USA

What’s a family reunion without a family portrait? Here’s my mother with five of her six children, two daughters-in-law, eight grandchildren, one sort-of grandson-in-law, and two great-grandchildren. If the Alaska crowd had made it down this would be a much bigger picture.

This was a strange trip. The idea was to just go home for a visit, a long week in Duluth. My brother and sister would be working during the week but I’d have time to visit my mother, hang out in the evening with family, and see everyone during the weekend. Mark would be in Tuscany studying Italian with a friend and it would be pleasant.

Then my niece got the news no one wanted: the cancer that had attacked her then-eight-year-old son a couple years ago was back. He’d been declared cancer free just six or eight months earlier, though everyone knew there was a chance it would return. It did, a lot sooner than we’d expected, and this time there was no treatment. He’s fine for now, but his days are distinctly limited. So instead of a week just hanging out in Duluth, we decided to rent a few cabins on a lake near Grand Rapids and invite whatever siblings could make it back to spend the Fourth of July week being family, doing what we could to support each other. In the end it ended up being Al & Anita fresh off our holiday in Greece along with their two kids, my sister Marie and her three adult children from North Carolina, and the whole Duluth gang.

Mom with her four youngest grandkids and two great-grandkids. The young ‘uns have a lot of fun at these family reunions.

Here’s the weird part. Needless to say, there was a lot of pain in the crowd. Dexter’s tumors are still extremely small – microscopic, I assume – so the cancer isn’t bothering him to any measurable extent. But everyone always knows they’re back and at some point in a few months, probably not a lot more, they will start taking over. And so the kids play – and it’s enormously fun watching the youngsters frolic at a lake-side resort – while the adults read and talk and cook and play cards and all that. But every so often you catch yourself having maybe too much fun, forgetting for a moment, recognizing that this is the last time we’ll be together this way without the seemingly unbearable pain of Dex’s cancer. You can ignore the sadness for a while, but it’s always lurking ready to remind you how incomprehensibly unfair life can be.

Still, we carry on. The long week together gave me time to connect with nieces and nephews I rarely see. I spent lots of time with my siblings and the two sisters-in-law who were there but that still leaves plenty of time to walk or find a quiet place to read. My mother’s Alzheimers continues it’s inexorable path, but for now at least it’s just a matter of short-term memory; she certainly knows who we are and what’s going on around her. Ask her who drove her out to the lodge that morning, though, and that’s another story.

Sunset over North Star Lake. If I look at this picture for just a few seconds I can start to hear the loons, a sound I love.

The lake itself is really beautiful, as these Northern Minnesota lakes all are. I’d love the area around Grand Rapids even if I didn’t know it was the birthplace of Francis Gum, better known as Judy Garland. The people here are just always so friendly, like when I went into a grocery store to get quarters to do laundry and the woman just smiles and says “Of course, honey!” (Try that on the East Coast….) My favorite time of the day is early morning when few people are up; I go down to the lake in the quiet and read, watch the ducks, and listen to the loons. Sometimes I wonder why I travel all over the world looking for beauty when it’s really right here. And then my brother Vic is a great cook who apparently likes cooking for big crowds, so we never wanted for good food. All in all a good place to spend a week of mixed joy and pain.

After a week, though, it was definitely time to hit the road again. You could tell the Duluth crowd appreciated having us there to share this sad journey, but they were also happy to see us leaving so they could have their normal lives back. For now, then, it’s back to Italy to join Mark for the last few days of our stay in Tuscany.

The day we left the lodge our tribe – the Fond du Lac Ojibwe band – held their annual Veterans Pow-wow. These are shots from the grand entrance.

My sister Rebecca (the tribe’s assistant attorney) on the right with her daughter Lily in their jingle dresses. If you were wondering, Lily made that dress herself. Pretty impressive, huh?

Lily in civilian clothes

Dex & Jacob being cool in the mottled shade of a tree. He looks healthy enough, right?

My mom knitting. I think I’ve seen that picture a few times over the years…

Mom with eight grandkids and two great grandkids

I get a picture with my mother, too. And if you’re wondering, yes, she knitted that shawl, too.

Finally, one more shot of North Star Lake. It made a beautiful setting for a sometimes beautiful, sometimes painful week. And yes, sometimes both at once.

