Sometimes good writing grabs me by the front of my shirt and pulls me into the prose. Just as likely, however, an equally good piece of writing does almost the opposite, not drawing me in so much as pushing me away into my own memories and reflections. Recently I read a 2015 remembrance written by Richard Grant about fellow author Charles Bowden.* For me, the short essay worked as this latter kind of writing.
The very first paragraph of the article stated that Bowden drank only red wine. While I concur with this assessment of wines, reds in recent years have given me headaches. Even after only a glass or two, I feel the ill effects just before bed and then again in the morning. I pay the price of a slight hangover without the reward of a pleasant buzz. I’ve been trying to find a dry white with the same bite as a red, but such a thing might not exist.
Manyu suffers from Asian glow; even a sip of alcohol makes her flush and nauseous. This means that unless we have guests, I drink alone. If I have a glass of wine with dinner and then let a few days go by without a second glass, the opened bottle starts to go bad and too much wine gets poured down the drain. I tell myself to buy boxed wine, which keeps better, but when I get to the liquor store, I get drawn into the rows and rows of enticing bottles and forget about the less glamorous boxes shelved over by the beer. I already drink boxed wine in the wilderness (it packs better and keeps glass out of the backcountry), and some of it satisfies my unsophisticated palate.
Grant’s article about Bowden then turned to the subject of nature. He observed that a few days in the backcountry allows a person to hear his or her own heartbeat. He also said that the wilderness experience is enhanced by the presence of potentially dangerous animals, as even the possibility of a snake or bear encounter keeps a person vigilant. I agree with the first observation, but not the second. When I am outdoors I want my heightened awareness to be a joyous mindfulness, not a precautionary wariness.
Having said that, the bluffs surrounding my home here in La Crosse are a rattlesnake hotbed. In nearly thirty years of living here, I have yet to see one. Among my outdoor friends, I’m the only one who hasn’t. I did once step into a circle where a ball of fox snakes must have just uncoiled after a winter’s hibernation. I was in no danger, but being surrounded by dozens of relatively large snakes was still unnerving. Fortunately the reptiles ignored me. All of them were slowly moving from a high spot on the ridge down toward the river bottoms, and they left me with the impression that there was someplace else they needed to be.
I did not know who Charles Bowden was until I read the article. If the description of the man is accurate, I’ve been missing out on some topnotch nonfiction. If the description is accurate, Charles Bowden was a Southwestern version of Jim Harrison, meaning he had a talent and a rugged lifestyle that many wannabe writers (me included) wish they could emulate.
*Grant, R. 2015. A sense of Chuck. Aeon. Found at https://aeon.co/essays/in-memory-of-charles-bowden-a-writer-and-a-sensualist.
This morning I saw a bumper sticker that read, “Sweet Dreams Are Made of Cheese.” Wisconsinites do have a few admirable traits, and one of them is their ability to laugh at themselves when others think the state is nothing more than Northwoods and cow pastures. Because of televised Green Bay Packer games, pretty much all nonresidents know that people from Wisconsin are called Cheeseheads. Not as many know that when the DMV held a contest to redesign the state’s license plates, the governor at the time sarcastically recommended we change the state’s license plate motto from “America’s Dairyland” to “Eat Cheese or Die.” Wisconsin produces a lot of cheese, and quite a bit of it gets consumed in-house.
Each year when Manyu visits Asia, she packs one suitcase with clothes and one suitcase with gifts for family and friends. She always leaves La Crosse with two suitcases, usually returns with only one, and then has to shop for a new suitcase a year later. For her mom and her sisters, she buys skincare products that are hard to find in Asia. For friends, she brings either vitamins or Wisconsin-grown ginseng. Vitamins are much more expensive in Taiwan than they are here. For her two French brothers-in-law, one now living in China and the other in Thailand, she brings cheese. Even Claude, my food snob brother-in-law, grudgingly admits that Wisconsin cheese is as delicious as the cheese he grew up with.
I found a cheese factory outlet that vacuum packs cheese specifically for air travel. One time I asked the woman doing the packaging to include cheese curds in my order, and she refused. She told me that she wouldn’t sell curds to any customer who wasn’t planning to eat them right away. “All of our curds,” she said, “come straight from the factory. If they aren’t eaten in a day or two, they don’t squeak.”* Curds are the Beaujolais of the cheese world.
I am writing the first draft of this blog at the kitchen counter while I cook dinner. One of my tasks has been grating cheese for the Red Lobster biscuits I’m baking. My dog wasn’t even in the room until I pulled the cheddar and Jarlsberg out of the refrigerator. Since I’ve started grating, he’s been underfoot. Jarlsberg currently is my favorite cheese. It is also imported, which messes up the Wisconsin theme I am going for in this blog. I briefly considered lying about the two cheeses I used for the biscuits, but even that small bit of poetic license got overridden by my Wisconsin-bred trait of honest to a fault. Had I realized beforehand that the content of this week’s blog was going to be so regional in nature, I would have left the Jarlsberg in the meat keeper and pulled out the Colby.
*Unlike cheeses that improve with age, cheese curds have to be eaten immediately. The freshest curds squeak when a person bites them.