2023 Blogs

A Warm Winter So Far (December 25, 2023)

Two weeks ago I wrote that La Crosse had received snow that would last until March. I called that one wrong. The snow is gone, and today is nearly fifty degrees Fahrenheit.

The La Crosse River Marsh refuses to settle into winter. One day the ice looks thick enough to walk on. The next day the larger pools have a patch of open water, and just a day later there’s almost no ice at all. There is a guy who sets out traps for muskrat and beaver in the winter, and he’s yet to venture out.

And the marsh is still water. Any moving water is wide open. I was in Riverside Park yesterday to see the Rotary Club’s annual Christmas light display, and the Mississippi River doesn’t even have floating ice chunks. A few tundra swans and Canada geese have yet to fly south, and they aren’t sure what to do.

My dog Jack is as confused as the waterfowl. One day he refuses to go for our daily walk because it’s too cold, and on the next day he fights the leash when I want to head for home. Fluctuating temperatures must also activate scents, because on recent warm days Jack has stopped to sniff more than the usual tree trunks and fire hydrants. He smells the curbs, the sidewalks, and the wood chips in people’s flowerbeds. It can take us ten minutes to go a single block.

I usually exercise at the recreation center on campus, but the place closes down for two weeks while the students are gone for the holidays. In the past, I’ve continued to exercise by bringing my bicycle into the house and sticking it on a device that turns it into a stationary bicycle. I did put my bike up on its stationary pedestal, but seriously thought about leaving it outside to go on actual bike rides. It’s no colder now than when I was still riding in early November.

Manyu leaves for Taiwan mid-January. For her, each warm day before her departure date is a gift. I just looked at the long-term forecast, and there is nothing close to subzero temperatures until after she’s gone.

321 (December 18, 2023)

Once a week I visit my neighbor Charlie. Several years ago he fell on some steps and compressed his spinal cord. The accident left his legs weak and immobile. Until this past October I visited him in his home. Now he’s in a long-term care facility.

Charlie and I have exhausted pretty much all of our stories about fishing, professional sports, crime novels, and respective careers, so now we look for other subjects to talk about. Lately he’s been telling me about his kids. I recently found out that one of his sons had gone to West Point and is now a retired Army major. I’ve never met the son, and I don’t know how old he is, but based on Charlie’s age (88 years old), I assume that his son is five to ten years younger than I am. What a difference five years make when you’re in your teens! I was eighteen in 1972. Guys five years older than I was had to face Vietnam head on. Guys exactly my age worried about their potential roles in the war, but subsequently had no direct role at all. Guys five years my junior missed the war altogether and consequently were more likely to make the military their careers.

I was not quite nineteen when the Selective Service conducted the lottery for men born in 1954. A few friends and I sat around a table as a guy on the radio read off birth dates one at a time. It turned out that no one got drafted that year, but we couldn’t have known that as we listened for our numbers to come up. Every male who turned eighteen from 1964 to 1972 knew his draft number, and most still remember it now. Mine is 321.

I often feel like I was born too late to have fully experienced the ‘60s. I was alive, of course, but Vietnam, civil rights, women’s rights, and the environmental movement were largely abstractions to me. That changed when I moved from Green Bay to Madison for college. There I attended noontime antiwar rallies.* By then the demonstrations were entirely peaceful and, to be honest, not all that interesting. The same speakers, while passionate, got on the podium to say the same things day after day. Much more engaging were the afternoons, when a dozen guys jammed into a single dorm room to watch the Watergate hearings. Having grown up in a conservative town, I felt my politics shift over a matter of weeks. I have always wondered what my parents thought of me when I hitchhiked home for Thanksgiving that first year. Only three months had passed since I’d moved out of the house, but I’d grown a fu manchu mustache, had not had a haircut, and became a Democrat.

By 1972, the chances of being drafted for the war were small, but all young men knew, or at least thought they knew, what their options were if they were about to be called up. They could 1) let the Army induct them, 2) enlist in the Navy or the Air Force before the Army got them, 3) apply for conscientious objector status, or 4) flee to Canada. By the time I was of draftable age, student deferments were off the table.

For reasons I do not remember, I thought CO status was almost impossible to get. I now know that not to be true, but at the time I thought my options were to go into the Army or move to Canada. Soon after my nineteenth birthday, the military went all-volunteer, and all of my consternation about military service turned out to be for nothing. Our lives are determined by the times we’re born into, and sometimes the specific window of “our time” is surprisingly small. 

* More impactful than the demonstrations was walking past the empty space that had been a wing of Sterling Hall. Sterling Hall is the university’s physics building, but at the time it also housed the Army Mathematics Research Center. In 1970, Karl Armstrong, David Fine, and two other antiwar radicals blew up the wing, killing a post-doc researcher named Robert Fassnacht.


Run, Run Rudolph (December 11, 2023)

My big frustration this week has been my outdoor Christmas lights. I am into my third day of what should have been a 30-minute project. I decided to string only one set of lights this year, and I assumed that at least one of the three strings stored in my basement would work.  Only half of the lights on all three strings lit up, so I spent half a day trying to piece together one good string. Failing at that, I chucked the entire mess into the recycling bin and went to Target to buy new lights. The new string must be five feet shorter than my old lights, because it doesn’t reach as far as I thought it would. I ended up sticking an illuminated reindeer in the dead space, hoping that passersby might assume I’d done it that way on purpose. Finally the gizmo that is supposed to activate the lights at nightfall doesn’t seem to work. As far as I can tell, it arbitrarily turns the lights on and off. I’m going to throw it away, too, and now I’ll have to go outside every day to plug in and then unplug my feeble display.

For Christmas, Clare wants money for her upcoming trip to Asia, and Manyu wants a bunch of skincare products that she’ll pick out herself. At least those stressors of the holidays are taken care of.


Oak Leaves in the Snow (December 4, 2023)

It snowed last week. It was not the first snow of the year, but it was the first snow that felt like winter. Only a few inches fell, but I sense those few inches will be here until March. I look out my window and see fallen oak leaves poking out of the white. I wish now I would have raked my lawn one more time. I have no oaks in my yard, and I don’t know where the leaves came from. At second glance, I realize that most of the leaves aren’t poking out of the snow, but are atop the snow, meaning fresh ones are still blowing in from somewhere.

I should have done it sooner, but I had to climb up into the rafters of my garage to drag down my snow shovels. I have four, only two to my liking, and those two are on their last leg. If this year is like last year, I will dawdle too long before seeking replacements, and the hardware stores will be out of anything worth buying.

The snow came during the night, and I had to shovel as soon as I woke up. The reason I had to shovel wasn’t because big drifts were blocking my driveway. It was because Jack won’t step outside to pee unless I make him a pathway in my backyard. He won’t venture directly from the house onto snow-covered steps, but if I shovel both the steps and the cement patio at the bottom of the steps, he’ll cross the cleared off area and then bound into the snow once he gets to the lawn. It doesn’t make any sense.

Even though the temperature is still in the low twenties, my hands and face got cold while walking Jack today. After thirty minutes, Jack turned around on his own, which he almost never does. Once he headed for home, he didn’t stop to sniff any trees or mailboxes. He was ready to be back in the house. Obviously both Jack and I need time to acclimate to the new season.

Spring is only four months away.

Out of Milk (November 27, 2023)

Manyu took a four-day trip to Chicago and left me without a car. She also left me without milk. There was a half carton of soy (I won’t even call it milk) in the refrigerator, but that’s a different food group from dairy and has no place on my Cheerios. I’d made sure I had coffee and sandwich fixings in the house before Manyu drove away, but forgot to check my milk supply. As I wondered whether it was worth a three-mile walk to restock, I tried to remember another time I wished we had a second car. I couldn’t think of one, which must mean we don’t need a second car.

I decided I wouldn’t walk an hour each way just for milk, but could instead get a half gallon from the gas station near my gym. I was going to the gym anyway. The options at the gas station/convenience store are limited, and for the first time in years, I bought milk that wasn’t organic. On the walk home, I started to think about other ways I’ve become more selective about the foods I purchase and consume. None are necessarily healthier, just more to my liking. In addition to organic milk, there are whole bean coffee, free-range chicken eggs and free-range chickens, natural peanut butter, artisan bread, and a particular Jarlsberg cheese I can only find at, of all places, Sam’s Club. And that’s only my side of the shopping list. On Manyu’s side, there’s a certain olive oil, a particular Korean brand of spicy ramen, and a special long-grain rice variety that seems to me no different from any other rice. There is also an Asian sweet potato that she can’t find in La Crosse, but buys whenever she is in Rochester sixty miles away. Once upon a time Manyu and I did all of our grocery shopping at a single warehouse supermarket. Now it’s not unusual for us to make a six-stop shopping loop that includes two supermarkets, the food co-op, the Asian market, the bakery and, in the summertime, the farmer’s market. It is reminiscent of a time when there was a separate butcher, baker, and green grocer, but those folks were across the street from each other, not across town. 

The point is not that Manyu and I have become food snobs. The food items I’m writing about are, after all, peanut butter, ramen noodles, and cheese from Sam’s Club. The point, which I did not realize until I was walking home with a half gallon of milk that got progressively heavier the farther I walked, is that driving all over town for groceries is a form of privilege. I‘ve seen people doing their grocery shopping at the gas station, and I‘ve seen people standing with groceries at the bus stop. Fortyfive years ago I did those things myself. Since that time, however, I’ve taken it for granted that I can just jump in the car even if it’s to buy only one item. 

I wrote the first draft for this week’s blog nearly a week ago. It opened much the same as this final version does (about not having milk for my cereal), but then digressed into an essay about a politician who, when asked, didn’t know the price of milk and bread. One sentence in that original blog bothered me, and in the middle of the night I came up with a way to improve it. Thinking I’d forget the exact wording of the new sentence if I waited until morning, I climbed out of bed to make the change. Instead of making a quick edit and going back to sleep, I decided at three o’clock in the morning to rewrite everything. It was not until I’d written an entire new essay and gone back to bed around 4:30 that I realized it was Thanksgiving morning. That makes this my Thanksgiving blog, and I am grateful for easy access to good food.

Another Autumn of Swans (November 20, 2023)

The most memorable animal sightings are the unexpected ones. The first whale I ever saw breached not fifty yards from where I stood on the steps of the Point Reyes lighthouse. Not as spectacular, but just as surprising, I once stared into an evening campfire on an autumn camping trip, felt something against my foot, and looked down to see a skunk calmly sitting between my legs. It seemed as entranced by the flames as I was.

Disoriented whales and friendly skunks are a matter of luck. They are the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time. If a person spends enough time in nature, once-in-a-lifetime moments like these happen. 

There is a second kind of animal sighting that, while not entirely unexpected, is just as exciting. It is when a person intentionally goes someplace with hopes of catching a glimpse a particular animal and then has the experience significantly exceed expectations. For example, Manyu’s sister and brother-in-law who live in rural Thailand wanted Manyu and me to go with them to look for a farmer’s field they’d been told had lots of bats. Once we got close, we didn’t know which of a hundred small agricultural plots was the right one, so we asked a saffron-robed Buddhist monk who was walking along the road. We were just starting to think that the monk had given us bad information, when a few dozen bats emerged from a crack in a nearby hillside. Within a minute the trickle became a steady stream, and after thirty minutes, we’d watched at least a million bats pass directly overhead.   

I am writing about this second kind of wildlife sighting because November is the season for La Crosse’s own guaranteed over-the-top wildlife display. From Halloween until early December, 25,000 tundra swans gorge themselves on arrowhead tubers just north of the Genoa Dam on the Mississippi River. These birds leave their northern Canadian nesting grounds in mid-September. On their way to Chesapeake Bay, they annually feed along the Upper Mississippi Flyway until first ice moves them along.

The best viewing of the swans is across the river from La Crosse, so last week Manyu and I drove over to a spot near Brownsville, Minnesota. It was late afternoon when we got there, and the adjacent bluff cast a broad shadow over the open water nearest to shore. Mallards and Canada geese swam in the shadows, but all of the swans stayed far enough out that they were still in the sun. I hypothesized that, after a summer above the Arctic Circle, they’d grown accustomed to direct sunlight. I will return to the swans at least one more time before they leave, and I will make a point of arriving earlier in the day. Even if the swans are closer to shore when I visit again, I still won’t know for sure whether it is the position of the sun that brings them in.


Big Move (November 13, 2023)

For the past week, I have been helping my nephew Xiao Tu with his applications for college. For one of his required essays, he’s been asked to describe an obstacle he’s had to overcome. Xiao Tu moved from Taiwan to the United States when he was six years and did not speak a word of English. Even though his story about moving here will not set him apart from thousands of other immigrant kids who will be answering the very same essay question, what else is my nephew expected to write about? That single event pretty much defines who he is. 

As I read my nephew’s essay, I thought back to my own move when I was the same age as Xiao Tu when he moved. My family didn’t pack up and fly to the other side of the world; we jumped in a car and drove across the state. We did, however, move a hundred miles away, which at the time, was the farthest I’d ever traveled. Two memories about that day stick in my mind after all of these years.

The lesser of the two remembrances is about watching television on the first night in our new house. When I turned on the tv, the cartoon Top Cat was on. This was a huge surprise, as I’d never seen cartoons in prime time before. Top Cat was on ABC, and I’d just come from a small city that only had CBS. Later that night my dad showed me that our new city (Green Bay) had not one station, but three. Until that moment, I didn’t know that there was more than one station. A more worldly kid might have thought he’d been transported from The Flintstones to The Jetsons, but I did not. I wasn’t familiar with those cartoons either. 

Discovering three tv stations was a big deal then, but it seems quaint now. The other memorable event was nothing at the time, but seems unimaginable today.

On the afternoon of that first day, the moving van pulled up in front of our new house. One of the first things off the van were the bicycles. My brother and I jumped on our bikes and told our parents that we were going to go look for kids. My mom and dad were busy directing the movers and barely acknowledged our departure. There was no “be careful,” no “don’t go too far.” We just left.

We’d only pedaled halfway around our own block when we saw two boys playing in a front yard. It was late September, and they were building forts out of fallen leaves. Denny and I pulled up to the curb and, as kid etiquette demanded, waited for the locals to acknowledge our presence. Both boys walked up to us, and one of them asked, “Are you the new kids in the Phlueger’s house?” Once that was established (although I didn’t know who the Phluegers were), we left our bikes on the side of the road and joined them. It turned out that Dave and Skipper lived in the two houses directly behind ours, and they became our best friends right up until the time each of us aligned with different cliques in middle school. Dave died a few years ago. I saw Skipper, who now goes by his given name, at our fifty-year high school reunion.

I have never talked to my own daughter about my move from Wausau to Green Bay. Could a young woman who annually travels to Asia understand my trepidation about moving such a short distance? Could a post-millennial who thinks having only one streaming service is a hardship appreciate the joy of watching cartoons at a time other than Saturday morning? Could any kid growing up in the twenty-first century think it normal that my parents would turn my brother and me loose on our first day in a new town? And finally, will my daughter read this blog and conclude that I’ve turned into my grandparents?


Deer Lake Part II: Bog on the Far Side of the Tracks (November 6, 2023)

The railroad right of way bisected the bog. It also stopped me from paddling deeper into the bog. I could have dragged my kayak over the high embankment and pressed on, but dusk was approaching and I needed to get off the water. Another full day remained of my long weekend in northern Wisconsin, so I had ample time to return to the same spot and explore the far side of the tracks.

