2021 Blogs

Tour Guide at the Big UW (July 26, 2021)

On Monday I took a seventeen year-old boy, his brother, and his parents to see the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Vincent dreams of going to Madison, but he and the rest of his Chinese immigrant family were afraid to visit the large campus on their own. We parked in the Lake Street parking ramp, so when we stepped out of the cars, the family’s first look of campus was of the intimating high rise dorms in the Southeast complex. It took the Terrace at Memorial Union to calm them down, and by the time we got to the agriculture side of campus and the Hogwarts-like dorms by the lakeshore, they were sold on the place. I remembered during my own time as a UW student that the Southeast dorms were preferred by students from the East Coast, whereas the Lakeshore dorms served mostly freshman from small town Wisconsin (which included me). Although I never felt overwhelmed myself, I can imagine what the place must feel like to someone who is still coping with a new life in the United States. In addition to my personalized guided walk across campus, I signed us up for the tour organized by the university admissions office. The mantra of the two tour guides was that the school, in spite of its immense size, was an intimate place. I’m not sure anyone believed them. 

The only dorm we walked into was Dejope, the newest and most apartment-style living accommodations on campus. In the first floor lounge, I found a plaque that explained that Dejope is the Hochunk word for “Four Lakes” and the Madison area was known as Four Lakes by the indigenous people who were displaced to build the university. At Clare’s graduation at Grinnell this past May, the first words spoken at the formal ceremony were an acknowledgement of the indigenous people who once occupied the land where that campus now stands. I think of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Grinnell College as two of the most liberal colleges in the country, so I don’t know whether attempts to recognize displaced native nations are widespread or unique to these two campuses. Regardless, it is an example of political correctness that makes sense to me. 

Vincent’s parents own a small carryout Chinese restaurant. Their goal in life, which I think is common among Chinese immigrant restauranteurs, is for their sons not to take over the business. Every fourth shop on Madison’s State Street is now a small Asian restaurant and about half of those restaurants are Chinese. When we walked up State Street to get ice cream at the Chocolate Shoppe, Vincent’s mom studied the menus and the decor of each Chinese restaurant we passed. Also we ate lunch in the student union, and she pointed out the non-Asian student cooking with a wok in the union food court. She laughed at the way he handled the utensils, but did so because he was actually using them correctly.

By coincidence, Monday was also Clare’s first day at her new job in Madison. For that reason, Manyu and I drove in a separate car from Vincent’s family, and we remained in town after the Lu family headed back to La Crosse. Manyu helped Clare expand her wardrobe beyond jeans and teeshirts, and then we took her out for dinner to celebrate her new job. Vincent and Clare are at different stages in their young adult lives. Even though I never again want classes or work to dictate my daily schedule, I envy both of them. 

A Week Up North (July 19, 2021)

Does anyone outside of Wisconsin know what the term “Up North” means?* To me, Up North is the northern third of Wisconsin where residents of the lower two thirds go to fish, hike, boat, hunt, and water ski. The city of Wausau is not far enough north to be Up North, but Minocqua is the heart of Up North – so the demarcation line must be somewhere in between.

My cousin Tom owns a small-cabin-on-the-lake resort Up North, and Manyu and I stayed there last week. Because the value of waterfront property has skyrocketed, most of these mom and pop resorts have been sold, razed, and replaced by either high end resort hotels or private second homes. Tom and his wife are in their late 60s, so I’m not sure how much longer their relic will survive.

Nothing significant has happened on this trip, which somewhat is the point of such trips. Clare came up for a few days before she starts a new job in Madison. There has been a moose sighting in the area, the first in over a decade, but I haven’t seen it. On Tuesday, Manyu, Clare, and I drove over to the UP (pronounced you-pee) to see my sister’s and her husband’s new second home.  Paul, my brother-in-law, said the neighbors have already welcomed them in, as the assumption is that they have to be friendlier than the previous owners. UP stands for the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In my mind, “Up North” has always meant Wisconsin and “the UP” has always meant Michigan, but in terms of forests, lakes, and trout streams, the two are indistinguishable.

I fished at least a few hours every day during the trip. Manyu came with me a couple of times, which is something we haven’t done together for years. We noticed that the panfish out of Tom’s lake have more of the small black parasites than the bluegills at home on the Mississippi River. The free-floating larval stage of these parasites do not do well in moving water, and that may be the difference. While the parasites are harmless to humans, Manyu asked that I not bring fish back to the cabin to eat.

One of my favorite restaurants anywhere is a place not far from Tom’s resort called Jacobi’s. Before we left La Crosse, Manyu and I debated whether we were ready to dine in a public setting. We have not eaten indoors at a restaurant since the start of the pandemic. I was leaning toward going to Jacobi’s, Manyu was not, and we’d not made up our minds before driving up. The decision was made for us, as Jacobi’s closed during COVID and has yet to reopen. The pandemic, combined with new immigration policies that prevent businesses from hiring international college students as summer staff, has been a hardship for tourism everywhere, but especially Up North.

*A friend informed me that Minnesotans also says “Up North,” although they also say “To the cabin” and “To the lake.” When I lived in Minneapolis, my friends usually went to the Boundary Waters, so they said they were going to the Boundary Waters.

The Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (July 12, 2021)

Last week’s blog was about the book Suttree. Recalling the challenges of reading that book brought up memories of other books that have given me a tough time. Anything by Emerson fits that description. Also it reminded me of the following bizarre little story:

Many years ago I read a crime novel where the main character suffered from anxiety every time his case went sideways. I don’t remember the name of the book nor the name of the author. What I do remember is that the protagonist read Marcus Aurelius to pull himself out of his funks. The novelist never explained the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, never told the reader what the troubled man got out of the philosophy – just that the guy would sit down with a drink, open to a random page in The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and, after reading a few passages, have the wherewithal to carry on. 

One morning I was reading this particular crime novel downtown in Jules Coffee Shop, which has an adjoining doorway to Pearl Street Books. I held my spot in the coffee shop by leaving the book and a mug of black coffee on the table, then quickly ducked into the bookstore to peruse the philosophy section. I looked under A for Aurelius, M for Marcus, even R for Roman. For some reason, I knew Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic (although I did not know at the time what it meant to be a Stoic), so I looked under S as well. The philosophy section was surprisingly large, but didn’t have what I was looking for. Pearl Street Books is a used bookstore, so there will always be gaps in its collection. When I looked in the A’s, there were four different editions of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, but nothing by Marcus Aurelius. As I turned to go back to the coffee shop, my foot connected with a book lying on the floor, and I sent it skittering across the hardwood floor. My initial thought was that the book could not have been there when I first entered the shop. Had it been, I would have seen it or kicked it or at least stepped on it on the way in. I retrieved the book and, of course, it was The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. 

If the book had been where it was supposed to be, I would have leafed through it for a minute or two and then put it back on the shelf. Because it had been put on the floor for me to kick and then scurry after like it was a runaway toddler, I bought it. Whether coincidence, serendipity, or synchronicity, I wasn’t going to tempt the fates just to save a few bucks. Back in the coffee shop, I put the crime novel aside and tried to figure out the magic within The Meditations. After reading as much as my head could handle in one sitting, I concluded that the small volume consisted of a hundred different ways to say, “Buck up.” I believe this to be good advice, but to this day I cannot figure out why I needed to be reminded of it.

Reading Suttree (July 5, 2021)

Three weeks ago I was deciding whether to make the effort to read something by Charles Bowden. After several easy-to-read crime novels, I was looking to challenge myself a bit. I got thirty pages into Blues for Cannibals and returned it to the library. I was not put off by the difficulty of the prose so much as by the harshness of the content. The writing was angry and violent, and I didn’t feel like either right then.

My attempt at Bowden, however, reminded me that I have at least a dozen excellent books in my personal library that I’ve started and never finished. Number One on that particular stack of books is Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree. Every few years I take the book on. I get about eighty, ninety pages in, then quit.

For me, reading Suttree is different from reading other books. It takes me thirty pages to understand the cadence. I have to not care that McCarthy never uses quotation marks, and I have to realize I don’t need to know which character in the book is speaking to follow the gist of a conversation. However, as soon as I get in rhythm with the prose, I don’t feel the need to read any further. It is like following the dialogue in a Shakespearian play after years of not watching one. I need all of Act I to enter Macbeth’s Scotland or Othello’s Venice, but as soon as I get there, I feel I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.

