Friday, July 29, 2011

The Day Crappy Coffee Died

The biggest news around here isn't whatever is happening in the world (about which I swear I know nothing...). The big news is that this weekend my wife and I will celebrate our wedding anniversary.

This leads naturally to thoughts of our first days together and all the water that has flowed down the river in years since or, in our case, all the coffee that has poured through our lives.

My beloved wooed and won me with coffee. She's still drinking it as shown
here at the MOMA in Ft. Worth, Texas this past Easter.

A Brief History of Bad Coffee 
Besides being seductive to my eye and clicking with my peripatetic, curious, word-chasing mind, one of the first things that drew me to my wife was a better cup of coffee.

It's pleasing to think about this even as I sit in the living room right now and sip, what else, my first cup of coffee of the day.

My memories are about how she came over to the basement apartment I was sharing with a working class roommate and about how our furniture consisted of a lawn chair and a cast-off couch with sparkles in its fabric and about how she didn't zero in on any of that. Instead, she noticed that I was drinking instant coffee.


I explained by way of a feeble defense that I was a sort of coffee autodidact. I grew up watching my parents as they drank it, a mysterious, smelly brew that emerged each morning from a silver electric percolator that boiled it until it was blacker and blacker. The parents never offered their children any of the brew nor explained why Dad absolutely had to have a cup or two before he left for the office.

Thing was, I was such a coffee
pagan in those days, that if there
was a coupon for it, I'd probably
buy it and drink it, taste be damned!
"So I tried to figure out what coffee was all about on my own in the break room at various jobs," I explained to this young blonde woman who was standing sort of wide-eyed in the midst of my kitchen as she absorbed what authentic bachelor quarters looked like.

The packages of Ramen noodles, the cans of Franco American spaghetti and tuna, and that jar of Nescafe I was gesturing toward.

I completed my brief java tale.

"I found that coffee tastes bitter and bad. That's half the reason it wakes me up. It's like a violent slap in the face in the morning. It's the only way I can get started writing my daily five pages. It also helps me when I begin to sag later in the day."

I even semi bragged about my orange plastic garage sale coffee cup. Each time I made instant coffee in it, the insides grew a deeper shade of gross stained brown. I imagined somehow that this imparted a more intense bad flavor to my morning shot of nastiness.

It was at that moment that she shared with me a truth that would change my life.

"Coffee isn't supposed to taste bitter and bad," she said.

Redeeming the Cup
Well, she was right. And, more, she was a true fresh bean imbibing evangelist. She didn't just talk coffee, she gave coffee to the world. She was ready to enter my life and sweep away the old coffee gods. She would show me the true fresh bean religion. She was no less than the keeper of the coffee keys.

She bought me a plastic cone, some number 4 paper filters, and a glass carafe, and a pound of fresh ground Columbia. My life was about to be upended one cup at a time.

A Melita duo plus some No. 4
filters introduced me to "real" coffee.

I was like a man who had clothed himself in haircloth and thought it silk. I was like a man who stared at a match head and thought it was the sun. I was like a man who used bad similes and now threw them all away.

For the real thing. Fresh made, palate pleasing coffee.

It was only the beginning. Soon I would buy my own blade-style grinder. Grinding the beans just before I brewed the coffee meant that the taste was even fresher.

My Krups grinder (circa 1983). Even though it's been replaced
by a succession of other grinders over the years, I still take it
with me whenever I travel. It got too close to an electric toaster once
and melted a bit, but it still works fine!

As for beans, I would discover different varieties. The kitchen pantry developed a corner of one shelf devoted to brown bags containing the mild coffees from Central American, the intense ones from Indonesia, the sweetish ones from Africa.

So we got married and we embarked on a coffee adventure, my wife supporting all of my developing whims, even the espresso machine that eventually arrived and the $300 professional grade burr grinder required to make the whole thing come together.

And once, with my head spinning, I ordered Jamaica Blue Mountain beans, the world's most expensive coffee.

It's all about the beans.