My original plan for the following morning was to have a big breakfast with my friends, write for a few hours, and then go kayaking. After a meal of eggs and pan-fried potatoes, I told my friends that I would take care of the dishes so they could head out for their day’s hunt. Even as I was washing plates and rinsing coffee cups, I knew there’d be no writing that morning. I was too eager to get back to the bog. After finishing up in the kitchen, I jumped in my boat and paddled to the tracks.

The railroad embankment in the bog was a solid earthen dike. The only break for hundreds of feet in either direction was a pair of trestles that allowed the water in my narrow channel to pass. The space between the surface of the water and the lowest beam of the trestle was barely a foot in height, so I assumed I would be portaging my boat.

When I paddled right up alongside the trestle, however, I realized that while an occupied kayak would not fit into the gap, an empty one would. An alternative to portaging would be to climb out of my boat, leave the boat in the water, and send it through without me. This method, while easier on both my boat and my back, required me to give my kayak a shove, then scramble up over the railroad bed quickly enough to catch the boat on the other side before it drifted out of reach. Failure to accomplish this maneuver would leave me with no choice but to go for a swim.

Water in a northern bog is as dark as coffee. With tannins and dead organic matter, visibility in the water is less than the length of my hand. The only other time I ever submerged myself in such blackish water was to seek relief from a relentless swarm of mosquitoes. That had been in late June of an especially hot summer, and I didn’t want to relive the experience in mid-October.

Still I chose the float-the-boat option over portaging. Unfortunately I  was overly cautious. I ended up not pushing my kayak hard enough, and it stopped dead directly under the tracks with neither bow nor stern poking out beyond the trestle. I could not reach my boat from either side. I’d carried my paddle with me when I scrambled over the tracks, so I was able to slip the paddle down between the railroad ties and nudge my kayak along. Unwittingly, I’d devised the perfect method for sending my boat through. I was in constant contact with my watercraft, and there was no chance it would float away without me.

I climbed back into my kayak and was in paradise. The terrain looked no different from the bog on the lake side of the tracks, but now I felt I was in a place where no one else had been.

After only five minutes of paddling I came to a series of beaver dams. At first the dams confused me, as I could not figure out why beavers would hold back water in a bog. There were almost no trees, and the ones that were there were inedible tamarack. The whole thing was odd. Other than the dams themselves, there was no evidence of beaver. I’d seen no lodge, no tree branches jammed in the mud, not even an occasional beaver trail leading out of the water. I concluded that the dams weren’t to flood the bog, but to maintain a constant water level on Deer Lake a full mile upstream. These were enterprising beavers.

The water level on the upstream side of each dam was even with the very tops of the dams. This meant I could ram the dams at full speed and let momentum carry me halfway over the dams before I ran aground.  This made portaging fairly easy. After clearing the last of them, I’d gone not a hundred yards when I reached the end of my journey. The ecosystem below the dam had changed from bog to forest, and the channel had gone from flat water to a flowing creek. The forest, however, was an impassable wall of downed trees and overhanging alder, and the creek was so shallow that it was no more navigable than a dry creek bed. I had no choice but to call it quits and retrace my steps.

Not that it would have stopped me from going, but I hadn’t fully taken the challenges of my return trip into consideration. Specifically, I should have known that it is harder to go up a beaver dam than down one. High water and gravity help in one direction, but hinder in the other. As I lugged my boat over the largest of the dams, my foot broke through the topmost layer of tangled branches. I did not drop far, but my momentum threw me off balance, and I caught myself with my free hand. I was fine, but had I’d fallen any harder, a busted wrist or a sprained ankle would have made further paddling and portaging difficult.

It was then that I remembered that I hadn’t told anyone where I was going that day. The omission had been intentional. Having no one know where I am adds to the solitude. It also adds to the risk, but risk is a part of adventure. Without either the solitude or the risk, my day in the bog wouldn’t have been as memorable.


Deer Lake Part I (October 30, 2023)

I don’t hunt, but one weekend a year I go on an upland game bird hunting trip. While several of my friends bushwhack through logged over sections of the Flambeau River State Forest in search of ruffed grouse, I stay behind at a lakeshore cabin to fish, paddle, and write. I have mornings and afternoons to myself, then join up with my friends just before dark.

I consider this an ideal situation. Many years ago I discovered I do not like to backpack or camp alone. To my surprise, I get lonely come evening. When Manyu goes to Taiwan and I stay in La Crosse, I can spend days on end without speaking to another person, but when I go solo into the wild or semi-wild, I long for a bit of human companionship. I cannot explain this odd phenomenon, but know it to be true.

Last weekend my hunting friends and I stayed at a cabin on Deer Lake in northcentral Wisconsin. On the first afternoon (after my friends had loaded up their dogs and gone hunting), I toured the entire lake by kayak. Near the end of the day I stumbled upon the lake’s outlet. It was a long narrow waterway leading into a large bog. I didn’t remember ever having paddled through a bog before, so I broke down my fishing pole, stashed it in my cockpit, and set off to see where the winding channel went.

Bogs are basically moss and a few other ancient plants growing atop a floating blanket of decaying vegetation. In the few places where there is solid ground, tamaracks usually take root. In the Upper Midwest, tamaracks are the only native deciduous conifer, and on this particular day, their needles were an intense shade of yellow. The width of the channel varied, and free-floating chunks of peat piled up in the narrow spots. If I rammed these ottoman-sized blocks with the bow of my boat, they would float along with me until the waterway widened enough for me to paddle around them.

About twenty minutes into my paddle, a railroad right of way bisected the bog. The channel, which I now realized was actually a small creek with a slight current, passed under a wooden trestle in an otherwise continuous earthen embankment. The lowest beams of the trestle were only a foot above the water, so no scrunching or contorting of my body was going to allow me and my kayak to pass through. As it was already late in the day, I turned around and paddled back to the cabin. I knew, however, that I would return the next day. Inaccessible bodies of water are irresistible, and I was not going to leave Deer Lake without exploring the far side of the tracks.

I did return the following morning, but that is a story for next week.


Just Another Thursday Morning (October 23, 2023)

Two mornings a week I write in the atrium of our local nature center. There is free coffee and a view of the marsh. School groups pass through the building most mornings, but they seldom disrupt my solitude for more than a few minutes. The kids get a quick tour of the place, then head outside. Usually I work on a chapter for the book I’m writing, but this morning I’ve set aside the time to write this week’s blog.

Last Thursday I was at my favorite table in the nature center (next to a big window overlooking the marsh) when an old man walked into the building and asked me whether I knew anything about acorns. “Some,” I said. “Do you have a specific question?”

“I found many acorns from two different trees lying side by side on the ground,” he said. “The acorns from one of the trees all had little roots sticking out, and these roots were burrowing themselves into the ground. The acorns from the other tree weren’t doing anything. Do you know why this would happen?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I suppose different species of oak germinate at different times of the year, but that’s only a guess.”

“I took a picture,” the man replied, and he showed me a photo of two small piles of acorns. All of the acorns were without caps, and I could not estimate their size from the photograph. Even if I’d had a tree guide in front of me, which I didn’t, I’m not sure that I could have identified the exact species just from the photo. That didn’t matter, as it was obvious from the photo that the acorns that hadn’t sprouted all had pinholes in them.

“This is interesting,” I said. “There is an insect that lays her eggs inside acorns. It’s called an acorn weevil. I didn’t know they preferred one species of oak over another, but they must. The acorns that aren’t sprouting have been destroyed by a bug inside.”

“Thank you,” the man said. “What is your job here?”

“I don’t work here. I’m retired.”

“What did you do before you retired?”

“Nature center kind of stuff,” I said, “but not here at this nature center. I taught environmental education and outdoor recreation at the university. I taught students how to paddle, hike, and backpack.”

“Did you teach climbing?” the man asked.

“Not rock climbing,” I said, “but I did run the ropes course on campus for a while.”

“What is your name?”

“Steve,” I said.

“Do you have a Chinese wife?” the man asked.

“She’s Taiwanese, but yeah.”

“I remember you,” the man said. “I am Shoua.  I was the first Americorps worker on the ropes course. That was over twenty years ago.” Shoua was Hmong, and once he mentioned the ropes course, I did remember a Hmong belayer on our staff – but I would have never recognized this old man as him. After a few minutes of conversation and an exchange of email addresses, Shoua went on his way.

All that morning there had been a meeting going on in the large meeting room adjacent the atrium. When I’d first shown up around 8 am, there were a dozen sheriff vehicles from La Crosse and Vernon Counties in the parking lot, so I assumed the meeting was a training workshop for new recruits. Soon after Shoua left, a man from the workshop starting pulling young men and women one at a time into the atrium and grilling them with the same kinds of questions I get asked when the nurse at my doctor’s office tests me for dementia .

“What day is it today?”


“I need month, date, and year.” My first thought was that today is my mom’s birthday, but otherwise I wouldn’t have known the date. All of the people questioned knew the date immediately.

The man followed up by asking a series of questions in rapid succession. “Who is the President?” “Who is the Vice President?” “Who were the last three Presidents before the current President?”

His final question was, “I am going to give you four numbers. I want you to say the four numbers back to me, but I want you to repeat them to me in reverse order. If I said fifteen, three, six, twenty-one, you’d say twenty-one, six, three, fifteen. Your numbers are twenty-eight, ten, forty-five, sixty-four.” I had to hear the same numbers three different times before I could mentally repeat them back in reverse order, but all of the applicants accomplished the task easily. There was one person, however, who got the Vice President question wrong. “Ahh, man,” the young woman said. “I can’t think of her name.”

During a break, all of the young deputies came into the atrium for coffee, so I asked a couple of them whether they were new recruits going through initial training. “No,” they said. “All of us are already on the job. This is training about how to deal with people with mental health issues.”

At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but an hour later I wondered how repeating four numbers in reverse order helps law enforcement to deal with people with mental illness.


Officially Old (October 16, 2023)

On Saturday I attended a neighbor’s funeral. On Sunday I visited a second neighbor who is getting ready to move into a long-term care facility. Both are older than me, but not by all that much.

Then, on Monday I went for my Medicare-funded annual physical. I received more immunizations than I have arms (COVID, flu, and hepatitis-B), and the next morning the side effects of the vaccines kept me in bed until 10am. During the physical, I was told that it was time for a PSA test and a colonoscopy, and by the time I walked out the clinic, I’d been prescribed two new medicines – one for an enlarged prostate and the other for an arthritic shoulder. In case I had yet to realize that the trip to the clinic was a reminder of my age, my doctor of thirty years told me he is retiring in June. I wasn’t surprised, but it’s unfortunate I am losing my doctor right at the age when I might regularly need a doctor.

I did pass my annual dementia exam.  Rivers, nation, finger. To anyone too young to know why three unrelated words have anything to do with testing for dementia, be glad. Your time will come.*

To offset all of this foreboding, I spent the past week with my mom in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. For three consecutive days, I planned hikes that were on level ground and no more than two miles in length. I could have, maybe should have, picked more challenging routes. Each day my mom enjoyed the walks, but wanted a little bit more. In body type and mentality (stocky build with a tendency to worry too much), I have my dad’s genes, but in terms of physical health into my seventies and eighties, I hope I inherited something from my mom.

* For the dementia test, a person is given three words. Then after completing a simple task involving the face of a clock, he or she is asked to repeat the words. My three words last week were rivers, nation, finger. I still remember the words from a year ago. They were banana, baby, chair, but maybe not in that order.

Bond Falls (October 9, 2023)

A week ago I visited Bond Falls Scenic Site in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. As beautiful as the falls are, the element of the resource that I find myself thinking about is the somewhat unique boardwalk. I am not sure of the designer’s intentions, but the wooden structure at the bottom of the falls was different from those I usually see at popular nature-based attractions.

At first glance, the boardwalk looks just as I would have expected it to look. There are earth tones, heavy plank construction, and viewing platforms with sturdy railings. The difference is the number of staircases offering direct access to the water.

To me, boardwalks with railings are meant to be barriers. They help to maintain a distance between nature and humanity. This either protects visitors from potential danger or keeps people away from ecologically sensitive areas. The railings and boardwalks at Bond Falls don’t do either. At just about every spot I was tempted to step off the boardwalk to get closer to the water, there was a rustic staircase encouraging me to do so. As a result, the soil at water’s edge was compacted, and dozens of sightseers were taking selfies in locations where a false step would have put them in the river.

I liked it this way. It didn’t seem that human impact was causing any more damage than floodwaters would have, and I don’t believe that the ignorant actions of a few careless people should prevent others from getting close enough to the falls to feel the mist.

The question then becomes why bother with boardwalks and railings at all. Some kind of hardened surface was probably needed to accommodate heavy pedestrian traffic, but blacktop without railings would have worked just as well. The reason may be more than aesthetics. It is because some people like barriers. They want to see nature firsthand, but appreciate a railing between them and the resource. At Bond Falls, these people have a series of comfortable platforms for easy viewing.

Other sightseers want to get as close the natural attraction as possible, and a small element of risk actually adds to the appeal. Most railed boardwalks I’ve ever seen have rogue trails at either end that circumvent attempts by management to corral visitors. The design at Bond Falls concedes that people are going to find a way to get down to water’s edge, so there may as well be steps. Instead of harsh warnings prohibiting people from going beyond the railing, there are kinder signs reminding visitors that wet steps and wet rocks are slippery. 

Finding the right balance between access and protection is always difficult. At Bond Falls, the only real damage caused by people near the water is to the natural view. Snowmelt likely erodes more soil and exposes more rock than tourists ever will. Also, at least half of the people clamoring down the steps to get close to the water are families with kids. Whenever children are involved, erring on the side of adventure and fun over preservation makes sense. The long view of conservation is that kids who play near the water will grow up to be environmentalists – and the ones who slip and fall into the river will become the most preservation-minded environmentalists of the lot.

I speak from experience. When I tripped on an exposed tree root adjacent Bond Falls, Manyu’s only comment was, “You’ve been clumsy for as long as I’ve known you.” My first thought, although I didn’t say it, was, “You don’t trip on tree roots by staying on the boardwalk.”

Being Good (October 2, 2023)

A few weeks back I read a New York Times op-ed piece titled “I Don’t Need to Be a ‘Good Person.’ Neither Do You.”* While I agreed with some of the content of the article (it was about not following all social norms), the title itself set me off. There was a time when I assumed people instinctively knew how to be good, leaned toward always trying to do the right thing, but now I am not so sure. We certainly don’t need newspaper columnists suggesting we be otherwise.

I read the bothersome editorial while at my local nature center. The center has a small lounge open to the public. Its staff keeps fresh coffee brewing, so I go there a couple mornings each week to write and read the news. If I go early enough, I usually have the place to myself, but on this particular morning there were four young adults already sitting at tables when I walked in. They all wore the same Wisconsin Conservation Corps t-shirts, so I asked them what they were doing. It turned out that they were Americorps volunteers who had just finished summer appointments and were filling out final evaluations.

They told me that each of them had been a leader of one of WisCorps’ local work crews. Local crews, unlike the organization’s roving crews, are not college-aged adults who travel the entire state putting in hiking trails and repairing damaged natural areas. Local crews never leave town, and all of the workers other than the leaders are high school students. The work is basically whatever needs to be done in the community. One day they might weed the food shelter’s vegetable garden, and the next they might clean rain gutters on the homes of some of the city’s elderly residents. The purpose of the work is as much to develop the character of the workers as it is to complete worthwhile projects. In short, the four young adults in the nature center lounge had just spent the summer serving as role models for teenagers and, in the process, earned about half of what they would have made working the drive-thru at a fast-food restaurant. No one needed to tell them to be good people, and no one needed to tell them to do good work.

