say this blog is at an end. Blogger really does suck as a platform, and the only reason I didn't change years ago, was the ability I had to go back and read what I wrote so many years ago.

Many thanks to the devoted readers who stuck around and still checked back, while I let months go by between blog posts. As I write this, Momo is beginning to stir and fuss in her bouncer, so I'll keep it short.

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

Feb 13, 2018

final weeks

Yesterday, Saori walked to her midwifery appointment with Coco, and learned she was already one centimeter dilated. We both had the same reaction: how many hours do we have before Saori goes into real labor?! Coco's response was basically, it could be anytime between now and four weeks (or two weeks after Saori's due date). While it's disappointing to get such an ambiguous answer, at least Wildbad is looking good and healthy, if not still a little on the tiny side than we'd all really like her to be.

We're coming to the end of pregnancy, and I must say that my experience, and very much of Saori's experience, pregnancy itself seems like a good warm-up for parenthood. Kids, I hear, are not cheap, and we're ramping up spending on stuff for baby, spending on medical bills, and tightening up everything else as a consequence. Saori has to wake up three to four times a night go to the bathroom, and usually that wakes me up (lightly, I get to immediately fall back asleep), but it's getting us ready for feeding and changing and living with debilitating sleep deprivation.

There's a new urgency and focus to our lives. We're planning more now than we have ever before. Both the long term and short term have a new weight and reality to them. Pregnancy forces us to plan the things we used to do spontaneously. Saori can't just jump up and throw on her clothes and we go out to dinner or meet me downtown for a movie- she can't walk that far, she tires easily, and she's got to rest a lot and use the bathroom constantly. I imagine I could easily have the same comments about Wildbad when she gets here. Life in Germany slowly crushed the spontaneity out of my life, and pregnancy put the nail in the coffin.

Right now, I'm mostly tired. I don't worry so much about all the things that could go wrong with childbirth as much as I worry about being able to remember everything I should be doing, and being an active and vocal fighter for my wife and baby. We still don't have a car, which bothers me. Part of it is we don't really know what the final bill is going to be from the hospital, and I want to make sure we're prepared to deal with that financially before I commit to several hundred dollars a month in car payments, insurance, and gas. Part of it is just inertia from trying to figure out everything else at the same time.

In some ways, I wish we could have had Wildbad sooner because I'm sort of getting used to the life here, and a baby will be another huge shake up. My coworkers were so apologetic and amazed at how unflappable I was at the breakup of the old office and the foundation of the new office- and I wanted to tell them, please, that was a ripple.

On the other hand, we've used our time here strategically- finding a family friendly office and home, looking for midwives and hospitals, and most importantly focusing on making friends and building a network of supporters and cheerleaders. Even moving very quickly, establishing a local social network is time and energy intensive. We are extremely lucky however, that I come across as warm and sincere, and most people fall immediately in love with Saori.

Although the preparation I go through to get ready for a new baby, attending classes, reading, decorating, picking out books to read to Wildbad, and especially assembling the crib forces me to think about the reality of being a father (make this tight so she can't shake it apart, is there a gap between the mattress and the frame she could get into?) I still struggle to visualize the totality of what my life will be like with Wildbad.

Feb 1, 2018


We got cable tv when we moved to Portland because it was the only way to get JapanTV, and it also let us bundle our cell phones and internet into one package. We have basic cable which is say we get all the home shopping networks, plus NBC, and a couple of HBO channels tossed in. Saori is more of a TV person than I am, so she usually tunes into what's on JapanTV. JapanTV is sort of like if you condensed PBS, Discovery, and NBC into one channel and gave each of them particular time slots, broadcast to Japan. An upshot of that is right around my bedtime, there's often sumo wrestling tournaments.

There's something about it which seems to fit the late night. Before I moved to Portland, I never gave sumo much thought. I think you have to know a little about Japanese culture to even be able to crack open the door to appreciating sumo wrestling. I used to see wrestlers posing and posturing and throwing salt? sand? sugar? and it looks like they're going to face off and wrestle, but they don't. And it's ages until they throw themselves at each other and someone gets dramatically (but more often, not so dramatically) pushed out of the ring. It reminded me of golf, which I find to be so fantastically boring I used to use is a sleep aid- watching a golf tournament in my mind.