And another prompting came from my wife. She had learned about the Fair Trade Movement by which the poor growers around the world are freed from the exploitation of coffee plantation owners and large corporations who buy up beans. They are guaranteed a living wage for their work. So we began buying from on-line companies that sell only Fair or Direct Trade beans, including our Big Three, all of which we highly recommend:

Getting to the Good Stuff
The coffee's never been about the equipment or the technique. Rather it's been a simple, shared pleasure over the years. Coffee fits our personalities which are much more similar than opposite. We both like to linger. Sit at a table and finger pages of a book and sip the foam off the top of a latte. Others might be bored. To us it's heavenly.

A lavish latte at a cafe-bakery on Dickson Street in Fayetteville, Arkansas earlier this year.

When we finally had a child, not much changed. We started taking our son to coffee shops with us. He heard the sound of milk being foamed long before he ever saw or heard a television set. Someday when he thinks back on his childhood he'll likely remember how our house smelled in the morning.

Coffee, coffee, coffee.

Half the pleasure of coffee in Paris was putting to use my high school French
and ending up with all these great pastries. Ils comprendes moi!

The rain was pouring down in Riomaggiore, Italy, but the two
of us were cozy looking out the window, sipping our cafes au lait.

Outside Talkeetna, Alaska there's a cafe where
they artfully swirl the foam, not just on top,
but all the way through the head...!

For me, it is part of a good life to hold in hand this magical drink fashioned from bright red berries grown at high altitudes in various corners of the world. Other couples likely have something else they share.I'm talking about an old reliable that without words or pointing it out they can indulge in it and know that the other partner is taking equal enjoyment. Wine. Dining out. NASCAR. Hiking. Friends reruns. Whatever...

If you don't yet have something you mutually love, maybe you can find it by converting your significant other away from his/her equivalent of crappy coffee. Don't underestimate your influence. It could be that he or she is like I was: I just didn't know any better, I was ready for a loving, helpful teacher.

Share your passion and it could be the start of what Mr. Humphrey Bogart calls "a beautiful friendship." It worked for me. Happy anniversary, dear! - V.W.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Black Out

Artist's rendition of how it was...

So last night I got ready for bed. I invoked my usual procedure.
  • I made sure our son climbed into his bunk bed, told him I loved him, switched out his room light.
  • I made sure our dog, Bullwinkle was denned up on his rug by the kitchen.
  • I checked the locks on the doors, turned out the other room lights.
  • I bumped up the air conditioning thermostat to 84 degrees F. to economize so would run very little or not at all during the night.

Last thing, I turned on the ceiling fan over the master bed and climbed aboard the mattress. These days, because it's been so hot, I've been sleeping on top of the sheets.

I turned out the lamp on the nightstand and lay there in the dark. I thought about my wife who had stayed behind in Alaska a few more days after our recent family vacation there. I wished she was home. I always sleep better with her by my side. Then I fell asleep.

I woke up. Within a few seconds I knew something was wrong. It's not unusual for me to awake in the middle of the night, but this time was different. Everything was too QUIET.

And it the room was uncomfortably warm.

I noticed that the ceiling fan wasn't running.

"Silly me," I thought groggily to myself. How had I forgotten to turn on the ceiling fan? I got out of bed and bumbled toward the wall switch.

The switch was in the "on" position. My brain said to me, "Okay, is the fan broken?"

Then the neocortex woke up a few more notches and started mulling over the outstanding QUIET.

"You know what," Brain said to me, "you ought to consider another possibility."

"Yes, Brain? What's that?"

"This is a power outage."

No Juice
I bumbled my way in darkness that was nearly total until I found myself in the living room. At least I thought it was the living room. I sorta recognized the shape of things when I touched them or bumbled into them: an end table, the couch, OUCH!

Eventually I found my way to the stereo cabinet where I keep a six-inch Mag Light on the bottom shelf. I groped, feeling, feeling, and there it was, a bumpy cylinder that my hand closed around.

Let there be light!

Or at least a small circle of brightness.

I began investigating. There wasn't much to learn. The battery-powered clocks in the house told me it was just before midnight. I had no way of knowing how long the power had been off before I grew too warm sans ceiling fan and woke up.

Bullwinkle was still curled in a tight ball Our son apparently remained asleep, which was important to his health and well being.

I went outside. From the back yard I could tell the power outage affected the entire neighborhood. An important sound was missing from the suburban environment: the hum of air conditioning units.

