Thursday, September 15, 2011

In Eugene

Packing - September 9, 2011

I guess I am well and truly
"Outta Alaska" for the next 8 or 9 months. The photo on my blog homepage (above) was taken a few years ago and is a view I took in every time I drove back to the cabin on Diamond Ridge. However, great views are common in Homer, a town that is set like a jewel in the heart of Kachemak Country. In my last post I talked about my old high school friends from the village of Sloan, a home town I left to move to Rochester in 1963 when I got my first job with Xerox. I only lived in Sloan for about 8 years yet I have a strong sense of home connected with it and the little house my mom continued to live in for 48 years after I left. There were Christmases and Thanksgivings, summer weekends, my three kids visiting their grandparents as they grew up. But Homer is by far the place I've stayed longest -- 28 years and counting. It's been a wonderful place to be. I've never felt a need to lock my door in Homer and never have. It is as safe a place as I've ever been. It's beautiful too. I have an album on Facebook that contains some Homer photos I'm fond of -- take a look if you like. Here is yet another shot of the very photogenic Homer Spit taken one fine day a couple of weeks ago.

I guess all that verbiage is really just one way of saying I'm not ready to pull up stakes yet. I don't know exactly when I'll be back but I will be back. I'm missing my friends already. My tennis buddies, my partners at Alaska Boats & Permits, the countless people I chat with in the supermarket and at the post office, my oldest and dearest friends all around town.

I'm in Eugene today and for the next week visiting my son Tuli and his family. As you know if you've been reading this blog I love spending time with my youngest grandson, Harper. Here he is on our walk to the park yesterday.

He's learned to talk pretty well by now. The change in his ability to communicate since I last saw him this spring is amazing. In the book I just finished, The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker tells us that at Harper's age of 2 1/2 years, children's brains are so plastic, so absorptive, that their vocabulary is expanding geometrically; some kids learn up to 20 words each day. What that says about my own ability to learn Thai at the ripe old age of 68 is open to interpretation but it isn't exactly encouraging. 

Those Thai studies are more or less on hold until I get to Bangkok next week. I'll start them again once I'm settled in. I've done a bit of research to locate tennis clubs in Bangkok and have some emails going with potential coaches. I have to get my teeth fixed and want to buy a motorcycle. And I'll soon be hanging out with Nut again after going a very long time without her cheerful presence, her playful scolding to be careful with my toast crumbs, her petite sexiness. I can hardly wait.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

In Memorium

It's raining again in Homer and apparently in other places as well. The U.S. Open, way back in New York City thousands of miles east of here, has been totally rained out for the second day in a row. I'm mostly packed, the fridge is cleaned, most of my clothes and tools are boxed, labeled and in storage, and there's no tennis on TV. So I find myself with time on my hands. And that got me to thinking about writing. I just popped the cork on a bottle of Cabernet that unfortunately isn't going to last long enough to enjoy with my dinner of Sockeye Salmon Dijon with broccoli and tomato salad.

The motivation to write came as I was sitting around being mellow last night. Suddenly out of nowhere I flashed back to a camping trip I had made with my two best high school friends, Mike and Pete. Back in, oh, about 1959 or '60 possibly. I chose the title of this piece because both of these guys, once my closest friends, are dead now. Mike died long ago. I'm not exactly sure what took him, a heart attack I think, because we lost touch after I graduated from college and moved to Rochester. Pete died a year or two ago, of Alzheimer's. I hadn't seen or talked with him since the mid 60s and, if truth be told, I hadn't made any effort to keep up with my high school friends in the intervening years, preferring instead to keep my pleasant memories of them intact. When I finally decided to reconnect a couple of years ago, it was already too late. At that point Pete was in the final stages of Alzheimer's -- his wife told me that I could come to visit if I wanted to but that he wouldn't recognize me if I did. Under the circumstances, I chose not to visit. Pete died the following year -- I'm mad at myself for having waited too long. Now, all I have left of my buds are memories and these high school yearbook photos.  Together we hunted woodchucks, partridge, pheasants, squirrels, deer, whatever, it was all fair game to us. We played touch football, baseball in the summers, hockey on the icy streets of our neighborhood, and tons of pinochle during the long Buffalo winters. These guys were once very important to me. And now, through some strange trick of fate, I'm the last one left standing.

