2020 Blogs

My Dog Doesn't Like Me (April 5, 2020)

My dog doesn’t like me. I blame the coronavirus. Clare just had her heart broken because she was called home from her study abroad in New Zealand. We were supposed to pick her up at O’Hare a week and a half ago. Instead she was dumped off in Houston, Texas and told to figure it out from there. She rented a car and drove back to La Crosse by herself. 

Now she is quarantined for two weeks. She gets the tv room, one bathroom, and the basement. Manyu and I have the rest of the house. Jack, our dog, hasn’t figured out that we are a house divided. He wants to be with everyone – and because he has a bit of a herding instinct in him, he wants everyone to be together. Manyu worries that if Clare contracted the virus during her flight, Jack might pick it up on his fur. At first, she wanted to ban him from Clare’s side of the house. I insisted that Jack be available to comfort Clare even if we could not. The compromise was that I spray Jack with some watered down disinfectant every time he leaves Clare’s domain. He hates it. It might even be a reminder of when I spritzed him with water as a much younger dog. Jack was two years old when we got him from the Humane Society, and he came with a few habits that needed to be unlearned (e.g., scratching Manyu’s expensive Turkish rug, peeing on Manyu’s expensive Turkish rug; my recollection is that a lot of it had to do with that rug). 

Lately Jack’s been resigned to the ritual. He scratches on the door to be let out from the tv room, then stands there with his tail between his legs while I mist him down. Clare’s quarantine ends tomorrow. As with everyone else, this bizarre way of living is far from over for us, but at least I will get my daughter back. And Jack can relax.

 

Summer of '69 (March 30, 2020)

As part of my self-imposed house arrest during the pandemic, I’ve been binge watching some of my favorite PI television shows from the past. I breezed through three seasons of Spenser for Hire, then switched over to the Rockford Files. Since I lived in both Boston (Spenser) and Southern California (Rockford) at different times in my life, I was just as interested in the location shots as in the outdated story lines. Manyu is watching these shows for the first time, and she quickly observed that Spenser was tougher than everybody and Rockford wasn’t tougher than anyone. 

Watching the Rockford Files transported me back to the summer of 1969. My dad’s company had sent him to school for almost two years in Southern California, and our entire family joined him for one summer. Three recollections stick out in my mind.

  1. We went to Disneyland three times. For every Midwestern kid I knew, Disneyland was an unachievable fantasy, yet there we were. My recollection is that we were at Disneyland on the first day of the Haunted Mansion, but I could be wrong about that.
  1. We lived across the street from Palisades Park in Santa Monica. Four or five times a week I walked the switchbacked pedestrian trail down to the ocean. I’d just turned fifteen and was painfully aware that I was at exactly the wrong age for Southern California beaches – too old to build sand castles and body surf, too young to chase eighteen year old girls and spike volleyballs. Still this was the first time in my life I’d even seen an ocean, so I couldn’t help but go down almost every day.  
  1. I made my first mistake with women. Very few kids lived in our apartment complex, but I became friends with Annie and Gail, two cousins up on the third floor. They lived a few doors down from Stan Laurel’s widow, but we never saw anyone ever come out of that apartment. Annie had a crush on me, and I was attracted to her. We hadn’t so much as held hands, but we spent plenty of time checking each other out. Unfortunately I ended up walking through the park one night with Gail, and we kissed. By the next morning, both cousins were mad at me and I lost them as friends for most of the summer. I understand my screw up, but even now (50 years later) I can’t say I learned anything from it.

 

Watergate and the First Man on the Moon (March 23, 2020)

Many years ago (sometime in the late 1990s) one cohort of my recreation management graduate program had an unusual number of students who were not traditional twenty-two year old white kids straight out of their undergraduate programs. Out of fifteen first-year graduate students, there was a military veteran, an African American, a slightly older single mom, and five people from countries other than the United States. Because of this make up of students, I applied for and received a small grant to hire someone to teach one of my undergraduate courses, so I could be freed up to offer a one-time graduate class in comparative leisure. Comparative leisure is a fancy term for studying leisure habits and leisure attitudes across cultures and nations.

On the first day of class, I wanted to demonstrate the different backgrounds within the group, so I asked each student to list the most significant events in their lives. The items on the list could not be personal family matters, but had to be events of national or international significance. Since I was considerably older than all of the students, I gave them my Top Five list as an example and felt certain that their events would not overlap with mine.  I wrote on the chalk board (pre-white board) 1) JFK assassination, 2) Robert Kennedy assassination, 3) Vietnam 4) first man on the moon, and 5) Watergate. 