The A/C compressor. All that stands between us
and "hell"?

I hate to even mention it again, but we're still having this unprecedented heat wave. It began at the end of May. Every day (with exceptions that can be counted on one hand) the mercury has risen above 100 degrees. I've heard that we're about to break the local record for the number of such days in a single summer. The old record was 46 and it was set in 1934.

Here's what looked like in this part of America, according to Wikipedia, one year after the record was set.

Dust storm bears down upon Stratford, Texas, 1935.

Dark Musings
I lay on top of the bed in the silent darkness and realized that without any air conditioning or fan air stirring above me it was too hot to sleep. I would just have to lie there and think my thoughts until the power came back on. So I considered the following:

What if the power didn't return? What if this massive heat wave had finally caused of us electrically greedy people to suck so much power that the system, which was never designed for such a perpetual heat calamity, to totally and utterly fail?

What if we had to return to life in these parts circa 1940 when electricity had yet to reach places like the farm my father grew up on in Oklahoma?
  • We'd have to sleep outside at night on the lawn where it was a degree or two cooler and we might catch a breeze.
  • The food would rot in the refrigerator and I'd have to start over with a big block of ice which would melt and have to be replaced every few days.
  • We'd be lighting a lot of candles after sunset.

I thought I might escape these grim thoughts by calling my wife and telling her what was happening. Due to the time difference between here and Alaska, she'd still be awake. Then I realized.

The land line phone wouldn't work without electricity. I would have to remember where the cell phone was. In the car? In the pitch dark, fiercely hot, unair-conditioned garage?

Maybe I could pass time by turning on my laptop computer (battery operated!) and seeing if there was info about the power outage. Oops. The wi-fi was electricity dependent. No Internet.

I began thinking about a book I'd just finished reading a week ago.

The author, a native New Yorker living in Australia and working as a journalist, embarked upon what she called "the Experiment." It was a bit reminiscent of The Van Winkle Project, but broader in scope. For six months she and her three teens would not use any electronic media.

To get everyone used to the idea, Ms. Maushart began with a two-week warm-up. At Christmas-time she switched off the power to their rental cottage while they were on holiday. For two weeks. Christmas down under, of course, is summertime. The family sweated a bit. They washed everything by hand. They lit candles. The girls' hair frizzed because they couldn't use curling irons.

They survived.

Then they returned to their electricity, but now they wouldn't be able to use phones, the TV, computers. Their role model would be Henry David Thoreau living at Walden Pond.

The kids more than grumbled. They began to fear like Death Itself the enemy of modern civilization: BOREDOM.

But a funny thing happened. They found new deviceless ways to beat the boredom. The "new" ways were actually old ways.
  • Reading books.
  • Playing board games.
  • Playing musical instruments.
  • Fixing food in the kitchen.
  • Lingering over meals. 
  • Talking to each other and their friends, FACE TO FACE

Their lives became richer and more physically active. Best of all, instead of each person off in a room by himself or herself (brother watching TV, sis on Facebook, other sis playing video game, mom scrolling through emails) they were more together as a family than they had ever been before.

It's a good book. And you can't tell it from my description, but the author is VERY FUNNY.

Power to Me
The power came on a little while later and none of my apocalyptic nightmares were realized. But I was left wondering if I've become a rather helpless person without realizing it. Electricity for me is like an umbilical cord for an astronaut on a space walk. Sever the cord and I just float away, helpless in a vast BLACK void.

I'd prefer that it were otherwise, that if forced to give up my electricity I'd still manage to come back down to earth. Sleep outside on the grass, sure! Run my hands over a block of melting ice, cool! Light a candle and watch the wax drip in all its unexpected ways.

Maybe, like Ms. Maushart, I could start trying to do that some now. Not disconnect entirely because even after the six-month Experiment she went back to cell phone and computer, but says she's learned to moderate her technological behavior. Do more things by hand. Try to rediscover who she is without machines.

That sounds good to me as I close the lid on this laptop. There's this other book I've been wanting to read. - V.W.

Friday, July 22, 2011

In Mr. Hemingway's Country or Finding a Writing Mentor

Ernest Hemingway's birthday was yesterday. He was born on July 21, 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois.

