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Trip to Meudon

Given that we are still in a global pandemic, I didn’t think I would get to visit Isabelle this year, but then the stars aligned, and I spent last week with Isabelle, Olivier, and my godcat Æncre in Meudon, France. It was a pretty quiet trip, but here are a few highlights:

Flowers on the way to the Forêt de Meudon: cornflowers, California poppies, love-in-a-mist, and more

A heron and some large turtles on a log in one of the lakes in the Forêt de Meudon

Walking in the Forêt de Meudon (a reprise of 2020)

Æncre the adorable

Goodbye, France!

A Visit to Des Moines

Last week, my mother came down to visit me in Iowa, and we spent a morning under a changeable sky at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. Despite having lived in Iowa for a year and three quarters (minus a big chunk of the pandemic), I’ve spent next to no time in Des Moines. That’s still mostly true, but at least I’ve seen a little bit more of the capital. Here are a few of my favorite plants from the botanical garden:

Baptisias (false indigos) in many colors!

Borage, or starflower, which my phone camera unfortunately made too purple and not blue enough

I think this is Taylor’s Sunburst lodgepole pine

Then there was this adorable baby rabbit I stalked!

There was a spectacular collection of columbines that my photos did not do justice to

Quite the peony

After seeing the botanical garden, we got takeout bún from Á Đông. Then my mother left for the return leg of her Iowa peony tour while I went down the road to check out the Chinese pavilion on the Des Moines River. The structure is in the Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens, named for a former governor of Iowa who worked to resettle Southeast Asian refugees in the state in the 1970s.

2020 in Review

Well, 2020 was something, wasn’t it? Looking back on my previous year in review posts brings back lots of good memories, but also some lines that, in retrospect, are…interesting. In 2016, I remarked that “[a] lot of people have been saying that 2016 was awful”. I would bet that pales in comparison to what they’ve been saying about 2020. And last year, I said, “let me zoom back in on 2019”! Little did I know how much Zooming was to come (though in fact I personally have been doing very little Zooming, since my institution prefers other platforms).

2020 was admittedly a devastating year for my country, for much of the world, and for many, many people. I have been extraordinarily lucky to have been sheltered from the worst ravages of the pandemic. I don’t blame anyone who’s not ready to look for the silver linings or who’s not interested in hearing about all the good things that happened to other people amidst a year of suffering and loss. Paradoxically, the pandemic gave me a marvelous gift I would never have otherwise had, so it’s impossible for me to say it’s been all bad.

I will say that 2020 has felt long. The things I did in January and February feel incredibly distant. But they belong to this year too. Here is the bird’s-eye view of my 2020:

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that we can’t imagine what the future will bring. Nevertheless, I wish you hope and connection in 2021.

The Boundary Waters 2020

My family spent last week in the Boundary Waters. It was my seventh (!) trip, fifteen years after my first, and my family’s fifth trip together. The last time we went was in 2016, when we canoed and camped on Isabella Lake. This year, we returned to Seagull Outfitters at the end of the Gunflint Trail, where we’d gone in 2015.

We drove up on Monday, stopping in Duluth to pick up sandwiches for lunch from Northern Waters Smokehaus. We used to plan our Boundary Waters drives around meals at the New Scenic Café on Old Highway 61, but with the pandemic, things are a little different. The New Scenic Café is closed, and we ordered our sandwiches ahead and picked them up from a table under a tent on Northern Waters’ deck. My bagel with smoked salmon and scallion cream cheese was scrumptious.

We reached Seagull Outfitters on Sea Gull Lake early in the evening. We were spending the night in the bunkhouse. At the outfitters, we heard there was a bear active on the western edge of the lake; four campsites on the adjacent Alpine Lake had been closed, and we were advised to avoid the western side of Sea Gull. The bear wasn’t afraid of people, which is bad news for everyone, bear included. (Also, there were possibly multiple bears?) This was a bit concerning. I’ve never seen a bear in the Boundary Waters, and while it’d be cool to see one from a distance, I have no desire to encounter a bear that isn’t deterred by human noise.

The next morning, one of the owners of the outfitters told us she’d avoid Sea Gull Lake altogether because of all of the bears and go north to Saganaga Lake instead. This would require a 38-rod portage at the outset, but just paddling after that. So we decided to do it and not spend four nights wondering if bears were approaching our campsite.

