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Screw the Gatekeepers October 13, 2023

My last blog post was about cultivating happiness in your life. One of my suggestions was to identify the true desires at the root of your big unattainable dreams, because so many of them are "only partially about doing something, and mostly about being something."

An obsession with "being" something is a theft of joy. In order to convince yourself you "are" something, you often need to win an imaginary competition against everybody else in the world. To be "a real author," you need to prove you're smarter and more talented than other people by publishing works of high literature with only the most prestigious houses. To be "a real runner," you need to prove you're faster and stronger than other people by winning expensive races. To be "a real gamer," you need to play technically difficult video games that "casuals" can't handle, and get 100% of the arbitrary achievements to show off on your profile, and basically have no fun at all.

At extremes, people obsessed with "being" something will skip over the part where they actually do things to prove themselves, and they instead spend their time convincing imaginary competitors that they're inferior. Oh you self-published some romantic drivel for women? You're not a serious writer, then. You're not training for a marathon? So I guess you're one of those "hobby joggers." This person only completed 10% of Bloodborne and stopped after dying a hundred times in the first map? LOL noobs!

Yesterday, I encountered a group of people like this in what I thought would be an unlikely place for elitist snobs: a Discord server about woodworking. What could people who make picnic tables and step stools possibly use to be judgemental and exclusionary?

The answer: pocket hole screws.

Pocket holes are a method of joinery that people without the money for impressive tools or the space for a big shop can use to construct basic projects. You drill out a channel on the edge of one board, then drive a screw through it at an angle into the second board. The jigs are relatively cheap, easy to use, and much less likely to maim a beginner than a table saw or router. Many free plans shared on homemaker blogs and YouTube use pocket holes.

Is it the strongest joint in the world? No, but most of the time you don't need the strongest joint in the world. Pocket holes are like Priuses. Sometimes people need a monster truck to haul a cubic yard of rocks, but most of the time they're just commuting to work or picking up groceries. It would be ridiculous to declare all vehicles should be monster trucks, and nobody should ever drive a Prius to get groceries because Priuses can't handle 2,000 pounds of rocks. Similarly, pocket holes are perfectly adequate for most small projects people tinkering in their garages will want to make.

A beginner on this Discord server said he only had a circular saw and power screwdriver. People told him he needed to buy this, that, and the other thing. I suggested that if he had a tight budget, he could buy a pocket hole jig first to get started.

From the reaction, you'd have thought I suggested he just grab an office stapler and start whacking at pieces of lumber with it.

pocket holes aren't strong enough for furniture

Pocket holes are NEVER appropriate for joinery, FULL STOP

I'm not saying you can't use pocket holes. You can do whatever your little heart desires. But they can't bear any weight. Not a lot of weight, no weight at all.

I was taken aback, because all of these assertions are factually incorrect. All the measurements you can find online show that pocket holes are comparable to other methods for making butt joints that rely mostly on glue for their strength, like biscuits and floating tenons. All of them start to crack at about 90 pounds of force. Unless you're going to use your little pine nightstand to store unsecured bowling balls, or allow a child to use it like a trampoline, that's not a significant limitation. I have an outdoor plant stand made with pocket holes in 2x4s—at least it was supposed to be a plant stand—that many a delivery person has used to drop off 40-pound bags of cat litter for multiple years with no problems.

But facts and common sense had no place in this server, because the objective strength of pocket holes wasn't their true concern. Their complaints quickly turned to "instant gratification DIY culture" and the stupidity of "the masses" with no appreciation for fine furniture.

The true problem, you see, is that if they admitted pocket holes are a legitimate method of joinery, that would mean the millions of untrained plebeians building shoe cabinets in their garages with $40 Kreg jigs are legitimate woodworkers. It would mean their "fine woodworking" projects aren't superior in every way to what those uppity DIYers with ideas beyond their station can put together in a weekend.

Pocket holes must be weak, despite all evidence, because if they're not, that means the members of this exclusive club of Real Manly Woodworkers aren't all that special.

(And yes, there's an undercurrent of sexism in there, too. How dare petite women with nice hair like Ana White make plans for trendy farmhouse-style coffee tables? The gall.)

First, don't be these people. There are 8.1 billion humans on planet Earth. Trying to prove you're better than all of them is as foolish as claiming one particular grain of sand sparkles brighter than all the others on the beach. You're not going to make it true by telling the other grains of sand they're not sandy enough.

