Monday, September 22, 2014

Saying Goodbye to a Great Lady

Goodbyes are always poignant and often difficult, especially so when there is an air of finality.  Such it was on Saturday, September 20, 2014, when we gathered at the shore to place my mother's ashes into the ocean. Poignant in that it brought back the memories of a similar time fifteen years ago (almost to the day) when Michael and I placed our father's remains into the sea, at very close to the same location.  Difficult, because it drives home that finality.

Bittersweet is another word that seems to fit the circumstances.  The sweetness was in the gathering of loved ones, of those closest to Mom.  It was her immediate family, consisting of her two sons, daughter-in-laws Karen and Carol, grandsons David and Noah, and granddaughter Sabrina.  Even our dogs Maya and Nellie were present, which seemed appropriate given Mom's love of animals, especially dogs.  No animal would starve in Mom's presence, and they learned to always sit at her feet.

It was a beautiful morning, and promised to be one of those rare 80-plus degree days at the Oregon Coast. This was a good thing, given that Mike and I would need to wade into the water at least up to our knees...and the ocean is not warm even in late summer.  The surf was high and the waves crashed hard.  There were a few surfers taking advantage of the high waves.  A mist formed over the turbulent water and drifted over the beach.

Mom loved Seaside.  It reminded her of her hometown of Scheveningen, a small town on the North Sea that was formerly a fishing village but later became a resort town, much like Seaside.  Both towns even have a promenade that separates the sand from the hotels, houses, stores and restaurants.  It was just a few weeks ago that she rode her wheelchair along the promenade with her sister Leny, brother-in-law Bill and niece Lucy. 

I had some words I wanted to share.  I wanted to say something profound that honored the moment and a beautiful life that was fully lived.  Yet in the end I was too choked up and my brother and I simply started walking to the water's edge, carrying the bag with the ashes.  As expected, the water was cold.  What we did not expect was how fast the water retreated, and we ended up needing to walk quite a distance in order for the water to be deep enough.  Mike grabbed a handful to place as I held the bag.  We wanted to do it with a degree of reverence and solemnity, but it seems Nature, and perhaps Mom, had other ideas.  A series of large waves come upon us, drenching us up to our waists, and the process of disposal became rather accelerated.  Even David, who was several feet closer to shore became wetter than expected (and he didn't wear shorts!).  We both cried out "Thanks, Mom.  We love you!", rinsed the bag and quickly slogged our way back to shore.  Mike commented that the ocean made sure Mom was taken to be with Dad.  I could see our mother smiling and laughing at our efforts.  Such was her humor.

The tears flowed as we walked onto the beach and we hugged each other...first Mike and I, then our children and wives.  It was beautiful.


Thank you again, Mom.  Our memories are not of the last weeks but of the many years you devoted to us.  You will be missed, but I think you will always be with us.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Riding the Fast Train

Trains have always held a fascination for me.  On occasion I have taken Amtrak between Portland and Olympia, and found it to be a refreshing way to make the commute...much more relaxing than battling the freeway (though I must admit the stretch north of Vancouver, WA to Exit 88 to Tenino and then on to Offut Lake is generally less crowded).  Although it is touted as a way to catch up on work or reading a novel, I have more often found myself simply gazing out of the window at the passing scenery.

As a child I remember counting the rail cars while stopped at a crossing, and it was a very special treat to see an old locomotive under full steam.  Now as an engineer (and no, not the train type of engineer!) I find myself involved in various transit and light rail projects over the course of my career.  The whistle of a distant train still evokes a smile on my face.

During our trip through Europe we thought it would be fun to ride the train from London to Paris.  The Eurostar runs non-stop from the International Station in London (to which we rode in the "Tube" or London's subway. Yes, more trains!) into the heart of Paris, arriving about 2 hours and 15 minutes after pulling away in London. 

Train stations in Europe (or at least in London and Paris) are vastly different than our American counterparts.  Here we sit waiting for our departure in London's St. Pancras International, which more resembles a major airport with the restaurants and shops.
I think the caption for this picture is either "I've got a ticket to ride", or "I'm going to Paris!"

I would include a photo out of our window, but the train simply travelled too fast! For most of the trip we were approximately 300 Kilometers per hour, or 180 miles per hour.  Everything outside was a blur.  I was especially curious about the portion under the English Channel, but we could've been travelling at night for all the difference it made.  Despite the speed, it was extremely comfortable.
Paris' Gard du Nord station, our destination
One very nice thing about train travel in general, and travelling in Europe, is the sheer convenience of it.  The train arrives, we disembark, and walk towards the exit and our taxi.  No security, no passport check, no long walk down endless concourses...and you are immediately in the heart of the city.  Between the subway systems in Paris and London, the streetcars in Amsterdam and the "normal" train (which only goes around 80 mph), it's the only way to travel.

The train schedule board in Paris.  Every so many minutes the letters and numbers would flip and the changes would cascade down the face of the panel. 
After spending a few days in Paris, we then boarded another high speed train that would take us to Rotterdam, where we would then transfer to Holland's train system.  The Paris-to-Rotterdam was another rail company called Thalys. 