Are good acts of work related to age? Are they linked to the absence of the obligations we eventually put on ourselves? When I was the same age as the Americorps workers, I also did good work for less than minimum wage. Then over time, I acquired student loans, a mortgage, and a daughter who relied upon me. I don’t think I sold out by taking a job at a university, but my reasons for working definitely changed. There is a difference between refusing to sell out for a paycheck and intentionally seeking honorable work. It does seem that the some of the jobs I most admire come with little or no pay. My two favorite Berrys, Thomas and Wendell, both have something to say about that.** 

My task that morning, however, was not to turn an encounter with Americorps workers into a referendum of my own life. It was to appreciate the wonderful things being done by many of the young people around me. They remind me that it isn’t that hard to be good.

* Found at https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/25/opinion/desires-good-person.html

** Berry, T. 2000.The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future. New York: Crown Publishing. Also Berry, W. 1986, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books

Warm and Dry with a Glass of Wine (September 25, 2023)

A basic tenet of outdoor leadership is to make sure novices have a positive experience when they encounter untrammeled nature for the first time. Their initial outing need not be grand, but it ought to be fun and non-threatening. Stark conditions and rugged terrain may appeal to seasoned outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen, but beginners need their introduction to the backwoods or backwaters to be less daunting. The key is to avoid any unpleasantness that might permanently close a door before it even has a chance to open. I wholeheartedly agree with this simple rule of thumb, but you’d never know it from the way I’ve been taking people out lately.

My most recent example of poor leadership, or at least poor judgment, happened this past weekend when Manyu and I took two Chinese friends paddling in the backwaters of the Mississippi River. One of them had been in a canoe one other time in his life, the other not even that. I picked the most paddler-friendly route I could think of, but still the trip presented a challenge beyond the skill level of my companions.

The two friends are Xiao Wu and Joy. Xiao Wu is an alumnus of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse who recently returned to the United States for graduate school at UW-Madison. Joy is a middle school teacher from La Crosse’s sister city of Luoyang. She is here to take a semester of classes in Teaching English as a Second Language. 

It was the weather that got us. The forecast was a 50% chance of precipitation, but since La Crosse has been in a partial drought for most of the summer, I almost welcomed a chance to get a little wet. Xiao Wu was in town only for the day, so it was either paddle in the rain or not paddle at all. I grabbed enough rain gear for everyone, and we headed out.

About thirty minutes into our short excursion, we heard distant thunder. As the storm approached, I realized we needed to get off the water, and I directed everyone to beach their boats on a narrow spit of sand. When I suggested we step into the woods, Manyu, Xiao Wu, and Joy all told me that they’d been taught not to sit under trees during a thunderstorm. I had to convince them that so long as we kept away from the roots of any of the tallest trees, it was better to go into the forest than to expose ourselves on a sandbar.

Xiao Wu and Joy helped me balance an overturned canoe across a pair of downed tree trunks. All four of us (five, if you include the dog we’d brought along) hunkered under the canoe until the worst of the storm passed. We received more rain in thirty minutes than La Crosse had seen in a month.

Joy checked a weather map on her cell phone and discovered a temporary break in the storm. We timed our escape and paddled back to the car with no lightning and only gentle rain. We quickly loaded up the boats and drove to my house. Everyone put on dry clothes, and we sat in the breakfast nook with hot tea and one of my better bottles of wine.

I thought the day was a failure, but Xiao Wu and Joy disagreed. They are young and daring, and both want to have unique experiences during their stay in the US. Once Manyu and I got them warm and dry with a glass of wine, their first thought was to send photos of their “American adventure” back to friends in China. Both claim to have had a great time, but I’ll wait to see if either asks me to take them out again.



The Leaves are Beginning to Change (September 18, 2023)

The leaves are beginning to change. For it to occur this early in September, the reason might be more the lack of rain than the time of the year.

It is more than leaf color letting me know that fall, if not already here, is only a week or two away. I wear a jacket and a hat each morning when I sit on my front porch. I hope to have another month out here before frost and cold send me indoors. I would prefer to dress for the cold and stay outside, except I can’t easily write longhand or type on my laptop with gloves on. 

Manyu and I no longer have to wait until early evening to walk Jack. Now it is cool enough to take him out just about any time of the day. In fact, if we wait until 7:00 like we were doing only a few weeks ago, it is dark before we finish our walk. On a related matter, the brisk air brings tears to my eyes when I ride my bicycle in the morning.

The tomatoes in my garden are done. I can still get good tomatoes at the farmer’s market for a little longer, but then it will be back to the ones sold in grocery stores. I sometimes wonder who buys tomatoes, zucchinis, or cucumbers at the store during the months of August and September. So many zucchinis go unwanted right now that I have a friend who uses them to feed his chickens.

Fishing should pick up any day now. Also the taste and firmness of autumn fish will make me want to bring some home. Several people have told me that my distaste of Mississippi River fish in the dead of summer is all in my head, but no one will ever convince me that the fillets of fish caught in July and August aren’t mushier and muddier than those caught at other times of the year. In the summer, the perch fillets are as soft as bluegills, the bluegills are as soft as crappies, and the crappies are as unappealing as bass and catfish in any season. I hadn’t realized it until I just wrote the previous sentence, but the taste and texture of fish species are inversely proportional to the fun it is to catch them.

After a summer of having the gym on campus to myself, the college students are back. For the most part, I welcome their return, even though they sometimes camp out to do multiple reps on my favorite pieces of exercise equipment. They also destroy any illusion that I might have about my physical condition. Being in good shape and being in good shape for a guy pushing 70 are not the same thing.

Summer is my favorite season of the year. If September and October weren’t precursors of what is to come, I might like autumn the best.


A Presidential Joint Statement (September 11, 2023)

Ninety percent of the time it does not matter whether more than ten people read my blog. Friends look at it, and the effort put toward submitting a weekly entry is excellent writing practice. Those two not insignificant benefits are enough to keep me going. Occasionally, however, I write on a subject that makes me wish I had a bigger audience, and today is such a case.

I just read Heather Cox Richardson’s daily email letter, and she wrote that representatives from all but one of the Presidential Centers since Herbert Hoover issued a joint statement expressing their concerns about the fate of American democracy. Their letter places no blame. It just says:

“Each of us has a role to play and responsibilities to uphold. Our elected officials must lead by example and govern effectively in ways that deliver for the American people. This, in turn, will help to restore trust in public service. The rest of us must engage in civil dialogue; respect democratic institutions and rights; uphold safe, secure, and accessible elections; and contribute to local, state, or national improvement.”*

On the same morning that I read about the joint statement, I also came across multiple New York Times editorials about my state legislature’s attempt to oust our newly elected Wisconsin Supreme Court judge. The only reason that the Republican supermajority would go after this woman is because she is a liberal judge who will hear a court case questioning the gerrymandering that gave the Republicans their supermajority in the first place. This action is shameless and an example of why the Presidential joint statement is important. I hold out hope that a handful of conservative legislators have enough conscience and spine to not let an unjustified suspension of the judge happen.

I almost did not sign up for Heather Cox Richardson’s daily online letter. I already receive too many unsolicited messages in my email account. If she provides me with even one gem of information each month as important as the one she just gave me about the joint statement, perusing her letters is time well spent. I did look to see whether the joint letter was covered by my regular online news sources, and I discovered it was a minor back page news item in most of them. The New York Times, for example, had it on page 9. Since the Times did such a good job highlighting the proposed undemocratic actions of the Wisconsin legislature, I’ll give them a pass on this one.



A Statuary Graveyard (September 4, 2023)

In last week’s blog I mentioned an outer suburb of Taipei called Taoyuan. When I lived in Taiwan during the early 1990s, Taoyuan was home to the Chiang Kai-shek International Airport. Today the same airport is called the Taoyuan International Airport. Chiang Kai-sheks’s legacy has suffered over the intervening years, and his name has come off a number of landmarks, one of them being the terminal where nearly all foreigners enter the country.

When Chiang’s political party, the Kuomintang (KMT), governed Taiwan, he was a national hero. His face was on the money. A statue or bust of him was in every public school. His memorial was the most grandiose in Taipei, dwarfing the more humble sites commemorating Sun Yat-sen and Confucius.

The KMT no longer dominates politics in Taiwan. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) now holds the presidency and the majority of seats in the legislature. Many of the DPP’s most active members are children or grandchildren of the people who were already living in Taiwan when Chiang and the Nationalists fled Mainland China and relocated to Taiwan. The year was 1949. These people had just endured fifty years of Japanese occupation and were not looking for a new outsider to show up and declare himself in charge. The Democratic Progressive Party is an odd alliance of over-educated progressives and almost-Trumpian populists. These two divisions within the party don’t agree on much, but they share a low opinion of Chiang Kai-shek.

With the rise of the DPP, Chiang’s presence has gone the way of Christopher Columbus’s in the United States. His birthday is no longer a national holiday. His face remains on the money, but the future of his memorial is a subject of debate. The busts and statues once featured at the entrances of schools are gone. Most of the statuary has simply disappeared, but a few hundred pieces have been relocated to a park twenty-five miles outside of Taipei. Officially the site is called the Cihu Memorial Sculpture Garden. Unofficially it is known as the Garden of the Generalissimos. Regardless of the name, it is a large sculpture garden where all of the statues look pretty much the same. I have been there, and it is as weird as you might think.

When I returned to Taiwan in 2008 to teach at National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU), I was surprised to see that its Chiang statue was still in place. When I asked a friend why it hadn’t been removed, she said, “That’s controversial. The statue is an original piece done by a professor on campus, so it’s considered a work of art. Do you remove a work of art because people find the subject of the piece distasteful? Come back around Christmas and have a look.”

I revisited Chiang’s statue in mid-December. Even though Christmas is not a holiday celebrated in Taiwan, the statue had been decorated to look like Santa Claus. Apparently the compromise was that Chiang could stay, but a couple times a year he would be made to look silly.

The Chiang Kai-shek statue at NTNU was eventually taken down. Depending on whom you ask, the reason was because 1) the statue was a symbol of past authoritarian rule, 2) the DPP overextends its authority into places it doesn’t belong, or 3) removal of the statue was part of a practical strategy designed to attract college students from Mainland China. Personally, I don’t much care how Chiang Kai-shek is remembered, but I liked him as Santa Claus.

Our Financial Advisor (August 28, 2023)

Last week Manyu and I met with Cody, our financial advisor. We’ve had someone overseeing my retirement account since I started working at UW-La Crosse in 1993, but it still feels odd for me to say I even have a financial advisor. What would the twenty-eight year old version of me, the guy who lived in the coastal redwoods earning $500/month, think about that?

Cody knows that Manyu and I would like to spend more time in Asia, so he asked, “Just for fun, how much more money do you think you’d need to keep a place both here and in Taiwan?”

“Not all that much,” I said. “We already have travel costs calculated into our expenditures, and we can’t afford to buy property in Taiwan. I guess the only additional expense would be rent. If we got a small place outside of Taipei, we might get by on another $20,000.”

“That’s about right,” Manyu added. “I looked at a couple of retirement communities for my mom, and a one bedroom apartment in Taoyuan costs about $1500 a month.” Taoyuan is the county just west of Taipei. The city’s metro system extends that far, so a place in Taoyuan would be a 30-minute subway ride to the heart of the city.

“Okay,” Cody replied. “Let’s plug twenty grand into the calculator and see what comes up.”

Cody’s laptop was linked to a large screen on the wall, so Manyu and I could see whatever he had on his computer. For most of our discussion, the screen showed a year-by-year chart predicting Manyu’s and my finances from now until the year 2051. 2051 is the year Manyu turns 90 years old.* The key feature of the chart, other than the fact that I now notice the timeline gets a little shorter each year we visit, was that it was entirely green. All green means that, at our current level of spending, income always matches or exceeds expenses.

When Cody punched in the new numbers, the chart changed. It remained all-green only until the year 2028. After that, there was a steadily widening band of red atop the green. “Yeah, no,” Cody said. “You can’t do that.”

“We know,” I replied.

When Manyu and I got home, the first thing Manyu said was, “I want to go to Taiwan for Chinese New Year.” My wife always wants to go to Taiwan for Chinese New Year, but our discussion about renting a second home must have awakened those urges a few months early. Most of the time, her longing for Asia comes with the first signs of winter. (For me, Manyu’s longing for Asia is a sign of winter.)

I usually have mixed feelings about Manyu’s extended trips to Taiwan. Right after she leaves, I always enjoy a few weeks of solitude. Then the days start to drag. When Manyu goes to Asia, she stays away for one, two, three months. It’s more a temporary relocation than a vacation.

This year, however, I want her to go. Clare, when she was younger, went to Asia once year, but now hasn’t gone since high school. In January she is taking Chase, her boyfriend, to Thailand and Taiwan to see a different part of the world and to meet that side of the family. So long as Manyu does not hover, Clare would like her mom to be there. As always, I’ll be in La Crosse taking care of the dog.


  • My age in 2051 is irrelevant. Cody’s program has me dying in 2044.
Merrill (August 21, 2023)

Every August my mom’s side of the family holds a family reunion in Merrill, Wisconsin. I attend maybe one gathering in three, but hadn’t gone since COVID. Manyu and I went this year, and Clare joined us from Madison.

I was born in Merrill, but my family moved away when I was two years old. My mom is one of sixteen children. I think she is number thirteen, but I’m not sure of the exact order. Most of her brothers and sisters never left town. My aunts and uncles who stayed in Merrill had always been the ones to organize the reunion, but recently the task has been passed down to the cousins. Once or twice it has been suggested that the reunion could be held in La Crosse; I have yet to take the hint. I don’t know how many cousins I have living right in Merrill, but enough that the job can be passed around to a lot of different people. I wouldn’t recognize half of them if I passed them on the street.

With so many aunts and uncles, cousins, cousins once removed, and now cousins twice removed, the reunion draws two hundred people. This year my uncle Ronnie built a bench and asked everyone in attendance to sign it. His plan was to auction it off. At every reunion, an auction is held to raise money to pay for the next year’s reunion. Lots of small items are auctioned off for ten, twenty, maybe thirty dollars. At the end of the auction, there is always one item designed to start a bidding war and bring in a big chunk of money. One year it was Grandma’s china. Another year it was one of her photo albums. This year it was going to be the autographed bench.

My sister Diane walked up to me and said that my mom really wanted the bench, and my brother and two sisters had decided to get it for her. I, as the oldest of the siblings, apparently had no say in the matter. Denny would participate in the auction, make sure he got the winning bid, and then he, Diane, Kathy, and I would split the cost four ways. The question prior to the auction was not about how high were we willing to go to get the bench. It was wondering the best way to seal the bench so none of the signatures wore off.

The last I heard, my mom went with a spray-on, satin finish shellac.

Accidents Waiting to Happen (August 14, 2023)

A month ago I wrote a blog about a bicycle accident I had. The scrapes and bruises from that mishap had almost healed when I had to climb into a tree to cut out a big branch that had broken off in a storm. I did not fall out of the tree, nor did I fall off the ladder, but I somehow dragged the teeth of the handsaw across my forearm.

I was still wearing a bandage on the handsaw injury when I went fishing on a friend’s dock. Fishing was slow, so I sat down with my feet dangling in the water. Suddenly a Labrador mix puppy came running from the far side of my friend’s house and charged onto the dock. She paused briefly to greet me and then jumped into the river. Unfortunately, she hadn’t yet learned to swim. She frantically dog paddled, but her panicked actions barely kept her head above water. I was close enough to lean forward and grab her by the collar. She clambered back onto the dock, but used my legs as a ramp. The claws on her hind feet took some skin off my shins. 

The little puppy scratches on my legs barely drew blood, but Manyu saw them as part of a pattern. She told me that old men need to be careful. I told her that I would be careful once I got old. I said it as a joke, but I also said it because I think my body can still take a hit as well as it ever has. I spend enough time with people who are fifteen, twenty years my senior to know I’m fooling myself, but I don’t want to be more careful.

Two of the three incidences (the bike accident and the cut with the handsaw) happened because I wasn’t paying careful attention. My question is whether age was a factor. I am slipping into some of the clichés of old age (e.g., forgetting why I walked into a room, falling asleep while watching tv), but I also focus extremely well when I put my mind to it (e.g., writing for three or four hours every morning, paddling solo in my canoe).

Last week I wrote about the importance of knowing when to retire from work. Today I am indirectly asking myself whether there are also some leisure pursuits I should retire from. I did not see a connection between the two blogs when I wrote them, but I do now. At this point in life, there are only one or two leisure pursuits I am willing to put aside.* If anything, I am doing almost the opposite by diving into activities I’ve long put aside. Retirement from my job gives me more time to do things where I might get hurt.

* Physically I can no longer carry a heavy backpack. I’ve stopped rock climbing, but mostly because I didn’t enjoy it in the first place.

In Retirement (August 7, 2023)

It is not only politicians who stay in their jobs for a long, long time. One of my favorite uncles is in his eighties, and he continues to drive truck. He went from long haul to local deliveries, but he’s still behind the wheel. At my former university, there are professors currently on the job who were already senior faculty when I first showed up in 1993. I’m now retired, and they go to work each day. Whereas most of us look forward to retirement, there are others who may never willingly leave their offices, their factories, their shops, or their Senate chambers.

At my fifty-year high school reunion, a former classmate told me that one of our old friends kept showing up for work even after he’d been forced to retire from a job he’d held for nearly fifty years. His former employer eventually had to ban him from the premises. Obviously this was an extreme case, but it is an example of someone whose identity was his work. He literally was lost without it.

When does a long time on the job become too long? The answer to this question is, “It depends.” I’ve stopped asking septuagenarians who haven’t retired why they haven’t. I get only one of two answers. They either like what they are doing or they don’t know what else they would do if they quit. No one has ever told me that he or she is working for the money. No one has ever admitted to me that he or she is addicted to the power and/or adoration that comes with the job.

Leisure is a state of mind, and if people continue to find pleasure and intrinsic satisfaction in their work, then work makes sense. If, however, they stay on the job only because work is all they know, it means that an exaggerated work ethic has ruled their lives for too long, and now there is a price to pay. How can I not feel sorry for those who continue to work because all of their self-worth is tied up in their jobs? (I vaguely remember a study that suggested a significant number of people who work on their days off do so because they otherwise feel like they are wasting their time.)

Many of us feel ready to retire a few years before we actually do. For me, the intrinsic rewards of working at the university waned when I was sixty-one years old. It coincided with me leaving the classroom to become a full-time administrator. I was better able to advocate for students from an administrative position than as an instructor, but it meant I sometimes went days without even speaking with a student. I could have returned to the classroom and rekindled my enthusiasm, but instead I wrote policy and sat through endless committee meetings for two more years and then retired. Those final years were fine, because 1) I did some good and 2) once I had an exact target date for my retirement, the time passed quickly. When I did step down, my replacement was excellent, so I take it as confirmation that retirement was the right decision.

The initial theme for this blog was to rail about doddering US Senators. I am not going to do that. I have more important things to do with my leisure time than spend it complaining about matters beyond my control.

Mystique of the Mississippi (July 31, 2023)

During my two and half years in northern California  I never got used to writing “San Francisco, CA” as the return address on my outgoing mail. In the three years I lived in Taipei, I always felt a sense of wonder whenever I went through an entire day without seeing a non-Asian face (other than my own). Here in La Crosse, after thirty years in the same place, the only time I have a similar sensation of pleasant disbelief about my place of residence is when I stand on the riverbank in our city’s Riverside Park and realize the body of water before me is the Mississippi River.

The Mississippi River possesses a mystique like no other waterway in the US. The reason might be Huckleberry Finn. It might be that, for a half century, the Mississippi was the dividing line between civilization and wilderness. It runs nearly the entire length of the country, and it was the starting point for Lewis and Clark’s great adventure. Even today, it symbolizes the boundary between old America and new America – so much so that small towns, colleges, hospitals, and birthplaces of American presidents continue to proclaim themselves “first west of the Mississippi.”*

For me, the Mississippi River also serves as an international reference point for home. When I visit friends in Taiwan and Mainland China, none of them have ever heard of La Crosse. Telling them that La Crosse is in Wisconsin seldom clears up the confusion. It is when I describe La Crosse as a river town on the Mississippi River that they break into a smile and exclaim, “Ahhh, Mì-xī-xī-bǐ Hè.” Hè is the Mandarin word for river.

My usual bicycle route takes me through Riverside Park, and on Sunday I stopped riding for a few minutes to enjoy the view. In spite of the lousy air quality caused by the Canadian fires, there were at least fifty recreational watercraft at the bend in the river. A tugboat with six large barges passed by. Two paddlewheel riverboats were moored at the wharf. One was the La Crosse Queen, a local tourist attraction that is always there. The other was a much larger craft, four stories tall with sleeping accommodations for a hundred-plus tourists. Depending on whether this re-creation of a past era was traveling upstream or down, it would soon continue on its way to either St. Paul or New Orleans. I’d intended to spend ten minutes along the river, but stayed an hour. Sixty minutes added to my normal bike ride kept me from home long enough for Manyu to start worrying.

Now in retirement, Manyu and I talk about moving back to Taiwan. Two things hold me back. One is proximity to our daughter. The other is the river.


  • The first town west of the Mississippi was Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. The first hospital was Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul in St. Louis. Herbert Hoover was the first president born west of the Mississippi. The first institution of higher learning was St. Louis University, but it did not start out as a four-year college. The first college to offer a full bachelors degree was Grinnell.
Pretentious (July24, 2023)

I have more or less stopped listening to interviews on public radio. Either the guests have become more pretentious than they used to be or I’ve become less tolerant of it. Probably it is both. Last week I had a fairly long drive ahead of me, so I thought I’d give it another try. When a good guest is being interviewed by a competent host (e.g., Terry Gross), public radio can be the next best thing to a baseball game or books-on-tape for passing the time. I do enjoy driving and listening to public radio on Friday afternoons, because rarely are the guests on Science Friday pretentious. If anything, they simplify their language so the rest of us understand what they are talking about.

I’d just pulled onto the interstate north of La Crosse when I turned the radio dial to 90.3. The first words spoken were,“Therefore it behooves us…” I switched back to one of my oldies stations before I could even learn what it was that was behooving me. 

I don’t like the word “behooves,” partly because it is telling me that there is a certain way I ought to be thinking. I also don’t like it when an interviewer “resonates” with a comment made by the guest. I imagine him or her sitting in a chair and vibrating like a tuning fork. I especially don’t like it when an interviewer “resonates” midway through a “deep dive.” That sounds dangerous. My least favorite word on public radio is “frankly.” Every time a guest, usually a politician, uses the word, I hear it as an admission that everything said up to that point has been hyperbole, but now the person is gearing up to provide a nugget of truth. Any public figure with an army of PR advisors should be told to knock it off. Frankly, the last person to use “frankly” in a meaningful way was Rhett Butler.

I hope that complaining about the use of pretentious language is not, in itself, pretentious. It may be curmudgeonly, and it definitely is arrogant, but those two adjectives accurately describe two aspects of my personality. Just so I’m not being pretentious.

Two Falls (July 17, 2023)

Physically I am broad-shouldered and stout, built like a short linebacker. On occasion I’ve envied people who were naturally long and lanky, especially if they never had to worry about their weight. In the last two weeks, however, I’ve taken two falls and am starting to think that, in old age, heavy thick bones might have their advantages.

The first fall was at a restaurant. I slid out of a booth to use the bathroom and had forgotten that our table was up on a bit of platform. When I took a step out of the booth and expected the floor to be where it wasn’t, I went over on my back. One moment I was standing, the next moment I was down. I imagine the other customers in the restaurant looked at me and saw an old drunk guy. They were half right in their assessment. I was fine, and I knew I was fine even before I tried to get up.

The second fall, more serious and even more absent-minded than the first, was riding my bicycle full speed into a tree that had fallen across a paved trail. I would like to say that the downed tree appeared just around a sharp corner and there was nothing I could have done to avoid it, but that is not the case. There was thirty yards of straight trail between me and the tree, but obviously I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going.

I noticed the tree with about ten feet to go, but my hands were up on my handlebar bar ends, not down at my handbrakes. In an instant I had to choose between going for the brakes to possibly slowing myself or lifting up my hands to brace for impact. I chose to brace. My extended hands and arms crashed through a half dozen branches just before the rest of me reached the main trunk. My bike fit under the trunk and continued on its way. I, however, caught the trunk square across my chest and I came off the back of my bike like the bad guy in a Western movie getting lassoed off his horse.

As I laid in a heap on the pavement, my first thought was that this fall was worse than the tumble at the restaurant, and I was not sure whether I was okay. My chest hurt, one knee hurt (I don’t know how that happened), and blood dripped from a dozen scrapes and cuts. Only recently have I started carrying my cell phone with me on my bike, so I called Manyu to come get her battered husband.

As it turns out, I suffered only minor injuries. My knee is swollen, and one cut on my left hand is deeper than the others. Manyu applied some ancient Chinese powder to all of my cuts, and I am now a believer in its curative properties. Only twenty-four hours have passed, and I am already able to write about the accident on my laptop. I am always looking for fresh content for my weekly blog, but I did not plow into a tree just to have something to write about. It might be a week before I can get back on my bike.

This downed tree incident reminds me of another time I encountered a fallen tree. Ten years ago, I was hiking with my family in Thailand’s Kaoyai National Park and tried to climb over a tree that was blocking the trail. The jungle had a thick understory, so going up and over the tree seemed easier than trying to bushwhack around it. Six feet up I lost my grip and fell backwards into a thicket of briars. I am sure Manyu does not remember, but yesterday while bandaging my injured hands, she used the same unsympathetic words as when I asked her to pull large Thai thorns out of my back. She said, “I don’t understand why you do these things.”


My Catholic Neighborhood (July 10, 2023)

In last week’s blog, I casually mentioned Friday night fish. Only after I posted the blog did I realize that readers might not know the significance of this ritual in the state of Wisconsin.

My family moved to Green Bay when I was seven years old. We were one of three families in our working class neighborhood who weren’t Roman Catholic. My brother, my sisters, and I were the only kids on our block to attend public school. Everyone else went to St. Bernard’s (pronounced bern’ erds, not ber-nards’).

When I was a kid, Catholics weren’t allowed to eat meat on Fridays. As a result, every restaurant in town and every neighborhood bar with a kitchen served deep-fried fish on that day. In Green Bay, before the demise of the Lake Michigan commercial fishing industry, deep-fried fish meant only one kind of fish, and that fish was perch. As a kid, I thought all breaded perch cooked in a vat of vegetable oil tasted the same. To my dad, however, there was only one place in town worth paying restaurant prices when we could catch our own perch out of the lake. That place was a hole-in-the-wall bar called Maricque’s (pronounced Merricks) – and the only thing that Maricque’s did differently from any place else was that it gave the customer the choice of perch as boneless fillets or perch-on-the-bone. According to my dad, people who knew how to eat fish properly ordered perch with bones and then picked the meat off with their fingers. 

About sixty years ago God or the Pope (actually it was Vatican II) decided that it was okay to eat meat on the day of the week that Jesus died, but the tradition of Friday night fish remains strong in many parts of Wisconsin.

Fish on Fridays was one of the less weird things my Catholic friends were taught at their Catholic elementary school. They were also told by the nuns that the sky gets dark at 3pm every Good Friday. For a couple of years, my friends and I paid careful attention to the weather on Good Friday and then wondered how cloudy the sky had to be before it could be classified as dark.

The most troubling bit of Catholic propaganda, troubling to both the Catholic and the non-Catholics kids in the neighborhood, was that I, as a non-Catholic, was destined for hell. By all measures that we could come up with, I was like everyone else, yet I was doomed. We all agreed it wasn’t fair.

I remember the exact moment when my Catholic friends realized that nuns might be fallible. Bobby Nistler’s parents were personal friends with one of the nuns, and Bobby and his mom dropped in on her unexpectedly one day. When they walked into her quarters at the convent, she was wearing blue jeans and a tee shirt, ironing her habit, and drinking beer from a bottle she precariously balanced on the end of the ironing board. Whether it was the blue jeans, the ironing board, or the beer, my Catholic friends discussed the incident and concluded that nuns might not know any more than the rest of us.


A Wisconsin Supper Club (July 3, 2023)

Manyu brought some traditional Chinese medicine back from Taiwan and gave it to a friend of ours. Last week the friend called to invite Manyu and me out for dinner as a way to thank her. The invitation did not surprise me, but his choice of a restaurant did. He recommended Red Pines which, as far as I know, is the last edge-of-town Wisconsin-style supper club still serving food in the immediate La Crosse area. Known for deep-fried cheese curds, deep-fried walleye cheeks, and Friday night fish, it is not the kind of restaurant first generation Chinese Americans tend to frequent.

My friend’s name is Frank, and he is first generation Chinese American. When he socializes with Westerners, he goes by his English name. He and I have known each other for twenty years, and I still don’t know his Chinese first name. I had assumed Frank chose Red Pines because he thought it was a place I would like. That, however, was not the reason. Back in May, he and his wife Haixia had gone to Red Pines on their own, but were so confused by the menu that they didn’t know how to order. They wanted to return with someone who could teach them how to do it.

Frank and Haixia were already seated in a booth when Manyu and I arrived at the restaurant. Four double-sided laminated menus were on the table, and Frank slid two of them our way. “We don’t how to read the menu,” he said. “Show us what to do.”

“Do you want to do it like a Wisconsinite?” I asked.

“Of course,” replied Frank.  “Aren’t you from Wisconsin?”

“I am,” I said, “but I’m still not the best person to ask. This is a supper club, and Manyu and I almost never go to supper clubs. If you want to order like a Wisconsin native, we can’t do it the way I would do it. We have to do it like my mom would. Friday fish at a supper club is almost a weekly event for her. First of all, we will order drinks before dinner, and you need to have an old-fashioned.”

“Okay, please order me an old-fashioned,” said Frank.

“It’s not that easy. There are different kinds of old-fashioneds. The first step is to pick a liquor. I usually get bourbon, but my mom always has whiskey. And a genuine Wisconsin old-fashioned isn’t made with either bourbon or whiskey. It’s made with brandy.”

“What should I get?” Frank asked.

“If you haven’t had bourbon before, don’t get bourbon. It’s an acquired taste. I don’t like brandy. Get whiskey.”

“Okay, I want an old-fashioned with whiskey.”

“Good, but you’re not done yet. Do you want an old-fashioned sweet or an old-fashioned sour? One uses Seven-Up and the other uses Squirt.” By the look on Frank’s face, I could tell that he didn’t know what Squirt was.

“Squirt is like grapefruit pop,” I added, but that description did nothing to clear up Frank’s confusion. I decided to choose for him “Get sour,” I said. “Sweet is too sweet. When the waiter comes, tell him you want a whiskey old-fashioned sour. Say it just like that.”

