Monday, April 23, 2012

Catching Up: Authors, Books and Eatin' Out

I spent the end of last week at a writing conference at Calvin College in Grand Rapids.  The Festival of Faith and Writing is held every other April and since moving to the Upper Midwest eight years ago, I’ve made all but one of these conferences.  This year I was excited to once again hear Marilynne Robinson (author of Gilead and The Death of Adam) and was looking forward to meeting Debra Dean and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  I learned about Dean’s book The Madonnas of Leningrad, from an interview on NPR.  I was intrigued with how she wove a story of Alzheimer’s and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.  I had just finished my round-the-world trip when I heard the interview (she was amazed I recalled this as she said the interview was so long ago) and I have been dealing with Alzheimer’s with my mom for the past seven years.  This morning I started reading a signed copy of The Madonnas.  Adichie’s book, Half a Yellow Sun, has been on my list to read for a couple of years.    I was also looking to see a few old acquaintances.  Paul Willis is a writer and poet from California whose work is steeped in nature.  I took him on a hike in a local preserve the morning before the conference began and was amazed at his knowledge of botany, and how he linked plants to Shakespeare (his dissertation was on Shakespeare use of nature).  Another is Craig Barnes, now a professor at a school I once attended and someone I’ve heard lecture several times before.  I pulled off the shelf one of my favorite books of his, Searching for Home, only to be shocked when trying to get him to sign it to learn that he had signed it at a conference out in Utah! That was a little embarrassing! 

I also was introduced to some new authors (or new to me).   Jonathan Safaan Foer, is a Jewish author, whose novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is set in New York City during the aftermath of 911.  It’s been added to my to-be-read pile.  Jana Reiss, a Mormon whose book Flunking Sainthood sounds like it is a hoot.  Adam Schuitema’s first book, Freshwater Boys is a collection of short stories by a Michigan author that also has promise.  Paul Willis also introduced me to Lohn Leax, a poet from Western New York and another lover of nature and I picked up a couple of his books.  Finally, if Susan Isaacs’ book, Angry Conversations with God A Snarky but Authentic Spiritual Memoir is half as funny as her presentation, it’ll be great.  Of course, having worked as a professional comedian gave her an edge over the other presenters.

One of the highlights of being in the “big city” for a few days is eating out.  Every night I ate at a difference restaurant.  Thursday night it was Indian, which was good.  I had saag-e-lamb (spinach and lamb).  Friday, I was by myself and decided to see what the Mongolian Grill was like.  I had been to such a restaurant in Ulan Bator, which was kind of a joke because it was suggested it was mostly a western knock off of Mongolian food.  In these restaurants, you pick out your meat and vegetables, sauces and spices and give them to a chef to cook on an over sized grill.  There were some notable differences.  In Mongolia, the chefs put on a real show, with knives flying through the air as flames rose from the grill.  The other difference was in the selection of meat.  In Mongolia, there was lamb, mutton, horse, goat and yak along with beef, pork and chicken.  Here, there was only beef, pork and chicken along with lots of seafood and duck.  I had duck.  I was disappointed I couldn’t wash my meal down with a bottle of Mongolian beer.  On Saturday, a friend and I ended up at Chez Olga, a Haitian restaurant recommended by his daughter.  It was wonderful!   I had goat ragu (The Mongolians didn’t have goat, but the Haitians did).  It was very tasty and just in case you’re wondering, “No, they didn’t use bottled Ragu.”   We’re both like it hot and our waitress asked how hot we wanted it on a scale of one to ten.  We picked eight.   Next time, I might back it off to a six, especially since we learned the cook (who’s Haitian) only eats his meals at seven and our waitress (also Haitian) doesn’t go over a five!  It would have been nice to have washed down the food with a beer, but they didn’t serve alcohol.  

Over all, it was a good three days.  I was so busy I didn't do any blogging!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Paddling the Flat River

Near the take-out
My brother and his wife came into town this week and Friday we headed up and explored the Flat River.  I let them take my canoe and I paddled a kayak.  This was a new river to me to float (and of course, it was also new to them).  We put at 10:30 AM, just down from the small community of Smyrna, which has a bar and grill and a small bakery/grocery store.  The river was mostly wide and shallow, with a rocky bottom.  Shortly after we started, we ran through the one spot with fast water and a drop, the site of an old dam.   There was a long paddle in the backwaters of Whites Bridge dam, a hydroelectric project.  Not only did we have no flow to aid our efforts, the wind was in our face.  About halfway through this backwater, we stopped and enjoyed lunch along the bank.  In addition to what we’ve brought from home, I picked up in the Smyrna bakery a loaf of cinnamon bread and a jalapeno baguette which were delightful.  