More than any other book, I read Suttree solely for the quality of the writing. I don’t care much about the characters or the plot, so once I’ve had a sufficient dose of exceptionally good writing, I stop. I stop, but I also leave the book on my bedside table. My intent always is to take a break for a few days, read something easier, then pick up the book where I left off. Except I never do. When I finally get around to reading the book again, enough time has passed that I start over again from the beginning. I know the protagonist lives on a rundown houseboat, I know he is estranged from his wealthy family, and I know he has spent time in prison. I don’t know why he lives on a boat, why he dislikes his family, or why he’s done time. I should want to know, but maybe because I spend more time analyzing the writing than following the storyline, I don’t.

Still why would I stop reading a book with writing that knocks my socks off? Why isn’t Suttree among the handful of books that are so good I’ve regretted reaching the end? Part of it is because the book is difficult, and it wears me out. Part of it is because I don’t have to finish the book to get what I want from it. Maybe part of it is that the writing is so far beyond anything I can do that it disheartens the writer in me. A Cormac McCarthy sentence would never contain the words “knocks my socks off.” I don’t remember him ever using a cliché, even when one of his characters might have reasonably used one. Instead he writes with similes that are entirely original, yet are perfect for whatever he is describing. For example, while Suttree is out on a drunk, the men’s room in a dive bar contains “an opaque smoketarred lightbulb that looked like an eggplant screwed into the ceiling.” Just a few pages earlier a table of gay guys in that same bar had demonstrated their disgust at a comment made by one of Suttree’s companions, and “with the unison of the movement those pale and slender limbs mimed dancing egrets in the gloom.” My favorite simile is when Suttree disturbed a line of turtles by rowing his boat too near to them as they sunned. “Little painted turtles tilted from a log one by one like counted coins into the water.” Anyone who has ever paddled past a line of turtles on a log knows that that is exactly what it is like. In comparison, last week in a blog I wrote, “Most of my lawn already is brown and dormant.” That actually isn’t a bad sentence. It’s clean and concise, but it is no “eggplant screwed into the ceiling.”

As I write this week’s blog, I must have read further into Suttree than I’ve ever gone before; the pages are fresh and no longer have dog ears or coffee stains. You might think the undamaged pages would urge me on, but they haven’t. Last night I picked up CJ Box’s latest Joe Pickett novel, and I’ll get through it in about a day and a half. I have told myself I will go back to Suttree this time. My plan is to read it in ten-page increments. That is a lousy way to read a novel, but the conventional way, up until now, has not worked.

What Do You Suppose I Planted? (June 28, 2021)

I have a good view of my garden from the window in Clare’s bedroom. Ordinarily I’d have no reason to be in her room, but she  has moved to Madison and left me responsible for her aquarium. The only reason she even has an active aquarium is that she took pity on a half dozen bait minnows I brought home after a day of fishing last fall. I thought the minnows would turn belly up in a few days, but they’ve been doing well for six months on a diet of tropical fish flakes.

The floor of our one-story house is about two feet higher than the ground outside, so my window view of the garden is from a slightly elevated position. This morning I watched the plants get knocked around by the wind. The sunflowers stood higher than everything else, so they took the brunt of it. The cucumbers hugged the ground and barely moved. The beans clung to a trellis and easily rode out the strongest gusts.

I do not keep annual records of my garden, but as I gazed upon this year’s plantings, I thought about some of the quirky occurrences over the years.  Last year, for example, I planted cauliflower, and not one of the four plants developed a head. Two years ago I bought my seed from an Amish farmer, and the plants that came up did not always match the words handwritten on the seed envelopes. This year, even though I bought my seed from a seed catalog, there is again something I cannot identify. I rechecked my seed packets, but one of the plants in the herb bed does not look like anything pictured on the packages. It’s a relatively short plant, frillier than even parsley or cilantro. I crushed a couple of its leaves between my fingers, and it doesn’t smell like anything I recognize. The young plants, however, are flourishing, and I wish my bell peppers were doing as well. Okra? I don’t know what an okra plant looks like, but I think I may have planted some – even though I don’t know what okra is used for.* 

The growing season this year has had a rocky start, and I assume it cannot be good for plants. There was one night of hard frost mid-May, followed by an unusually hot and dry late May/early June. An ornamental crab in my backyard lost half of its leaves as if it was autumn. Most of my lawn already is brown and dormant. My cucumber vines, even though the plants are only a foot long, have blossomed. I doubt early flowering results in a bumper crop.

The dry weather conditions also have led to unseasonably low water levels on the Upper Mississippi. That means the fish are congregated in the deep pools. Maybe I should focus less on my garden and spend more time with my other favorite summer pastime. Clare has made it clear that I cannot use her aquarium minnows as bait.

* I googled “okra plant” after I wrote this blog.  The mystery row in my garden is not okra.

 

Pembine (June 21, 2021)

I may have added a new element to my daily routine. Prior to last Wednesday, most of my days started with two+ hours of writing, followed by a walk with my dog (on which Manyu usually came along). Later in the day I took a long bicycle ride. Fishing, hiking, reading, and everything else had to fit around those scheduled pursuits.

On Wednesday, however, my next door neighbor Charlie was sitting on a lawn chair in his driveway when I returned home with Jack. I stopped to have a conversation with him. Charlie has problems with his legs, so he seldom comes outside. As I walked up his driveway, I realized I may not have spoken to the man living next door to me since the start of the pandemic. Ever since Wednesday, Charlie has been in sitting outside in a lawn chair every other day when I walk by.

I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Charlie spent most of his adult life there. He moved to La Crosse only after marrying Marla, my widowed neighbor. He’d been the best man at her first wedding. During our driveway conversation on Friday, I asked, “Did you grow up in Green Bay or just move there as an adult?”

“No,” he said, “I’m from Pembine.” When I failed to question that tidbit of information, he said, “You might be the first person in town who didn’t ask me where Pembine was.”

“I trout fished as a kid,” I replied. Charlie knew exactly what I meant. Pembine is a small town in northern Wisconsin not far from the Upper Michigan border. On the eastern side of the state, Pembine is in the heart of trout fishing country.

Charlie then proceeded to explain the demise of each of the towns near his childhood home. “Pembine,” he said, “was a railroad hub during the logging days. Now both the trains and the logs are gone. And, of course, you know all about Niagara.” I did know. Niagara was a company town, its only real employer the paper mill. When Kimberly-Clark pulled out (early 1970s I think), the mill went through a series of unsuccessful owners and the town repeatedly had its hopes for revival dashed.

“The worst,” said Charlie, “was Iron Mountain. It was decimated when Ford left.”

“Ford?” I asked. “Ford had an assembly plant in the UP?”

“Yeah, they did. The UP was where the wood was. The plant closed when Ford went to all steel in their cars.”

I have always known that Charlie had at least fifteen years on me, but this was the first time our age difference hit me square between the eyes. “Cars used to be made of wood?” I asked.

“Well, of course,” Charlie replied. “Are you too young to remember woodies?” 

“I remember woodies,” I said, “but those were metal bodies painted to look like wood.”

“Yeah, later,” said Charlie. “The originals were real wood, just like the horse-drawn carriages they were meant to replace. When woodies were done, so was Iron Mountain.  None of the towns up there every recovered when each of their industries left. Well, maybe Crivitz. It jumped on tourism before anyone else did.”

I did not speak up to disagree with Charlie on this matter, but Crivitz is no one’s shining example of economic recovery. The town may be the gateway to the best trout streams in northeastern Wisconsin, but, as a rule, trout fishermen and trout fisherwomen do not spend a lot of money. A stop at a bait shop, a meal at a mom and pop diner, sometimes an inexpensive motel room rather than a campsite. Trout fishing is mostly about being alone with nature, and reclusive forms of recreation, as great as they are, do not do much to support the local economies.

Reading (June 14, 2021)

I am drawn to good simple writing (e.g., William Saroyan, Willa Cather, John Steinbeck, Ivan Doig, James Lee Burke), but once or twice a year I take on an author who I consider complicated. The catch with complicated writing is that I must decide, sometimes in as few as the first dozen pages, 1) whether I am capable of understanding the book at all, and 2) if so, whether the extra effort is worth it. 

