2020 Blogs

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.