Whites Bridge Dam
There are a number of small hydro-electric dams along the river, but only one on the section we paddled.  I had originally thought we’d try to paddle all the way into Lowell, a nice community where we could have had dinner, however, it would have involved two more dam portages and several more miles of flat water paddling.  Whites Bridge Dam was an easy well-signed portage, made all the more humiliating by the fact that as I got back into my kayak, I slipped and half of me got wet.  But it wasn’t too cold and I slipped on a jacket and paddled on.  Shortly after the dam, we paddled under Whites Bridge, a “Brown truss wooden bridge” that was built in 1869 and the oldest covered bridge still in use in Michigan.

As the afternoon warmed up, we saw lots of turtles out sunning. I wish I could have gotten a photo of one of the rocks that had a full-blown, hard-shell orgy going as there were a dozen or more turtles getting it on.  Unfortunately, by the time I got my camera out I had floated passed it and had obviously disrupted things as most had slid off into the cold water (the turtle equivalent to a cold shower?).

Whites Bridge

A White Pine

We took out at the Fallasburg Bridge, which is a part of a park that’s named in honor of the town by the same name that once had a chair factory that was suggested to be a forerunner of the furniture industry that grew up in Grand Rapids.  Like Whites Bridge, the Fallasburg Bridge was also built using the “Brown truss” method (which is named from some guy from New York State who developed that particular way of trussing covered bridges).  It's two years newer than Whites Bridge, having been built in 1871. It was a little after 3 PM when we pulled up to the bank.  It took another 45 minutes to pick up my truck and load the boats before we were heading home.  It had been a nice day.

Fallasburg Bridge

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Wisdom of Wilderness

Gerald G. May, The Wisdom of Wilderness: Experiencing the Healing Power of Nature (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 194 pages

Gerald May, a psychiatrist and theologian, is perhaps best known for his book Addiction and Grace.   His last book, The Wisdom of Wilderness, is a personal journey covering the last fifteen years of his life.  It begins with a desire to “get away” and the call into the wilderness.   May finds a spot in the mountains where he returns frequently to experience what he labels “the Power of the Slowing.”  There, he sits by a fire, explores the landscape, and fixes huge breakfasts.   He doesn’t do any deep thinking.  Instead, he just lives in the moment.  The book is filled with humorous stories about his misadventures.  When May began this season in his life, he’s not exactly what I’d call a seasoned outdoorsman.  But he learns to just be a part of nature.   On his first night in the wilderness, he encounters a bear outside of his tent.  In addition to his spot in the mountains, he also takes his canoe to a local lake, where he explores and fishes.  The story of being dive-bombed by a pair of bald eagles who attempt to “shit” upon him and his canoe is pretty funny. 

May is a bottom fisherman, even though he acknowledges that in the hierarchy of fishermen, those who use worms are that “the bottom.”  Yet, he writes eloquently about his endeavors to catch catfish: “People who bottom-fish know a strangely peaceful expectancy right then, when whatever-it-is explores the bait, and everything is softly suspended, gently poised.  It is all so delicate.” (99)  He could also be philosophical about his fishing:  “Even in fresh water, deep bait fishing is archetypal.  It is about as Jungian as life can get.  You cast your line into dark, unseen depths and something is alive there, and it connects, and you start to bring it to the surface, to daylight, to consciousness, and you begin to wonder if you really want to see what it is.” (100)

One gets the sense that May’s call into the wilderness is preparing him for something in the future.  He learns that contemplation is not something that can be done; it’s not a task, but a state of being.  Fear, he discovers, isn’t the enemy, but an emotion that makes us more alive.  Fear may alert us to danger, but it itself is not dangerous.  He also learns about time, which we treat as a commodity, a behavior that keeps us from being fully present in the moment.

Throughout the book, May is attuned to the sufferings of the world.  Upon finding a turtle that had been tortured by humans, his anguish and anger comes through in his words.  You sense his sadness when he watches a swan drown a young duck and realizes there is nothing that can be done to save the animal.  At the end of the book, we realize what his wilderness experiences have been preparing him for, as he is struggling with the cancer that takes his life.  Even then, he can’t bring himself to hate the cancer.  He also writes about the heartache of his daughter’s struggle with drug addiction.  Although he writes that he no longer feels the call to the wilderness, it has prepared him for this last season of his life.   He even has given up fishing.  He tells about his last visit to the lake where he’d spent so much time canoeing.  He was now dependent on a motorized scooter and his canoe had been given to a son who had taken it to Florida.  

As a reader, I was left with the sense that May died having lived a good life.