We left on Tuesday morning and returned to Seagull Outfitters on Saturday. In many ways, it was an ideal Boundary Waters trip. It only rained once, the last night we camped, and it didn’t start till after we’d gone to bed and stopped before we got up. (Of course, between the thunder and lightning and somewhat leaky tent fly, we didn’t sleep all that much, but still!) The bugs were remarkably tolerable; I didn’t put on bug spray once, even if in the evenings around the campfire the mosquitoes buzzing around my ears were a little bothersome. We had one particularly windy paddle, but I still got my canoe back to our campsite landing spot without the waves driving us into the rocks. I brought several extra layers I never wore because it didn’t get as cold as I’d expected. Saganaga allows motorboats, and some of the surrounding area is built up, with cabins, so it felt a little bit less like the wilderness than on past trips, but it was still beautiful. From our campsite, it was just trees, rocks, sky, and water as far as the eye could see.

We’d originally expected to stay on Sea Gull Lake, so portaging hadn’t been part of the plan. But the 38-rod portage through the U.S. Forest Service’s Trail’s End campground was actually one we’d walked back in 2015, on the day we left Sea Gull Lake. We’d explored the falls and gotten a family photo taken in front of the rock face at the southern end of the portage. This time, of course, we actually had to portage our canoes and gear, and though the trail wasn’t very long, it was steep in places, with many rocks and tree roots. Just north of the portage, there were some rapids, and since we were going downstream, we managed to shoot them. (On the way back was a different story, but I’m proud to say we got our canoe up the rapids first, after making “only” two mistakes.) After the rapids, we reached Gull Lake, and from there we paddled north through some narrow channels to Saganaga.

Saganaga Lake straddles the Minnesota-Ontario border, so half the lake is in Canada. In other words, we spent this trip at the very edge of the U.S. And we made two day excursions pretty much to Canada. On our first full day in the Boundary Waters, we decided to canoe to the point marked Canadian Customs on our map. We were camping on the southern end of Loon Island (a lovely campsite), so we paddled up past Munker Island, Voyageurs Island, the Blueberry Islands, and Horseshoe Island, till we could see Canada. (It looked exactly like our side, except that in Canada there were houses on the lake.) Then we spotted a white building with signs around it, and as we got closer, we confirmed that this was the customs checkpoint. There was a small wooden dock with a No Trespassing/Passage Interdit sign at the end, a bilingual notice about everyone having to report for border inspection, and around a slight bend, a big sign proclaiming Canada! But the whole place was deserted. We could’ve just gone ashore, but we did not.

The next day, we paddled farther, to Saganaga Falls, which turned out to be rather small (kind of like the falls we’d portaged around to get from Sea Gull Lake to Gull Lake). There was a portage here, but we just left our canoes out of the way on shore and walked the trail to go see the falls. We were on the American side, but the other side of the stream was Canada, and we could see a green sign that said La Verendrye Boundary. (Later I learned that this is named for Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye, which is kind of a mouthful.) We watched a party of three men and a boy canoe up from the north (where we’d come from too) to the rocks on the Canadian side and start fishing. One of them actually caught two fish, a very little one and a rather small one, both of which he released. As we were leaving in our canoes later, there was a group in a motorboat that caught a decent-sized fish in a net.

I felt I had particularly good luck taking photos of wildlife this trip, and it was my first time using my phone instead of a digital camera. This made it harder to get good pictures of distant bald eagles or loons, but the amphibians and butterflies were pretty cooperative. The sunsets seemed less spectacular than average (perhaps because the weather was better than average?), but the stargazing got better every night until the night it rained, and we saw the Milky Way and a few shooting stars.

If you didn’t know, I published a short story set largely in the Boundary Waters a couple of years ago. It’s entitled “Lómr” and appeared in Cicada, and you can read it here.

Return from France

I returned to Minnesota this week after spending nearly 90 days in France. If you’d asked me in the winter how I thought my spring was going to go, I could not have envisioned what actually came to pass! But I feel very lucky to have gotten to spend the entire French confinement, as well as the first phase and a bit of the déconfinement, with Isabelle and Olivier outside of Paris.

