The Appeal of The Moonstone (August 19, 2019)
Fun has become the prime determinant in what I read. When I go to the library these days, I check out five books knowing I’ll finish only two. If, after the first thirty pages, I don’t care about a novel’s plot, I put it aside. There is too much fun stuff out there to waste limited reading time on books that I don’t enjoy. I still occasionally read not-fun novels when the writing is exceptional, but I do even less of that than I used to.
Which brings me to the inexplicable fact that last night I finished The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. The book was not fun. It also was not good writing. The prose meandered, the characters were not interesting, and the mystery of a missing diamond was not something that would ordinarily hold my attention. So this morning, I sit in a coffee shop seriously wondering how Collins got me to finish his novel. What if, on some level, the guy was a literary genius? In reflecting on The Moonstone, I have come to three conclusions.
One, I read The Moonstone in its entirety because it appears high on just about every list of the Greatest-Mystery-Novels-of-All-Time. The other authors on those lists – Conan Doyle, Poe, Hammett, Chandler, Christie, Cain – all elevate mystery writing as a genre. I kept thinking that if I stuck with Collins I would come across his unique contribution, too.
Two, I became intrigued with the convoluted plot. The story was told through the eyes of multiple narrators, and each one had his or her own pointless digressions. I became curious whether the novelist would be able to pull everything together. What if The Moonstone was another The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where the unexpected and perfect conclusion trumps any flaws in the rest of the book? As it turns out, Collins relied on illogical drug-induced behavior by one of the main characters to tie up lose ends. I half bought it, but The Moonstone is no Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
Three, there was one literary device that did work on me and, for this, I give Collins credit. In the entire novel, there was only one character, Sergeant Cuff, who seemed to know what was going on. Early on, he solved part of the mystery and then dropped out of the story. Then, for the next 300 pages, tidbits of new information gradually whittled away at Cuff’s conclusions, and the reader is left trying to figure out whether Cuff went wrong and, if so, where.
I didn’t enjoy The Moonstone, but I am a little bit awed at the way it sucked me in.
Fishing and Writing (August 12, 2019)
If I had to rank my favorite recreational pursuits, I’d probably settle on fishing and writing as my top two. The other day, while I was writing about fishing, I wondered how two such disparate activities could reside side by side at the top of my list. Hunting and fishing would be logical companions, but I don’t hunt. Reading and writing go well together, but as much as I enjoy reading fiction, I don’t remember ever getting upset because other obligations took me away from a morning of reading.
The more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that fishing and writing have elements in common. First of all, both are quiet solitary activities. I enjoy fishing with other people and I sometimes co-write with colleagues and students, but both activities are best done alone. Secondly both activities bring me closer to nature, even though fishing does it on a physical level and the writing (i.e., nature writing) is more intellectual. Thirdly, both have clear outcomes, but actually achieving those outcomes are not important. Catching a fish or producing good prose are things to aim for, but like all worthy goals, are not always achieved. That is not to say that fishing isn’t enhanced when I catch fish or writing isn’t more satisfying when I come up with a good sentence, but neither accomplishment defines the value of the respective activity. I’m more likely to fish two or three days in a row when the fish are biting, more likely to write longer into the morning when the writing is going well, but the cliche about a bad day of fishing applies just as well to writing as it does fishing. A great summer day is a morning of writing (maybe coming up with a good paragraph), a workout, lunch with my wife and daughter, and time on the river with a pole in my hands until the sun sets.
On Writing (August 5, 2019)
The other morning I was sitting in a coffee shop when my friend Sam walked in. He asked how my writing was going, and I told him that I was putting in the time without much to show for it. He replied that he’d just read a research article that suggested that writers who derive the most satisfaction from writing are not those who are most productive. After the obvious joke that I must, therefore, be extremely satisfied, we discussed what that really meant. I mentioned my distaste for deadlines. Sam is a professor at the same university that I retired from, and he pointed out that one of the perks of working at a mid-level university rather than a top-tier institution is that the constant pressure to pump out publications is not there. I concurred and said that I never felt rushed to submit an article and always had the luxury of working an article until it was as good as I could make it. Quality was always more important than quantity, which is not necessarily the case in a world of publish or perish.
I once wrote an article that came to two related, but distinct, conclusions. A well-intentioned colleague from a Tier One university pointed out that two conclusions should result in two separate articles. He was both a better and more prolific writer than I am, but after years at a research institution, bean counting was just part of this thinking. The intent of his comment was to help me in the world of academics, but the result was that it made me glad to be working at a place where, so long as I published one or two articles every year, I was never bothered by the people who measure productivity by the number of citations.
* * *
There is a point in just about any writing where reworking an article or a book chapter makes it different, but not necessarily better. This is when a deadline might not be a bad thing. Good enough becomes good enough, and the manuscript gets submitted. Without any kind of deadline, a piece of writing can languish indefinitely. It is always much easier to see the flaws in a piece of writing than it is to correct them. With just about everything I have ever written, I’ve thought the manuscript would improve if I just stepped away from it for a week or two and then came back with a fresh perspective. And then another week or two, and then another…
Taiwanese philosopher Lin Yutang once wrote about ‘good enough.’ Lin was a Chinese philosopher who lived in Asia, Europe, and North America and often commented on the differences between East and West. He’d concluded that a Chinese person tends to make something 99% right, then goes on to something else. In contrast, a Westerner will spend half of his or her time making something 99% right, then spend the other half working on the last 1%. Having lived with a Taiwanese woman for the past quarter century, I don’t agree with Lin’s observation about this cultural distinction, but I often think of his comment when I won’t let a finished manuscript go. The small chance to make that one clunky paragraph better is hard to resist.
Fishing with an Old Man (July 29, 2019)
Initially my Taiwanese father-in-law did not like me. There were several reasons for this. I was divorced. I was American. I was too old for his daughter (I was 38 years old, she was 31). I was taking her from her home in Taiwan, and I did not have a job waiting for me in the United States when we got there. I would have thought treating his daughter well might have brought him around, but it did not. My father-in-law liked me only after I took him fishing.
When my in-laws visited Manyu and me in Wisconsin for the first time, I immediately bought my father-in-law a fishing license. With only one car, Manyu and her mother would take the two of us to one of my favorite fishing spots on the Mississippi River. They would set my father-in-law up in a lawn chair on shore, and I would fish from my canoe thirty or forty yards from where he was sitting. Then they’d leave in the car, promising to be back in two hours.
As soon as the car was out of sight, I’d paddle into shore, pick up my father-in-law with the canoe, and take him out to where the fish were biting. There were two reasons that neither Manyu nor Manyu’s mom wanted my father-in-law in the canoe. First of all, they both knew that I occasionally flipped my canoe, and they did not want me dumping my father-in-law in the river. Secondly, the tight leg space in the bow of the canoe aggravated his gout, and neither of them understood that an afternoon of fishing was worth a day or two of discomfort. I would watch the time and, after an hour and a half, return the man to his lawn chair. We’d put a few bluegills in his bucket, he’d fish from his chair, I’d paddle back out onto the river, and we’d both pretend that it had been that way the whole time.
Not only did I take an old man fishing who hadn’t fished since he was a kid, but he and I shared a secret from the women in our lives. My father-in-law spoke no English, and I spoke slightly better than survival Mandarin. We did not need a common language to fish or to strike a blow for independence.
Jack's Fish (July 22, 2019)
Yesterday my friend Jack called at the last minute to ask if I wanted to go fishing. Family was passing through town, and he wanted to take a young nephew out on the river. When a friend with a boat says that he is going fishing, it’s unusual for me not to jump at the chance to go along. It was already 6pm by the time Jack and his nephew picked me up, so we drove directly to the stretch of river nearest my house. We put in on the Black River about a half mile upstream of its confluence with the Upper Mississippi.
If anyone spends enough time fishing, quirky things happen. Many people who panfish, for example, have reeled in a bluegill, only to have a big northern take it while the smaller fish is struggling on the line. While ice fishing, I once caught a crappie without a hook, because it followed my bait all of the way up the hole and then didn’t have room to turn around. Another time my father-in-law broke his line on a big fish, and for a half hour we watched his bobber move around the lagoon where we were fishing. On a whim, I put a heavy Daredevle on my pole and was able to snag the bobber. My father-in-law landed his fish by pulling in the retrieved line hand over hand.