The Thalys train in Paris, going to Rotterdam
Inside the passenger car

We chose First Class, partly because we were late in obtaining our tickets and they couldn't guarantee we would sit together, and we thought it would be cool.  It was!  The seats were very comfortable (two on one side and one on the other side of the aisle), a meal was included, as were glasses of wine.

Arrival at Rotterdam station
The Thalys train was almost 30 minutes late leaving Paris, which meant we would miss our connecting train at Rotterdam.  However, the agent assured us that was not a problem.  We could simply hop on the next train to our destination.  The ticket would still be honored...and one was leaving in just 10 minutes.  Yes, we made it.

All the trains in Europe are electric.  I took this picture simply because I was designing similar structures that support overhead wires for the new train out to Denver's airport. 

I highly recommend riding the rails in Europe.  As the old Western Airlines commercial (with the cigar-smoking bird) said, "It's the only way to fly!"


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Camp Unpleasant History

One usually goes on a vacation to get away from the daily grind of life, and to escape the seemingly constant cries from our computer inbox or the incessant chirps and pings of our ever-present cell phones.  Escape, indeed?  Often it takes great concentration to ignore the beckonings of our work world.  To free one's mind from those beckonings is it's own reward, and that we did...for the most part.

However, I also enjoy learning new things and experiencing places not typically on a tour agenda.  During our stay with my cousins near Groningen, in the northern part of the Netherlands, we had the opportunity to visit Camp Westerbork Memorial Site.  While the name doesn't have the same notoriety as Nazi camps further east such as Auschwitz and Sobibor, Westerbork served a crucial role in the history of Jews during World War II and is well known to Dutch citizens.  It was not a labor or extermination camp such as the more notorious, but served as a transfer point for 107,000 Jews, Gypsies, Resistance Fighters and others from the Netherlands to camps and ultimately the fate of 102,000 of them.  Of those who passed through this camp, only 5,000 survived to the end of the war.  Among the notable "guests" of Westerbork were Anne Frank and her family.

It was a cloudy and somewhat foggy day when we arrived, which gave a surreal atmosphere to the camp. Birds were singing and the trees had sprouted their iridescent spring leaves, which seemed in contrast to the eerie silence.  Though much of the camp structure has been removed, mounds delineate where the barracks and other buildings were formerly located.  One can also see rail ties for the trains that brought people in...and then took them on to their final destinations.

What structures are present have been faithfully reconstructed using photographs.  The barbed wire fence, the guard tower, are stark reminders of life in this camp between 1940 and 1945.  I found the symbolism of the rails ripped from the ties especially poignant.

Perhaps the most moving part of the memorial (and the main purpose of this place is now to never forget what happened) are the stones laid out in patterns on the for each of the 107,000 that didn't return.  Most have the Star of David representing their religious belief, but others had symbols for Gypsies and those who resisted their captors.

It is easy to view this impersonally, given the sheer numbers of those who perished.  Even the 102,000 seem like a drop in a bucket when one considers the more than 6 million total that died in the Holocaust.  Yet the photograph speaks of the individuals...the families...the fathers, mothers, sons, daughters...neighbors...coworkers.  

On the road into the memorial is a marker of the numbers who went on to those more notorious camps, such as Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Sobibor, Bergen-Belsen...the list seems endless.

"In Auschwitz-Birkenau were more than 56,500 Jews out of the Netherlands, and more than 200 Sinti and Roma (Gypsies) out of the Netherlands murdered"  

Murdered.  So reads the block.  So visceral are the feelings that words are not minced.  There are other blocks for the other camps where they were murdered.  You can read the numbers on the top of each block. 

General history aside, one of the reasons for my visit was to connect with a piece of my family's past. Though it all happened before I was born (barely!), the events of WWII had such a profound effect on my parents' generation that their values and impressions couldn't help but be passed on to me.  I am not certain, but it is very possible my uncle, who was arrested, tried and sentenced to the camps early in the war for his resistance activities, may have passed through this camp.  More on that later.

As is often the case when one turns over the rocks of one's past, one will often find some surprises. Westerbork also served as a prison or holding place for Dutch citizens who collaborated with the enemy.  It seems that some family members spent time here for those reasons.  That realization was somewhat unsettling at first, but as one ponders, it becomes very difficult to cast judgement as none of us know what we would do given similar circumstances.  More on that later as well.

Links to explore for more information:

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Monday, February 17, 2014

Moonlight in Monument Valley

There are still a few places in the world, and in the continental US, that one can visit and truly feel as if one is in a place that time forgot.  There are indeed places that are remote enough, that (a) require sufficient work to find it, and (b) require one to be daring enough to leave the pavement and drive on the dirt trail.  If one is bold enough to go a few steps beyond the sign that says "proceed at your own risk", the rewards (visually, emotionally and spiritually) are plentiful.

While on a business trip to northeastern Arizona this past week, we took a side trip to Monument Valley, an area the straddles the Arizona-Utah border.  Wholly encompassed in the Navajo Indian Reservation, this is an area immortalized in many old western movies as well as numerous more contemporary films, and of course the scenery is unmistakenly "western". 