I usually read late at night, which is not when my brain is at its best. If I come across a complicated book I deem worthy of my time, I need to find a different hour of the day to read. The first two hours of the morning are for my own writing, and nothing will replace that. Nine a.m. is the hour to walk the dog. Even if I wanted to skip the walk for a chance to read, Jack’s incessant barking would not allow it. That leaves 10 in the morning until dinner as possible options. While that seems like a good block of time, it is also when I fish, paddle, ride, bicycle, garden, nap, and do chores. Even in retirement, I have to prioritize my leisure pursuits. 

Prior to the COVID pandemic, reading during the day was not a problem. I’d spend each morning in a coffee shop. Hours one and two were for writing, hour three was for reading. Now that I do my writing and reading from home, there are dogs, wives, and daily tasks that tend to make that reading hour disappear. The pandemic also coincided with my old recliner falling apart (with me in it), and I replaced it with a piece of a sectional that is not as comfortable for reading. I’ve always known that I need a good place to write. Only since the loss of my recliner did I realize that I also need a good place to read. 

The subject of complicated writing came up because I recently started a book by Charles Bowden. I’d never heard of the guy until a couple months ago, but a tribute to him in Aeon Magazine made him sound like the Southwest’s version of Jim Harrison. I wanted to give the guy a try. This morning I looked at the first two pages of Blues for Cannibals. Many readers would not consider the prose particularly complicated, but it also is not light reading. In the next day or two the book will either draw me in enough that I make extra time to read or get returned to the library. That decision will depend more on my frame of mind than the quality of the writing. 

 

Graduation (June 6, 2021)

Clare graduated from college last week. Sometimes personal events are so significant that I have no choice but to write about them. I was half done with a blog about a crow walking a full block down the middle of the street in front of my house, when I realized that writing about anything other than Clare’s graduation would be ignoring the topic most on my mind. I have no qualms about writing on the subject, but I don’t think I have anything to say about college graduation that is as interesting as a big bird taking a leisurely walk.

While I was sitting through Clare’s very chilly outdoor graduation ceremony, I did wonder whether my daughter would ever return to the tiny town of Grinnell. My own post-secondary schooling took place at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Minnesota, and I always assumed, correctly as it turns out, that I would return repeatedly to both Madison and the Twin Cities. Grinnell College literally is in the middle of a great Iowa cornfield, and I doubt happenstance alone will ever bring her back.

Immediately after the ceremony, I met many of Clare’s friends. I knew Clare had been active in Asian organizations at school, but I didn’t realize that her extracurricular activities translated into a circle of friends who were primarily international or Asian American. When my biracial daughter was in grade school and high school, I think other students considered her a white kid. At Grinnell she may have transformed into an Asian American. When I asked Clare about this, she said, “In La Crosse, Asian American issues didn’t come up. In Grinnell, they do, and it is assumed that I know about them.”

Right now Clare is home for ten days. In a week, she will take a short trip with two college friends. Then she’ll move to Madison for the summer where she has a sublet at a place just off State Street. The University of Wisconsin had been her second choice for a college to attend, and she’s always wanted to spend some time there. Her plan is to get a summer job to pay the rent and figure out what is next.

I caught several northerns in the Bottoms. Most were the small skinny ones anglers call “snakes.” Three of them, however, were in the 25”-28” range, which are ideal for eating. I’d gone in with the intent of keeping one fish for dinner, but then I released them all. The sense of guilt I sometimes feel about eating a creature that values life as much as I do was unusually strong.

Henry David Thoreau warned me this might happen.  In Walden, he wrote, “[A child] goes thither at first as a hunter and fisher, until at last, if he has the seeds of a better life in him, he distinguishes his proper objects, as a poet or naturalist it may be, and leaves the gun and fish-pole behind.” I’ve always enjoyed this passage, because fishing as a kid unquestionably led me to a career in the outdoors, but I never saw myself leaving my fish-pole behind. And I won’t. I won’t ever stop fishing, but I never thought, just days before my sixty-seventh birthday, that I would develop a newfound connection with the fish.

I am not sure what will happen next.  I enjoy eating fish. I also believe that so long as I consume seafood, beef, pork, and chicken that some of the harvesting should be done by my own hands. I probably will bring fish home the next time I go fishing, but something has changed.

 

 

Was It Inevitable? (May 31, 2021)

There is one secret fishing spot I have no qualms about revealing to others.  It is Reno Bottoms near Brownsville, Minnesota. I mention it because motorboaters can’t get there, fishermen and fisherwomen without boats can’t get there, and anyone fishing from a canoe or kayak needs to portage his or her watercraft several hundred yards just to reach the water. I have yet to see another person on the this stretch of Mississippi River backwater, and I don’t think my mention of the location will change anything.

I fished the Bottoms yesterday, and something unexpected happened. Unexpected, not necessarily welcome. On my recent fishing trip to Door County, my fishing buddies and I kept one medium-sized northern pike each day to add an hors d’oeuvre to our evening meal. In the past, I caught northerns on the Mississippi, but because they are so difficult to fillet, I hadn’t been keeping any. The Door County trip reminded me that the taste of northern pike is almost indistinguishable from perch or walleye. Upon my return to La Crosse, I went directly to the Reno Bottoms, in part for the solitude, in part because it is a northern pike hotspot.

I caught several northerns in the Bottoms. Most were the small skinny ones anglers call “snakes.” Three of them, however, were in the 25”-28” range, which are ideal for eating. I’d gone in with the intent of keeping one fish for dinner, but then I released them all. The sense of guilt I sometimes feel about eating a creature that values life as much as I do was unusually strong.

Henry David Thoreau warned me this might happen.  In Walden, he wrote, “[A child] goes thither at first as a hunter and fisher, until at last, if he has the seeds of a better life in him, he distinguishes his proper objects, as a poet or naturalist it may be, and leaves the gun and fish-pole behind.” I’ve always enjoyed this passage, because fishing as a kid unquestionably led me to a career in the outdoors, but I never saw myself leaving my fish-pole behind. And I won’t. I won’t ever stop fishing, but I never thought, just days before my sixty-seventh birthday, that I would develop a newfound connection with the fish.

I am not sure what will happen next.  I enjoy eating fish. I also believe that so long as I consume seafood, beef, pork, and chicken that some of the harvesting should be done by my own hands. I probably will bring fish home the next time I go fishing, but something has changed.

 

 

Back on the Porch (May 24, 2021)

I just returned from my annual May fishing trip, and the first thing I did after returning home was to move my writing table outside.  In the week I was out of town the average temperature seems to have jumped ten degrees, and I am writing this blog from my front porch wearing a tee shirt and pajama bottoms. It was just cold enough that I went back inside to put on a pair of socks.

In regard to my fishing trip, this is the second spring in a row that Americans were not allowed to enter Ontario. The pandemic must be gutting the western Ontario economy. Last year my fishing buddies and I simply cancelled our trip. This year we fished, but stayed in the United States. Brothers Ken and Larry, two of the core people on these trips, have a second home in Wisconsin’s Door County, so we switched our location to their summer getaway. This was the first time in fifty-five years I’ve spent an entire week in Door County, and the living conditions this year were a bit more upscale than the Sears canvas tent I stayed in as a kid. Neither the crowded campground in Peninsula State Park nor the high end second home near Ellison Bay qualify as a wilderness experience, but I am sitting back in La Crosse thinking fondly of both experiences.

After a week near the tip of Door County, I feel like this blog should be about my fishing trip, but most of my previous blogs about outdoor adventures have focused on the mishaps that occurred. What do I write about when a trip goes off without a hitch? My friends and I fished, cooked some excellent meals, slept, and drank a little too much. Since no one reading my blog really cares about the fish we caught or the food we ate, I am left with a very good trip, but no tales to tell.

Actually I have one very quick anecdote. On our first day out, I reeled in the largest walleye I’ve ever caught. Walleye is our fish of choice when it comes to frying up a fish dinner, so I asked whether we should keep it. All four of my companions were aghast that I even asked the question. Etiquette demands that any fish past a certain size be returned to the water. Part of has to do with freeing fish that are good breeders. Part has to do with respect for any fish that, in fish years, has survived as long we have.