When we went through the students’ lists, two things stood out. First of all, it became obvious to everyone that the twenty-two year old American students had lived through a very quiet time. September 11 had not yet occurred. Every student had “Jessica in the well” on their lists, and I had to be reminded what “Jessica in the well” was. The second thing was that the life of the woman from the Eastern Adriatic stunned everyone. She’d lived through the fall of her country (Yugoslavia), the total devaluation of her country’s currency, and a couple of other things that dropped everyone else’s jaw. While not even on her list, she told us that her penniless family had snuck out of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the dead of night.

Memories of this class came to mind as I reflect on the impacts of the coronavirus. The pandemic will be on the Top Five list of my daughter Clare and on the Top Five list of all of her friends. However, unless something significant changes, it won’t be on mine. At this point in my life, I don’t know if any piece of national or international news could touch me in the ways I was touched by events when I was ten, fifteen, twenty years old. Those events made me who I am, and now I’m pretty much a finished product. Election night 2008 gave me goosebumps, but even Barack Obama in the White House has not left an impression as strong as Watergate or the first man on the moon. How will the coronavirus shape my daughter?

The Sojourn (March 16, 2020)

Last week an email from the public library let me know that it had tracked down a copy of Andrew Krivak’s The Sojourn. There is nothing unusual about this, except that I don’t remember ever requesting that specific book. I was sick in bed with the flu at the time, so Manyu picked up the book for me, and after reading the jacket cover, it did not seem like a book that I would normally ask the library to find. Still I’ve learned from experience that readings that show up serendipitously are meant to be read. Let me give you two examples.

1) When I was in graduate school, the teaching assistants in my department went out for beers every Friday afternoon, and it was my turn to go early to secure a good table. As I walked past the main office on my way out, I noticed something in the pigeonhole that was my mailbox. I took two steps to retrieve it, then decided that it could wait until Monday. After my friends joined me at the bar, the Police song Synchronicity came on the jukebox. When I asked everyone at the table what ‘synchronicity’ meant, one person gave a lame answer about two things being synchronized, but it was obvious that no one knew the answer to my question. When I returned to work Monday morning, the paper in my mailbox was an article that defined synchronicity – which is the uncanny relationship between two seemingly unrelated events. I had learned what synchronicity was by encountering it firsthand. I never found out who put the article in my mailbox. 

2) I was reading a crime novel in Jules Coffeehouse here in La Crosse. I’ve long forgotten the name of the book or its author, but the protagonist suffered from anxiety and read The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius whenever he felt an attack coming on. The novel never went into any detail about The Meditations. It only stated that the main character read from it as if it was a holy book. Jules Coffeehouse adjoins Pearl Street Books, so I slipped into the bookshop to see if I could quickly leaf through a copy to give a little context to my novel. In the philosophy section of the store I looked under A for Aurelius, M for either Meditations or Marcus, even R for Roman, but it was not there. Pearl Street is a used bookstore, so its collection is a bit random. I was not surprised that the book was not there. I turned to go back to the coffeeshop, and my foot kicked a book that was lying on the floor. I must have caught it just right with my toe, because I sent the small volume skittering a third of the way across the store. I went to pick it up and, of course, it was The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. I don’t know how I didn’t see the book on the floor when I first walked in – or, at the very least, did not kick it walking in – but I now knew that I was meant to buy a book I’d only intended to skim right there in the store. Back in the coffeeshop I put the murder mystery aside and started to read my new purchase. In a nutshell, the philosopher king said to buck up because life does not give us anything that we cannot handle. It’s good advice, although I don’t remember needing it that particular morning. I still own the book, and it is one of two books (Emerson’s Essays is the other) with a permanent place on my beside table.

Which brings me back to The Sojourn, of which I am half way through. It’s about a Slav sharpshooter during World War I. I still can’t figure out what I’m supposed to learn from the novel, but maybe I’ll know by the end of the week. Or maybe I’ll find out years from now during a completely unrelated moment. 