This view first greets the visitor as one comes to the rim of the valley, before driving down into the area that one enters at one's own risk.  As you can see from the road in the foreground, the warning deserves to be heeded and a four-wheel-drive is recommended.
We stayed at Goulding's Lodge, originally founded in the early part of the 20th Century as a trading post for the Navajo Indians.  The trading post is one of the few privately owned parcels within the Navajo Reservation, predating the reservation's expansion into southern Utah.  As we checked in, I noticed a brochure describing a "Full Moon Tour" that night and the next two nights.  I remembered a full moon was upon us.  Could the timing have been more perfect?  Of course I signed up.

The formations, which started out as mesas, transitioning into buttes and eventually into spires through the patient but relentless work of wind and water, were originally formed when the Earth heaved and tilted the former seabed thousands of feet higher.  The rocks show the layers of sediments and conglomerates, each with their own erosive characteristics that over the millennia form the striking formations now before us.

Sun-splashed rocks with endless sagebrush in the foreground
The tour started at 4:30, which gave us just enough time to ride into the Park to witness breathtaking displays of sunlight painting the already-red rocks into beautiful hues that contrasted with the deepening blue of the eastern sky.  While some of the park is accessible to the general public (for the small fee of $5 per person), much is not without a Navajo guide.  David, our driver and guide took us (with another couple from New Mexico) into the more remote areas for vistas not often seen. 

This formation is named Yei-bi-chai, and tallest spire on the right is the Totem.
Yei-bi-chai is Navajo for the leader of a certain dance/ceremony that celebrates their Holy People that dwell among them.  The early Navajo felt it was important to live in harmony with the world around them, both seen and unseen.  To not be in harmony invites all manner of physical, mental and emotional ills...which seems to me to make a lot of sense.  During colder times of the year (when the rattlesnake is hibernating and there is less chance of a lightning strike), this dance or celebration helps to bring about that harmony.  The formations above are named thus for their resemblance to the dancers.  (More information at the link on the bottom of this entry.)

The Totem, as the sun slowly sets and now bathed in moonlight
Our guide brought us to a vantage point with breathtaking vistas...that quite honestly cannot be adequately captured by film or digital images.  Slowly the moon rose to her position of ruling the night, casting an eerie glow over the sage-dotted landscape that seemed to stretch out forever.

Even in the gathering darkness the moon casts an eerie glow, giving an ethereal presence that makes one understand the close spiritual ties one can have with this landscape.
One cannot help but feel reverence for Something or Someone greater than us when one witnesses such grandeur.  I could continue to wax philosophical about this, but like the photographs here, it wouldn't come close to do the scenery justice.

Monument Valley perhaps became more famous as a setting for numerous western movies largely through the efforts of Harry Goulding.  When the Great Depression slowed his trading post business, he heard of a movie in the works and went to Hollywood to champion the beauty of his area.  Director John Ford loved the photos and the first movie filmed on location was "Stagecoach" with a star studded cast that included John Wayne.   

Here are links if you want more information about Goulding's Lodge and Monument Valley:

Monday, January 27, 2014

Glass...and the colors within

Serendipity is when one accidentally finds something good when not specifically looking for it.  Such was the case one weekend during a visit to Seattle in December, 2013.  Walking around Seattle Center one cannot help but see several unique (and large) glass sculptures scattered near the base on the Space Needle, Seattle's iconic landmark.  At first I thought it was a tall tropical plant that was coated in ice.  After all, it was in the 20's during the day, despite the sun.  Like Dorothy following the Yellow Brick Road, we went from one to the next, each time filled with wonder at the color and shape, until we came to the door of the exhibit.  (Well...actually, it was the glass building with the low winter sun shining on the sculptures hanging from the ceiling that caught our attention.  The random outside art simply drew us further in.)

 The Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum opened in 2012 next to the Space Needle, so its recent incarnation would explain why I wasn't familiar with it (although the Chihuly name is certainly familiar to most of us).  Dale Chihuly's forte is blown glass, though his use of color and the sheer size of some of his work is the stuff of legends.  Having only seen his work in print or on the screen, to be able to see it in person was the highlight of our trip. 

At left is a piece about 18 inches tall, and sitting on a pedestal so that one looks a little up to it.  The crabs look real...not at all of glass.
 At right is a room-height sculpture, looking every bit like a swarm of eels in an ocean (I suppose that's what one call it?  I think of a sculpture as having been carved, not blown).

On the left is a work on the ceiling.  Light comes through from above, creating a colorful passage under which one walks, bathed in color. 

Outside of the main museum is a glass-covered area that houses more displays.  What is stunning in this view (and of course so difficult to capture in a camera) is the play of sunlight through the glass sculptures hanging from the ceiling.  I suspect each day's light will dramatically change the effect one sees, from the changing angle of the sun to the filtered light of a cloudy day (which are more often in the Pacific Northwest than we care to admit!).

In a different rendering of light (and reflection), this is Seattle's iconic Space Needle reflected in the walls of a newer icon, the Experience Music museum located very near the Chiluly museum. 

For more information on the Chiluly Garden and Glass Museum, visit this site:

Links are below: