Monday, February 22, 2016

Puzzles, A-Z Challenge, Shelfari and Goodreads

As you know, I have often posted about outdoor activities (sailing, kayaking, canoeing, hiking, skiing, etc).  Unfortunately, in the last seven weeks, my outdoor activities have been rather restricted as I wait for my quad tendon to heel.  This is one of the things I've been doing with my spare time:

This was a 1000 piece puzzle of old postcards from various national parks.  I am now working on a puzzle of a mountain scene.  When I lived in Michigan, I usually did at least one and generally 2-3 puzzles a winter.  This is the first one I've put together since moving back south.

It has been a number of years since I have used any of the web writing prompts for blogging.  Early on, I often did the 3 Word Wednesday prompt, along with Travel Tip Thursdays, and the Maggie's Summer Southern Reading Challenge.  Having seen a number of people using the A-Z challenges over the past couple of years, I thought I might join this challenge this April and make a bucket list of places I would like to see in the final third of my life...   It doesn't appear that I'll be alone in this endeavor, as I'm number 834 to sign up!
To find out more about the A-Z Challenge, click here.

A final note.  A few years ago, Shelfari, a site where I had stored the titles of the books in my library, was purchased by Amazon.  Although I have given Amazon a lot of business over the past fifteen or so years, I hate how they've become so huge.  Last month, they announced they were discounting Shelfari and forcing everyone there to move to another of their sites, Goodreads.  This I have done, although I am not very happy about it.  In the move, I have yet to get but a few of my reviews (I had 299 reviews posted on Shelfari) transferred.  All the data as to when I read the book, etc, is now lost (it appears that I read a bunch of books (like 1400) on February 21, 2016.  Needless to say, I'm not happy, but if you want to find me on Goodreads, click here.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Railway Man and the Thai-Burma Railway

Last night I watched a 2013 British film, The Railway Man.  The film is the story of Eric Lomax (Colin Firth), a man who has always loved trains.  In 1980, he meets an enchanting woman on a train (Patti, played by Nicole Kidman.  They fall in love, but then Patti learns a dark secret that Eric has hidden.  As a young man, he was a in the British signal officer who was captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore (the younger Lomax is played by Jeremy Irvine.  Along with other British soldiers, he is taken north through Malaysia and into Thailand where they are put to work on the Thai-Burma railroad.  At first, as an engineer, he is treated better than many of the other prisoners, but when the Japanese find a radio he and his fellow engineers have built to listen to the news of the war, he is brutally beaten.  Through it all, Nagase is a Japanese interpreter who is very brutal.  The movie depicts the suffering of those working on the railway and some of the brutality of the torture, but doesn’t linger long with it.  As the film jumps back and forth from the 40s to the 80s, it becomes apparent that Lomax is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Patti, now his wife, is determined to save her husband.  She seeks help from another former POW, who tells her Eric’s story. 

Train in Kanchanaburi before crossing the bridge

The Bridge over the River Kwai Noi 
In the end of the movie, Eric goes back to Thailand and encounters Nagase, who has become a tour guide at the site of the infamous railway over the River Kwai (the river’s actual name is Kwai Noi).  The encounter is intense, but eventually the two are able to make peace with their past.
I enjoyed the movie (but then it stars Nicole Kidman).   I especially enjoyed the views of him returning to Thailand and taking the train that runs on the Thai-Burma line.  That line no longer runs to Burma, stopping about 10 km from the border, but from what I’ve read (now that things have stabilized in Burma), there is plans to reconnect Thailand to Burma by railroad.  This was a unique feat, not just the bridge but how they attached a causeway to a rock mountainside running above the river, and then how they dug (without dynamite) through rock.  Lomax returns to ride this train which I got to enjoy when I was in Thailand in 2011.  For more insight into the movie and the real Eric Lomax (who was a POW), check out this review in the Guardian.  

Looking at railway between rock and river

At the site of the bridge, there is a museum about the Japanese POW camps.  I found the museum to be lacking and tacky.  Throughout it, was the quote, “The phenomenon of war brings adverse effects on society, as if to justify what happened to thousands of Dutch, British, Indian and Malay soldiers during the building of the railway.  They did show some of the brutality, but it was limited.  They mentioned the Japanese forcing POWs to march out onto the bridge during air attacks, where many were killed by “friendly fire” as the British and American armies kept destroying the bridge as a way to limit supplies going to the Japanese army in Burma.  The museum also downplayed Thailand’s role in the war.  Although they tried to say they were neutral, they allowed the Japanese free reign with the country, including the landing of soldiers who were used in the Malay campaign and the building of a railway with POW labor.  There was a display in the museum that said Thailand women didn’t have anything to fear from the Japanese soldiers.  It also acknowledged that the Japanese had women from Korea and Manchuria, but conveniently left out the enslavement of these “comfort women.”  In this area, there are a number of large cemeteries with of 10,000s of POWs from the British Empire and the Netherlands (who came from the surrender of Indonesia) who died as a prisoners.   The photos are of my 2011 overland trip from Singapore to Europe.
Cemetery with British, Canadian and Dutch POWs

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Savannah Book Festival, the death of a Supreme Court Justice, and my advice for the President

Friday night I was able to hear Eric Larson at the Savannah Book Festival.  It was an enjoyable lecture, even if I felt it was a bit canned.  He could have given this lecture anywhere in the English speaking world, but that’s okay, for it my first time hearing it.  His talk had appropriate humor, often directed at himself along with some insights into his methodology, which I most appreciated.  He also got a hardy laugh when he announced his next book (Killing Bill O’Reilly).  There was a good question and answer section afterwards, but I wish someone would have asked him what he thought about Bill O’Reilly’s Killing (you add the name-Jesus, Patton, Lincoln, Kennedy, Reagan) books and about O’Reilly as a historian.

I was a bit surprised to learn that Larson doesn’t think of himself as a historian.  Instead, he sees himself as an animator of history, trying to weave a historical accurate story together in a manner that allows the reader to feel as if he or she was there at the time of the event.  Instead of trying to inform, he’s trying to create a rich experience for the reader.  As with his latest book, Dead Wake, which is about the Lusitania, Larson said it was harder for we all know the ending of the story (the ship sinks) but he wants his readers to feel as if maybe this time it won’t.  Certainly, those who were on board did not think the ship would be sunk until after it was struck by a torpedo.  Larson acknowledges a desire to write about things that are not as well know and that while there was much written about the Lusitania, most of it focused on the sinking itself and the aftermath (the hearings and the court battles).  If you’ve read the book, you’ll remember that Larson focuses mostly on the passengers and life aboard the ship as it crossed the Atlantic (along with the life of the crew of the U-boat).  This allows him to create a different perspective from much of what had already been written about the ship.

After the lecture, I was invited to a party which where there were a lot of other authors at the Savannah Book Festival.  I met a few of them.  I would have enjoyed listening to more of them, but the Saturday of the festival events are in a half-dozen different venues downtown and with my limited mobility, I just couldn’t see myself hobbling from one venue to another (and I still am unable to drive)

In other news, as you all heard, Antonin Scalia died this weekend.  He’s the only Supreme Court Justice that I have meet personally.  In 2003, I heard him speak at Calvin College and was at a wine and cheese reception with him afterwards.  Needless to say, I didn’t always agree with him, but my condolences goes out to his family and those who do.  However, our country has a unique opportunity and I hope Obama seizes the moment.  Ted Cruz said that if Obama nominates a successor to Scalia, he personally will filibuster the nominee.  What a great idea.  I hope the President nominates someone this afternoon.  Send Cruz back to Washington where he can be relegated to C-Span…  Now what can we do to shut up the rest of the candidates and find a bit of peace?   The eternal election cycle that has taken over American politics needs to stop!  

Friday, February 12, 2016


This week has been tough.  I'm half way through life with a peg leg--in another three weeks, if all has gone well with my tendon, I'll be allowed to once again bend my knee (just a bit to start).  I'm getting a bit of cabin fever.  I'm reading, putting together puzzles and doing a lot of work (much of it from a recliner!  I wish I was more mobile as this weekend is the Savannah Book Festival.  I'm going to have to skip most of the events although I will go with friends this evening to hear Erik Larson (author of Deadwake) this evening.  Here is another book review: 

Gary Paulsen, Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod (San Diego: Harvest Books, 1994), 256 pages plus 8 pages of color photographs.