Can It Still be a Ghost Story If There Isn't Any Ghost? (March 9, 2020)

In December 1976, I went to register for classes for what I thought would be my last semester at the University of Wisconsin. Through a series of odd events, my record showed up on the desk of my college dean. He concluded that there was no good reason to keep me around, so instead of approving my proposed schedule for the spring semester, he graduated me even though I had two required courses yet to take. It was like early release from prison, and with the money that was supposed to go to my tuition, Lisa and I bought a used AMC Gremlin and hit the road. Lisa was my wife when I was twenty-one years old. Our marriage was not to last much longer, but this was still a time when all was wonderful between us. 

Our plan was to drive out of winter as quickly as possible, spend a month visiting national parks in the Southwest, then eventually end up in Berkeley, California. When we reached the San Francisco Bay Area, however, we realized that Berkeley was too expensive a place to live if we had no good reason to be there, so we looked at an atlas of the United States and decided that Eugene, Oregon might be a good second option. In retrospect, that was the last time in my life when I just looked at a map and asked, “Huh, where should we go live now?”

Driving up the long lonely stretch of Highway 101 north of Eureka, the road map showed a campground just off of the highway, and we decided to stop for the night. What looked like only a few miles on the map turned out to be almost twenty and what looked like a normal road turned out to be a narrow stretch of rough gravel. In fact, as we drove toward the coast, the only oncoming car we saw barreled straight at us and nearly ran us into the ditch.

When we reached the campground, it turned out to be a large piece of sand just off the beach. There were toilets and not much else. No information signs, no place to pay, and no other people on site. The campground was shaped like the ecology symbol, a large circular road with a second straight road bisecting the circle. We drove halfway down the bisecting road and parked on a patch of hard sand. The clouds were too thick to actually see the sun, but we knew that we had less than an hour before nightfall. Lisa started dinner, while I was to pitch the tent and then walk the beach for driftwood that could be used for a campfire.

The first oddity was a lump in the sand at the spot where I wanted to pitch the tent. As I tried to level out the area with my hand, I realized that something was buried there. It turned out to be a violin case, and inside was a violin. I showed Lisa my prize and put up the tent. Then I headed toward the beach that was a hundred yards away. Not far from our campsite I encountered a hole in the sand measuring three feet by six feet and probably three feet deep. At one end, two pieces of wood were set up to look like a cross.  I should have been a little freaked, but I just grabbed the makeshift headstone as something I thought would burn. I then continued on toward the beach and discovered something that I was surprised I hadn’t seen before. Forty, maybe fifty yards from our campsite was a stack of firewood and the glowing embers of an abandoned campfire. By then, we’d been at the campground for at least a half hour, but we’d not seen any other people during the time we’d been there. Someone obviously had started a fire, then left. I grabbed the stack of firewood in my arms and returned to our campsite.

Twenty minutes later dinner was ready, and I had a warm fire going. It was now dark. The sound of the surf was loud, but pleasing to the ear. While Lisa and I ate, a car entered the campground and slowly drove the outer circle twice. It then entered the bisecting road and came to a stop directly in front of us. I stood up and walked to the car. The driver, a woman I thought to be in her thirties, rolled down her window and asked whether we’d seen her brother.  She was supposed to meet her brother here. I told her about the abandoned campfire, but said no one else had been here for at least an hour. She said, “That’s strange,” and drove away.

I felt fine sitting at the campfire, but developed the willies as soon as Lisa and I crawled into our sleeping bags. I felt a very strong sense that we were not supposed to be there. I put up with the feeling for about fifteen minutes and then told Lisa that this was not going to work. My recollection is that she felt fine about the place, but did not hesitate for a moment when I said that I wanted to leave. She said, “Let’s pack up then.” We threw our sleeping bags in the back of the car, rolled up the tent, and drove away. I didn’t feel right until we reached the main highway. We drove north and spent the night at the first motel we found.

That is the whole story. I have no explanation for the abandoned campfire, the mock gravesite, the woman in the car, or the missing brother. I kept the violin for two years, then gave it to a friend of my dad’s who lived in the Twin Cities. He had a music room for his grand piano and decorated its walls with various musical instruments. I’ve long lost touch with the guy, but have no reason not to assume that the violin still hangs there.

New Spot (March 2, 2020)

I have to remind myself that my Wisconsin fishing license expires next month. It makes sense that the expiration date each year is in March, that precarious no-fishing time between solid winter ice and the totally open water of late spring, but that does not make it any easier to remember that I need to renew my permit. As hard as I try to not be in violation, I’ve fished in April a time or two without a valid license.