When the waiter came to take our drink order, Frank said, “I want an old-fashioned.”

“Brandy or whiskey?” asked the waiter.

Frank had forgotten everything I’d told him.  “I don’t know,” he replied, and then he looked at me.

“Whiskey,” I said. “And sour.” I ordered a Spotted Cow* for myself, and the women both had water.

When our drinks arrived, Frank had a sip through the tiny straw that came with his drink and said, “This is good.”

I looked at his drink and saw that the liquid in his glass had three distinct layers to it. “I think,” I said, “you’re just getting the alcohol. You need to stir up your drink.”

After Frank had done so, he took another sip through the straw. “Oh, this is much different,” he said.

“Okay,” Frank went on. “Now help us order our food.  We don’t know what to get, and we don’t know what sides are.”

I finally took a look at the entrées. The choices did not exactly match a traditional supper club menu. The usual deep-fried fish and bacon cheese burgers were there, but the baked chicken was not. Parts of the menu had been updated for contemporary tastes and included chicken wraps, chicken pizza, and a couple of vegetarian dishes. “You should get whatever you want,” I said. “If today was Friday, we’d order fish. It’s Sunday, but I’m going to get fish anyway. I grew up along Lake Michigan, so I’ll order perch, but there’s walleye and haddock, too.”

“I want perch,” said Frank. “What’s a side?”

I again perused the menu. From what I could see, everything on the menu except pizza came with two sides. There were seventeen different sides to choose from. They weren’t, however, listed alongside the entrées, but were at the bottom of the back page in a completely separate section. Each side came with a price, so it did not look like they were part of anything in the upper half of the menu. I pointed at them on Frank’s copy of the menu. “Those are the sides you can choose from,” I said. “The menu says they cost $3 or $4 each, but that’s what you pay if you order them à la carte. Two come free with your meal. A real Wisconsin perch dinner usually comes with coleslaw and buttered rye bread, but I don’t see rye bread as one of the options.”

Haixia had questions about some of the sides. She understood the healthy choices, e.g., the green salad, the coleslaw, the steamed mixed vegetables, but was less clear about a few of the greasy options. “What are spicy fries?” she asked. “What are American fries?” “What is Swiss potato mac and cheese?” The last one stumped me, and I had to ask the waiter.

Chinese and Taiwanese friends sometimes ask me what kind of food I consider American food. Now I know I should just take them to Red Pines.

*  Spotted Cow is an unfiltered beer from the New Glarus Brewing Company. It is sold only in Wisconsin.

Type O Blood and Blue Eyes (June 26, 2023)

The mother of Clare’s boyfriend gave Clare an ancestry test kit for Christmas. For someone who does not know my daughter all that well, she picked a good gift. As a mixed race kid, Clare wanted to know the specifics of her bloodlines. Also, since neither Manyu nor I have ever submitted our own DNA samples, it was a chance for my wife and I to piggyback off our daughter’s results.

As expected, Clare was almost exactly 50% Asian and 50% European. Her Asian side was over 90% Han, and Manyu was actually surprised that the percentage wasn’t higher. If I remember right, there was a little Mongol and Japanese mixed in. On the European side, she was predominantly Western European and Balkan. This I already knew because one of my sisters had shown me the results of her own ancestry test taken a few years earlier. The Balkan part had surprised my side of the family, and it resulted in all of us taking a trip to Croatia and Slovenia.

When Clare was explaining her genetic makeup to Manyu and me, she concluded by saying, “And Dad, I am more Neanderthal than 90% of the people in the world. All of it comes from you.”

I guess this makes me off-the-charts Neanderthal. Out of curiosity, I googled the characteristics of modern day homo sapiens with a lot of Neanderthal in them. I learned that we tend to have blue eyes, type O blood, and a propensity for going bald. On those particular traits, I am three for three.

We also are more likely than the general population to have a fear of public speaking. I doubt this particular trait was a factor in the Neanderthals’ demise. Could it, however, indicate a shy and gentle nature? And could that, in turn, have made them susceptible to a more aggressive hominid, one that, to this day, does not like to share its food with other species?*

* My suggestion that homo sapiens drove Neanderthals to extinction was an uninformed, intentionally flippant comment on our species’ aggressive nature.  It also turns out to be true. Anthropologists believe the extinction of Neanderthals was due to a combination of three things – overspecialization during a period of climate change (i.e., the end of the Ice Age), competition with homo sapiens for food, and an inability to fight off human-borne diseases.

Time for Writing (June 19, 2023)

In last week’s blog I discussed my reluctance to leave a good job to make time for writing. I said I was not willing to give it up a regular paycheck. As true as that statement is, there is also a second reason I waited until retirement to make writing a bigger part of my daily routine.Writing is my leisure, and I was afraid to turn an avocation into a job.

I have heard both published and unpublished writers say that they need to write. I’ve never felt that way. I just like to write. Except for the process of finding a publisher, I enjoy every aspect of it. In retirement, the three or four hours I spend writing often are the best part of my day. If, however, I had to stop writing for any reason, I’d be okay. There is nothing inside of me that needs to get put to paper. I just find satisfaction in creating good sentences and good paragraphs. I enjoy seeing the unexpected thoughts that come out of my brain when I turn it loose to write. I am having fun.

What I do not like is deadlines. When I wrote for academic journals, I didn’t like editors telling me when they needed a final manuscript. Now that I write books, I resist sending proposals to potential publishers until the book is in a complete draft form. To do otherwise risks receiving an early acceptance letter with a hard and fast deadline. If deadlines suck the joy out of writing, imagine what the need to earn money from writing would do. Of course, I would be thrilled if my writing ever brought in any money, but the second best option is having a monthly pension check, so writing can remain a serious hobby. 

Making a distinction between work and leisure does not mean that the line between the two hasn’t been fuzzy. Many of my favorite leisure pursuits involve the natural world, yet I made environmental education my career. When my work in the outdoors evolved into teaching at the college level, part of my job came to include writing. As wonderful as that was, some of the fun was lost during my early years at “publish or perish” research-oriented universities. I did not like the pressure of needing to pump out finished product at regular intervals (i.e., two or three refereed articles a year). I was happier once I took a position at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, a teaching-focused institution where the publishing expectations of the school better fit my unhurried writing style.

This morning I sit on my front porch and write. It is 7am on a Saturday although, in retirement, the weekend is no different from Monday-Friday. I just spent thirty minutes fiddling with the previous paragraph. Soon I will go back into the house to refill my coffee mug. The sun has just risen over the top of my neighbor’s big maple and is hitting me square in the face. It makes me squint, but it also feels great. This is the way writing should be.

A Second Window (June 12, 2023)

I recently had a drink with an old friend I hadn’t seen for years. He told me that he’d quit his job of twenty years to become a professional gambler. I have always admired people who make major changes in their lives, but a move from government employee to poker player (and from a home in Wisconsin to life on the road) was a hard one for me to get a handle on.

My friend is an intelligent man. He’s also analytical. I knew his big decision had not been made lightly. I actually thought gambling was, for him, less crazy than quitting his job to play the stock market full time. My friend was betting on himself and not on the whims of the world economy. I bombarded him with questions about his new line of work and learned that, as a young man, he’d been pressured into a profession he never wanted. His entire adult life had been someone else’s plan. He realized he was most happy playing small stakes poker during his free time, and he was good at it. As soon as his kids had grown and as soon as he’d worked long enough to receive a small pension from his former employer, he started on this unusual second career. He felt compelled to give it a try, and it seems to be working.

The one question I did not ask my friend, although I wish I had, was his measure for success. He did say that he makes more money now than he did when he held a regular job, but I sensed it was something other than money that was driving him.

All of the time my friend was talking, I compared his big change to my own cautious existence. I retired early so that I could write full-time, but nothing about that decision would ever be described as daring. I now have to watch my family’s budget a little more carefully than I did when I was working, but if my biggest sacrifice is brewing coffee at home instead of hanging out in coffee shops, the risk factor is pretty much zero.

Maybe I am fooling myself, but I don’t think my friend considers his decision to gamble any riskier than I do my decision to write. In both cases, the numbing sense of routine started to exceed the fear of change. He loves to gamble, and I love to write. He’s a better than average gambler, I am a better than average writer. Our motivations are similar, our skill levels comparable. Our passions just differ.

Had I decided to write full-time in my 20s or early 30s, it wouldn’t have been a risk. During those years, I had few material possessions and no obligations. Back then, however, I had only an inkling of what I wanted to do with my life. Those years were followed by two and a half decades when I knew I wanted to write, but I was enjoying my career as a university professor. Additionally, I had family who depended on me. My commitment to them, along with an attachment to a middle class lifestyle, relied on a regular paycheck (or at least I thought it did). Now, with age 70 only months away, my aversion to risk has not changed. My situation has, and I have a second window of opportunity. I would have been a more dynamic writer forty-five years ago, but I cannot imagine a more satisfying retirement. 

Braided Line June 5, 2023)

Fishing braided line isolated on white background. Spool of green cord isolated. Spool of braided fishing line.

Last week I wrote about watching clouds in Canada. An outstanding week on Ontario’s Lake of the Woods deserves more than a weather report. Here is one more entry about the trip.

If I judged my LOTW adventures solely on the quality of the fishing, this year’s trip would be the best trip ever. We caught walleye every day and mixed the walleye catch with a smattering of northern pike, perch, and small-mouthed bass. Jack caught a lake trout, and several of us had strikes or follow-ups by muskies. On most trips we see one or two muskies the entire week. This year we may have seen two dozen. I caught the biggest fish in my life (a musky) with a reel that Clare had recently given me for my birthday, and that connection added to the specialness.

Maybe the reason my friends and I caught more fish this year is because we are finally learning the water in the region and know the best places to fish. More likely it was dumb luck, and our trip coincided with the water temperatures warming enough to bring the fish into the shallows. 

Another factor to our success might be the addition of Victor to our fishing party. Victor is the son of Tom, one of the original members of our group. While only twenty years old, Victor knows twice as much about fishing as I do and is happy to share his knowledge if asked. This trip he introduced me to braided fishing line. Braided line, unlike monofilament and fluorocarbon, has no memory. It does not take on a spiral curl after being wrapped around the spool of my reel. With no curl, it comes off the reel more cleanly, and it does not wind itself around the tip of my rod. As a result, my casts travel farther, and I do not waste time dealing with twisted line. In the past, I’ve avoided braided line because it is stiffer than other options, but I now know that the added stiffness is more than offset by the improved ease of casting.

This is more about fishing line than most people care to know, but is only a taste of the long discussions we had on the subject during our evening campfires. It reminds me of a time years ago when I visited my mom for Christmas. She hosted a party for her friends, at which I endured an hourlong debate about bowling balls.

Three of the guys in our current group of fishermen have been making a May fishing trip for a long time. I don’t even know how long. I joined them about fifteen years ago. Now we are up to seven men (and three boats). We missed one year due to COVID, but otherwise have annually fished Ontario or northern Minnesota. Each year we improve our trip in small ways. This year, for example, we drove to Canada two days before the opening of walleye season. By heading up one day earlier than we had in the past, the checkpoint at the Canadian border was five vehicles deep instead of a hundred vehicles. Also we were able to boat into our campsite a full day before the season opened, and we were ready to fish first thing opening day.

Improving on our trip does not mean reducing the weight of our gear. If anything, our equipment list gets longer and longer. With motorboats for transportation, weight and volume are not much of a concern. One year we added a portable gazebo as a sheltered dining area. Another time we brought portable chairs for sitting around the campfire. This trip Jack added a small camping oven for baking. Rather than bringing in bread that sometimes got moldy by midweek, we baked fresh biscuits with our evening meals. Excursions by motorboat, when compared to my backpacking and canoe trips, are luxury living.


No Stars in Ontario (May 29, 2023)

This morning (Wednesday, May 24) I am the first person out of his tent in our Lake of the Woods backcountry campsite. The wind is blowing hard. I expect the other six men in our group are awake, but see no reason to crawl out of their warm sleeping bags. If there are large whitecaps on the lake, we won’t be venturing out for early morning fishing.

I am sitting in a collapsible chair, my back to the wind. For the first time ever, I am writing a blog entry with heavy gloves on. It isn’t as difficult as I expected, although the lettering looks like it has been done by a third grader just learning to do cursive.

The wind is out of the east, yet the clouds, if moving at all, are coming from the west. What makes the wind on the ground go in one direction and the wind a few thousand feet up go another? The skyline on the western horizon is a bit lighter than the clouds directly overhead, so I am hoping that better and calmer weather is working its way toward us.

All week the sky has been hazy. Even on cloudless days, the sky is gray rather than blue. At night, the sky reveals almost no stars. There is Venus, Mars, the moon, and little else. I’d have seen more stars had I stayed home and looked skyward through the light pollution of the city. The reason for the haze is the forest fires in Alberta and Saskatchewan. I sometimes get a whiff of smoke when I am out on the lake, but the smell is just as likely from my campfire-infused clothes as from the fires in Alberta.

I have been watching one particular cloud for much of the morning. I thought I could use its location in reference to the treetops on an adjacent island to confirm that the clouds were really moving west to east. If that single cloud is indicative of the sky in general, then the airstream at cloud level is not moving at all. Still, here on the ground, I am being buffeted by steady twenty mile an hour winds.

It is a good thing that today is Wednesday and not Thursday. Thursday is the day we are supposed to break camp and boat back to civilization. Our vehicles and boat trailers are parked forty miles away, and twenty of those miles are across some very big water. If the winds don’t lessen, we won’t be able to travel with gear-laden boats. I’d be happy if we were land-bound for an extra day or two, but three of my companions need to get back. Two have planes to catch, as they flew into International Falls for this trip. The other has a speech to give at a meeting of healthcare professionals. I have nothing for at least a week, unless I count the high school graduation party of the daughter of a friend. No one would notice if I missed it. Every year I assume I am too old to have good friends with kids still in high school, and every year I am proven wrong. 


At Least It Looks Better (May 22, 2023)

Two fence posts in my garden fence were broken. The rust-resistant chickenwire had rusted. My dog, for no reason other than to sniff the compost pile, had jumped the fence dozens of times and, in doing so, had collapsed it in a number of places. The question was not whether I needed to fix the fence. The question was how best to fix it.

After a visit to the hardware store, I decided to start over from scratch. I bought fifty feet of plastic chicken wire and eight new posts. I needed about a dozen posts for the job, but thought I could alternate old posts with new ones. Home repairs never go as planned, but with new flexible fencing and easy-to-install posts, I couldn’t see where the problems were going to be.

My first task was to construct a new gate using two-by-eights and the least damaged section of the old chicken wire. This went well. Secondly, I began to string new fencing around the perimeter of my raised beds. The materials, both the webbing and the posts, were floppier than I wanted, and the fence drooped. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but that did not mean I was going to reveal my ineptitude by making a lopsided fence. The whole reason behind the project was to make my garden look good, and in terms of attractiveness, a fence that gives the appearance of falling over is no better than a fence that is falling over. I needed to get the sag out.

Fortunately this was not my first fencing mishap. Years ago I’d put up a fence that was straight and sturdy, but the holes in the mesh were too big to keep rodents out. I discovered the flaw by witnessing a young rabbit charge the fence at full speed and shoot through it as if it wasn’t there. I tore the entire barrier down only days after erecting it and stuck the useless fencing in the back of my garage. Now I could take it out of storage and use it to support the new fence by adding a second layer. One layer would keep out the rabbits, and a second layer would keep the first layer from flopping over.

