Holiday Hygge

There’s a Danish / Norwegian concept called hygge that runs strong in my tiny Sapporo apartment, especially throughout the winter. It essentially means “cozyness”, which can be evoked through a variety of aesthetic means. So, as the snow made it first real solid downfall the other night, and snowshoeing season officially began (for me anyway), I decided to re-hyggefy my home through the power of LED lighting. Sometimes it’s the little things that make all the difference.

It all starts with our Christmas tree, which has slowly morphed into the “winter” tree, being that it pretty much stays up until spring. See my past post on why we can get away with this without scornful looks from wider society.

The tree is definitely the brightest lighting element in our 2LDK. If I had my druthers, it would stay up all year. But I’ve been adding, year after year, several new pieces that bring a healthy glow in more subtle ways.

First up is the bookshelf, which through the years has transitioned into a micro man-cave with nick knacks and book nooks competing for space.

With a flat glass reading light for illumination, my handmade Nanoblock sakura viewing scene really comes alive.

An oldie but a goodie… This DIY library from ROBOTIME makes me yearn for all the books I haven’t read sitting in my own library.

The old coffee shop (again from ROBOTIME) is in need of some super glue repair on the yawning at the moment, but still looks good with the help of a snake-style book light.

I also lit up the camping car kit in my upper man-cave. Every little bit helps…

The real gem of this year’s holiday hygge celebration is a new ROBOTIME creation, a Christmas snow house. This one even features a built-in music box that plays “Jingle Bells” (Maybe I will feature that in a follow-up post).

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I’ve added some Mario Paint imagery on the background monitor as an experiment. It really ties the room together, especially at night. The frustration that goes into assembling these miniatures can assault the nerves. But through the years I have sped up the process and completed this last model in only a couple weeks.

 

Christmas has a vibe to it that can very easily be shattered in Japan. When you roll out of bed on the 25th, ready to enjoy opening presents and enjoying some Bailey’s and coffee, but look out the window to see kids walking to school – that is a vibe killer. When your Japanese in-laws come over for Christmas dinner, only to eat stuffing and mashed potatoes with chopsticks while asking if it is “Korean food”…that is also a vibe destroyer. Lighting, music, and an unending commitment to holiday cheer are my only defenses. And a little Bailey’s.

What do you do to combat the vibe killers this time of year? Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all. The next year promises to be interesting for all. That is for sure.

Maya Lin and the Wise Old Man

Juniata College (my alma mater) in Huntingdon, PA has a unique environmental art installation called the Peace Chapel. Maya Lin is famous for designing the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, but this piece, far off the beaten path, is fairly low key. A college alumni-philanthropist commissioned the work and had it placed in the Baker-Henry Nature Preserve. Rarely was the Peace Chapel discussed on campus, but occasional events were hosted there. Most students didn’t even know where it was. It has a very eerie, Stonehenge-esque vibe to it. Spartan, stripped down, a stone pathway leads you to a large inlaid ring of granite.

I hiked this area quite a bit in my school days and rarely encountered a soul. I especially didn’t see anyone when I went at my favorite time: weekdays, late at night. Usually as a way to decompress, I would drive to the trailhead, often past midnight, and wander in the dark up to the site. No flashlight. No smartphone (those didn’t exist). I did this too many time to remember. Each time I treated it like a kind of quest. Not sure what for exactly. At some point, after maybe the third or fourth visit, I had the notion that some encounter would occur there. Maybe my psychology classes where influencing me. Carl Jung’s theories of the collective unconscious I found intriguing. His archetype of the Wise Old Man I was particularly drawn to. I would purposely put myself through a slightly frightful, chilly, dark walk in the woods to a possible modern druid site of worship (there were rumors) in order to chance an encounter with this white-bearded figure.

