Saturday, March 29, 2014

Island





Alistair MacLeod, Island: The Complete Stories  (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000), 434 pages, no illustrations.

This is a wonderful collection of short stories that are set in and around Nova Scotia or about people who are from the Maritime Islands of Canada.  The author, who was raised on Cape Breton, draws upon the rich heritage of his childhood home to create characters grounded in a mystical setting.  There great variety in these stories.  Some deal with coming of age themes: growing up, leaving home, and learning the truth about Santa.  Many of the stories deal with loss: of a spouse, a lover, child and a horse.  And then there are stories of change: a new way of life, new stages of life, and the seasons.  Throughout the stories there is a connection to home and even one deeper, across the sea to the islands of Scotland. The characters are involved in a host of occupations: mining, fishing, lobstering, tending lighthouses, hiring out on Great Lake freighters.  Although the characters may leave their home for jobs (miners going to West Virginia and even Africa), there is a magnetic connection to the islands as seen in miners making sure a fellow miner's body parts are returned home.  

MacLeod is a master at providing great depth within a short period of time.  In "The Vastness of the Dark,"  a story that takes place on the day of a boy's 18th birthday, we learn of his father's and grandfather's history as miners in the coal veins that are playing out on Cape Brenton.  The story is set in the late 1950s.  He has decided to leave home and he recalls with detail how his day begins.  Before leaving the island, he stops to tell his grandparents goodbye and we pick up more of the family history.  His father had also left the island, but had come back to take his grandfather's place in the mine (which has since closed).  In a way, his setting out is the same as his father's.  He hitches a ride with a salesman, betraying his home as he says he's heading home to Vancouver.  The salesman brags of "getting lucky" in the mining towns where there are a large number of widows.  Instead of exciting the boy with the possibility of a sexual encounter, he finds himself repulsed.  He recalls a trip with his father and grandfather who went to help the miners trapped underground and from collecting coins in school for the families who lost their father.  His disgust rises as he realizes this man could be hitting on his own mother. Leaving the salesman behind, he is picked up with a group of guys heading back to a uranium mining job in Ontario.  Realizing that they, too, are from Cape Breton, he drops his story of being from Vancouver and admits that he is also from the Cape.  This long story all takes place on one day, his 18th birthday.   

These are stories to be cherished.  MacLeod beautifully captures the lure of his homeland.  When his characters leave the Maritimes for jobs in the West, the reader feels their pain as they travel the long highways toward Toronto.  I recommend this book.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Where's Sage? He was last seen flying across the ice

That's me!
 Yep, that's me.  I've not dropped totally off the side of the earth, at least not yet.  However, there have been times this winter that I was ready to jump of the edge.  It has been a long winter and because of all that was going on with me (ie, my absence here), I haven't had nearly enough time to cross country ski (of course, that doesn't mean that I didn't ski, for I did, just not as much as I wanted to).  And the weather has been so cold that only in the last week have the rivers opened up enough to canoe!

Boats on Jordan Lake
On Sunday, I got a text from a friend telling me the ice was perfect for ice boating.  Friday and Saturday had been warm days and the top layer of ice had melted then when the temperature reverted back to the deep freeze on Saturday night, the water refroze into a slick surface (except where the ice fishermen had dug holes).  Knowing that I was interested in experiencing ice boating, he told me to come over to his house on the lake after church.  I wasted not time getting there!

I can't believe how fast you can go on one of these boats--much faster than sailing on water.  The wind just scoots you across the lake.  I read a bit on ice boating and one article said you could go five times faster than the wind (which was probably blowing around 20  mph).  Of course, we weren't going 100 mph, as these were not high performance boats, but we were still moving and being that close to the ice it seemed even faster.  Yes, we were wearing helmets and every bit of your skin had to be covered as the temperature was in the mid-teens (~-10C).  But it was fun!
You had to stay away from this section of the lake!

 Of course, near the mouth of the lake there was a section where the water was not frozen and one had to avoid it.  It was easy to see as there were a few swans camped out in the open water, like bouys!

