March 27: Kumamoto

I liked Fukuoka and I’m sorry I didn’t schedule more time there. Today was my day to move again, but just 45 minutes down the train track. It rained most of the day, a light, drizzly kind of rain with a comfortable temperature. I checked in to the new hotel, which wouldn’t let me get into the room until 3 pm. That is the rule.

I particularly wanted to see one garden here: Suizenji koen, and decided to go there, rain or no. The first sight of the park is jaw dropping. When I get back to my other computer I’ll try to put together the photos above to show the entire first view. That said, I probably liked this park less than most of the others I’ve seen. Too many fake mountains, which are supposed to represent the 53 stations of the Tokaido Road.

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Many gardens represent scenery from far away places (in Japan or, occasionally China). Travel was a hardship so the wealthy could dream of travel in their gardens (and also compose poems about these famous places). This garden was begun as a tea garden by the feudal lord of the area in 1636 and took about 80 years to complete.

Monument to the two daimyos who built the garden. The woman bowed deeply to each one and stood there for a long time.

Monument to the two daimyos who built the garden. The woman bowed deeply to each one and stood there for a long time.

Never finished yesterday. So tired I was asleep by 10 and slept soundly until 4:30. then wide awake, but finally went back to sleep until 7:30.

More cherry blossoms

More cherry blossoms

On my way back to the hotel I stopped in the food department of a large department store near the tram station and bought stuff for my supper: three pieces of inari sushi, rice wrapped in a tofu skin; some dark green vegetable that might be spinach, and a container of slightly fermented cucumber, as in kimchi. I like that stuff, but inadvertently bought way too much. I’ll be eating every night here. There are vegetables, but it’s hard to find spinach, broccoli, and the other stuff I usually eat. I’m still concerned about my coumadin count, but I’m not showing any black marks yet. I guess I can always get a blood test.

After my vegetarian supper I wanted something sweet. I inquired about supermarkets and was given a map and some directions; then started walking. I found another covered walkway with lots of different kinds of shops, including something called Land of Markets that had some exotic stuff like cheese and another place called Swiss Konditorei. I’m never sure what the names mean, but this looked good. Unfortunately I had already made my purchase. Maybe I’ll go back tonight.

This is the largest hotel room I’ve had since I arrived, and it has the tiniest bathroom. Sometimes I feel like a giant here; I almost don’t fit on the toilet and getting in and out of the tub is an adventure in itself. It feels like there is no room to fall but I’m sure I could kill myself if i’m not careful.

Alice, you remarked about the efficiency of the Japanese. The trains run on time, even the buses and trams keep to a schedule. Problems arise when you don’t ask the right questions, or you don’t know what questions to ask. I asked how to get to the garden and was given exact directions. I didn’t ask if the garden was open, because my experience has been that gardens don’t close. Unlike museums, they are almost all open every day. As for information from websites I should know it isn’t reliable. But sometimes I don’t know how to ask.

March 25 and March 23

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Another travel day. Shipped my larger bag to the next hotel then pulling the overnighter I walked to the train station. I was going to take a taxi but figured the exercise would be good. Since I made it in 20 minutes it’s probably less than a mile. I arrived at the station earlier than necessary and got the rest of my train reservations, using a newly created list that reflected a few changes. After that five hour train ride last week I decided I couldn’t face another one. Instead of going from Hiroshima to Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku, which would involve a long ferry trip and an even longer train trip on a slow train, I am going back to Okayama from Hiroshima and will see the two gardens on Shikoku as day trips from Okayama. Now I am headed for Fukuoka on Kyushu, the other large island of Japan. It’s only about two hours which is good.

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Back to Saturday’s gardens. As I visit these gardens I am still questioning what attracts me most about them, why the Japanese designate some a most important and why I don’t always agree. There are three kinds of gardens, zen gardens made almost entirely from rocks and gravel, gardens made to be viewed from inside a structure and gardens made for strolling. I am not so fond of the zen gardens; it is the other two that interest me. Saturday’s gardens, Korakuen and Shurakuen are both stroll gardens. I visited Korakuen, considered one of Japan’s top three, in 2008 and found it somewhat disturbing. The garden was built for the pleasure of a daimyo. There are rice fields, tea fields, a lot of open lawn, an archery space, a place for training horses and a small, ugly aviary where they house half a dozen cranes. The cranes bother me the most and I am not so fond of all the open space.