Second, don't listen to these people. That's hard to do when they pile on to shame you personally, and present their unverified theories as unassailable facts with the utmost confidence.

Despite all my previous research and certainty in the adequacy of pocket holes, I wondered if these condescending jerks were right, and if I was being unreasonable because I felt disrespected. I wondered if I've been making furniture that's doomed to fail this whole time.

So I spent the evening checking articles from sources like Woodsmith and Family Handyman. They said pocket holes are fine. I read discussions on old woodworking forums and Reddit threads—pocket holes are fine. I watched YouTube videos by carpenters with forty years of experience—pocket holes are fine.

I couldn't find any convincing evidence that pocket holes are not fine. Even when people went out of their way to demonstrate how much pocket holes suck, they showed that these joints can take only 110 pounds of direct pressure from a lever, see?! So, again, if you're making a floating shelf for your bathroom, do you intend to pile a dozen medical textbooks on it? Or if you're building a coffee table from Ana White's plans, do you intend to stand on it to practice tap dancing? No? Then pocket holes are fine.

Despite all this research, when I catch sight of one of my pretty side tables—which I do not in fact use to practice tap dancing—I have the tiniest of doubts that it's strong enough, and I feel the need to find more evidence that pocket holes are fine.

Sadly, there are purists in every community who sew doubt and spread misinformation just to make themselves feel special. Some gardening enthusiasts will claim all non-native species from big box stores are invasive and will destroy the local ecosystem. Some animal lovers will say if you feed your cat any kind of processed dry food, you're basically murdering them.

We had our piano tuned recently, and the next day the tuner asked if he could come back to redo it for no extra charge. He'd been on the piano tuner forums, and they'd convinced him the settings he always used for Yamaha uprights were wrong. He spent an hour re-tuning every note, only to admit sheepishly that there wasn't much difference in the sound.

Humility and openness to new ideas is good for us, but self-doubt isn't. If egotistical people are trying hard to make you feel stupid and inferior, it's probably because they've sensed you're neither, and that makes you a threat.

In the words of a Redditor who responded to a year-old thread I found about snobby woodworking gatekeepers, "pocket hole screw them."

The Pursuit of True Long-Term Happiness July 22, 2023

Over the past few months I've had some personal experiences that prompted me to face uncomfortable but important questions. Namely: "Is my current life the one I want to live?" And, "Who do I want to be?"

I don't have concrete answers, but the continuous pursuit of them is the important part. I've been doing a lot of reading and reflecting on psychology, relationships, careers and finances. This post is a mishmash of the concepts I've landed on as most helpful for leading a happy life.

What is "self-care?"

"Self-care" became a popular buzzword during the pandemic. In theory, self-care is supposed to mean, "You should be allowed to prioritize your own needs without guilt." In theory, that's a good thing.

In application, particularly for the purposes of selling luxury beauty products and building social media brands, self-care has come to mean, "You should indulge in whatever feels good in the moment, regardless of whether it will make you happy or miserable in the long run."

Spending thousands of dollars on cosmetic procedures is "self-care," even if it means burying your future self under a mountain of 25% APR credit card debt.

Binging TV shows for days and refusing to eat proper meals, go outside, exercise, or do anything else that feels hard is "self-care," even if wallowing will make your mood worse, not better.

In short, the term self-care has become an excuse for self-sabotage.

True self-care means applying remedies, not pain-killers.

Occasional indulgences are necessary for mental health. There's nothing wrong with turning down party invitations when you need some alone time with HBO Max, or with enjoying that doughnut you've been looking forward to all morning. And beating yourself up for failing to be perfectly wise all the time is another form of self-sabotage.

However, indulgences are not true self-care. A doughnut will lift your spirits for about five minutes. It won't make you happy five years from now.

No unhappy person on Earth is dissatisfied with their life because they haven't eaten enough doughnuts. Or because they need a more exciting haircut, they haven't finished all eight seasons of Game of Thrones, or they just haven't hidden under the blankets long enough for their problems to disappear. These are temporary distractions, not solutions.

Pursuing happiness requires doing unhappy things.

Paradoxically, truly taking care of yourself usually requires doing difficult things that can feel very bad in the moment.

