No Christmas Tree (December 26, 2022)
My family didn’t put up a Christmas tree this year. It might be a first. As far as I remember, we’ve had a tree every year since Clare was born, and that includes the year we were living in Taiwan.
Several factors went into this decision, none of them big enough to suggest any significant life changes. First of all, Manyu and I knew Clare wasn’t coming home for the holidays. We still saw her for Christmas, but it was at my mom’s house instead of our own. No Clare at all would have been a big change, but seeing her at my mom’s is not different from seeing her at home. Secondly, Manyu has always been ambivalent when it comes to Christmas trees. My Taiwanese wife embraces my favorite holiday more enthusiastically than I do hers (i.e., Chinese New Year), but she has no childhood memories associated with a tree in the house.* Thirdly, the place I usually go to cut my tree is only open weekends, and this year I was too busy to get one early in December. By the time I was ready to go, the tree farm had sold its quota for the year and had closed. I could have picked up a tree at a tree lot, but I’ve always cut my own tree and wasn’t excited about getting one downed by someone else.
Four years ago I thought I’d found a well-shaped Scotch pine at the tree farm, but when I cut it down, discovered the tree had branched right at ground level. After I cut through the primary trunk with a hand saw, most of the tree fell, but a third of it remained standing. The tree farm is huge, and I doubt the owner would have cared had I left the results of my error lying in the snow, but I am of the opinion that if “You cut it, you bought it.” I brought the misshapen tree home. Hiding imperfections by turning them toward the wall works when a tree is missing a branch or two. It does not work as well when the entire backside is gone.
As I look out my window this morning, I am watching the sixth or seventh measurable snowfall of the year. My neighbor Pat is clearing my driveway. For years he’s done my driveway whenever a storm brings more than half foot. Right now there’s barely two inches on the ground, so I think Pat just wants to play with his snowblower. He only does the driveway, so later I will go out to shovel the walks. If you ask me today, snow out my window captures the season better than a Christmas tree. I’ll see if I feel the same way in March.
* December 25 is a quirky holiday in Taiwan. When I lived there in the early 1990s, it was a national holiday called Constitution Day. Back then, the normal workweek was six days, but this was offset by multiple days off for minor holidays. When Taiwan transitioned to a five-day work week, some official holidays were “demoted” by the government. Constitution Day was among them. Today elderly people in Taiwan think of December 25 as Constitution Day. Young people are more likely to consider it Christmas.
Complicated Text (December 19, 2022)
Once a year I try to read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays. I used to open the book to a random page, but lately have been going straight to the essay “Self-Reliance.” I might go back to my old approach, because “Self-Reliance” has become a dead end for me. Time and again I read the first few pages and realize I understand almost nothing. I always, however, find a small gem that makes sense to me, and it is just enough to bring me back for another attempt. In one reading, for example, I gleaned that I should trust my own intellectual abilities and not rely on the likes of Emerson to validate my own creative thoughts.❋
My original copy of Emerson’s Essays is dated 1885. The binding is broken, but the pages hold up well enough to be read without further damage. It is the oldest book I own, and I treasure it too much to write in the margins. A few years ago, I went on Alibris (the online used bookstore) and purchased a second copy specifically for writing in. My plan was to use notes in the margins as small guideposts for any future readings. Unfortunately, when my new copy arrived in the mail, it was an oversized boxed edition with ornamental text. It easily is the most beautiful book in my personal library, and for several months I wasn’t able to write in its margins either. Eventually I concluded that the biggest compliment I can give to a book is to wear it out, so now I annotate the gilded copy in pencil.
I did not write this blog because of a recent run-in with Emerson. If anything, it might move me to give Essays another try. I chose this week’s topic because I currently am reading two other authors who also give me trouble. One is Noam Chomsky, the other C. S. Lewis. As with Emerson, I’ve been looking for understandable gems within the complicated text, and to some extent, it has worked. This morning I came across the following line in Lewis’ The Abolition of Man: “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.”❊ Ecologically speaking, no one should be doing either, but the metaphor works, and it gives me something to think about.
❋ The quote in “Self-Reliance” reads, “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.” Emerson, R. W. 1885. “Self-Reliance.” in Essays by R. W. Emerson. New York: John B. Alden, Publishers, p. 43.
❊ Lewis, C. S. (1944,1974). The Abolition of Man. HarperSanFrancisco, p. 13.
Special Professors (December 12, 2022)
I ran into a former colleague at the gym today. The man’s name is Roger Haro, and after fall semester, he will leave the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse to accept a deanship at Northern Arizona University. Talking to him, even for just a few minutes in the gym’s lobby, gave me a chance to congratulate him and tell him he’ll be missed.
Roger is one of the best professors I’ve ever worked with. The chance encounter this morning reminded me of something very important, but also something I sometimes forget. Good professors are common, but exceptional ones are rare – and it matters less where young adults go to college than who they study with, it matters less what courses they take than who is teaching those courses.
UW-La Crosse is a good school, but not an elite one. Still, during my twenty-four years of teaching there, I worked alongside several professors who are exactly the kind of people any parent would want as mentors for their kids. These professors possess a competence, a commitment to teaching, and an integrity that transcends the subject material. Most, but not all, are humble. All, at least among those I know, are also talented scholars, meaning they easily could move on to more prestigious universities, but because of the bucolic setting, the good public schools for their kids, and a merit system at the university that values quality teaching, choose to live and work in La Crosse. (I didn’t ask Roger why he was moving on after 20 years at UWL, but I assume he feels he has one more adventure left in him.)
Graduate students often choose a school because there is a particular professor they want to study with. Undergraduates don’t do this. They choose their colleges for other reasons, then hopefully stumble across one or two of these exceptional instructors. In this regard, it does not matter where an eighteen-year old kid goes to college. Every institution has special professors, and it is up to the student to find them.
Nowhere Man (December 5, 2022)
Manyu does not usually read my blog, but I asked her to read my November 14 entry about goals versus no goals to make sure I’d captured her opinions correctly. She said my blog was accurate as far as it went, but I’d failed to explain the rationale behind her thinking.
When I told her that I didn’t know what her rationale was, she quoted neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Yang-ming. She said Wang believed young people needed wise elders to help them identify and reach explicit goals. Without persistent mentors, children and young adults became lost and achieved less than they otherwise would. One task of parents, teachers, and civic leaders, according to Wang, was to fuel young people’s ambition, because “Without ambition, nothing can be accomplished in the world.”
A big difference between Manyu and me is that Manyu lives a consistent philosophy. She is Confucian to the core. I, while not without a personal philosophy, am a hodgepodge. I am more likely to explain myself with 1960s song lyrics than with a specific school of thought* – and if I ever tried quoting some neo-Aristotelian philosopher, I’d come across as pedantic. When Manyu cites Wang Yang-ming, it is just who she is. It is also, to some extent, who a fifth of the world’s population is.
Yesterday I tracked down an English translation of Wang Yang-ming’s letters. I don’t expect them to help me clarify my own jumbled thoughts on life, but they could help me understand my wife.
* As I wrote this blog, both philosophy and early Beatles came to mind. From Thoreau, “If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about,” and from Lennon,“Doesn’t have a point of view. Knows not where he’s going to. Isn’t he a bit like you and me?”
Voting in Taiwan (November 28, 2022)
Mornings are my writing time, and usually I am left alone until Jack barks at the back door to let me know it is time for a walk. One morning last week, however, Manyu needed to vent, so she came to me at my writing table to complain. She was mad because Taiwan’s election commission had just made it illegal for anyone with COVID to vote.
“Can’t people who test positive vote by mail?” I asked.
“No,” Manyu said, “we can only vote on election day, and it has to be in person.”
I pondered the COVID restriction for a moment, then said, “American politicians restrict voting too, but it’s always the political party in power trying to keep out the people most likely to vote against them. I’ve never heard of anyone interfering with voting rights if there is no advantage to it.”
“Of course there’s an advantage to it,” Manyu said. “It keeps old people from voting. Old people vote KMT, and young people vote DPP. The DPP did this.”
The KMT or Kuomintang is the nationalist party brought over from Mainland China by Chiang Kai-shek in the late 1940s. I would describe it as right-of-center. The DPP or Democratic Progressive Party is the liberal counterpart. It was formed largely by the children of the people who were already living on Taiwan when Chiang Kai-shek showed up. I once thought the DPP was a healthy alternative to the KMT’s conservative values, but I now see it as populism at its worst. Its leaders first came to national prominence through lies and deception and now are willing to do almost anything to hang on to power. Many of the DPP’s stated objectives are appealing, but the tactics to accomplish those objectives are repulsive.
Manyu went on, “No one has to take a COVID test at the polls, so voting is on the honor system. Young people with COVID will vote anyway. I don’t blame them. I might do the same thing. Everyone in Taiwan wears masks all of the time, so they can vote and probably not spread the virus. Old people with COVID, however, are afraid to vote. They’ve probably seen a doctor to get Paxlovid, so the government’s national health system has a record of them testing positive. They won’t vote, because they might get caught, get fined, and lose their medicine.”
If Manyu’s interpretation of the DPP strategy is correct, it did not work as planned. In the elections of this past weekend, KMT candidates won pretty much everywhere except in the hardcore DPP south. President Tsai Ing-wen was not up for reelection, but most of her handpicked DPP candidates lost. To me, it was analogous to the recent elections in the United States. A political party might have the wind at its back, but it still needs to field reasonably strong candidates. The difference between Taiwan and the US is that, in Taiwan, President Tsai accepted blame and stepped down as head of her political party.* Here in the US, Trump went in the opposite direction and announced his candidacy for reelection.
* She resigned as head of the DPP Party; she remains President of the country.
First Snow (November 21, 2022)
I woke up to the first significant snowfall of the year. It was a gentle snow, and clumps of it stuck to the trees. Snow-covered branches are beautiful, and ordinarily the maple tree just outside my window would have held my full attention. This morning, however, I find myself distracted by a large flock of starlings.
I don’t usually pay much attention to starlings, but this particular congregation of the Eurasian invasives is hard to ignore. The only piece of lawn with even a little green still poking through the snow is on the leeward side of the spruce tree across the street. Over a hundred starlings feed in this small area. They peck in the grass for less than a minute, then suddenly take flight and shoot off in all directions. Nothing, as far as I can tell, disturbs or threatens them, but the instant one bird leaves the ground, the others immediately follow suit. Thirty seconds later they all return to the same patch of grass to feed, only to fly away soon afterwards. This pattern has been repeating itself for most of the morning.
Last night’s snow was the first serious indication of winter. I know, because Manyu is using her morning to scour the internet for cheap airline tickets between here and Taiwan. The snow has triggered her innate migratory instinct, and she needs to be doing something related to travel.
If Manyu has a spirit animal, it is probably a warbler, maybe a wren, so her need to be on the move makes sense to me. I, on the other hand, am a bear. My response to winter is to hunker down. Manyu wonders why I can’t hunker down just as well in a warm place as a cold one, and I don’t have a good answer for her. This winter I am staying in La Crosse because neither Manyu nor I want to leave our elderly dog in the care of someone else. It is a valid reason, but it’s also a rationalization for doing what I’d want to do even if we didn’t have a dog.
Maybe I stay in the northcountry because I need to witness for myself early signs of spring in the dead of winter. I usually am the first person in mid-January to point out that the days are getting longer. Right now, however, we are entering the two darkest months of the year. There are upsides to winter’s cold and snow, but I have yet to see anything positive about total darkness by 5pm.
Goals, No Goals (November 14, 2022)
Manyu worries Clare has no goals for the future. I, on the other hand, don’t think Clare should have much in the way of goals just out of college. I would prefer she didn’t wait until her late thirties to start a career or a family, but better that than having everything mapped out at an early age. Our daughter cut the apron strings years ago, and now I choose to believe that everything else will gradually fall into place.
When Manyu voiced her concerns, I told her I’d gone my entire life without clear goals and still turned out pretty well. Manyu strongly disagreed about me not having goals and was far from certain about how well I’d turned out. She asked if I remembered an old journal she and I found in a box of junk stashed in my mom’s basement. The journal had been mine, and I’d written as a teenager that I would grow up to be a college professor and a writer. I don’t remember knowing what I wanted to be when I was eighteen years old (nor do I remember ever keeping a journal), but somehow I must have sensed what I was destined to be. For Manyu, this proves I had long-term goals.
Except I don’t think I did. No one becomes a professor or writer (or husband or doting father) by happenstance, but neither were any of those niches part of a grand plan. Plato believed each of us is born with an overarching desire for one of three things – 1) wealth, 2) knowledge, or 3) power and fame. If true, that would be enough to move any of us in at least a general direction. Having specific goals might push us along faster and probably allow us to climb higher than we would otherwise, but having goals or not having goals does not change who we fundamentally are. I am not a fatalist, but I don’t think any of us wanders too far from our true character.
Long-term goals probably make decision-making easier, but some choices in life aren’t supposed to be easy. A friend once told me that the harder a decision is, the more likely all of the viable options work equally well. If a person is always sure of which path to take, forks in the road aren’t really forks at all – and without forks, there are fewer chances to walk the roads less traveled or experience turning points in life.
Because I didn’t set many goals during my lifetime, it is not surprising I now rationalize that goals are not necessary. Truth is, I have no idea what Clare needs in this regard. She is fairly certain her current job is not a permanent one, she thinks she might go to graduate school sometime in the next seven years, and she sees Madison as a stopover on a long sojourn. Like father, like daughter.
Election Day (November 7, 2022)
My reading habits, in terms of genres, follow a pattern. First I go on a crime fiction spree and read detective novels until my brain starts mixing up the storylines. I switch over to classic literature and read a Steinbeck or a Twain, maybe a Cather or Stegner. I then move to nature essays, and good nature writing reminds me that I enjoy nonfiction as much as I enjoy novels. This leads me to philosophy, and when philosophy overwhelms me, which it always does, I go back to popular crime fiction.