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Okayama Castle: borrowed scenery for the garden

Okayama Castle: borrowed scenery for the garden

House with water running through it.

House with water running through it.

The second garden, Shurakuen, required an hour train trip inland and through the mountains to Tsuyama. Then I couldn’t figure out where to go from the guide map so I hired a taxi. Originally three times larger than the present site, this garden was created in the 17th C. and is a pond stroll garden, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Each few steps presented a different picture. This is what I look for.

When it was time to leave I wanted another taxi but finally just started walking. It turned out my $10 taxi ride took me less than two kilometers, an easy walk. I think the price was high because of the waiting time at stop lights, not because they were out to get me.

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When I arrived back at the hotel I met an English speaker, a Mexican who is working on a PhD in biophysics in Australia and who is a zen priest. He was eating his dinner in the hotel lounge while doing laundry and I sat and talked with him for probably two hours. He was fascinating and the first person I had a real conversation with in more than a week..

I arrived in Fukuoka before 11 am and spent about an hour in the station getting help from the information people and having lunch. I was advised to take a subway to my hotel, but one of the gardens I want to see was not far so I walked there and then walked to the hotel.Totally wiped out I’ve been working on this post and tomorrows plans. Eventually I’ll go out and get something to eat.

Rakusuien

Rakusuien

The garden, called Rakusuien, is a beautiful, very small pond garden with a waterfall and an attached tea house. I was invited to have tea, but it would have meant sitting on the floor so I demurred. I did go in to look at it and as I entered a small wedding party also came in. The strange part is that I think they were the same party I saw at Korakuen. Maybe I was dreaming.

Wedding party at Korakuen, or is this an advertising photo shoot?

Wedding party at Korakuen, or is this an advertising photo shoot?

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The gardener took my picture.

The gardener took my picture.

March 24: All at sea

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This is not going to be a nice review. For a much more positive portrait of this place, go here.

I never wrote up yesterday so I’ll save it for tomorrow’s train ride and deal with today while it’s still fresh in my mind. Yesterday was two good gardens will be mostly pictures.

Today I took a trip to Naoshima a nearby island, requiring two short train trips and a ferry. Read about the town and some of its industry here. The town bus, costing 100 Yen, met the ferry and took us to the ticket center and waiting area for Chichu museum where a long line was waiting. Before I go on, I have to say I hate waiting in line. Standing is not good for my legs or my soul and I work to avoid it; meaning I don’t often stand in any lines. But I got in this one and listened uncomprehending to a young man giving a long speech in Japanese. When the line moved and I finally got to him his nametag said bilingual guide and he told me, in English, he was giving me a slip of paper with a time on it, 45 minutes ahead, and at that time, and for the following 30 minutes, I would be allowed to buy a ticket to enter the museum.

Some of you who read my blog also read Ronni Bennett’s wonderful blog where she invokes crabby old lady. I am not so polite: today I was bitchy old lady. And that was only the beginning.

IMG_4179I waited the 45 minutes, grumbling under my breath, and finally paid my 2000 Yen (about $22) and walked over to the museum, where after climbing a steep incline and then taking an elevator, I was informed I would have to wait again to get into the Monet room. The museum, designed by Tadeo Ando, is large with lots of empty reinforced concrete corridors and entirely underground but all the work is illuminated with natural light, allowing you to see it under different lighting, according to the brochure. Maybe when the clouds move fast, but I can’t imagine standing around waiting, no seats, and all those people in line behind you. This museum has work by only three artists: James Turrell, Walter de Maria and Monet. So I stand in line, take my shoes off and put on slippers then finally get in to see the five Monet water lilies. How many water lilies did he paint? I’ve seen them in Paris, Chicago, New York and even Pittsburgh has one. These were not the best water lilies I ever saw, but they were certainly the most carefully displayed.