That was 112 years ago, if you're keeping track, which it's quite likely you're not.

You see, I can't help being aware that the books of Hemingway are no longer fashionable. If he's mentioned, he's controversial. He's gone from being a household brand-name author to a historical relic.

His two novels of war, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, though they're as anti-war as anything ever written by anyone, are unlikely to be Oprah picks anytime soon.

His first novel, The Sun Also Rises, has fared better. I know some of my students who have identified with Hemingway's take on the Lost Generation as his characters seek to assuage their post-war trauma through the pleasures of drink, sex, bull fighting,and trout fishing. It seems as if many of my students went through another kind of war, slogging through the days and years with one of their parents missing in action...

As for The Old Man and the Sea, perhaps Hemingway's greatest piece of writing, it made its debut as a special booklet bound into Life magazine for the entire nation to read.

This could be my finest garage sale find...
a Book Club Edition, but it's from 1952, the year of publication.

Nowadays this classic literary text's fate is different. It is solemnly delievered to high school students who can't read anything called a "novel" if it's more than 200 pages long.

What is going on here?

The Hemingway Problem(s)
Many people do not care for Hemingway's aggressive, testosterone-soaked personality and how his life made almost as much news as his books.

Some argue, with some justice, that he did a poor job of writing about women.

As for the famous Hemingway style, those pared down with a hunting knife series of almost adjective-less sentences, the longest ones being bricked together with conjunctions and conjunctions and conjunctions, guess what? That kind of writing now strikes many as mannered or just a gimmick.

Then there' the main thing Hemingway the writer set out to do--to render a scene and a sensation in such a way that it is as if it has been alchemically converted into nothing but WORDS.

This ability of his has lost some of it's luster and magic, made irrelevant by wonders of technology. Consider this paragraph of description from the short story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro.":

In the Black Forest, after the war, we rented a trout stream and there were two ways to walk to it. One was down the valley from Triberg and around the valley road in the shade of the trees that bordered the white road, and then up a side road that went up through the hills past many small farms, with the big Schwarzwald houses, until that road crossed the stream...The other way was to climb steeply up to the edge of the woods and then go across the top of the hills through the pine woods, and then out to the edge of a meadow and down across this meadow to the bridge. There were birches along the stream and it was not big, but narrow, clear and fast, with pools where it had cut under the roots of the birches...

The twenty-first century person seeking diversion and information might very well ask why they should bother to read all this up and down and over the road stuff with birch trees and whatever when it would be much easier and more accurate to simply switch on a high definition video camera. Or use Google Earth. Or just wait for the movie to come out.

Everything Hemingway meticulously mentions can be captured through the lens except for the smell, taste, and touch. And those elements seem minor compared to the great pillars of all writers' description: sight and sound.

Speaking of sound, what about Hemingway's famous ear for dialogue? Could it be that men and women used to speak differently? Because sometimes to modern ears what he puts on the page just doesn't sound right. Listen to this exchange between husband and wife in the story "Get a Seeing-Eye Dog."

"You remember better all the time. And you're getting strong."

"I am strong," he said. "Now if you--"

"If me what?"

"If you'd go away for a while and get a rest and a change from this."

"Don't you want me?"

"Of course I want you darling."

"Then why do we have to talk about me going away? I know I'm not good at looking after you but I can do things other people can't do and we do love each other. You love me and you know it and we know things nobody else knows."

"We do wonderful things in the dark," he said.

"And we did wonderful things in the daytime too."

"You know I rather like the dark. In some ways it is an improvement."

"Don't lie too much," she said. "You don't have to be so bloody humble."

"Listen to it rain," he said. "How is the tide now?"


On the Other Hand
Knowing all the foregoing objections, I could attempt to rebut them by spending time pointing out some compensatory factors. The chief one is that Hemingway was the first writer to do the equivalent of what Paul Simon has done with his music: Hemingway was an American who used his writing to bring the culture of other lands to our doorstep.

Just as Paul Simon is steeped in World Music, Hemingway exposed himself to languages and experiences in Europe, Africa, and Cuba that he could write about.

I admire such ambition. But that's still not why I turn to this writer more than any other.