Right now, however, I have a week or two of warm weather ice fishing ahead of me. The ice gets wet and slippery with temperatures in the 40s, but I can fish with my coat wide open and my mittens on the ice. This is the time of year when at least one careless fisherman puts his ATV through the ice, but on the Mississippi River, I always enter the ice on foot and keep to backwaters where the ice is thickest. There is still plenty of safe fishing left this winter. 

That doesn’t mean I am catching many fish. With almost a full season of winter fishing behind me, I’ve brought home a total of two meals of bluegills, crappies, and perch. Last weekend a friend introduced me to a new spot. The fishing was no better than anywhere else, but it was secluded and we had a little chunk of backwater all to ourselves. 

The highlight of the fishing trip, however, was neither the occasional fish nor the solitude. It was my friend’s dog Skye. The huge Rhodesian ridgeback joined us out on the ice. Near sunset two barred owls called to each other, and Skye called back with an owl imitation much better than anything I’ve ever been able to make. In his deep hound dog voice, he repeatedly  pointed his snout to the sky and howled at the owls with the classic “Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all.” Who would have thought that the wonderful sound of barred owls could be enhanced by a dog?

Ripstop and Balaclavas (Feb 24, 2020)

February 18 was Manyu’s and my 27th wedding anniversary.  To celebrate, we drove to REI in Madison to buy Manyu a pair of light hiking boots. Anyone who does not think that the trip was romantic does not appreciate how excited Manyu gets when she finds shoes that fit her tiny Size 5 feet. Afterwards we stopped at her favorite Asian grocery store on University Avenue. Short of getting on a plane and flying back to Taiwan, I could not have planned a better day. 

As long as I was at REI, I wanted to replace a tarp that had more or less disintegrated after years of use. I asked a 20-year kid whether REI carried any tarps made of ripstop nylon, and she did not know what ripstop was. She asked me to give her a minute to find an employee who actually knew something about equipment from the previous century. When a weathered woman with long gray hair came to help me, she wondered aloud when the last time was that I’d purchased a tarp. She knew that it was at least ten years since they’d carried ripstop tarps. 

About a year ago I lost my favorite balaclava. When I tried to replace it, I learned that it no longer was being made. Ragg wool and a sturdy brim, it molded exactly to my head after only a few days of wear. It was a piece of sartorial perfection, but still has been replaced by synthetics. I am more than willing to accept that the world is passing me by, but I did not think my Luddite ways would extend to my outdoor gear. 

What Looks Like Uphill from Inside is Downhill from Out. (Feb 17, 2020)

This afternoon I finished reading Bad Axe County by John Galligan.* In terms of plot, I thought it was just better than average. As a book that captured the sense of place about my own neck of the woods, I don’t remember ever reading anything better. 

Maybe because atmosphere is so important in crime fiction, detective novels often do a good job of returning me to the different places I’ve lived.  Spenser novels take me back to Boston, Lucas Davenport novels to the Twin Cities. The place I know best is the Upper Mississippi River Valley, and Bad Axe County made me feel like I was paddling through the Seven Rivers Region in my canoe. In the middle of winter, anything that puts me back on the water is a welcome distraction. 

The first strong sense of place happened early in the book when the protagonist visits a suspect in the Blackhawk region along the Mississippi River. Adjacent the Blackhawk campground, there is a row of houses in the river bottoms, all of them on stilts. Acting Sheriff Heidi Kick wonders exactly the same thing that I did the first time I saw these houses. Who would think it was a good idea to build a house where the most powerful river in North America flows directly under it during high water?

My favorite line in the book is, “What looks like uphill from inside the coulees is downhill from out.” I am not sure that anyone from outside the Upper Mississippi River Valley even understands what the sentence means, but everyone who lives here does. 

To Galligan’s credit, he does not explain the sentence. That doesn’t mean that I can’t. For me, it describes a slightly uneasy feeling that I try to keep in the back recesses of my mind. I live in La Crosse, Wisconsin. La Crosse is a great little city, but it is in a hole. No one wants to live in a hole,so the residents of La Crosse pretend we don’t.** We imagine the river valley as the natural base and the surrounding bluffs as an uplifted landscape. The bluffs, however, are not uplifted. Their tops are pretty much at the same elevation as the rest of the state, and it is La Crosse that does not conform. I live at the bottom of a huge wash that was created when the melted waters of the Ice Age rushed down the valley and carried away 600 feet of soil, sand, and rock. 