Loved the pinks and blues of our little spot on Waikiki beach

Loved the pinks and blues of our little spot on Waikiki beach

Honolulu is the obvious place for a quick stop to break up the long journey from mainland USA to the South Pacific. We had to stop here anyhow, so why not stay a few days, adjust a few time zones, and just hang out on Waikiki beach?

This is our second visit to Honolulu, and I would not say we are huge fans of the city itself. To us it feels like a ‘sanitized’ version of the tropics. The area all around Waikiki is pretty but antiseptic, sort of like a huge outdoor upscale mall. Restaurants are crazy expensive, yet packed to the gills. Fortunately, the hordes of Japanese tourists here eat on the early side, so the restaurants thin out a tad at our preferred dining times.

Since we ran around seeing the obligatory sights last time we were here (Pearl Harbor really is amazing), we now felt obliged to do nothing more than sit on the beach and practice readjusting to tropical life. We have spent very little time as beach bums since we left Greece and Turkey almost a year ago.

And I’ll admit, Waikiki beach is a stunning spot to do that. I love the bright turquoise water, the smooth sand, and the lush green of Diamond Head rising in the background. We stayed at a classic old hotel, the Royal Hawaiian, whose pink walls, pink rugs, and pink striped bathrobes add a bit of magic to this heavenly spot. I’m now pink, too, but we’ll call that a base. Give me another week, and I hope to have a teeny bit of a tan.

Wearing his swimsuit to match the hotel decor, Jim ponders a lunch that takes an unexpected turn

Wearing his swimsuit to match the hotel decor, Jim ponders a lunch that takes an unexpected turn

Our last day featured an unexpected little bit of drama. We like to dine sitting at the bar, especially in the US, where it’s more common. You often learn a few things from the bartender or from your neighbors. The bar at the Royal Hawaiian had lovely views and reasonable food, so we had lunch there every day. On that last day I sat next to a friendly young couple who started up a bit of conversation with us. We were soon surprised by just how much the young woman was slurring her words so early in the afternoon. Not 15 minutes later she was slumped lifelessly on top of the bar and had vomited a bit. It was all her colleague could do to get her to stand up and stumble away. We felt quite bad for them both.

That evening we had dinner at a nice steak place, where we snagged a couple more seats at a small bar. Once again the woman next to me tried to strike up a conversation and was obviously pretty smashed. I mostly sat with my back to her, as she tried to engage the bartenders and got mildly obnoxious, at one point informing us all that she was “richer than God,” which apparently meant she was due better treatment. It was a huge relief when she left after 15 minutes or so, as the bartender grumbled, “Three hours I’ve been babysitting her.”

What’s in the water in Honolulu?

The pool early in the morning before the crowds

The pool early in the morning before the crowds

More pretty pinks and blues

More pretty pinks and blues

The Golden Gate Bridge from Land's End Park after a long walk across San Francisco

The Golden Gate Bridge from Land’s End Park after a long walk across San Francisco

The goal is the South Pacific, but first we’re going to stop for a few days in Hawai’i. And if you were going from Michigan to Hawai’i and had a brother in San Francisco, wouldn’t you stop for a few days to break up the trip? Especially if you had something approaching unlimited time (ignoring for the moment existential thoughts about ultimate mortality)? I thought so.

We stayed downtown at the St. Francis, a classic San Francisco landmark, and spent our two days while Mark’s brother John and his wife Alma were working exploring a couple museums. Our first full day we were going to tour the Museum of Modern Art, recently reopened after a three-year renovation, and after confirming online that it opened at 10:00 AM we headed there after breakfast. To our dismay, the museum was closed on Wednesdays, starting that day, explaining why Google didn’t know it yet.

Mark & Ava outside John's house

Mark & Ava outside John’s house

And Mark with Nico, just home from school. Nico is on the student council and wears a tie on Wednesdays when they meet.

And Mark with Nico, just home from school. Nico is on the student council and wears a tie on Wednesdays when they meet.