The Iditarod is a 1000 mile long dog sled race across the heart of Alaska, from Anchorage to Nome.  The men and women and dogs that run the race must endure incredible hardships: mountains, incredibly cold weather, wild animals, dog fights, lack of sleep, and a run across frozen salt water in Norton Sound.  As one of his relatives told him, “Read people don’t do those kind of things.”(54) 

In Winterdance, a book filled with humor, Paulsen takes us along with him and fifteen dogs to prove otherwise.  The book is fast paced, a little unbelievable at times, and often funny.  The scene of Paulsen trying to run dogs during training, without snow, by riding behind on a bicycle pulled by a dozen wild dogs, left me wondering how survived to arrive alive in Alaska.  Paulsen later tied to the dogs to a car body, from where he sat as they pulled him across the barren ground.  The dogs love to pull and in time, Paulsen found himself essentially living with the dogs as his life centered on carrying for the dogs.  In training and in running the race, one primarily focuses on the dogs need.  Food, feet care, medical needs and rest for the animals all come before the musher’s needs.

Paulsen openly makes fun of his amateur status as a dog musher.  When he decided to run the Iditarod, the longest run he’d done with dogs was 150 miles running a trap line in Minnesota.  When the race started in downtown Anchorage, he and his dogs took a wrong turn and ran through the crowds.  This, however, was the “show start” as the dogs only run a few blocks before being trucked to the real start of the race (outside of the freeways that circle the city).   The race involves stopping at a number of checkpoints, where food is cached and the dogs are checked.  If anything, the focus is all on the dogs.   With the exception of a few occasions, such as being caught in a storm and having to wait it out, you wonder if Paulsen ever slept during the race.  At the checkpoints, he’d have to check each dog’s paws as well as cook dog food which was placed in a cooler on the sleds for the next run. 

Two of Paulsen’s dogs stand out: Cookie and Devil.  Cookie is the fun loving led dog, whose instinct saves the team on Norton Sound where the ice is breaking up.  Devil, lives up to his name, as he is always trying to eat other dogs and even attacks Paulsen (they eventually reach an uneasy truce).  But Devil can pull and that’s why Paulsen keeps him as a part of the team. (I wondered if dogs live up to their names…)  Paulsen also speaks of the dogs of other mushers.  Getting teams of dogs together in tight places can be a problem as there is always the possibility of a dog fight.  And then there are the problems with the bitches going into heat, and the mushers who attempt to mask the dog’s scent by spreading Vicks vapor rub on her.  The trick works until the male dogs learn to associate Vicks with sex, at which time the musher is in danger by opening the jar.  The dogs appear to get into the excitement of the race and I come away with a sense that they enjoyed the challenge.  

A race such as this brings out the best and the worst of people, sometimes from the same person.  Paulsen tells of a musher who brought donuts to share with other mushers, but then in rage at his team, he kicked and killed a dog.  This was a serious violation and as Paulsen and another musher witnessed and reported it, the man was banned for ever racing again. 

Paulsen finished the race, even though at times he hallucinated from the lack of sleep.  He vows to come back and win it.  He did run the race twice, but heart problems kept him returning again and he never did win the race. 

I read this book for a men’s book club of which I’m a member.  I enjoyed it and would recommend it to those interested in dogs or the outdoors.  Years ago, when my son was a teenager, we’d read together some other Paulsen books.  Although this book wasn’t necessarily written for middle school students, it is an easy (and enjoyable) read.

Friday, February 05, 2016

An Ode to My Backpack

A week before I was injured, I realized my backpacks, which were stored on shelving in the garage, were mildewing.  I decided to make room in the top of a closet to store them where it would be drier, but first the needed a bath.  Upon cleaning up my old Kelty D4 and why it was drying in the sun, I did a little reminiscing.  

My first backpack was a Kilimanjaro that I purchased at a department store.  With an exotic name like that, I expected more.  I took it on a couple of backpacking trips and the contraption nearly killed me.  On the last trip, a freezing two-night trek on the Uwharrie Trail in early January 1976, which the nightly temperature dropped to zero, the cold didn’t compare to the anguish that came from the pack.  It didn’t come with a waist belt and my makeshift one didn’t work well and the shoulder straps pulled tight and dug into my shoulders.  It was misery.  I’m amazed that I continued to hike.