A Writing Mentor
I've been writing and publishing here and there long enough that I've developed some theories about what might sustain and develop a person in this difficult and demanding craft. One thing that worked for me fairly early on was to find a mentor.

It was Hemingway. But he didn't come to me easily.

I began with a plan. I kind of liked it as it cost me no money (I was poor college student) and it involved no risk of asking, "Will you be my mentor?" and being humiliated as some great woman or great man turned me down. All I had to do was:

1 - Go to the library.

2 - Pick out an interesting author.

3 - Take down a book of theirs from the shelf.

4 - After I read that book, take the next one on the shelf down and read it.

5 - Repeat this process until I read all the author's books all the way across the shelf.

One caveat: I knew it might not be a good idea to choose someone like Charles Dickens or Henry James since reading the entirety of their oeuvre could be a monumental task. The mentoring is supposed to take a few years, not decades.

In my case, I began by reading everything I could get my hands on by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I loved the passions and elegance of the rich! So I sucked up everything Fitzgerald had to say about this world. I even rode the rickety elevator up to one of the high floors of Yale's Sterling Memorial Library where I could take off the shelf a rare and fragile copy of Fitzgerald's obscure play The Vegetable.

As I said, I read everything.

But there was a problem with F. Scott Fitzgerald. I could read all the words he wrote and love them, yet I still could not write similar elegant, poetic sentences myself. I didn't produce even a cheap imitation. My attempts were forced and purely verbose.

So I took stock and started over, without much enthusiasm, on Fitzgerald's contemporary and polar opposite in writing style, Ernest Hemingway.

That was when I made a surprising discovery. I could take 1/10 of Fitzgerald and add about 9/10 of Hemingway and suddenly I had my style. And when I had a style, people began to publish my work.

Finding my style was mostly due to Hemingway? How could that be? I wasn't a gun loving, sportsman-type young man. But then it dawned on me. A writer's style wasn't about what he or she wrote about. The style was about who the writer was--deep down.

I might be infected with F. Scott Fitzgerald's sort of romanticism on occasion, but at a bedrock level I was a straight forward, tolerate no B.S. personality like many members of my family, a bunch of Okies who knew more about red dirt than they did tinkling glasses of champagne.

Further, my personality had been shaped by where I had grown up: Wyoming, Colorado, Alaska. These were Hemingway-style places. Ice-age orphans. Hard, scoured, physically demanding. I'd grown up in empty spaces and that spaciousness had gone inside of me. I wasn't meant to be effusive; I was primed to write "lean."

He writes standing up!
Besides providing me with a style I found hospitable and that I could imitate, Hemingway helped me in another way. More than the other writers I'd read he didn't mind sharing a few tips about his craft. I think of scenes in Green Hills of Africa where everyone sits around the campfire and talks about great writers and great books. I think of some of the reflections in A Moveable Feast on how he got his work done. I think of his Paris Review interview from the 1950s.

Hemingway made me realize that writing is a serious business. Before I'd thought writing was just about filling up pages with words. I would be excited when I had covered every inch of a notebook or when I'd type up my drafts and now had a five-inch stack. When the writing flowed and came easily I thought I was doing great!
 Truth was, I was poised to be a hack. Someone who spends his words profligately.

Then I looked at Hemingway. He devoted himself to each sentence as if he were fashioning something of lasting importance. Where some scribbled, he sought to chisel. Writing was serious business.

“Writing is something that you can never do as well as it can be done. It is a perpetual challenge and it is more difficult than anything else that I have ever done.”

I slowed down. I became more intentional. About everything I wrote. Finding the right words takes time.

Put Down Pen, Pick Up Book
There's one more thing I'd like to share about Hemingway's influence on me. It's how he's become a part of my normal summer routine. It's nothing less than a summertime tradition around here. Like putting on shorts or making potato salad.

Sometime during June, July or August I always re-read a book by Ernest Hemingway.

               My shelf of E.H. Yes, I sprang for the leatherbound complete works years ago...