As a result (and as Galligan points out), I look up while everyone else looks down.

*Galligan, John. 2019. Bad Axe County. New York: Atria Books.

** Ecopsychology even suggests that a dislike of low places is part of human evolution, that high spots are perceived as more appealing because they offer a better view of potential predators and enemies. 

Dead of Winter (February 10, 2020)

If one aspect of a long winter doesn’t get to me, another will. That’s just the way it is. Right now my problem is the eighth, ninth, maybe the tenth consecutive day without blue sky.* For those who don’t experience real winter year after year, there is an assumption that it is the cold that wears people out. Cold may actually be the least of our problems. It is the one aspect of winter that can be countered. Most winter inhabitants, after years of trial and error, have found the right combination of coat, boots, hat, and mittens to make all but the coldest days tolerable.

There are two elements of winter more draining than subzero temperatures. The first is darkness by 5pm. The second is slate gray skies during the few hours of daylight we do have. I would not use the word ‘cloudy’ to describe these dreary days, because cloudiness suggests clouds, clouds with billows and wisps and variations in color. As I look out the window of a coffee shop right now, all is see is a monochromatic off-white ceiling. This has been the condition for more than a week. Most days a little snow falls out of this grayness. At first everyone shoveled their walks and driveways after every dusting, but lately half of the neighborhood doesn’t bother until there’s two or three inches of fresh snow on the ground. These doldrums remind me of a lament that I sometimes heard when I lived in San Francisco during its celebrated winters: “If the sun would only come out for one day. It’s not for me; I’ve seen the sun. It’s for my children.” That is the way it feels – like we might never see clear skies again.

Still the Upper Midwest has turned the corner on winter.  There will be a couple more cold snaps, but the average daily temperature is creeping up. The days are noticeably longer than they were just a month ago. They remain too short, but everyone sees that the worst is over. Even if people are not motivated to shovel small accumulations of snow, they are rousting themselves out of hibernation and making plans for warmer days. My fishing buddies feel the itch and are talking about a Canada trip right after ice out. Manyu is booking our plane tickets to join Clare in New Zealand after she finishes her semester studying abroad. That trip will be in mid-June, which means I will be on the opposite side of the equator for what ought to be my first day of summer. Instead I will get to experience winter twice.

* I wrote the first draft of this blog on January 30 and posted it February 10.  Looking back at the weather for January, there was blue sky on January 21 and again January 31. When I wrote the first draft of this blog, I was in the midst of nine consecutive days of gray sky.

What If She Left and Never Came Back? (February 3, 2020)

The most upset my dad ever got with me was when I dropped out of college after my sophomore year. I knew that I would return to school in a semester or two, but he was sure that I was destined for a lousy job and a life of could-have-beens. The second most mad my dad got with me was nine years later when I told him, with a master’s degree already in hand, that I was returning to school for a Ph.D. In his opinion, I was wasting three or four good earning years and educating myself out of most entry-level jobs.

My dad died at the age of 51. The spring he died I was a 30-year old graduate student going through a divorce. I hitchhiked from Minneapolis to Green Bay to visit him in the hospital. Other than worrying about my dad’s health, I was fairly happy – but from his perspective, I was a perpetual student in a failed marriage who couldn’t afford a car. He never lived to see me with a normal job after years of blissful meandering.

I thought about my dad as I saw my daughter off for a semester studying abroad. Mostly I thought about how differently we saw our children and their futures. My dad was of a generation when most parents wanted to see their children with normal, even if mundane, middle class lives. I am of a generation, or at least a segment of a generation, who hopes our kids put off that life for as long as they can, possibly forever.

Also (and this is the key to everything) I am among a huge number of older adults who do not worry about the talents and the personal drive of their children, but about the messed up world their baby boomer parents are leaving for them. My dad believed that the United States was the best place in the world to live. He was neither an isolationist nor a nationalist, but America was on the upswing, and his kids had a chance to thrive here. I, on the other hand, am relieved that my half American/half Taiwanese daughter is already a world traveler. Maybe she will find her better life somewhere else. Other than the United States, Clare is most comfortable in Taiwan and China, but those places have their own serious problems. She, however, is studying abroad in New Zealand. How would I feel if she left and never came back?