Kelty D4
Notice reserve pins hanging
and the 2000 miler AT patch
Shortly afterwards that fateful trip, I brought a Kelty D4 pack from REI.  For the next twenty-five years it would be my main overnight backpack and it is still in remarkably good condition.  I have replaced the shoulder straps a couple of times and am now on my third waistbelt (the original one was eaten by a conveyor at an airport and the second one wasn’t a Kelty and didn’t last).  Even when I changed the waist belts, I kept the old stainless  steel cam lock on the waist belt which is one of the best buckles ever made (a  lot better than the plastic ones that seem to break when it most inconvenient).   I also added an extension bar to the pack which can be extended six inches and allows one to carry a lot of extra material.  This bar enabled me to use this pack on extended backpacking trips along the Appalachian and John Muir trails.  I later purchased a Kelty internal frame pack that was set up for skiing and snowshoeing and held about 3000 cubic inches.  It was a great pack for heading into the backcountry, but also for one and two night backpacking trips and was the pack I took around the world.  I have also used a larger a large internal frame Kelty Redcloud 5400 for backpacking, but it hauls more than I need.  My favorite pack is still the old D4. 

I wonder how many miles this pack has hauled whatever I need on my back.  It has been the full length of the Appalachian Trail (and a few sections we’d done more than once).  It has also hiked the John Muir Trail, Laurel Highlands Trail, Ruby Crest Trail and did miles on a number of other trails in places including Bryce Canon, Zion Canyon, the Grand Canyon, Point Reyes National Seashore, Great Basin National Park, along with the the Sawtooth and Beartooth Mountains.  This pack and I have done well over 3000 miles together.  God-willing, I’ll put some more miles on this pack before I’m done with it.  

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

A New Poet (at least to me)

An oldie of mine--
a shrimp trawler working off Carolina Beach
During the Australian Open this year, there was a commercial advertising Melbourne as a travel destination.  The commercial showed scenes from around that part of the island continent, as a woman read from a poem by E. J. Brady titled: “Far and Wide.”  I’d never heard of Brady, but I liked the poem and though the advertisement was wonderful (except that they over played it, as it seemed to run several times every set).  Wanting to know more, I goggled E. J. Brady and learned that he was an Australian, the son of Irish immigrants, who was born in New South Wales.  He started to work as a clerk on the wharves in Sydney, but lost his job in a strike due to his labor activities.  But it was there, as he encountered seamen from all over the world, that he developed a love for the sea.  After leaving the wharf, he held a variety of positions writing and editing for newspapers, many that supported labor politics.  His poetry captures the love of the ocean and the challenge of the seas as he utilizes the slang of the seamen.  He is also known for his love for the Land Down Under.  

In “With Coal to Calloa,” he writes about a young seaman leaving his lover on the docks, but a fire breaks out in the ship and it burns and is destroyed just ten days from its destination.  In “The Blazing Star,” he writes about a solid brigantine sailing the seas out of Boston, around the horn, to the North Pacific whaling waters and makes good time like the Flying Dutchman.  But probably my favorite song is “Coast of Dreams,” as it speaks to me in my current condition.  Brady died in 1952.

Here are some excerpts of “Coast of Dreams.”  The poem begins:

The window of my sick room fronts
                A screw-tormented bay,
When porcine Commerce squeals and grunts,   
                And wallows day by day.

Fat, vulgar tramps, in moving cloud
                Of smoke, encircled round,
With bull-voiced sirens bellow loud
                For pilots-outward bound.

Lately, I know what it is like to be in a “sick room” and long to be on the water, or to be free to travel and explore.  A few verses later, these lines really caught my attention.

The lusts of travel, like a net,
                My sick-bed fancies snare;
My thoughts on outward currents set
                To glories otherwhere.

The liner’s but a huge hotel;
                She holds no charm for me;
My Soul demands the heave and swell
                Of decks that lip the Sea.

Even while laid up, I have thoughts of glories around the globe waiting to be experienced…  and a desire for the heave and swell.  The poem closes:

Aye! Surely as all flesh is grass,
                The far lands fairer seem,
So roving hearts for e’er must past

                Adown the Coasts of Dream.