Recently, however, a new category of writing has been added to the rotation. I’m not even sure what to call it, but it is essays about democracy and freedom. I read Noam Chomsky for the first time. I bought on impulse a Gary Hart book that was sitting on the checkout counter at my local bookstore. I reread my own essays about Dewey’s Democracy and Education. The best of the lot was a compiled collection of E. B. White essays simply titled On Democracy.*
It is unsettling that I feel an urge to read such books. I fear current political extremism both left and right (mostly right), and I am looking for something to convince me the United States will get through this genuine threat. I don’t remember ever being so bothered by politics. I didn’t think anything on a national or international scale could worry me more than climate change, but I was wrong. My search for a reason to be optimistic has not been successful. The best I have come up with is that this is nothing new. Dewey and White wrote stuff eighty years ago that could have been written yesterday. Gary Hart, whose book is largely historical, goes back even further and describes the founding fathers worrying about the same threats to democracy that I worry about now. I keep looking for someone to tell me, “This too will pass,” but so far no one has.
On the bright side, reading On Democracy has reminded me of the beautiful simple prose of E. B. White. With the 2022 election only a day away, I am back to reading crime novels (maybe as a way of burying my head in the sand). When I move on from my present fiction phase and turn again to nonfiction, I might put The Letters of E. B. White or The Essays of E. B. White on my reading list.
* The specific book titles are Chomsky’s Failed States, Gary Hart’s The American Republic Can Save American Democracy, E. B. White On Democracy edited by his granddaughter Martha White, and my own Rediscovering Dewey.
Driftless Books (October 31, 2022)
When I go back to visit cities where I once lived, I often drop in on my old bookstores. In Madison, it is Paul’s Book Store. In the San Francisco Bay Area, it is City Lights. It also used to be Cody’s Books in Berkeley, but Cody’s has long since gone out of business. Its main store was a cornerstone of Telegraph Avenue – so when it closed in 2006, bibliophiles throughout the country realized that all independent bookstores, regardless of location, size, or years in business, were at risk. I always buy at least one book whenever I go into any of these shops and consider it the price of admission. Recently I came across the word “showrooming” in reference to books. It is when someone leafs through titles at an independent bookstore, then goes home to buy them on Amazon. I occasionally buy things on Amazon (not books), but this made me cringe.
Two weeks ago I had what I consider a unique bookstore experience. Manyu and I drove to Viroqua to show my new book to the owner of Driftless Books. Beth, owner of Pearl Street Books in La Crosse, had suggested to me that my book of nature essays would appeal to the sizable back-to-nature crowd in this small community.
Driftless Books is in a century-old tobacco warehouse. It is open only April through October because the building has no heat.* The place is huge, and while I’ve always thought it cliché to call a used bookstore a maze, I don’t how else to describe the place. The only shelves to run parallel to the exterior walls are the ones tight against those walls. All of the other shelves are angled, a good share of them curved. Most of the thousands of books are used. The only new ones are either by local authors or on subjects of regional interest. There is no sign outside identifying the building as a bookstore. On the day we stopped by, there was a small placard that said, “Open.”
I introduced myself to Eddie Nix, the owner. He reminded me of John Muir. I gave him a copy of my book, and he immediately asked how much I wanted for four others. He bought four, then said I should check every few months to see if he needs more. I told him that I’d lost money on the books I just sold him and would have to charge a little bit more in the future. I suggested he might do better by restocking directly from a wholesaler, and he replied “I don’t deal with corporate wholesalers.”
I wandered the store and came across a Noam Chomsky book on democracy. When I was ready to leave, I could not find a cashier or a service desk. I asked for help from a woman who seemed to be working there (at least she was straightening books on some of the shelves), and she led me to a counter piled high with books. My purchase came to $4.24 with tax, and I handed her a $5 bill. There was no cash register and no credit card machine as far as I could see. The woman pulled out a small tin box, rifled through some coins, and said, “I don’t think I can break a five. If you have four ones, we’ll call it even.” She recorded the sale in a spiral notebook.
I already have a half dozen books on my bedside table waiting for my attention, but I think I am meant to read this book.
* Driftless Books runs a small downtown annex during the winter months, but the winter location lacks the one-of-a-kind character of the main store.
Essays to My Daughter (October 24, 2022)
My new book came out last week. I started writing it before I retired, which means I’ve been working on it for over six years. Still it remained fun right up until the end. With everything else I’ve ever written, I eventually reached a point when I wanted it to be done. With this project, I jumped out of bed every morning, happy to make a pot of coffee and read, write, and edit until noon. For many years I wrote almost exclusively at coffee shops, but moved home at the first hint of the pandemic. I discovered I preferred my front porch to any public space and have been writing from home ever since. Manyu and Jack (my wife and my dog) sometimes interrupt me, but no more so than friends who used to drop by at the coffee shops.
Essays to My Daughter on Our Relationship With the Natural World was meant to be the subtitle for the book. From the very start, I wanted to title the book West of Sand County – which I thought was a perfect name for a series of nature essays written geographically west of where Aldo Leopold had written much of the classic A Sand County Almanac. The editorial board at Purdue University Press loved the book, but not the title. They felt the potential audience for the book was broad, and West of Sand County appealed only to tree huggers, maybe only to tree huggers from Wisconsin. Obviously the board did not appreciate the widespread popularity of A Sand County Almanac, but they also made a good point. If one purpose of my book was to introduce readers to Aldo Leopold and other noted nature writers, the title should not be directed at readers who already know who those authors are. My proposed title was scrapped, and the subtitle rose to the top. The board believed that the phrase “Essays to My Daughter” was the hook the book needed.
This past weekend I did a reading at our local independent bookstore. I’d never done anything like that before, and I liked it. I hope I can do a few more. Clare drove up from Madison for the event, so I actually got to read Essays to My Daughter to my daughter.
Whitecaps on the Mississippi (October 17, 2022)
Because the Upper Mississippi River includes a series of locks and dams, it is hard to tell how much the water levels are natural and how much they are controlled by the lock masters. In the spring, it is obvious the river is high due to snow melt, but otherwise the reasons for an almost weekly fluctuation elude me. In the past month, shallow water has kept both barges and the Viking Mississippi cruise ship from setting out for their various destinations, and as a result, the historically low Mississippi River is national news. Even so, I don’t know if the levels on my particular section of river are a result of dry weather or wide open dam gates.
For whatever the reason, water levels on Pool 8 are unusually low right now – and to say Pool 8 is low is saying a lot. For several years, Pool 8 has been kept intentionally lower than other pools in the system as a way to promote the growth of aquatic vegetation. This month Pool 8 is low even for Pool 8. Part of me worries that a shallow Mississippi River (and a shallow Yangtze and a shallow Rhine) are indicators of the entire planet going to hell in a hand-basket. Another part of me really likes the shallow water, and I am ashamed for having such thoughts.
I personally benefit from low water levels in two ways. First, they congregate the fish, which ought to make them easier to catch. Secondly, they expose sandbars at the entrances of many of the backwater channels, so miles of narrow waterways easily accessible by kayak or canoe can no longer be reached by motorboat. Both my catch and my solitude are enhanced.
I like to think that catching fish is not the primary reason I fish. I tell myself I fish for a sense of peace, for a oneness with nature, and for a way to draw other people (especially children) into the natural world. And while all of this may be true, I also find myself going to extreme measures to catch more fish. Last week a friend and I paddled my canoe to a special backwater spot where we usually have fishing success. This productive fishing hole is across the main navigation channel from where we normally put in, so we have to paddle across a wide expanse of open water to get there. Sometimes the river is fairly calm, and the only hazard in the main channel is the wake caused by motorboaters who fly by us as if we are not there. That day a fifteen mile an hour wind out of the south made for some serious whitecaps. To keep from capsizing, we had to direct our bow into the waves – so a crossing that should have been a half mile heading due west became a full mile at an angle of south southwest.
Sometimes nature creates the ideal situation for someone looking for a challenge. This is when a person’s skills are slightly better than those required for the task at hand. I thought the choppy water that day was a perfect test for Buzz and me. I never felt we were in any danger, but we might have been had we not stayed focused during the entire crossing. We both felt a sense of accomplishment (and relief) once the most difficult stretch of open water was behind us. My need for adventure has waned with age, but it is good to check in occasionally to make sure it still exists.
Plus we caught fish. After a summer where I brought fish home only one time, it was good to put fresh fillets in the freezer.
Handing Over the Reins (October 10, 2022)
Had Grinnell offered a bachelors degree in environmental studies, Clare would have majored in environmental studies. Instead she majored in computer science with a concentration in environmental studies. Concentrations at Grinnell are similar to minors at most other schools, and Clare took as many courses in the natural sciences and environmental sociology as she did in computer programming.
Clare’s course of study interested me because I care about all things Clare, but also because I co-founded the environmental studies minor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in the mid-1990s. I then went on to spend the next twenty years dodging students who wanted to make it a major. I wanted environmental studies to remain only a minor, because I thought it needed to keep its multidisciplinary approach. As soon as a subject on a college campus becomes its own discipline with its own degree program, the walls of the silo start to form. It happens in gender studies and in racial studies. It happens in environmental studies, too.
It also happened in my own field of recreation management. In the 1970s, I majored in recreation resource management specifically because it allowed me to blend together courses in wildlife ecology, education, forestry, and landscape architecture. In 2017, when I retired from the recreation management department at UWL, recreation had long been its own field of study. Students majoring in recreation were taking up to twenty courses with the REC prefix (i.e., Rec 150 to Rec 499). With so many credits in the major pairing up with an equally onerous list of general education requirements, there was no room for exploration and no room for “fun” courses. That is in contrast to Grinnell, which has no general education requirements. Grinnell trusts a student will develop his or her own diverse course of study given the chance to do so. This single brilliant difference in the graduation requirements allowed Clare to study both computer science and environmental studies, yet travel abroad and dabble in a half dozen other interest areas.
Clare enjoys the outdoors as much as I do, but she did not go into environmental education as a career (like her dad did). Upon graduation from college, Clare took a job at a small, green technology firm. The company installs anaerobic digesters and natural gas upgrading systems. It occurs to me that the difference in Clare’s and my career choices may be the urgency of the current environmental crisis. I went into environmental education forty-five years ago because I wanted to be outdoors. As a professional naturalist, I was able to spend most of my waking hours in nature and still feel I was part of the solution by nurturing the next generation of nature lovers. Clare, on the other hand, doesn’t see environmental education as much of a difference maker. It kicks the sustainability can down the road when the fate of the planet requires immediate changes on a large scale. Anything less than direct action is inadequate and naive.
UWL is now in the process of changing its environmental studies minor into a major. I still think it should remain a minor. I also know I was right to step away when I did, and it is younger educators who are making those kinds of decisions.
Autumn Is Upon Us (October 3, 2022)
Yesterday I brought my writing table indoors. I started the day writing outside, just as I’ve been doing every morning for the past four months, when I realized I was constantly sticking my hands in my jacket pockets to warm them up. This may be the earliest in the fall I’ve ever moved in.
My indoor writing space is directly opposite the window from my outdoor writing space. The view from the two spots is the same. The only difference is when I look at the road, the trees, and the houses from the inside, it is through a large double pane of glass. Staring through the glass this morning, I saw frost on the ground. It is as if I went away for a short vacation last week and came back to autumn. I would bundle up on the porch with the same clothes I wear for my bicycle rides, except I can’t type with gloves on. Writing longhand with gloves works slightly better, but it still feels clumsy enough to disrupt the flow of my prose. In the dead of winter I sit indoors and am glad I’m not in the bitter cold. In early October, I still want to be outside.
Once I decided to move indoors, it took me two quick trips to carry the card table and chair from the front porch into the living room. With just enough room to squeeze the table between the window and the living room sofa, I was back to work in the time it would have taken me to refill my coffee cup. A few minutes later, however, Manyu walked into the room and deemed my placement of the table unacceptable. It was jammed so tightly against the sofa that I had to step over the sofa’s arm to get to my chair. Manyu told me I was too old to be climbing over furniture every day. She grabbed her cellphone and brought up a photograph of my indoor writing space from a year ago. The arrangement of furniture in the photo looked just like the arrangement of furniture now in the room, except a year ago I’d somehow created a narrow aisle between the table and the couch. For the next hour, Manyu and I moved sofas, end tables, and floor lamps until we’d replicated the photo exactly.
Still I have no reason to complain. Manyu lets me sully the decor of our living room with a battered card table and a mismatched chair. I’d buy a small writing table if I came across one I liked, but so far I haven’t found anything as functional as what I have.
Iron River, Michigan (September 26, 2022)
Every other year my extended family (i.e., mom, brother, two sisters, and spouses) takes a vacation together. Last winter I’d organized a fall trip to Yellowstone, but then cancelled all of the reservations because Mammoth and the Lamar Valley, the two park attractions I most wanted to see, remained closed after the June floods. Instead of Wyoming, we decided to spend a week at my sister Diane’s cabin in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The purpose for our biennial vacations is to get everyone together, so the location doesn’t matter much. I’ve never been to Yellowstone and still want to get there, but everyone was happy with the backup plan.
Manyu and I left La Crosse for the UP last Monday morning and arrived in Iron River, Michigan five hours later. In that period of time, my sister Kathy decided not to come because her cat may have to be put down. My mom and her husband Ron postponed their arrival until Thursday because Ron suddenly needed a minor medical procedure. Manyu and I expected seven people to be waiting for us at the cabin, but the number was four when we arrived. A good thing we hadn’t gone to Yellowstone.
As it turned out, staying at a cabin is more conducive to my style of recreation than visiting a major tourist attraction. Rather than following a planned agenda and spending the entire day together, each of us found our own small pleasures and came together for meals. I fished with my brother-in-law. I hiked with Manyu and my mom, I paddled with my daughter when she and her boyfriend showed up for the weekend.
I am writing this blog entry before everyone else wakes up. As I look out the window and see the first light of day, the maple just outside the window is a quarter bright yellow and three fourths green. I chose the same week as the aborted Yellowstone trip for our UP outing in hopes of hitting the best fall colors. I was off by a week.