Plan B, then, was to head out to the Legion of Honor, a European art museum built in honor of the fallen soldiers of World War I. It was a six-mile walk out there, pretty much across the entire city from east to west, all in new hiking shoes we’d both just bought. Perhaps not be the smartest thing we’ve ever done but it worked out alright. The walk itself wasn’t that interesting, taking us through kind of boring neighborhoods, but when we got close to the museum we were in beautiful Land’s End Park with great views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the entrance to the San Francisco Bay.

Another view from Land's End

Another view from Land’s End

The museum was good, but the modern art museum the next day was spectacular. At $25 each it was the most expensive museum we’ve gone to but it was worth every penny. A huge collection all well presented in a way that you could really learn something about art over the last century. To top it off the museum has a free app available with absolutely great descriptions of probably a couple hundred highlights throughout the seven floors of exhibits. Each entry was interesting, informative, and – crucially – short, rarely exceeding two minutes. There were different people describing the art so it never got too routine. Simply the best museum we’ve been to in our multi-year travels. If you’re ever in San Francisco don’t miss it, even if you think modern art is kind of stupid.

Mark's brother John. Sadly, we had no pictures of Alma even though she's the best looking one of the lot!

Mark’s brother John. Sadly, we had no pictures of Alma even though she’s the best looking one of the lot!

And then we got to spend a little time with John & Alma. One night the four of us went to Al’s Place, what John describes as his new favorite restaurant. We could see why he thinks so highly of it; the food was amazing. Of course, we learned during the meal that it has a Michelin star, so it makes sense it would be somewhere on the “spectacular” spectrum. The next night Alma had an event at Ava’s school, so while she was being a good Mom we went with John, Ava, and Nico to a Wild Sushi, a great little place in their Sunset District neighborhood where we were the only English speakers in our section of the restaurant. That’s always a good sign.

That was the end of our quick trip through the U.S. mainland. From here it’s off to Honolulu for three days – again, largely just to break up the long trip – and then to American Samoa and the South Pacific. We’ve had it with all the ease of hanging out in the States; it’s time for some adventure!

Here we are at Land's End

Here we are at Land’s End

From here on out it’s all art, first from the Legion of Honor, where there was a big Rodin collection to start with.

Now it's all about the art. This was a bust of Victor Hugo, one of Mark's favorite authors, by Rodin.

Now it’s all about the art. This was a bust of Victor Hugo, one of Mark’s favorite authors, by Rodin.

It's been fun to see art from the various places we've been. Here Monet does the entrance to the Grand Canal in Venice.

It’s been fun to see art from the various places we’ve been. Here Monet does the entrance to the Grand Canal in Venice.

Now it’s art from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera came to San Francisco at one point, where she painted this self-portrait. Rivera was a big guy, but notice the difference in the size of their feet!

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera came to San Francisco at one point, where she painted this self portrait. Rivera was a big guy, but notice the difference in the size of their feet!

Mondrian did this initially in 1935, when Paris was laying railroad tracks and stringing electric wires. Everything was all straight lines and all that, and in the original version there was no color, only the black lines on white. Then he moved to New York, learned to love jazz, and, in 1942 added the blue, red, and yellow boxes, "bringing in a little boogie-woogie," as he put it.

Mondrian did this initially in 1935, when Paris was laying railroad tracks and stringing electric wires. Everything was all straight lines and all that, and in the original version there was no color, only the black lines on white. Then he moved to New York, learned to love jazz, and, in 1942 added the blue, red, and yellow boxes, “bringing in a little boogie-woogie,” as he put it.

And speaking of places we've been, this is Roy Lichtenstein's take on Monet's paintings of the Cathedral in Rouen

And speaking of places we’ve been, this is Roy Lichtenstein’s take on Monet’s paintings of the Cathedral in Rouen

I don't really know anything about this light installation except that I liked it

I don’t really know anything about this light installation except that I liked it

Ellsworth Kelly's "Red Curves" from 1996. Just something about it...

Ellsworth Kelly’s “Red Curves” from 1996. Just something about it…

More Ellsworth Kelly, this one titled "Blue Red", also from 19966

More Ellsworth Kelly, this one titled “Blue Red”, also from 19966

And one last Ellsworth Kelly, who died just last year. Mark took this one, though, so I'm not sure what it's called. Maybe "Mandoria"?

And one last Ellsworth Kelly, who died just last year. Mark took this one, though, so I’m not sure what it’s called. Maybe “Mandoria”?