Yesterday another unusual thing happened. Fishing was not very good, and in two hours Jack caught only two fish. More accurately, he caught one fish, but he caught it twice. First he caught a sheepshead. The fish had swallowed the hook, so rather than hurt the fish by yanking out the hook, he cut the line at the fish’s mouth and slipped the fish back into the water. Fifteen minutes later he caught the same fish. He could tell it was the same fish, because the original severed line from the first catch was dangling from the fish’s mouth.
Someone who does not fish the Upper Mississippi watershed might not think that catching the same fish two times is anything noteworthy. After all, we were anchored atop a feeding ground, and it was dusk (prime feeding time). Why wouldn’t a hungry fish hook itself twice? The reason that I am surprised by the oddity is that the Black River and Mississippi River near my house are the most fertile fishery I’ve ever fished. I sometimes describe it as “fish so thick and water so muddy that the fish must be bumping into each other.” Even when I’m not catching anything, I still assume that I am sitting atop hundreds of fish. Jack was fishing on the biggest river system in the country (i.e., the fish had lots of places to go), and he was hovering over hundreds of fish, yet the only fish he caught was the same fish twice. Maybe this coincidence wouldn’t impress most people, but I thought it worth mentioning.
Mercury in Fish (July 15, 2019)
July and August are the most pleasant months to fish on the Upper Mississippi. They also are the months I tend not to bring home any fish. I know that it is partly my imagination, but I don’t think the fish taste as good in the middle of the summer. The water is warm and the river relatively stagnant, and the flesh of the fish is soft with a muddy taste to it. All of the fish begin to taste a little bit like catfish. That, however, is my northern lake country bias showing through. I was taught to believe that if I was eating any freshwater fish other than trout, walleye, or perch, I was eating a second-tier fish. Even now, when I panfish with my friend Buzz, we clean fish together – then he takes home all of the bluegill and crappie fillets, and I take home all the perch.
When I first moved to La Crosse twenty-five years ago, I was not even sure whether fish from the Upper Mississippi River were safe to eat. The River Studies program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse does some of the country’s best research on heavy metals in fish, so I asked one of the professors in the program whether he ate fish out of the river.
“I don’t eat the piscivorous fish,” he said. When I asked him what that meant, he said, “I don’t eat fish that eat fish. I eat the small fish. Mostly bluegills, maybe a perch or two. Only rarely will I eat a small walleye or northern, but even then I don’t eat the fatty belly meat.”
Then he asked, “Do you plan on having any more kids?”
I said, “No.”
“Do you have any daughters?”
I said, “I have one daughter.”
“Then,” he said, “eat only panfish and have them no more than once a week. If it was just you, I’d say eat fish every day if you want to. You are male and old and overweight. It isn’t the mercury in fish that is gonna get you.”
Isn’t that reassuring?
Uncle Bill (July 8, 2019)
My Uncle Bill used to be long-haul truck driver. In every American city I’ve ever lived – San Francisco, Boston, Minneapolis, Ames, Iowa, it didn’t matter where – I got phone calls from Bill when he was on the road. “Steve, this is your Uncle Bill. I’m at the truck stop out on the Interstate. You want come by and have a cup of coffee?”
Other than immediate family, I am not close to my relatives. Still my mom would tell Bill where I was living, and whenever he came within 10-20 miles of where I was at the time, he’d give me a call. My mom is one of sixteen kids; Bill has over 50 nieces and nephews (I don’t even know exactly how many cousins I have), and still he made a point of tracking me down. I appreciated the man’s kindness and commitment to extended family.
Last weekend I attended the family reunion for my mom’s side of the family, and Bill was there. I sat down next to him with a brat and a beer and asked whether he was still driving. “What else would I do?” He replied. “I only do local runs now, but I’m still driving.” I don’t know exactly how old Bill is. My mom is 83, and Bill’s older than she is.
I retired when I was 63. Two years later it remains an excellent decision. I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I hadn’t retired. Still when Bill told me he was slowing down by only driving routes that allowed him to sleep in his own bed every night, I felt like a slacker. He has been driving truck for more than sixty years. How can I not admire and maybe even envy a man who knows exactly who he is?
Renting a Boat (July 1, 2019)
As I mentioned two blogs ago, our annual group of four fishermen to Lake of the Woods had expanded to seven. As a result, we needed a third boat before we motored off for our weeklong backcountry fishing trip. Jack dropped Tom and me off at Paradise Cove, a small marina near the town of Sioux Narrows, to rent a basic 16-foot V-hull with a 20-horse motor.
Tom preceded me into the marina’s small waterside shack by about thirty seconds. When I walked in, the woman behind the counter was asking, “How long do you need it?”
Tom said, “Five or six days. Our plan is to be back Friday morning.”
“Do you know how to run an outboard?” The woman asked.
“Does it have a choke?” Tom asked back.
“Yeah,” the woman said, “you only have to use it when the engine is cold. Otherwise it should start right up. By the way, it’s only a two-stroke, so the gas/oil mixture is fifty to one. It has a full tank. Either fill it before you return, or we can refill it here. If you don’t have any other questions, have a fun week. ”
Tom and I walked down to the beach, pushed the boat off the sand, and slowly motored out of the marina’s small harbor. I asked Tom, “Did she ask you your name?”
“No,” Tom said.
“Did she take your address?” I asked.
“Did you give her any money?”
“She said we’d settle up later,” Tom said.
I think that I have an honest face, and Tom even more so, but it has been a long time since a stranger has shown me such trust. It was a beautiful way to start a weeklong camping/fishing trip. The woman was in her late forties, early fifties, but I don’t know how long she’s been running the marina. Still she must have been there for a while, and I have to assume that she’s yet to be burned by a shady customer. How great would it be to think the best of people and then have that perspective regularly confirmed?
Fish That Get Away (June 24, 2019)
“Get a picture! Get a picture!” Ken yelled as he played the big fish and Clint reached out over the water to net it. I had neither a phone nor a camera, so I scrambled around the boat’s steering column looking for either Ken’s or Clint’s camera.
The fish rose to the surface, and I said, “Musky.” Clint, on the other hand, said, “The net’s not big enough. I need the gaff.” Clint kept a big hook in a side compartment of his boat and quickly retrieved it. I’d gaffed a big musky for Clint two years earlier, so I knew that we did not use the gaff to impale the fish, but to hook the fish through the lower jaw. It cut a small hole in the skin, but allowed us to return the fish to the lake with only a minor injury.
I found a cellphone to take a picture and asked for the numbers to open it up. A few seconds later, Clint hooked the fish with the gaff and lifted it out of the water. About half way up, the big musky wriggled off of the gaff and landed on the gunwale of the boat. It could have just as easily fallen into the boat as out of the boat, but every fisherman and fisherwoman knows exactly what happened. The big fish slipped back into the lake and calmly swam into the depths.
The other two boats in our party had slowly motored in to watch the action, but one of the young men in our group kept casting. No sooner had Ken lost the musky when Max hooked a second big fish. This time it was a northern pike. His boat, unlike ours, had a big musky landing net on board. Max’s dad grabbed it to haul in the fish. When the fish noticed the net, however, it jerked its head, eluding the net and simultaneously spitting out Max’s lure. In a matter of five minutes, we’d lost two big fish.
Had we been able to get both of those fish into their respective boats, I wouldn’t be writing this blog about them. The most memorable fish stories are about the ones that got away.
Back to Deadbroke (June 17, 2019)
Two years ago I wrote an essay titled “Goodbye Deadbroke.” It was written as a farewell to one of the best backcountry sites I’ve ever known. Now that I think about it, it might be the only campsite anywhere that I’ve ever intentionally returned to. The site is a peninsula on the west end of Deadbroke Island in the Ontario portion of Lake of the Woods. It offers good fishing, excellent sunsets, a breeze to keep down the mosquitoes, and a small natural harbor to protect our fishing boats. The attributes that make for a good campsite also make for an excellent shore lunch location. Shore lunches are noon-time resting spots for people who stay at wilderness resorts, but need a place for lunch when they are out all day fishing. Every year that we went to our campsite, the evidence of a human presence (e.g., fire rings, litter, even makeshift tabletops lashed or nailed between trees) was more pronounced.