Year of the Tiger (September 19, 2022)
I have friends on the West Coast who have yet to meet Manyu or Clare. They know of my wife and daughter through emails and phone calls from me, but they do not have a true sense of the life I now live.
A few days ago I received an email from one of these old friends, and she commented on an email I’d sent her months earlier. Although I don’t remember, I’d apparently made a casual remark about being busy on a particular weekend because it was Dragon Boat Festival. I’d mentioned the holiday so matter of factly that it disrupted the image she had of me. To her, I was still a befuddled kid from nowhere Wisconsin who’d wandered into the San Francisco Bay Area during the Reagan administration. While some of that description still holds true, she felt the need to tell me that most Americans don’t celebrate Dragon Boat Festival, don’t eat moon cake on the September full moon, and don’t know 2022 is the Year of the Tiger.
My friend’s observation reminded me that while she does not know much about my life since meeting Manyu, it works both ways. My old friends may not fully understand my current contented life with a Taiwanese wife and bicultural daughter, but conversely, Manyu and Clare know little about me prior to 1991 (in Clare’s case, prior to her birth in 1999). Clare doesn’t care. All kids accept that their parents experienced life and had adventures before they ever showed up. Manyu, however, is sometimes taken back by the fact I enjoyed a full and varied existence before she became part of it. One time she asked me whether I’d ever been to the state of Oregon and was stunned when I told her that I’d lived there for a while. Another time she overheard me reminiscing with American friends about the 1970s and ‘80s – and learned for the first time that my past included antiwar protests, drugs, and a brief New Age phase. I did not remake myself the moment Manyu and I took our wedding vows, but I can see how she might see it that way.
There is not a single person who’s been with me for the whole ride. Of course, this is not unique. In fact, it’s probably the norm. When I attended my fiftieth high school reunion last month, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people who’d married their high school sweethearts and were still married to their high school sweethearts. For these people, their entire adult lives were with each other. Ten years ago I might have found this notion to be boring. Now, in the homestretch of life, I also see it as endearing.
When I was in my late 20s, I saw the movie Reds. Even though the story was based upon an actual person (communist activist John Reed), I found the extreme twists and turns of the main character’s life so extreme as to not be believable. Now in my late 60s, I realize some people really live that way. Had I been more daring, I too might have jammed three or four lives into one – but unless something unexpected occurs, I will be satisfied with having lived two.
Riding on Broken Glass (September 12, 2022)
For the past month, there has been lots of broken glass along my usual bike route. It’s late summer with more outside drinking and more jerks tossing empties out of car windows. As hard as I try to avoid anything that might puncture a tire, I got a flat tire three days ago. It was my first flat of the year, so I didn’t think much of it. I made the repair and did find a shard of glass in the tread. I decided on the spot to travel alternate routes until I saw the street sweepers making their rounds.
My primary route is a 16-mile loop through the southside of town. Approximately a third of it is paved trail through the marsh and along Pammel Creek. The rest is roadway through relatively quiet residential neighborhoods. For variety, I sometimes ride either one of the two gravel bike paths heading out of town. One runs north toward Trempealeau along the Mississippi River. The other extends east toward West Salem along the La Crosse River. Whereas my usual route is a big oval that brings me around to where I start, the bike trails are linear. I ride in one direction for 8-10 miles, then turn around and cover the same ground twice.
Yesterday I did ten miles along the La Crosse River Trail. I had just reversed direction to head for home when I heard and felt the phumph, phumph, phumph of a flat rear tire. It was my second flat in a week. I could not have been farther from home had someone spilled a box of thumb tacks right where I wanted to turn around. With no phone and no repair kit, I had no choice but to walk.
I didn’t need to be anywhere and a ten-mile walk is probably as good for my health as a ten-mile bike ride, so I made the most of the slower pace. Specifically, I checked out the view more carefully than I do when I’m on my bike. Even though the trail is called the La Crosse River Trail, riders and walkers rarely see the river itself. Instead the scenery is mostly forest, marsh, and corn fields, I don’t bike hard and fast, but the difference between walking and biking is at least eight miles an hour (three miles an hour on foot compared to eleven or twelve on a bike).
The only thing bothering me was that Manyu gets nervous when I don’t return home at the expected hour. A month ago I had stopped to talk to a friend on one of my rides, got home an hour late, and Manyu was on the verge of calling area hospitals. After unnecessarily scaring her that day, I agreed to carry my cell phone on my rides. I don’t like carrying a phone in my pocket any more than I like carrying my wallet, so that courtesy to my wife lasted about a week. Phones and wallets are not heavy, but both annoy me when I am pedaling. If not for the name and address written on the laminated trail pass I keep taped to my handlebars, I’d be listed as a John Doe if I was ever knocked unconscious in a bike accident.
The walk home on the La Crosse River Trail was going to take at least three hours beyond the hour I’d already been out. I tried jogging, but was quickly reminded that my jogging days are over. I tried a reasonable imitation of speed walking, but didn’t like it. My only option was to stop a biker or hiker on the trail and ask to borrow his or her cell phone. Fortuitously I actually knew the next people I encountered on the trail. The woman of a couple riding by was a philosophy professor at my former university, and I often see her and her husband when I walk Jack through our neighborhood. I borrowed her phone and only then realized I hadn’t memorized Manyu’s cellphone number. We’d recently canceled our land line, so it was the only way to reach her. I could have called my own cellphone, which was setting on the dining room table, but I doubted Manyu would pick up. At best, she would check the number, not recognize it, and let it go to message.
I could think of only three friends’ phone numbers. Two of the three wouldn’t know Manyu’s cellphone number, so I couldn’t use either of them to relay a message. I had one shot. I called my friends Shu and Stefan, and fortunately Shu picked up after only three rings. My plan was to ask her to call Manyu and tell her I’d be late, but Shu suggested I ask Manyu to come get me with our car. It was a good idea. The bike trail had mile markers, so I knew I was three miles from the nearest access point. I told Shu to tell Manyu to pick me up at a parking lot just off Highway B in one hour.
Manyu and I timed our rendezvous perfectly, and everything went as smoothly as it could have – except now I’ll probably be back to carrying a cellphone on my bike rides.
Those Things Happen (September 5, 2022)
The way Buzz tells it, he knew what I was going to say the moment I called him by name. He and I were fishing the Reno Bottoms, a secluded section of Mississippi River backwater just south of Brownsville, Minnesota. Buzz was in his kayak, I was in mine, and we were casting lures into adjacent pools about forty yards apart. “Hey, Buzz,” I yelled across the short expanse of water, “I lost the stringer.”
The problem started because I’d forgotten to bring a stringer of my own. Buzz had one, but it was the kind that is little more than a few feet of thin synthetic rope with a sharp metal tip on the end for literally “stringing” one fish after another along the rope’s length. This particular design is a simple way to keep fish alive in the water, but its downside is that the user has to untie the entire device from the boat each time he or she adds a fish. The only reason the stringer was on my boat at all was because the first fish of the day was a good sized northern pike caught by Buzz. He was about to release it back into the river when I told him it was the perfect size for pike fillets. He said that he didn’t like the way his kayak tracked when a big fish was hanging over the side, so if I wanted to keep the northern, it was going on my boat.
We had the northern and two largemouth bass on the stringer when Buzz called me over to add a fourth fish. I started to untie the stringer from my boat, but halfway through undoing the knot, I got my first look at the fish Buzz was holding and didn’t think it was quite long enough to be of legal size. I have 14” for bass and 15” for walleye marked off on one of my poles, so I took the fish (another bass), measured it, and found it to be about a half inch short. Instead of putting it on the stringer, I slipped it back into the water.
All I can figure is that I forgot to retie the knot after releasing the fish, because five minutes later the stringer was gone. When I gave Buzz the bad news, I had to listen to him complain about my unforgivable action and how it had cost him the biggest bass he’d ever caught. Eventually he blamed himself for the fiasco because he realized he shouldn’t have left me in charge of the stringer in the first place. This was not the first time Buzz had been with me when I lost a stringer of fish. One other time, on a two-day canoe trip along the South Fork of the Flambeau, I accidentally released an early morning catch that was supposed to be our breakfast.
Buzz and I fished another half hour, then called it a day. We paddled back to the takeout spot and ran into an old guy we often see at the Bottoms. When he asked how we had done, I explained my mishandling of the stringer. “Yeah,” he said, “those things happen.”
Running in the Rain (August 29, 2022)
The people on my cul de sac do not move away. They live here, they get old here, and they usually die here. There is one house so big that the occupants change every time the family’s youngest child leaves home, but otherwise the residents stay put. Manyu and I have been in our house for thirty years, and most of the people now living on the street were here when we first arrived. This summer, however, three different houses changed ownership. Two were the result of deaths from heart disease, the third was a woman who had no choice but to move into a long-term care facility. I liked all of the former residents (in one case, I might have been the only person in the neighborhood who did), but their absence has been offset by a welcome influx of new kids on the block. Overall the codgers on my street are active and interesting people, but young faces have given the neighborhood a shot in the arm.
This morning I was sitting in my usual place on the front porch. Even though it was raining, three kids from one of the new families ran past my house and started doing laps around the circle at the end of the street. “It’s just like a running track for kids,” one of them shouted. They were soaked. They were not running in spite of the rain; they were running because of it. Except for the fact that I did not want to embarrass them (or myself), I might have joined them in the fun. The eight-year old and the ten-year old would have easily lapped me, but I could have pretended I was going slow to keep pace with the kindergartener.
I had more respect for old people before I became one myself. At one time I saw them as a source of wisdom. Now they sometimes strike me as little more than opinionated whiners. They complain about young people. They grumble when their property taxes go up and their senior discounts go down. If the decision to build new schools was left to people over the age of sixty-five, there would never be a new school built. Thoreau wrote, “I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.” I wouldn’t go as far as Thoreau in my assessment of old people, but there is something to his words.
I retired when I was 63 years old. Sixty-three also happens to be the average age of a US Senator. When I compare my retirement strategy to that of octogenarian politicians, I realize I am the one who got the timing right. My university department made good hires during my last few years on campus, and our younger faculty members were better trained and more energetic than I was. All they lacked was experience, and the best way for them to get experience was for me to mentor them for a year or two and then get out of the way. So that is what I did. Besides, I had things to do that had nothing to with my job. Thoreau also wrote, “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” I agree with that quote wholeheartedly. It might be time for me to reread Walden.
Fifty Years Gone By Now (August 22, 2022)
There is a scene in Steven Spielberg’s movie Hook where one of the Lost Boys kneads and pulls at Robin Williams’ adult face until he finds the young Peter Pan inside. Last Friday I attended my 50th high school reunion, and two or three times that night I had a similar experience.
When I first walked into Green Bay’s Riverside Ballroom with a hundred fifty former classmates in attendance, I didn’t recognize anyone. Had not the three women handing out photo IDs at the door looked familiar to me, I might have panicked. Quickly I realized, however, that most of the other people in the room were having the same problem – and rather than sneaking glances at each other’s name tags to find out who was speaking to whom, they were openly grabbing each other’s lanyarded badges and reading the names written there.
I looked at my share of badges, but the best moments were those when I did not have to. More than once someone standing nearby would turn his head or change his facial expression just a little bit, and the18-year kid I knew in high school would come out. Once that happened, I could not unsee it. The best such encounter was when a woman sitting at a table called my name as I walked by. She could tell by my expression that I didn’t immediately recognize her, but instead of telling me who she was, she smiled, almost laughed, and I immediately knew it was Patty Ripp. Patty was one of my favorite people all four years of high school, and as soon as I ignored the contemporary hair style that circled her face, I was looking at the girl she used to be.
Throughout the evening I had short one-on-one conversations with at least forty different people, and every one of them (by the age of 68) had retired. A half dozen had sold their homes and either moved permanently to a Northwoods cabin they already owned or used the money from the home sale to buy waterfront property out of the city. No one at the reunion brought up their former jobs, and only a few mentioned their kids or grandkids. Most of the conversations were recalling stories from fifty years ago. Although it was not explicitly stated, I sensed these people had been carefree twice in their lives. Once was during high school, and once was in retirement. Many novels are written and many movies are produced about the angst of high school. For the kinds of people who attend a 50th high school reunion, the teenage years were some of the best of their lives.
Chinese American is an Awkward Term in My House (August 15, 2022)
Sometimes when I write about my wife and daughter’s heritage, I do not know whether to call them Chinese American, Taiwanese American, or Asian American. For different reasons, none of the terms quite work. Manyu would agree with me. When she is asked about her cultural roots, she describes herself as “Chinese from Taiwan.”
The problem with Chinese American is that “Chinese” refers both to a chunk of land and to a race of people. Even though Taiwan is officially the Republic of China, most people think of Communist China when they hear the word “China” or “Chinese.” I do. Chinese, however can also refer to the Han people, those (regardless of their residency) with the physical characteristics of straight black hair, brown eyes, soft facial features, and skin folds on the upper eyelids. Manyu and Clare are Han, but they are not Mainlanders.
The problem with Taiwanese American is that for the entire second half of the 20th century, “Taiwanese” referred to only one segment of the people living in Taiwan. The indigenous people there were not called Taiwanese, nor were the Han people who came to Taiwan in 1949 along with Chiang Kai-shek. These recent arrivals, considered interlopers by the people already there, were called wàishěngrén (外省人) or “outside the province people.” Only the Han people who relocated to Taiwan from Fujian Province back in the 1700s were called Taiwanese. They also were referred to as bénshěngrén (本省人) or “the provincial people.” With the passing of many of the people who were alive in Taiwan during 1949, the sharp distinction between wàishěngrén and bénshěngrén fades. My mother-in-law, who escaped to Taiwan as a teenager, still considers herself Chinese, not Taiwanese. Clare, nearly seventy years my mother-in-law’s junior, thinks of herself as Taiwanese or Taiwanese American. Manyu, born in Taiwan, but still looked upon as wàishěngrén by her elders, is stuck somewhere in the middle.