So, what next? I could go and stand in line to see the Turrell. I don’t know anything about his work, but the thought of one more line did me in. I went to the de Maria where there was no line and then, carefully filling in their satisfaction survey, I left. The best part of the museum, for me, was a kind of Monet garden along the path leading to the museum. These pictures are from the garden.
There are two more museums at only 1000 Yen each, but I skipped them and walked around outdoor sculpture by Nikki Saint Phalle along the beach. No waiting.

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I got back on the bus, which was waiting for me for a change, and went to the art houses. This is a group of widely spaced houses that had been abandoned or falling down and were renovated (?) and made into works of art. After paying another 1000 Yen I was told I would have to get a ticket and then there would be an hour and a half wait to see another Ando/Turrell creation. And I had to walk to said creation in order to get the ticket. Can you see the steam coming off the top of my head?
I got the ticket which was actually for 3 o’clock, two hours later, then walked around to see the other houses.

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The idea is fascinating, in principle. One of the museums in Pittsburgh does something similar and I think more interesting. This house, which had been a dental clinic, was given an intriguing floor and housed this funky almost Statue of Liberty I wasn’t supposed to photograph. Couldn’t resist.

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I never saw the Ando/Turrell masterpiece. About 2 pm, having walked or stood from about 9:30, I got on the bus, went back to the port and made the ferry/train trip. Now I’m doing laundry. The moment of truth, or dirt, had come.

Nikki St Phalle Cat

Nikki St Phalle Cat

Me, in one of the pieces on the beach

Me, in one of the pieces on the beach

March 22: On the train

Shinkansen. Why can't we have trains like that?

Shinkansen. Why can’t we have trains like that?

Today is a travel day. First a brief trip on a local train, now four hours on the Shinkansen to get to Okayama. I think the distance is comparable to Chicago to DC. It wouldn’t be four hours on our trains.

In this week since I left Pittsburgh I have stayed at three radically different hotels. My criteria for selecting hotels had to do with location and, of course, price, preferably under $100, better yet, under $75. Which was paramount depended on how much I understood about the destination. The first night, in Chicago, location was important. I wanted something close to the airport and to public transit. The O’Hare Inn and Suites offered seemingly constant shuttle service to the airport and the blue line train. It was not a great hotel; clean enough, but shabby with the inconvenience of stairs for second floor rooms and ; badly in need of renovation. The shuttle driver took my bags to the room and brought them down when I left. There was no way I would be able to manage it. I think this was one of the more expensive places.

I have two bags: the largest 21” carry-on I could find, (Did you know the 21 inchers come in different sizes?) and the small overnight I took for that previous three night stay in Chicago. Dealing with both at once is not pleasant, but I don’t anticipate doing it often. I am shipping the larger bag and skipping hotels I will only stay at one or two nights. In Atami I had only the overnighter. My other bag is supposed to meet me in Okayama.

My Tokyo hotel, MyStays Inn, Asakusabashi, was stylish and looked new. The room was, as I expected, miniscule but comfortable. I think the bed was great but I was so exhausted every night I couldn’t say for sure. I had to put the suitcase on the bed when I wanted to open it. There was no room for one of those luggage stands and no closet. Three hangars were on a rod overhanging a full-size mirror. The bathroom, as most Japanese bathrooms, had a raised threshold. I’ve never figured out whether this enables them to flood the room to clean it or to keep the evil spirits from leaving the bathroom. The tub was deep, great for soaking but not great for getting in and out to shower. I never soak. Not anymore. That was the worst inconvenience. The staff was helpful; I was even able to manage with the ones who did not speak English. It was also convenient to the train.

Basin and tub

Basin and tub

Train station I missed entirely on my first try

Train station I missed entirely on my first try

Bento Box, from the 24 hr. supermarket down the street.

Bento Box, from the 24 hr. supermarket down the street.

As you may have gathered, my experience in Atami was something of a shock. The hotel entrance at the bottom of the hill was hugely inconvenient. I come from flatland and don’t like climbing hills or stairs, up or down. But climb I did, taking taxis only when I was carrying the little suitcase, which was not light. I liked the room in spite of the lack of a comfortable chair. I like sleeping on the futon on tatami mats. I find it comfortable and I sleep well. Only the up and down is bad.

