Sunday, September 29, 2013

Seeing Home through a Visitor's Eyes

Sometimes a friend’s visit helps you see your home with fresh eyes.

Don Gagner – my friend and father-in-law – visited from Japan for a few days this week. He isn’t Japanese. He’s a New Englander who played semi-pro football, got drafted by the Yankees, and worked as a lumberjack, a high school teacher, and a coach. He’s also lived the last 18 years in Japan. The last eight years he’s been happily married to a Japanese lady named Midori.

Some of his reactions to Las Cruces were unsurprising: the sky sure is big when it ain’t blocked by a bunch of buildings with 10 or 20 or 60 stories. (He lives in Osaka, which is similar in population size to New York City.) The portions on your plate in any restaurant here are gargantuan compared to Japanese portions. (He liked the quality of the food here too.) People’s hearts are pretty big too, in terms of friendliness toward strangers.

The Organ Mountains looked almost artificial, he said: as if someone had just painted ‘em there, and not all that realistically. Which reminded me that when I first arrived in August 1969, I said they looked like out-sized cardboard backdrops left behind by some Hollywood film company shooting on location. To each of us, they just looked too danged stark and vertical to be real, until you climb up into them.

In Bar Canyon and just walking around at sunset behind our house he marveled at the odd flora and fauna you don’t find in New England or Osaka (and as I write these words he passes the door marveling at the sunset).

Visiting White Sands was fun. Near the entrance, when he marveled at the sight of some modest white dunes amongst the cactus and scrub, we marveled with him – then sort of strung him along by saying long before we really got into the dunes, “Should we turn around?” and “Yeah, probably. Or maybe go just a little further,” as if there wasn’t much more to see. This enhanced his surprise when the world turned wholly gypsum and we shed shoes and wandered off into the whiteness. (And the coolness: “It’s so cool!” he exclaimed, thinking of the hot sands of New England and Florida.)

On the other hand, the Rio Grande was even more disappointing to him than it was to me in August 1969. Back then, it wasn’t all that Grand, compared to rivers like the Hudson and a bunch of others with far more modest names, but at least it was a Rio until it shut down for the winter. I suggested he and Dael drive down to it, just so he could see the famous river up close. When we reunited, he grinned and reported – “. . . and we had a little swim in the river. Incredibly refreshing!” Then he grew serious and asked if the phantom river was a big topic of conversation and concern here.

Driving to the radio station Wednesday morning, I mentioned that same-sex marriage might come up during the second hour, when N.M. Senator Bill Sharer (R-Farmington) would call in. Don had two reactions. Personally, he figured marriage was one form of relationship between two people, and whether or not people got married, whether or not they did so in some church, and whether or not they married someone of the opposite sex were all up to the couples involved – not up to him, and not up to the State. On the other hand, he knew Japan, which is quite conservative in many areas, was unlikely to legalize same-sex marriage any time soon. He’s hardly older than I am, and we remarked on the fact that 50 years ago we wouldn’t have thought of any such thing as same-sex marriage.

At restaurants, at shops, at the Farmers’ Market, he enjoyed the openness of the people he met – as well as finding unique gifts for his wife, students, or friends, including an old license plate to hang on the fence and a “soap-saver” (made locally by for his thrifty mother-in-law..

Perhaps above all he enjoyed the ability to travel back and forth in a very short time between the natural world of beauty and solitude and the human world where nice people in pleasant restaurants serve tasty food at reasonable prices.

There are things we all enjoy about Las Cruces. Those of us who haven’t always lived here notice them consciously each time we return, then enjoy them unconsciously until someone else visits.

The dark, looming shape of the mountains after dusk, the colors in the twilight sky, the peace that helps us find sleep, after a hectic schedule of work or travel elsewhere. The interesting, often quite talented, and incredibly varied friends we get to know so much more deeply here than we’d be able to in some large city. The evening’s first star, sitting high above the mountains in that darkening sky, and then its uncountable brethren in all their splendor, undimmed by millions of streetlights, headlights, and office buildings.

I’d sound pretty sappy running on about all this each week; but elements of the magic of this place do cross my mind at odd moments. It’s refreshing to have a friend’s visit bring it all back up to consciousness.

[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, 29 September.  It's worth noting that Don Gagner, who's since arrived safely back in Osaka, read it and remarked that our visit to Osaka last year had a similar effect on him, refreshing his appreciation of some of its wonders.]
[If you're a Las Crucen, it might also be worth noting that among the establishments to which we took Don were Milagro's (for excellent coffee and fine pastries), Spirit Winds (for a black-bean veggie-burger or a tuna sandwich), Luna Rosa (where we like the salmon salad, Don chose the pizza, and we all ate more gelato than we should have), and Habaneros (on Solano, and easily passed without noticing it, but worth a stop some time.  Don enjoyed not only the food but a thoughtful conversation with the proprietor.)  Think we also made it to Mountain View kitchen at 130 Water St.  (Tasty and healthy food.)  We often do.
Not that the foregoing exhausts our list of favorite eateries . . . ]


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