Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Navy Story [1950s Japan]

Whenever I wander through thrift stores, I keep an eye out for old photos. Anything that's black and white qualifies for at least a cursory glance. I skim over formal portraits-- stories, intrigue, and lives are difficult to parse from a stiff, perfectly lit studio which washes out even the glamour of the old. I'm always hunting for a glimpse of personality, a hint of a rich life lived during such different times.

 Like the photo of a tea party I once found-- a group of women, all decked out, lounging in someone's backyard, the summer foliage peaking over their shoulders, their faces blurred from laughing, the one woman in the middle who held still, a sardonic smile resting on her lips. I could almost hear the clinking of china, rattling incongruously in the sun dappled garden.

But my stories have always been constructed primarily from my own imagination, my own projections onto a past I know nothing about. The ladies, in gowns and pearls and hats while lounging on rugs thrown on the grass-- how did they view the situation? Were they laughing at the absurdity of pearls and indoor rugs misplaced on the ground? Or was this a common gathering, an al fresco tea party, their costumes normal to their eyes, out of place only to mine? How could I ever know what that afternoon had really been like?

That was why, a couple of weeks ago when I stumbled on a cache of old photos, I knew I had struck gold.

You see, not only were these interesting black and white photos taken by an American solider in post-WWII Japan but on the back of each were carefully written notes from the solider to his sweetheart back home.



The year was 1951 and the solider was in Sasebo, Japan. Our solider, a sailor I named Al for no discernible reason, had been assigned to a ship called the USS Luzon whose duty was to provide repair and mechanical assistance to other ships in her fleet (thank you Wikipedia).

Al was a second class seaman, had survived WWII, and was yet still stranded far from home and far from his love. He was most likely a diesel mechanic, but wrote in such perfect pearls of cursive that belayed his beefy hands.

He clearly missed the woman he had left back home and wrote her often-- squeezing in messages on the back of many small photos he took. There was the photo of the market street:





"The old and the young on the main drag of Sasebo, we call it black market street. You can buy anything from a hair pin to a woman."
(which made me laugh out loud in the deserted corner of the thrift store; I then proceeded to read it and ever other photo to my poor parents).

The photo that first caught my eye, the caption that first made me realize that there was no way I was leaving these curled photos to decay into dust in this barn of a flea market, was the photo below.






"Shaking hands with a jap friendo as they say friendo. He seemed very pleased for me to shake his hand and I enjoyed it too. I hope they always stay our friends."

It was a simple message from a man who had served-- in some way or another-- through the horrors of a world war, who was stationed in a country crippled by toll of that war. It was a simple plea for peace that made me sift through the pile of photos to hear the rest of his story.

There was the collection of photos where Al and his friend go to a local pearl farm, to buy a necklace to send home to his girl (wife? he appears to be wearing a wedding ring but I really need a magnifying glass but this is the 21st century who owns a magnifying glass). There's the photo with the Japanese pearl farmer himself-- Al and his friend are easily six feet tall and crowd over the diminutive farmer with large smiles.

I had this photo for weeks before I realized I could glean information about Al's rank from the ensign on his left shoulder (Al is standing on the right). With enough stubbornness and blinking I was finally able to make out two strips below the eagle-- thus the second class status. Now the icon right below the eagle would tell me what he did on the ship-- if I could just make it out! It looks like a triangle? I've search Navy websites but haven't been able to match it. 



There's the photo by the lake where Al searches through the crates and holds up a bottle of sake, turning towards the camera with a smile.




"How about a drink of saki. Jap fishing boat in the background. Honey, they reminded me of the time we went to Fisherman's Warf in Fresco-- remember." 

There's the photo where Al looks like he's recreating a pin-up pose to give his wife back home a laugh (or who are we kidding, he definitely gave me a laugh, I love it so much).

Written on back: "This is your honey."

I don't know how long Al was deployed or how long he served in Japan but I know that distance, and constant worry on his wife's side, must have been terrible. There was a photo of Al's friend smiling on the sunny ship's deck. The note on the back said that his friend had just received a Dear John letter, that he was going home to try and work thing out. Al said he hoped it would work, that his friend really loved the girl who had broken up with him.

