Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Kaua'i, Part I

I didn't want to go to Hawai'i.

I'm not much for the sun and the beach. The beautiful people who usually inhabit the beach often make me acutely aware of my pale flabbiness, a situation of which I am already aware and need no reminding. I dislike the way sand gets into everything: hair, ears, nose, between the toes. Sand seems to have a special ability to work its way into the bits and parts of your anatomy where you least want to have sand. I wasn't sure what I would be doing for a week in Kaua'i.

Let me back up for a moment. My sister-in-law was getting married and she decided that the best place for it would be in Hawai'i, specifically on Tunnels Beach on Kaua'i's northern coast. My wife and her sister are really close so there was very little discussion about whether she would go. But I thought I could weasel out of it on very reasonable grounds: the plane ticket would cost too much; I would fall behind with my dissertation; someone would need to watch the dogs; I had no interest in the tropics. I ended up going anyway, even though the plane ticket did cost too much and I did fall behind on the dissertation and we had to pay someone to watch the dogs.

Sitting on the beach was just not my idea of fun. I mean, when I was a kid, I travelled pretty widely with my family. My parents were big believers in the summer road trip and we drove everywhere. We drove all over the Pacific Northwest and up and down the west coast, camping and seeing stuff. I visited the Redwoods and Crater Lake and the Olympic Rainforest and the Oregon coast. Mount Rainier National Park was my back yard and I hiked and climbed all over the smaller peaks and valleys. We drove to the family farm in Iowa every summer and along the way we'd stop in Yellowstone, the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Wall Drug (the capital of American road trip kitsch), ending at my grandparents' beautiful farm tucked in a valley near the Mississippi River. We tried different routes some years: one year we headed south through California, stopped for a couple days at Disneyland, trekked across Death Valley, visited the pueblos at Mesa Verde, looked at the Four Corners (there's really not much else to do there), and gaped at the mind-erasing vastness of the Grand Canyon. From the farm we'd take side trips up to the Wisconsin Dells or to Chicago. Once or twice we drove back to Washington by way of Missouri, taking in the Ozarks and driving across the empty expanse of Kansas into Colorado, skirting the edge of the Rockies and stopping in the Grand Tetons. We took trips to British Columbia, riding the ferry to Victoria on Vancouver Island and having high tea at the Empress Hotel. When I was a sophomore in high school, I went to Barcelona, Spain, for the 1992 Summer Olympics and when I was a sophomore in college, Mom and Dad took the whole family to London for the ten days after Christmas.

Travelling has been a priority for my wife and I: since we've been married, we've gone to London and New York and Washington, D.C. and we've taken multiple road trips to Southern California, Las Vegas, British Columbia, and western Montana. The point -- if there is one -- is that I've travelled and all my travels had convinced me that I had no desire to go to Hawai'i. It seemed overpriced and cliched. It seemed . . . boring?

Nonetheless, we went. A friend of mine scored us a great deal on a convertible rental car and for once, our horrible timeshare ownership worked in our favor: we were going to stay in a condo at a lovely resort in Princeville. I still didn't really want to go. When I was a kid, bouncing around the backseat of my parents' Ford Tempo as we meandered across the American West, I had always thought it would be cool to visit every state in the country some day. So as I finalized our plans for Kauai'i, this childhood goal seemed to be the best reason for going to Hawai'i: I could mark one more state off my list (only 23 more to go!).

Our flight took us from Dallas / Fort Worth to Phoenix to Honolulu to Lihue. Seriously. We were going to do this twelve hour marathon with a three month old baby, a three year old toddler, ourselves, and all of our stuff. And we really have never learned how to travel light. Somehow we managed with our sanities intact and found ourselves, finally, in our rental car at the Lihue airport on Kauai'i. It was dark, everyone was exhausted, and we just wanted to get to the condo. We drove north on the Kuhio Highway and soon the lights of Lihue faded behind us. Or more accurately, the darkness enveloped our car, erasing the man-made lights of Lihue as if they had never existed. I knew this kind of darkness because I grew up so far out in the Cascade foothills. I understood the way darkness is different when it is completely natural: not so much the absence of light, but the presence of night. I couldn't hear them, but I could imagine the night sounds of the island: insects, night birds, rustling leaves, and the faint surge of the surf on the beaches and rocks. Perhaps, I thought, this may be ok.

We arrived at the condo and unloaded all of our stuff as quickly as possible. The girls barely stirred and my wife and I fell asleep almost as soon as we hit the bed. I woke up a few hours later and went out to get a drink of water. I took my glass and stepped out onto the lanai on the back of the condo. The lanai faced the ocean (so I had read on the condo website) and there were no manmade lights on this side of the building. The landscape was indistinguishable from the inky black sky. There was no moon, but there were thousands of stars, burning fiercely in the night sky. I couldn't see the ocean, but I could hear the surf and I felt something in the night air, something primal and ancient and more real than any night sky I could remember.

This may be ok.

Monday, December 22, 2008


I live in Texas and I'd rather not.