There are some similarities actually between golf and sumo wrestling, which goes back to why I was watching it in the first place. There is a lot of ritual, a lot of contemplative expectation followed by a crisp action, and then more thoughtful evaluation. The beat of golf and sumo is slow, slow, slow. I watched sumo to get my mind into the slow beat before bedtime.

But the odd thing was that more I watched Sumo, the less boring it became- I became fascinated by the striking contrast I was watching.

No question, one thing I enjoy about Sumo is the contest- a struggle of two really powerful dudes fighting against each other with a mixture of strategy and strength. If a rhino fought an elephant, who would change the channel? Beyond those short fights, mostly under 30 seconds, there is a lot more.

Architecturally, for these competitions, the sumo ring is a compacted mound of dirt in the middle of a vast, grungy functionalist arena under a meticulously constructed wooden canopy of a Shinto shrine decorated with braided silk ropes and calligraphy banners, and you would know that this whole roof assembly was created by the top traditional artisans in Japan.

The clothes people wear are equally contrasting- as an event appealing to a particular age and income group, the crowd dresses more formally, business attire when it isn't more traditional Japanese robes. Everyone involved with the wrestling has their own special uniform dictated by hundreds of years of tradition, from the guy who hands the water ladle to the wrestlers to the main referee, who is magnificently attired and accessorized to the point that he looks like a work of exquisite origami. The contrast in form and color and shape then, of this walking origami with the fleshy sculpted blobs of near-nudity of the wrestlers who join him on the wrestling mound. Crisp, mindbogglingly expensive silk and tailoring, concealing the human form within angular folds of fabric, juxtaposed with an extreme of human fleshiness. The extreme of artifice and the extreme of nature.

These three figures form immediate compositions which can be very formal, nearly symmetrical as the two wrestlers go through their rituals on either side of the referee, to a point of pure symmetry, which happens to be the breaking point: both wrestlers must touch their fists to the ground before they can attack each other. It lasts a fraction of a moment: often one will plant fists, and the other will with the lightest dip touch the ground before exploding at each other. As the wrestlers struggle around the ring, the referee lightly dances around them, keeping an eye on the rope ring and changing his angles.

What I also find fascinating is the culture of the athletes. Pro-athlete in America usually means "excess." There is a reason we use the word "baller." You struggle from a young age to make it to the big leagues because that's where the money is (and there's money too in wrestling, no mistake) and for the lifestyle. For the VIP tables at the club. For the second house. For the cars. Sumo wrestlers have to adopt a very severe lifestyle which sounds not unlike a religious novice. Communal living, early rising, service to the organization and serving senior wrestlers, severe prohibitions on what is and what is not permitted to be worn. Sumo wrestlers aren't allowed to drive and most of them can only go in public wearing special basic cotton robes. And foreigners come to Japan, learn Japanese, adopt Japanese custom and manners precisely to take part in the Sumo wrestling culture. To my eyes, there is little idiosyncracy in Sumo- you don't bring your "style" or national "way of doing things" to the sport. Even the way the hair is worn is closely prescribed: there is only one way allowed (per rank).

Dec 29, 2017

five years

Towards the end of December, 2012, I graduated with my masters degree. Immediately after the last round of thesis presentations, there was a party of bottom shelf sparkling wine, crackers, cheese, and a few cases of beer. I remember slipping onto the quiet, snow covered porch of the architecture building, looking into the frigid St. Louis sky and regretfully thinking that I was at a kind of peak in my life. It was. I had worked harder than I had ever worked before, I had delivered a stellar academic performance, and I had discovered some unique things about my relationship to architecture and the world. Like an Olympic athlete, there was one target, a clear path, and it was just a matter of doing it and pushing myself, as if the rest of the world didn't matter. It’s a luxury, with a steep cost.

Of course, it's all artificial. I doubt I'll ever have that experience again if single-minded pursuit of intellectual excellence, especially within the confines of academia. There is a real world beyond the curriculum- debts to pay, relationships to cultivate, a world to experience, a life to lead. While there aren't as many hard deadlines as in school, every new white hair and wrinkle reminds me that there are plenty of soft ones. Five years ago, I remember feeling a little lost and more than a little burned out.