Al doesn't write about the stress the war must have taken on his relationship or the difficulty of being the conqueror in a defeated, proud country or the looming specter of the Korean War peaking over his shoulders. Maybe he saved more difficult conversations such as those for letters presumably sent with the photos-- letters that were either sadly lost or hopefully kept by the family.

Which makes me wonder why I was able to stumble upon these deeply personal photos which had to have been beloved by his wife. How did they end up shoved in a wicker basket on the next to last aisle in a thrift store large enough to hold a pick up football game in? Did he and his wife not have kids? Or did the photos trickle down to grand kids who shrugged and packed up boxes of stuff to sell after his death? How could something clearly so personal get relegated to an anonymous booth in a store named after a vegetable? (Btw the thrift store was Artichoke Ann's and it's one of my favs)

My grandfather was lucky enough to be too young for WWII and received domestic duty during his time in the Korean conflict. So while he and my grandmother traveled far from family, they were able to stay together. But even if a brief break had happened, any letter or note passed between them would be something that I would keep and cherish. It's been some years since I last coerced my grandmother into pulling out the shoe box which houses all the old family photos but maybe next time I see her I'll make her pull them all out and give me a guided tour of all that existed before me.



As always, thanks for reading :) I will continue to see what more I can dig up about my friend Al-- with a little luck, a magnifying glass, and some time I have hope I'll be able to discover his real name and unearth a bit more of his story.


Friday, March 24, 2017

What I read: 2016

As you may or may not know, I am mildly obsessed with a website called Goodreads. Goodreads is a website dedicated to keeping track of what you've read, what you want to read, and what you're currently reading.

You can look up a book and see what people are saying about it, the average rating they give it, what books are similar to it. I often check it when I'm in the library about to make an impulse decision. Most days I walk into the library with set ideas, a carefully curated list of books that I'm excited about it. And some days I wander down the aisles, leisurely skimming the titles under I stumble on something that looks promising. I then scan the barcode with my Goodreads app and see how readers generally felt about the book. Most of the time if the reviews are mildly negative I proceed to ignore that completely and get the book anyway. Some of the books I've loved (*ahem* Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord) have lukewarm reviews.

But I digress! Goodreads also has this cool ability to list what books you read in a year along with various stats. For future me, I wanted to log how 2016 went, book-wise, and make some goals for 2017.

So let's get to the data! (aka my favorite part)



Total Books Read: 22
This is almost an average of two books a month-- I would like to get closer to two, if not three, books a month for 2017. I know if I manage my time wisely this won't be difficult. The difficulty will be restricting my YouTube activity to normal amounts. This number is also partly a lie-- I often move books that I gave up on to my 'read' shelf because I've read all that I want to of them. Also, the number includes one or two books that I read in the past but only just now put them on my 'read' shelf. So really this is all lies.



Longest Book Read: 584 pages, Shadow Of Night by Deborah Harkness
This was actually a re-read for me. It's the second book in a trilogy and the third has just come out-- but it had been three or so years since I last read the second book so I thought I needed a refresher. The book was good, but so long that by the time I trudged through the end I wasn't up for devoting another month of my life to book #3.





















Shortest Book Read: Sprinkle with Murder (231 pages) by  Jenn McKinlay || A Time to Love (228 pages) by Barbara Cameron
It's basically a tie for this award-- split between a fluffy murder mystery (with cupcakes!) and an Amish romance. I know, I know. Amish. Romance.  A Time to Love is a novel that I've considered talking about-- I even wrote a vlog script about it, but never filmed it. Amish books are a genre that I've always judged without every even reading one. I mean, it feels weird to read a (probably) romanticized view of a group written by an outsider. However, I will say that it was an enjoyable novel-- it had its flaws but overall I'm glad that I gave it a chance.




Books Written by Women: 15

Books Written by Men: 7
Well that was skewed in a way I didn't expect.

Books Written by Non-American/English Authors: 2
I only managed to read two novels written by people not from the UK or America. The Best of All Possible Worlds is by Karen Lord who is from Barbados and Lexicon is by Max Berry who is from Australia! Diversity is definitely something that I want to actively work on in 2017.