Unfortunately people who use a site for shore lunches do not exhibit the same backcountry behavior as campers. Specifically shore lunches often include filleting and cooking the morning catch of walleye – and because shore lunchers are on site for only a few hours, they are not as careful about the disposing of fish carcasses as campers would be. It is not a big concern to them that the remains might attract gulls, pelicans, and bears. In our early years on Deadbroke, we were able to leave our food on the ground without fear of unwelcome visitors. During our previous stay, black bears came at night. It was not the bears, however, that drove us away. On that visit, a houseboat pulled into the bay only a couple hundred yards from our camp and anchored there for three days. With our solitude disrupted, we realized that future trips would have to be deeper into the undeveloped sections of Lake of the Woods. Our days at Deadbroke Island were over.
Or so I thought. Last week was my annual Canadian fishing trip. Our group of four fishermen had grown to seven, with two of my friends bringing their sons. The dads had spoken so highly of our great campsite that the kids wanted to have the same experience. After only one season away, we returned. On our boat ride out, we passed two houseboats chugging in the same direction as us. I worried that they too were headed for Deadbroke, but no houseboats came anywhere near us the entire time we were on the lake. Bears, on the other hand…. Not surprisingly, we had a bear in camp. It first came during the day while we fishing. Since it only ripped into the trash, we blamed the damage on gulls. It returned the next day and was more complete in its scavenging. It also left tracks in the sand and teeth marks in some our food containers, so we had to apologize to the gulls for falsely accusing them.
Back in 2017, our ursine visitors were a sow and her young cub. In 2019, we imagined that the cub had grown up and taken over the family business. It is wonderful to go to a place where bears might come into camp. It is a hassle if they actually do.
La Llorona (June 10, 2019)
My previous blog was about age and stupidity. This blog is just about stupidity. With the Mississippi River so high, I haven’t been paddling at all this spring. Growing impatient, my friend Buzz and I put in at Black Deer to at least get ourselves on the water. Black Deer is a narrow strip of water, really not more than a wide ditch along the eastern shoreline north of the Dresbach lock and dam. By midsummer, Black Deer is so weedy that paddling is difficult and fishing impossible, but in the spring it is a good place for bluegills, perch, and bass. Fishing was not very good that day, so Buzz and I set off exploring, and we wound up at Black Deer’s source – which is a 60-foot culvert. The bow of our canoe just fit into the opening of the culvert, so we laid down in the bottom of the boat and pushed ourselves hand over hand through it. There was a pile of sticks and busted reeds jammed into the far end, and we got stuck. My claustrophobia started to kick in. Fortunately I was able to wriggle forward just enough to get my hands on the end of the culvert. It gave me enough leverage to force us through the flotsam (jetsam?). I cut my fingers on the sharp edge, but we got through. There was nothing on the far side of the culvert that wasn’t on the near side, but we had an interesting backwater all to ourselves.
A few days later, I recounted our little adventure in an email to a friend in New Mexico. She was shocked that I would be so stupid as to enter a culvert. In New Mexico, kids drown in irrigation ditches, and often it is because of a clogged culvert. New Mexico even has a Ditch and Water Safety Task Force with a message of “Ditches are deadly – Stay away. Find safe places to swim and play.” My friend also wrote, “There is actually a scary folktale that is told to keep kids from doing what you did. It is La Llorona.” La Llorona is a centuries-old Mexican legend of a woman who loses her husband to a younger woman and, in her grief, throws her two sons into the river. Because of her actions, she is condemned to wander for eternity until she finds her boys. Today she is so desperate to find her children that she sometimes thinks that kids playing in the irrigation ditches are her long lost sons, and she steals them away.
Here in Wisconsin I don’t have to worry about La Llorona. Still what Buzz and I did was a little bit stupid.
Sore Arm from Using a Crowbar (June 3, 2019)
Last week I took a crowbar to some nails that held my backyard fence together, and I hurt my right arm. It feels like tennis elbow, which I’ve had a few times in the past, but I am left handed, and this is the first time I’ve had it happen on my right side. I recognized the symptoms, but checked online anyway. One of the listed symptoms of tennis elbow is that it hurts to pick up a cup a coffee. I also turned sixty-five this week. I couldn’t ignore the fact that on my sixty-fifth birthday, it hurt to pick up a cup of coffee.
Here’s the glitch; age had nothing to do with my sore arm. I cranked long and hard on those nails, and I would have hurt myself had I been twenty-five or forty-five. The only difference between then and now is that no one brought up my age when I younger. In years past, my wife and my friends would have said, “Of course, you hurt yourself. That was a stupid thing to do.” Today they say, “Of course, you hurt yourself. You’re old.” Apparently at a certain age, the ‘stupid’ part becomes assumed.
I suspect that all of us have birthdays that strike us as significant for some personal reason, but I can think of only three that make any difference to the institutions that we’ve created. At 16, we are allowed to drive. I still remember that I passed my driver’s test on the first try, but the DMV guy cautioned me that my dad’s Olds ’98 was too much power for a novice driver. At 18, at least in Wisconsin in 1972, I was allowed to drink legally. Also at 18 back in 1972, Vietnam became much more than the death toll count on the evening news. I was Draft Lottery No. 321. By the early 1970s, that was a number not likely to be called up. Do I remember my number because 3-2-1 is easy to remember or because the number is permanently etched into my brain? One of the unanswered questions of my life is what I would have done had I been drafted. Now at 65, I go on Medicare.
I hope no one interprets this blog entry as a lament about old age. Sore arms and comments about my age get trumped by the freedom of retirement. I write this blog only because I attended a writers’ conference and was told that I had a non-existent social media presence. I have time to write this blog only because I am retired.
First Hour of the Day (May 27, 2019)
This morning I tried something that didn’t work a lick. In retrospect, I see that I was stupid to think that it might work all, I came up with the idea at 4:30 in the morning, so I’ll give myself some latitude. At the time, I foolishly thought I’d found a loophole in how to conduct my day-to-day life.
I write almost daily, and my most productive time for writing is the first hour of the day. It is not unusual for me to struggle with a paragraph for hours in the late afternoon, then have it fall into place in a matter of minutes first thing the next morning. Wouldn’t it be great if I could have more than one first hour in a day? As I mentioned in a previous blog, I occasionally wake up in the middle of the night, then read for fifteen or twenty minutes to help me fall back to sleep. Last night I woke up and wondered what would happen if I wrote instead of read. I could write for twenty minutes, go back to sleep, then wake up two hours later to write again. It would be, in effect, two opportunities for the writing to come easily. I don’t care how quickly I write, but I’d welcome the repeated rush of writing well.
And therein lies the flaw in my thinking. I’d forgotten about the rush. Writing is a stimulant, not a sleep aid. I already knew this, and it is the reason that I rarely write after dinner. This morning I started writing at 4:30am. By five o’clock my mind was racing, and I had no chance of falling back to sleep. I didn’t even consider crawling back into bed. Instead I brushed my teeth, brewed a cup of coffee, and started my day. I’ll probably crash this afternoon and have to take a nap. There is a chance that I will wake up from my nap itching to write, but I doubt it. More likely I will be groggy and bothered that I didn’t get eight hours of sleep the night before. In life, there are no loopholes.
La Crosse Public Library (May 20, 2019)
Last night I woke up at 4am. This happens only rarely now that I’ve retired, but when it does I know that just lying there and hoping to fall back to the sleep does not work well. Usually I get up, go into the TV room, and read. Fifteen minutes later, my eyelids droop as my mind calms, and I either wander off to bed or fall asleep where I lie.
I keep my library books on a bedside table. The prior evening just before bed I’d finished the book I had been reading, so in the dark I grabbed whatever book was on the top of the pile. It turned out to be Backpacking with the Saints by Belden C. Lane. A few pages in, I realized that this was a book that I’d requested from the library months ago, but it had only recently arrived. When my local library does not have a book that I want (or the book is checked out), I can request it. When the book is in one of the libraries of the collaborative Winding Rivers Library System, it shows up in a few days. When the book is not in the system, it can take months. Sometimes I get an email telling me that the book is not available at all.