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The room was long and narrow. About a third of it, as you walked in, was lined on both sides with utilities: a tiny entrance area with a shelf where you can leave your shoes (no walking with shoes on tatami mats) and keys or whatever else you didn’t need inside the room. On the left were separate compartments for the toilet, the shower and soak tub; and a large storage cabinet entered from inside the room, for the futons, pillows and duvet.

On the right side was a closet with a wardrobe, a basin with a mirror and some shelves in the corners for toiletries, a tiny sink and single burner stove with cabinet underneath with some dishes and pots, a microwave, a rice cooker and an electric kettle. No teabags, but I had some from the Tokyo hotel. I used the microwave, the kettle and a couple of plates for already prepared stuff I was able to purchase, including some tasty green stuff I hope was spinach.

The actual room was fairly large with a TV and some shelves for other equipment and a large, sturdy table that I finally decided to sit on. I am amazed it took me 24 hours to figure I could sit on it. I just don’t usually sit on tables. The first morning I couldn’t get my support stockings on while sitting on the floor. I just don’t bend so much any more. I finally went and sat on the toilet, the only thing in the room that resembled a chair.

I bought an Obi in Tokyo to cut up for a book cover. It’s a lot of fabric and it is heavy. I was able to get it in the suitcase, but as the weather gets warmer I will have to think about getting rid of stuff so I won’t have to wear the two jackets I am using now. I think it could get very warm here before I am ready to leave. Chicago was supposed to be cold the day I was there. I took a scarf and an undershirt that kept me too warm most of the time so I left both things I almost never wear in the hotel room. I have two pairs of shoes with me. Took a good look at the pair I was wearing when I arrived in Tokyo and decided they could go. First, I have to make sure I am comfortable in the other pair. I tend to walk on the outside of my feet and I break down most shoes before they ever wear out otherwise. Since I started wearing Merrell’s I find they wear on the bottom long before I can break them down. I never took a good look at the other pair. They could be awful, also, in which case I guess I go barefoot, or it might now be possible to buy shoes here. I’ve noticed some very large feet.

I am also considering jettisoning the jackets. The outer one is probably thirty years old. It’s in amazingly good shape. Eddie Bauer made great stuff back then. The lighter one is also nothing special. I’ll have to see how much I buy and wait until the weather is really warm. Presently it has been fluctuating between very warm days and much cooler days. Also depends on altitude. On April 10 I will go to Mt. Koya, possibly a cold trip.

I’ve got about 40 minutes left on the train. The weather forecast was for cooler temps, but it didn’t seem very cool before I boarded.

Posted this from my hotel in Okayama where it is very cool, damp and gray. Originally planned to visit Korakuen, my next garden, today, but I hope tomorrow will be a better day. My suitcase, entirely encased in a plastic bag was waiting for me. I could get used to this kind of service.

The best laid plans

Fig. 5 Abbot’s Garden at Nanzen-ji

Abbot’s Garden at Nanzen-ji

Detailed planning will be important for Kyushu, Kyoto and getting out of Tokyo. I want to go to Hakone and Atami, just outside of Tokyo, near each other and probably good for one and a half days. As I mentioned last time, I couldn’t decide about making day trips from Tokyo or going on. Tonight I did it. I booked a hotel in Atami for 2 nights. When I arrive I plan to go to  MOA, Atami’s famous museum of art, then spend the second day in Hakone, where I want to see the open air museum, take the train ride and hope for views of Mt. Fuji. I’ve never been to either place so I can’t show pictures now.

From my previous trip:

Then Fuji appeared, gloriously, on the left. A ring of gray clouds partially encircled it just below the snow level, in an otherwise blue sky. This time other people in the car reacted, taking pictures, moving to better viewing positions. I was content just to look. No photograph will ever do it for me.