Philosopher in Meditation by Rembrandt

Nothing ever came of these quests. No white bearded man sprung out of the woods. Just silence and anticipation. Maybe that was the quest. Just to be with the silence. But it hasn’t deterred me. I still enjoy solitary walks in the woods at peculiar times. One of my favorite pursuits is an evening snowshoe hikes up nearby Asahi Mountain. Rarely do I see anyone, which is a blessing in population dense Japan. I’ve gone in the pitch dark of 4:30 AM as well. Not always searching for the old man. It could be aliens I’m on the hunt for. Or silence. Which is becoming increasingly rare. First, I need to remove my earbuds…

 

Denis Johnson’s Rules

I’ve been in a rut. Maybe you have been too. All ruts are different and occur in different times in our lives. Mine is employment related. Or lack of employment. It’s a pressure that builds. A fear of missing out in the job search realm. Take my eyes away from Indeed or LinkedIn job searches for any portion of time and forego the (rather small) chance of that dream remote job that aligns perfectly with my background. The window seems small.

But all that is illusion. The negative energy I bring to it is noticeable, probably effecting the positive outcome I desire. So I’ve come back to writing. Denis Johnson was a great writer. His novella Train Dreams is a wonderful gateway to his work and I highly recommend. Johnson had one of the best rule sets for writing. Simple, direct, and easy to remember:

Three Rules To Write By

Write naked. That means to write what you would never say.

Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can’t waste it.

Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to call back every detail.  (The New Yorker, 26 May 2017)

It’s a reminder to cut the fluff and bare your soul. Make the words matter, but don’t fear putting them down. That’s what this blog is for. So after a very long break, I will be putting words out there into the universe again. Read them, don’t read them, don’t care. I won’t publish everything…that’s a bit much. But random walks in the nearby park, birds I see, remembrances, weather updates, aches and pains… all are on the table.

Asahiyama Park
Asahiyama Park – November 28th, 2023

A day after this photo it snowed for much of the day, washing away the bed of golden pine needles and turning the roads into an ice rink. Fall has been barely discernible and yesterday caught it for a moment in freeze frame. It will snow for a few days, then possibly warm up, melt it down, and do it all over again. Or option two: This is the beginning of one of the largest snowfalls this region has seen in decades. That’s the rumor based on our oppressively hot summer. The snowshoes are ready.

 

 

Eating Cake with Chopsticks

There is a major faux pas in Japan about leaving your chopsticks stabbed upright in a bowl of rice. If you’ve read any guidebook on local etiquette, you’ll know that this is a pretty serious offense. Basically, it relates to the visual similarity this chopstick posture has to incense sticks commonly seen during Buddhist funeral rights. Things that relate to death tend to be taboo in this neck of the woods. (see East Asia’s avoidance of the number “4”) In case you’re wondering if this is some arcane superstition that few people in the modern world care about, I assure it is not. They teach this in the schools. In fact, just to prove my own point I tested this out on my wife the other day by inserting my chopsticks standing antenna style in my white sticky rice right in front of her. She became visible distraught and demanded I remedy the situation. It didn’t help that she had attended a funeral earlier that day, so timing could have been better on my part. I quickly removed them and apologized.

I began to wonder if Western dining utensils have any similar customs, but aside from the general place settings and civility of not poking your sister’s eye out with a fork, I couldn’t really think of anything in the “don’t put your butter knife in this direction because it reminds us of death” vain. But that doesn’t mean that we are heathens and that we just use knives, forks, spoons, and sporks in any way we see fit. No sir.

I remember reading (probably in Lonely Planet, is that still a thing?) that in today’s post-modern mixed-up world , separating between Western cuisine and traditional Japanese food, has become distilled down to a simple question: Can you eat it with chopsticks? It sounds silly but many foods of dubious import are considered Japanese. Take for instance tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlet). A European import in the late 1800’s, but one that has been adopted wholly into the Japanese menu.

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Do they eat this with a knife and fork? Nope. And notice the surgical precision of the vertical cuts. Each chunk is just small enough (barely) to be gripped by chopsticks. Therefore…it’s Japanese food. You’ll see this with many fried foods over here.

But if the Japanese get to delineate their culinary world with chopsticks, I feel that westerners should at least protect some of our food from this arbitrary gastronomical hijacking. For years I have witnessed some of the most egregious chopstick use on every manner of Western food import. It needs to end. Consider this: Your in-laws, after over-spending on a strawberry shortcake barely the size of a Twinkie, bust out their unique version of “Happy Birthday” and present it in front of you candles blazing. You make your wish, the cake is sliced, and are given first choice on a small plate. Yay! The joys of the simple life. Ruined by the site of your wife,  using chopsticks to tweezer her way through the vanilla icing. Despicable. Eating cake with chopsticks. I recommend you move to Japan and become a long-term resident just to witness this absurdity.