The problem with Asian American is that it is overly broad, taking in peoples as different from each other as the Japanese and Bangladeshi. Had you asked me a year ago, I would have assumed the term was coined by the US Census Bureau in its attempt to replace the somewhat offensive term Oriental. Recently I learned that Asian American was first used by a group of Asian graduate students from the University of California Berkeley back in the 1960s who wanted to show a united front in their efforts toward social justice. Even though these Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Indian students had little in common culturally, they suffered the same ignorant bigotry of the racists who lumped them all together.1
Only once have I heard Manyu or Clare ever refer to themselves as Asian American. It was from Clare when she was in college. She served as an officer for her college’s AAA (Asian American Association). Her alma mater, Grinnell, is a very small school, so the coming together of disparate groups was an effort to bring together enough people to form a community on campus. When Clare completes a voluntary race question on a form from either the government or her college, she likes it when “mixed race” is listed as an option. She is less pleased when the form stops there and does not allow her to proudly state she is both Han and white. On most of these forms, she can be white or Asian or mixed race, but she can’t be all three.
Falling a Little in Self-respect (August 8, 2022)
I sometimes use minnows for fishing bait, but I never know what to do with the ones left over after a day on the water. I don’t want to just dump them into the river or the lake, because I am never certain whether they are native to that particular spot. I don’t want to bring them home either, because even when I regularly add fresh water to the minnow bucket, they rarely survive until the next time I go fishing.
Two years ago I brought fifteen live minnows home. It was the height of the first COVID wave. Clare’s college had put all of her courses online and closed its campus, so she was back in La Crosse. She asked me what I was going to do with the tiny fish. When I told her I was going to put them in the garage where they’d probably die, she immediately went out and bought an aquarium. Even with fish food and an aerated tank, ten of the minnows died in the first two weeks. One survived for a year. Four of them are alive and well today. I did’t know minnows lived that long. Within their natural habitat, I they probably don’t.
A month ago Clare returned home for a weekend visit and decided she didn’t like the stark look of her minnow tank. She went to PetSmart and bought aquatic plants and a miniature Chinese gazebo to add structure to the aquatic environment. A week later she called me on the phone to ask how the fish liked their new surroundings. When I told her that the once peaceful fish were now fighting each other for the prime location inside the gazebo, she immediately ordered a second one and had it mailed directly to me. The second gazebo brought harmony back to the aquarium, but now all of the fish hide themselves in the protective bric-a-brac. Such behavior is probably instinctive, but it makes them hard to see (which, I suppose, is the point). They come out only when I sprinkle goldfish flakes on the surface.
Recently I’ve been using minnows for bait far less often than I once did, and part of the reason may be that I now have minnows as pets. Henry David Thoreau fished his entire life, but once wrote, “I have found repeatedly, of late years, that I cannot fish without falling a little in self-respect.” I am becoming a bit like Thoreau in this regard, and I don’t know whether it’s a good or bad thing.
Is That One Word or Two? (August 1, 2022)
Last week a cable guy and his son came to my house to bury an internet cable. The job was supposed to get done as soon as the frost came out of the ground, but because of a messed up phone call with the cable company service rep, it did not happen until July. The following is a transcript of that telephone conversation. I think I have come close to capturing it word for word.
After a chain of six automated messages, I was connected to a person. The woman at the end of the line said, “Thank you for calling Spectrum. My name is _______. This call may be monitored for security purposes. Are you calling about a current service?”
“Yes, I am,” I said.
“I will now text you a confirmation code to confirm you have authority to change your service.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t want to change my service. I just need you to bury the line that one of your guys left lying across my lawn this winter.”
“Yes, I understand,” said the woman, “but I still need to confirm I am speaking to a person authorized to make that request.”
“Okay, let me give you my cellphone number,” I said.
“No,” said the woman. “I can only text the number we have on record.”
“But that number is a landline,” I replied.
“I can’t text a landline,” she said.
“That’s why I want to give you my cell. My wife set up the internet service ten years ago, and we didn’t have cellphones then.”
“I can only text the number we have on record.”
“I am calling from the number you have on record. How is that different from a text to a number you have on record?”
“No, that won’t work. Let’s try something else. What is your favorite movie?”
“You want to know my favorite movie from ten years ago?”
“Yes, it is the question we have on record.”
“I don’t know. Try Star Wars.”
“No, that is not your favorite movie.”
“Try The Natural.”
“No, that’s not your favorite movie either.”
“Give me a second. My wife set up the account. Let me ask her what she would have said.” I tracked down Manyu from the other side of the house and asked her what she would have listed as her favorite movie back in 2012. She named a movie I would have never guessed in a hundred tries. I got back on the phone and said, “Okay, try The King and I.
“Is that one word or two?” the woman asked.
The woman’s question momentarily silenced me, as I found myself wondering where the break would go if The King and I was only two words. “It’s four words,” I said. “The. King. And. I.”
“No that is not the movie we have on record.”
“Should I keep naming movies?” I asked.
“No, let’s try something else. What is the security code number on your account?”
“Do you mean my account number?”
“No, your account number is not secure. I need your security code number.”
“I don’t know what that is.”
“It is that number that appears on the top right corner of your monthly bill.”
“Do you mean the paper copy of my bill?”
“Yes, the one you receive in the mail.”
“I throw those away without opening them. We pay online.”
“Your security code number does not appear online. It’s only on your hard copy.”
“I don’t have that.”
“Then I may not be able to help you.”
“Is there another way to confirm who I am?”
“I don’t think so.”
“So do I need to wait until next month when my new bill comes in the mail?”
“That should work. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
A month later I called the cable company and gave them my security code number. I was able to set up a date for the serviceman to come to my house. I also updated the phone number on our account. I even changed Manyu’s first name, which had been spelled M-A-N-R-U ever since we’d first signed up. The woman I talked to on this second phone call told me it was time to change out my modem, but I worry about what will go wrong if I do.
Staying Home Because I Have To (July 25, 2022)
More than once I have rejected a potential blog entry because it sounded too much like Andy Rooney. Maybe I shouldn’t do that. I wish I wrote as well as Andy Rooney. Some of his witticisms are as good as anything by Mark Twain or Will Rogers. I just don’t want to write like him. Today’s Rooneyesque idea for a blog might make it through the review process. I guess we’ll see.
Have you ever noticed that there’s no place you’d rather be than home, but it drives you crazy when you have to stay there? That is how I feel today. A repairman was supposed to come today between 8am and noon. Now it’s two in the afternoon, and I’m still waiting. In the repairman’s defense, it rained hard most of the morning, and the work to be done is outdoors.
Waiting for the repairman meant I couldn’t go with Manyu when she walked Jack during the one hour this morning when it wasn’t raining. Also I turned down a friend’s invitation to go fishing as soon as the sky clears. If the repairman doesn’t come soon, I won’t be able to go for my daily bicycle ride. My routine is getting messed up, and I don’t like it. I enjoy stepping out of my routine, but not when it’s someone else making the change for me. Today I’ve already written for three hours and read for another two. Other than eating lunch, what else am I supposed to do around the house?
This is the third time in a month I’ve been trapped at home. Once was to wait for the air conditioning repairman, and another time was to wait for an important DHL delivery. Today someone is coming to bury my cable line. This past winter a guy from the cable company showed up and said my internet service was insufficient. I told him that my internet service was fine, but he was insistent that it was not. He ran a new line from the pole at the back of our property up to the house but, because the ground was frozen, left it atop the snow. Finally, after six months with the long snake of orange cable lying across my yard like a neglected extension cord, it’s going to get buried. In all of that time, I haven’t noticed any improvement in my internet.
A man and his son just showed up to do the work. They were friendly and competent. Even though they cut a trench through a patch of my lawn where the bluegrass actually outcompetes the creeping Charlie, I can barely tell where they dug. They weren’t able to bury the last twenty feet of cable because the concrete of my driveway is there. Instead, they helped me tack it inconspicuously to the underside of the house’s lowest clapboard (even though the above ground work was not part of their work order). The project was done by 4pm, so I called my friend to go fishing.
Andy Rooney once wrote, “I am not retiring. Writers don’t retire. Writers never stop writing.” Had I written that quote, it would have read, “I am glad I retired. Now I have time to write.”
Two Worlds Other Than My Own (July 18, 2022)
On the night before Manyu and I were to return to the United States from France, my niece Sheela stopped by to see us. Her home is in Los Angeles, but she was en route to a destination wedding in Sardinia. Sheela is an influencer, and reporting on the weddings of her rich Asian American friends is somehow part of her job. After enjoying a three-day party in the Mediterranean, her plan was to go to London to meet with one of her sponsors. After that, she had a bachelorette party in Miami. I understand little about social media and even less about being an online influencer. This is evidenced by the fact that my blog peaks at fewer than fifty viewers a week. In comparison, one of Sheela’s podcasts went viral and had ten million hits.
After Manyu and I returned to La Crosse, I went back to bicycling every day, and my usual route takes me past the homeless enclave in Houska Park. People have lived in the park for years, but this summer’s encampment is twice the size it’s ever been. I think (and hope) the reason for the expansion is that homeless people from throughout the city are drawn to the park and not because their numbers overall have doubled. The City has run electricity to the park’s tent city and added additional bathrooms. The police, which hassle troublesome vagrants in the city’s other parks, offer protection at Houska. While less than a mile from the heart of downtown, Houska Park is the black sheep of La Crosse’s park system. It is in the middle of the industrial waterfront and adjacent the sewage treatment plant. It has a dog park and a softball diamond, but little else to attract recreationists. If the City’s objective is to channel its homeless to an out-of-sight location, Houska Park is a good place to do it. Yesterday when I bicycled through the park, one of the residents ran up and starting yelling obscenities at me. Just as quickly, another resident ran up and apologized for the behavior of his neighbor.
Talking with Sheela and then riding my bike through Houska Park made me realize the extent of my middle class existence. I cut my own lawn and rake my own leaves. I put decals on my windows so birds don’t fly into the glass. I shop at a discount supermarket, but also belong to the local food co-op. I seldom spend more than twelve dollars for a bottle of wine and fondly recall the days not long ago when I didn’t spend more than ten. I’ve been to France once in my life, but I drive to Canada once a year. Perhaps most significantly, I trust my pension and Social Security checks will show up in my bank account every month.
I visit a homebound next door neighbor once a week. I told him about bicycling through Houska Park, and he said that his at-home caregiver drops off her young kids at the park every morning before making her rounds. Her brother lives in a tent there, and he watches the kids while she is at work. When Clare was a little girl, I intentionally directed her away from homeless people. This single mom, trying to raise a family on $15/hour (even though my neighbor pays an agency $40/hour for her services), does exactly the opposite and relies on a homeless sibling for childcare. I know almost nothing about people who are substantially wealthier or poorer than I am.
A Rainy Fourth of July (July 11, 2022)
It is the Fourth of July, and I am writing from my front porch. A steady rain is falling. Usually when I work from my porch, my back is against the house, and I directly face the street. When it rains, I have to move my writing table tight against the house, so it occupies the space where I normally sit. This means I have to put myself alongside the table instead of behind it, but this setup gets both me and my table as far under the eave as possible. Unless the rain angles in from the north, both table and writer stay dry. A stray raindrop occasionally hits me on the arm, but that’s about it.
Five mixed race couples (the men all white Wisconsinites, the women all first generation Chinese or Taiwanese Americans) had planned to have a picnic at Pettibone Park today. Pettibone is an island park in the Mississippi River just across the main channel from downtown La Crosse. Yesterday one of the men developed a sore throat and started coughing. Even though he tested negative for COVID with a home testing kit, his wife told us that they wouldn’t join us for the picnic. I have only anecdotal evidence to go by, but I think Asian Americans tend to take masks, vaccines, social distancing, and testing more seriously than Americans overall. To me, a negative test is a negative test, but Manyu and several of our Asian friends are wary of the possibility of a false negative. With two participants skipping the picnic and with a good chance the rain will continue all day, the picnic’s been postponed until next week.
This means I can sit on my front porch for as long as I want. Manyu and I got in a walk with Jack before the rain started, so the only task I have left for today is to go for a bicycle ride. I don’t intentionally bike in the rain, so I might not go at all. Even when I wear rain gear, I don’t like the feel of water spinning off my rear tire and hitting me in the back. Several friends have suggested I add a rear fender to my bike, but I doubt I ever will.
A toad just hopped to within a few inches of my feet. When the squirrels, birds, and gnats all retreat to their sheltered homes to get out of the rain, the toads come out to play.
La Crosse Is Alive This Summer (July 4, 2022)
It might be my imagination, but I think there is more wildlife in and around La Crosse this summer than in other recent years. I’ve been seeing more groundhogs and beavers. My yard has chipmunks and red squirrels, two species that show up only every third or fourth year. Last week I sat in a friend’s backyard and watched a pair of fox kits crawl out from under a storage shed and chase each other around the lawn. I don’t remember ever seeing young foxes before.
The roadways on my bike route have more “lost” turtles than in past summers. Females looking for a place to lay their eggs might know exactly where they are, but they often look disoriented to me. Many of them definitely get themselves run over by cars. When I see a turtle walking parallel the roadway or just sitting in the street, I usually pick her up and move her off the pavement. Yesterday I found one so deep into a residential neighborhood that I decided to take her nearer to water, even though I was on my bicycle. When I pick turtles up, they sometimes pull into their shells and sit quietly. Just as often they flail with their legs in an attempt to push off from whatever is holding them. This one was flailing. I rode my bike for a half mile, then pulled into the parking lot of the Green Island boat ramp with the turtle in my left hand. As I exited the blacktop onto what I mistakenly thought was hard ground, my front tire sunk into soft sand, and I went over sideways. Not wanting to hurt the creature I was trying to help, I held her aloft while I fell and landed hard on my right shoulder. Today my shoulder aches, and I have concluded I am too old to be sacrificing my body for turtles.