Next stop: Okayama or Hiroshima

Travel (mis) Adventures

Sometimes I think I am living under a travel curse–at least for that last trip. I haven’t been happy about flying since they first made me take off my shoes. The TSA doesn’t understand how important shoes are to old ladies, especially on hard floors. So I’ve been taking the train or bus–no security, no problems. Having more time than anything else I bought a ticket on the Megabus to go to New York the day before I had to be there. I chose Megabus over Greyhound Express because they had an 11am departure, in addition to the ghastly early and not-quite-overnight trips. On December 15 I made a reservation to go to New York on January 4 at 11am. I got to the departure point about 10:30 with a few people in front of me and about 20 or 25 people finally lined up after me. It was a bitter cold day. The bus from Harrisburg arrived and passengers dispersed. The bus to Washington D.C. came and went. The bus to Philly came and went. About 11:10 a Megabus employee asked us which bus we were waiting for, then told us there was no 11am bus; we would have to wait until 12. Megabus, which does most of its business online, never notified us the schedule had changed. We walked off to find someplace warm and came back a half hour later. The employee told us we could call and complain, which I did, but never heard from Megabus again. Needless to say, except for this public complaint, they won’t hear from me again.

Coming back to Pittsburgh I flew with Robin. She could not have taken the bus and I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to do it again. She had a huge, heavy suitcase and a heavy backpack for her laptop and other technology. She isn’t supposed to lift anything over 5 lbs. and I probably can’t lift much over 10 lbs. We got lots of help. A skycap took care of the heavy suitcase and someone from the airline walked us over to security. We took a bunch of those trays and put our stuff into them: my coat and shoes, Robin’s coat and shoes, her backpack, her laptop, her jacket, my jacket, my suitcase, etc. Etc. because I know there were more than six trays. I started to move the trays toward the scanner and suddenly realized I would have to move everything to another table next to the first but not connected to it. So everything had to be lifted over. This was obviously a tour de force of design and efficiency. I finally got everything going through the machine, then a little nervous about having it piling up on the other side without me, I walked through the metal detector and set it off.

I don’t know what did it. I had on my watch (plastic, but who knows what’s inside), my hearing aids (ditto), pants with a metal zipper, and of course, my pacemaker. I’ve walked through other times with same and no consequences, but I mentioned it and the TSA turned white. She literally did not know what to do with me. Finally, still in stocking feet, she patted me down. The advantage to being my age is that I’ve been to so many doctors and had so many other nasty experiences, I just didn’t care. The only really annoying part was being shoeless. She found nothing, but, surprise, something in my possessions set of an alarm somewhere. Another TSA (all female; a man would have been more fun) took me, shoeless, to another place and did another pat down. She discovered the dirty tissues in my pocket; the other one ignored them. They finally concluded I wasn’t a terrorist, then Robin and I got a ride of one of those electric carts over to the gate. We had help going down the jetway steps and up the plane steps with our stuff; by now just the coats, backpack and my carryon. In Pittsburgh we were met with a wheel chair. Neither of us needed it, so we piled all the stuff on, now including my suitcase, and walked with the attendant to the baggage claim where Steve met us. More about New York next time.

Two days in Scranton

We came to Scranton for a family reunion for Steve's family, of which I am part. They adopted me. Visiting with the family has been great. In addition to spending time together we went to a coal mine tour–really fascinating in a gruesome way. This is the second coal mine tour I've taken. Both times I have constantly wondered about the conditions in Ireland and Eastern Europe that made people come here and take jobs in those mines. How horrible could those conditions have been, when it is preferable to work in an occupation where you would most certainly become ill for the rest of your life if you were not rescued by an early death. Children, as young as seven were sent to work in life-risking situations. Mules used to move the coal filled train cars were more valuable than the children. We forget the terrible working conditions that prevailed during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and how much labor unions have done to improve things for workers, although, as mine explosions in Chile and West Virginia have shown during the last year, the unions have not done enough.

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Going down into the mine and watching the light disappear.

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Coming out of the train in the mine.

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Our tour guide telling us about conditions in the mine. 

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Think about walking around down here with only the light from a lantern attached to a hat you were wearing. Then drill into the coal, set black powder or dynamite and run away before the charge explodes. 

 

Chicago continued

One of the exhibits at the History Museum was

Facing Freedom

What does freedom mean? To whom should freedom be extended? How are denied rights gained? These are some of the questions the new American history exhibition explores. Based on the central idea that the history of the United States has been shaped by conflicts over what it means to be free, this new exhibition uses images, artifacts, and interactivity to explore familiar and not-so-familiar stories from the nation’s past. From women's suffrage and the formation of unions, to Japanese internment, to a local school boycott, the exhibition highlights some of the ways Americans have struggled over the true meaning of freedom.