I was curious where the book had come from, so I looked at the stamp on the inside of the cover. It said “La Crosse Public Library,” which is my library. Apparently librarians at my library had purchased the book for me. I’d been told in the past by a reference librarian that the library sometimes uses book requests from patrons to decide which books to buy, but this was the first time, to my knowledge, that one of my requests had resulted in a purchase. I cannot help but feel a little bit special. I also cannot help but feel a little bit guilty. I wasn’t especially interested in the book in the first place, but had seen it mentioned in an op/ed editorial. I just wanted to browse through it to see how the author had meshed wilderness and theology. If it turned out that Lane’s book hit me over the head with The Holy Bible, I would have felt bad that my library had wasted some of its limited budget on one of my whims.
At first glance, however, the book looks promising. With chapters dedicated to Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, and Teilhard de Chardin, the only reason I won’t actually read the book is that it is too far over my head. If that is the case, I won’t feel guilty at all about the purchase. I want my library to contain books I don’t understand.
ABC, ABA (May 13, 2019)
Last weekend Manyu and I drove down to Iowa to hear Clare in concert. She plays violin for Grinnell College’s orchestra. After the concert, we took Clare and a friend out for an early dinner before Manyu and I started our four and a half hour drive back to La Crosse. As an aside, four and a half hours might be the ideal distance for a kid to go to college – far enough away that she is really away from home, but close enough that Manyu and I can drive down for the day when Clare has a special event.
Driving distance, however, is not the topic of this blog. The friend whom Clare brought to dinner is Vietnamese American. Nothing especially noteworthy in that, except for the fact that she was the personification of something I’d noticed in the photos that Clare has sent us over her first two years in college. Most of Clare’s friends are Asian or Asian American.
If a reader has followed some of my previous blogs, he or she might already know that my wife Manyu is Taiwanese. I’m white, so Clare is mixed race. In college, however, Clare has gravitated to other Asian students on campus. Some are international students from Asia, but most are Asian Americans. Among the Chinese community in the United States, kids born in the US are called ABC or American-born Chinese. Clare’s friends are not necessarily ABC, but seem an equal mix of Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, Southeast Asian, and Filipino. They are American-born Asian.
I wonder why Clare’s Asian side has blossomed in college. Through elementary school and high school, Clare knew lots of ABC and mixed race kids, but her circle of friends did not center on children of Asian descent. The kids were a representative sample of La Crosse, which meant most were white. I fully understand that young adults in college are drawn to students who are like them, but when did my daughter become Asian?
I asked Clare about this, and her first response was that I was mistaken. She said that Grinnell is racially diverse, and her friends are, too. When I mentioned that our weekly phone conversations seem to highlight her Asian friends, she said in all seriousness, “I think it is the food.” She explained that the campus cafeteria does not cater to Asian tastes, so the Asian students often cook together and almost weekly go out together to cheap Asian restaurants in Iowa City or Des Moines. Clare might be onto something. Even though it fuels an Asian stereotype a little bit, it might be about the food.
Groundedness or Wanderlust (May 6, 2019)
Between the ages of eighteen and thirty-seven, I moved thirteen times. That’s an average of once every year and a half. As I think back on those years, it doesn’t seem anywhere near that often. If I gave that number to my wife Manyu, she’d be shocked. She met me when I was thirty-seven, and in the twenty-eight years since then, she and I have moved a total of one time or three times, depending how you count. (We moved together from Taiwan to La Crosse, returned to Taiwan for a year, and then came back to La Crosse. Does that count as one move or three?)
I made this observation as I try to write a book chapter on groundedness vs. wanderlust. Specifically I am trying to answer the question of whether the two frames of mind generate a different connection with the natural world. So far the chapter is going nowhere, largely because I don’t know the answer and it might not make a bit of difference.
A connection with nature can be Peter Matthiessen scouring the Himalayas looking for a snow leopard. It can be Thoreau building and living in a shack a couple miles from home. It can be Jane Goodall, at the age of twenty-three, moving to a place total alien to her upbringing and then staying there for nearly fifty years. That’s a broad spectrum of approaches, yet each of these people’s love, commitment, attachment to the natural world are models for the rest of us. It is not so much whether one approach is better than another, but which one best fits our individual personalities. Here I sit, a stone’s throw from my sixty-fifth birthday, and I can’t answer that simple question.
A Sand County (April 29, 2019)
Last week was the anniversary of Aldo Leopold’s death in 1948. As all Leopold fans know, he died of a heart attack fighting a grass fire on a neighbor’s land. Wisconsin has a total of 72 counties, and none of them is named Sand County. There is a Richland County, which was named for the fertility of its soil, but no one had the moxie to name a county after its poor soil. The Sand County of Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac is a frame of mind, not a place. It is the hardscrabble lifestyle that either chases people away from the land or ties them to it forever.
Sand County describes the Driftless Region well. It is the Upper Midwest’s geological anomaly. Primarily in Wisconsin, but extending into parts of Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois, it is a 200-mile long oval of land that was missed by every glacier that descended upon North America during the most recent Ice Age. Instead of the pothole lakes and moraines that define most of the area, the Driftless Region consists of rivers, bluffs, and deep ravines that the locals call coulees. To people who live in other parts of the state, the Driftless Region is the part of Wisconsin that does not look like Wisconsin.
Like me, Leopold did not move to the area until he was an adult, but several other people known for their bond to the land actually grew up here. They include Frank Lloyd Wright, Hamlin Garland, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and John Muir. Every bioregion can claim its own nature-loving sons and daughters, but the Driftless Region produces more than its share.
Work, Not Work (April 22, 2019)
- Last week my sister-in-law in Thailand told me her gardener returned to his hometown for the Thai New Year and never came back. She says that this happens to her on a regular basis. She pays well by Thai standards and also gives her worker a free place to live. About every three years, after her worker has saved enough money to get by without working for a couple of years, he quits and goes into retirement until the money runs out.
- A day later I am reading a passage from Tiziano Terzani’s A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East. The events in the book take place in 1993, the year Terzani travels Asia by land because a Hong Kong fortune teller tells him not to board a plane (and to Terzani’s own surprise, he heeds the advice). While in Indonesia, Terzani laments that the country is developing economically, but that a disproportionate amount of the money is going into the pockets of Chinese expatriates, not local residents. He speculates that the reason for this is that the average Indonesian wants only to have enough, whereas many Chinese entrepreneurs emigrate to Indonesia specifically to get rich. Terzani summarizes his point with an analogy of two fisherman in the same village, one Indonesian and one Chinese. The Indonesian fishermen has a good day on the water, so after bringing in his catch, he celebrates by putting his feet up. The Chinese fisherman also had a good day, so right after he brings in his catch, he heads back out to sea to catch more fish.
- This morning on CNN on-line I read an article about Ma Yun (English name Jack Ma), one of the richest men in China. He was being criticized for embracing the Chinese work practice known as 996. Nine-nine-six refers to working from 9am to 9pm six days a week. Ma was not advocating ridiculously long work hours for everyone, but was pointing out that great accomplishments do not come from working a standard workweek. He was quoted as saying, “I personally think that 996 is a huge blessing. How do you achieve the success you want without paying extra effort and time?”
I wish that, during my working years, I’d been more like the Thai gardener and the hypothetical Indonesian fisherman. Ironically, had I spent less time at work, I would have done more gardening and more fishing.
Minimum Wage and Living the Dream (April 15, 2019)
The recent college admission scandal has generated some excellent discussion, but it ignores the situation of most young adults. I am referring to the kids Hasan Minhaj on Patriot Act described as people who, rather than suing Harvard when they don’t get in, just get on with life.
The biggest misconception that surfaces when we focus on the students obsessed with prestigious colleges is that all college-bound kids plan their lives around padding their college admission packages. In my experience as a professor at a state university and as a father whose daughter attended public schools, I encounter kids who do the opposite. They, in fact, do exactly what New York Times editorial writer Frank Bruni suggests. These young people seek extracurricular activities that satisfy them intrinsically. They want to build their resumes, but they do so by racking up the experiences they want to do, not by doing what was recommended to them by a private consultant hired by their parents. Let me give you two concrete examples.
