Book Review: American War – A Novel

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Omar El Akkad is a Canadian/Egyptian journalist who has worked in Afghanistan, Egypt, Guantanamo Bay among other places. He has taken his experiences and imagined if much of what he saw occurred in the USA and not the Middle East. He sets the second American Civil War in the years 2075-2095. Climate change and rising seas has wiped out the population centers on the east and west coast, Florida is gone and people have moved inland, causing much strife. The states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina have been cut off from the rest of the country. Violent storms, drought, and biological warfare have wiped out modern advancements in our society. That is one of his messages, that war and conflict push back societies back in time. He applies things he has seen in the Middle East during his reporting and moved them to the USA. There are refugee camps, suicide bombers being radicalized by elders, drones, etc. The Middle Eastern countries have united into the Bouazizi Empire, and they act to keep the American Civil War going, meanwhile, living in a comfortable, well-functioning economy.

Another of the points I think El Akkad is trying to get across, is that with the same conditions as countries like Afghanistan, Palestine, etc., Americans would act as they do there today. Human nature is the same everywhere. He was trying to show how people become radicalized and the damage that detention camps like Guantanamo have on people.

It is a good story and I wanted to read it to the end. I won’t give away plot details, but for me, it was a page-turner. I thought some of the premises were a bit unbelievable, however, the story made me consider what impact climate change will have on us and the strong political divisions currently in our nation.

 

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Kumano Kodo

 

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Ocean takes a break on the trail

 

A pilgrimage is a spiritual journey, full of thoughtful reflection and moral significance. One of the oldest pilgrimages in Buddhism/Shinto in Japan is the Kumano Kodo trails of the Kii peninsula. They are a series of paths between three major shrines in the mountainous center of the peninsula, which is a 3-hour drive away from our home in Minoh. We spent the third day of our holiday walking one of the trails to the Kumano Shongu Taisha, a big shrine.

The paths have been refurbished in the past 15-20 years, and through excellent marketing, the trails have become a national and international draw for tourists. The paths and shrines are old, dating back to 500 AD, was an area known of ascetic monks and pilgrims purifying themselves through the labor of walking long distances. When Japan began to modernize in the late 1800s, the shrines were taken down because they were a mix of Buddhist and Shinto beliefs. The land was also heavily logged and replanted with Japanese cedar and cypress. The rehabilitation, marketing campaign, and UNESCO World Heritage status have turned it into an economic boom for the interior of the peninsula. They also paired with the Camino de Santiago in Spain to advertise the dual pilgrimage, dual-faith endeavor. There are stamps people can get along the routes, which encourages walkers to complete the circuit.

 

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Morning in our shoji house

 

It was a nice afternoon of walking. The path was partly a paved road going through villages and partly forested dirt trails. There were interesting stops along the way, including bathrooms and places for a cup of coffee or drinks. The mountains of the Kumano river valley are not like the snow-capped Alps, but they are beautiful in their own way. We were not purifying ourselves or reflecting on the spirits of our ancestors or Buddhist deities, but we were spending time together as a family. Oliver loved fighting fantasy opponents with his friend while walking. The rest of us took pleasure in the quiet autumn colors and breath-taking mountain valley views.

 

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The Japanese Maple is spectacular in November

 

A highlight for me was our accommodations. The house was over 100 years old and the owner found it abandoned and brought it to his property. It was a unique experience and gave us a glimpse into how people used to live before modernization. The traditional Shoji architecture caused me to think differently about doors and furniture. The hot water bottle in bed (see my YouTube video) was cozy.

 

Kumano Koda & the Kii Peninsula

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We are spending a few days up in the mountains of the Kii Peninsula, the largest peninsula in Japan. The area is famous for a series of pilgrimage routes that criss-cross the peninsula, going between the many shrines and temples. The area has been designated UNESCO World Heritage status and I can see why.