Last weekend Clare, Manyu, and I walked Jack through the La Crosse River Marsh. We followed the same route as the one I take on my daily bike ride, so I knew floodwaters had forced most waterfowl off their nests – and at least a half dozen Canada goose families had taken up residence on the elevated hiking/biking trail. When I biked past these families only a day earlier, the adult geese didn’t like it, and they confronted me as I approached. This made me worry about walking Jack on the same trail. Even before we started our walk, I told Clare and Manyu about the geese and said I might hand Jack’s leash off to one of them if I needed to step forward and back the geese up. My concern was unfounded. When I was on my bicycle ride, the geese held their ground and hissed at me from less than two feet away. When I came through with my pint-sized dog, the adults immediately directed their goslings off the trail and onto the water. Apparently geese know people can be intimidated, but consider it bad practice to use the same strategy on even the smallest of dogs. Summers in La Crosse are fantastic.
Blackbird (June 27, 2022)
This morning I was sitting on the front porch of my house when a blackbird flew within inches of my face, smacked into my living room window, and dropped onto the table alongside my coffee cup. I left it where it lay, hoping it had knocked itself out and would soon awaken, but it had either broken its neck or cracked its skull. It was dead. I have reflective maple leaf decals plastered all over my front window in hopes the birds see the glass, but about three times a year a bird doesn’t get the message.
When I saw the blackish bird lying before me, my first thought was, “Oh good, it’s not a catbird.” My second thought was, “Darn, it’s not a cowbird.” I’ve always known I like some birds more than others, but I didn’t realize these feelings were so strong that they’d show themselves spontaneously. I appreciate the sleek lines of catbirds, and I like their cat-like meowing. Cowbirds, on the other hand, are brood parasites, meaning they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and prevent the host parents from successfully raising their own young. Cowbirds may be one of very few creatures in the wild I actually dislike, even though I understand their egg-laying methods are no more than an instinctive behavior.
While I am not 100% sure, I think the bird that crashed into my window was a Brewer’s blackbird. Apparently I haven’t encountered that particular species often enough to form a strong opinion about it. I don’t dislike it, but I have no special affection for it either. Of all of the blackbirds in the Upper Midwest, red-winged blackbirds may be my favorite. Their call is the quintessential sound of the marsh. I even like it when a male pecks me in the head for unwittingly getting too close to the nests of his small harem of females. Usually I encounter red-wing attacks when I am on foot in the marsh. Then I can swat the aggressive bird away with my hands. Three days ago I was attacked while on my bicycle. My hands were busy steering the bike, and I was wearing a bike helmet – so I just let the bird do its thing. For what seemed a full ten seconds, the bird pecked at the plastic of my bike helmet until I got well past the area it was protecting.
Deadbroke to Bath (June 20, 2022)
The water level on Lake of the Woods was four feet higher than normal this year. When we boated to our usual campsite on Deadbroke Island, we found it mostly underwater. For several seasons, my friends and I have talked about moving the location of our base camp, and now we were forced to. Even though we usually are the only people camping in the Lake of the Woods backcountry, good campsites are hard to find. There are hundreds of kilometers of wilderness where we are allowed to camp, but most shorelines are either too steep or too heavily wooded for easy access. Flat areas to pitch tents are rare and flat areas with a protected bay for our boats even rarer. After sending search parties in three directions to find a new site, Clint, Ken, and Larry found an excellent spot on the tip of Bath Island. Our group this year had grown from four to seven people, and this larger piece of open ground actually served our purpose better than the small peninsula at Deadbroke.
Fishing this year started out slow. While it usually takes us a day or two to find the walleyes in deep water (if we find them at all), we’ve always been able to catch northern pike and smallmouth bass in the shallows. This year we couldn’t even find even them, although some of the guys hooked big muskies casting in five or six feet of water. Normally we catch one or two muskies on the entire trip; this year we caught at least six and had just as many follow-ups. A follow-up is when a fish is seen coming up behind a lure, but does not strike. If a fish is four feet long, even a follow-up is memorable.
By the third day, we learned the northerns and bass were in 20-30 feet of water right along with the walleyes. Maybe it was because the shallows had yet to warm up. Maybe it had something to do with the high water level. Once we figured out where the fish were, the action improved. For the first time ever, we ate walleye four dinners out of six, and we could have eaten fish every evening had we wanted to.
One reason for our improved fishing was the addition of Victor to our fishing party. Victor is Tom’s son and a sophomore in college. He also is a master fisherman. At home, he reads about the habits of fish and about the latest advances in fishing gear. On the lake, he fished almost every waking moment. While the rest of us enjoyed a beer after a full day of fishing, Victor continued to cast from shore. When some of us cooked dinner on a camp stove or baked cornbread with a campfire reflector oven, Victor kept fishing. At six in the morning, while I was still a half hour away from crawling out of my sleeping bag,Victor and Tom’s boat could be heard motoring away for an early start on the day. There were seven of us on the trip, and Victor easily caught half of the fish.
Soon after setting up camp in our newfound campsite, while Jack and Clint were cooking dinner and the rest of us were not doing much of anything, we heard Victor yell from the bay where the boats were moored. “Help, huge fish,” he shouted. We all ran toward his voice to see him battling a big muskie from the stern of his tied up boat. In the first hour of the first day, Victor landed a trophy fish while Ken, Larry, Tom, and I were poking sticks at the campfire. It pretty much set the tone for the week.
It snowed the first day of our trip, but progressively warmed each day afterwards. Rain fell only twice the whole week, and both times it was in the middle of the night. The food was very good, the company exceptional. I caught more walleye than on any of our other trips. The crisp air even beat down some of the lingering effects of my bout with COVID. As always, the Canada fishing trip was an excellent way to kick off the summer.
At the Canadian Border (Part 2) (June 13, 2022)
As mentioned in the previous blog, my fishing buddies and I arrived at the Canadian border with contraband eggs and fishing bait. Since the Canadian customs office is on Canadian soil, officials there were not allowed to simply confiscate our prohibited goods. Instead they wanted us to turn around, drive back to the United States, dispose of our eggs and minnows, then get back into the long line of trucks and cars waiting to enter Canada.
When my vacation in France got extended by nearly two weeks (because of COVID), my Canada fishing trip was pushed back by a day. With our late departure, the drive north coincided exactly with the opening of Ontario’s walleye season, and American fishermen and women were cued up at the border crossing fifty or sixty vehicles deep. We’d just finished sitting in line for over an hour, so we nicely told the customs agent we didn’t want to turn around and do it all over again. She told us our only other option was to park our two pickup trucks where they could be seen from the Canadian customs office and have someone walk our banned goods back to the United States. I got out of one truck and carried five dozen eggs to America. Tom’s son Victor got out of the other truck and did the same with a big bag of salted minnows. When we stepped into the American immigration office to ask what to do with the stuff, they looked at us like we were carrying human body parts. We were told that eggs and minnows were Canada’s problem, not theirs. Victor had to wander International Falls until he found a dumpster for the minnows. I was lucky, as the woman at the border tollbooth was collecting eggs and donating them to the local food bank.
Once in Canada, we needed to restock our bait and our breakfast supplies. We assumed the grocery store in Fort Frances would be out of eggs, but just the opposite was true. The store had enough eggs to meet the needs of every American who hadn’t read Canada’s latest border crossing guidelines. The Ontario Egg Growers Association was taking full advantage of its windfall. Then, in the tourist town of Sioux Narrows, Tom and I went into a general store to replenish our minnows. A big storefront sign had listed “live bait” as one of the items sold in the store, but the guy at the counter didn’t seem to know what minnows were. Only after Tom pointed out the small water tanks in the sporting goods section did he know where to find them. When I went to pay, he couldn’t get the cash register to ring them up. It turned out he had to type the word “minnows” into the register, but was spelling it m-i-n-o-s. He was a nice guy, but it might have been his first day on the job.
Almost every time my fishing pals and I go to Canada, we make a mistake somewhere along the way. One year we misread the Ontario fishing regulations and were reprimanded by a game warden. We weren’t fined, but were dismayed to be in violation after we tried hard not to be. Another year Tom put a treble hook in his thumb. A third year we spent a night at Clint’s Canadian cabin before heading into the backcountry. Clint turned on the cabin’s water heater without first turning on the water and burned out the heating elements. Considering our past record, losing eggs and minnows at the border was actually a good thing. It was better to have our annual mishap early in the trip and get it over with. The rest of our Canadian adventure was without incident, but that is content for next week’s blog.
At the Canadian Border (Part 1) (June 9, 2022)
Manyu and I made it home from France the evening before I was supposed to leave for Canada. We arrived jet lagged and tired, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to switch gears, unpack, repack, purchase an Ontario fishing license, restock my tackle box, and complete the mandatory ArriveCAN form by the next morning. I emailed my fishing companions to tell them to go without me. They immediately replied that they’d delay our departure by 24 hours, and I was in.
Even though entering Canada by car was going to be much easier than entering the US by plane after testing positive for COVID, I was a little bit worried about the border crossing. I was right to be.
The quarter mile separating International Falls, Minnesota from Fort Frances, Ontario is ugly, maybe one of the ugliest places I have ever been. The airspace is a dangling mess of electrical wires and elevated pipelines. The skyline is dominated by a large paper mill (or maybe it is a wood chip processing plant). The stretch of the Rainy River directly under the bridge is a series of turbulent death traps created by a half dozen seemingly random spillways. Vehicles entering Canada from the US must wind through a hundred yards of prefab barriers. First timers to the border might assume these vertical concrete slabs are in place as preparation for needed road repairs, but seasoned travelers know they have been in the exact same spots for over twenty years. A single lane of traffic widens into three right at the customs building. Drivers guess which lane is moving the fastest and pull into that one. Once committed, inevitably the pickup truck two vehicles ahead gets red flagged, and the lane thought to be speedy comes to a dead stop.
Because we make the trip into Ontario annually, my friends and I assume we know all of the items not allowed into Canada. Usually we get it wrong, and this year we were wrong on two counts. For the first time, fresh eggs were banned due to the outbreak of avian flu. Additionally dead minnows were not allowed, but even the customs agent could not tell us the reason for that. Live bait has long been prohibited as a way to keep invasive species out of Canadian waters, but now dead bait is also forbidden. All I can figure is that even a dead fish might carry viable roe.
A week ago I was not going to write about our Canadian border crossing. Better I focus on the trip itself – the fishing, my time with a group of friends I see only once a year, our excellent campsite. Now that I have started writing about the crossing, I realize I can’t even tell the story in a single blog entry. This actually makes sense, as it felt like we spent the better part of an afternoon trying to get into Canada. Please come back Monday to find out how we disposed of our contraband.
Camino de Santiago (Epilogue) (June 6, 2022)
As I mentioned in an earlier blog, our five-day pilgrimage in France concluded in Conques. The centerpiece of this beautiful village is the eighth century (rebuilt in the eleventh century) Saint-Foye Abbey Church. Dominican monks who oversee the church and its Medieval treasures sing during evening prayers in the church, and pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago are invited to listen in. My hiking companions and I ate an early dinner so we could attend the monks’ prayers, but mid-meal I physically crashed and instead headed back to my room. A night of very sound sleep did nothing to relieve my fatigue and, using a home testing kit I’d brought from the United States, I tested positive for COVID.
Of course, I was disappointed – but not surprised. I thought Americans were lax about masks and social distancing, but compared to the French, we are compulsive. In airports, restaurants, and markets, barely anyone in France wears masks, and while I was careful early in my trip, I too eased up as my vacation progressed. After not eating indoors at a restaurant for nearly two years, I was doing so almost nightly. I probably picked up the virus during dinner one night, but it could have been anywhere.
The day after I tested positive, Manyu, Manyu’s sister Shauyu, Shauyu’s husband Claude, and I holed up in an airb&b. Even though I stayed in a separate room from everyone else, both Manyu and Claude tested positive five days after I did. Shauyu, who at first seemed immune, tested positive five days after them. Manyu and I could not board a plane to the United States until we both tested negative (or had an authorization to travel from our doctor), so we had to postpone our trip home by almost two weeks.
I was not happy about the delay and was unnecessarily cranky at times, but I also realized I had nothing to complain about compared to Claude and Shauyu. Their home is in Shanghai. Spring 2021 Claude’s sister told Claude she needed a break from caring for their elderly parents. The parents live on their own, but need to be checked on at least once a day. Claude returned to his hometown of Hégenheim in Alsace for a few weeks, but stepped awkwardly on a front stoop and broke his leg. With Claude wearing a cast for three months, Shauyu came from Shanghai to help care for her husband and her husband’s parents. While both my sister-in-law and her husband were in France, the Chinese government shut down the city of Shanghai, and Claude and Shauyu haven’t been home for over a year.
While sequestered in France, I emailed my fishing buddies to tell them I might not make it back for our annual Canadian fishing trip. I also informed our daughter Clare, my card playing friends, and the neighbors who were keeping an eye on our house. One of the fishermen, Clare’s boyfriend, and the husband and wife watching our house were all positive, too. For two years, COVID only happened to people in my most outer circle of acquaintances. Now it has come home. I am beginning to think contracting the disease is inevitable.
Camino de Santiago (Part 2) (June 1, 2022)
While hiking the Camino de Santiago, I did not write lengthy journal entries. I did, however, jot down a few general impressions. The following is a list of the notations that jumped out at me when I reviewed them back in Wisconsin.
- The villages where we spent our nights were a step back in time. I did not know such places still existed. With a large ancient church in the center of town and roadways too narrow for automobile traffic, I fluctuated between thinking I’d time traveled into the Middle Ages and wondering whether I’d wandered onto a masterfully constructed movie set. My companions and I were too set in our ways (and maybe too well off financially) to stay in the hostel-type housing many pilgrims use, so we enjoyed the comfort of private rooms in simple inns – usually single family dwellings converted into “gîtes” of two or three tiny guest rooms and a bathroom down the hall. On our five-day pilgrimage, I walked up and down more narrow spiral staircases than I had in my previous sixty-seven years.