On the physical side, our bodies are designed to avoid pain and pursue pleasure in the moment, every moment. Our muscles will rebel against the idea of leaving the warm squishy couch to get sweaty at the gym. Our eyes will cling desperately to the thrilling sight of beautiful people plotting to murder each other on TV, instead of staring at icky credit card statements and bank account balances. Being in poor physical and financial health will make us miserable, but our dopamine receptors don't care. They want a $50 Doordash delivery of triple bacon cheeseburgers with milkshakes and fries, and they want it now!

On the psychological side, considering significant changes to your life feels destabilizing and disloyal to the other people in it. Facing the habits and thought patterns that might be holding you back from making them is extremely uncomfortable. A natural instinct is to reject the suggestion you could have such flaws or the power to address them. "I am who I am," you'll bristle. "I should be allowed to be myself and be happy."

Two inescapable truths:

  1. The only person in this world you can control is yourself. You can try to influence other people and your surroundings, but you have complete power only over your own choices.
  2. The only person in this world who can control your thoughts is you. The telepathic characters in Marvel movies aren't real. Nobody has the superpower to enter your head and change the way you think.

So if you're unhappy, it's up to you to identify and address the causes. While you should never change yourself to please anybody else, sometimes it's necessary to change your thoughts and behavior for the sake of your own health and happiness.

While painting the kitchen cabinets, I listened to an amusing book by a divorce lawyer titled, If You're In My Office, It's Already Too Late. I most enjoyed the anecdotes of outrageous courtroom antics, but the substance of the book is the patterns the lawyer has observed while helping to dissolve hundreds of marriages.

The key takeaway is in the title: if a couple has reached the point of dissolution, the best time to address their problems passed long ago. Happy couples need to have hard conversations to remain happy, and tackle problems as soon as they arise, before resentments build up and they stop communicating, trusting, and respecting each other.

I think the same is true of any relationship, including the one you have with your unconscious self. You sometimes have to sit yourself down and say, "I know initiating conflict is terrifying because you think we'll be hated and lose everything, but if we keep swallowing our words and pretending to be okay, we will never actually be okay." Or, "Your anger at hurtful things people said in the past is justified, and I'm not diminishing your feelings, but stewing and fantasizing about petty revenge is just punishing us, not them. It's time to let it go."

Question your dreams.

Countless books and movies for general audiences feature scrappy underdogs overcoming all odds to realize their dreams. They win the championship soccer game, singing contest, or whatever to uproarious applause and universal praise, put the sulky bullies in their places, get a kiss from a cute love interest, and live happily ever after.

In reality, landing one dramatic penalty kick will not fix your whole life. This is called the arrival fallacy: "the illusion that once we make it, once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness." (Source: "You accomplished something great. So now what?")

If you ask people about their wildest dreams, you'll get some common answers. To retire early and travel the world. To turn a side hustle making cutting boards into a multi-million-dollar business. To be president of the United States. To land a publishing contract, big-city art show, or starring role on Broadway and finally quit their day job to do what they love.

Dreams like these are only partially about doing something, and mostly about being something. Someone in complete control of their life. Someone everyone loves and respects. Someone with no worries and unlimited power.

But the truth is, no amount of money, fame, or political influence will protect anyone from feeling bad ever again. In fact, the celebrities who have all of those things seem like the most miserable, insecure, petty and unstable people on the planet. I've never once read a Tweet from a billionaire and thought, "Wow, they seem super easy-going, and so full of gratitude for their many advantages and love for their fellow man."

Lasting happiness comes from within.

Sometimes you do need to change your external circumstances to improve your quality of life. However, if your basic needs are met—you're healthy and safe, you have stable non-toxic relationships, you spend most of your time on fulfilling activities—but you're still not content, there are no other shake-ups that will ever make you happy.

Every career will have mundane duties you won't enjoy. Every partner will have traits that annoy you. Every locale will have some people and weather patterns you won't like. We probably all know at least one person who seems to think that maybe if they just quit their job and try something radically different, maybe if they just dump their boring partner and date someone cooler, maybe if they just pack up and move to that other place with greener grass, they will finally be happy. But it never works, because the true cause of their dissatisfaction is their own thoughts.

I've had chronic depression since I was a teenager. I know how annoying it is when people who haven't experienced a mood disorder say things like, "You just need to change your attitude!" or "You just need to get out more!" or anything else that starts with, "You just..."

So when I say the root of a person's unhappiness is in their thought patterns, I'm not diminishing the seriousness of mental illness, traumatic experiences, or other factors that shape an unhappy brain. It's a pure statement of fact.