It's not that Texas is a terrible place. It's fine, I guess. There are a lot of people who think Texas is the greatest place on earth. Mostly Texans think this way and they can't understand why everyone doesn't agree with them. I've tried to explain, but they just don't understand. I tell them that Texas is the only state in the country where school children pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag and their state flag. Texas is the only state where people drive around with bumperstickers on their vehicles that proclaim: "Native Texan" or "Wasn't born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could" or "Texas Proud"


I'm from the Pacific Northwest and no one is driving around with "Native Oregonian" or "Idaho Proud" on their cars. When I point this out to Texans they just shake their heads. Don't you have any pride? they ask, usually with a mixture of shock and condescension in their voices. The thing is, I am proud of the state I grew up in and identify with -- Washington -- and anyone who listens to me talk for five minutes can figure that out pretty quickly. It's just that my feelings about Washington can't be summed up on a bumper sticker. It's a little more complex than that.

I talk to my students about this stuff. I teach at a four year university and in my sophomore composition class, I focus our writing and discussion around our conception of place and how that affects the way we think and act and respond to our experiences. When I ask my students why they think Texas is so great, most of their answers focus on size and scope: Texas is so big, Texas has so many people, Texas produces so much oil, Texas was its own country. Then I point out that Texas is the second biggest state (Alaska), with the second largest population (California), the second highest oil output (Alaska), and that there was at least one other state (California again) that was its own country before joining the United States.

They're never quite sure what to do with that information. Quite often they are incredulous about California and the Bear Flag Republic. So I ask again: what is so great about Texas? And they usually don't have much to say.

Now, I'm not trying to bash Texas. I'm sure it's a wonderful place and I have met some really great people during my four and a half years here. But I have a problem with Texas. I just can't get my bearings here.

I grew up in the mountains of western Washington. I mean, my little town is right up in the foothills of the Cascades, nine miles (if you could drive straight over the hills) from Mount Rainier National Park. The mountain looms over the northeast corner of our lake, dwarfing everything. Growing up, I found my way around in relation to that mountain: if I could figure out where the mountain was, I could figure out how to get where I wanted to go. I attended college in the Seattle metro area, and in Seattle, everything is between the mountains and Puget Sound. A person can figure out how to get around pretty easily: just find the mountains (east) and the ocean (west) and everything else is fairly simple.

But not in Texas. There are no landmarks in Texas, not that are visible in the way I was used to. I think I have a pretty good sense of direction, but I spent my first year or so in Texas in a constant confusion. I couldn't figure out how to get around because I couldn't find my bearings. There was no 14,000 foot tall mountain to focus on, no wall of mountains or expanse of ocean to orient from. I was frequently lost.

I think this is part of the reason that Texas feels so foreign to me, even after living here for almost five years. In Washington, the orientation is vertical: tall mountains, tall trees. Like the architecture of a gothic cathedral, the very landscape of the Pacific Northwest encourages the eyes to move upward and outward, to contemplate nature and time and the intimate relationship of rock and tree. There is a sense of time in the forests and mountains of Washington that is beyon human comprehension; there is an ancientness to the moss and the fir trees and the lichen crusted rocks that jut out from the green skin of the mountains that cannot be understood. This is a landscape that demands contemplation and reflection.

Texas, on the other hand, is oriented downward. The heat and sun are often so oppressive that there is no recourse but to look down. The landscape is so flat that there is no reason to look out. Dallas and Fort Worth often seem consist of a never-ending repetition of housing developments, chain retailers, and strip malls, stamped out of the dusty prairie in an ever-expanding circle of concrete and glass. Rather than encouraging contemplation, Texas fosters a shallow understanding of the self, focusing on material accumulation in place of personal growth.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe. But I've been here for almost half a decade and I still can't seem to find my bearings.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


I just finished reading Donald Miller's Through Painted Deserts. Reading Donald Miller always puts me in a contemplative frame of mind and so I started thinking: I should to be more thoughtful. I need to develop better writing habits. I really should find a more productive way to waste time.

Productively wasting time. Perhaps that statement needs a little clarification.

I'm a Ph.D. candidate in English (I won't bore anyone with the details of my research with the necessary exception of my committee) and all that's left is the pesky dissertation. I've written most of my introductory chapter and the majority of the research is out of the way. I'm in the home stretch, I guess. But the closer I get to finishing, the more I look for ways to avoid writing. It's not that I don't want to finish. I mean, I've been in college for fifteen years (give or take) and I want to move on. But when I run into trouble with the dissertation, it seems easier to just surf the web or take a nap or just stare at the ceiling than work my way through the problem. None of these are very productive options.

Thus the need to productively waste time. Maybe writing about something other than British Literature will help me write about British Literature. Maybe not. But if I waste time blogging, I think I'll feel better about myself than if I waste time doing almost anything else. At least if I blog, I'm writing. And writing something -- anything -- is better than writing nothing at all.

Oh yeah -- the blog title. I stole it from a friend of mine who once described his effort level in life as "aiming to try." Well, sometimes that's all any of us can manage: all we can do is aim to try.

Global Wanderings . . .