Dunedin Has Penguins (January 27, 2020)

I am sitting in a coffee shop feeling both queasy and sad. The queasiness is because I pulled an all-nighter for the first time in thirty years. I drove Clare to Madison at 2am to catch a 6am plane to Taiwan. Taipei is the first leg of her adventure that will culminate with a semester in New Zealand. I did not get home until nearly 8 in the morning, and I can add staying up all night to the list of things that used to be fun, but no longer are. 

The sadness is that I won’t see my daughter for at least five months. I always feel a little bit empty each time she leaves for a month or more, but all previous departures have been, in comparison to her semester abroad, just a jaunt down the road to her college in Iowa. This one already feels like a killer.

That does not mean that I am not excited for her. One way or another this will be life altering. I think about my dozen or so moves before settling down in La Crosse, and each of them redirected my life. A couple of the moves could be described as misdirection, but the majority were wholly positive. The little I know about New Zealand suggests that it will be wonderful. The Lonely Planet book on the country says that Dunedin, the city where she will live, has penguins.  How can that not be great? 

It is now mid-afternoon, and I feel lousy. Even caffeine can’t jumpstart my brain, and I am a little surprised that I’m able to write at all. I am tempted to upload the first draft of this blog as is. It might capture in print my current mental incoherence. I also know that I am too proud to ever let anyone see my first drafts, so mostly likely you are reading something that has been heavily edited.* Didn’t the authors I most admire get drunk, stay up all night, then pen masterpieces?  If that is what it takes, then I’ve missed my window of opportunity. 

* I did edit this blog a week after it was first written. 

 

Kinmen Part Six: Epilogue (January 20, 2020)

I’d planned for the previous blog to be my last about Kinmen, but I then felt that I had not brought the story to a satisfying close. The anecdotes that I described in the previous five entries were all from a trip taken over twenty-five years ago. I returned to Kinmen in 2009. My life by then, with the addition of a Taiwanese wife and a ten-year old daughter, was very different. Kinmen was different, too.

Tourism on Kinmen had taken off since my first visit. The central government had awarded grants to private landholders who agreed to renovate historic buildings using traditional construction methods. A few of the buildings had been converted into museums or shops, but most were residences or wonderful bed and breakfasts. Over half of the visitors to the islands were from a client base I hadn’t even considered back in 1993. It turned out that thousands of Taiwanese men who had been stationed on Kinmen during their years of mandatory military service* wanted to return to the islands to show their families where they had served. Overall I thought tourism development had been done well, and the place was evolving into an appealing tourist destination.

The best story from my second visit to Kinmen was the day my family and I were wandering through a small village where every building was at least a hundred fifty years old. Some structures were twice that age. Half had been refurbished, many were still in ruins. I was drawn to one renovated building in particular. It was U-shaped with an enticing central courtyard. Even though I was basically invading someone’s front yard, I walked into the courtyard and felt like I’d stepped onto the set of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Immediately a man came out of the building and started shouting at me. I apologized in Mandarin and moved to leave. I, however, understood enough Mandarin to realize that the man wanted me to wait, so I just stood there until my two interpreters (my wife and daughter) walked up to join me. They both immediately knew that the man was not angry at me; he just wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing there. After I explained that I was an American professor living in Taiwan, he told Manyu and Clare that the building was not a house, but an English language school. It did, however, have a small apartment in the back. The man said that if I wanted to live on Kinmen, he’d let my family have the apartment for the cost of utilities.  All I had to do in return was to walk my Caucasion face around the courtyard each morning when parents dropped their kids off and again in the afternoon when they picked the kids up.

It was at that moment that I stopped being critical of celebrities who made commercials. For an instant, I realized that I too might be willing to sell my image for the right price. Although I was in no position to drop everything and move to Kinmen, I was intrigued by the offer. 

After I retired from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in 2017, I joked with Tsai Huei-min that I was now ready to take the courtyard guy up on the offer to live behind his school. Huei-min was the friend and colleague who’d brought me to Kinmen in the first place. She replied that I wouldn’t want to live there now. Tourism had completely taken over. All of the villages now had more visitors than residents, and it was impossible for the locals to get any time to themselves. If I moved to Kinmen now, I would not be the lone mysterious Westerner on a remote semitropical island. I’d be just another rich American touring a trendy international vacation spot.