There are several aspects of fishing that I’ve failed to get down on paper, because so much of the sport is beyond my comprehension. A good example is the rationale behind the self-imposed rules most fishermen and women have about catch and release (which have very little to do with the legal seasons, size requirements, and bag limits set by the managing authorities). It is just part of the mystique of fishing.

 

Driftless (May 17, 2021)

I mentioned to a friend that his name appeared in one of my recent blogs, so he looked at my website for the very first time. He later told me his initial impression of the site was that it had a good feel to it, but he didn’t like the fact that I called our bioregion the Driftless Region. Without me asking, I knew why he objected. I feel the same way.

Here in La Crosse, use of the term Driftless has become too trendy. In barely a decade, the word went from a relatively obscure term in physical geography to a pervasive back-to-the-earth status symbol. It now appears on coffee cups, tote bags, and water bottles (i.e., NPR-type trinkets, no schlock). Local businesses that cater to the NorthFace and Patagonia crowd (which includes me) slip references to the Driftless Region into their marketing. A popular bumper sticker with white lettering on a plain black background simply reads “driftless.” It can be purchased at our local food co-op. Without changing my address, I have gone from living in nondescript southwestern Wisconsin to residing in the more fashionable Driftless Region. 

The gentrification of the term is unfortunate. Its original use describes well a special geological anomaly. Primarily in Wisconsin, but extending into parts of Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois, the Driftless Region is a 200-mile swath of land that was missed by every glacier that descended upon North America during the most recent Ice Age. Drift is the sediment and rock left behind by receding glaciers. Because the area had no receding glaciers, it is driftless. Instead of the pothole lakes and moraines that define most of the Upper Midwest, the Driftless Region consists of rivers, bluffs, and deep ravines the locals call coulees.

A Driftless Area tote bag shouldn’t bother me any more than a Mt. Rushmore shot glass or a Statue of Liberty paperweight, but it does. Maybe it is because I don’t live in the Black Hills or on Liberty Island. For the same reason I don’t want a billboard in my backyard, I don’t like the term describing my backyard to be name-dropped. The mystique of the Driftless Region is tied to the romantic notion that the place is a secret paradise, so heralding it with a bumper sticker on a SUV (no matter how tastefully designed the sticker or the car) is a step in the wrong direction.

I realize that my dismay over the expropriation of the word Driftless hints of the same exclusivity I am criticizing. I am as much a snob as anyone else. The difference is that I prefer to keep my pretensions to myself.

 

 

Two Bikes (May 10, 2021)

Over the past month and a half, I’ve had four flat tires on my daily bike ride. The reason eludes me. I haven’t noticed broken glass or other sharp objects on the road. I’ve changed the bike shop where I buy my tubes and tires, thinking the first shop might have been carrying a cheap brand of tube. I’ve asked my friend Buzz, a former bike shop owner, to give me a tire repair lesson even though I thought I knew how to change a tire without pinching or nicking the new tube. Nothing seems to make a difference. I am lucky I have two different bikes in my garage, because one of them is often in need of repair.

The flats have not been blowouts. All have been pinpricks followed by a gradual loss of air. In each case, usually five or six miles from home, I just hear the disappointing flop-flop-flop of a tire gone bad. I then have no choice but to turn my bike around and walk home. Because the flat tires have occurred at different points on my usual route, I have walked through parts of town I’ve never had a reason to walk before. For example, in late April I passed through the warehouse district down by the river and discovered that La Crosse has a pet funeral home and crematorium. I was tempted to walk in and ask what creatures other than cats and dogs sometimes get put into urns.

Last week I got a flat on the near northside, and my walk home took me through the La Crosse River Marsh. This was interesting, because the walk retraced the same route I’d biked only minutes earlier. I knew I would observe more once I got off my bike, but I was surprised with how much more. I saw a pair of blue-winged teal. Teal are common in the marsh, but these were my first sightings of the year. I saw six different families of Canada geese with young goslings; while on my bike, I’d noticed only one. There were carp spawning in the shallows. Their commotion was obvious, and I should have caught sight of them the first time through.

Failing to observe nature from my bicycle is more than a matter of speed. Obviously biking 10-12 miles per hour is not the same as walking, but a bigger factor is whether my eyes and my mind are allowed to wander. On my bike, my attention is focused. I watch for potholes, pedestrians, vehicles, dogs, and other bicyclists. On foot, I don’t have to watch for much of anything – at least until a duck or a goose or a carp draws my attention. The need to pay attention may also explain why I do not enjoy walks with my dog as much as I might. I am constantly looking out for Jack, when my preference would be to give my mind a rest.

 

First Lake, Second Lake, Third Lake, Round (May 3, 2021)

My fishing hotspots change with the seasons. During the first open water of spring, the main channel of the Mississippi River flows too swiftly for me to feel comfortable in a canoe or kayak. I usually start my summer fishing season in a quiet backwater called Black Deer. As Black Deer starts to weed up in late April or early May, I often move to Third Lake near the town of Trempealeau. Third Lake is part of a chain of four small lakes (First Lake, Second Lake, Third Lake, Round Lake) just off the Mississippi River. At certain times of the year, I can go there and catch a meal of large perch.

Last week my friend Dennis and I put my canoe in at Third Lake, but caught only perch the size of large fishing lures. After two hours without a single keeper, we moved from the middle of the lake to the shoreline. There, among the downed trees on water’s edge, we got into bluegills, and I brought home the four largest fish. Now that Clare no longer lives at home, four is the ideal number for a meal. Four panfish provide eight small fillets – three for Manyu, four and half for me, and a chunk or two for the dog.

Unfortunately I ran into a problem I’ve never encountered with any of the bluegills I catch out on the main channel of the river. There were parasites in the meat. With bluegills, two parasites are relatively common, and both were in that day’s catch. One is the larval stage of clinostomum, a white grub the size of a grain of rice. The other, also a larval form, is a much smaller black dot. I know it only as black spot disease. Among my four fish, only one had the white grubs, but all four had a smattering of black dots. Neither of the two organisms is harmful to humans,* but Manyu wanted me to toss the whole lot in the garbage. Had it been left up to me, I would have kept the three less infested fish, but only because I abide by the rule, “If you kill it, you eat it.”

Clinostomum and black spot disease are common in fish living in shallow stagnant water. Neither is an indication of an unhealthy ecosystem. The two organisms share a common lifecycle, which consists of 1) adults living in the bodies of fishing-eating birds, 2) eggs passing out of the birds, 3) and larvae maturing first in snails and then in fish. Birds eat the fish, and the cycle repeats itself. It is a clear example of the great circle of life, but not one I necessarily want to eat.

* The truth is I knowingly eat fish laced with traces of methylmercury that is invisible to the eye, but am turned away by harmless little flukes because I can see them.

My Compost Pile (April 26, 2021)

For the first time in a while, I struggled with a topic for this week’s blog. Considering all of the hunkering down this past year, it is surprising that it’s taken this long. I just watched the Ken Burn’s documentary about Mark Twain and was frequently reminded that Twain always had his travels to turn to for literary inspiration. What do I have? My dog, my backyard, and a daily bicycle ride through the La Crosse River Marsh. Maybe I have been forced to become more reflective during this period of self-imposed sequestration, but like everything else associated with the pandemic, even my reflective tendencies are tired and want things back to the way they were.

This week I toyed with essays about flat tires on my bicycle and the short lives of daffodil blooms, but then settled on a short essay about my compost pile. I’d written about compost one other time three years ago, but in honor of Earth Day, I feel like bringing it up again.*

Alongside my garden I have a mound of brush and leaves. To call it a compost pile is generous, as I take none of the steps needed to promote decomposition. I do not maintain a proper blend of green and brown vegetation. I do not pay attention to the pile’s moisture level or temperature. I have never turned the contents with a pitchfork. I just throw whatever yard waste I have on top of the pile, and once a year I shovel out the bottom to see what is there. Last week was my annual dig, and in spite of my lack of effort, there was, as always, the miracle of compost.

I do not keep a compost pile because I can’t get compost anywhere else. The City of La Crosse Yard Waste Site is only two miles away, and there sits a mountain of sifted compost that is free for the taking. If I drove there with a half dozen large buckets in the back of my Subaru, it would take me twenty minutes to load up as much compost as I get from my tiny pile. Obviously there is more to composting than the acquisition of soil nutrients.