- The people in the villages were wonderful. Prior to our pilgrimage, Manyu and I had spent a week in Alsace. There I found the waiters and the people working the tourist attractions inhospitable. They were not rude, so much as indifferent. In the villages along the Camino, innkeepers and restaurant staff were friendly and genuinely pleased to have us there. In Conques, we asked for breakfast at 7am instead of the scheduled 7:30. Our time was tight because the van we’d hired to take us back to our starting point (where we’d left our car) was a 10-minute walk away and scheduled to leave at 8:10. Our host was bothered by this change of time, not because he had to get up 30 minutes early to prepare an early breakfast, but because the village’s bakery didn’t open until 7:30. He was embarrassed to serve us breakfast without fresh croissants. He agreed to serve us early only if we stayed long enough for him to run to the bakery and get us a bag of croissants to go.
- We made our pilgrimage just in time. Except for indoor plumbing and electricity, the six villages we visited probably hadn’t changed much in at least five hundred years. My sense is that this is about to change. The first inklings of mass tourism were beginning to show themselves. At Conques, the last village on our itinerary, visitors already were arriving by car rather than by foot. Conques was my favorite village of the entire trip, but the inns and restaurants were beginning to cater to a non-pilgrim clientele. A third of the patrons at the pubs and eateries were not locals, nor did they have the weathered look of someone just off the trail.
- I have no understanding of the devastation of World War I. Every village we stayed at had a memorial listing the names of the townspeople who’d died during World War I. If I had to guess, I’d say these towns had no more than five hundred residents, yet the plaques at the memorials contained anywhere from forty to eighty names. These communities had to have lost an entire generation of young men, and I don’t know how a place would ever recover from something like that.
- I am still capable of extended hikes. Prior to the pilgrimage, I hadn’t gone on a multi-day hike in nearly twenty years. Because of bad knees, my wilderness experiences had shifted from backpacking to backcountry canoeing. Now I realize the problem was not so much hiking for miles on end as hiking for miles on end with a seventy-pound pack on my back. Because we stayed at inns and ate in restaurants, I did not carry a tent, a sleeping bag, cooking gear, or a cache of food. For the first two days, I carried rain gear, lunch, heavy sweaters, a change of clothes for both Manyu and me, bathroom kits, towels, and a journal. Then I found out that for seven Euros a day, a van would shuttle to the next village anything I did not need on the trail. For the last three days, I put my backpack in a van and carried only Manyu’s small daypack. The heaviest thing in the pack was drinking water, and my ninety-pound wife didn’t have to carry anything at all.
The pilgrimage was the highlight of my vacation to France, but immediately afterwards events turned for the worse. That is a story is for next Monday’s blog.
Camino de Santiago (Part 1) (May 30, 2022)
I was familiar with the famed Camino de Santiago, but thought it was a single long trail through the Pyrenees. It actually is a web of trails across France, Portugal, and Spain that gradually converge as they approach the gravesite of the Christian disciple James at the Santiago de Compostela. The symbol of the Camino is the scallop shell, and the ridges of the shell represent the various routes coming together at a single point. True pilgrims do not even necessarily start on an established trail, but leave directly from their homes in Denmark or Germany or wherever home is, walk or take a train to the nearest trailhead, then hike for weeks or months to the trail’s end in western Spain.
When my French brother-in-law Claude invited Manyu and me to join him and Manyu’s sister Shauyu on a five-day trek along a French segment of the Camino de Santiago, we saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Claude’s cousin Martine, who has hiked a dozen different sections over a thirty-year period, planned our itinerary and joined us. Our route took us from Nasbinals to St. Chély d’Aubrac to St. Côme d’Olt to Estaing to Golinhac to Conques. I’d never heard of any of these French villages prior to our trip, and I don’t expect most people reading this blog have ever heard of them either.
Calling our route a trail is a bit misleading. Some sections were classic hiking trail, eighteen-inch wide pathways of packed earth running through a woods or atop a hilltop. Just as often, however, we were walking through pastureland or along a country road. Our branch of the Camino was GR 65 (Grande Randonnée or Big Trek 65), and it was represented by a white stripe over a red stripe. Whenever we reached an intersection of any kind, the correct route was marked by this logo. Even though I was disoriented from the moment we set off on the first day, I never felt lost. So long as we followed the white and red markers, we eventually reached the next village on our route.
Other than a retired French Canadian couple, I think everyone we encountered on the Camino was from France. I have no idea what gave me away, but all of the other pilgrims seemed to know I was American. Even to my Asian wife and Asian sister-in-law, strangers greeted them with a friendly “Bonjour.” When they got to me, they switched to English and said either “Good morning” or “Hello.” Full beard, wool hat, one walking stick when everyone else had two – something identified me as a foreigner. If I said “Bonjour” first, my accented greeting certainly gave me away, but even when I kept my mouth shut until a fellow hiker spoke, he or she knew I was from somewhere else.
Rather telling a particular story about our five-day pilgrimage on the Camino, I’d really like to give a few very strong general impressions. I will post them in a follow-up blog on Wednesday.
Two Out of Three Ain't Bad (May 28, 2022)
John Muir once said that with so much of the world to experience he barely had time to write. Usually my life is mundane enough for me to write several hours each morning, but the past six weeks have been the exception. With an unexpectedly long trip to northern Europe followed immediately by my annual fishing trip to Lake of the Woods in Ontario, my writing (including the weekly entries for my blog) has been ignored. It is time to get back to work. One perk of not having time to write is that, once settling back into a routine, there is plenty to write about.
For the half dozen blog entries to follow, I will write detailed anecdotes about the past month, but for today I’ll lay the general groundwork. In late April, Manyu and I traveled to Alsace in France to visit Manyu’s sister Shauyu and her husband Claude. The highlight of our three-week trip was to be a five-day pilgrimage on a French section of the Camino de Santiago. Led by Claude, Shauyu, and Claude’s cousin Martine, we took the hike, but somewhere along the way I tested positive for COVID. One by one I infected Manyu, Claude, and Shauyu, and our three-week trip extended to five weeks, so that when I returned to La Crosse, I had one day before leaving for Canada. I actually missed the planned departure date by a day, but my fishing companions, once they knew I was on my way home, waited one day so I could still make the trip. Therefore I have three big events to write about – 1) a once-in-a-lifetime adventure on the famed European route to the supposed burial site of Jesus’s disciple James, 2) a hopefully once-in-a-lifetime sequestration in a foreign country unable to come home, and 3) the highlights of my annual fishing trip to Canada. Two were excellent, one was lousy, and even the lousy one might take on positive attributes after a few months have passed. Either way, I am now home, I turn sixty-eight years old tomorrow, and Jack (my dog) is again happy to have me home. Except for the fact that my lawn needs cutting and my vegetable garden looks abandoned, all is good.
Essays to My Daughter (Excerpt No. 2 (May 2, 2022))
Currently I am traveling without electronic devices, so I won’t be able to write this week’s blog. The following is an excerpt from my upcoming Essays to My Daughter on Our Relationship with the Natural World. By next week, I’ll be back to writing my usual blogs.
When I returned with the pole and the bucket, [my dad] pulled a red handkerchief out of his pocket and used his jackknife to cut a small square of red material out of one corner. My family did not have much money at the time, and my dad was cheap. I remember being surprised he’d intentionally put a hole in his handkerchief. He put the red square on the bare hook of my pole and told me to gently lower it in front of the outermost frog. I did, and the frog immediately lunged at the red material. It hooked itself, and I reeled it in like a fish. I put the frog in the bucket, and my dad covered the top of the bucket with the handkerchief. The lunging frog surprised me, but no more so than the fact that none of the other frogs moved when their companion was lifted to the heavens. Had I crept down the bank, I might have caught one frog before the rest jumped into the river. With my fishing pole, I was able to lower the red lure six times and catch every one. With six frogs in the bucket, my dad asked me what I wanted to do with them. I said I wanted to put them back. I walked down the embankment and gently poured leopard frogs into the river. I knew that the correct way to release fish was to humanely set them in the water, not toss them — and I assumed the same principle applied to frogs. Then we got back in the car and drove home.
Essays to My Daughter (Excerpt No. 1 (April 25, 2022))
Currently I am traveling without electronic devices, so I won’t be able to write this week’s blog. However, my next book is in the hands of Purdue University Press for final revisions, so while I am gone, I will print short excerpts from the upcoming Essays to My Daughter on Our Relationship with the Natural World. I hopefully will have much to say about my trip upon my return.
The return of the turkeys made me think about other environmental events that have happened in Wisconsin during my lifetime. All of them, of course, occurred decades after the writing of “The Good Oak.” The list of invasive species would be a story unto itself. Along with garlic mustard, there would be purple loosestrife, gypsy moths, emerald ash borers, burdock, Canada thistle (a plant native to Eurasia in spite of its name), leafy spurge, honeysuckle, and more recently, Asian ladybugs and bighead carp. The most memorable invasive species for me is the alewife. As a kid growing up near Lake Michigan in the 1960s, summers meant a wide belt of dead herring at the high-water mark of every beach I ever played on. When I was eleven years old and at the peak of my lakeshore wanderings, alewife made up 90 percent of the fish mass in Lake Michigan. Today the alewife population is greatly reduced, and the long ribbons of rotting alewife on the beach have been replaced by the equally ubiquitous remains of invasive zebra mussels. Mussel shells, however, don’t stink, and I almost feel sorry for the current generation of young Great Lakes beachcombers. Decades from now, what foul aroma is going to remind these kids of the best part of their childhood?
Catch-22 (April 18, 2022)
Some people derive nearly as much pleasure in preparing for a trip as they do going on the trip. Travelers to Europe hover over Lonely Planet guide books and plan itineraries. Fishermen and fisherwomen go through their tackle boxes and get their gear in perfect order. Trekkers break in new hiking boots by taking long daily walks for a month beforehand. I, unfortunately, dislike preparation. I also don’t like the driving or flying parts of trips either. I get bored with driving, and I have an aversion to pretty much everything about air travel. I don’t like airports, security lines, cramped seats (or walking by the roomy seats in business class), making (or missing) connections, and then waiting in a final line at immigration. In the last two years, COVID precautions have added a fresh layer of unpleasantness over the whole thing. I enjoy trains, but in the US, trains don’t always take me where I want to go. If I could snap my fingers and just be at my destination, I’d do more traveling.
If you read this blog the same week I posted it, I will be in Alsace. I might be sitting in an outdoor French cafe, over-caffeinating, gawking at the architecture and the people, reading Catch-22 or writing in my journal. I’ll be at peace and wondering why I stressed so much about this trip in the first place.
Whenever I go on an extended non-wilderness trip, I bring along a small paperback of a classic novel I’ve never read before. For example, in Laos, which was my last big trip, I read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. For this three-week trip to France, I have Catch-22. This is a slight digression from my normal habit, as I have read Catch-22 one other time. It might have been when I was a teenager. Somehow in five decades of moves and life changes, the same paperback copy of Catch-22 has remained with me. I can think only two other books that never got lost somewhere along the way. They are battered copies of Walden and A Sand County Almanac. Whereas I reread those two books to the point I have some passages memorized, I haven’t touched Catch-22. It may be time to see whether it’s held up.
A Slower Pace (April 11, 2022)
For a few days now I have put away my bicycle and instead have been taking long walks through the La Crosse River Marsh. The reason is that Manyu and I plan on taking a five-day trek along the French section of the Camino de Santiago in two weeks, so we want to get our legs and feet in hiking mode. I am sure I will write about the French trip upon my return, but I mention it here only because it has led to the change of pace from biking to walking. I’ve known pretty much my entire life that moving slowly is better moving fast, but the first day of switching from ten miles an hour to less than three is always a good refresher. I bike because it is a better workout than walking, but I miss observing much that is around me. This is especially apparent when the marsh is just waking up after a late spring.
On my bike last week, I saw Canada geese, high water, and a few mallards. Yesterday on foot I saw the geese and mallards, but also muskrats, coots, painted turtles, blue-wing teal, and shovelers. There were even tree swallows, although I noticed none of the flying insects that usually bring them in. I didn’t see any red-winged blackbirds, even though they must be there. When I am on the move (and focusing on not hitting pedestrians or their dogs), I have a hard time differentiating buffleheads from hood mergansers. Yesterday I stopped and studied the birds. Even though they were at a distance and I hadn’t brought binoculars, I could easily identify the birds with big white patches on their faces as mergansers. I also heard frogs for the first time, but I think it is because the frogs only emerged since this most recent blast of warmer air.
I miss my bike rides, but with all the preparation for our upcoming trip, I have time to either walk or ride, not both. If I am going to put aside my bike for a couple of weeks, springtime in the marsh is a good time to do it.
Recital (April 4, 2022)
This weekend I attended a violin recital of a teenager soon to graduate from high school. Like Clare, Matthew took lessons with Busya, and like Clare, Busya made him perform an hour-long concert as the culminating event of his six years of private instruction. Busya is a viola player with the La Crosse Symphony and a retired music professor at Viterbo College. About a year ago I took her kayaking on the Mississippi River and watched her slip on the mud as we made a short portage across an island. I was responsible for damaging the wrist of a woman whose entire reason for being is linked to mobility in her wrists. At the concert, she played a duet with Matthew, and I saw no ill effects.
Matthew has an Asian mom and a white Wisconsinite dad. The Asian American community in La Crosse pretty much disbanded during COVID, so it was good to see many of the families at the performance. Some I hadn’t seen for two years, even though we live in the same small city. Most of the young people in attendance were four to six years behind Clare and still in high school. Their conversations were the same as the one Clare’s friends had when she was their age. They talked about music, which makes sense as they all played instruments and had just attended a concert, and they talked about what they hoped to do next.
The first week of April is an interesting time for high school seniors planning to go to college. By now they have heard from all of the colleges they applied to and now have a couple of weeks to commit to one of the schools that accepted them. Some got into their first choice, so the decision is easy. Others did not, so they must choose between two or three schools they like equally. In one case this weekend, a teenager likes one school and his parents strongly prefer another. I’m curious how that decision falls out.
