Sunday, December 29, 2013

Days Gone By

My favorite new book, Richard Wilbur's Anterooms, was a gift from my niece, who works at the Yankee Book Shop in Woodstock, Vermont. In the title poem, this stanza nicely captures the feeling I have right now:

Still, it strains belief
How an instant can dilate,
Or long years be brief.

Camping on Mongolia's Delger River, August 2013

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Another 36 Hours in Aruba

Elaine Glusac's story in the November 10 New York Times was well-informed and entertaining, but not everyone's circumstances allow for a stay at the Ritz. This is what we did last weekend.


3 p.m.

Still at work. Luckily, most Aruban commutes are short. (It's a small island.)

6 p.m.

Take the dog for a sunset swim at Eagle Beach. Park in the paved lot and walk north or south until you find the right combination of sand and solitude.

7:30 p.m.

Yes, you could go out to any number of tasty restaurants in the hotel district, including Amazonia, Papiamento, and Le Petit Café. Or you could do take-out from local favorites like El Chalan (Peruvian), Sultan (Lebanese), or Baby Back Grill. But sometimes it's just as relaxing to have dinner at home. Mix a martini with the duty-free gin you purchased in the baggage claim area at the airport. Then combine whatever the refrigerator has to offer in a stir-fry. Today's options: chicken, shallots, garlic, kale, endive, cilantro. Wash it down with a Spanish or Chilean red, which are reasonably priced here (unlike the French and Californian wines).


8 a.m.

Beach cleanup with students and faculty of the International School of Aruba, sponsored by AHATA, the Aruba Hotel & Tourism Association. We worked on a stretch of Grapefields Beach, on the east coast, just north of Boca Grandi, one of the island's best kitesurfing spots.

12 noon

Cold beverage on Costa Riba's last weekend (they lost their lease). But Kamini's cooking will still be available for take-out.

1 p.m.

Lunch at home with a selection of fresh bread, cheese, and salad from Super Food, an immense market with a selection that will remind you of Amsterdam.

5 p.m.

Take your fly rod for a stroll along the uninhabited north shore. Watch for diving pelicans and hope the fish gods smile on your efforts. This horse-eye jack took a blue-and-white Clouser.

7 p.m.

Sashimi dinner, with Venezuelan avocado, Aruban cucumbers, and South Korea's Yangban Seasoned Laver.


8 a.m.

After breakfast, put the kayaks in north of the Ritz-Carlton and paddle along the lee shore. If you reach Boca Catalina before the tour boats, snorkel among schools of juvenile grunts, sergeant majors, and blue chromis. If not, take a leisurely swim south, towing the kayaks behind you, and watch for sea turtles, reef squid, and schools of bar jacks.

12 noon

Sashimi again, even better this time, as the fish has become more tender after overnighting in the refrigerator.

1 p.m.

Another clean-up operation, this one sponsored by FlyFishingAruba and focused on the mangrove shoreline south of the airport. We're very fortunate that so many islanders feel strongly about protecting the environment, but there's still plenty of work to be done. The roots of some mangroves were completely shrouded by layers of discarded plastic. (I've written elsewhere about other conservation-related efforts on Aruba, including invasive boa control.)

5 p.m.

On the way home, wave goodbye to King Willem and Queen Maxima, on their way back to the airport after a week on the island.

7 p.m.

And finally, another dinner at home, this time using the roasted cubanelle peppers that we neglected on Saturday, when the fish gods smiled. What's not to like about chile rellenos and fresh papaya salsa?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

South Florida Takes Notice of A Novel

Well, maybe notice is too optimistic a word, but the book did receive a little press while I was working in Mongolia. Pompano Today, a regional magazine (you can find the complete file here), published this interview:

And earlier in the summer, the Key West Citizen ran this bit:

Monday, November 4, 2013

Another Season, Another Taimen Video

The 2013 season began with rain and ended with snow. The snow lasted only a day or so, but the rain continued for weeks, creating a flood of water downstream that, by the time it hit the Russian Far East, was visible from space.  This year's notable anglers included Tasmania's Paul Anderson, Patagonia's Marcel Sijnesal, Tom Lewin of South Africa's Frontier Fly Fishing, Chris Andersen, Technical Service Manager at Sage, and Derek Hutton, WorldCast Anglers' Guide of the Year. I'll post a more detailed report soon, but in the meantime here's a video of Jaime Castillo of Mongolia River Outfitters and Chile's Estancia de los Rios releasing a fish that was exactly four feet long . . .