All was going smoothly until I was three quarters of the way around the garden. I pulled hard on the fencing to take out as much slack as possible, and two of the hexagons broke in my fingers. Only then did it occur to me that chicken wire made entirely of plastic was a bad idea. Its purpose was to keep chickens in, not keep rodents out. If I could snap the strands with my bare hands, a rabbit could gnaw through them in seconds.

Now I had a decision to make. I could either start over again with metal fencing or finish a fence that wouldn’t be rabbit-proof. Squirrels, birds, and bugs already feed off my garden (e.g., I haven’t picked a ripe strawberry in years), so how much would it matter if a few rabbits got in? And if I don’t care about the rabbits, I might not need a fence at all. 

Overall my new fence is a DIY fiasco, but I like the new gate.


Mercury in Retrograde (May 15, 2023)

On Tuesday Manyu and I drove to my mom’s house for an early celebration of Mother’s Day. My mom lives in Dyckesville, a small town northeast of Green Bay. When I was a kid living right in the city of Green Bay, Dyckesville was the doorway to Door County. Today the new highway bypasses Dyckesville altogether, and the town is just a quiet village of retirees and commuters. Our drive took more than the usual four and a half hours. When we hit a detour on the highway we normally drive, I ignored the detour signs and sought an alternate route to the north. There I ran into more detours. Instead of arriving mid-afternoon, we showed up in time for dinner.

With the longer than usual drive across the state, I suppose I should be grateful that I didn’t get the flat tire until we got to my mom’s. A short distance from her house is a paved bike trail that is a favorite place for Manyu and me to walk Jack. We drove the mile to the trailhead, took a long walk with the dog, and upon our return discovered the rear tire on the driver’s side was low. It was a slow leak, so I was able to drive back to the house before digging out the jack and putting on the temporary spare.

After removing the flat tire, I found a nail in the tread. I tossed the tire in the back of my car and drove to the lone auto repair shop in town to see if the mechanic there could pull out the nail and jam in a plug. On the door of the repair shop was a handwritten note that read, “Closed Due to Injury.” My immediate thought was that the note was either too much information or not quite enough.

When I told Ron, my stepdad, that the service garage was closed, he suggested a tire shop in nearby Luxemburg. I asked him if he wanted to ride along. He accepted, and I am glad he did. As we approached Luxemburg, maybe ten miles from Dykesville, all Ron could talk about was the town’s population explosion. Luxemburg had gone from 2,000 people in 2010 to 2,600 today, which I suppose, in terms of percentages, is an explosion.

At the tire shop service desk, a gruff, witty woman took my contact information and said she’d call in an hour or two when the tire was done. Plugging a nail hole in a tire takes about two minutes, but I didn’t feel I was in a position to ask if I could jump the line. Ron, who has lived in the area for all of his 80+ years and knows just about everyone within a twenty-mile radius, stuck his head in the repair area of the shop and said, “Hey Mike, my wife’s kid needs to get back to La Crosse. Can you take a quick look at his tire?” Ron did not to mention that I wasn’t heading back to La Crosse until the next day.

While I waited in the service counter/waiting room, Ron went into the garage to schmooze with the repair guys. Ten minutes later I looked out the window and saw a guy (Mike?) putting the tire back on my car. I stepped outside to thank the man for the quick work, and he said, “I don’t think the nail was your problem. It barely poked through the tread. You already had a plug on that tire, and it was the plug that was leaking. I patched both spots, so you’re good to go.”

On the way home, I asked Ron, “Your friend said he patched my tire. He didn’t just jam plugs in the two holes?”

“No,” replied my stepdad. “Mike said plugs are bandaids. They’ve had so many problems with plugs that they don’t do them anymore. He pulled the tire off the rim and put on patches from the inside.”

I am writing this blog from La Crosse, so the patches must be holding. When I got home, however, I discovered my tv wasn’t working. I might be entering a phase when life feels like a series of minor mishaps and annoyances. I am not much for astrology, but mercury is, in fact, in retrograde. Maybe I will stay away from power tools for a while.

Skye (May 8, 2023)

Once or twice a year our friends Yao and Xiaoli ask Manyu and me to walk their dog Skye. Skye is a Rhodesian ridgeback. Pointing out that Rhodesian ridgebacks are big dogs does not adequately describe the girth of the breed’s upper body. It is better to mention that Rhodesian ridgebacks were originally bred to hunt lions. My own dog Jack barks at most of the dogs he sees, but he has never barked at Skye. I don’t think he recognizes Skye as a dog.

Yao and Xiaoli live on a slough just off the main channel of the Mississippi River, so our walks with Skye often follow a path along the river. The Mississippi is at flood stage right now, high even for this time of year, and much of our usual route was underwater. When we came to a submerged section of trail, Skye walked in up to his chest.

Skye is so muscular that his neck is bigger than his head. When I pulled on his leash to coax him out of the water, his collar came up over his ears and slid off his head. Now I had a potentially dangerous situation. Off-leash and standing in floodwaters, Skye was only fifteen feet from the strong current of the Mississippi River. If he wandered just a few steps nearer the main channel, he’d be swept away. 

I had no choice but to wade into the water up to my thighs, position myself between Skye and the swiftest current, and reattach his collar. Once I’d accomplished that, I knew I could not just tug on his leash like I’d done before. Instead I grabbed Skye by the collar and twisted. I probably was choking him, but I wasn’t going to let him loose again. I don’t know what I would have done had he started moving toward the river, but he just looked up at me and held his ground. When Skye stands still, there is nothing I can do until he decides to move on his own. The water was from snowmelt, and I could feel my feet going numb. Still I had no choice but to wait the dog out. I applied constant pressure to his collar in the direction of dry land, and the big dog eventually followed my lead. We then walked back to Yao and Xiaoli’s house. Skye let me take a route that was away from the river. 

                                                    *          *         * 

In a story unrelated to the one I’ve just recounted, there was a time I was ice fishing on a backwater not far from Yao and Xiaoli’s home. At dusk, I saw Xiaoli and Skye walking toward me on the snow-covered ice. A barred owl in a nearby tree called out with its familiar “who-cooks-for-you” refrain. Skye put his snout straight up into the air and let out his own four-syllable howl. The owl hooted at Skye, and Skye howled back. This odd vocal exchange went on four times in succession. My imitation of a barred owl is pretty good, and I have used it dozens of times when I’ve heard owls in the night. Not once has a bird ever called back.

Buena Vista (May 1, 2023)

When I stopped waking up early to go fishing, I assumed my days of losing sleep just to do something fun were over. That, however, changed last Saturday. After driving to Wisconsin Rapids Friday evening, four other guys and I spent a short night in a cheap motel only to climb out of bed at 4am. We had forty minutes to brush our teeth, put on several layers of warm outdoor clothing, and rendezvous at a roadside historical marker on the outskirts of town. There we met Peggy Farrell, an environmental education professor from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Peggy had us follow her in our car, as she led us along a series of progressively rougher and narrower roads until we parked alongside a pair of gravel ruts in the middle of a large fenced grassland. Once we’d all piled out of our vehicles, she walked us in the dark to a small blind and left us in the middle of the Buena Vista State Natural Area.

Five guys crammed into a tiny plywood box designed for no more than four. I had not met two of the men before, but all were friends of Jack, the organizer of our trip. A row of small windows stretched across one side of the blind. The blind was four feet high and too low to stand up in. There were two three-foot long benches. I was the guy seated in the middle, so half of my butt was on one bench, the other half was on the other. Both benches wobbled on the uneven ground when anyone shifted, so I was often off kilter. Still the discomfort was more than worth it. We were there to see for ourselves the mating dance of the greater prairie chicken.

Until Jack asked whether I wanted to go to central Wisconsin to watch dancing prairie chickens, I didn’t even know Wisconsin had any prairie chickens left. There certainly isn’t much prairie any more, and most of what we do have are demonstration plots too small to support prairie-dependent wildlife. When the Great Plains still extended east of the Mississippi River, the territory that eventually became the state of Wisconsin had bison, prairie dogs, and prairie chickens. I thought all three of these grassland animals had been extirpated by overhunting and habitat destruction. Now I know that 13,000 acres of grassland in the very center of the state is a protected prairie chicken management area. 

I won’t bother to describe the strutting of male prairie chickens during their mating ritual. Any reader can easily find an online video of the prancing birds, and as much as I value the written word, this is a case where a visual image is better than a description. I will limit this blog to my experience and not go into much detail about the unique actions of the birds.

To observe the chickens, we put ourselves in the blind well before dawn. While it was still totally dark, we heard the first drones of a few birds. Then we imagined we saw dark shadows moving about fifty feet in front of us. As the night sky slowly gave way to hints of daylight, the shadows took shape, and with the first real light of day, the birds started prancing and inflating their bright yellow-orange breast sacs. Only after all of the males had appeared and each had staked out its own little piece of turf did the females start to move in. The males exaggerated their efforts with the appearance of each new female. The females, on the other hand, seemed almost indifferent to the males’ frantic actions, although most hens eventually centered on one male, and the two would then wander off into the taller grass surrounding the stomped down lek. “Lek” is a generic term for the breeding grounds of any wild animal that congregates for mating. Prairie chicken leks are also called booming grounds, so named for the constant guttural humming made by the males as they try to call in their mates. In total, we saw 24 males on this particular booming ground, about half that many females.

As remarkable as the sight was, the five of us had seen enough by about 8am. Our butts were sore, and our backs ached. I, although I may have been the only one, was also feeling claustrophobic. We, however, could not leave the blind, as a condition for its use is to stay hidden until the very last female has chosen a mate and moved out of sight. By 7:30am, only one hen was left on the booming grounds, but she was content to wander about for another hour as the few remaining males took their last shots at attracting her. In the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I wanted it to be over so I could step outside to pee.

Over the course of the winter I spent most of my waking hours in the house, so I sometimes struggled with topics for my blog. Finally I have something exciting to write about. Like the return of Canada geese to my local marsh and crocuses pushing through the last of the April snow, my return to nature is a sure sign of spring.

Upgrades (April 24, 2023)

Each Monday immediately after I post a new blog entry, I check to see how it appears on the web. Usually there is nothing I need to change, but last week I’d somehow inserted a photograph upside down. The photo was of a bunch of stacked paint cans on my basement floor. It was a straightforward image with an obvious top and bottom, and I couldn’t figure out how I’d gotten it wrong. Still I must have erred somehow, so I went back into my website software for what I thought would be an easy fix.

Except that it wasn’t easy. I opened WordPress to rotate the photo and found that I’d uploaded it correctly the first time. For no reason that I could discern, the photograph was right side up in WordPress, but upside down on my website. From a Google search I learned that the most recent version of WordPress evaluates every photograph I upload and rotates anything it determines to be upside down. My task was not to flip an image 180º, but to trick my software into not flipping it for me.

My initial attempt at a solution was to upload the photo upside down and let the autocorrect flip it back to right side up. This, of course, did not work. Once the photo was upside down, the program saw it as right side up and did nothing to change it.

My second attempt was to add a caption to the bottom of the photo. My thinking here was that if the program recognized the caption as a part of the photograph, it would not take any action that turned written words upside down. This also did not work. The software knows the difference between a photograph and a caption. The caption stayed right side up; the photo did not.

Finally I went into the software’s “edit photo” feature and changed everything I could find that wouldn’t actually change anything. Something I did, I don’t know what, fooled the software. The photo is now as I want it, but it took a half hour to complete a task I shouldn’t have had to do in the first place.

This small, but annoying inconvenience reminded me of the IT trainings I attended when I was working at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. About once a year, the well-intentioned folks in Information Technology held workshops to explain the upcoming updates to all campus-wide software. The presentations almost always started with the words, “The upgrades will be an adjustment at first, but you’ll like the changes once you get used to them.” More often than not I did not like the changes at all. Who, for example, would want a feature that automatically rotates photographs and sometimes gets it wrong? I miss those annual workshops with the IT guys. While I cannot stop change from happening, I liked having someone warn me when it was coming. Now, in retirement, I am out there on my own.

Spackle and Paint (April 17, 2023)

I generally abide by Mark Twain’s adage that I should never put off till tomorrow what can be put off until the day after tomorrow. I also tend to follow Parkinson’s Law, the truism that states a task takes as long as a person has to get it done. I consider procrastination to be the exact opposite of puttering on a project endlessly, yet these two common character flaws work together to prevent me from accomplishing as much as I am capable of. One keeps me working on a project well after I should move on to something else, and the other avoids projects altogether. A good example has been my recent flurry of home repairs.

In early January, Manyu left La Crosse for Taipei, Taiwan. While I thought her three-monthlong trip was two months too long, I recognized her extended time away as an opportunity to tackle some of the home repair projects I’d been avoiding for years. With my wife out of town, I could make a mess of the entire house, take extended breaks with jobs half done, and use the table in our breakfast nook as my workbench. I had ceilings to paint, grout to reseal, a bedroom door to realign, and cracked glass to replace. I had a vacuum cleaner to repair and magnetic cabinet latches to install.

As a rule, I stay away from electrical and plumbing projects for fear of making things worse, but otherwise I have no problem taking on projects beyond my abilities. What I lack in skill I make up in patience. I am willing to repeat the same step four, five, six times if that’s what it takes to get the job right. My home repairs are like my writing in that I don’t always know when to stop. Sometimes good enough is better than perfect, and reworking a plaster job or restructuring a carefully worded sentence can deprive both of the imperfections that give them their personality.

Last Monday afternoon I drove to Minneapolis/St. Paul to pick up Manyu from the airport. It was not until the previous evening that I finally lugged paint cans to the basement, returned sanding tools to the garage, and threw a couple of cheap plastic drop cloths in the garbage. It was only fifteen minutes before I needed to jump in the car to drive to the Twin Cities that I vacuumed plaster dust out of the carpet.

In addition to Manyu’s return, last Monday was also the first warm day of 2023. I thought I might be done with DIY projects for a while, but the work just moves outdoors.

Democracy and Education (Part Two) (April 10, 2023)

In last week’s blog, I mentioned John Dewey’s concept of the Lost Individual. All I wrote at the time was that the Lost Individual was someone who sensed a problem with American democracy, but did not know what to do about it. Today I want to offer a bit more detail. Dewey described the heart of the problem as Americans romanticizing the image of the rugged individual beyond its period of usefulness. When European Americans moved from the East Coast into the wilderness, frontiersmen and settlers practiced extreme individualism without worrying about the needs of others. This was appropriate, as the physical distance between people was significant, and independence and self-sufficiency were necessary for survival. One person’s actions had very little impact upon those living miles away.

When the center of American life shifted from the countryside to the city (and from the farm to the factory), unrestrained individualism no longer worked well. The actions of one person very much affected the lives of others, so individualism needed to be tempered with a sense of community. Balance was the key. Individualism without a sense of community led to self-serving actions without regard to the needs of others. Commitment to a community without independent thought led to adherence to norms without ever questioning whether those norms were ethical, fair, and equitable. Both perspectives were vital.

According to Dewey, education is the best institution for bringing individualism and a sense of community together. He, however, refused to offer a clearly defined set of ground rules for teachers to follow in order to make this happen. He felt that each community was unique, and any attempts at one-size-fits-all solutions would promote an inflexible sameness that served neither the students nor the local community. Instead of concrete suggestions, he provided a series of questions individual teachers should ask themselves as they devise a curriculum to promote democratic principles for their particular community. For example:

“Should criticism of the existing social order be permitted?  If so, in what ways?” 

“It has been stated that the individuality and freedom of the classroom teacher are lessening; that the teacher is becoming more and more of a cog in a vast impersonal machine. How far is this statement correct?”