For me summer and Hemingway go together. The timing is such that I have a bit of downtime and I also could use a refresher course in the kind of writing I aspire to. Think of it as an outdoor writing workshop, if you will, as Hemingway's immaculately constructed stories take me to the mountains of Spain, the Carribean sea, the plains of Africa, the forests of Michigan, or the cafes of Paris.

This year I'm re-reading Men Without Women, one of his early collections of short stories, which includes the classics "The Killers," "Hills Like White Elephants," "Fifty Grand." It will be like sitting down to chat again with an old writer friend, one who really knows what he's doing.

Is it possible you still don't like/appreciate Hemingway? No problem! There are lots of writers out there. If you're interested in writing yourself, what I'd do is find one. Ride their coattails as you feast your eyes this summer on words that resonate with you. The next time you sit down to write, you will be rewarded. - V.W.


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The National Nudity Considered

I've commented quite often on posts at The Van Winkle Project that it's difficult, if not impossible, to filter out all the news.

Bits and pieces of news stick to me like lint to a sweater.

- A word in a headline briefly glimpsed.

- Something accidentally overheard in a conversation.

- A bumper sticker innocently read that turns out to be fraught with timely implications.

Or even a T-shirt--like the those the Dallas Mavericks fans were wearing back in early June...

Latest Indiscretion
Recently our family was on vacation. This is usually a time when even under non-Van Winkle conditions I fall out of touch with the news. Vacation is about living in the moment and getting out and doing new things instead of being tied to a computer or a TV or having a daily newspaper arrive on the doorstep.

Still, I had problems this vacation.It began with the now ubiquitous flat-screen TVs in the airports, all of them tuned to 24/7 cable news and with their volume turned up loud; if you plug your ears, there remains the visual assault of the crawl at the bottom.

Later, as I hung out with relatives the pollutant became words and phrases dropped into conversations.

"What this country is coming to."

"Trillions. It boggles the mind!"

"Government broke."

And, yes, like a monk who has resolved to give up women but who still has to go into the city, I glimpsed the equivalent of some cleavage and legs courtesy of the newspapers lying around my sister-in-law's house.

My Speculation
Okay. So I sorta think I might know kinda what's going on back in Washington the past couple of weeks. On the other hand, I don't have any details or why or wherefore.

When I went to "sleep" back last September the economic and political talk was still of 1) the unemployment rate, 2) bailouts,  and 3) health care. I honestly don't remember "trillions" of anything being in the conversation.

But times bring change. Maybe America is waking up with a big hangover. A collective national problem. For years we've been ignoring this problem, covering it over with a fig leaf if you will.

Now the leaf has dropped. Citizens are stirred up.So imagining that I've intuited what this news must be about I've dreamed up an op-ed piece.

My apologies if I've garbled reality. Perhaps I have misunderstood?


by Seymour Sitazon

America is a great country! One that is built on the idea of ongoing opportunity leading to prosperity for as many as possible. Yet we recognize, almost instinctively, that prosperity and the big wild good life ought not to derive from an excess of nudity.

In the past America has approached its national nudity with caution. When there was too much nudity the government acted and brought redress. The national nudity declined, although it never went away entirely.

It is notable that during the Reagan years the national nudity began to rise for the first time in a most alarming way. President Reagan implemented tax cuts, but he did not cut nudity. Nudity, in fact, became a way of playing with our toys today and deferring the costs of those toys until tomorrow.

Some of the toys the national nudity made possible were quite large: houses, SUVs, hot tubs, and everything at Sam's Club.

Surprisingly, it was President Bill Clinton who gave us a glimpse of what it might be like to see a decline in the national nudity. It may have been his policies or it may have been luck, but he proved to be no fan of nudity. Not even Monica Lewinsky could deter him from doing something about the national nudity. In fact, as the economy grew along with tax revenues during Clinton's watch there was the hope of decreasing the national nudity once and for all.

Then came two expensive wars abroad and a financial collapse.

The national nudity is now of extreme proportions. When you add it up, day by day, there must be trillions of instances! It seems we'll never be rid of it. Our children's children's children will inherit nudity that staggers the mind. How will they end up? Totally tragically naked?

Having laid out this problem I'd like to end by making an unexpected turn. What if the national nudity is not the rampant evil we suspect?

I mean look around you. Have you noticed thats even with such high levels of national nudity the people of this nudity-ridden nation still lead normal lives?