A walk in the Forêt de Meudon

Writing-wise, I ultimately had a very good confinement. (This is not to promote any kind of if you haven’t learned a new language or launched an online business during quarantine you’ve failed at the pandemic sentiment. No one needs to do anything more than do their best to make it through.) I sank back into drafting what I hope will be my next book, and when it looked like the finish line might actually be in sight, I strove to cross it. I finished the rough draft (emphasis on rough) on my last full day in France. Toward the very end of my stay, I also made two short story sales within a week; I hope to have more to say about those stories soon.

I have returned, of course, to a country still grappling with COVID-19 and lit by a renewed uprising against violent racism and police brutality. I have returned to the city that sparked the latest protests. Like I said at the beginning of the pandemic, I don’t have much to say that others aren’t already saying better. But we must all be doing the work. Here’s something I wrote almost exactly three years ago when the police officer who killed Philando Castile was acquitted. I think we need to be thinking seriously about what role, if any, police forces should have in our cities. What would it take to abolish the police? In the meantime, take care of yourselves, your family, your friends, and your communities.

 

Honolulu

Earlier this month I took a brief trip to Hawai’i, specifically to Honolulu, on the island of O’ahu. Almost exactly three years earlier, I’d visited Maui, which was the first time I’d been to Hawai’i. I enjoyed getting to go back, to a different part this time.

The weather was warm and sunny throughout my stay. I did a lot of clumsy stalking of birds, including zebra doves, spotted doves, cattle egrets, red-crested cardinals, common mynas, feral chickens and some adorable chicks, and a black-crowned night heron in the Ala Wai Canal (remember the one I saw in Central Park?). I got to wade a little on various crowded Waikiki beaches. I had hoped to walk a long ways along the ocean, the way you can walk from Santa Monica to Venice in LA, but there were a lot of barriers which made this impossible, so I alternated between beach and not-beach as I walked east.

I also got to taste a lot of good food, including a beet “poke,” ‘ulu (breadfruit, nicely starchy in the preparation I had), pohole (a type of fern, crunchy and tasty), and pa’i’ai (a type of pounded taro, a stage before poi). I ate an order of chocolate haupia pancakes, which were not bad and satisfied my taste for chocolate and coconut. Isabelle had introduced me to haupia (a coconut gelatin dessert), having learned of it herself from someone who’d been a grad student in Hawai’i. My last evening, I also had a sort of Hawaiian plate lunch, which I’d been hoping to try before I left.

Here are some photos:

Waikiki

Pretty fish!

Diamond Head, from Queen Kapi’olani Regional Park

The Ala Wai Canal

Dinner at Sam’s Kitchen: garlic shrimp, rice, salad, and potato salad (I was actually glad to get this because while macaroni salad intrigued me, I suspected I’d like it less!)

San Francisco III

I’m not sure, but of all the places I haven’t lived, San Francisco and the Bay Area may be the city/region I’ve visited the most. I like San Francisco a lot and hope I will have chances to return.

Soon after New Year’s Day, I joined my mother in Palo Alto, where she and my father are staying for the first part of his sabbatical. We spent several days exploring new places, and I also met up with a few friends. Upon flying into San Francisco, I went straight to Berkeley to hang out with Andrew. We played a round of Welcome to Your Perfect Home, building suburban subdivisions (I won), went out for Burmese food, and chatted about the job market. Then my mother picked me up, and we returned to Palo Alto and the apartment my parents are staying in at the edge of Stanford’s campus.

On Sunday, we had Cantonese food for lunch at Hong Kong Restaurant on El Camino Real. Then we headed to 99 Ranch for some grocery shopping. It made me miss California. But this 99 Ranch didn’t have the beloved coconut milk drink that Isabelle introduced me to (although Magic Noodle in St. Paul does!). It did have a bakery, but alas, the egg tarts were a little lackluster.

Dungeness crab cakes at Pier 23 Café

On Monday, we drove up to San Francisco and had an excellent lunch of Dungeness crab cakes (and delectable garlic fries) at Pier 23 Café, with a view of the bay. Then we went to Lands End, where my cousins had taken me, but this time the sky was totally clear and the sun shining bright, and we walked some of the trails around the headland to take in the views of the Golden Gate Bridge. We peeked into Cliff House and, after a wander through the Visitors Center, caught the sun sinking into the Pacific just after 5:00pm. Afterwards, I went over to my friend Katherine’s to have dinner and meet her 11-month-old son.