And that's it! I think those are all the categories relevant to me, ones that hopefully a year from now I will be post updates to.

What about you? What types of books (foreign authors, male authors) do you struggle to read more of?

Thanks for reading! (ha ha)

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What we leave behind

Dear Reader,

We've been friends for what now, six years? That's a good stretch of time. You see, I have a couple of unusual hobbies that I typically wait until I get to know someone before divulging them. I did break my rule a couple of months ago in my youth group-- luckily everyone was sharing weird hobbies so I tried to gloss over mine as normal weird hobbies and everyone kind of went along with it.

You see, I like cemeteries. I find them fascinating-- I love wandering through the carefully arranged bleached forest of headstones. Behind each name lies a full and exciting life-- the details of which are tantalizingly just out of reach. The saddest stories call out the loudest-- a mother who outlived her son, a infant child buried without even a name. Happy stories-- like good deeds-- often stay interred with their bones which means that imagination tends to be a substitute for facts.

I also like reading obituaries-- I know, I know, stay with me. I scan the obits for anyone over 90, and then eagerly read what their relatives thought a fit summary of their life. It's a rather doomed interest-- I rarely find an obit that makes me feel like I caught a brief glimpse into at least some approximation of the fullness of their lives. More often than not it ends with frustration-- 100 years of life and all I get is who survived her? I want to know what it was like growing up, how she met her husband, all sorts of stories that rarely are published in an obituary.

While the common tie to my interests seems to be death it's actually a bit more subtle. What I'm really interested are stories, especially the ones we leave behind. Not anything as grandiose as a legacy-- I don't really care about the perhaps massive impact on future generations-- I'm more interested in the mundane. For example, anyone who read the obit of my great-grandmother probably didn't realize that she attended 8th grade twice. High schools were far off, expensive, and for boys, but my great-grandmother loved school so much her parents let her go to 8th grade a second time before she left academia for farm life. There are so many stories like that hidden behind every gravestone, every obit, and sometimes I can be lucky enough to stumble upon them.

If you ever visit a thrift store/antique mall with me and I find a heap of old postcards, you better resign yourself to the better part of an hour spent flipping through them. As you saw in my previous post I love old postcards because they have the rare ability to break down that barrier that death erects, to show me a small, personal glimpse into a life that has long since ended. 1909 seems impossibly in the past and out of reach, until you read a note between friends joking about hunting for the perfect husband and then the past collapses and you see that people back then weren't so different from people today.

But there is one big difference between us and them-- the physical remnants of our lives. In 1909 they didn't text, they sent postcards. Postcards that later their great-grandchildren would throw into a bag and drop off at a thrift store. We take thousands of photos but rarely print out one. Will our entire legacy be online? A hundred years from now, when my great-granddaughter is musing about the inaccessibility of the past, what will she use to reconstruct my life? Facebook certainly won't be around, my text messages will have long since echoed into silence-- maybe I'll print off my blog one day, stick it in an old binder, shove it into the attic for my grandchildren to stumble upon. Maybe that's why I write this blog-- to have a say in telling my own story. From high school, to college, to grad school-- a short time in the grand scheme of things but a massive span to me personally.

Maybe, one day, this will be the story I leave behind.

But until then, dear reader, thanks for listening.


Sunday, February 19, 2017

Thrift Store Haul

I've always loved thrift stores. 

I love any place where the possibility of finding the perfect item is equally matched with the possibility of finding pure junk. It just makes any good find that much more exciting-- and the work needed to sift through the junk typically means that the good finds have equally good prices. 

This past weekend I had unusually good luck as I browsed a couple of my favorite antique/thrift stores. For those of you who aren't sold on the idea of sorting through old stuff to find the perfect item, then maybe the cool things I stumbled upon will sell you on the idea! 

But first, a cat.


Here's Otto in typical cat fashion sitting right where I don't want him to be. He's cute but I didn't buy him in a thrift store so let's move on to (perhaps) my most exciting purchase.