- I called a student into my office and told him that he misunderstood the directions to a particular written assignment. I gave him a ‘C’ on his paper, but offered him the weekend to rewrite it for a better grade. He replied, “I appreciate the chance, but I’ll take the ‘C.’ I’m in charge of a big event this weekend at the Boys and Girls Club. I’m just a volunteer, but they are depending on me.”
- Some of my students, upon graduation, land jobs as wilderness trip leaders or environmental educators. When they return to campus to tell me what they are up to, none are able to keep a smile off their faces. These idealistic kids are earning minimum wage and living the dream.
I do not worry whether elite schools might be producing immoral autotrons. If not for the fact that prestigious schools produce a disproportional number of senators, CEOs, and US presidents, it would be a tempest in a teapot. The majority of young adults at the majority of institutions of high learning have their priorities straight.
Living Deliberately Part II. (April 8, 2019)
The previous blog was about Henry David Thoreau’s concept of ‘living deliberately.’ The topic came up because one of my former graduate students and I just finished a magazine article about Walden. In the two months Sara and I have been collaborating on the manuscript, two interesting asides have come to mind.
First, I realized that Sara and I are writing an article about Thoreau’s notion of living deliberately from opposite ends of our respective adult lives. I am sixty-four years old and retired; Sara is somewhere around thirty and thinking about starting a Ph.D. program. Will she heed Thoreau’s message any better than I did? I read Walden and Wild Apples and Walking and Civil Disobedience when I was Sara’s age, but then went ahead and pursued a life not unlike the one Thoreau was warning against. Certainly a career as a professor has more autonomy than most, but I still allowed job, community, and family to significantly impact the way I live. I appreciated Walden’s main message, then pretty much kicked it down the road. Thoreau once wrote that he saw no reason to heed the advice of his elders, because they all led lives that suggested that they had nothing to teach him. I have strongly encouraged Sara to follow my career path and go after her Ph.D., but how can I be sure that this is good mentoring?
Secondly, the article that Sara and I are writing will appear in a Chinese publication called College English (大学英语). The target audience is young adults in the People’s Republic of China who want to read adult-level content in simple, straightforward English. The irony is that much of Thoreau’s message comes directly from Asian philosophy. The readers of our article could garner the same advice straight from the horse’s mouth by reading the Tao Te Ching or the Bhagavad Gita. If they read the article by Sara and me, they will be getting our interpretation of Thoreau’s interpretation of Chinese and East Indian thought. This does not bother me in the least. From my own anecdotal observations, young Chinese are as career-oriented and money-driven as any group of people I know. If they are learning about the Tao or about Hindu thought in school or in their free time, it is not sinking in any better than Thoreau did for me when I was young. Anything that Sara and I can do to encourage young people (regardless of country) to slow down is time well spent. On this topic, I have no second thoughts about offering advice.
Living Deliberately (April 1, 2019)
When I was working on my master’s degree nearly forty years ago (forty years ago!), I took a course titled Walden. Each week students were expected to come to class with a reflection paper about the specific chapters to be discussed that evening. At the beginning of class, we would turn in our essays, and the professor would return to us the essays from the week before. On one of my papers, the prof wrote that he enjoyed reading my papers, because I approached Walden as a piece of nature writing – and he’d never thought of Walden as nature writing. I was surprised at the comment, because I’d never thought of it as anything else.
The professor was obsessed with the line in the book’s introduction about living deliberately. It became the theme for the entire course.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Over the course of the semester, my perspective on Walden shifted, and I became a bit obsessed with the line myself. To some extent, I still am. The question I sometimes ask myself is whether I would have taken the leap in my understanding of Walden had I not taken the class. Even though I noticed passages in the book about “a different drummer” and the sun as “but a morning star,” I practically read through them as I bounced from nature essay to nature essay. I didn’t take many literature and philosophy classes when I was in school, but it’s hard to ignore their value when one of them lets me know that I was missing the whole point.
In presidential debates, the candidates sometimes are asked to name their favorite book. Actually they are asked to name their favorite book other than The Holy Bible. I like the answers to this question, as it sometimes tells more about the individuals than their hyperbole on political issues. The answers may be as contrived as everything else that comes out of their mouths, but obviously they and their handlers thought about the implications of the answers. If I was ever pressed to name my favorite book, I’d have a tough time choosing between Walden and A Sand County Almanac. If not for that course forty years ago, Walden wouldn’t even be in the running.
Dog on a Short Chain (March 25, 2019)
My friend Ed loses a little piece of himself each time a macho writer dies. The death of James Crumley was hard on him, and he still is grieving the 2016 death of Jim Harrison. My own feeling about the loss of these guys is more mixed. None of them wrote their best stuff in their later years, so part of me is glad that they are done. Jim Harrison’s last couple of novels were very good, but I felt a little bit that they were Jim Harrison trying to write like Jim Harrison. It is not that I worry about Harrison’s legacy. I doubt that he cared, so why should I? I just don’t like watching my favorite writers get old right there on the written page.
This whole topic came up because Ed just emailed me a poem by Jim Harrison. (He sent it because Facebook said that today is Jim Harrison’s birthday. I am writing this blog in March, and Harrison’s birthday is in December.) I generally don’t read poetry, but sometimes I encounter a passage that shows me why other people love it so much. This particle poem is titled Barking. The last line is “I was a dog on a short chain and now there’s no chain.” My mind flashed to the classic, “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage,” but I think that I like the dog-on-a-chain metaphor even more.
I am going to point out one of my own shortcomings by admitting that, for me, poetry falls into three categories. Some of it is garbage, much of it is good but beyond my comprehension, and some of it is the most effective use of the written language that there is. Ed sends me outstanding verses he knows I will understand. I already have committed to memory “I was a dog on a short chain and now there’s no chain.”
Lions and Crocodiles (March 18, 2019)
When I was in grade school, my family went to Chicago every other summer for a long weekend. The trips were basically museum tours, although my parents left us kids alone in the downtown Holiday Inn with pizza on one of the nights while they saw a play or went to a good restaurant. My favorite place was the Field Museum of Natural History, and one of my favorite exhibits was a small diorama in the Africa wing that contained the taxidermic remains of actual man-eating lions. In the mid-90s, these ‘lions of Tsavo’ became celebrities, as they are the ones depicted in the movie “The Ghost and the Darkness.” I was reminded of the Field Museum lion exhibit recently when I read a New York Times article* about the village of Balabac in the Philippines being menaced by a crocodile.
My experiences with nature, including the occasional black bear in camp, have been warm and fuzzy. The few times I’ve been in backcountry known to contain large predators (e.g., grizzlies in Montana, mountain lions in California, tigers in Thailand), I’ve never seen so much as a track or a pile of scat. In all of these instances, I voluntarily chose to enter the animals’ territory for a specific period of time. It must be a different situation when a person’s daily geography intersects with that of a top carnivore. In the Philippines story, the crocodile was coming right into town, seemingly with the intent of taking down dogs, goats and, on at least one occasion, a person.
The most interesting part of the Times article was not the fate of the crocodile or the villagers.** It was the range of opinions as to what to do about the animal. Of course, many of the residents wanted to kill it and did not care that crocodiles are legally protected in the Philippines. Local fishermen sometimes use dynamite for fishing, and they were ready to set off explosives to blow up the aggressive crocodile. Others, most notably a subgroup of Filipino Muslims called Molbogs, consider crocodiles sacred. They did not want the crocodile harmed. Opo, the Molbog word for crocodile also means grandparent.
Crocodile encounters in the Philippines are about as far from my daily reality as I can imagine. I don’t know what it would be like to have a potentially dangerous animal passing through my backyard. If I had to watch for crocodiles every time I left the house, I’d probably worry a lot less about deer ticks.
Years ago an angry badger threatened me. As far as I recall, that is the only occasion when a creature from nature has more than startled me. In over sixty years of playing in the outdoors, I’ve been frightened by a wild animal once. As a result, I consider wildlife benign. If I lived alongside something capable of eating me, would my attitude change? And if so, might that different way of thinking actually intensify my connection to the natural world?
* Almendral, Aurora. “Brazen Crocodile Preys on a Philippine Town: ‘It Was Like He Was Showing Off’” New York Times. Found on-line on March 3, 2019 at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/03/world/asia/philippines-crocodiles-balabac-palawan.html?action=click&module=News&pgtype=Homepage.