I found an old traditional home to rent via Air BnB and it has been such a different experience. The wooden home is over 100 years old, rare in Japan, and the owner found it abandoned and moved it to his property 5km outside the town of Hongu, in the heart of the mountains. Sleeping on futons with a type of hot water bottle heater has been fun for the family. There is a really nice wood-fired bath, a traditional sun porch and a cooking rock inside. I wouldn’t want to live in one, but it has been an interesting experience.

We took our time the first morning, having a leisurely breakfast and learning to chop wood. In the afternoon, we drove to east coast town of Shingu and visited the Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine. The kids enjoyed the castle ruins and the riverfront. The Kumano River is impressive and we followed it through a steep valley. It reminded me of the River Drina through Bosnia, with the turquoise water, winding its way through steep green cliffs.

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View of Kumano River from Shingu Castle

A shinto priest kindly played a Japanese flute for us and introduced us to the shrine. In all, it was a great day and we are planning to head into the mountain trails today.

Kralovec Family Sunday Afternoon Sports

 

 

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Ocean keeping warm at our neighborhood park (Yon Go Park)

 

One my favorite times of the week is Sunday afternoon with the kids. I always try to get out and do some sports. Despite the cold day, we got out and played soccer and football at Park #4 in our neighborhood. We call it the “sand park” because as with most public play spaces in Japan, it is sand instead of grass like in other countries. I don’t know why grass does not grow well here or why the Japanese use sand instead of grass for most parks.

I felt my age yesterday, or maybe it was the jet lag, but Owen and Oliver were running circles around me. I am just happy at age 50 to be able to get out and play with them! Owen and Ocean beat Oliver and me in soccer 11-10. Owen beat Oliver and me in basketball 20-2.

soccer in the street

Capturing a small moment, Owen and I were laughing so hard I started crying. Several times previously at this same park, Owen batted a ball into the neighbor’s yard and the woman came out and yelled at us. Another time he threw a frisbee too hard and it smashed into shutters of another neighbor to the park, causing the family to be frightened. I gave him a hard time about it, asking him to be more responsible. Anyway, I missed a penalty kick and on the rebound from Owen, I kicked it again in frustration and it went up and over the fence, into a neighbor’s yard! I couldn’t tell myself to be more responsible. Ocean and I did the right thing and went and got the ball, sheepishly ringing the bell and asking the owner to retrieve our ball.

Impressions of Yale University

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Harkness Tower 

The third-oldest university in the USA, Yale dates back to pre-Revolution times. A school that has produced 5 US presidents, 19 supreme court justices, has 19 living billionaires and an endowment of over 27 billion dollars, reeks of old money, culture, privilege, and discovery on the world stage. This is one of the universities for the upper, upper class of the USA, with names like Vanderbilt, Harkness (Standard Oil founder), all over buildings. I didn’t realize how much research and people have come out Yale that has changed the world. The posters advertising lectures and organizations made me want to be able to spend a year or two in graduate school there. It would be a fabulous place to study. For me, it would be better for graduate school, because as an undergrad, I think I would have been intimidated and put off by the students from wealthy families. Being a bit older would have allowed me to ignore it focus on learning while I would be there.

 

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Main hallway of the Yale School of Law

 

I spent several days here as a chaperone for my students at the World Scholar’s Cup. The academic event for middle school and high school students is super popular, especially with international schools in Asia. The Tournament of Champions, the final event of the three rounds, is partly successful because it is hosted at Yale, and that brand is powerful. I think a lot of the south-east Asian families coming here with their children are here to soak up the autumn weather and colors and experiencing Yale like a New England, Old Money theme park. One of the optional tours families could take showed them Boston and toured MIT and Harvard campuses.

It has been inspiring for me to see all these contributions to humanity’s knowledge base at Yale. I loved sitting in the cafes and working on my doctoral studies and catching up with work emails in between supporting the students. There is so much going on here. One of the events took place in a lecture hall at the Yale Law School. Pictures of Bill Clinton, Gerald Ford (Michigan product!) hung on the walls of the library there. Amazing to think of the many famous people who took classes in that building. Professors were advertising for graduate assistants. I would have loved to been there and been mentored by Yale law professors.