“Can the power of independent and critical thinking, said to be an objective, be attained when the field of thought is restricted by exclusion of whatever relates to controverted social questions?” 

“What are the concrete handicaps to development of desire and ability for democratic social cooperation?”

Dewey asked these questions in 1930, and nearly a hundred years later thoughtful teachers are losing their jobs for answering them and then teaching in ways that contradict the wishes of school boards, principals, and parents.

My favorite Dewey passages about democracy do not come from his books. They also do not come from his academic writing, which I find hard to understand. If someone wanted to read a few short pieces by Dewey about educating for democracy, I would recommend starting with some of his popular articles from the 1920s and 30s. The source material for this blog came from “The Duties and Responsibilities of the Teaching Profession” in School and Society (1930) and a series of articles in the New Republic titled “Individualism, Old and New” (1929-1930). Most university libraries and some public libraries have in their collections The Collected Works of John Dewey. These essays can be found there.

Democracy and Education (Part One) (April 3, 2023)

Fifteen years ago when I started writing a book about the educational philosophy of John Dewey, a few trusted colleagues encouraged me to abandon the project.* They believed that Dewey had already been overanalyzed and I’d be better off directing my efforts in a more contemporary and less explored direction. For two reasons I stuck with the project. First of all, most of what had been written about Dewey seemed academic in nature and not any more accessible to a general readership than Dewey’s own essays. Secondly, I wanted to understand Dewey better for myself, and the work was as much to learn as it was to write.

I did come to understand Dewey’s philosophy of experiential education at a much higher level, but I can summarize everything in one short sentence.  It is this: the overriding purpose of all education in America is to promote democracy. I might be overstating the man a bit, but not by much. The key point, in Dewey’s own words is, “Democracy has to be born anew with every generation, and education is its midwife.”** If even one age group is not taught about its role in the democratic process, those with the power and the money will use that money and power to bend institutions (e.g., government, religious institutions, the media, education) to their oligarchic ends.

As I sit here in the 2020s worrying about American democracy in ways I’ve never thought possible, I believe that what concerned Dewey over a hundred years ago has come to fruition – and it leaves me with a strong sense of what Dewey called the Lost Individual. Lost individuals are those who see the serious threats to democracy, but have no idea what to do about them.

This blog will have to be a two-parter. Today is a brief summary of a problem that is self-evident. Next week will be an equally brief summary of what Dewey thought educators needed to do to address the problem.

When I started writing this blog nearly five years ago, my plan was 1) to be generally upbeat and 2) to avoid politics. Obviously this blog entry violates both of those tenets, but when a sense of dread seeps into my otherwise wonderful life, it is hard not to write about it.

*The book is Rediscovering Dewey: A Reflection on Independent Thinking.  WoodNBarnes Publishing, 2011. 

**Dewey, J. 1910. “Science as Subject-Matter and Method.”  Science, 31: 121-127.


Home Repairs (March 27, 2023)

One of the few benefits of Manyu going to Asia each winter (and leaving me behind to care for our dog) is that I can complete home projects without her looking over my shoulder or complaining about the messes I leave in my wake. On Manyu’s current trip, I have been unusually productive. So far I have painted the kitchen ceiling, repaired a shower stall in the back bathroom, replaced glass panels in two cabinets, and re-glued the chairs for our breakfast nook. All that remains is the project I have been avoiding from the start, and that is replacing the ceiling fan in the main bathroom and repairing a bit of water damage caused by the malfunctioning fan. I just know the project is going to be way more difficult than it ought to be. I haven’t even started the project, and I’ve already injured myself because of it.

In my research about ceiling fans, I read that I should insulate the tube running from the fan to the roof, as this will minimize condensation around the tube itself. I was hoping to avoid the unpleasant task of crawling up into our tiny attic space, but decided if I was going to make these repairs at all I was going to do them correctly.

I then remembered that I might have leftover fiberglass batting from a previous project in the crawlspace under the house. Unfortunately, if there is an area of our house I like less than the small attic, it is the equally small area under the house. Now I was going to crawl under our house to fix a problem that was on the top of our house.

To get into the basement crawlspace, I have to get to a small door at the very back of Clare’s long narrow closet. Our house is great, but it has its quirks (i.e., no full attic or no full basement). I pulled a half dozen storage bins out of the closet and removed the quarter-inch piece of carpeted plywood that covers the hole in the floor. Thinking I’d search the crawlspace before climbing down into it, I lowered my upper body into the hole and waved around a flashlight to see if the insulation was even down there. As I dangled upside down in the hole, something that felt like a large rock came out of nowhere and hit me in the shoulder. A rock in Clare’s closet made no sense to me, and when I aimed my flashlight straight down to see what it was that had hit me, all I saw was a black cloth bag lying on the thick plastic sheeting that covers the dirt floor. My whole purpose for leaning head first into the hole was to avoid climbing into the crawlspace if the insulation wasn’t down there, but now I had to go down just to retrieve the bag. That meant getting a small step ladder out of the garage. Whereas most of the crawlspace is about three feet deep, the depth right below the access door is, for no apparent reason, nearly five feet. My aging body can still drop that distance without a ladder, but I have a hard time getting out.

I climbed down and discovered the black bag contained Clare’s shot put from high school. I don’t know where it was that it rolled into the hole, but I am grateful it hit me only with a glancing blow. The insulation, by the way, was tucked behind a support column, and I wouldn’t have seen it had I not gone down to retrieve the bag. Still the event is an ominous prelude to a repair project I don’t want to do.

A Lost Week (March 20, 2023)

Last Tuesday a nurse practitioner tested me for COVID and flu. She also checked my lungs for pneumonia. In her medical opinion, I have a bad case of something else.

I wouldn’t bother mentioning my ailments, except to say that five days in bed does not give me much to write about. With my eyes and head hurting too much to read, I can’t even comment on a recent book or newspaper column. If my weekly blog was an assignment for a class, I’d ask for an extension. I do have two groggy thoughts that came to mind during my illness, but even they are interesting only in the fact that I never would have thought them as recently as five years ago. They are the aimless asides of a fevered old man.

First of all, I came to the realization that I will not go gently into my final years if my brain is significantly diminished by age. This week I’ve been in a mental fog reminiscent of the long-term COVID symptoms I had last spring. In both instances, I was continually frustrated. Fortunately this time I knew the problem would be temporary. I was not so sure last May when the physical symptoms of COVID went away and I still wasn’t thinking straight.

Secondly, I was unusually aware of my own mortality. I was never so sick that I feared I wouldn’t recover, but I had a strong sense that a week in bed was cutting into the days I have left. I have known for some years that I cannot wait long if I want another adventure in this lifetime. The feeling last week was something different. In fact, it was almost the opposite. Last week I lamented that illness was depriving me of the things I enjoy every day. In the past, there was always tomorrow for working on new book chapters, reading novels, exercising at the gym, fishing, walking my dog. Last week I realized that tomorrow is a finite concept. I compared my current illness with the time I was seven or eight years old and had mumps over Christmas. As a kid I probably was angry about being sick over the holidays, but I doubt I ever thought to myself, “Well damn, there’s one Christmas I’ll never get back.”

I write this week’s blog knowing it is not one of my better contributions. Young healthy readers may not understand what I am talking about. Anyone with a chronic disease, regardless of age, will understand very well, but think me a whiner. It is the best I can do; my brain still is not working quite right.


... and God Laughs (March 13, 2023)

I sometimes read literature just beyond my understanding. That is why I pick up Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson at least once a year. I don’t think I’ll ever understand Emerson, but I still appreciate him. The appeal is not the challenge, nor is it a hope that eventually everything will make sense. The best I can discern is that I see the beauty without understanding it. I feel the same way about deserts. With my recent readings, I have gone to writing comments in the margins – and now I explore Emerson in the same way spelunkers map out caves. Each time I read excerpts from “Self-Reliance” or “Circles,” I use the notes from previous trips to venture deeper into the darkness.

My most recent case of pleasurable confusion came not from a book, but from the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once. I am sure I will stream it again someday, but it won’t be anytime soon. As confused as I was by the storyline, I knew there was something insightful in the craziness. I am even pleased the movie won best picture at the Academy Awards. Clare says she understands it, so I wonder whether the ability to follow alternate realities is a generational thing.

Watching Everything Everywhere All at Once got me thinking about turning points in life. As I scrolled back on some of the key moments in my own sixty-plus years, I realized most of the major events were a random blend of preparation and happenstance. For example, in the early 1990s, I applied for, received, and accepted a one-year position to teach in Taiwan. Every step in the application process had been carefully planned out. In fact, my efforts to get to Taiwan took longer (a full year) than the time I initially agreed to be there (10 months). In contrast, the decision to stay in Taiwan for not one year, but two, happened on a whim. I’d been in Taipei only a few weeks when my sponsoring agency offered me a contract for a second year, but gave me only a week to decide. The agency’s staff was preparing advertisements for the upcoming year’s vacancies and needed to know whether my position should be included on the list. It took me just over a day to accept the offer and tell my university in the States I was never going back.

Why did I extend my contract before I even knew whether I liked the job or the setting? I had no good reason for my decision, and it was little more than a coin toss. Still that one action probably affected my life more than anything I’ve ever done. Had I stayed only one year, Manyu and I would not be together now. By the spring of the first academic year, she and I were seriously dating, but hadn’t discussed marriage. Had I returned to the US the summer of ‘92, I would have gone alone. One year later Manyu willingly moved across the Pacific Ocean with her homeless, unemployed, almost penniless husband. My adventure had become her adventure.

Of course, Manyu’s and my situation is not unique. All of us live lives that would be entirely different had we, once upon a time, zigged instead of zagged. Should I think of it as fate or coincidence?


Leopold Days (March 6, 2023)

Every March people in the La Crosse area (and in several other Wisconsin communities) gather to celebrate Leopold Days. Fans of A Sand County Almanac come together, meet at local nature centers and on various nature trails, to publicly read passages from Aldo Leopold’s environmental classic. This year my daughter Clare and I participated in the event. We did so, not by simply reading from A Sand County…,  but by blending Leopold’s famous essay “The Good Oak” with my own published essay titled “The Good Oak Redux.”

Back in January I did a public reading from my book Essays to My Daughter on Our Relationship With the Natural World. Local environmentalist Chuck Lee attended that reading and asked if I’d be willing to read one of the Leopold chapters for Leopold Days. He even suggested that I somehow combine my Good Oak chapter with Leopold’s Good Oak chapter, and I immediately realized a perfect hook would be to include Clare in the event. She and I could alternate passages, I reading from my essay and Clare reading from Leopold.

The event went well. Clare was outstanding, even adapting on the fly when her dad (supposedly the one more accustomed to being in front of an audience) messed up and accidentally deviated from the script. The success of our reading, however, is not what stands out in my mind. Two other things left a stronger impression.

One was that nearly all of the sixty attendees were my age or older. I am sixty-eight years old. What should I make of this? Are young people not interested in listening to others read aloud?  Do young people not know who Aldo Leopold is? Can I just assume that people not yet of retirement age have more interesting things to do on a Saturday afternoon?

The second thing to leave an impression on me was that Clare’s boyfriend Chase surprised her by showing up just before my daughter and I took the stage. He had an important commitment in Madison that night, so wasn’t supposed to attend. However, he drove two and a half hours Saturday morning, sat through Clare’s reading in La Crosse in the early afternoon, then immediately jumped back in his car to make it back in time for his evening obligation. I don’t know what impressed me more – Clare’s calm demeanor in front of a crowd or Chase’s commitment to my daughter by making the effort to be there.

I do not enjoy public speaking. I still occasionally do it, partly out of a sense of civic responsibility and partly because something positive sometimes comes of it. Maybe I meet someone who becomes a colleague or a friend. Maybe it leads to an invitation to write an article for a journal or magazine. This time I saw Clare in a very positive light and I witnessed firsthand the classy and loving way Clare’s boyfriend treats her. I’m not sure it gets any better than that. 

Music Like Fishing (February 27, 2023)

From where I sit to do my writing, I see Clare’s piano across the room.  Clare did dabble on the keys for five minutes the last time she visited, but otherwise it’s gone unplayed for months. Sitting on the floor alongside the piano are her saxophone and her two violins. There also is a Chinese erhu somewhere in the house, but I don’t know where it is. Clare claims that her current studio apartment is too dry to house her musical instruments, but she wants at least her violins and sax (plus my guitar) once she has a place that is neither too damp nor too dry to store them. I’ve told her that I’ve never lived in a place where I felt like I had much control over the humidity, but I’ve been in her apartment and it is very dry.

As I look at Clare’s collection of musical instruments, I cannot help but recall one of the mysteries of marriage to a first generation Taiwanese American woman. It was Manyu’s obsession with Clare’s musical education. In general, the concept of the tiger mother is exaggeration bordering on racism, but there may be some truth to the stereotype when it comes to music.

I have over a dozen friends who are Taiwanese American or Chinese American moms, and every one of them made their kids immerse themselves in music during their elementary and high school years. All of the kids took private lessons. All of them gave solo senior recitals on at least one, sometimes two instruments. Until my inclusion into the Chinese American community, I did not even know that there was such a thing as a senior recital – yet among the Chinese/Taiwanese Americans I know, it is practically a rite of passage. When asked Manyu why music was so important to Chinese and Taiwanese parents, her internal Zen was awakened, and she said, “There is no why. Just accept it.”

And so I do. Had Clare not had Manyu for a mom, she might not have been introduced to music at all. She definitely wouldn’t have been a star in high school (i.e., first chair in orchestra, drum major in band). Still her instruments sit idle in my living room, which I suppose is normal for most young adults as they find their way in the world. Perhaps music for Clare will be like fishing has been for me. As a young kid, I did not play a musical instrument, but I fished whenever I could. In my teens, my interests shifted from nature pursuits to sports and girls. After high school, I was a sojourner for twenty years and did not even own my own fishing pole. Finally, at age thirty-nine, I moved from Taiwan (with my Taiwanese wife of five months) back to my home state of Wisconsin. My first purchase was a car, my second was a fishing pole. Clare says she’ll return to her music, and I believe her.


Senior Living (February 20, 2023)

One of the reasons Manyu is in Taiwan for an extended stay is to help her mom figure out her living situation. My ninety-year old mother-in-law is healthy for her age, but her home is a third-floor walkup. Soon the stairs will be too much.

Manyu has taken her mom to several senior living complexes, and as I would have guessed, my mother-in-law found something wrong with each of them. She doesn’t want to leave her home of over forty years. Manyu, on the other hand, not only likes some of the places they’ve looked at, but has picked out one she thinks would be a good fit for the two of us. As a result, our discussions about moving back to Taiwan have stepped up a notch.

I am not surprised that Manyu found an apartment she likes. The odd part, as far as I am concerned, is that I have not dismissed my wife’s suggestion that she and I might live in a place specifically designed for old people. Here in the United States, I’d sooner live in a tent than in any kind of retirement community. In Taiwan, I am willing to at least consider it.  What is the difference?

The most likely difference is that nearly all people in Taiwan, not just old people, live in multiplexes that could pass for senior living. If the only big difference between regular housing and senior housing is the decibel levels in the adjacent apartments, I’m all for having neighbors who are asleep by ten.

Secondly, this move is more for Manyu than it is for me. She appreciates the amenities of La Crosse, she likes our house a lot, but she has wanted to move back to Asia for nearly thirty years. This is her turn. I do have a few requirements – access to public transportation, the ability to take walks right out of my front door, a good coffee shop not more than a kilometer away – but it would be hard to find a place in Taiwan that did not meet these basic specifications.