I have inherently weak arm muscles. Until recently, I couldn't do a push up or pull up. But my arms were never going to get stronger just hanging off my shoulders, unused. I had to make a habit of exercising them, even though it seems like I have to struggle twice as hard as "normal" people with functional biceps.

Similarly, I have an inherently depressive brain. Until a few years ago, it had to work a lot harder than "normal" brains to convince my body to get up, get dressed, smile and be social, stop thinking "I can't" or "There's no point" or "Nothing will change anyway." Focus on the good in other people instead of the bad, the reasons you have to be thankful instead of self-pitying, all the things in your life that give you joy instead of the things that try to steal it.

Eventually, rejecting negative thoughts for more positive ones became a habit, and my joy-affirming "brain muscles" built up strength. Now I can quickly swat away destructive thoughts, and it's no longer difficult to get up and go out. But I still have to choose to maintain my mental health, just like I have to choose to put on my workout clothes to maintain my physical health.

You can train your brain over time.

The brain is a very complex organ, and some parts of it undermine the hard work of the other parts. The unconscious parts are incorrigible and refuse to listen to those high-handed analytical parts. You can't "think" your way out of unhappiness. But you can, with diligent practice, shape the mold the unconscious parts tend to fall into.

Ever since tenth grade English, I've disliked the Alanis Morissette song "Ironic." No, not because the situations described in the song are just coincidences and misfortunes, rather than examples of Socratic, dramatic, or situational irony. Many words have valid colloquial meanings that are "incorrect" according to tenth grade English teachers.

The reason I have a negative reaction to hearing this song is because the worldview it expresses is, "Woe is me." The song's bitter narrator would be much happier if they looked for the silver lining around each of the minor disappointments they think are major tragedies.

  • "A traffic jam when you're already late" --> "Well, this is a good time to plan out that project I've been avoiding thinking about."
  • "A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break" --> "Maybe I'll finally be able to quit now that I can't be tempted during the workday."
  • "It's like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife" --> "Holy cow, ten thousand spoons? This is going on Instagram."
  • "It's meeting the man of my dreams, and then meeting his beautiful wife." --> "It's so great to know that kind men like him are out there. If the world could produce that guy, there must be many more like him!"

In The Happiness Advantage, psychologist Shawn Achor calls the ingrained patterns your mind unconsciously follows the "Tetris Effect." If you play Tetris for many hours a day, you tend to start seeing polygons and the gaps they could slot into everywhere. In your dreams, in brick walls, in city skylines. The visions are compulsive and uncontrollable. Unless, of course, you stop playing Tetris so much.

We see what our brains have been trained to expect to see. If it expects a world made up of falling polygons, it will impose that illogical vision over reality. If it expects a world made up of flaws, threats, and grave misfortunes, that's what you'll see everywhere, every day. Of course it's important to recognize flaws and threats, but an unhappy brain will attach outsized significance to them, like a Tetris-addled brain getting distracted by the silhouette of a skyscraper and ignoring the pretty sunset behind it.

People tend to say, "Reality check!" to mean a sobering reminder for people who are being too idealistic. But reality checks are equally needed for people who are being too pessimistic.

  • Is it really true that you do everything at the office, and your colleagues don't do anything to contribute? Or do they usually do their own jobs just fine, and you're upset about your lack of public recognition for a specific project?
  • Is it really true that the person you married has no good qualities? Or are you conveniently forgetting their romantic gestures and generous sacrifices to justify your anger over a particular issue?
  • Is it really true there's no way to find happiness where you live right now? Or are there opportunities for fun that you've been ignoring and recreational activities you've been too afraid to try?

It's not easy to stop playing Tetris, metaphorically speaking. But if you sternly tell your brain "no" every time it starts brooding or catastrophizing, it will eventually do that less and less, and start to automatically look for the bright side.

Europe Vacation June 30, 2023

Like millions of others around the globe, when the COVID masks came off I inhaled two lungs full of wanderlust! Our Hawaii vacation in December was initially supposed to be a once-a-decade event, but before we even boarded the plane home I was dreaming of the next one.

Where else can one get around exclusively through public transportation, communicate mostly in English, and find ample green mountains and fields of flowers to photograph? In Europe, of course!

Initially we planned a 2-week vacation for our anniversary, because crossing the Atlantic is expensive and a big to-do. Unfortunately I had work obligations, and I didn't want to leave the cats alone too long. So Sweetie took off first for a week of outdoor adventures in Switzerland, and I joined a week later to sight-see in Belgium and Germany.