But it doesn’t end there. We don’t eat cake that often, so thankfully I am spared the insult. However, we do eat salad. And chopsticks seem to be the preferred implement. And not just your standard green side salad (with the old Japanese standby dressing… mayonnaise), all kinds of salad concoctions are eaten sans-fork. Macaroni, potato. Fruit! All expected to be navigated in this ridiculous manner. Have you ever tried to pick up a mini-tomato with a chopstick? Good lord.

So have all these foods become Japanese as well? I guess so. Some foods need to be left chopstick-free. We need protections on sliced watermelon, apple pie, and mashed potatoes. I mean, the Japanese already own downtown Waikiki; don’t let them claim our chicken pot pie. Call them out on their behavior.

 

Lake Utonai Bird Sanctuary

Several times this past week I ventured outside my normal Sapporo city birding hot-spots and headed south by southeast to one of the better Ramsar wetlands maintained by the Wild Bird Society of Japan. For my fellow non-car possessing Hokkaido-ites, here’s a walk through of my trip(s) to the Lake Utonai Sanctuary:

After a 5:00 AM late winter snowfall walk to JR Sapporo Station, I hopped on the first Airport Rapid Express at 5:50 for the 40 minute ride to Shin Chitose Airport.(¥1,150) Always be sure to avoid the local train.

At the airport at 6:30 AM, I had time to wander a bit. This early in the morning makes the domestic arrival lounge seem actually bearable. Look for bus stop 29 outside, and use the pristine airport bathrooms while you wait for the 7:17 arrival of Donan (道南) bus #30 for Tomakomai (苫小牧). Bus #30 is you lifeline for the Lake Utonai Sanctuary. Here is the timetable link:(weekday / weekend). Get on the nearly empty bus, grab a ticket stub from the machine after you enter, and take the 20 minute ride which weaves off the highway through farms and side villages until you arrive at ネイチャーセンター入口 (Nature Center Entrance). Drop your ticket and exact change in the slot as you depart. The fee is ¥410 (as of March 2023). Be sure to check the return times and plan your birding accordingly.

Make a right after leaving the bus, walk to the first traffic signal and turn left. You might be a bit bewildered being at first surrounded by an industrial wasteland. Rest assured you are on the correct path. After turning on this country road, walk past several factories and a Buddhist temple facility until you reach the sanctuary grounds (10-15 min). Take the trail next to the sanctuary sign, avoid the road, and walk the short way towards the nature center (open only on weekends and holidays).

The WBSJ maintains an excellent network of trails that take you along the lake’s shoreline and its adjacent wetlands. Trails are well manicured and most feature elevated wooden walkways to keep you out of the marshland slop. Trailheads also feature disinfectant mats upon entry to avoid alien microorganism transfer. I hiked these trails for several hours (on both a weekday and a recent holiday in late March), and came across surprisingly little foot traffic. 

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One of the best features of the sanctuary are its two bird towers/blinds. On quiet days you can often have one of these all to yourself and both offer excellent elevated views of the lake and associated scrub-land. Set up your scopes, enjoy an onigiri, and take a moment to listen for White-fronted geese or the slightly less common Taiga bean goose. Or if you are like me, neither… as I missed the window on their migration! (hint: these migrating birds often alight on the water very early in the morning, March-April, pre-bus arrival time 🙁 ).

Keep in mind that on weekdays and non-holidays, the only bathroom will be at the Lake Utonai Wildlife Conservation Center or the 道の駅, which are a 25 min directly west of the WBSJ Nature Center. This walk along the shoreline offers the best chance of seeing the most migrating water birds. Be prepared for crowds once you reach the end of the course, but the 道の駅 does give you a chance to buy local products and features an unnecessary amount of products featuring the shima-enaga / シマエナガ/ Long-tail tit. This bird is all the rage in Hokkaido these days and seems to be becoming the official wildlife mascot of the island. It isn’t even that rare a bird or the most remarkable in color. But fads will be fads. I for one enjoyed some locally produced beet cider and was ready to roll back to the sanctuary.