I've missed all winter the sound of canvas luffing in the wind.  Adding that to the sound of the blades cutting across the ice, it was mystical. Michigan doesn't have as many great days for ice boating, I'm told, as they do on the other side of Lake Michigan where the conditions are often more favorable.

Soon, the ice and snow will be gone and I'll be launching my boat... Until then, ice boating has wet my appetite for the sail.  (Right now, on my closed in porch, I am restoring my boom--last spring I redid the mast for my boat). 

This winter has been tough-not because of the snow and cold temperatures for I enjoy winter and the weather has been perfect.  But the past four months have taken their toil on me and consequently I haven't felt much like writing the kinds of things I enjoy sharing here.  Even on the cross country ski trips, I have tended to be locked into my own head, trying to figure things out.  However, I am thinking about starting a private blog (and if you are interested, you can let me know, as I won't have it publicly available) to share some of these "other adventures" as I also look to collect them for memoirs. 

I hope you have enjoyed your winter and will have a blessed spring. 

Boats on Jordan Lake


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Winter and the limits of beauty

Toward the finish line...
There is a lot going on in my world right now and for that reason, I haven’t been very active in blogland.  Sorry, if things work out the way I think they will, there will be a lot to write come early March…  By then, maybe winter will be winding down.  We’re having a real winter here this year.  Yesterday afternoon, I got to serve as a judge at a high school ski match.  My daughter is on the team and they needed bodies to stand out in the wind and subfreezing weather and make sure the competitors stayed on course and didn’t split a gate or do anything else to that would disqualified their time and to help anyone who wiped out.  It was fun but by the time it was over, my feet were getting cold even inside my ski boots.  It is hard to imagine, but this post is about a time when I was slightly older than my daughter is now… 
###

Homeroom in the eleventh grade was the highlight of my rather dismal high school career.  I didn’t mind being on time for sitting right in front of me was Dee (names have been changed to protect the guilty).  She had just transferred in from the private school for rich kids that had jumpstarted in response to court-ordered busing for the purpose of a racial balance in all the schools.  There were two such schools in our city: “the Academy” from which she came and the school at the Baptist Church where parents of more modest means sent their kids off to keep them isolated as they pretended to live in the antebellum South.  But I digress…  

One of the few things I remember about that homeroom in my junior year was De.  I don’t even remember my homeroom teacher’s name, although from what I recall he looked a little dorky and wore tweed jackets.  And I don’t remember any other students in that “class”—mostly homeroom was a waste of time, a place to take attention and listen to announcements as you tried to finish homework due in first period.  But I can still conjure up an image of Dee.  She was beautiful.  Her long straight light-brown hair draped halfway down her back.  Her petite body and shapely legs, which were displayed in the short skirts that were popular in the 70s, attracted a lot of attention.  I thought she was smart and knew she came from a family with money.  Perhaps that was the reason I spent the whole year thinking about her but could never venture the courage to talk to her.  I don’t remember having any other classes with her, but that wasn’t unusual as this was a rather large high school.  The next year she was eight or ten places ahead of me when we, all 750 or so of us, marched to the podium to receive our diplomas. 

I had forgotten about Dee until a few years ago when she showed up among other friends from high school on facebook.  I was glad to learn a bit about her.  She’s still beautiful and with some of the photos she's posted of her family, she and her daughter could be siblings.  We’ve not exchanged many comments, mostly “happy birthday" and things like that.  I still haven’t let her know of my infatuation as an awkward teen.

With that background, let me now get to the point of writing this.  For the past two years on or about Martin Luther King’s Day, Dee has posted some of the most mean-spirited and bigoted comments I have heard in recent decades and this would include watching Fox news when visiting parents and in-laws.  I was shocked.  When she repeated it this year, I was appalled.  “I am so sick of the Civil Rights issue!!!” she wrote.  The she began to shoot off about our President in a way that is not only inaccurate and inflammatory, but makes no sense.  Her command of the English language is almost as appalling as her rant.  And since MLK Day, she had continued to make derogatory comments about our President and his wife, all while insisting that she’s not a racist.    