Sweetie's Swiss adventures included:

1. A stop in Bern to walk around the UNESCO-designated Altstadt.

Bern rooftops
Bern rooftops, river, and tree-covered hilltops

2. Two days in the car-less mountain town of Mürren to hike and climb the Via Ferrata.

Town at the foot of the mountains in Switzerland
View of Lauterbrunnen valley from Murren, Switzerland
Fox statue in Murren, Switzerland
Flowers in Murren, Switzerland
Sweetie on the Murren Via Ferrata

3. A trip to Zermatt, at the foot of the iconic Matterhorn.

Street in Zermatt, Switzerland
Sweetie on Gornergrat
View from Gornergrat
Horse-drawn carriage in Zermatt, Switzerland
Flowers in Zermatt, Switzerland
View of the Matterhorn from Zermatt, Switzerland

4. A day taking scenic trains from Zermatt to St. Moritz, following the same route as the ridiculously overpriced Glacier Express.

Train windows in Switzerland
Cows grazing in Switzerland
Village at the foot of mountains in Switzerland
Village at the foot of mountains in Switzerland
Village at the foot of mountains in Switzerland
Village at the foot of mountains in Switzerland
Tall train bridge in Switzerland
Village at the foot of mountains in Switzerland
Lake in St. Moritz with view of the town

5. A self-guided walking tour of Luzern.

City on Lake Luzern
Wooden bridge on Lake Luzern
View of Luzern from Hotel Gütsch
Street in Luzern
Lion sculpture in Luzern

6. A train break in Luxembourg, on the way to Brussels.

Bridge to Luxembourg
Entrance to Luxembourg
Grande Duchess Charlotte Memorial in Luxembourg
Nortre-Dame Cathedral in Luxembourg
Interior of Nortre-Dame Cathedral in Luxembourg
Luxembourg train station
Stained glass over timetables in Luxembourg train station

In the meantime, I sewed clothes and bags in preparation for my own adventures.

Sunday, June 18 to Monday, June 19

At 6:30 on Sunday I said goodbye to the cats, locked up, and walked a half hour to the single bus station in town. Though we have an airport 15 minutes from our house, tickets between Redmond and Frankfurt cost a few hundred more each way than between Portland and Frankfurt. So I took the CO Breeze bus to Portland, which cost $60 per ticket instead.

My plane that afternoon took off two hours late. The frustrated captain announced that the plane was on time, the crew was on time, they just needed fresh water and had been waiting for PDX to bring it for hours. Eventually the staff did bring the water, and my first ten hours of hell commenced.

It wasn't hell because anything else went wrong; the trip is simply hell by nature. Ten hours of trying to sleep in a cramped upright seat while people talk too loudly, and crunch on snacks from crinkling bags, and watch movies on bright flashing screens, and you can't use the bathroom without climbing over your neighbors. Each hour of flight took me forward an additional hour in time, so I landed in Frankfurt at 11 am Monday.

I thought I was finally out of hell then. Actually, they'd just dropped me off at the entrance to the next circle down.

The high-speed train to Brussels arrived an hour late. That's okay, I thought, determined to be zen about it. These things happen. Besides, the vending machine gave me free chocolate snacks without asking for payment.

Share chocolate snack from Frankfurt airport train station vending machine

For a minute I wondered if European vending machines operate backwards—the snack drops down first, and then you pay for it? No, that machine was unusually generous. It must have sensed my suffering and wanted to make me feel better.

With a stomach full of free sugar, everything seemed to be back on track...until we reached the next station in Cologne. There the operator announced that the air-conditioning units had broken down in two cars, and everyone in them had to move. Of course, I was in one of those cars. Dozens of grumbling people squeezed themselves into sweltering train hallways, leaning against windows and crouching on hard floors, to wait out the rest of the journey.

Crowded Deutsche Bahn ICE train after AC breakdown

Still, I was determined to be zen. This is an adventure! Disasters always make better stories than, "Everything was perfect."

Then the train stopped moving.

Not only were there technical problems within the train, but there were problems with the signals on the tracks too. With everyone packed into small hot spaces in odd positions, the train sat about 15 minutes away from the next station for 10 minutes, 20, 30... I lost count. A cheer rose up when it limped into the tiny country station of Aachen, where everyone was dumped out and left to their own devices.