In the the five years since then, I have had a remarkable time.
Professionally, I worked in five different offices. Two of them used languages other than English as the common practice. I resigned three times. Between Mexico and Portland, I watched my wages rise tenfold plus (although I was making only a few hundred dollars a month in Mexico). I honed my skills as a graphic designer with intensive competition work in one office in Germany, and the typical high standard construction details in another. I learned about apartment buildings, hospitals, and schools. I participated in a radical renovation of an 18th century tavern, and watched ancient wooden beams and structural columns get repaired and integrated into a wholly new program. I went from an intern to a job captain, running my own meetings with consultants.

I learned German, and took months of classes. I delved into the rich world of Mexican food and history, and awakened a passion for cooking and food culture.

I returned to Saint Louis to walk in my graduation ceremony, and celebrated with family and friends.

There were some weddings.
Saori's old school friend from Tokyo got married to a Frenchman. We took the TGV to Paris and celebrated with them in mind-meltingly swanky Parisian style, surrounded by champagne.
Our dear friend and classmate Dew got married. We went to Japan and joined their farm wedding including a night bunking in the “gaijin” cabin, outdoor roasting and feasting, and joined the crop circle where the principal architect from Klein Dytham married him to the farmer’s daughter.  
My mom remarried, to a lawyer from Gainesville, Florida whom she had met while at school there. Tay and I went to her wedding along with Larry's sons. They had a lovely and small ceremony followed by dinner at the Royal Palms for the ten or so of us.

I got married. Three times. Once in Japan, in a way, where the Shinto priest asked for blessings on our common house, once in Louisiana with family and a big ceremony and celebration, and once in Portland, before a judge. My wife and I planned it with considerable financial and logistical support from my family, especially my mom and uncle. We celebrated outside of New Orleans with a large group of family and friends who traveled across the country and in some cases, across the world, to be there. We were wed in front of the mantlepiece of my uncle's Tracy's house, by my uncle David. Then we got legally married in Portland a few days later because Louisiana wouldn't grant us a marriage license. Two former classmates took a long lunch from their architecture jobs, and served as our witnesses at the county courthouse.

I traveled a lot. Mexico City, Puebla, and a scattering of remote and picturesque villages in the jungly mountains in central Mexico. Saori and I saw a lot of Europe together- Munich, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Paris, London, Barcelona, Porto, Rome. Venice, where we caught the famed architecture biennale. Ski trips in Austria and Germany. In the US, I spent a lot of time in Houston, Phoenix, and Atlanta, with short trips to Indianapolis, Tucson, Albuquerque, Austin, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Raleigh-Durham, and St. Louis. One new years, I flew up to Indianapolis to celebrate with Taylor, and we road tripped down to Ponca City the next day, even as he was grossly hungover. We got to grandma Betty’s house after dark, but she was beyond excited to see us. We celebrated her birthday taking her out to our favorite Ponca restaurant.

I lost my grandmother- Betty became suddenly very ill and weak not so long after that visit, but I was able to chat with her a bit via Skype before she slipped away. Cutting short a visit from my dad, I flew from Stuttgart to Oklahoma City and drove to Ponca with Larry for the funeral. I was one of the pallbearers.

We spent a lot of time, money, and energy simply moving residences. In five years I lived, full-time, in eight residences, not even including the several weeks I crashed at Saori’s waiting for my rental room when I first moved to Stuttgart. When Saori moved to Germany, we packed up the Saint Louis apartment, sold the rest, and threw it in a storage unit by the St.Louis airport. Saori took off, and I drove across the US back to Phoenix, where I sold the car, too, and caught a flight to Mexico. In Germany, we built back up from scratch for a few years, and then sold back down to a few suitcases, a chair, and about $1000 of DHL shipping costs for the giant cardboard boxes we sent back across the Atlantic. After finding an apartment in Portland, I flew to St.Louis, unloaded the storage unit into a uhaul, unloaded the uhaul into a shipping pod, loaded the shipping pod contents back into a uhaul, and unloaded the uhaul into our house in Portland.