** The crocodile was lived trapped by crocodile specialists and will spend the rest of its life in an animal rescue facility.
Deadlines (March 11, 2019)
Now that I am retired, I hope that I never have to write under a deadline again. I’d like it even better if I never had to do anything under a deadline again, but right now I’ll take the writing. Having said that, I know that I can be bought. If next week a literary agent called and said that she’d found a publisher for my current project if I could put a complete manuscript in her hands in six months, I’d start writing and editing full-time tomorrow. As that is unlikely to happen, I’ll keep writing at my own pace and quietly hope that nothing happens to change that.
I don’t mind being prodded by publishers, and I don’t mind writing long hours, even though I see both quality and quantity decline after about three hours. The thing about no deadlines that I most value is the chance to set aside a piece of writing for a long enough time that I somewhat forget about it. Later when I come back, it is with fresh eyes. Six months is a good period of time, a full year is better. After a year, it is almost as if the manuscript, whether a magazine article or a book chapter, was written by someone else. I recognize the style, I even acknowledge that the author is not a complete hack, but I see a dozen things I would have done differently. Sometimes I can improve the writing. More often I see the flaws, but have to conclude that I lack the talent to make it any better.
The most satisfying revision after not seeing a manuscript for a while is when I get rid of entire sections. While working on the original draft of any piece, I grow too attached to the words and can’t take anything duller than a scalpel to them. With the passage of time, that attachment wanes and the battle axe comes out. A 2,000-word chapter is reduced to 1,500 in thirty minutes of editing, but it is a better piece of writing. The flow is better, and extraneous content is gone. When I lived in Taiwan, I wrote for an English language magazine that paid me one Taiwan dollar/word (the equivalent of four cents American). It was a good thing that the compensation was not more, because I remember saying to myself many times, “Well, there goes a dollar,” or “That just cost me two bucks.” I might have been more verbose had the money been better.
Page 224 of the Washington Square Press Pocket Books Edition (March 4, 2019)
In an earlier blog (see Jan 28) I wrote about reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court while traveling through Laos. The book coincided beautifully with my Laotian trip, but I did not come away thinking A Connecticut Yankee was one of my favorite Mark Twain books. For me, it was hard to get into the wordy prose, and I thought the absurdity of the storyline sometimes went too far. For example, I enjoyed the chapter about Yankee Hank Morgan out-jousting Lancelot by lassoing the armored knight off his horse, but I didn’t like it when he convinced King Arthur to do away with jousting altogether and replace it with baseball.
Still I stayed with the book because 1) I’d brought nothing else with me to read and 2) Twain usually followed his silliness with an interesting tirade on American politics. There was a method to his madness. His comments were about the years following the American Civil War, but most of the observations hold up pretty well. For example, I was familiar with Twain’s famous quote about a man’s allegiance being to his country and not to his government, but I didn’t know that it came from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
The passage I enjoyed most was one about the highest wages going to people who deserve them the least. It is fairly long, but I cite it here in its entirety:
There are wise people who talk ever so knowingly and complacently about “the working classes,” and satisfy themselves that a day’s hard intellectual work is very much harder than a day’s hard manual toil, and is righteously entitled to much bigger pay. Why, they really think that, you know, because they know all about the one, but haven’t tried the other. But I know all about both; and so far as I am concerned, there isn’t money enough in the universe to hire me to swing a pickaxe thirty days, but I will do the hardest kind of intellectual work for just as near nothing as you can cipher it down—and I will be satisfied, too.
Intellectual “work” is misnamed; it is a pleasure, a dissipation, and is its own highest reward. The poorest paid architect, engineer, general, author, sculptor, painter, lecturer, advocate, legislator, actor, preacher, singer is constructively in heaven when he is at work; and as for the musician with the fiddle-bow in his hand who sits in the midst of a great orchestra with the ebbing and flowing tides of divine sound washing over him—why, certainly, he is at work, if you wish to call it that, but lord, it’s a sarcasm just the same. The law of work does seem utterly unfair—but there it is, and nothing can change it: the higher the pay in enjoyment the worker gets out of it, the higher shall be his pay in cash, also.*
I agree with Twain’s general sentiment here, but not with all of the details. During college I helped install natural gas lines for the local utility company. Once or twice I was called “to swing a pickaxe,” but mostly I dug holes with a regular garden shovel. Three stints over three summers do not qualify me to speak with any authority about manual labor, but it was enough for me to know that the work is physically exhausting. However, I also worked a couple of mind-numbing office jobs during my early years, and I’m not sure that they took any less out of me. Twain, of course, was writing about intrinsic satisfaction, and intrinsic satisfaction is as much the fit between the person and the job as the job itself.
When I was working for the gas company, I worked with a man who took pride in his welds, even though it was my job to bury his work beneath several feet of dirt as soon as the weld cooled. I’d been warned that the guy was impossible to work with, but I learned that so long as I dug holes deep enough for him to crawl under a buried pipe to make a flawless weld on the pipe’s underside, he and I got along. Conversely I’ve worked alongside three or four university professors over the years who taught solely for the money. They were capable of sucking joy out of a job that many of us would have done for a graduate assistant’s pay. To me, teaching at the college level is one of the best jobs on the planet – variety, autonomy, and smart young people to let me know when they think that I don’t know what I am talking about – but it would have been as draining as putting down gas lines had my heart not been in it.
*Twain, M. 1977 (originally published by Harper & Row in 1889). A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. New York: Washington Square Press Pocket Books, p. 224.
Snowblowing (February 25, 2019)
In most of Wisconsin and Minnesota, 2019 will be the snowiest February ever recorded. I’ve been back from Thailand only a week, and I’m already tired of it. The main problem, I think, is that I’ve been in a tropical country for a full month and am not yet acclimated. I’ve shoveled snow 5 of 7 days. I don’t like it; my dog does not like it. At this point, only serious skiers hope for more snow. I live at the very end of a dead end street, and there is a pile of snow left by the snow plow that is as high as the eaves on my house.
Manyu, who still is in Thailand, suggested that I buy a snowblower, but I can’t. It is an admission that I’ve grown too old to shovel. I can go down my street and identify the age of each neighbor when that particular house switched to motorized snow removal. A few of the neighbors are just gear heads, with a garage full of riding lawnmowers, lawn edgers, leaf blowers, and chainsaws. They probably bought their first snowblower soon after they bought their first house. I, by the way, appreciate these guys. They often plow my driveway when the snowfall is especially deep. Other neighbors turned in their shovels only after their backs forced them to. Anecdotally I think it happens between the ages of 60 and 70. I’m 64, soon to be 65, and I want to hold out for a few more years.
I remember the criticism Martha Stewart once took for suggesting that people carefully leave an inch of snow on their driveways and sidewalks when they remove snow. She said that it created a more attractive winterscape. She’d be happy now, because most people in La Crosse haven’t seen the pavement in their yards since late January.
Manyu left for Asia in late October and won’t return until mid-March. It is a good thing that she avoided winter this year. First a polar vortex (which I missed because I was in Asia myself) followed by record snowfall. Manyu’s suggestion that we relocate to Asia might have evolved into a demand.
One More Southeast Asia Story (February 18, 2019)
I have one more short Southeast Asia story to tell before I bring my blogs back to the United States. This anecdote, however, is not about the trip I just came back from, but about a vacation that happened years ago. A previous blog (see February 2) was about me letting my ego get in the way of things, and mention of that personal shortcoming reminded me of this old incident.
Manyu and I, along with my sister Diane and her husband Paul, were touring sea caves near Phuket, Thailand. After taking a tour boat out to a string of islands in the Pacific Ocean, we (along with a half dozen other tourists and a handful of guides) climbed down out of the larger boat into inflatable kayaks. In my kayak, Manyu was in the bow, I was in the stern, and a young Thai man was in the middle. The Thai guy was doing all of the paddling. The outdoorsman in me could not tolerate this arrangement, so I bribed the Thai guy to give me the paddle and let me power the boat from the stern. He was reluctant, but I insisted.