 

The Wild Bird Society of Japan’s Nature Center (open on weekends and public holidays) is where you want to spend your hard earned birding yen. Their facility is two floors, with a tatami room viewing area up above and a tidy gift shop on the ground floor with tons of birding information available to interested parties. Yes, their products are pricey. But they are a worthy cause and they need your support. Get yourself a playing card set featuring 54 Japanese wild birds, a pair of form fitting gloves, or a bird bookmark (featuring the ubiquitous Long-tailed tit).

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As spring birding season gets into full swing, it’s good to have options slightly outside the city that let you see more species and at a decent cost utilizing public transport. Transit time from Sapporo to the sanctuary (without layover time at the airport) is just around one hour, is punctual, and pretty straightforward. I look forward to heading back a few more times this year.

The Big Melt

And so it comes.

Asahiyama Park, Sapporo

Earlier this week the winter vomited out its last blast of snow. For one glorious morning, after another 5:00 AM parking lot shoveling, my snowshoes were strapped on for what might have been the last time this season. I left for my trailhead at -6(ish)℃, and returned mid-morning in +10 ℃ sunshine. Wild swings of temperature that are all too common in recent years. It was a good romp in deep snow. Birds were abundant, especially Japanese pygmy woodpeckers. Eurasian siskins have been spotted in the treetops in recent days (but have since departed).

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By the time I returned, and now by the time of this posting, the sidewalks have turned into an impenetrable slop. It’s much harder to walk around. It will freeze each night, becoming an ice rink by morning, and melt all over again. Months of salt, gravel, un-disposed dog poop, masks (remember COVID, it’s still happening here apparently), and assorted detritus all regurgitate their way out of meters of ice pack and turn Sapporo into one of the least desirable cities in Japan for several months.

There will be some backslide. A few Indian winters, false snows, that play with your senses and wreak havoc on your wardrobe. A long underwear morning but a short sleeve afternoon. Hail, sleet, all that good stuff. Enjoy it!

Unemployed Japan > Employed Japan?

Caveat… Obviously if you are unemployed and left destitute by your situation then you may not agree with title of this post. But if you find yourself with the opportunity (a working spouse whose given you leeway to decompress), quit that abyssal dead-end job and don’t look back. That is where I currently stand and I am loving every minute.

Better things lie ahead. But for now it’s time to indulge my hobbies, re-calibrate, read, and relax.

What does that look like? Well, getting this blog up and running after about a year of inactivity. Lots of server maintenance, full Linux distro upgrades and hours of troubleshooting.

Snowshoe / birding. Putting my new Tubbs Flex TRK snowshoes through their paces, mostly at my local trailhead at Asahiyama Park. Combined with my Vortex Diamondback 10×42 binoculars I’ve been able to glass (that’s a verb, get used to it) a handful of new additions to my life list.

A morning snowshoe on an ungroomed trail

A Black Woodpecker glassed at Asahiyama Park

Had a 15 minute staring contest with a Eurasian Red Squirrel

Of course there is reading, made even more enjoyable by the addition of a Amazon Fire. And a new book lamp for physical books read under the covers. Finished Cormac Mccarthy’s The Passenger. Not his best.

Went ice fishing multiple times and tried out my new Daiwa Crystia Wakasagi E electric fishing real. Both times caught a ridiculously low amount of smelt. (less than 15 total) Just sad. The fish just haven’t been there. Oh well…

There is time to build models…

Always a good time.

On days when the weather is too intense there is sports. My Philadelphia Eagles lost the Superbowl, but even that didn’t upset me. I actual got to watch it live! With that out of the way I can now focus on international cricket. England in New Zealand, Australia in India, and the Women’s T20 World Cup all running concurrently! It’s a dispassionate cricket fans dream come true.

Of course, there is always snow to shovel. At 5:00 AM. Several times a week. But we’re having a good time!

Snowblower Dreams

A relentless snow ruins everyone’s Sunday.

Each year the snow piles up. Many hours are spent each week pushing snow around the in-laws’ 6 car open air parking lot (9,000 Yen per car/month – inquire in comments); a task that is boring, cold, and ultimately unrewarding. It will all just pile up again, without warning, without regard for your life.