Beauty is only skin deep may be a cliché, but it also rings true.  It was a good thing I was a shy and awkward teenager when I first saw her in homeroom…  

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Racing through Paradise: A Book Review

I have been on the road a lot over the past two weeks and heading out again tomorrow afternoon.  Afterwards, I hope things settle down a bit.  This is a book I read last month and for some reason I felt a need to write my opinions on it.  On January 1, I was watching Lasers race in Bank's Channel (North Carolina) only to get home last night to frozen pipes and more snow and extreme cold temperatures being called for early next week (while I'm out of town!).  I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas and a blessed New Year.


William F. Buckley, Jr.  Racing Through Paradise: A Pacific Passage (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1987), 344 pages, photos and maps

I found myself with a love/hate relationship with this book.  I am a sucker for journeys and sailing across the Pacific sounds enticing to me.  However, there were times I was so mad at the snobbish attitude of the late William Buckley, I found myself wondering if I should just toss the book into water and let it sink. But I kept reading.  Early in this book, William Buckley refers to an article in a California sailing magazine, Latitude 38, in which an author blames two words on the public perception that boat owners are "idle, indolent, and insolent rich." The first word was William and the second Buckley.  Obviously, Buckley wasn't impressed and retorted that he doubted the magazine was read even in latitude 39.  He suggested that the author didn't like his life on board and probably wouldn't like it on shore. (55)  Interestingly, from my point-of-view, Buckley spends the rest of the book confirming (at least for me) the author's perception of Buckley's sailing adventures: he's rich and expects his money and his connections with those in power to meet his needs.  Yet, even so, there were parts of the book I enjoyed although I can't imagine that I would have enjoyed traveling with Buckley when he was alive.  For me, Buckley falls into the category of Paul Theroux, another author I enjoy reading but don’t always agree with and couldn't imagine having as a traveling partner.  
  
The first third of the book provides a brief overview of Buckley's sailing adventures on boats he owned and those he chartered. Such adventures include crossing the Atlantic, sailing the waters of the Northeast United States, the Canadian Maritime Providences, the Azores, the South Pacific and the Caribbean along with racing to Bermuda (where he generally came in last except for one year when F. E. Bailey—the famous attorney—beat him out for the last place spot).  As he briefly recalls these other adventures (it appears he covered them in more detail in his other sailing books), Buckley tells about the selection of the crew and the development of an itinerary for his Pacific crossing.  In creating this story, he borrows liberally from the letters that were exchanged between the various members of his crew.   

The second part of the book focuses on the journey itself.  The trip is taken aboard the Sealistial, a boat Buckley had sailed in the Galapagos Islands and around Tahiti.  It is a rather large boat (72 feet) but when you have seven passengers (Buckley, his son and five others) plus a crew of five, large is relative.  They begin their journey in Hawaii and ended off New Guinea.  In this part of the book, Buckley liberally (I love using this term when referring to Buckley) borrows from the journals of his fellow shipmates.  One of the conditions of their passage is that they will keep a personal journal and, at the end of the trip, give them to Buckley so he can use them in his planned book.

Each crew member is given position aboard the boat.  Daniel Merritt is the procurement officer, Reginald Stoops the safety officer, Van Galbraith the meteorological officer and diplomatic advance man, Dick Clurman the Communication officer, Christopher (Christo) Buckley the entertainment officer.  The younger Buckley supplies the boat with enough candy for a round-the-world voyage, a portable ping pong table (that's given to natives on an island along the way), movies for every evening, books, tapes of David Niven reading his memoirs (which were listened to every evening for 20 minutes), board games, a rifle for the member assigned "shark duty" while the rest swim and a 410 shotgun along with a case of clay pigeons, along with a model to assemble of the Titanic. (320)  The boat has a large musical selection, which does not live up to Buckley's standard: “one part rock, one part schmaltz.” (124)  Buckley (he refers to himself as WEB throughout the book) was the navigation officer and also oversaw the important task of stowing away cases of wine (32 cases of various vintage).  Obviously spirits were necessary for morale as there was another 50 cases of beer.  (116) On top of it all was the attractive chef, who could have been plying her knives and sauté pans at some five star restaurant in New York, but had agreed to work in the galley to assure that no one went hungry.  With the exception of Chef Liz and an accident of the first mate (who almost lost fingers on the first day), the crew are mostly ignored within the book.  At one point, they tried to arrange the movie time so the crew could watch it, but it is a failure due to "Abstract planning, welfare-state-style." (390)  The book is mostly without political rants, but at some points WEB can't help but to cleverly throw in his two-cent worth.