Mike in 1961
Pete in 1961

Our camping trip was a seminal experience for me. In some way I suppose it ultimately led me to Alaska because I became fascinated by the idea of wilderness and being in it, maybe someday even living in it, without the usual comforts and conveniences. This trip was my first exposure to that idea. All of us loved the country around Belfast. Pete's dad, Pete Senior, was quite a hunter. He and his buddies had been hunting deer in the Belfast area for many years, going back as far as the war years (WWII) in the 1940s. They termed themselves "outlaws"and used to go out at night with powerful spotlights and a scoped 30-06 rifle to jack-light deer--totally illegal and totally unsportsmanlike. Whatever. They killed deer for meat during the rationing days of WWII and never got over it. These guys were not rich and the venison helped stretch a tight food budget. Pete senior, who we called "Raggy" behind his back because of the way he dressed and the ever present chewed up cigar dangling from his mouth, was nevertheless our hero. He was a proven hunter with many legal bucks to his credit, and besides that he was an outlaw, a jack-lighter! When he offered to make the 80 mile trip down to Belfast to set us up in a "wilderness" camp on a local farmer's woodlot, we were totally jazzed.

Pete Sr - Belfast 1965
It was early summer when we cooked this adventure up and the country south of Buffalo along the New York-Pennsylvania border, the Southern Tier as we locals termed it, was my favorite place to be in the world. Aside from hunting there, my grandparents lived in the tiny village of Allentown about 30 miles south of Belfast. Grandma Swarthout, Sophie, was my favorite. I  always loved staying with her and my grandfather, Poppy, in their tiny house on White's Creek. She always had fresh baked ginger cookies or her special sugar cookies for us as soon as we got out of the car. In the summertime I slept on the sofa in the front room and as the nights deepened I would listen to the thrumming bass notes of the "power houses" in the surrounding hills until they lulled me to sleep. These single-cylinder, natural gas driven "powers" supplied motive force to the thousands of Oklahoma jacks that pumped oil out of the ground in the years when I was growing up. Maybe I'll tell the story of Allentown and its oil boom years in another post someday.
An "Oklahoma jack" (Allentown, NY, circa 1960)

Anyway, that's one reason camping in Belfast had such an appeal for me. It was near my dad's hometown and it was as "wild" as any place I had been. Both my father and grandfather had lived in the same county, Allegheny County, and had worked in the oil industry for years. This was truly my own homeland.

So here we were, camping on our own for the first time on this beautiful hillside, in country that was to us, wilderness. We had rifles for woodchuck hunting, a camp stove, a cooler with enough food to last a week, a boy scout tent, and our sleeping bags. We played pinocle in the evenings. And we hunted each morning. Our quarry was the woodchuck, a burrow dwelling rodent that favors sweet alfalfa over almost any other food. The fields were littered with their characteristic dens, each with a runway of fresh dirt at the entrance.  I can almost recall the fragrant aroma of those fields of fresh cut alfalfa lining the river in the valley below our camp. We hunted 'chucks with scoped high-velocity rifles. I had a .222 Winchester I had bought with my savings from a whole summer of greenhouse work that paid 50 cents an hour, Pete had a .22 Hornet, Mike a .243 Winchester.  We kidded ourselves into thinking that the local farmers would thank us for tying to kill the critters that were robbing the alfalfa they were growing for their dairy cows. Sure, who doesn't just love hearing the report of a high-powered rifle coming from the alfalfa field behind the barn at 6 am?

We thought we were pretty cool, hunting in the mornings, playing cards and sleeping in a tent at night, walking the dirt roads in the lazy afternoons. We heard strange sounds coming from the woods that we city kids had never heard before. There was one in particular that sounded exactly like a tractor or old car with a bad muffler trying to start its engine. It would go chug-a-chug-a-chug but never catch, and then start all over again. It had us completely baffled. Years later I learned that those mysterious engine sounds had been made by male ruffed grouse beating its wings, drumming, on a hollow log during mating season.

The week passed quickly. Pete's dad had dropped us off on a Sunday and came back on the following Saturday to pick us up. After that and for many years afterward I was an avid backpacker and hunter. I only stopped hunting when I realized that what I enjoyed most about it was simply being out in the woods. Backpacking too has lost its allure. Carrying a 30 or 40 pound pack on these old shoulders for 10 or 12 miles over broken terrain just doesn't get it anymore. As I think about my old friends I wonder about my own mortality. Pete Sr and his son both died of Alzheimer's but it doesn't seem to run in our family. Heart disease. That will be it I reckon. But when will it happen? Nut is fond of telling me how we can't know the future. It's probably a good thing.