 

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New Haven Green

 

However, as much as Yale is a global world leader, with the brightest students from around the world striving to get accepted here, I felt that it is really failing in the town of New Haven, Connecticut, where it is located. This is simliar to other universities, like the University of Chicago and my Lehigh University. I went for a walk one day down to the shore, and went through some of the poorest neighborhoods I have seen in the USA. The striking contrast between rich and poor here is in your face, with groups of homeless people hanging out on the famous New Haven Green, the central plaza of the university. I know the economic disparity is growing all over the USA, but you would think with the thousands of brilliant people who studied or worked here, they would be able to improve the lives of the poor living next to the university.

 

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Battell Chapel 

 

You can argue that the leaders of Yale prioritize national and world issues over helping the poor of the town. However, I think the growing income inequality and hopelessness of the poor in America is becoming a national problem. I know they must see it and probably try to help, but I wonder if they have given up.

It was delightful to get to know Yale University and Connecticut!

NYC at Night!

 

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Times Square – New York City

 

On my final full day in Connecticut, I led my students on a short trip to Manhattan to celebrate the end of World Scholar’s Cup and our return to Japan. A couple of the students have never been to New York and for me, I love the excitement and bustle of the Big Apple. We only had a few hours, but it was worth the effort to be thrilled with the lights and thousands of people.

I noticed Times Square has now put up cement blocks to protect pedestrians. Times Square is a target because of the symbolism of the center of media and capitalism of the global economy. There was also a strong police presence and the officer we saw had a machine gun with his finger on the trigger. In this time of delusional people running over people in the name of a religion, high traffic tourist places need to be protected.

 

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One of several NY Police Department squads on duty in Times Square

 

Even on a Tuesday night in mid-November, Times Square was full of people. The commercialism always shocks me, and the hundreds of large, HD screens are fascinating to watch. We took some photos, got some souvenirs and headed over to Rockefeller Plaza and the NBC television company studios. Our family loves watching Saturday Night Live and being there where it is filmed is very cool. The Christmas tree was up and surrounded by scaffolding as workers are putting up the lights in anticipation of next week’s start of the Christmas season. There was a good number of people skating in the ice rink. I really wanted to join them!

 

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Skaters in front of the Christmas tree

 

We then walked down 5th avenue and the girls bought some makeup at the Sephora store. Seeing women getting makeup applied by cosmetic experts was interesting. We had to go back to Grand Central Station, which is a beautifully designed building to get the 8:26 train back to Connecticut. We tried the trendy Shake Shack restaurant chain while waiting for our train. I indulged in a vanilla shake and it was absolutely delicious. I was not impressed with the hamburgers and fries.

In all my trips to New York, I’ve only taken the Transbridge Bus Line that runs from the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, into Penn Station. Coming from approximately the same distance, but north of New York instead of southeast, we took the Metro North Railroad from New Haven, Connecticut to Grand Central Station. It was a pleasant ride into the city. I like trains better than buses. The train was clean and the trip on time. Both rides were off-peak and so there was plenty of seats available. It takes 2 hours from station to station.

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I hope that the next time I am back on the east coast, I’ll be able to catch a Broadway show and do a museum or tour some of the iconic landmarks on the island. There is only one NYC!

Autumn is in the air! Family Journal: November 7, 2017

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I was quite busy with work this weekend but did manage to get out for a bike ride on Sunday morning. The autumn colors are starting to show, as evidenced by this beautiful Japanese Maple. It was so refreshing to get out in the crisp air up in the Minoh hills on my road bike. A bit of heaven on earth for me.

 

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I am riding more often with my knees only able to give me 2-3 runs per week. I am also trying to get into the gym more often and stretch with yoga to battle the effects of an aging body.

There was an interesting observation from a guest to our school this weekend. She said Japan feels like a movie set because everything is so neat and perfect with no rubbish, potholes, or disorderly homes and gardens.

Finally, Ocean arranged this beautiful Ikebana flower set at a workshop yesterday. Both her and Nadia are getting into the Japanese art of flower arrangements. For Nadia, it is relaxing after a day at school with the kids and for Ocean, it is a chance to be creative with her hands.

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