For one hour, I commiserated with a young woman from Frankfurt who was flying to visit family in Ghana. She'd planned a 3-hour buffer to get to the Brussels airport, and it was all gone now.

At last, another train arrived 40 minutes late. Okay, I thought, I'll get there a few hours later than usual, but that's fine. Sweetie wasn't going to arrive from Luxembourg until 19:00. Now I'll get there at the same time, and we'll get dinner.

I helped the young woman carry her bags on board. Then, predictably, another announcement: "I am sorry, this train is too full. We cannot move with so many people standing. Please get off if you can."

So off I went yet again, to take an odd series of slow rural trains to Brussels. I finally arrived at 21:00.

At that point, the communication between my body and brain had broken down like the train signals. Was I hungry? Sleepy? No idea! I do know I was capable of walking 30 minutes with my luggage through the cobble-stoned shopping districts of Brussels. It was still light out, very warm and humid, the sidewalks crowded with hip city people speaking French and sipping drinks at bistro tables.

Sweetie was waiting for me outside the hotel, and he whisked me off for dinner at 22:00. I'd traveled 5,100 miles to eat hamburgers and fries with Coca Cola at a New York themed restaurant called Manhattn's Burgers, which was the closest restaurant we could find that was still open at that hour. It was, however, an extremely good burger. I selected the Brooklyn Falafel Burger, which had avocado, tzakiki sauce, and a spicy cheese mixture.

My original plan was to get to Brussels in mid-afternoon, see some sights, and struggle to stay awake until I crashed. With the late dinner, catching up with Sweetie, and dealing with luggage and laundry, the crash happened after 1 am. As it turns out, hell is an excellent remedy for jet lag.

Tuesday, June 20

I planned to spend our wedding anniversary in Belgium's self-styled City of Love, Brugge (or Bruges). But first, we made an obligatory photo stop at Brussels's Grand Place. All I have to say about it is that Belgian nobles must have had a lot of extra gold lying around they didn't have anything better to do with. The other 99.99% of their population must have been perfectly well fed and happy, so why not?

Grand Place in Brussels
Grand Place in Brussels
Grand Place in Brussels

Then we took a train to Brugge. The town is cute and romantic as advertised, but also an extreme tourist trap. On a Tuesday afternoon the streets were packed with guided groups and couples taking selfies. Every other storefront claims it sells the BEST Belgian waffles. Google says there are more than seventy chocolate shops packed in there. I commented to Sweetie that it felt like Disneyland's Main Street.

Of course, we bought two bags of chocolates and took tons of selfies.

View of Brugge from Minnewaterbrug
Climbing roses in Brugge
Horse-drawn carriage in front of a church in Brugge
Couple selfie by a boat tour landing in Brugge
View of Brugge from King's Bridge
Swan with babies in Brugge
Mallomar from chocolate shop in Brugge
Buttery truffle from chocolate shop in Brugge

The weather forecast said rain, but it patiently waited until we reached the very end of the Romantic Hotspots Walk. As soon as Sweetie snapped his last photo from King's Bridge, the light drizzle turned into a torrential storm.

We cinched our raincoats tight and bolted from awning to awning until we found a cafe to duck inside, which was so little I can't find it again on Google Maps. There we fulfilled our responsibility as American tourists to eat Belgian waffles topped with ice cream and drenched in melted chocolate.

Belgian waffles topped with ice cream, strawberries, and chocolate

The heavy rain continued back in Brussels. Our tongues loved the waffles but our stomachs protested they weren't real food, so there was nothing for it but to get drenched on our way to dinner at Roxi. I don't understand a single word of French, but we fumbled our way to alcohol-free cocktails and massive plates of food.

Wednesday, June 21

On Wednesday we said farewell to Belgium and took trains back into Germany, towards the college town of Koblenz. We stopped in Cologne to see the famed Cathedral, which is right outside the main station.

Cologne Cathedral entrance

Koblenz is an interesting city. Most of it is modern and commercial, with lots of cars and an enormous shopping mall. Then you turn the corner, and suddenly you're in 1800.

Street in Koblenz Altstadt
River walk in Koblenz
Fortress across the river in Koblenz
Roses and lavender in Koblenz
Fountain illustrating history of Koblenz

That night we learned how eating out in Germany works. In a word, slooowly.