It's Friday morning as I finish this and the bad weather of earlier in the week has been replaced with a beautiful sunny day. I'll hit the courts later for a last outing with my tennis buddies and then tomorrow I'll take my flat screen TV over to Kirk's for him to use while I'm away. Everything else, almost everything else, is packed and ready to go. I leave Alaska in two days.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Odds and ends

Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Rainy day on Diamond Ridge - fall is practically here already
 It was a dreary day today. It was okay with me because I didn't mind being kept indoors on such a foul day. The U.S. Open is on TV every day now (and for the next 2 weeks) and I've been watching it more than I want. Then in the afternoon I watched the Boston Red Sox destroy the Yankees in an exciting 9-5 victory. I hardly ever watch baseball but a Bosox/Yankee matchup is too big a temptation to resist. This time the Sox won but it hasn't always gone their way. When I lived in Boston in the 70s the Yankees were dominant and the Red Sox hadn't won a World Series since about 1916. Things are different now and the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is between two teams that are more or less equals in abilities (and payrolls). My brother and some of my old friends still living in New York State like the Yankees -- but they've never lived in Beantown as I have, or caught Red Sox fever, as I have. Consequently they don't know any better and love the Yankees -- they've no other teams to root for, with the possible exception of the Mets. To this observer, who left Buffalo and New York State many years ago, any Bosox victory over the goddamn NY Yankees is sweet, very sweet.

Members of the Homer Tennis Association and I played quite a bit of tennis last weekend. Several kids from the Kodiak High School Tennis Team came over on the Tustamena ferry Saturday morning for an impromptu tournament. We had fun and just about knocked ourselves out up at the courts; we played for about 6 hours Saturday and another 5 on Sunday.

Saturday morning at 7am - Homer Spit

The "Trusty Tusty" arriving Homer Harbor
The tournament crew

We ended the weekend with a pizza fling at Starvin' Marvin's on the Spit. Sunday was a beautiful day -- below is a view of the mudflats and mountains from Marvin's window. By the time I crawled into bed that night I was bone tired.

And of course, I studied Thai. It's going slowly but I am beginning to gain familiarity with the Thai alphabet. I like the shapes of the Thai characters so as I watch tennis I draw chaw chaang and tau poo tau and raw rhua repeatedly in hopes that by writing them over and over again their names and shapes will somehow sink into my brain. I'm bound and determined to learn those confusing W shaped characters I put in my previous post: ผ, ฝ, พ, ฟ.

Here's a note sheet I taped up on my wall above the computer. I'm trying to create a memory trick that will help me to recognize these very similar characters when I come across them.

Then it's just a matter of knowing the 25 consonants that come before the "W characters" and the dozen or so that follow. LOL

I signed up for a few hours of instruction with a Thai woman in Bangkok who conducts classes via Skype. I've had two meetings with Narissa so far and have benefited from both. She stresses pronunciation and occasionally speaks in Thai so I can get a feel for conversations. I'm not sure yet if I'll continue with the Skype tutorials after I get to Bangkok but at that point many other options will be available.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

I had wanted to publish this entry on the same day I started it but packing and tennis on TV have distracted me. At this point it seems my little method has worked and I can pretty much recognize the W characters on sight. I do have to recite a little ditty in my head though. It goes like this: two pairs of paw-faw sounds, the first two have their "heads" inside (innies). One of the strangest things about Thai is that while there are 44 consonants many of them have the same sound. For example, there are four characters that have a "kaw" sound (like our K), three with a "chaw" sound (like our C), six(!) with a taw sound (like our T). Why that should be is unknown to me but it makes things just a bit more interesting.

As I work on my Thai lessons I'm reading a fascinating book about language, The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker. At some level it's discouraging to read about language acquisition in this book because humans acquire language skills from their parents when they're babies. Pinker and others believe that inherent in humans is an instinct, we are in fact hard-wired, for language and grammar but that it's the parents that babies model their speech after. The book is full of interesting tidbits about language that relate to what I'm trying to do here. A full review is more than I want to include in here but you can follow this link to for more.

Learning a new language is fraught with problems, especially if one's brain has started to atrophy ;-) Although I've been trying to illustrate some of the strange and tricky  features of the Thai language, all languages are difficult to learn if you're not a native speaker, English included. Take English spelling for example. Pinker includes this nifty little rhyme in his book:

Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead: it's said like bed, not bead --
For goodness' sake don't call it "deed"!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

He goes on the tell us about George Bernard Shaw's campaign to "reform the English alphabet, a system so illogical, Shaw said, that it could spell fish as "ghoti" -- gh as in tough, o as in women, ti as in nation." Indeed, English is every bit as crazy as Thai when you look into the details.

The Language Instinct is a very entertaining and informative read that's sprinkled with humor and fascinating insights. Highly recommended.

Okay, enough said. I need to run into town for a few more boxes and get the rest of my packing done.  After the kitchen is packed I'll be eating out with the exception of my morning tea and a few cans of soup for lunches. I'll be in Thailand in just over two weeks. But before that I'll be visiting Harper, aka Harpzilla, my grandson in Eugene, where it's still summer!

It's all good.

สวัสดีครับ (sa~wat-dii krap) (hello, goodbye)
เดวิด (David)