One of the interesting elements of the book is navigation.   Buckley spends a number of pages talking about the LORAN system and a bit (I wish he had written more) about celestial navigation.  Due to his contacts (another example of why he wasn't in league with the average sailor), the boat is equipped with an early GPS prototype.  He discusses the possibilities of this system as more satellites are placed into orbit.  In the early 80s, the device could only be used at certain times of the day when satellites were within range.  The other interesting part of the book is the routine developed between the passengers as they go on and off watch and joke with one another.  There is always a bonding that comes from long periods of time in tight quarters.  For WEB, shipboard life also included three of them gathering each week to recite the "Latin mass." (211)

The title, Racing Through Paradise, is appropriate as they have little time to sit back and enjoy the trip for Ambassador Galbraith has to get back to France for his retirement party (which will include the Vice President).  Only limited amounts of time are spent on the islands in which they refuel and take on fresh water.  I was disappointed the WEB didn't provide more detail into life on the islands.  The one island that seemed to get more than its share is Johnston atoll.  Most sailors wouldn't be allowed near this military controlled island upon which is stored lots of gas for chemical warfare.  By pulling strings, Buckley stops and seems to take affront at the commander's lack of hospitality.  He is provided water, fuel and ice, but told not to let the sun set on his sails.  Even having an ambassador on board didn't help.  Another example of WEB's self importance was his telling of going to a White House function.  His excitement didn't come from meeting the President (by his own admission, he'd met plenty of them), but from meeting the Chief of Protocol, who was also the recent captain that had won the America's Cup.  (242)  

Of course, even the rich have those to be envious of and in WEB's case, this was William Simon, President Reagan's economic adviser who was having built a 124 foot sailboat, “The Freedom” was being built at an Italian shipyard. (204-206)  Buy American never came up within the text as there was plenty of wine for other countries as well as Swedish cookies and other stuff.  


I would only recommend this book if you really like sailing and if you are interested in the changes of navigation over the past couple of decades.  Now that I reviewed it, I’ve left the book at my parents for my youngest brother who seemed enamored with all things conservative.  

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas Journey

The ice did a number on the Black Lotus in front of our home
Yesterday morning, we left the land of ice and snow and are now in Georgia, with a trip to North Carolina planned before we head home in early January.  The past week was a whirlwind as we had one of the worst ice storms in memory.  Someone reported that there were 60,000 people in our county without power, which is a little surprising as I thought the population was closer to only 55,000.  We spent 36 hours, without power, huddled around the living room fireplace.  But with smart phones and car chargers, we never felt like we were unconnected!  Others are still without power and some may go for well over a week in the dark.  But down here in Georgia, it’s going to be about 50 degrees and I am upset that in forgot to bring flipflops!  Here is my memoir of another Christmas journey.  The year was 1966 and I was just a couple weeks shy of turning ten.  