There is a process here in Sapporo when it comes to snow removal. Many residences have a snow trap ( as I have labeled it), or 融雪庫, which melts huge quantities of snow with pressurized hot water. We move the snow to the snow trap with wide bodied, two handed, push shovels. These are more like small plows and can hold 5-6 cubic feet of snow per dump.

The snow dissolves back to its natural state, sucked deep down below, out of site, out of mind…

For these hour+ long removal sessions I am in a catatonic state, my earbuds tuned to a podcast, my limbs moving robotically, no thoughts other than when this ordeal will be over.

And each year I dream. Dream of a day the father-in-law will relent from his stubborn ways and allow us to purchase a snowblower. And not just any snowblower. No, sir. For when I dream, I dream of one majestic snowblower painted blue and white, with tank-like treads and a push button auto-start. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Yamaha YSF1070T:

Just take a moment to marvel at this beast. Its blue body contrasts wonderfully with the white top. Its pristine dual black tracks cleansed by the pure snow, self propelled, LED lighted for glorious night snow removal sessions, a control panel that puts you in charge — not the bastardly God of frigid precipitation. The day is coming when this 21st century marvel will be waiting for me after a tough day at the office. Quality of life will improve. Food will taste better. And winter will be a joy again.

Reality is a bitch…

 

American Expat Cricket Enthusiast

In 2007 I broke by leg while slipping on black ice outside a boarding cottage I was responsible for at The Church Farm School in Exton, Pennsylvania. I was laid up for months with a compound fracture to my right tibia/fibia, crutching around my parents’ home, on medical leave from my duties, and with a full paycheck until my contract ended late in the summer. I wasn’t going back to that job. I had nothing but time to stare at my laptop with my legs propped up on a recliner.

So I decided to take a deep dive into a sports curiosity that had haunted me since childhood. Cricket: How is it played? I remember I had seen pictures of the game, its players decked out in white, in a photographic encyclopedia of sports, which gave a cursory introduction to hundreds of sports worldwide. I imagined it as some weird hodgepodge of baseball, croquet, and maybe jai alai.

With the power of the internet now at my disposal, and live sport streaming becoming a reality, I set out to finally crack this mystery. I needed to see the sport in action, not just read about it. Coincidentally there was a Cricket World Cup taking place just at that time in the Caribbean so time zones pretty much matched up (little did I know time zone interoperability would soon become the bane of my burgeoning cricket fandom). A service called Willow had a World Cup streaming package which I spontaneously purchased.

So I settled down for an opening round match between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. I didn’t know what I was in for. I barely could follow what was happening. But one Sri Lankan bowler caught by eye immediately. Lasith Malinga, was hurtling himself towards the wicket with an awkward sidearm arm action and a yellow permed mane of hair unlike anything I had ever seen in sport. I was hooked from that point onward. Because of my relative immobility, unemployment, and time to burn, I had developed the patience to last the 6 plus hour long match. (And this was the shorter format of the game!) I watched dozens of matches that World Cup.

That 2007 World Cup ended in farcical scenes of umpires declaring bad light to shut down play, despite there being floodlights at the stadium. Australia won. Sri Lanka, my adopted team for the tournament was denied their second World Cup. But I loved it all, even the absurd inflexibility of not having a rain day. I loved the politics of it all.

Turns out that the Caribbean had a less than elegant record during that World Cup for other reasons as well. The Pakistan head coach Bob Woolmer, died under mysterious circumstances in his hotel room after a shock loss to Ireland and early first round exit from the tournament. Foul play has always been the suspicion, though none could be proven. Match fixing was possibly in the cards as well.

This sport had it all! I quickly started reading and learning everything I could about the sport, despite not being from its colonial culture or having ever played it (except for being bowled first ball in the quad while on exchange at The College of Ripon and York, St. John about seven years prior). I started with The Wisden Dictionary of Cricket, reading it cover to cover. Then came the real literature of the sport, which it turns out also has a rich history. The Picador Book of Cricket, was an excellent anthology, as was Wisden Anthology 1978-2006. This helped inculcate me with the major historical moments of the game. Then came the yearly Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. And of course never ending articles at cricInfo.com (now espncricinfo).