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

An Anthology of Bourbon Poetry

Way back when road trips, ice fishing, and an early morning drink were functional parts of my vocabulary, I also tried to write poems. These attempts were mostly unsuccessful, but one outlier has found its way into an anthology titled Small Batch, just out from Kentucky's Two of Cups Press.

My favorite poem in the book (so far) is "Day One" by Mitchell Douglas. It begins like this:

Day one,

I sip the shoulders
off a bottle of oak--
. . .

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Where You'll Find Me

Look for "When You Must Go" in the May/June 2013 issue of Gray's Sporting Journal, and "A Different Sort of Ghost" in March/April, both available for the iPad.

"When You Must Go" is mostly set in Montana, but the first draft was written in Shanghai. "A Different Sort of Ghost" takes place in the Maldives, after the tsunami, and first found paper in Vermont.

On PhoneFiction,  you can locate "An Angel in the Juvenile Phase" and "Homesick." The stories on this site can be read on any device, even a phone (hence the name), and no apps are required. The catalog is organized by time commitment alone.

I wrote "Angel" while living in Missoula but thinking about the Keys, and "Homesick" while living in Missoula and remembering Los Angeles.

If there's a theme here, I'm blind to it. Maybe I just need a little distance . . .

Sunday, June 2, 2013

A First Novel after Fifty . . .

I've spent the past few decades proving that I'm no prodigy, with some success. My first short story did not appear in print until I was thirty-one, and that first article in the New York Times did not arrive until I reached forty.

John McPhee, by contrast, published at least fifteen books before age fifty. Very good books, written at what he considers a painstakingly slow pace.

Such comparisons are silly, of course, but if you read a lot, and spend many hours in bookstores, it's hard not to wonder at one's own insufficiencies.

Now that I've been lucky enough to pass fifty—and see my first novel available on Amazon—I discover that no less an authority than the BBC has declared that "fifty is the perfect age to write a novel."

It's a questionable pronouncement, based on this lone statistic: "the average age of writers who topped the hardback fiction section of the New York Times Bestseller List from 1955–2004 was 50.5 years." Which means, by my calculations, that the actual writing must have occurred when the author's average age was quite a bit less than fifty.

But the reason I bring all this up boils down to one word: hope. Anyone who knows me well will attest to the fact that I am easily distracted. This is not to say that I don't work very hard, only that my mind is quick to focus on the next item of interest, which is equally likely to be a poem or a paragraph, a bird or a fish.

So if I can do it, you can too . . .


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Remembering Boston

A dozen dawns after the Boston Marathon bombings, we woke in a hotel in the city’s waterfront district. Although we attended college in the Boston area and lived in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood for several years in the late 1980s, we are tourists now. After pulling on my running gear, I left the lobby and headed east along the pier, intending to make a leisurely circuit of Pleasure Bay.

But five minutes later I had spun west, toward the sunlit glass of the Prudential Building. I crossed the Fort Point Channel into Chinatown, navigating the old streets by memory, skirting the Common and the Public Garden until I could turn down Boylston Street. It was not yet seven but the streets held plenty of people on their way to work, some of them clutching lidded coffee cups, their collars buttoned against the wind. 

While I ran I wondered about the beautiful and the ordinary. The beautiful because the weather was brisk and fine, with magnolia and cherry blossoms framing the old brownstones. The ordinary because nothing felt ordinary about what had once seemed so familiar: the ruddy faces of spring, the tulip beds lining the gray cobblestones, the regular pivot of my legs below the knee.