In spite of their age differences, Clare was friends with Matthew, so she drove up for the concert. She commented that as exciting as it was choosing a school, she does not regret that that part of her life is in the past. I said to her, “I thought you bought some GRE prep books and were studying for the grad school exam.”
“Dad,” Clare replied, “I work until 5, exercise until 7, then cook dinner. When would I study? I bought a prep book, but I haven’t opened it.”
“Good,” I thought to myself. Graduate school probably is in Clare’s future, and she is more mature at twenty-three than I was when I was her age, but I hope additional schooling isn’t soon.
Little Soldiers and Hybrid Tigers (March 28, 2022)
With my most recent manuscript out my hands and in the hands of my publisher, I have gone in a new direction with my morning writing. I’ve moved from recalling my experiences in the natural world to reflecting on my daughter Clare’s bilingual and bicultural upbringing and education. As has been my habit when I take on a new topic, my initial efforts are as much reading what others have written on the subject as putting my own thoughts to paper. Of the things I’ve read, Little Soldiers by Lenora Chu and The Hybrid Tiger by Quanyu Huang stand out. Little Soldiers is written by a second generation Taiwanese American who moved her family to Shanghai and enrolled her son in a Chinese elementary school. The Hybrid Tiger takes on the same material, but from the opposite direction. It is written by a Chinese scholar who moved to the United States and placed his son in the American public school system.
The two books come to the same conclusion that Chinese culture has something to teach the West and the West has something to teach the Chinese, but the tones of the books are completely different. Whereas Huang is reluctant to criticize too harshly either the Chinese or the American ways of doing things, Chu is happy to lay into both and is especially hard on the Chinese. A good example of this difference is each book’s discussion of the 2018 international math scores. 2018 was the first year for Mainland China to participate in the PISA (Program for International Assessment) exams, and it immediately jumped to the very top of the list. Huang acknowledged that China only tested kids in Shanghai, but speculated the results would have been similar had tests been given to students from across the country. Chu, on the other hand, called it a sham. She accused the Chinese government of handpicking students from a city replete with private prep schools, knowing full well the rest of the country is laced with dysfunctional public schools where even the kids realize the next step is a career as an unskilled laborer.
On more than one occasion, brutally honest friends have told me I write on topics that no longer need to be written about. In one instance, I was told I was beating a dead horse. In another, a friend suggested that if I’m only going to say what’s already been said, at least put some sex in it. In reading Little Soldiers and The Hybrid Tiger, I am again asking myself not only whether the topic of Chinese versus American education has been exhausted, but whether it was done by writers more qualified than I am.
I ask these questions, but the answers don’t really matter. Everything I have ever written has already been said by someone else, and there always is someone more qualified to write about it. When I think about childrearing in a bicultural home, even my own daughter understands the subject better than I do. She, however, is busy making the world a slightly better place and does not have time to write every day. This is exactly the point. Whatever Manyu (an Asian woman dragged to the US by an American husband) and I (a middle class, Middlewestern, formerly middle-aged male) did to raise a thoughtful, independent, good-hearted daughter deserves my attention.
Intro to Rec (March 21, 2022)
I am currently working on a series of essays about the differences between the American style of education and the Chinese/Taiwanese style. One of the subtopics is students’ willingness to disagree with their teachers. The following story came to mind…
When I decided to return to school for my Ph.D. in the early 1980s, there were a number of innocuous reasons I chose the University of Minnesota over some other good schools. One of those reasons was that Minnesota’s Department of Recreation, Park, and Leisure Studies was going to let me teach my own classes. Assistantships at a couple of other schools actually paid better than Minnesota, but they didn’t offer the same teaching opportunities.
My first class of my first semester was Introduction to Recreation and Leisure. It was a required course of all recreation majors, but also attracted students from across campus. I overgeneralize, but recreation majors are a wholesome bunch. They are goodhearted young adults who take school seriously and are respectful of their teachers and of each other. That is why Leroy was such an anomaly. He was Goth when Goth was just starting to be popular, and he questioned aloud almost everything I said. I doubted he was a rec major. The other students found Leroy annoying, but I let him go because 1) I was inexperienced and did not know how to shut a student down, and 2) his insights were good. When he called me out, he wasn’t necessarily right, but he always offered an opposing view that had merit. Still, it was obvious he was being intentionally confrontational. I did not see a consistent point of view. He just disagreed with me whenever there was a chance to disagree.
The year was 1983. Course registration was still being done by hand, so it was about two weeks into the semester before I received my official class roster. When I finally was able to review my list of students, Leroy’s name was not on it – and at the first class meeting after I had the roster in hand, he was gone. I never saw him again. He’d just come to pester me, and as soon as I found out he wasn’t an enrolled student, he disappeared. After all of these years, I still remember Leroy’s first name, if that really was his name.
Bike on the Back Patio (March 14, 2022)
Today I took my bicycle off the device that makes it a stationary bike. I added air to the tires, oiled the chain, and took my first real bike ride of 2022. My legs are not in summer biking form, but it was fantastic. Snow was sparse, the pavement was mostly dry, and the temperature reached fifty degrees.
I was not the only one outside. Runners and other bikers who’ve been waiting three and a half months for the weather to warm hit the sidewalks and trails the same day. I don’t think people who live in less severe climates understand the significance of leaving the house after a long period semi-trapped inside. It is more than enjoying a day of balmy weather. It is surviving the winter.
Prior to moving to San Francisco in the early 80s, I’d never lived anywhere without harsh winters. When I first arrived, I took a job at a NorthFace store to pay the rent (barely pay the rent). In my first week of work, a woman came into the store and asked about down coats with Gore-Tex. I
started to tell her that if the weather was warm enough for it to rain she didn’t need down, but my Californian coworker cut me off and took her to the down Gore-tex jackets.
I eventually learned that Bay Area winters do have a bite to them, but the residents there don’t experience that same cabin fever as those of us in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Even the rainiest San Francisco winters have occasional sunny days, so people rarely are cooped up longer than a week at a time.
Also the constant rains turn everything in northern California a luminescent green. It was January when I moved by car from Boston to San Francisco. After five days of driving an interstate highway lined with dirty roadside snow, I arrived in the middle of the night and immediately collapsed in a cheap motel east of Oakland. I remember leaving the motel room early the next morning and feeling I was Dorothy stepping out of her house into Munchkinland. I’d never seen any place so lush, and I though I was in paradise.
While I was in my backyard working on my bicycle, I noticed the last dwindling pile of snow and ice on my concrete patio. As I am sure I’ve mentioned many times, Manyu is Taiwanese. In this last remnant of winter, right down to the offshore tidal flats and snowy peaks, I saw a contour map of Taiwan’s land mass. Not many people in the city of La Crosse would have made this connection, but to me it was obvious.
Sauna in the UP (March 7, 2022)
Jack needed to drive from his home in western Wisconsin to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to pick up the barrel-shaped, wood-fired sauna he’d ordered. Clint had the heavy-duty trailer to haul it on. I was the one with access to a cabin where we could stay during a round trip that would take two full days. Three guys riding in a pickup truck the tail end of winter to retrieve a sauna in the UP (pronounced You Pee) is the epitome of an old-men-from-Wisconsin road trip.
When I travel alone, I am without a cellphone or a smart vehicle. Therefore I still rely on old-fashioned paper maps. I should have brought a map along. The farther north we traveled, the more unreliable the cell service became. More than once Siri (or whoever was talking to us) failed to tell us to make a turn, and three or four times we overshot the recommended route. Because u-turns on rural highways with a long heavy trailer were difficult, we tended to change the route rather than reverse course. Several times we added an eight or nine-mile detour to our drive. On Highway 70 near the Wisconsin-Michigan border, we missed an important left turn onto Highway 55. When Siri did kick in, she told us to turn left onto a road wide enough for only one vehicle. We drove for three miles until we reached a spot where the snowplow had arbitrarily stopped. The snow was two feet deep, so continuing on was not an option. There hadn’t been a building or a side road the entire distance, so I don’t why the road had been plowed at all. I definitely did not know why anyone would plow through three miles of undisturbed coniferous forest and then quit. If the plow truck driver hadn’t had to cut a big Y into the forest to get his or her own vehicle turned around, we would have been as stuck as a turtle in a dead end pipe. I seldom ride in vehicles with built-in navigation systems, but twice now I’ve been directed to really lousy places. Operator error?
Jack and Clint dropped me off at my sister Diane’s cabin not far from Iron River, Michigan, then continued north to the little town of Pelkie to pick up the sauna. The plan was for me to have dinner ready when they returned. It was a good thing I didn’t start the pasta until their actual return, as they went the wrong way twice more and added 45 minutes to their estimated travel time. While they were gone, I had time to sit down with a glass of whiskey and write. It was my first alcohol since prostate surgery. I am supposed to lay off spicy food, alcohol, and coffee for up to three months, but sitting at a rustic table overlooking a frozen lake with pen and paper in hand, I couldn’t help but pour myself a small one.
Before the surgery, I told the attending nurse that spicy food and alcohol would be easy for me to give up, but I’d be drinking coffee as soon as the catheter came out. I didn’t last that long. The surgery was on a Wednesday, and I was back to three cups by Saturday.
I Missed Our Anniversary (February 28, 2022)
This year I missed Manyu’s and my anniversary. With it being so close to Valentine’s Day and with me not even knowing which day I’m supposed to celebrate, I don’t always give the day the recognition it deserves. Never before had I forgotten it completely.
Our anniversary is either February 18 or 19. I am not sure which. Our Taiwanese marriage license says February 18, but that was the day we went down to the courthouse in Taipei to sign the papers. As I mentioned in a blog a few weeks back, Manyu and I married on the lucky day for marriage according to the lunar calendar. This meant half the people who got married in Taiwan that year got married the same day. Manyu and I jammed into a courtroom with several hundred other people. The judge called us up eight couples at a time, said a few words, and we were married. On that particular day, all of the restaurants in the city with a wedding hall had been reserved for a year, so our celebration took place the following day.
A traditional Chinese dinner for bride, groom, and guests is an elaborate ten-course meal. After every third course, the bride leaves and comes back in a different dress. During the times Manyu left the room for her wardrobe changes, I got up and mingled with guests at the various tables. This was not what the groom was supposed to do. One, I made some of Manyu’s friends and family nervous, because they feared I’d try to have a conversation with them in English. Two, my real job was to sit quietly at the head table and lead the applause when Manyu walked into the room wearing new clothes.
I also messed up the marriage license. City authorities needed proof I was not married. I immediately called my mom in the United States and asked her to dig through the papers I’d left with her and express mail my divorce documents. When I brought the papers to city hall, they stated (correctly) that a divorce decree did not prove I wasn’t married. It proved I wasn’t married to the only woman I’d actually been married to. I went to AIT (American Institute in Taiwan) to ask for help. Since the US does not recognize Taiwan as a country, we have no embassy there. If we did have an embassy, it would look and act exactly like AIT does. The guy at the Americans-with-problems window asked me to raise my right hand. When I did, he asked, “Are you married?” I said, “No,” and he handed a form that said I was single. “That’s it?” I asked. “Yeah,” he said. “How you gonna prove you aren’t married.”
I forgot about our anniversary this year because I am recovering from recent prostate surgery. It’s not a great excuse, but one Manyu accepted. Next year will be thirty years. I’ll do something special then.
Katherine of Katherine Lake (February 21, 2022)
A month and a half ago Chris Brannan, Purdue University Press’s graphic artist, contacted me about the cover design for my forthcoming book. He asked me to send him a few nature photos I’d taken and then select several more from a large collection of high-resolution online stock photos the Press had access to. In total, I sent him about 40 JPEGs. Ten were my own, and at least 30 were from the stock collection.
To my surprise, Chris chose one of my photographs. It was of a line of rowboats along a dock on a quiet foggy morning. I told Chris I was happy with his overall concept for the cover. I also wrote a short blurb about the photo and requested it appear somewhere in the copyright pages of the book. The blurb explained the photo had been taken at my cousin Tom McEwen’s small resort in Hazelhurst, Wisconsin. Tom died of a brain tumor just after Christmas, and I wanted to dedicate the cover photo to him.
Almost immediately after I sent my email, Katherine Purple, the Purdue University Press’s editorial manager and the woman responsible for putting my manuscript into book form, emailed me back to say all of her summer vacations as a young girl had been spent in Hazelhurst, Wisconsin. She had been named after Katherine Lake, a large body of water not a mile from my cousin’s resort. She wrote, “The highlight of my life was pulling a huge muskie out of Katherine Lake on my regular, lightweight pole with just a worm.”
I don’t know if I should call this coincidence, serendipity, or synchronicity, but I can’t help but believe Chris picked the right photo for my book.
A Reason for My Blog (February 14, 2022)
My favorite book about writing is Stephen King’s On Writing. At one point in it, he describes good writing as the ability to kill your darlings. By this, he means one of the hardest parts of writing is deleting a good sentence, a well-organized paragraph, or an interesting anecdote when it doesn’t fit the rest of the manuscript. Sometimes the very best stuff fails to make the cut. My blog is one place for me to put some of my discarded darlings. I started my blog because literary agents and potential publishers criticized my failure to have any kind of a social media presence. I’ve stuck with my blog because it’s a good place to publish short pieces of writing that don’t go anywhere else. For example…
Several years ago I was wine tasting at Elmaro Winery north of La Crosse. Clare was with me, and she asked whether she could taste the wine, too. I looked that the woman pouring the wine (the sommelier, the bartender?)and asked, “Can she?” The woman asked me whether Clare was my daughter. I said she was, so the woman turned to Clare and asked her how old she was. When Clare said she was seventeen, the woman said, “Then I can pour your dad an extra glass, and he can hand the glass to you. If you were eighteen, you’d be an adult, and your dad would no longer represent you. I wouldn’t be able to serve you because you aren’t twenty-one, but your dad couldn’t serve you either because you’d be over seventeen. Today you can drink as much as your dad lets you. A year from now you won’t be able to drink at all. I don’t make the rules; I just follow them.”
Someday, this anecdote may fit into a larger piece. For now, it’s part of this week’s blog.