15 years on and I am still obsessed with this sport. I still don’t know a great deal of the finer nuance, but the pandemic has given me the time to get closer to that as well. Here in Japan, I re-subscribed to Willow, watching long replays the next morning as matches progress through my East Asia Standard Time night. I even traded in my Hokkaido job alert email service and replaced it with a Wisden Cricket Monthly online subscription. The gains I receive from following cricket far surpass any potential employment information.

Becoming a fan of a sport but having no national affiliation feels a bit disembodied. I find myself almost always rooting for the underdog. And that underdog could change as a match progresses. It’s a calming experience watching any cricket match. It’s a far cry from the “Jump off the Ben Franklin Bridge” intensity that Philadelphia sports fans (which I am one) are accustomed to. Cricket for me is a great read-along form of entertainment. I can easily watch an afternoon Test session with a book in hand and a clean conscience. It’s as violation free zone.

I restarted my Twitter account exclusively for following cricket. I play fantasy cricket with the IPL. The other day I watched with rapt attention the 4-day Women’s test match between Australia and India which ended in a draw. I did that with no side-eye. I was super into it. I can’t be helped. My wife thinks I’m crazy. I tell her to listen for the “Howzat!!!” while I use the bathroom. She thinks of it as the sport that randomly screams after long periods of calm. I’ll make a fan out of her yet.

And the bizarre twist is that cricket is coming full circle for me. That place where I broke my leg, the Church Farm School, in Exton Pennsylvania, now hosts Minor League Cricket in the auxiliary park next door. Cricket in America is finally making some slow progress.

So to sum it um. If you want to dive deep into some obscure pastime you probably have no business getting involved in, just do the following:

1) Horribly break your leg on a innocuous sidewalk covered in black ice at your place of work (be sure said workplace has a huge endowment and ability to pay out disability/rehab)

2) Take the money and run, prop yourself on a recliner for several months, with a laptop and nothing but undisturbed time.

3) Move to a country in the world least aware or exposed to the topic you build a passion about. (i.e Japan)

There you go! It couldn’t be more simple!

Ulysses, Round Three

There is nothing like forcing yourself through the ultra-realist-modernist hell that is James Joyce’s Ulysses. For the last several months my “To Read” list has been mired in quicksand while this behemoth of a tome, with its micro-font, thin pages, and countless footnotes/ endnotes / addendum notes – plugs a hole in my brain. I couldn’t move on. I certainly couldn’t abandon it. But this time I actually didn’t want to abandon it.

I first tackled Ulysses way back when I was on exchange in York, England for a semester. A module on modernist literature tried to jam it into a two week stretch, where I am certain few if any of the students even got past the opening chapters. Even the professor admitted that he hadn’t read it in full! I read it incessantly, out loud, in my dorm room, on park benches and from the city’s medieval walls. I read it while lounging in a huge inflatable Guinness chair I won by drinking, you guessed it: ten pints of Guinness. All this was to establish a certain mood so I could comfortably navigate my way through the book. I got about 300 pages in. Not a bad effort, but failure nonetheless.

I next went about it more than a decade ago using an email service that sent three pages a day, which I read on a flip-phone while on my daily hour long commutes through Yokohama. It was a laborious and painful process, but I managed to get through it. I retained almost none of the plot however. The words just flowed through by brain like a drunken tinker telling a tale at the local pub.

This last time (but probably not final), I decided to take a decidedly different tact and used an audio recording from RTE circa 1982 (available as a podcast). Each episode is acted out dramatically and is followed by a short thirty minute analyses. This worked wonderfully. There are just too many characters, songs, accents, and dialects to do the text justice by tackling it in your own voice. As an audio play, Ulysses moved along with a level of understanding I hadn’t managed before. I also followed along in my Ulysses: The 1922 Text, a version that seems to sync up well with the RTE version.

I won’t say I completely grasped everything going on in the text. There were still large swathes that left me stumped. But with this audio follow-along method I was able to find fragments of the text that peeked my interest and follow them down their own rabbit holes. The next time (Yes, I said it.) I will glean even more I am sure.

In the end, what strikes me most, when coming out this literary Stockholm Syndrome, is how anything I read from this point forward, at least for a couple months, is absorbed quickly and with a focused understanding. It is like coming out of a long meditation session, opening your eyes wide and just breathing in the world around you. Reading becomes fun again.