Me at Lands End, with the Golden Gate Bridge beyond

On Tuesday, I tried to get some work done. In the afternoon, I walked from the apartment to a nearby shopping center on El Camino Real. Andrew had recommended Third Culture Bakery, makers of the Mochi Muffin® to me, and there was a Boba Guys in the shopping center that sold their baked goods. I assumed I was the only person in line not ordering bubble tea; instead I bought a mochi brownie, which was delicious. Slightly crisp on the outside, soft, chewy, and chocolatey on the inside, with an almost gooey center. I walked on to the downtown Palo Alto library, which was in a neighborhood of very nice houses and at least one bare-branched persimmon tree full of glowing orange fruits. In the evening, I had dinner with my friend Dustin at Pizzeria Delfina.

On Wednesday, we hiked the Stanford Dish Loop Trail, just down the road from us and named for the large radiotelescope on one hilltop of this protected area. We saw some cute speckled ground squirrels that didn’t seem very shy of people. But then, as we were walking at a low point of the loop, a coyote came loping along the hillside ahead and crossed the paved trail. It wasn’t that close to us, but we could see it very well. It paused on the other side and ultimately crossed back over and disappeared around the hill. When we climbed that hill, we saw three coyotes together, below us and rather far away. I don’t think I’d ever seen a coyote in the wild before, and this was one of the more spectacular wildlife sightings I’ve ever had. Towards the end of the hike, we watched a white-tailed kite (identified later) flapping its wings to hover over a field, looking for prey on the ground.

On the Stanford Dish Loop Trail

On Thursday, we went to Filoli, a nearby estate with a century-old Georgian Revival house and extensive gardens. It’s a bit like the Huntington, sans library, but smaller and more intimate and more like being in the country (it’s surrounded by wooded hills and protected land). We first visited the kitchens to see the orchid show. The house’s silver and china were also on display, along with a 1948 cookbook that opened a window onto the cooking of another era (frankfurter crown filled with sauerkraut, anyone?). After lunch in the café, we walked through the rest of the house. A quite good violinist was playing Kreisler and Bach in the high-ceilinged ballroom. Many pieces of Asian art were displayed throughout the house. Outside, we wandered through the gardens. There were a few camellias in bloom, as well as fruiting strawberry trees. On our way out of Filoli, we drove past a large flock of wild turkeys.

The house at Filoli

In the evening, we went to an anti-war protest in Mountain View. We joined a crowd at a busy intersection of El Camino Real, held signs and candles, and inspired honks of support from passing cars. From the protest, we went to Hobee’s for dinner and then on to the movie theater to see Little Women. I quite enjoyed it. I’ve never actually read the book, and I have hazy memories of the 1994 film version (mostly Amy falling through the ice). I hardly ever see movies, but I’d actually been kind of interested in seeing this one, and it didn’t disappoint. I liked the metacommentary in portraying Jo’s rain-soaked reunion with Friedrich at the train station as possibly a fabrication to please readers eager for romantic endings, and the black woman telling Mrs. March she should still be ashamed of her country was a nice touch.

I had a lovely end of winter break trip, and now I’m back in the pristine snow in Minnesota, gearing up for the next semester.

2019 in Review

2019 was also a big year, though I did not travel as far as in 2018. On Twitter (which I have now joined), I’ve seen people reflecting on the whole decade since we’re about to enter the new 20s (how weird–I think “the 20s” still evokes flappers and Prohibition to me, though the pull of the 20th century feels weaker than for “the 60s,” say). It hadn’t occurred to me to look back on the decade till I started seeing those tweets. I don’t think I much noticed the dawn of the last decade; I was just trundling along in college. But if I look back on this past decade, most of the major accomplishments of my life were achieved in it: I got an agent, I graduated from college, I published two novels, I got a Ph.D…. One can, of course, debate the merits of cataloging one’s life in terms of material accomplishments. Anyway, let me zoom back in on 2019 and recall the highlights, non-chronologically:

2020, here I come!