American restaurants are very concerned with turnover. More free tables means more paying customers. German restaurants, on the other hand, don't seem all that concerned about how much money they make. It takes about as long to get the attention of a waiter to order drinks as it does to complete an entire meal stateside. But we did get those drinks, and lots of tasty food.

Bratwurst and Wiener schnitzel at a restaurant in Koblenz

Thursday, June 22

Thursday was dedicated to a cruise down the Rhine to Bingen, to take photos of the many active castles and ruins along the banks.

The Goethe scenic boat on the Rhine at Bingen
Castle viewed from the Rhine
Town along the Rhine
Town along the Rhine
Castle and town along the Rhine
Castle and town along the Rhine
Castle and town along the Rhine

Castle and terraced vineyards along the Rhine

I discovered on this cruise that I'm very fond of schorle—a mix of sparkling mineral water and fruit juices.

Drinking apfelschorle

The food from the on-board restaurant was terrible, but the views and breeze were nice on the muggy summer day.

After disembarking in Bingen at 15:00, we were supposed to take a simple series of trains through Mainz and Mannheim to Baden-Baden, Germany. As you might guess from the concurrent presence of the words "trains" and "Germany" in that sentence, this was a complete disaster.

You can't assess the health of a system by how awesome it is when everything is peachy keen, but by how well it recovers when things go sideways. In the case of Deutsche Bahn, what happens is chaos.

First, something caused our train to Mainz to dead end at Uhlerborn, which is a station you might film in a movie to illustrate that the characters are hopelessly stranded in the middle of nowhere. I couldn't understand most of the train operator's announcement, but the DB website said something about fireworks. We walked 20 minutes into town to try to find a bus, but we couldn't buy tickets with our Visa cards. We had no choice but to go back and wait at the station, on the dirty concrete, with no WC and only some melted globs of Brugge chocolate for sustenance, until another train to Mainz showed up an hour late.

Then the train to Mannheim suddenly stopped at Worms during a hailstorm. "Continuing is not possible," the operator announced in German. "This train is going back to Mainz."

I asked the Deutsche Bahn staff how to get to Mannheim, expecting there would be alternate routes. "I don't know!" The employee threw his hands up. "Maybe the next train will have the same problem. Maybe not. There are trees on the tracks. I don't know."

Waiting at Worms was uncomfortable, not least because the station's only WC was closed due to vandalism, and we hadn't had access to one since leaving the boat. We considered going back to Mainz to take a long route around the obstructed tracks, but it was already past 19:00 and that would have taken 4-5 hours. Sweetie was optimistic. "I'm sure they're working as fast as they can. We'll take the next train."

The next train came in half an hour, sat in the station hopefully, and was cancelled. The next one came a half hour after that, sat in the station hopefully, and was cancelled. None of the staff knew what was going on. The digital signs were all screwed up. One claimed a train was destined for Mainz but listed an intermediate stop at Mannheim, which made as much geographical sense as saying a plane from Los Angeles would fly over San Diego on the way to San Francisco.

"Nach Mainz oder nach Mannheim?" frustrated Germans demanded.

"I don't know!" the employees wailed. "Maybe first to Mannheim, then to Mainz? I don't know!"

Sweetie and I licked convenience store ice cream bars for dinner as the sun lowered and everything shut down around us, like two bedraggled travelers waiting for Godot.

After 21:00 a train to Mannheim arrived, sat in the station hopefully, and was not cancelled! And the main train station in Mannheim does have a WC.

We arrived in Baden-Baden at 23:30, about 6 hours later than expected. Luckily Baden-Baden is the Waikiki of Germany, where tourists go to relax in spas, spend lots of money on luxury goods, and drink in fancy bars long into the night. The buses continue running until midnight, so we were able to catch one to the hotel and get a little rest before our Great Black Forest Adventure.

Friday, June 23

Baden-Baden is on the northern edge of Schwarzwald, or the Black Forest region. The two highlights I'd selected for us were to hike part of the Panorama Trail and to visit the Roman bath ruins. The bath ruins have very limited hours, so they had to wait until the next morning.

Because it was a hot day that threatened rain, I picked a section of the trail that went through the dense forest, rather than the parts that went up high for views of the valley.

Panoramaweg path in Baden-Baden
Digitalis in Schwarzwald
Mossy tree stump in Schwarzwald
Sweetie on overgrown path in Schwarzwald
Panoramaweg path in Baden-Baden
Pink blossoms on tree in Schwarzwald

The plants in the Black Forest are very happy. Too happy, in fact. Underbrush had grown over the path in many sections, and the estimated 2-hour hike to Geroldsauer Waterfall turned into a 5-hour session of voluntary trail maintenance.