Chinese New Year (February 7, 2022)
In the years when we had kids around the house, the highlight of Chinese New Year was the handing out of red envelopes. Children went from adult to adult wishing them a prosperous and happy new year, and the adults rewarded the kids with an envelope of money. When Clare was young, she’d get a few dollars from the people she did not know well and made a haul from aunts, parents, and grandparents.
Now, with kids out of the picture, the biggest part of Chinese New Year is the food. This year, we hosted two big meals. One was on Saturday. The other was on Monday. The plan had been 1) to eat a big meal on Saturday so Clare could come up from Madison to join us without taking a day off work, and then 2) to feast again on Monday, because it was the actual New Year’s Eve. Three days before we were expecting Clare, she called to say she wouldn’t make it. Her roommate had tested positive for COVID, and Clare was sequestering herself until she tested negative two consecutive times.
Even though Clare couldn’t join us on Saturday, Manyu had already prepared a lot of food, so we invited a married couple from the Chinese American community to help us eat it. They marveled at all of the food Manyu had spent the previous week preparing (e.g., peppery salt chicken, lion’s head soup, luo buo gao made from scratch). They enthusiastically dove into every new dish brought to the table. The husband of the couple was, like me, a white guy from Wisconsin, but years of marriage to a Chinese woman had trained his taste buds to enjoy authentic Chinese cuisine.
Then on Monday, we hosted two of my card playing buddies and their wives. The Monday guests were novices to the Chinese New Year’s dining experience. The overriding lesson of the two evenings was that authentic Chinese food is an acquired taste. Monday was epitomized by one of my friends jokingly stating he’d pass on one of the seafood offerings because he avoided anything with tentacles. Also the Monday meal included forks among the eating utensils, whereas Saturday had been all chopsticks. My very non-Chinese friends had a great time and found several dishes delicious (e..g, the pineapple shrimp was almost gone before I had a chance to take any), but they were more hesitant than our Saturday guests about trying everything Manyu brought out from the kitchen.
Another interesting thing about the Monday dinner was that our Western guests stopped eating every time Manyu left the table to put the final touches on another dish. They had an especially hard time at the very beginning of the meal when Manyu said, “Please start eating while the shrimp and tofu are hot. I’ll be right in.” Common courtesy (and these are pretty rough guys who are not slaves to etiquette) would not allow them to eat when their host was not seated. Our friends from the Chinese American community, on the other hand, never stopped putting food in their mouths, knowing full well that Manyu was going to be jumping up and down most of the night.
I enjoyed both nights very much, but put on weight from just those two meals. I have a bet with Clare that I will lose ten pounds by May, and now I have only twelve pounds to go.
* I intentionally titled this blog entry Chinese New Year and not Lunar New Year. I understand the reason for the less specific name for the holiday (many non-Chinese cultures along the Pacific Rim also celebrate the holiday), but Manyu is Taiwanese, and we commemorate the holiday with traditions specific to Chinese culture. Chinese New Year feels like the right term for the way we celebrate.
Chinese Food, Indian Food (January 31, 2022)
Last week’s blog was about driving to Madison to buy groceries for the Lunar New Year. I let myself get sidetracked about the holiday itself and didn’t write about the food we bought. We filled a grocery cart, so I won’t list every item, but there were fish balls, shrimp balls, cuttlefish, Chinese cabbage, oyster sauce, tripe, pork ribs cut differently from the way they are done in Western supermarkets, New Years candy, and a special sticky rice with grains that were more spherical than long. The store didn’t have any luo buo gao (蘿蔔糕) or turnip cake, so Manyu bought daikon and rice flour to make her own. The store carried the special kind of mushrooms Manyu wanted, but we didn’t buy them because she didn’t think they were fresh enough.
There were only two items I wanted, Tsingtao beer and white pomfret, but we didn’t get either one. The shelves where the Tsingtao should have been were empty, and the only pomfret in the store was not the white species, but the far less delicious gold. Just as well; white pomfret is being overfished, and I shouldn’t be supporting a non-sustainable fishery.
Before Manyu and I went shopping, we met Clare to take her out to lunch. Even though Clare is a pescatarian, she knows I enjoy hamburgers and rarely eat them at home. She was going to take us to a good burger place near her office. On the way, however, we drove past an Indian restaurant in a mini-mall, and my dreams of a juicy hamburger were dashed.
The sign on the door of the Indian restaurant said, “Carryout only. No inside dining due to COVID.” That didn’t matter, as we weren’t going to eat indoors in a public space anyway. Our plan was to eat in the car, which would have been difficult with Indian food, but the woman at the counter had disposable plates and utensils to give us. The only people in the front part of the restaurant were the Indian woman and her two small kids coloring pictures at one of the tables toward the back. No one else entered while we waited for our food, so the woman told us we could eat inside if we were willing to use the disposable plates and forks she’d given us. We sat down at a table, and she brought us, in addition to the food we ordered, vegetable samosas and bottled water. She also tried to give us more rice even though we had more food than we could eat.
With a row of steam tables jammed in the corner of the dining room, it was obvious the restaurant had originally been set up as a buffet. COVID had wiped out their lunchtime crowd. From noon until 1pm, we were the only customers to walk into the place, and the problem was not the food. The chana masala, naan, and a spicy rice dish I don’t know the name of were all very good. Everyone knows the pandemic is hurting mom and pop restaurants, but it’s still painful to see firsthand. We left the woman a big tip, but I could have emptied my wallet and still not made up for an otherwise empty restaurant.
Preparing for the New Year (January 24, 2022)
Manyu and I sometimes drive two and a half hours to grocery shop. When we first moved to La Crosse in the early 1990s, we sometimes drove six. La Crosse’s Chinese/Taiwanese community is too small to support much of a Chinese market, so whenever we need to stock up on Chinese ingredients, it involves a road trip. During our first few years in Wisconsin, we drove to Chicago. More recently, good Chinese food marts have opened up in Madison and the Twin Cities, so we don’t have to drive as far.
Usually when we go to these larger cities, we go for reasons other than shopping. Buying groceries is somewhat an afterthought, so I often forget to bring an ice chest from home. I end up buying a cheap cooler to keep the frozen foods cold during the drive home, and I now have enough Styrofoam in the garage to build my own life raft. For Lunar New Year, we actually make a trip just for shopping. Last Tuesday Manyu and I drove to Madison to check out the city’s new Global Market. I remembered to bring a cooler.
Every January I ask Manyu why we need to make a special trip for food we eat only once a year. She explains that most grocery stores and restaurants are closed for three full days over the new year, so we need to stockpile food. I point out stores and restaurants in Wisconsin do not follow the Taiwanese tradition of closing for the New Year, and she replies that it doesn’t make any difference.
2022 is the year of the tiger. Some couples of Chinese heritage avoid having tiger babies. Tigers are fiery and fearless, two characteristics not conducive to fitting seamlessly into society. Local schools in China and Taiwan have difficulty managing enrollments because birth rates follow a 12-year sine curve according to the Chinese zodiac. There are lots of dragons and not so many tigers. If parents were entirely logical, they’d intentionally have little tigers. Some things in life, such as getting into a prestigious university, are easier in years when the competition is less.
I am a horse in the Chinese zodiac. In matters of love, horses are dull, shy, and loyal. They should marry a sheep or a tiger or a rabbit. They should avoid marrying a rat, a rooster, an ox, or another horse. Of course, Manyu is an ox. My ex-wife is a horse. I did, however, marry Manyu on the lunar calendar’s luckiest day for marriage, so that should count for something.
* The photo in this week’s blog are of two prints hanging over the table in the breakfast nook of our house. They were done by the daughter of one of Manyu’s friends. We got the rabbit because Clare is a rabbit. We got the tiger because Manyu liked it. Others must have liked it, too, as it won an annual Chinese New Years art competition in 2010, the last time it was the Year of the Tiger.
Out on the Ice (January 17, 2022)
Fishermen on the ice do not necessarily mean the fish are biting. Last week, men were everywhere on the Upper Mississippi – in the backwaters, at river’s edge, even out on the hazardous main channel. I am not being political incorrect when I use the terms “fishermen” and “men” to describe the people who were fishing. I was close enough to fifty or sixty individuals to identify gender, and I saw only one woman among them. Women enjoy fishing, but apparently few will use a vacation day from work to sit on the ice. As far as I could tell, the fishing was marginal, so fishermen were out mostly because Tuesday and Wednesday were the first warm days of 2022.
In last week week’s blog I wrote that cabin fever is especially severe this winter, and the large number of fishermen on the ice midweek supports this assertion. With little to do and too cold to do it, many longed for the chance to sit on a bucket and jig for perch and bluegills. When the fish are not biting, I tend to go ice fishing no more than once a week. Last week the fishing was poor, and still I went twice in two days.
While I prefer summer fishing to winter fishing, one benefit of fishing in the winter is that the fish taste better. Cold clear water produces firm clean fillets. Some friends tell me the difference is in my head. Others admit winter fillets might be firmer, but speculate the reason is because fish in the summer sometimes die on the stringer and are not as fresh. All I know is that panfish on the river in the summer taste muddy, so much so that all of my fishing in August is catch-and-release.
Every winter season I have to go out a few times before I work out the bugs in my fishing gear and my technique. This year, when I pulled my equipment down from the rafters in the garage, I found a hammer among the poles, auger, and ice skimmer. Unable to remember why I ever used a hammer to ice fish, I returned it to my tool cabinet. This past Tuesday I remembered why I needed it. It is to make a live well. Most ice fishermen toss their catch directly on the ice. I prefer to make a small swimming pool for the fish. This way the fish stay active and alive, and then at the end of the day, I can decide whether to take them home or return them to the river. I create the live well by drilling a series of closely packed saucer-sized holes part way through the ice, then filling the holes with water from the river. The hammer is to bust the narrow ice walls between the individual holes to create a single large pond. Without the hammer I wind up with a half dozen self-contained fish bowls. Each bowl is large enough to hold two panfish, but not large enough for the fish to swim around.
Cabin Fever (January 10, 2022)
My outdoor pursuits definitely take a hit come winter. I still go for daily walks, although the last few days have been so cold my dog won’t go with me. There finally is enough ice on the river for me to go ice fishing, but I now need the weather to warm up to about 30° before sitting outside on a bucket strikes me as fun. A friend asked me to go cross-country skiing with him, but it’s been so long since I skied that I now have to climb up into the rafters of my garage to see if my cross-country gear is in working order.
Cabin fever came a little sooner than usual this year. COVID might be a contributing factor. Since I attended the Packer game along with 77,000 unmasked Packer fans, I have somewhat sequestered myself. This increases the sense of being trapped in my own house. I did bring one of my bicycles indoors and attached it to the device that turns my street bike into a stationary bike. I ventured to the supermarket to restock my junk food supply, and I also went to the library for a fresh supply of popular fiction. In addition to picking up several authors I’ve never read before, I found a Lee Child and a James Lee Burke that I’d somehow missed when they first came out.
The only time I left town since Christmas was to attend my cousin’s funeral in northern Wisconsin. A funeral of a friend does not pull anyone out of a funk. The highlight of the trip was making it home without sliding into a ditch on an icy backroad.
Although it is counterintuitive, having my wife with me has made the doldrums more difficult. The coldest months in Wisconsin coincide with Chinese New Year, so Manyu usually spends January and February visiting family in Taiwan. This year, due Taiwanese COVID restrictions, she stayed in La Crosse. The dead of winter overwhelms her, and her winter blahs intensify my own.
I, like everyone else I know, look for signs of spring before they even exist. We notice it gets dark at 4:45 instead of 4:30. We google annual weather charts to confirm late January is the coldest time of the year, so we are only two weeks away from when the days start warming up. I did trim my beard yesterday. Even if I’ve become a hermit, I shouldn’t see one every time I look in the mirror. What am I to write about in my weekly blog when nothing interesting happens?
Packer Game (January 3, 2022)
Clare, my mom, my brother-in-law Paul, and I spent Christmas afternoon at a Green Bay Packer football game. I’ve been to several preseason games over the years, but I can’t remember if I’ve ever been to one during the regular season. It was Clare’s first game ever. Out of 77,000 people in attendance, Clare and I were two out of about five fans to wear COVID masks. The Packer staff was masked, but the fans were not. The guy sitting next to me wore one. Talking briefly to him, I found out he wasn’t from town, but came to the game from Seattle.
In my four-plus hours at the game, I did not see one angry fan or one nasty incident. Paul, a season ticket holder, thought there was less drinking than at most late afternoon games. A lot of folks may have eased up on the alcohol because it was Christmas.
I learned the five unofficial rules of Packer game etiquette. They are 1) be quiet when the Packers are on offense, 2) be noisy with the Packers on defense, 3) be kind to fans rooting for the other team (i.e., make our guests’ experience at the Mecca of football a good one), 4) never leave until the game is over (regardless of the score), and 5) do not boo an individual Packer player.
Lambeau Field no longer accepts paper tickets. It is only tickets on a phone. I still don’t own a cell phone, so had I wanted to go by myself, I wouldn’t have been able to get in. The phone tickets are different from anything I’ve ever seen. They are alive and keep moving, so a screenshot does not work. I think it is to confound scalpers who try to sell fake tickets online. Also no place in the stadium accepts cash. It is credit/debit cards only. There no longer are vendors in the stands, but I’m not sure whether that is to curb excessive drinking or to combat the pandemic.
The neighborhood surrounding Lambeau Field is a blend of commercial and residential. During Packer games, most businesses close because they make more money renting out parking spaces in their parking lot than selling gasoline or coffee. Most single family homes also rent out parking, filling their driveways and their front yards with the cars of people going to the game. On the streets nearest the stadium, it is the yards without cars parked in them that look out of place. Paul told me that most people who temporarily convert their yards into parking lots during the games make enough money to pay most, if not all, of their property taxes.
The Packers beat the Cleveland Browns with a game-saving interception. Even though Cleveland was moving down the field for a winning field goal, I sensed most people in the stands knew their team would somehow win. The Green Bay Packers don’t lose at home.