I also wondered if my desire to see the bombing site had something ghoulish in it, if I was drawn to the place by the same instinct that attracts rubberneckers to house fires and car crashes.

As I passed a fast-food outlet near Copley Square, a man sitting on the curb shouted at me. The only word I caught was “five.” Thinking he was trying to cadge enough cash for breakfast, I turned up my empty palms and went on. He shouted again after I’d passed and this time I heard him quite clearly. “Fuck you,” he said.

Because this was Boston, I turned and ran back to him. “What?” I asked. He told me that he’d only been trying to encourage me, that he’d been urging me to go for it, to “go for five.” This was a new phrase in my lexicon but we parted amicably. As we shook hands, it was impossible to ignore the fact that we both wore ragged, fingerless gloves.

Due perhaps to this distraction, I came upon Marathon Sports without warning. The plate-glass window had evidently been replaced, the sidewalk cleaned. With an odd shock, I remembered that the shoes on my feet had been purchased at this very store, precisely two years earlier, a trivial detail that seemed to gather weight through sheer insignificance.

I kept running another block to the Forum restaurant, which was still boarded up, then crossed the street and reversed direction. There were other runners out, too, some jogging, a few moving at race pace, and two unusually tall men carrying on a conversation in German as they loped past the TV trucks and camera crews.
This time I noticed the memorial in Copley Square: the jumbled rows of cut flowers and stuffed animals and scrawled remembrances, the sneakers and ball caps and T-shirts, the peace signs and flags and statuary. What were all these charms and trinkets, I asked myself, if not messages of defiance and tokens of respect? And then I knew why I had come.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Judging a Cover by Its Book

This just received from Ryan Christiansen at New Rivers Press: the cover art for my novel, sized for e-book sales at the unusual (to my eye) proportions of 1562 X 2500 pixels.

Seeing what was once a daydream made digitally concrete made me wonder how I should describe, in casual conversation, what the book is really about. When I was writing it, I used to say it was about a woman's search for sperm. That summary still holds, more or less, although it's not immediately apparent from this image.

Of course, many of us don't use the cover to choose what we read. The two books on the top of my pile at the moment are Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star and A. St. J. MacDonald's Circumventing the Mahseer and Other Sporting Fish in India and Burma.

Originally published in 1977, The Hour of the Star was translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser in 2011. The book is very short and very fine. Some of the sentences are so odd that they defy memorization. Others, like this one, have a sort of fractured indelibility:

Because she needed to find herself and suffering a little is a way of finding.

MacDonald's book was first published in 1948 and contains many of the worst notions of empire-builders and so-called sportsmen, with no distinction made between catching and killing and little sense of either limit or proportion. Page 81 includes this advice:

There is no better way of meeting the local people than to talk to them in their own homes about sport and their crops. Play the gramophone to them, dress their sores, give the children a few sweets, and keep both ears open for local ideas. The primitive people, such as one usually meets on a fishing trip, are largely dependent on their wits for fish and flesh, and have experience handed down to them for generations. Exploit and adapt their suggestions and ideas, and with your own knowledge you can very soon arrive at a killing method.

Until today, I had never really wondered how readers discovered such books (other than by lucky chance), or how they might find mine. Another reason to be grateful for publishers . . .

Sunday, February 10, 2013

More Dramatic than Humans?

Ten years ago, my family explored the Florida Keys by houseboat (you can read the story here). Our nominal plan was to search for the roseate spoonbill, a bird that Robert Porter Allen, author of The Flamebirds, considered “more dramatic, more compelling, more worthy of anecdote” than humans. 

On the other hand, John James Audubon wrote that this “beautiful and singular bird” was “poor eating” and “tough to kill.” 

In North America, spoonbill populations have revived over the past decade. However, they remain rare visitors in Aruba—which makes me all the more grateful for this sighting.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Conserving Taimen (and the River)

During the second-to-last week of the 2012 season, we met World Wildlife Fund program managers from Britain, China, Malaysia, Mongolia, the Netherlands, Russia, and the United States. They had been camping out in somewhat less than our anglers’ accustomed style and seemed cheered to see the dining tent with wood stove, tablecloths, and wine glasses.