I know the real reason I keep a compost pile. It is the satisfaction that comes with actually producing from scratch the raw materials to improve the land. By land, I am not just talking about the soil, but the soil, the watershed, the plant life, the birds, and the half dozen rodents (voles, moles, chipmunks, gray squirrels, mice, and cottontail rabbits) I share my yard with. My compost pile is a tool to improve the quality of the one small area I am personally responsible for.

Soil in La Crosse is mostly sand. The entire city resides atop an ancient riverbed. When the ice dams of the last Ice Age gave way, the Mississippi River was temporarily much larger than it is now. Most of the river towns along the Upper Mississippi, La Crosse among them, are in the river valley created by this dramatic geologic event. The resulting soil is sandy river bottom, and black dirt surprisingly thin. If I have any reason for digging a hole in my lawn (e.g., digging a posthole when the USPS required the residents on my street to put up rural mailboxes), I have only to dig through a few inches of humus before I run out of nutrient-rich soil. After years of annually sprinkling compost on the small plot that is my garden, I can now double dig down two feet and still not reach the sand. When I put the back row of my garden into sunflowers for the bumblebees and goldfinches, I feel like I’ve done something ecologically worthwhile. It all begins with the compost.

*The prior blog about compost is dated May 21, 2018. In scrolling through my archived blogs to find it, I noticed how often other topics showed up. I often write about writing and about fishing, my daughter, my years living in Taiwan, and bicycling through the marsh. This probably will be my last entry about compost.

It's Different, But Is It Better? (April 19, 2021)

On Monday, March 8 at 8:56am, I finished the last chapter of my current book project. My writing style is to edit as I go, so completing the conclusion means that the manuscript could be 100% done. Having said that, I have been revising it nearly every day since. At what point does editing become rearrangement of the deck chairs? Or worse, when does excessive editing actually make a manuscript worse, turning interesting prose into bland mush by sucking out any sense of spontaneity?

On previous book projects, I stopped tweaking the manuscript only when I reached my publisher’s ultimate deadline. Now that Wood N’ Barnes, like so many other small publishing houses, has closed its doors, I not only have to find a new publisher, but I also must decide on my own when to stop editing. The only reason I haven’t spent every morning over the past month making revisions to my book is that I have been using some of that time to submit queries and book proposals. I sent out my first query over a year ago, but now have picked up the pace and am emailing out two or three a week. As of today, I’ve had a few nibbles, but no firm commitment.

In last week’s blog I wrote about Clare applying for a job. When I helped her update her resume and cover letter, I realized my attempts at finding a publisher has much in common with my daughter’s job search. Both begin by scouring websites for potential fits. Both condense everything we’ve done into a couple pages with hopes of being noticed by an editor or potential employer. There is excitement and frustration. The only significant difference between Clare and me is that she is starting a career and I am starting a post-career.

You're Young and You Got Your Health (April 12, 2021)

Because of COVID, Clare had been home since March of 2020. Recently her college invited her back to campus for the last two months of her senior year. When she left La Crosse to return to Grinnell, I hadn’t planned to write about it in a blog. Other than stating that the punch to my gut felt like the one I took when she moved away as a freshman, I had nothing else to say. 

Last week, however, something happened that merits mention. Clare called from school to tell me she was applying for a job that excited her. A parent of a senior in college shouldn’t be surprised by this, but it represents a significant shift in Clare’s thinking about the next stage in her life. Before she left for Grinnell two weeks ago, her plans had been to graduate in May, find a summer sublet in Madison, get a temporary job to pay the rent, and only then begin to think about the future. Now I realize she is willing to consider a professional position if the right one pops up.*

The glitch for me, although probably not for Clare, is that I am not sure I am ready for her to start a career. I’ve always thought I did not want her to rush into 30+ years of gainful employment, and now that she is applying for a career-type job, I am sure of it. The primary reason I helped her to avoid exorbitant college debt was so she could travel, dabble, and goof around before tying herself to anything permanent. What happens now if she is offered her ideal entry-level position right out of the gate? Obviously I am overreacting. Clare is applying for one job. If she wants it, I hope she gets it, but part of me doesn’t want her to close doors to aimless adventure before those doors even open. 

How things have changed in a single generation! All my dad ever wanted to know was if I was ever going to get a real job. Now I feel almost the opposite, wanting to tell Clare to value time over work, money, and career. My problem is that I am part my dad and part not. The part of me that is him says that if Clare starts a career now she has committed to the long haul without a chance for sabbaticals or abrupt shifts in a career path. The part that is not him is a bourgeois confidence that Clare can goof off now because the job will always be there. Neither of those two sentiments are necessarily correct.

One of the very best movie quotes ever is when the ne’er do well John Goodman character in Raising Arizona tells Nicolas Cage, “You’re young and you got your health, what you want with a job?”

* The specific job is irrelevant, as this blog is more about my feelings than Clare’s career path – but the job is traveling the world installing complicated software and then training people to use it. The appeal is that it combines Clare’s computer skills, her teaching experience, and her passion for travel. 

Charles Bowden (April 5, 2021)

Sometimes good writing grabs me by the front of my shirt and pulls me into the prose. Just as likely, however, an equally good piece of writing does almost the opposite, not drawing me in so much as pushing me away into my own memories and reflections. Recently I read a 2015 remembrance written by Richard Grant about fellow author Charles Bowden.* For me, the short essay worked as this latter kind of writing.

The very first paragraph of the article stated that Bowden drank only red wine. While I concur with this assessment of wines, reds in recent years have given me headaches. Even after only a glass or two, I feel the ill effects just before bed and then again in the morning. I pay the price of a slight hangover without the reward of a pleasant buzz. I’ve been trying to find a dry white with the same bite as a red, but such a thing might not exist.  

Manyu suffers from Asian glow; even a sip of alcohol makes her flush and nauseous. This means that unless we have guests, I drink alone. If I have a glass of wine with dinner and then let a few days go by without a second glass, the opened bottle starts to go bad and too much wine gets poured down the drain. I tell myself to buy boxed wine, which keeps better, but when I get to the liquor store, I get drawn into the rows and rows of enticing bottles and forget about the less glamorous boxes shelved over by the beer. I already drink boxed wine in the wilderness (it packs better and keeps glass out of the backcountry), and some of it satisfies my unsophisticated palate.

Grant’s article about Bowden then turned to the subject of nature. He observed that a few days in the backcountry allows a person to hear his or her own heartbeat. He also said that the wilderness experience is enhanced by the presence of potentially dangerous animals, as even the possibility of a snake or bear encounter keeps a person vigilant.  I agree with the first observation, but not the second. When I am outdoors I want my heightened awareness to be a joyous mindfulness, not a precautionary wariness. 

Having said that, the bluffs surrounding my home here in La Crosse are a rattlesnake hotbed. In nearly thirty years of living here, I have yet to see one. Among my outdoor friends, I’m the only one who hasn’t. I did once step into a circle where a ball of fox snakes must have just uncoiled after a winter’s hibernation. I was in no danger, but being surrounded by dozens of relatively large snakes was still unnerving. Fortunately the reptiles ignored me. All of them were slowly moving from a high spot on the ridge down toward the river bottoms, and they left me with the impression that there was someplace else they needed to be. 

I did not know who Charles Bowden was until I read the article. If the description of the man is accurate, I’ve been missing out on some topnotch nonfiction. If the description is accurate, Charles Bowden was a Southwestern version of Jim Harrison, meaning he had a talent and a rugged lifestyle that many wannabe writers (me included) wish they could emulate.

*Grant, R. 2015. A sense of Chuck. Aeon. Found at https://aeon.co/essays/in-memory-of-charles-bowden-a-writer-and-a-sensualist.

Saw a Cheesehead Sticker on a Cadillac (March 29, 2021)

This morning I saw a bumper sticker that read, “Sweet Dreams Are Made of Cheese.” Wisconsinites do have a few admirable traits, and one of them is their ability to laugh at themselves when others think the state is nothing more than Northwoods and cow pastures. Because of televised Green Bay Packer games, pretty much all nonresidents know that people from Wisconsin are called Cheeseheads. Not as many know that when the DMV held a contest to redesign the state’s license plates, the governor at the time sarcastically recommended we change the state’s license plate motto from “America’s Dairyland” to “Eat Cheese or Die.” Wisconsin produces a lot of cheese, and quite a bit of it gets consumed in-house.