In addition to cooking, I got more into plants, first orchids, then succulents and cacti, and now all types of houseplants, and reaching into the yard with perennials and grasses.
I found out I am going to become a father- which sharpened my focus and shaped the direction of the jobs and the lifestyle I searched for in the US.

In many ways, Saori and I are exhausted- five years of whirlwind, of struggle every day with both foreign languages and cultures, but also the rootlessness and restlessness. What we both really want is some stability, a fixed home, to establish ourselves, to know we’re building something. I’ve heard babies are exhausting, and will fundamentally change our lives- but it’s a different kind of exhausting than flinging our time, energy, and resources out into the world in the way we’ve been doing it for the past few years- it’s investing in where we are, in our family, and in ourselves.

Dec 27, 2017

Holidays 2017

We bought a small tree the day after Christmas. Picked up a little 3’ Noble fir from Fred Meyer and carried it home by hand. Saori put A Charlie Brown Christmas on Spotify, and decorated the tree, almost entirely ornaments from Germany. Saori is in her third trimester, and while people tell us Saori still looks so small, we both know wildbad will triple in size before she is born. She's more tired than usual- in addition to the energy drain for the production of another human being, other things they don't tell you about pregnancy is that mom wakes up multiple times during the night even before the baby is born.

Shortly after thanksgiving, Saori used mom’s early christmas present to us, a KitchenAid stand mixer, to whip up several batches of her Springerle cookies, which she traded away for macaroons, peanut butter cookies, cardamom cookies, etc. at holiday cookie swap at the nearby house of a woman Saori went to school with in Finland.

We had the first BRIC office party in mid-December, in a swanky community room of one of the neighboring glass condo towers / tech frat-houses. It was really fun: mediocre Italian buffet, open bar with wine, party games. There was a contest for best festive attire and Saori and I were surprised to win! I think they saw Saori's bump with a ribbon, and thought ok, got to give it to her. Our grand prize was a star wars waffle maker, which makes Stormtrooper-shaped waffles.

It's not a great time for her to travel, to schlep baggage through crowded airports, and spend stressful hours in uncomfortable chairs. So family came to us. Tay and Mom and Larry all flew up here for a few days. I shared a google doc, and everyone contributed to the agenda. We had everything from StarWars to driving to see Christmas lights. To avoid impact on us, mom got an AirBnB in north Portland, not far from the plant shop Solabee and the quirky Mississippi avenue stretch.

It was a typical Portland bungalow- Craftsman style, and Portland decorated. The couple that owned it had really bizarre taste, or simply couldn't curate what they had. Lots of plants everywhere, and a really cosy living room with a big monstera. No TV, no microwave, and a lot of odd doors, drawers, and odds and ends. We stayed there Christmas Eve and opened presents Christmas morning, bright and early. Amazingly, it snowed when they arrived to take us over Christmas Eve day, and then it all froze.

We ate well, the first night they were in town we hit up Higgins, which was an early adopter of the local, seasonal gourmet food concept. Excellent, surprising food. Friday night, I cooked chicken enchiladas and Saori made a salad, Saturday we ate out again at the County Cat (cute, open, highly rated, and a slight let down, although my duck was great). For Christmas eve, we ended up making the fallback plan- Marie Callendar’s frozen lasagna which we’d picked up a night or two before. In the two hours it took for this red iceberg to thaw and cook, Saori also whipped up a very nice salad for us, and I prepared an STP (sticky toffee pudding). Christmas morning after present-opening, I also whipped up some pancakes.

As for activities, we didn’t end up doing much Portland sightseeing together- there was the obligatory stop by Nordstrom’s Rack, as well as several hours at Powell’s, a few hours of wandering along 23rd ave’s shopping district, and STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI, which was a lot of fun. We played a lot of cards, hit some coffee shops, threw back some bottles of local Pinot Noir, and right before they left all to the airport to catch delayed flights, we had a delightful hour of camp making fun of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves on our couch at home.

We never did see those christmas lights. Next year.

Medium is the message

I moved the blog again. I deleted the Tumblr account and moved everything to Medium.com, a more writing-centric website. medium.com/@wende