Christmas always began early in my childhood home.  We’d get up before daylight.  My brother was generally the first to get up, usually around 4 AM, and he’d go between our room and my sisters, encouraging us to get out of bed and to get ready.  We would ignore him for a little while, but soon we were up.  We also had to wake my parents who had sent us to bed under the threat of bodily harm if we went into the living room before they were up and ready for us to arrive, which meant my dad had to set up his Super-8 movie camera with the oversized flood lights that would greet us as soon as we stepped into the living room and were literally “blinded by the light.”  All those old Christmas movies show us with the color bleached out of our faces and our eyes squinted with hands covering them as we come in and try to find our presents in a room that was as bright as if a nuclear explosion had just occurred.
            But there was another reason that Christmas often began early this particular year.   Like the first family of Christmas, we had a journey to make; only we started ours on Christmas and not before and instead of a donkey traveled in a Ford.  After an hour or so of playing with our toys, and a hearty breakfast of eggs and sausage, sweet breads and fruit, we loaded up the car for the trip to our ancestral home—to Pinehurst, in the Sandhillls of Moore County.   It was a three hour trip—all two lane secondary roads that cut through the pine forest and tobacco farms of Eastern North Carolina.  Although we knew they’d be more presents to open once we arrived, my sister, brother and I didn’t relish the thought of the drive. We also didn’t like the idea of leaving most of our toys behind, as there wasn’t enough room in the car with the three of us and an infant. As we drove past homes, we’d see kids out riding new bikes and passing new footballs with their dads.  Such scenes only made us feel sorrier for our imprisonment in the car.
            Once we got to Pinehurst, we began the circuit of visiting our grandparents and great-grandparents.  The particular occasion I have in mind, we stopped first at my mother’s home.  I received a Kodiak 126 camera. My grandfather, as was his tradition, had large boxes and crates of fruits and nuts and he’d give everyone who stopped by a bag containing an orange and a tangerine, apples and an assortment of nuts.  It was his way of sharing and making all who visited feel welcomed.  As we waited for the first of our Christmas dinners to be served, all of us kids, which now included our cousins, ran around in the fields laid fallow for winter. 
            What I remember most about my mother’s parents’ home at Christmas was the cedar tree—an Eastern Red Cedar, the kind which gives off a wonderful fragrance that fills the house.  This bushy tree was simply decorated: white lights, red ornaments and silver icicles.  It seemed much prettier than our skinny store-brought tree and since my grandfather had cut the tree down made it even more special.
After lunch, before we headed off to see other relatives, I was able to snap a photo of my grandparents out by the holly bushes in front of their house.  It was a little crooked, but they stood close together for me, my grandmother thin and my granddaddy, a little chubby (like me).  It would be the last photo taken of them and in a few weeks, we’d again be making the trip to Moore County for his funeral at Beulah Hill Baptist Church.
            Dinner, late Christmas afternoon, was at my dad’s parents.  Before eating, we exchanged gifts.  If my memory is correct, I received a Boy Scout hatchet and soon became the terror or trees and fence posts everywhere.  That hatchet served me well (and got me in trouble) for a number of years before I lost it on a scout camping trip.  Since it was already dark, I didn’t get to try out the hatchet.  Instead, we moved into the dining room for the last of the day’s feasts.  We certainly didn’t need dinner for after stopping at two sets of great-grandparents, who both gave us candy and fruitcake and other goodies; we were stuffed.  But my grandmother had prepared a feast and we indulged ourselves on ham as well as sweet potatoes, collard greens, biscuits and homemade pie.  It would be late in the evening when we were ready to head home.  My grandmother fixed a few biscuits with slices of ham, just in case we got hungry and set us away with a pan of her famous persimmon pudding, a going-away tradition that continued until she moved into a care facility. 

            Driving home, I pressed my nose to the window and peered out into the dark night.  From the east, the tree stars of Orion’s belt rose over the horizon as my breath formed frost on the car window.  I scrapped it off with my hands so I could continue to see.  As we passed the same houses in which the kids played outside that morning, I saw families gathered around the Christmas trees in their living rooms.  Smoke from fireplaces filled the air.  These houses seemed warm and cheerful, but I no longer wished to join them.  It had turned out to be a special day and I was satisfied.  I felt loved and a part of an extended family who cared for me.  Somewhere in the night, as my dad drove and he and mom talked, the three of us in the backseat fell asleep.  When I woke the next morning, I was home, in my own bed.