They drive down the road. They stand in the check-out line at the grocery store. They eat their hamburgers at McDonalds. We have national nudity, but we function. Indeed, as a people we seem to smile a lot.

The other day I was at a baseball game, eating a foot-long hotdog, and thinking about the rampant national nudity.

I looked up at the cheering fans--men, women, boys and girls. I looked at the handsome boys of summer. "So much national nudity!" I said to myself. Then "Crack!" the bat made contact with the ball and we all went "Aw!"

That's when I had an epiphany.

National nudity is as American as baseball. It's ingrained into the American skin like a wavy tattoo of Scooby Doo. We don't need fig leaf solutions to national nudity dreamed up by Congress or the president.

We need another hot dog with mustard and relish. And if I can't find my wallet to pay for it, well, blame it on the national nudity and let's get back to watching the game!

- V.W.


Friday, July 15, 2011

Escape to Alaska: Denali is the Finale

We went looking for a mountain.

It sounds a bit odd to say we were hunting for a mountain when the mountain in question is Denali, officially known (according to Congress) as Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain on the North American continent and possibly the most impressive upthrust of rock and snow on the entire planet.

But Denali can be difficult to spot. Blame it on the weather.

The bus driver who takes you into Denali National Park tells you that you have only a 30% chance of seeing the mountain. When Denali does make one of its much coveted appearances, people speak of it as if referring to a shy person or a hermit who has emerged from a cave. "The mountain is out today," they say. The rest of the time? The mountain is not out; it is shrouded in clouds.

There wasn't much suspense involved in our trip into the park. Given that we had had slashing rains during the night, we were pretty sure that clouds still had the upper hand from the mountain's 20,320-foot peak to nearly its base. So we did what all other tourists on the bus did; we concentrated on spotting wildlife.

We saw moose, bears, caribou, and a fox. Unlike most of the others aboard the bus, I didn't rush to the window and stick my camera out and press the shutter release. I could see the animals clearly, all right, but it wasn't a photoworthy moment unless one had a giant telephoto lens. I just relaxed. I enjoyed the ride.

It was an 8-hour round-trip over the dirt road.

 We stopped every hour or so to use the park facilities and snap a few more photos.

An aptly named "braided river"...

The variegated colors of Polychrome Pass

Our driver, Joe, provided lots of interesting commentary about the history of the park and the features of the rocks, plants, and animals.

Did you know that an arctic squirrel hibernates but that brown bears don't? The latter are actually in a trance-like state in which they don't eat or eliminate waste, but they can be aroused awake during the winter. Winter hikers beware!

Did you know that due to climate change the boreal forest is moving north? With warmer temperatures, plants and trees are able to live at higher elevations and latitudes than before. Recent photographs of the park compared with those from nearly a hundred years ago show forests in places that were barren before.

Did you know that Mt. McKinley was named after Senator William McKinley not President McKinley? That a goldminer with ties to the Eastern newspaper establishment named the mountain to call attention to the senator from Ohio who (happily from the miner's point of view) supported a gold standard for the nation's currency base rather than a silver standard. The senator went on to become president.

Or did you know that one Alaskan town wanted to name itself after the state bird, but residents had trouble spelling P-t-a-r-m-i-g-a-n, so they became Chicken, Alaska.

Interesting stuff, but I still wished my wife and son could see the mountain the way I'd experienced it as a young man. Back then, five friends and I rode all the way to the end of the park road, got out, and camped in the shadow of Denali. And it was "out."  In fact, it looked just like the photo in the souvenir booklet that Joe the driver distributed to us at the end of the day.

As I looked at that photo I realized that the mountain was like a lot of things in life. It has to be there all the time even when it's not registering on the senses.

Like joy. A gloomy day comes along and one wonders was I ever happy a single time in my life?

Like love. When you're alone you wonder have I ever had a friend in this world? Has anyone ever really appreciated me?

Or the transcendent. If the world is making no sense it's easy to start to think there's never been a glimpse of some kind of presence behind this reality, some larger thing that actually cares that humanity and I are doing our best (or worst) to survive another orbit around the sun on this little rock we call planet earth.