“Fear, like any other strong emotion, can make you exquisitely conscious of living, perfectly aware of being in the movement.  It can only do that, however, on those rare occasions when you don’t try to fight it, run away from it, cope with it, suppress it, tame it, or otherwise domestic it.” 34

“The Power of Slowing always stills my capacity to track thoughts to a conclusion.  They simply appear, hover for a while like butterflies, then disappear.”  40

“Fear is life-energy; full bodied, rich, clean, exquisite, sweet.  When you get right down to its bones, fear is love.  Fear is made of love.  That’s why perfect love—love in its purest form—cast out fear.”  44

The basic lesson is this: Fear is not an enemy but a friend.  Fear is something good, something alive, alert and wild in us.  Fear may be a response to danger, but fear itself is not dangerous. 46

“I understand how people can become addicted to fear.  I have known some who were hooked on their own adrenaline, compelled toward danger, driven to dancing with death at the edges of life.  I doubt it will ever happen to me, for I have no desire to seek fear.”  47

“Contemplation is a state of awareness that is, among other things, wide-open and completely present to whatever is going on in the immediate moment.”  61

“When it comes to the training of young animals in the world, things are very different.  Whereas humans teachers tell children to pay attention to one thing at a time, I am convinced mother mountain lions, wolves, and other predators teach their young the opposite: not to become too absorbed in any one thing, to keep their senses open.”  64

“My hunch is that life needs 95 percent openness and 5 percent concentration and we have the proportions reversed.  I wish we could encourage our children’s natural contemplative awareness as well as their capacity to concentrate.  And I wish that we adults who have been trained-away from contemplative presence could have a teacher to show us where the present moment is.”  66

[Time] even  becomes a commodity.  Time is money, we say, and, like money, we never have enough of it; we want to spend time wisely, invest it profitably, save it wherever we can.  Like money, time is not to be wasted, lest we run out of it.  And like money, time drives us, obsesses us, enslaves us.”  70

“Nature, I think, knows nothing of concepts of time or of the present.  Nature—our own and that of the world around us—lives in Presence instead of ‘in the present.’” 71

‘[S]traight lines and right angels seldom happen in nature.” 76

“I think God respects our individual integrity and will not invade us when and where we are unwelcoming.  But that is not to say we are ever left alone, not matter how we feel, because Wisdom keeps beckoning. From inside and outside, She does call.”  84

“I understood something about our daughter’s Julie’s drug addiction.  My fishing addiction was a milder form of the same thing.  I had killed so many fish, wounded so many others, but I kept doing it. It always bothered me, but I kept doing it.”  103

“I didn’t usually go into the wild to get away from something.  Most of the time it was that familiar growing yearning and feeling of rightness that it was time to go.”  123

“Like everything, the laughter of children is what you make of it.  If you’re in the right frame of mind, it’s music.  When you’re trying to concentrate on something else, it’s noise…. 130

“Why, when everything around me is perfect, and I am immersed in the moment, do I still think I must do something to be contemplative?  It is always only by a gift that I am allowed to just be.  Left to my own devices, I will always be trying to do something—even if what I am trying to do is nothing.”  143

Recalling his ancestors:  “Although they were now mostly Methodists, they had inherited a penetrating Presbyterian hopelessness about never really winning.” 154

“But no matter how kindly we feel, we will never be able to participate in healing the world around us as long as we keep seeing Nature as something different from ourselves.”  170

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Retracing the Titanic's Wake (reporting by Nevada Jack)

Nevada Jack
 On April 10th, 1912, the Titanic set sail.  100 years and two day later the Balmoral is setting out to follow the Titanic’s wake, with the same number of passengers and hopefully a few more lifeboats.  Retracing the Titanic’s route was the mastermind of a morbid travel agent who had planned to hire a Greek shipping firm with a record of fatal voyages that was more than willing to partner with his scheme.  "The Titanic is so yesterday," according to Miles Morgan.  "Think of the number of movies made about the ship.  This cruise will serve the cinema industry for another century.  Furthermore, there will be boom to the songwriters everywhere.  After all, we’ve all heard that song about some iron freighter named for some unheard of Irishman till we puked.”

Unfortunately, the Greek shipping company connection fell through as all their ships were prematurely out of commission, having ran aground and flipped over or suffered from an on board fires.  In the end, the Fred Olsen Cruise Line (which sounds like they should operate a dance studio), provided the Balmoral for the memorial event.  The ship, despite being a hundred years newer than the Titanic, had to set sail two days earlier because it’s slower!  So much for technology.