The entrances to the sea caves were exactly at water level. This meant that when waves crested, the openings were beneath the surface. To enter a cave cleanly, a kayak had to glide through the exposed entrance at the precise moment the water was troughing between crests. I misjudged my first attempt. I reached the opening of the cave just as a wave began to crest. The rear two thirds of our kayak, the portion with me and the Thai guy in it, remained outside the cave and gently rode the crest of the wave. Manyu’s section, on the other hand, was trapped inside. The rising water submerged her while simultaneously flattening her up against the roof of the cave entrance. If not for the fact that she was small enough (5 feet tall, 90 pounds) to hunker down lower than the gunwales of the kayak, she would have been hurt.
This miscalculation occurred in the early 1990s. Manyu and I were dating at the time and not yet husband and wife. She has wised up since then and no longer puts herself in such precarious situations. For example, she and I recently went hiking with two friends in Thailand’s Khao Yai National Park when I tried climbing over a large downed tree that blocked the trail. Our friends were lined up to follow me over the tree, but Manyu hung back. It was only after I slipped, fell about six feet, and landed in briars that she pushed past our friends to lend me a hand. Her comment was, “He does this all of the time.” I hope that she wasn’t still referring to the water caves in Phuket.
"a dam broke, and they don't come." (February 11, 2019)
My brother-in-law Yves reprimanded me when he found out that I was writing blogs about Laos. “I hope,” he said, “you wrote that it is an awful place and no one should go there.” He calmed down after I told him that, as far as I know, no one reads my blog. Time after time he’s seen his favorite spots in Asia fall to tourism, then overtourism, and he never wants to help speed the process.
I usually go years without traveling more than a few hundred miles from home, but now I’ve made two trips outside North America in the past six months – I went to Southern Europe in September, and now I’ve been to Laos. I don’t think that I could have chosen two places more different from each other. Italy, especially Venice, is the epitome of overtourism (see blog of October 1, 2018). Laos is, I suppose, the antithesis; it has almost no tourists at all.
In the village of Champasak, our last stop in Laos, the guesthouse owner was one of the few people I met who spoke English, so I initiated a conversation by asking him about his business. “It is terrible,” he said. “It is because of the dam. When it broke, the French all cancelled, and I didn’t have the time to find new guests. The dam wasn’t even on the Mekong, but foreigners don’t know that. They just see in the news that a dam broke, and they don’t come.” The highlands of southern Laos near the Cambodian border are part of a major hydroelectric project. Last July a dam broke. It wasn’t a permanent dam, but a temporary earth-filled structure designed to hold back water while the real dam was being built. The number of deaths is not known, but more than 1,100 people had their homes destroyed. The dam was not anywhere near the village of Champasak, but it was in the province of Champasak, so the confusion by French tourists is understandable.
I asked the guesthouse owner if most of his clientele was French, and he said, “At least 70%. Twenty percent are German. A few Americans, a few Thais.” This confirmed my own observations. Of the tourists I’d seen in southern Laos, nearly all were French. A few of them were young adults with backpacks, but most were older folks in their fifties and sixties. Maybe they come because French Indochina is part of their history. More likely it’s just because the French are good at searching out remote places for their holidays.
Here’s a theory for which I have absolutely no evidence. When French people get away from it all, they go to places where all the people are locals. They go to places like Laos. When Americans get away from it all, they go to places where there aren’t any people at all. They go to the wilderness.
Helpless (February 4, 2019)
I am not an adventurous guy. Maybe I had a daring streak in me at one time, but I am not even sure of that any more. My wife, Manyu, knows that I am a wimp, but others hear about my annual excursions into the Canadian wilderness and equate backcountry travel with a sense of adventure. I reenforce this misconception with embellished stories of bears and big water, but those trips are 95% serenity and five percent risk.
Conversely, my recent trip to Laos qualifies as a genuine adventure. In Laos, I didn’t speak the language. I seldom knew where I was in relationship to anywhere else; the sun came up over Cambodia (or maybe it was Vietnam) and set toward Thailand, but that’s about all I could tell you. I couldn’t even keep straight the conversions from US dollars to Thai baht to Laotian kip. (If $1 US = 31 baht and 1 baht = 270 kip, tell me quickly whether a half million kip is a lot of money; it’s not that easy.) In my defense, I was in southern Laos, the least touristy part of a country that has almost no tourism. My usual fallback position of finding someone who speaks English didn’t worked.
Fortunately I was not traveling alone. Two of my traveling companions, my sister-in-law and her French husband, spoke Thai. The Thai and Lao languages, while not the same, have enough words in common that Thai and Laotian people can communicate with each other. Had Niensheng and Yves not been my interpreters, I might still be sitting at the Thai-Lao border.
This, however, brings me to the subject of my blog. Our travel party consisted of Manyu, me, and seven relatives from my wife’s side of the family. Within that group were three distinct brands of tourist.
Group One: World Travelers
Manyu, Yves and Niensheng, sister-in-law Shau Yu and her husband Claude all are independent world travelers. In Laos, they did not know what was going on about half of the time, but they chose the location specifically because they knew it would not be easy. Encountering and overcoming obstacles is part of the experience.
Group Two: Mass Tourists
My mother-in-law, plus my sisters-in law Min Chi and Mu Tze, tend toward mass tourism. Left to their own devices, they would have hired a Taiwanese tour company (none of which go to southern Laos) to plan their entire trip. Still, as long as Yves and Neinsheng arranged every aspect of our itinerary (transportation, lodging, meals, attractions, shopping), they were content.
Group Three: Me in the Middle
There is a huge middle ground between world traveler and mass tourist, but at least among Manyu’s family, I occupy the space alone. I had a fantastic time in southern Laos, but did not like being constantly reminded of my dependency on Yves and Niensheng. I trusted their judgment, but had a difficult time relinquishing control. During the trip I told myself a dozen times to just let go and relax, but my capacity to do so would last only a short while.
I am very male, and I’m very American. These two characteristics may contribute to my inability to graciously turn over responsibility – even when I need to. As a result, I unnecessarily put a damper on a once-in-a-lifetime experience just because I didn’t like having my inadequacies pointed out to me. There is a personal Catch-22 in all of this, but I haven’t quite figured it out yet.
Champasak, The Ancient City (January 28, 2019)
This afternoon I find myself sitting under a thatched roof on the banks of Laos’ Mekong River reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I don’t remember ever using the term ‘find myself’ in a sentence before, but it describes pretty well the way I feel. A week ago I turned my travel itinerary entirely over to my sister-in-law and her French husband who live in Thailand. Early last night they dropped Manyu, Manyu’s mom and sisters, and me off at a riverside guesthouse, while they went off to spend the evening with the princess of the Champasak region of Laos. The woman is a real princess – at least she was until she was forced into exile when the Communists took over. She recently returned to her home village without an official title, but also without fear of reprisal.
If I could restrict my gaze of the Mekong to the muddy water itself; i.e., if I could somehow not notice the coconut palms and bamboo along the bank, I might be sitting alongside Twain’s and my own Mississippi River. The Mekong along this section is about a mile wide. Yesterday afternoon our van was on the opposite side of the river from Champasak with what I thought was no way to get across. Our driver took a turn off the main road, drove a few kilometers along a pair of sandy ruts, and then, almost without hesitation, gunned the van up a pair of 2 x 12s onto three narrow war surplus boat hulls lashed together and topped with wooden planks. Except for the fact that this makeshift ferry was powered by a propeller attached to an automobile engine, I’m not sure it was anything much different from a ferry the Connecticut Yankee might have used on the Thames or whatever other 6th Century rivers he encountered during his adventures. At the same time that Manyu’s family was engaged with photographing our crossing, I was trying to remember which of them knew how to swim.
Ten days ago I was home in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Today I am in the middle of nowhere truly half way around the world – in a place remote enough that some of the younger kids still find a full beard on the face of a Caucasian a novelty – and the thing that amazes me the most is the serendipity of me bringing along A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. When I leave home for a week or longer, I usually bring along a classic novel that I’ve never read before, but the choice of A Connecticut Yankee… was entirely by chance. That aside, I don’t remember ever reading a novel that coincides quite so well with my own travels. I’ve been temporarily lost in the wilderness a few times, but this may be the first time I’ve been as disoriented as a 19th Century American who gets hit on the head and wakes up in Camelot.
Alas, I must forsake my scribing and go forth to my assigned quarters to adorn fresh linens. I have been paged by the princess for the evening’s repast.