Even though I say that a move to Asia is mostly for Manyu, I have felt for a long time that I have at least one more adventure left in me. Returning to Asia would fit the bill. This morning I sit at my middle-class American living room window, and I have my coffee, my dog, and my writing supplies. The sun has yet to rise up over the bluff, but I can tell it is going to be a blue sky day. I feel completely at peace.

Peace and adventure, peace and adventure. I want both. When I was in my twenties and thirties, I sometimes found both at the same time. If it doesn’t work that way any more, which one do I want now?

Peanut, Peanut Butter (February 13, 2023)

Buzz called me on the phone, and the first thing he said was, “Did you put an empty peanut butter jar in our recycling bin?” He and his wife Pat had just returned from a Florida vacation, and I had been watering their plants and shoveling their driveway while they were away.

“No,” I said.

“Well, there’s a peanut butter jar in our recycling, and we didn’t put it there.”

“Is it Jif?” I asked.

“I think it is,” Buzz replied.

“Had it been washed out or was there still peanut butter in it?”

“It still has some peanut butter in it.”

“I did throw a jar like that away,” I said, “but I did it at home.  I don’t even know where your recycling bin is.”

“Maybe you put the jar in your coat pocket, meant to throw it out at your house, forgot you had it, and then threw it away when you came to our house.”

“No, I have a box next to our washer and dryer where I throw paper, aluminum, glass, and plastic. I take recyclables outside only when the box is full. I wouldn’t have taken out just one jar.”

“Maybe,” Buzz said, “the wind blew a peanut butter jar into our driveway, and you picked it up when you were shoveling.”

“No, that didn’t happen. You must have tossed it before you left.”

“No,” said Buzz.  “I looked in the refrigerator, and our peanut butter is still there.”

“Why do you keep peanut butter in the refrigerator?” I asked.

“Because the jar says I should.”

“I don’t think it does.”

“That’s not the point,” Buzz said. “Did you give anyone else the key to our house?”

“Yeah, that’s it,” I replied. “My neighbor wanted to know where he could throw away a peanut butter jar, so I gave him your address and your house key and told him to put it in your recycling bin.”

“Okay, never mind,” Buzz said. “But it gets even weirder. I think that I looked in the recycling yesterday when we first got home, and the jar wasn’t there. Then today it was.”

“So are you thinking,” I said. “a stranger snuck into your house during the night and put a peanut butter jar in your recycling? That would be unusual.”

“You are always talking about synchronicity,” Buzz said. “Is this a synchronicity thing?”

“No,” I replied. “This is an old man thing. You or Pat, probably you, threw it away before you left for Florida, and you just forgot.” 

“But we don’t even buy name brand peanut butter, so the jar isn’t ours.  This is really going to bother me.”

A Thought About Retirement (February 6, 2023)

I finished last week’s blog by saying I would use an upcoming blog to explain why I was reading Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains. Writing in one blog entry that I would use a future entry to explain my reasons for reading a book may have made it a bigger deal than it actually is. Mountains Beyond Mountains is about a dedicated doctor’s efforts to curb HIV and tuberculous in Haiti, and all I wanted was to read a book about someone who had dedicated his or her life to making a difference.

Not surprisingly, reading Mountains Beyond Mountains came about because I have been looking at my own life from this same perspective. Every morning I sit at a table just inside my living room window. Sometimes I dabble with new ideas for a book, sometimes I work on next week’s blog, and still other times I simply think about subjects more deeply than I’ve ever thought about them before. My impact on the lives of others recently came to mind.

I am not on the tail end of life wishing I had done more. In general, I think my life up until now has been a good one. As a teacher and an author, I’ve hurt no one and, for a handful of people, have done some genuine good. I’d give myself a B+, and as I told students who used to come to my office to complain about their exam scores, B+ is a good grade.

I do, however, wonder about my recent contributions to society. Since retirement six years ago, my priority in life has been to make sure I have enough time to fish, bicycle, and write. Is this self-indulgent? I honestly don’t know. I am sixty-eight years old, healthy, and spend most of my time doing whatever feels like simple fun. I can’t even get myself to take on minor home repairs, so jumping into a major social or environmental cause doesn’t seem likely.

Along with the question of whether I should be doing more good work is a strong sense that I have one more big adventure left in me. The two might be related. Manyu and I talk about leaving La Crosse and returning to Asia. Is there something worthwhile I could be doing in Taiwan or Thailand? Is there something I should be doing in either of those places? Again I honestly don’t know.

One thing I do know is that whatever comes next, I need to be intrinsically motivated. I would not go so far as to call it passion, but I need the next long-term task to be personally satisfying. I have never made a sizable commitment to anything just because I thought it was the right thing to do. I’ve always done it because I wanted to do it. If I am waiting for the next big thing to hit me, will that happen if I spend every morning sitting in my living room window?

A Book for Young Readers (January 30, 2023)

Last week I checked out Mountains Beyond Mountains from the library. The book is the story of Paul Farmer, an American doctor who spent most of his career running a medical clinic in Haiti. I was only two chapters into the book when I flipped to the last page to read the short bio about the author.

When I did so, I was surprised to find not one, but two authors listed. I knew about Tracy Kidder, but was unfamiliar with the second author, a man named Michael French. Quickly I realized I’d checked out the wrong book. More accurately, I’d grabbed the right book, but the wrong edition. I wanted to read the unabridged version from 2003, but instead had brought home a newer edition containing modified text for young readers. Tracy Kidder had written the original book, and Michael French had done the adaptation.

The revision wasn’t bad, so I had to decide whether to keep reading or to track down another copy. With the young reader edition in hand, I went online to see whether Amazon had a “Look Inside” feature for the adult book. It did. The opening line of the youth version reads, “I first met Paul Edward Farmer two weeks before Christmas 1994.” The opening line of the adult book reads, “Six years after the fact, Dr. Paul Edward Farmer reminded me, ‘We met because of a beheading…’”

Obviously the two books were not the same. While I did not need to know the details of a violent murder, I also was not interested in a version that redacts such content. I exchanged copies at the library and now look forward to reading about Dr. Farmer with all of the gore and all of the big words still in place. 

More interesting (at least more interesting to me) than my confusion with the two versions of Mountains Beyond Mountains is the reason I want to read the book at all. That, however, is an anecdote for an upcoming blog.

Down a Rabbit Hole (January 23, 2023)

For several years I’ve known there has been something (I wasn’t sure what) about a possible thirteenth sign of the zodiac. Last week I googled “13th zodiac” and came across several sites mentioning Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer. If I am reading the conflicting information correctly, Ophiuchus is an actual constellation near Scorpio and Libra and is now considered by some to be a sign within the astrological zodiac.

Finding information about Ophiuchus took me about a minute, which should have been the end of it. Unfortunately, one of the websites stated that the change in the zodiac was initiated by NASA, and I could not leave this odd assertion unexplored.

I searched for a website that was not entirely astrological and found a short 2020 Time Magazine newsfeed reporting that NASA disavowed any involvement in changes to the astrological charts. According to the short article, a NASA representative was quoted as saying, “We see your comments about a zodiac story that re-emerges every few years. No, we did not change the zodiac.”* When I read this, I could not help but imagine a group of NASA astronomers drawing straws to determine which one of them was going to ruin his or her career by going before cameras to explain the space agency’s views on astrology.

Time Magazine, however, was not the end of my internet surfing. Two of the articles about Ophiuchus had used the word “sidereal.” I’d never seen this word before, so I looked it up. It means “with respect to the distant stars” and refers to all of the sky other than the sun and the moon. When I saw that the sidereal day is slightly shorter than the normal day (23 hours 56 minutes 4.091 seconds), my first thought was that this must be the reason for leap year.

Leap year, of course, has nothing to do with the length of the sidereal day, but with the time it takes the earth to travel around the sun. Had I taken even a moment to think about it, I would have realized it on my own. Still I googled “leap year” and, in doing so, learned something that genuinely surprised me, largely because it seems like something I should have already known.

The solar year is 365.25 days long, not 365.0, so every four years we add February 29 to the calendar. This is common knowledge. Less known, however, is that fact that the solar year is not exactly 365.25 days, but 365.25 days minus 11 minutes. This means that adding a day to the calendar every four years actually overcompensates by more than a half hour every four years. To adjust for this minor miscalculation, three leap years every 400 hundred years get skipped, and it always occurs during the last year of a century. There was no leap year in 1700, 1800, and 1900. The year 2000, the one change of century in my lifetime, was the exception. It did include an extra day in February.** With all of the hype about the new millennium and Y2K, no one had mentioned that having 366 days in a year ending with two zeros was an anomaly.

After wasting forty-five minutes traveling down various astrological/astronomical rabbit holes, the most disturbing part of the whole thing was learning that the insertion of Ophiuchus into the zodiac bumped all of the other signs over a peg – and, as a result, I was no longer a Gemini. I don’t believe in astrology and I do not identify with most of the characteristics generally associated with Gemini, but neither was I willing to change my sign at this point in my life. I’m too old to have to learn what it means to be a Taurus. Therefore, I am concluding that the people advocating for Ophiuchus must be wrong.

I am married to a Taiwanese woman, and the Chinese zodiac is more a part of my life than the Babylonian zodiac. Sunday was Chinese New Year, and it is now the Year of the Rabbit.  Xīn nián kuài lè (新年快樂). Happy New Year.

* Locker, M. July 17, 2020. “NASA Elegantly Shuts Down Those New Zodiac Star Theories. Time Newsfeed.  Found at: https://time.com/5867647/nasa-zodiac-star.

**Found at: https://www.infoplease.com/calendars/months-seasons/leap-year-explained.

I Would Have Said It Differently (January 16, 2023)

Manyu called me from her sister’s apartment to let me know she’d arrived in Taiwan safely. She also told me that she’d read the first half of my new book on the airplane. This is a big deal for both of us. English is not Manyu’s first language, and reading in English is not relaxing for her. The fact that she struggled through a hundred pages of a book written by me was more an act of love than a pleasant way to kill time during a seventeen-hour flight.

She did tell me that there was a passage in the book she did not like. It was a single sentence from an essay about a time I took a group of sixth graders to tide pools in northern California and helped a young boy find an octopus. I compared the event to some of my own childhood memories and wondered whether the boy’s encounter with the octopus was a life-altering experience that led to a career in environmental education or marine biology. I concluded the essay by writing, “If John grew up to major in economics and work as a consultant on Wall Street, I don’t want to know about it.”*

Manyu could not understand why I’d tell a heartwarming story about a child’s relationship with nature and then use it to indirectly insult some of the readers. Putting aside the fact that traders on Wall Street are not my niche audience, Manyu makes a good point. She knows I sometimes think that environmental education is a higher calling than business and finance, but she assumed I was smart enough to recognize this perspective as a character flaw best kept to myself. She said that had she read my manuscript before I sent it out for publication, she would have told me to remove the offensive sentence.

I wish I could say I knew exactly what I was doing when I wrote the sentence, but I did not. It didn’t occur to me that I might be insulting anyone, and I did not notice the arrogance that I now see is there. Had Manyu made her observation before I sent out the final draft, I probably would have changed it. There are times to be offensive, because stating the truth is important. This was not one of those times.

* Simpson, S. 2023.  Essays to My Daughter on Our Relationship with the Natural World.  Purdue University Press, p. 57.

A Trip To AIT (January 9, 2023)

Last Friday I drove Manyu to the airport for her annual trip to Taiwan. She wanted me to go with her even more than usual, but our elderly dog has become increasingly dependent on me, and I wasn’t willing to leave him with someone else at this stage in his life. Manyu will be gone for three months, while I stay in La Crosse to care for Jack and watch for signs of spring.

As I drove away from the terminal, my mind wandered back to the first couple years of Manyu’s and my relationship. My thoughts were not so much about romance as about some of the obstacles we faced during those early times. A few of them were the same difficulties all couples face. Most were because we came from two different worlds. For example:

I was living in Asia in the early 1990s. To legally marry a Taiwanese woman at that time, I had to establish I did not already have a wife in the United States. Manyu, on the other hand, didn’t have to prove anything. While this policy demonstrated a double standard, I did not disagree with it. I was an American, I was male, and I was seven years older than Manyu. I wouldn’t have trusted my intentions either.

I’d left all of my important papers (other than my passport) with my mom in Wisconsin, so I asked her to send me my divorce papers. When they arrived in Taipei, Manyu and I took them to Taipei City Hall. A guy at the marriage license window perused the documents and then said, “This doesn’t prove you’re not married. It only shows you’ve been divorced.”  

“That doesn’t make any sense,” I replied. “How can anyone prove he’s not married? The only person in the whole world I can prove I’m not married to is the woman I used to be married to.”  

The bureaucrat at the window was not helpful in telling me what I needed to do, but he finally suggested I talk to someone at AIT. AIT is the American Institute in Taiwan. The US does not recognize Taiwan as a country, so we don’t have an embassy there. If we did have an embassy, it would be AIT. When I walked into the main lobby on Xin Yi Road, there were more than a hundred Taiwanese citizens cued up for visas to the United States.* As soon as one of the security guards saw my Western face enter the room, he pulled me aside and escorted me to a side door for Americans. Once within the inner sanctum, there was no line and I walked right up to a guy sitting at a desk.

I explained my situation. He nodded and said, ”Raise your right hand.” I did, and then he asked, “Are you married?”

When I answered, “No,” he asked to see my passport, which fortunately I’d brought along with me. He used my name, birthdate, and passport number to fill in the blanks on a boilerplate form. He signed the form, authorized it with an embossed stamp, and gave it to me.

“That’s it?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, “It’s a statement of non-marriage. How else you gonna prove you’re not married?” 

* Since my time in Taipei, AIT has moved from its offices in the heart of the city to a more exclusive location in the city’s Neihu District. Also the United States has loosened many of its travel restrictions, so Taiwanese no longer need tourist visas to enter the US.

Trout Fishing in America (January 2, 2023)

It has been a long while since I’ve read a book I could not put down. The question is whether the difference is me or the books. 

The Natural, Catch-22, The Name of the Rose, The Razor’s Edge, Shoeless Joe, O Pioneers!, Trout Fishing in America,* Cannery Row. These are the titles that first come to mind when I try to list books that completely drew me in. I still have my original copies of Catch-22 and Shoeless Joe, which is remarkable considering all of the times I’ve moved since buying them. I tried reading my old copy of Catch-22 a year ago, but was reminded I can no longer comfortably read the small print in paperback novels. 

Do these books have anything in common?  All are fiction. Most, in one way or another, have a mystical quality to them. All, except for O Pioneers!, were written by men. All, even Trout Fishing in America, have protagonists I admire. All were read when I was young and still a sojourner in life.   

If I had to guess, I would say it is the last descriptor that best brings all of these books together. Not only was I a different person when I read these books, but I was a different person who read a different kind of book. In my late teens and twenties, I sought out what I thought of as literary fiction. Today, I tend to alternate between popular fiction (mostly crime novels) and nonfiction. Some of these books, especially some of the nonfiction, have been very good, but I can’t think of a single one where I holed up for an entire weekend because I couldn’t stop reading. 

Most days I think I am the same person I was forty years ago, but small things show me I’ve changed. 

  • The first book I ever had published is The Leader Who Is Hardly Known. To write it, I stole from Trout Fishing in America the literary device that a long phrase could serve triple duty as the book’s title, as the thread holding the book together, and as the name of a hypothetical character within the book.


Steven Simpson