But then I remember: I glimpsed it once. It was there. It was enormous and real. And even if I never see it again, it's still there, just the other side of the obscuring clouds.

When I believe that, it's a lot easier to move on through the curtains of rain. To appreciate the other, smaller things the sun illuminates when it finally breaks through the overcast.  To say that as long as today is today, this will be enough. - V.W.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Escape to Alaska: Funky Talkeetna

We were on the road to Denali National Park. It was raining, but we knew we were getting a bit closer to what some might call the "real" Alaska. Out there in the wilds where men and women live close to the land and...the animals.

It had been raining all morning and now seemed like a good time to go find a bowl of soup and a cup of coffee. That's how we ended up at the Flying Squirrel Cafe just outside Talkeetna, Alaska where they had pasted the bear warning sign.

We decided to drive a few more miles and take a look at Talkeetna.

Back when I lived in Alaska, I'd heard of what the locals fondly refer to as Tee-Kay. It's long been a base for mountain climbers who fly from there to make an assault upon the summit of Mount McKinley. It's also home to dog mushers, eccentrics and misfits, making it a rowdy, deadhead, redneck Northern Exposure kind of town of 800 or so.

It's a bit more touristy these days I discovered--lots of rafting tours and gift shops and an explosion in microbrew possibilities at the town's numerous drinking establishments.

The "bad-boy" image of the town is probably more calculated than actual.

After all, this is a town that goes all out to impress visitors with its love of pots of beautiful blooming flowers.

In fact, Tee-Kay is so civilized that I found myself having return to Van Winkle high alert status. Yes, that was a vending box with a newspaper whose headline was trying to tempt me away from my news ban.

I walked on by. It was time to hit the road and keep on heading north. - V.W.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Escape to Alaska: A Tale of Two Fish Cities

Fishing boats lined up in front of the processing plant.

Every summer the salmon return from the ocean to find the original streams in which they were born years earlier.

It's one of the largely unexplained mysteries of nature. After so many years of maturing in salt water, how do the fish make the change to fresh water and get all the way home? How do they survive the mishaps and predators along their route? How do they keep from getting caught by the innovations of humans, including hooks, traps, and nets?

Most of them don't. It's  been estimated that for every 25 million salmon eggs that are laid, only two fish arrive home to complete the cycle and spawn in the stream beds.

Yet the salmon keep on coming. By the thousands. Every summer.

We took a stroll along the docks of a cannery that my brother-in-law worked in decades ago when he was an 18-year-old looking for his first good paying job.

This was back when Alaskan salmon marketed to the word was in 16 oz and 8 oz tin cans. You should know that canned salmon is to fresh salmon what canned tomatoes are to fresh tomatoes. Yes, you can eat it, but it's hardly memorable. But canned salmon was all technology would allow at that point.

Gary showed us where a congregation of young and old, male and female, Filipinos, Alaska Natives, and whites worked in those summers long ago. The work was wet and filthy, especially near the so-called "Iron Chink" which was a machine that sliced off the fish heads and tales. Guts and slime abounded.

Wash it all down the drain...

It so happened that Gary had one of the best jobs, towards the end of the assembly line. He was charged with using a machine to tip the sealed cans into their cases.  The box of cans then went to the gluing machine. He held the record at one time for processing 750 cases in an hour.

Today the cannery is closed, but someone has purchased the buildings and attempted to turn it into a restaurant and tourist attraction. Signs explain the original purpose of each building. Unfortunately, when we arrived it appeared that this money-making repurposing of the old cannery was not a going concern. Nothing appeared to have been opened in a while. We stared through windows into empty buildings.

Next door the processing of salmon went on in a more modern fashion. The new plant takes the salmon and flash freezes the whole fish. In this form the salmon is much more valuable than in its humble canned form. It's a delicacy that can be brought to the table at the restaurant and served at a premium price.

I have to admit that it's hard for me to contemplate going back to purchasing a can of salmon and forming it into a fried salmon croquette (my mom's favorite recipe). This defunct salmon cannery seems quaint. But still I can appreciate what this place represents: lives bumping together for a few months in the summer, all in the name of industry and a paycheck. Something important happened here and I can still feel it. - V.W.