I didn't set out to buy a purse-- but that's how thrifting works. Sometimes you walk in with a set goal (like when I was furnishing my apartment) and sometimes you walk in with no goal in mind.

I found this Coach purse in the back of the thrift store, hanging unassumingly next to some other black bags. It was only when I picked it up that I fell in love. You see, it's a 100% leather Coach bag, handmade in the US. It's old but looks and feels brand new (that's leather for you!). The best part?


The purse was only 24 dollars. 24! For a leather messenger bag! From a good brand!


And now for something completely different-- a postcard, complete with written message, postmarked in 1909. In the message, the writer asks her friend how she was spending the winter. "Are you still teaching? Or have you captured one of the good looking widowers and are keeping house? I just have the 'bestest' one ever and a splendid home." The candidacy made me laugh and I had to buy it for one dollar. If I can dig up some info on either the writer or the receiver I'll write a blog post devoted to that!


To call my haul eclectic perhaps doesn't cover the full extent of it. Next up, I bought two small test tubes-- some manufacturer had gone out of business or something and there was a whole box of them for sale. My mom had the cool idea to use them as single stem vases-- I haven't worked out how I'm going to prop them up yet, but they were super cute and a steal for one dollar a piece.

I have a well documented (if you've ever been to my apartment) love with stained glass. Soon I'll reach maximum capacity-- you can only fill a small space with so much stained glass before it becomes too much. I have a couple small pieces like this one hanging on my kitchen wall-- and when I saw this being sold for five dollars, I had to pick it up and add it to the mix.

 And now for perhaps the most interesting find. I was wandering down the ailse in the massive thrift store when a pile of black and white photos caught my eye. They weren't priced, just dumped into a wicker basket (which was being sold for 12 dollars). I picked one up and flipped it over. I was surprised to see the back of the photo covered in beautiful cursive, a scrawling message from a sailor stationed in Japan to his wife. I began to sort through the photos and a lovely story began to emerge-- one that I am going to write a whole blog post dedicated to because holy cow how often do you find something so personal in the thrift store? Old photos are everywhere, but I've never found ones with messages written on the back. Keep an eye out for the whole story ;)



And that's it! A purse, test tubes, stained glass, postcard, and a smathering of photos of 1950s Japan! Part of the magic of thrift stores is that next time I wander through the ailse there could be entirely new treasures waiting to be found.

I hope I convinced you (if you need convincing!) of the benefits of sorting through sometimes overpriced junk in order to find something really cool.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Hey there

Oh hello. I didn't see you there.

I'm surprised anyone is here, considering it has been a literal epoch (read: two months) since I last posted.

Why is that, you ask? Classes? Well...no. I'm actually class-free this semester, which will make the next time I have to do homework that much more difficult.

I am, however, teaching a full load-- which for me means two calculus based labs, one algebra based discussion, and two calculus based discussions. So there is that.

And I am researching-- whenever I can find time on the machine (Atomic Force Microscope for those playing along at home) and/or motivation to do the gritty non-exciting parts of research which strangely enough involve a lot of Googling. Seriously, Google should go ahead and hire me-- this semester I've turned into a Google Docs spokesperson. Need to keep track of your experiments? Use a Google Doc! Organize by date, procedure, and add photos of results. Need to update your professor on your work? Use Google Slides-- update it from whatever computer you happen to be closest too, and you can share it with them, which allows you both to fix mistakes, find typos, and answer questions with ease!

And don't even get me started on the ease of using Google Sheets to keep track of my lab grading books.

Sadly, however, no part of my paycheck is (currently) coming from the great company of Google. Oh well, here's to hoping?

Anyway, this is a short post is mainly intended to guilt trip me into writing a better, perhaps more thought out, post soon rather than waiting another two months. Maybe I'll post the weekly spreads I've been designing in the bullet journal with their associated pros and cons. Or maybe I'll post this scone recipe that I just made tonight. I've been making scones for years but this recipe is a GAME CHANGER. So moist yet so crumbly! With just the perfect touch of sweetness. Oy. I may have finally perfected my scone game, y'all.



Anyway, here's to setting the bar low for posts by future me!

Thanks for reading :)