In other cruising news, Miles Morgan had planned to offer a reenactment of the clash between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (known by Yankees as the Merrimack) on the 150th anniversary of their battle of March 9, 1862, but plans were scratched when he couldn’t find appropriate ships.  “This is the perfect battle for a reenactment,” according to Morgan.  “No one died; they just had massive headaches as the shells bounced off their iron.”  Morgan had planned to offer his passengers free aspirin, which wasn’t available at the time of the battle.   Having missed the date for the Monitor and Virginia showdown, Morgan is checking into a possible re-sailing of the Confederate submarine Huntley, which sank on February 16, 1864 (along with its victim) in Charleston harbor.
South Haven (MI) lighthouse

The above photo has nothing to do with the Titanic or a Civil War battle, but I was there on Saturday and decided to post it with Nevada Jack's story.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Riding Toward Everywhere

Uneven tracks in Western New York
I am staying busy and not having the time to do much writing these days and I feel guilty for not checking on everyone's blogs like I should.  I keep saying that things will lighten up, but I don't see that happening until mid-summer (and we'll see what happens then).  Anyway, I still read and recently wrote this book review of one of my favorite topics--trains.  The photo on the right I found recently when looking back at photos from the early 90s.  I was trying to find a photo of a friend's boats and came across these tracks, taken near Wyoming, NY, if I remember correctly.  The tracks are not straight, but are used, only the trains are limited to 10 mph. 

William T. Vollmann, Riding Toward Everywhere (HarperCollins, 2008), 206 pages plus 65 pages of black and white photographs.

I picked up this book at a used bookstore right before Christmas and thought I’d read it on my train trip out west after Christmas, but forgot about it and only recently did I get around to reading it.  I am still not sure what to make of Vollmann’s ramblings.  This book is a collection of Vollmann’s memories of “unauthorized” rail travel, loosely complied into chapters of similar themes.   In his travels, he’s searching for “everywhere” or the mystical “Cold Mountain,” a place named by a Chinese poet.

Vollmann is a modern day hobo, albeit a part-time one.  Being a part-timer has its advantages such as credit cards and the ability when things get too uncomfortable to hop off near an Amtrak station and buy a ticket home or to check into a hotel, clean up and head out on the town for the evening.  It also allows him the luxury to travel to locations to begin his travels such as when he flew to Cheyenne, Wyoming to hobo back to California (he only made it to Salt Lake City, before flying home).  Jack London, in his 1893 hobo expedition across the country, had recalled that Cheyenne was a tough city to hop a freight train and Vollmann decided to see if anything had changed in the past century.   Vollmann often draws upon the hobo writings of London and Jack Kerouac as well as the writings of Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway.  

All of Vollmann’s travels are in the American West.  The way he describes the smell of sage or the stars on a western night makes me homesick (for my adopted home).  Some of the travels he made have been over tracks that I’ve covered (but I was a paying passenger in the comfort of an Amtrak coach).   He begins telling about traveling the coastal route that runs from Oakland to Los Angeles, a route that left me with bittersweet memories (see my blog post). 

As I would expect with hobos, Vollmann seems to have a problem with authority, whether it is security forces at airports or “railroad bulls,” and he often slips in digs about them.  The railroad has never taken kindly to people hitching rides on trains, but in the day of terrorists (and few open boxcars), it’s even worst.  However, Vollmann leaves the reader with the impression that the “bulls” at Burlington Northern’s yards are more lenient than those at Union Pacific’s yards.   The scene Vollmann recalled of hopping  a freight with two of his friends, each of whom had  a cell phone and kept the other abreast of the location of the security men and the places to hop onto an open box car made me wonder if they should really be called hobos.

“There are two things that put a man on a train,” Vollmann quotes a modern day hobo, “a woman or a war.”  Vollmann discusses the mythic women hobos, as well as discussing the topic of woman among hobos and how they depict the female gender in graffiti inside box cars.  He also gives insight into a number of modern hobos.  There are two types of hobos, according to one of Vollmann’s hobo confidants, those who have nothing and those who want to be on the rails.  Obviously Vollmann and his friends fell into the second category.  Of course, did Vollmann really ride the rails as he provides a "legal disclaimer" at the beginning of the book, suggesting that the stories are really hearsay and his photographs are really drawings.  

A hobo has never had a glamorous life, but it has to be tougher today.  There are few open box cars in which one can wedge the door open and enjoy riding the across the country.  Most of Vollmann’s rides were on the “porches” at the end of grain hoppers, a seat that’s open to the elements and visible to security men.  Furthermore, trains today go further without stopping, requiring the modern hobo to be prepared with water and food and warm clothing.

If you enjoy trains and have ever thought about what it would be like to hop a freight, this is a good read.  I would also recommend reading Jack Kerouac’s  On the Road and Dhama Bums and Jack London’s The Road.