But what started out as an information-sharing event ended on a more celebratory note. In wildlife circles, the working partnership among Nomadic Journeys, Mongolia River Outfitters, WWF, and six local governments has become a conservation success story. Through an innovative public awareness campaign—using a little bit of everything, from bumper stickers to text messages—an environmental ethic that might have taken decades to germinate has flowered in just four years.

It’s no stretch to say that, in earlier times, taimen survived in far northern Mongolia because few people cared enough to kill them. That changed in the late 1990s, when tourists and anglers began to arrive from other countries; since the mining boom, angler numbers have further swelled with weekend warriors from Mongolia’s newly prosperous capital.

When Rare’s Pride campaign began in 2008, slightly more than a third of survey respondents in the district “strongly agreed” that taimen should always be released. By this year, that figure was more than 95 percent. Not all of these folks like to fish, of course, but those numbers are growing as well.  In 2009, members of local angling clubs caught and released 68 taimen; that number had nearly quadrupled by 2011.

Conservation efforts continue with the work of a few dedicated staff, a core of volunteers, and the support of individual and corporate donors, including a generous grant from Patagonia’s World Trout Initiative.

Just before spawning season—when large fish are particularly vulnerable—the local WWF office held anti-poaching trainings for police officers, park rangers, and angling club members. In these sessions—and in all other campaign materials—taimen are not portrayed as treasures to be hoarded. Long-lived and slow-growing, these fish are more like our honored companions (or perhaps we are theirs).

While it is true that taimen are astounding and beautiful creatures on their own, they cannot exist without a healthy river. If we were ever to lose them, it would only underscore the more painful fact that the river also had been lost.

(For more info and photos, see "Conserving Taimen," posted on July 27, 2012.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

In Praise of Small Triumphs (and Small Presses)

Like anyone who has suffered a passing acquaintance with rejection,  I enjoy stories of victory over long odds, tales of perseverance and pig-headedness that prove the value of a previously unknown or unloved work.

An early novel by one of my favorite contemporary authors, James Lee Burke, was rejected 111 times over nine years of submissions. When finally published by Louisiana State University Press, The Lost Get-Back Boogie was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It also endured multiple rejections, including its famous mistreatment at Alfred A. Knopf, which prompted one of the great revenge letters of all time. Maclean's novella was eventually released by the University of Chicago Press and also received a Pulitzer nomination.

I don't mean to compare myself with these writers, except in our shared familiarity with rejection. In 1999, when my family was living in Tokyo, I finished a draft of a novel set in the Florida Keys, where I'd survived the Reagan years by working as a dockmaster, fishing guide, and tropical fish collector. (See my story about going back to the Keys in Fly Fisherman's Seasonable Angler anthology.)

Over the next decade, the manuscript was rejected by many, many agents and publishing houses, although there were a few tantalizingly close calls. During that time I revised the manuscript from beginning to end and found homes for some of my short stories in both literary magazines and outdoor publications, such as Gray's Sporting Journal.

By 2011, I'd given up on the Keys project and started a new novel, set in Shanghai. And then, on a whim, I submitted it to the 2012 New Rivers Press Electronic Book Series Competition. Yesterday, editor Ryan Christiansen e-mailed that it had won.

When in Mongolia . . .

The January 11 New York Times Travel Section mentions Mongolia (and our partner, Nomadic Journeys) in The 46 Places to Go in 2013. Writer Justin Bergman observes that "the untouched countryside remains the main reason to go" and notes "there are new attractions in the capital, too: Last year, the Government Palace was opened to visitors for the first time, giving tourists a glimpse of young Mongolian democracy in action."

For a haunting look at what happened before the 1990 Democratic Revolution, I recommend a visit to Ulaanbaatar's  Memorial Museum of Victims of Political Persecution. It's an unassuming, two-story wooden structure with a collection of posters, photographs, and bullet-riddled skulls that will remind you to be grateful for the present work-in-progress, no matter what your country of origin.