I should not have been surprised. Some of the best places I’ve ever visited no longer have the qualities that would make me want to visit them again. In the case of Kinmen, however, I was part of the team to evaluate the islands’ tourism potential. Even though my contribution to development plans had been negligible, I can’t help but feel that the change on Kinmen was partly my fault.

*Since the early 2000s, the length of mandatory military service in Taiwan keeps getting shorter and shorter. For decades, it was two years. Currently it is four months of basic training without any actual service.

Kinmen Part Five: "They are a local delicacy." (January 13, 2020)

One of the most memorable anecdotes from my 1993 trip to Kinmen was lunch of our second day. Members of our party were the guests of the chief administrator of Lesser Kinmen, the smaller of the two inhabited islands of the Kinmen group. Even though it is only a five-minute ferry ride from Great Kinmen to its little sister, the smaller island rarely received visitors. The administrator was transparent in his joy at having anyone from Taipei seek his advice. The man graciously hosted us at a quaint seafood restaurant right in the harbor. As is the custom at most Chinese restaurants, our group of ten sat at a large round table with a lazy Susan in the center. Dishes came one at a time, always set directly before a designated guest of honor. Usually this special person is the oldest man or woman in the group, but sometimes when I was the only foreigner at the table, the distinction fell to me. Such was the case that afternoon. Etiquette is that I serve the new dish to the people on either side of me, serve myself, and then gently give the lazy Susan a small turn in either direction so the fresh dish comes to rest before a diner two chairs away.

I thought that I was handling my duties well, when midway through the meal, a dish arrived that looked exactly like a plate of boiled night crawlers. Our host immediately exclaimed, “Excellent! Sea worms. They are a local delicacy. Please, enjoy.”

I grabbed three sea worms with the serving chopsticks. The woman to my immediate left had not stopped staring at the newest offering, and the look in her eyes (either fear or disgust) told me not to serve her any worms. As I turned to the man on my right, he casually waved his hand under the table where only I could see it, letting me know that he didn’t want worms either. I had no choice but to put the worms on my own plate and then give the lazy Susan a turn.

As the lunch proceeded, I noticed that no one, not even our host, ever helped themselves to the worms. The only person to eat the ugly ropes of rubber was the uninformed Westerner. After thirty years, I still remember being relieved that the predominant taste was no taste at all. My Asian friends frequently feed me bizarre foods (e.g., ant eggs, baby octopi, whole frogs, sea cucumbers, durian-flavored popsicles) to see how I react, but this might be only time that a complete stranger (although unintentionally, I think) tricked me into eating “a local delicacy.”

Kinmen Part 4: Candy, Kaoliang, and Knives (January 6, 2020)

The planned withdrawal of army personnel from Kinmen carried both positive and negative implications. On the plus side, martial law was
being lifted. The local civilian population would have personal freedoms that they hadn’t experienced since the Communists expelled the Nationalists from mainland China. On the minus side, the money train for decades had been a large military presence. Similar to a military base closing in the United States, the bottom was about to drop out of the local economy. This is why tourism was about to become so important.

In 1993, Kinmen’s non-military economy was largely agricultural. Unfortunately, because of shipping costs, anything grown on Taiwan could be brought to market in Taiwan less expensively than the same crop grown on Kinmen. Therefore produce from Kinmen had to be processed into something unique before being put on a boat. The two most convertible crops were peanuts and sorghum. Peanuts could be made into peanut candy, and sorghum
could be distilled into a hard liquor called Kaoliang. Kaoliang is an acquired taste. It bites like cheap tequila. Still sharing shots of the sorghum-based spirit and occasionally exclaiming “Hǎo hē” (trans. “tastes delicious”) was standard practice during evening meals at Taiwanese conferences and professional meetings. In my experience, Taiwanese people rarely, if ever, go to a bar just to drink, but they can put away several bottles of hard liquor over a meal. 

The most interesting Kinmen product, however, did not come from farms, but as a byproduct of war. For over thirty years, China dropped bombs on Kinmen. By the time I first visited the islands, the shelling had stopped, but there still were large open areas strewn with bomb fragments. The bombs had been made from Russian steel which, at the time, was the best in the world. Kinmenese entrepreneurs salvaged the fragments and reshaped them into high end knives. I didn’t buy a knife while I was in Kinmen, but now wish I had.