Each year when Manyu visits Asia, she packs one suitcase with clothes and one suitcase with gifts for family and friends. She always leaves La Crosse with two suitcases, usually returns with only one, and then has to shop for a new suitcase a year later. For her mom and her sisters, she buys skincare products that are hard to find in Asia. For friends, she brings either vitamins or Wisconsin-grown ginseng. Vitamins are much more expensive in Taiwan than they are here. For her two French brothers-in-law, one now living in China and the other in Thailand, she brings cheese. Even Claude, my food snob brother-in-law, grudgingly admits that Wisconsin cheese is as delicious as the cheese he grew up with.

I found a cheese factory outlet that vacuum packs cheese specifically for air travel. One time I asked the woman doing the packaging to include cheese curds in my order, and she refused. She told me that she wouldn’t sell curds to any customer who wasn’t planning to eat them right away. “All of our curds,” she said, “come straight from the factory. If they aren’t eaten in a day or two, they don’t squeak.”* Curds are the Beaujolais of the cheese world.

I am writing the first draft of this blog at the kitchen counter while I cook dinner. One of my tasks has been grating cheese for the Red Lobster biscuits I’m baking. My dog wasn’t even in the room until I pulled the cheddar and Jarlsberg out of the refrigerator. Since I’ve started grating, he’s been underfoot. Jarlsberg currently is my favorite cheese. It is also imported, which messes up the Wisconsin theme I am going for in this blog. I briefly considered lying about the two cheeses I used for the biscuits, but even that small bit of poetic license got overridden by my Wisconsin-bred trait of honest to a fault. Had I realized beforehand that the content of this week’s blog was going to be so regional in nature, I would have left the Jarlsberg in the meat keeper and pulled out the Colby.

*Unlike cheeses that improve with age, cheese curds have to be eaten immediately. The freshest curds squeak when a person bites them.

Walls of Jericho (March 22, 2021)

Until 1999, I considered St. Patrick’s Day an irrelevant holiday. In my younger days, there were a few times when I peed green into the late hours, but otherwise the holiday affected me no more than Ground Hog Day. Then on St. Patrick’s Day 1999, Clare was born. Now the day runs neck and neck with Christmas in terms of importance.

Nothing will compare to the March 17 of twenty-two years ago, but the St. Patrick’s Day just past was at least out of the ordinary. Several minor, but unique events all fell on the same day, and all were COVID-related. First of all, Clare was home for her birthday. Grinnell College has yet to invite her back to campus, so our family celebrated Clare’s birthday in person during her free time between online classes. I thought the days of Clare being home for her birthday were over. Secondly, I got my second COVID shot. Third, my family’s COVID relief checks showed up in our bank account (and I helped to spur the economy by spending more money than usual for Clare’s birthday present and ordering a fairly expensive takeout birthday dinner from a local restaurant). Fourth, the walls of Jericho came down.

This last one needs explanation. In the classic road movie “It Happened One Night,” Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert are relative strangers forced to share a hotel room. To give Colbert’s character some privacy, Clark Gable strings a blanket through the middle of the room and calls it the walls of Jericho. At the end of the movie, the wall comes down. For the past fourteen days, our house has had its own walls of Jericho. Manyu quarantined herself after her flight from Taiwan, so I strung a shower curtain in the hallway dividing one bedroom and one bathroom from the rest of the house. The CDC recommends a ten-day quarantine, but in Taipei (the place of departure for Manyu’s flight home), the recommended quarantine is fourteen days. Manyu tends to be overly cautious with anything relating to the pandemic, and I’d be foolish to disagree with her. Finally, on March 17, my wife had been back in the States for a full two weeks, and I removed the curtain. I didn’t want the thing in the first place, but taking it down felt like a tangible act representing life getting back to normal.

No Syrup in the City (March 15, 2021)

There has always been a sensitive balance between outdoor recreation and nature preservation. While the two human endeavors are usually compatible, it is not always the case. Should hikers be allowed in sensitive ecosystems? Should snowmobiles be allowed in Yellowstone? Should hunting be allowed on lands managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service? Even though I taught outdoor recreation for over thirty years, my natural inclination is to favor preservation over recreation when the two come in conflict. Still I am wary when certain forms of recreation are unnecessarily banned in the name of environmental protection.

For example, two of my friends tap maple trees each spring. One lives in the country and one in town. The country maple syruper owns a woodlot and has many more silver, red, and sugar maple trees than he can possibly use. The city dweller has only one big silver maple on his property, so he sometimes asks friends and neighbors whether he can drill a hole or two into a few of their trees.

Last week the city syrup maker went to a friend’s house to empty his sap buckets, when the friend came out of his house with a piece of paper in his hand. The paper was a cease and desist order from the City of La Crosse demanding the removal of all tapping equipment. The tapped maples at the friend’s house were between the sidewalk and the street, meaning that officially the trees belonged to the City and not the homeowner. According to the order, the taps were causing damage to City property.

These are the same trees that, until recent years, were pelted with road salt every winter. These are the same trees that power company road crews decimate with chainsaws if their branches come near the utility wires. These are the same trees that, if they resided at a house using a lawn service, receive an application of herbicide at least twice a year.

I understand the City’s desire to protect trees in the boulevard. La Crosse recently lost just about all of its ash trees to emerald ash borer, so the remaining maples, honey locusts, and basswoods have become especially valued. However, a couple of drill holes aren’t going to cause any permanent damage, and I suspect other motivations underlie the policy. Taps and plastic collection buckets are a little bit unsightly, and I am guessing that tapping trees is banned for the same reason that grazing goats in the front yard are not allowed. It violates someone’s standard as to what urban residential neighborhoods ought to look like. Traditional ways of connecting with nature should be encouraged, and the cease and desist order is bothering me more than it should. 

Finally (March 8, 2021)

Last Wednesday I drove to O’Hare to pick up Manyu after her six-month stay in Taiwan.  Her flight was on time, and except for some confusion with the Illinois tollroads, the car ride part of her trip went as well as a long drive between La Crosse and Chicago can go. The problem with the tollroads is that the tollbooths no longer accept cash. Without an I-Pass on my car, I was not sure what to do.

Manyu’s and my reunion, due to coronavirus, has been anticlimactic. Because her plane was crowded, Manyu is social distancing until we are sure she hasn’t been infected. I gave her a quick hug at the airport, but other than that initial masked embrace, we haven’t so much as held hands. On the way home, she sat in the backseat. Now that we are home, she has sequestered herself in the master bedroom, and I sleep on the couch. As one friend observed about the sleeping arrangements, “So everything is already back to normal.” I have strung a clear plastic shower curtain in the hallway between her living space and mine. We talk to each other from opposite sides of the curtain; our conversations have all of the romance of a lawyer/client strategy meeting at a high security prison.

The CDC recommends travelers either 1) sequester for ten days or 2) get tested and, if the results are negative, reduce the sequestration to seven days. Manyu wanted to skip the test and just wait the full ten days. I put the kibosh on that suggestion, partly because I want to get rid of the social distancing as soon as possible and partly because I have come to  realize I am at her beck and call until she comes out of quarantine.

This blog is making it seem I am not excited to have Manyu back. I am excited to have her back – but maybe not as excited as our dog. Thursday morning at 1:30am, I opened the backdoor of our house after the drive from O’Hare. Dependable Jack came from wherever he was sleeping to greet me as I walked in. When he saw it was Manyu who preceded me through the doorway, he went berserk. With his tail wagging frantically, he tore around the room for a full ten seconds, then clamored up her legs begging to be petted. I know it was not Jack’s intention, but the little guy made me look bad. In comparison, my tepid greeting at the airport was pitiful.

Signs of Spring (March 1, 2021)

My usual route with Jack takes me past a neighborhood daycare center and preschool. This morning I fell in behind a mom about to drop off two young daughters. Mom was holding the hand of one girl who was, I am guessing, three years old. The other daughter, about a year younger than her sister, trailed behind by herself. As they approached fresh ice on the sidewalk, the mom slowed her pace, but did not turn around to alert the second daughter of the hazard. It turns out a warning was not needed. The little girl did not bother to take her hands out of her coat pockets, but as she approached the ice, she changed her gait from a clumsy toddler stride to a more controlled sliding of her feet. I have canned goods in my pantry older than that little girl, but she already knew how to handle icy sidewalks. At the very least, she understood winter better than elected officials in Texas.