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It's a powerful exhibit as pertinent today as its recollection of events of the past.

On Thursday we went on an Architecture Foundation tour of the Fine Arts Building, an artists' building on Michigan Avenue. I've been in the building many times, but learned all sorts of new things from the tour. I didn't know there was this beautiful courtyard on the fourth floor.

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I would like to have a studio that opens into the courtyard and have tea every afternoon when the 4 o'clock low hits me.

Afterward we went to Millenium Park, the jewel of Chicago, and looked at the Lurie Garden. Chicago's motto is "city in a garden." You can really believe that here.

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Friday morning I left Chicago and drove down to New Albany, Indiana, a suburb of Louisville, Kentucky, to go to Jan's opening. Here she is taking my picture. Be sure to note the wonderful banner they hung for the show.

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You can read more about the show in her blog here and in the show blog here. It was a great opening and a great show. I'm very glad I went, although I hope I remember not to do two hard days of driving, back to back, again. I got back to Pittsburgh in spite of tornado warnings in Ohio and a terrible traffic backup in Kentucky.

 

The week that was

Last Wednesday I took the Megabus to Philadelphia. Except for the fact that there's no way to get up and walk around, it's a decent way to travel. Of course, they leave before dawn, which meant I had to get up at 4:30, but it was OK. I met Renee in Philly and we went to the Chagall exhibit at the Museum of Fine Art. Very nice. We also walked around South Street; went to the Magic Garden, Reading Market, and Eastern State Penitentiary; staying overnight to do all of this.

Finally, exhausted, we got on another Megabus and went to New York, where I went to the Japan Society to see Bye, Bye Kitty, a really good exhibit put together before the earthquake, but entirely appropriate to the circumstance, and then spent time at the Met. I can't go to New York without spending time at the Met. Also went to visit friends who have just moved into a new apartment.

Robin and Steve drove in on Saturday and we had dinner with Steve's family: Renee, Michael and Rosemary. On Sunday Renee went to Boston to have a Passover Seder with Steve's sister, Robin and Steve moved to the apartment (musical apartments) and we had our Seder with friends in Teaneck. Our friends have a mixed marriage: he's Ashkenazi; she's Sephardi. The Seder is always a blend of their traditions, making it more interesting for us.

Now comes the bad part:

We were supposed to stay until yesterday morning, but I had a problem so my kids very kindly brought me back to Pittsburgh on Tuesday. Two weeks ago I had the implant inserted where my tooth had been pulled. It became infected, although I wasn't certain of it until Sunday. Monday morning I called the oral surgeon and got a perscription for an antibiotic, but it didn't seem to help. Feeling worse on Tuesday, with obvious swelling of my cheek, we drove back. Yesterday, I spent the morning back at the oral surgeon's. You don't want to know the details. I'm still swollen and not certain it's getting better. I am allergic to penicillin and tetracycline, and I've had bad side effects from levaquin. It makes it very hard for me to take antibiotics. They've been alternating between two arithromycins, but now they don't seem to be working. So I'm taking cipro, a levaquin-type, and keeping my fingers crossed.

Spring? update

It was 21 degrees when I got up this morning. The sun is shining, which is nice, but it hasn't warmed up very much. The groundhog lied, lied I tell you.

Otherwise things are OK. Robin's lab work was all negative, so we are very relieved. I do not have the BRCA mutation, for whatever that's worth. I still come from a family with lots of cancer. They just haven't found the proper label for us. The mutation is dominant, meaning you just need one copy of it. So it came from Robin's father's side of the family, which had lots of boys, so no one thought about it. Now they have to give it some thought–there are girls in my grandchildren's generation.

On Sunday I walked down to Forbes and Murray and back–almost four miles. Had a terrible night with lots of leg cramps. I want to get more exercise, but I guess I have to take it slower–three miles next time.

I would have been in Kyushu today if I had gone to Japan, far away from the radiation and other devastation. I think about it every day. I'm not sorry I didn't go. They don't need another old woman to evacuate, or to use up food and power. I hope next year will be better. I am so sad for all of those people who were unfailingly wonderful to me.