Oh Lord, Stuck in O'Hare Again (January 21, 2019)
I know now that I will be spending most of my day in O’Hare. It is 2pm for a 2pm flight, and my plane has yet to pull up to the gate. With each passing quarter hour, the chance of me making it to Hong Kong in time for my connecting flight to Bangkok gets less. Still when I eventually get to Thailand, it will be worthwhile. I am meeting my wife whom I’ve not seen for two months. Ever since she and I have become empty nesters, Manyu spends a portion of each winter with her extended family in Taiwan and Thailand. When she stays out of the country for a month or less, I just hunker down at home and enjoy my time alone. When her trips extend for three or four months, I get lonely and join her for a month somewhere in the middle.
During my month in Thailand this year, Manyu’s family and I will take a side trip to Laos. In 1995, the northern Laotian villages of Luang Prabang Province were named a World Heritage Site because of their significance to Theravada Buddhism. While the photographs of the area look beautiful, I am almost positive we will not go there. As vital as World Heritage sites are, their official designations instantaneously transform secret paradises into international tourist attractions. When I am in Thailand, I rely upon my French brother-in-law Yves to serve as my Southeast Asian tour organizer – and as far as I can discern, his only criterion for determining destinations is to go where other tourists don’t. If there are tourists in Luang Prabang, then we are going somewhere else.
In all of the years I’ve known Yves, the only exception to his go-where-the-tourists-aren’t rule was a trip to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Fifteen years ago, he offered to take me to Angkor, but only on the condition that we went immediately. Angkor and the neighboring city of Siem Reap had already become a major tourist destination, but the ruins there also are one of great wonders of the world. Yves said that he had one more Angkor trip in him, but we had to go before the onslaught of American, European, Chinese, and Korean tourists entirely took over the place.
Of course, Angkor was fantastic, easily is the most amazing human-made collection of structures I’ve ever seen. The best part of the three-day trip was climbing the precarious stepped pyramid that is the centerpiece of the main temple. If, however, anyone goes to Angkor today, ascending the pyramid is prohibited, although I’ve never learned whether the ban was implemented to protect the resource or to protect the tourists who occasionally fell to their deaths. Regardless, I am glad that I experienced Angkor Wat when I did, and I am afraid to return for fear that I will be disappointed by the place it has become.
By the way, I made my connecting flight to Bangkok. First class passengers were just starting to board as I showed up at the gate.
It may not be next blog, but soon I’ll write to you about my trip to Laos.
My Two Favorite Books that Involve Fish (January 14, 2019)
For the past two weeks, I’ve been reading Cannery Row and Trout Fishing in America. Obviously I don’t need a reason to read good books, but I know myself well enough to know that when I pull out a couple of my favorites novels, one of two things probably happened. Either I’d just read two or three bad books in a row and wanted something I knew would be good – or I’d hit a rough patch with my own writing and needed a reminder of what an outstanding paragraph looks like. This time around, it was the second reason.
I’ve never told anyone this before, nor has anyone ever told me that he or she has noticed it, but I used a literary device from Trout Fishing in America to name my first book, The Leader Who is Hardly Known. The first sentence of the Tao Te Ching’s Chapter 17 reads, “True leaders are hardly known to their followers.” I was familiar with the line well before I started writing my book, and I thought some expression of that sentiment might work as a title.
In the book that did become The Leader Who is Hardly Known, each chapter began with a tale about a skilled leader who solves a problem without taking any of the credit. I struggled with giving this character a name. Using the same name in all of the stories did not work because the various settings and situations were very different from each other. Conversely, giving the leader a different name in each story also did not work either because the mindset of the leader in all of the stories was identical. With the book half written, I needed a name that personified all humble leadership.
One morning in a coffee shop, Trout Fishing in America came to mind. At first, I only realized that the words ‘leader who is hardly known’ had a cadence similar to the title of Brautigan’s quirky book. Then I thought about Brautigan using the exact same phrase for his title, for the name of several of the characters in the book, and as a metaphor for just about everything in the book. This was exactly what I needed. Trout Fishing in America, however, is absurdist, so the question became whether I could get away with applying a concept from a non-conventional book to a book that was very conventional. Still, by the time I was ready to look for a publisher, The Leader Who is Hardly Known was both the title of the book and the name of the main character. I expected potential editors to like the title, but make me change the name of the character. When David Wood of Wood N Barnes Publishing expressed interest in my manuscript, he did not like The Leader Who is Hardly Known as a title (it was not self-explanatory), but let me keep because he was so taken with its use as a person’s name.
Cannery Row is another matter. It is the first book I ever read where I consciously marveled at the quality of the writing. That was in my early twenties, probably a decade before I even knew I wanted to write. Most chapters in Cannery Row work as stand alone short stories, making them perfect snippets to read as motivation for my own writing.
If I'd Never Left the Woods (January 7, 2019)
Last week I received an email inviting me back to California to help celebrate San Mateo Outdoor Education’s (SMOE) fiftieth anniversary. The startling part of the invitation was not that my old nature center was half a century old, but that I recognized the name of the person who’d sent the email. His name is Mark Nolan. Mark had been teaching children about nature when I worked at SMOE thirty-five years ago, and he was still doing the same good work.
I have never questioned my decision to leave residential environmental education to attend graduate school. Like Thoreau, “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” There is, however, one thing that I sometimes wonder about. SMOE was a secluded refuge in the heart of the redwood forest about two hours south of San Francisco. It was the only time in my life when I was immersed in a natural setting day after day after day. Since those years I have lived only in urban areas – sometimes in large metropolises (e.g., Taipei, Minneapolis), but usually in much smaller communities like Ames, Iowa and La Crosse, Wisconsin. After SMOE, nature, at least wild nature, became a place to visit rather than a place to live in. What would my relationship with nature have been if I’d stayed in the woods?
One thing that I can say with some certainty is that I did not intellectually dissect my relationship with nature while I actually lived in nature. I was in my twenties at the time, and maybe that’s too young to expect anyone to be particularly introspective – but I think that my indifference to environmental philosophy was not a matter of chronological age. Contemplating my place in the natural world just did not seem particularly important when I felt part of nature all of the time. Even though I worked alongside noisy and active kids most of my waking hours, I still had opportunities for reflection had I taken them. At least once a week I sat alone on a beach at sunset or hunkered down under a redwood tree, but back then I enjoyed solitude with a Tao-like emptiness and did not, as I recall, use my quiet moments to philosophize. I felt no need to consciously think about my place in the natural world when nature was my home. I never took my wonderful work or the beautiful surroundings for granted, but I also never analyzed them. During those years, I read almost no nature writing; I don’t remember keeping a journal. I did start a writing group with two of my fellow staff members, and while it seems remarkable now, none of us wrote about nature.
It was only after I left the woods that I began to seriously look at my connection to the natural world. The atmosphere of university life required that I become more reflective than I had been, but the direction of that reflection could have gone in a half dozen different directions. I chose to ponder humankind’s relationship with nature because wildness had disappeared from my daily life. I’d moved into a four-story walk-up with a futon, and I owned no car with which to leave town. Nature, at least wild nature, went from being a concrete reality to an abstraction. Either I had to intellectualize my relationship with nature or temporarily lose it altogether. In this instance, absence did make the heart grow fonder.
Obviously a harsh one-two punch of long-term nature immersion followed by nature deprivation is not the only way to develop a personal environmental philosophy. That is a good thing, as most people in the developed world do not have the opportunity, nor perhaps the inclination, to live in a wild place for an extended period of time. For me, I was lucky. The job in the redwoods fell in my lap, and it was a job that, until the email from Mark Nolan, I thought a guy did for a couple of years and then moved on. One of my duties as SMOE director was to meet with the classroom teachers who visited camp to get their assessment of the week just completed. Rarely did a week go by when one of the teachers didn’t ask, “Steve, when are you going to get a real job?” When asked this question, my knee-jerk unspoken answer was that I wanted to avoid a real job for as long as possible, but I also agreed with the teachers that working alongside a steady rotation of college kids and earning $200/week was not a career. Better, it turned out, that I get a job as a university professor where I worked alongside a steady rotation of college kids and earned $1000/week.
Still, it was the quick transition from wild nature to a major city (Minneapolis) that triggered thoughts about a personal environmental philosophy.