We have survived the polar vortex. Fresh ice on the sidewalks only comes with melted snow. Nighttime temperatures still dip below freezing, but the afternoons reach into the 40s. Last week I received my first coronavirus shot, and in two days I will drive to O’Hare to pick up my wife after six months in Asia. Toss in some sane politics on the national level, and how can I not feel like we’ve turned a page?

Last fall I voted early at City Hall and was impressed at how smoothly the polls were set up. This past Wednesday I felt the same way about the huge room where the coronavirus shots were being administered. There were staff members at every juncture explaining what to do and where to go. There were rovers watching for confused people. There were volunteers ready with wheelchairs for people who needed them. The nurse who gave me my shot was as cheerful as could be, and she made sure I had my second appointment before I left her small cubicle. The only downside was the realization that I must be as old as the rest of the codgers who were standing in line for their inoculations. For all the bellyaching about problems with distributing the vaccine, my experience was effortless. First, I received an email from my healthcare provider stating that I was now eligible for my shot and that doses were available. Second, I made an appointment for 10:50 on a Wednesday morning, arrived ten minutes early, and was back at my car by 11am. 

After writing that my experience with the vaccine went well, I checked to see whether La Crosse was distributing its allotment equitably. La Crosse County scores “Very Low” in all five categories of concern (historical undervaccination, socioeconomic barriers, low health care resources, poor health care access, and irregular medical care). Low is good; high is bad. Anyone interested in their county’s score can go to https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/02/25/opinion/covid-vaccination-barriers.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage.

If this positive trend continues, I’ll be on my bicycle by the end of the week and in my canoe by the end of the month.

 

Pen and Paper (February 22, 2021)

Clare has two computers. One is her personal laptop, the other is a loaner sent to her from her college when the campus went totally online. This past week both computers crashed within a few days of each other, and I had to give Clare my laptop to use for her classes. Except for an hour or two each day, I am now without a computer – and while it may seem counterintuitive, progress on my writing has actually improved. There are three reasons for this.

First of all, and most importantly, I went back to writing each morning with pen and paper. I’ve always known this to be the most effective way for me to draw out fresh ideas, but lately I’ve been going directly to my computer. When I hold a pen in my hand, words come to mind quicker than I can get them down on paper. Only one thought in ten is worth the time it took to write it, but the paragraph that comes out of that one good thought often is better than anything I compose on a keyboard.

Secondly, I made a hard copy of the most recent pages of my manuscript so I’d have them with me while I was without my computer. For the first time in a long time, I am editing on actual paper. I immediately fell back into my old habit of writing in the margins, and some of those comments have been pretty good. I know that word processing software comes with comment tabs, but the stuff I write in those little computerized boxes never seems quite as insightful as my notes in the margins.

Finally, not having a computer meant I could not easily put aside my manuscript every time I got bogged down. I could not stop writing to check emails or read the New York Times or do the Daily Beast crossword puzzle. I had no choice but to work through the slack periods.

The IT geeks at either Best Buy or Grinnell College will soon have one or both of Clare’s computers up and running. If not, she and I will be making a trip to the computer store. One way or another, I’ll have my computer back by the end of the week. When I do, I hope I have enough sense to keep writing by hand.

February 2021 (February 15, 2021)

February might be my least favorite month, but usually it had at least two things going for it. First, it stayed light past 5pm. Secondly, the weather was not as cold as January. This year I will have be satisfied with just the additional hours of daylight, because February is turning out to be the coldest month of the year. 

To be fair, it is not February’s fault. February 2021 might still end up being not much colder than normal as far as average temperatures go. The problem was January. This January was so mild that I let myself be lulled into thinking we might get through the winter without an Alberta clipper or polar vortex passing through. When a stretch of subzero weather hit last week, I was caught off guard. I’d even taken Jack in for a haircut, so now my well-groomed, but less insulated dog is cold because I thought this winter might be different from every other Midwestern winter in my lifetime.

This morning I was Skyping with Manyu, and Jack jumped up on the table. When my wife saw our dog without his full blanket of fur, she immediately told me to go out and buy him a coat. I resisted. While Jack may be secure enough in his masculinity to be seen in public with silly clothes on, I, as his walker, was not. Rather than argue with Manyu 10,000 miles away, I agreed to go to the pet store and check out the options. As it turned out, there has been a run on clothes for dogs, and even the big box pet stores didn’t have anything I’d consider buying. All that remained on the shelves were tight gray pullover sweaters with little holes for the forepaws. They looked slightly less ridiculous than most clothes for animals, but had obviously been designed by someone who’d never tried to dress a dog. Jack is doing fine without a velcro garment strapped to his torso, and the coldest weather is now behind us.

I look forward to the daytime temperatures creeping back into the 20s. I am also glad we had ten days of frigid weather. Had we not had a cold spell this year, I would be more worried about climate change than I already am.

 

 

 

Priorities (February 8, 2021)

It was Saturday.  I should have known better than to go on a weekend, but I was bored. I was getting nowhere with my writing and, except for walking the dog, hadn’t been outside all day. I decided to go fishing. So far this winter I’d been on the ice only a half dozen times and had yet to catch a fish big enough to keep. I assumed the fishing would be as poor this time as all of the other outings, so I did not even bother to stop at the bait shop. I had a few waxworms left over from a previous trip and figured they would be enough. I also chose a spot that, while rarely producing many fish, was remote. If I can’t catch fish, I could at least be alone in nature. 

I parked along Hanifl Road on Green Island and pulled my little red sled full of fishing gear through the woods to Bluff Slough. In the three other times I’d been there this year, I hadn’t seen another person. Today there was a party going on, complete with six portable shanties, at least twenty-five people, and country music blaring from a boombox. As I turned around to go back to my car, I saw dozens of blue gills and crappies lying on the ice. The fish were biting, and the word had gotten out.

I decided to stay. I told myself that I could catch a quick meal for Clare and myself, then get out of there. Most of the people on the ice were crammed together in a fairly small area, so I found another spot about fifty yards away. I couldn’t escape the yelling and loud music, but I could turn my back to the crowd and focus on the end of my line.

The bluegills were biting, but in their subtle wintertime way. During the coldest months, panfish are fairly lethargic. They don’t attack the bait so much as gingerly mouth it. Fishermen and fisherwomen need to watch for the slightest twitch in the line, and even then there’s usually nothing there when the hook is set. On Saturday, I brought a fish through the ice maybe one nibble in ten, but after little more than an hour had eight fish big enough to bring home. I put them in the bucket I’d been sitting on, covered them with snow, and left.

I was not disappointed with myself for fishing near a noisy crowd, but I was surprised. The urge to catch fish almost never supersedes my need for solitude. On Saturday it did.

 

 

 

Crossing Losey (February 1, 2021)

This morning I finally gave up trying to write first thing in the morning. Instead of going directly to my writing table as I normally do, I put on my coat, hat, boots, and mittens to take Jack for a walk. For the past month Jack has been pestering me earlier and earlier each morning for his morning walk, so I thought I’d not even try to write and just get the walk out of the way. When I put on the leash, however, Jack wouldn’t go – so I took off all of my winter clothes, made coffee, and sat down to write. Immediately Jack started barking to go for a walk. I relented, put all of my winter outdoor clothes back on, and this time he couldn’t get out of the door quickly enough. Apparently I’d missed an important step in the process where Jack barks at me for five minutes before I relent and we go outside. 

Walking Jack first thing in the morning means I have to cross Losey Boulevard during La Crosse’s 30-minute rush hour. Losey is the busiest street in town certain times of day. There is, however, a traffic light four blocks up from where I normally cross, so I walk up to the light when traffic is heavy. On my return trip home today, I crossed at the light and then realized (with my bulky mittens) that I had dropped my poop bag. I looked back and saw the bag sitting on the curb right at the spot I’d been standing while I waited for the light to change. For a brief moment, I was tempted to just leave it, even though it was only fifty feet away. To retrieve that poop, I would have to wait for the traffic light to change back to green, recross Losey to pick up the bag, then turn around and wait for the light to change again. The traffic light at Main and Losey between 7am and 8:30 stays green in the north/south direction for a long time, so it took eight minutes out of my life to retrieve a bag of dog poop. Of course, Jack didn’t know what was going on. 