The stuff I'm attacking is stinging nettle, and it is vicious. Supposedly the leaves are nutritious and medicinal, but if the needles on the stems touch your bare skin, it feels like carelessly burning yourself on a hot cookie sheet. If we'd been wearing thick jeans, coats and gloves, it wouldn't have been a problem, but because it was such a hot day I was in thin yoga pants and Sweetie in shorts. On the bright side, the effects of stinging nettle are temporary and went away after an hour or so.

On the journey to the waterfall, I felt like a fairy tale character travelling through the woods and stumbling on magical huts in clearings. Sadly, no ageless witches appeared to offer me a slice of gingerbread.

Hut on road in Schwarzwald

The waterfall itself was underwhelming. The area is beautiful, and if it were near my house I'd happily walk the loop every day. But as a destination, the best I can say is it did indeed have water that was falling. From about 1/30th the height of Multnomah Falls, which is what we Oregonians envision when we hear "waterfall."

River under foot bridge at Geroldsauer waterfall
River at Geroldsauer waterfall
Geroldsauer waterfall

By this point I was exhausted, starving, whiny, and very badly needed to find a toilet. To my delight, signs pointed to a nearby grill called Waldgaststätte Bütthof, where the meat is abundant, the drinks are cold and bubbly, and the WC is free to customers!

As we were in the Black Forest, we had to try the Black Forest cake. It tasted more like red velvet than chocolate and was covered with plain whipped cream, with very sour cherries in the middle. I usually think desserts are too sweet and could use half the sugar, but this cake could have used double.

Black Forest cake from the Waldgastaette Buetthof

The buses to that area ran infrequently, so we made the trek back to town by foot, taking a shorter but less attractive route past houses and hotels. In all we walked 17 km or about 10 miles, and we had just enough energy left to find ice cream for dinner again.

Saturday, June 24

In the morning we visited the ruins, where we had the authentic experience of sweating in ancient Roman fire-heated baths. The heating for the modern-day baths above cranked up the temperature to probably the mid-90s Fahrenheit. I learned interesting things about architecture from the included audio tour, but I was glad to escape outside to cool off after 45 minutes. Photos weren't allowed, but they wouldn't have turned out well anyway in such a small, dark place.

From Baden-Baden we took a short train (without incident!) to Heidelberg, a destination I selected for its convenient proximity to Frankfurt airport. Like Koblenz, it's a college town, and most of it is a modern city. Unfortunately it's not the good type of modern. Lots of ugly highways, commercial construction projects, and vast boulevards with missing sidewalks and no trees. Cutting through it to the Altstadt was like walking down the infamous stroads of America—all glaring sun and gasoline fumes.

But the Altstadt is cute, and very busy on a Saturday night. Students and tourists conversed over group dinners on the cobblestoned streets, enjoyed an open-air concert, studied on garden benches surrounded by masses of blooms, and lounged on blankets on the grass by the river. If I were a photographer for Heidelberg University's website, I'd be having a field day.

Heidelberg Altstadt

We hiked up to Philosopher's Walk, which offers impressive views over the river and town beyond. From there, you can't see any of the ugly modern parts—only the romantic castle and quaint old buildings. The name stems from its supposed popularity with academics and other smart people who would walk and talk about smart things. Sweetie and I mostly talked about photo compositions and where the heck that loud concert music was coming from, but we did make sure to squeeze in a few sentences about Socrates at the end.

On bridge to Philosopher's Walk in Heidelberg
View from Philosopher's Walk in Heidelberg

Along the path is also a wooden play structure for children. Naturally, I climbed it.

Climbing play structure on Philosopher's Walk
Climbing play structure on Philosopher's Walk

Sunday, June 24

On Sunday I took the train to Frankfurt airport and returned home to the cats and to work the next day. Sweetie stayed to fit in one more "must-do" tourist attraction: Neuschwanstein Castle, which famously inspired the Disney castle. Like in the Roman bath ruins, photos weren't allowed inside.

Neuschwanstein from below
Neuschwanstein courtyard
Selfie at Neuschwanstein

Now we're back together stateside and have finally stopped waking up at 2 am. The trip was a great experience, but I think it will take me about a year to recover the energy for another one. Or at least a month or two...