It is hard for me to figure how much Jack affects my writing. Without a doubt his walk messes up my morning routine, but it also tires him out enough that he falls asleep next to me afterwards. His (quiet) presence alongside my writing table probably keeps me writing a little bit longer than I would on my own. Jack’s total impact on my writing might be a wash. My current writing project has taken four years, but I can’t blame it the dog.

 

Inauguration and Henry Aaron (January 25, 2021)

Last Wednesday I watched the inauguration on television. Afterwards I went fishing. In other words, I waited four years for a change in presidents, and then when Biden was finally sworn in, I went about my day as if not much had happened. During the drive to my fishing spot on the backwaters of the Mississippi River, I pondered my casual attitude. I thought back and tried to remember how many other inaugurations I actually watched in real time. Biden’s was the first one since I retired, so maybe I’d always been at work before. I did recall watching Obama’s first inauguration, but I was living in Asia in 2009. Work would not have been a problem, as 11am in Washington was midnight in Taiwan.

In trying to understand why I took Biden’s inauguration so much in stride, I mostly came up with platitudes like “the peaceful transition of power” and “the democratic process prevailed.” Had the inauguration not gone smoothly, I would have gone crazy and spent the day figuring out what to do next. Because everything happened as peaceably as I hoped it would, I was able to watch the ceremony and the odd collection of politicians on the steps of the Capitol – and then go outside to play until dark. While Biden was signing executive orders, I hovered over a hole in the ice and twitched a tiny waxworm for bluegills and perch. The weather did not warm up as predicted, and I did not catch a single fish big enough to keep, but still it was a very good fishing day, in one way the best I’ve ever had.

I wrote this blog on the Friday after the inauguration. When I finished writing the first draft, I took a break, refilled my coffee cup, and checked CNN online. There I saw that Henry Aaron had died. My hands shook, and it was a little hard to type after that. As a kid in Green Bay, I had two sports heroes. Scratch the word “sports.” As a kid, I had two heroes. They were Bart Starr and Henry Aaron. When Bart Starr died, I knew he’d been sick for a while, and I was ready for it. Henry Aaron’s death came as a surprise, and I was crushed.

A Winter's Day (January 18, 2021)

I don’t sing much, at least according to my Asian wife who’s grown up on karaoke. This morning, however, as I took Jack for a walk and was only a block down Hackberry Lane, I realized I was singing I am a Rock. Wow! A better writer might stop right there and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions. I am not that better writer, and besides, I need to do a little reflection for myself.

First of all, I am (regardless of the depressing nature of the song’s lyrics) doing fine. It reminds me of a time many years ago when a friend of mine went to a record store and bought albums by Phil Ochs, Gram Parsons, and Janis Joplin. The guy behind the counter asked, in all seriousness, whether she was okay.

I am content right now. Considering the current state of the world and the current state of my personal affairs, I might be happier than I have right to be.

    • It is mid-January in Wisconsin (i.e., the dead of winter)
    • Politics and the American electorate are a disaster (although I am hopeful)
    • COVID worsens (although I am hopeful)
    • I have not seen my wife in four months, and I have another two months to go
    • My daughter is home, but only because her college isn’t allowing her to return to school during the pandemic
    • No one wants to publish the book I have been working on for the past four years
    • My prostate is the size of a pear (this may be the only item on the list that is irreparable)
    • My eyeglass prescription is off just enough to give me headaches when I read, but because of social distancing, I haven’t gone to an optometrist
    • Now that I recall Phil Ochs and Gram Parsons, I worry about the quirky people who used to work in record shops and used bookstores.

Of all the complaints in this whiny collection of concerns, the one that bothers me the most is January in Wisconsin. Usually cold weather and short days don’t affect me much, but this year has been different. Maybe it’s the social distancing, maybe it’s a wife half a world way, but for the first time in a long time, I’ve let winter get to me a bit. Manyu and I have long talked about moving back to Asia, but our conversations lately have been more frequent and more specific. I have one more adventure left in me. I haven’t felt this unsure about my future since I was twenty-five years old, but unlike COVID and American politics, the uncertainty feels good.

Yew (January 11, 2021)

Years ago I had three Japanese yews growing along the front of my house. They were, in spite of my regular trimming, aesthetically too large for the yard. They did provide, however, excellent cover for birds in the wintertime. From the large window in my living room, I could see into the backside of one of the shrubs, and there were almost always birds within.  Sometimes it was a pair of cardinals. Other times it would be up to a half dozen English sparrows. Usually the birds would just hunker down and sit. Less often they would flit from branch to branch inside the shrub.

I took out those yews. Their removal reminds me of how little I know about the needs and wants of nature. Besides visually dominating the view of my house, I also took them out because they were not indigenous to Wisconsin. I thought replacing them with native species would be good for wildlife, but, in retrospect, I’m guessing the birds would disagree. None of the birds in the neighborhood ate the yew berries, but the cardinals’ and sparrows’ use for the yews was not as a food source. I replaced the exotics with ground cover and two smaller deciduous shrubs. As I write this blog, a house finch (or maybe it’s a purple finch) has alighted atop one of the shrubs. It serves as a temporary resting spot, but with only bare branches in the winter, it provides no shelter. When the bird takes off, I am pretty sure it will disappear into the protection of the Colorado spruce across the street. 

Today I was walking Jack and saw over a dozen robins eating berries off a small fruit tree. I don’t recall ever seeing so many robins together in one place before. They must, like bald eagles, congregate near food sources in the wintertime. Some of the birds were in the tree going after hanging fruit. Most were on the ground eating fruit that had fallen. I didn’t even know robins ate fruit, but if they are sticking around all winter, they obviously have to feed on something other than bugs and worms. A quick look through my bird books confirmed that both flocking and eating fruit are common wintertime behaviors for robins. It makes me think there have been other times I’ve seen robins in flocks and just failed to make note of it. Now that it is on my radar, I’ll probably see it more often.

Walking Jack gets me outside in the winter, but it is a lousy way to watch wildlife. It is not so much that my dog disturbs the birds and small mammals in my neighborhood; rather his herky-jerky route with stops at yellow snow and discarded burger wrappers does not necessarily coincide with my preferred resting spots. It is a credit to my observation skills that I noticed the robins at all.

Taking Down the Tree* (January 4, 2021)

For twenty-seven years my neighbor’s discarded Christmas tree has shown up on the curb on January 2. The same neighbor on the same day also takes down his outdoor Christmas lights. I do not consider this guy to be overly organized, but he definitely has a specific date on his calendar to mark the end of the holiday season.

I, in contrast, have no idea when my tree will come down. No, that’s not true. It will come down sometime this month. Some years I put it out on the curb in time for the City to pick it up; other years I miss the deadline. I’ve never bothered to find out what the actual last day is. When I do take the tree down, I put it on the curb regardless of the date. If it is still there after two weeks, I assume I’ve missed Christmas tree pick up for the year and take it to the yard waste disposal site myself. As far as removing my single strand of outdoor Christmas lights, I’ll unplug them in about a week and then wait for an unusually warm day to unravel them from my porch railing. They aren’t doing anyone any harm.

This has been a unique holiday season. With Clare home, it has been good, but not exceptional. Manyu was away in Taiwan the whole time. Even though her Taiwanese upbringing did not include a Christmas celebration, she knows it represents family to me as much as Chinese New Year does to her. She and I normally deal with her annual trips to Asia very well, but Christmas apart this pandemic year was hard for both of us. I bought a bottle of sparkling wine for New Year’s Eve, but neither Clare nor I bothered to open it as midnight approached. We celebrated by watching the annual fireworks display that takes place not far from our house, but after the grand finale, we both went to bed.

Still it is not all bad. Yesterday I noticed it was still light outside at 5pm. 

*This is the first blog entry for 2021. Every January I have teach myself all over again how to make a new archive page for the year’s entries. If I was smart, I would just go ahead and make pages for 2022, 2023, and 2024, then schedule them to appear one, two, and three years from now. I already know I won’t.

 

 

Steven Simpson