January 28, 2023

Native species and invasive ideas

invasive species lighthouse Port Hope

Today’s headlines remind me again of passages in Vasily Grossman’s epic novel “Life and Fate.” Grossman was born in Ukraine and reported the major battles for the Red Army in World War Two. His reporting followed the brutality of Stalingrad to the death camp of Treblinka. Grossman used Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” as his model for writing “Life and Fate.” Many passages are delivered as a straight right hand: “Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.” The KGB arrested Grossman’s novel and tried to block publication for two hundred and fifty years.

A year ago the trees around this lighthouse reminded me of another passage in “Life and Fate.” The emerald ash borer, first discovered in China, turned the forest into death camps for the ash trees. The invasive species attacked and killed more than one hundred million ash trees throughout the United States. These trees were in the dying stage last year and now their demise is complete, an invasive species creating a Bloodlands of death as Hitler and Stalin in World War Two. Dozens of tree stumps surround the lighthouse. Grossman wrote of the battle taking place out of sight in the northern forest, comparing it to the life and fate of the human race. Competing concepts of what makes a human, the native species defending the motherland against invasive ideas. Obedience demanded of Stalin versus fascism of Hitler versus liberty from both.

The invasive species failed to kill one hundred percent of the trees here. There were survivors, emerging from the ashes with resilience strengthened in the struggle against the invasive species. The exposure killed many but survivors held promise for the future growth of the forest.

In World War Two, America fought for liberty with a segregated military. Eisenhower, MacArthur, and many officers opposed Truman’s order to end segregation. The official end to segregation of the military came not with dramatic scenes as in Selma and Bloody Sunday in front of cameras, but far out of sight, on a four hundred mile march in temperatures that dropped to forty below zero. The land in North Korea was desolate as the northern forest. These black and white soldiers surrendered the fight from a military sense. A far greater battle took place in their minds. Survivors from the all black and white infantry units slept together in piles to keep from freezing to death. The North Koreans and Chinese used savage tactics to divide and break the minds and willpower of the POWs. Many of the prisoners were veterans of World War Two. They had witnessed the hardship and death of Vasily Grossman’s war. But one incident in the prison camp galvanized both black and white prisoners. James Thompson writes in “True Colors”: “I had been through some of the most vicious circumstances during World War Two, but I had never witnessed a circumstance where a man put his raw personal courage against almost certain death…all for the sake of dignity. God, I admired that! Someone once said it is better to die with dignity rather than live without it. Apparently, Sergeant Riley had made his decision.”

The prisoner camp commander ordered Sergeant Riley to kneel. “Riley kneel!” The guards beat Riley brutally to kneel. The camp commander screamed, “Riley kneel! Damn you kneel!” The guards beat the American POW to a bloody pulp but he kept getting up, refusing to surrender his dignity. Both black and white POWs, with tears in their eyes, shouted for Riley to stay down. “Why doesn’t the big moron kneel?” shouted one American POW. “Stay down you bastard! Stay down goddamnit!” a white POW shouted. “Stay down Riley!” shouted the black POWs. “Then, almost like a beautifully trained chorus the entire assemblage took up the chants in unison. Stay down Riley! Stay down Riley! Stay down Riley! Stay down Riley! Stay down Riley!”

James Thompson, from Detroit, was the only black POW among the “forgotten 33.” He retired from the army in 1967 as a Command Sergeant Major and wrote his slender memoir “True Colors” in 1989. He wrote, “The Chinese were artisans at blending fact and fiction to their own advantage. However one thing they kept misreading was the American spirit. Given all the ills America had, we as a people become one family when put upon by an outside common foe. I don’t think the Germans  or the Japanese understood this during World War Two. I know damn well the Chinese and Koreans didn’t during the Korean conflict. Sergeant Nelson Riley was only a symbol of an American’s resolve to win…to be free. This is the same resolve that saw America through two world wars. This is the same resolve that had sustained black Americans since the days of slavery.”


Where rubber leaves the road

car pulled from river

After hitting three deer and driving twice into a ditch during whiteouts last winter, I can commiserate with the driver of this car. It’s been a tough year. The driver and his son weren’t killed or even seriously injured after their car flipped down the hill, giving new meaning for going down to the river to pray. The picture of the car reminds me of a line in The Fate of the Edsel, a great story in Business Adventures by John Brooks. A reviewer of the Edsel wrote that he couldn’t help but wonder what “this salami” would really do with more road adhesion. If the Edsel kept its rubber on the road, John Brooks never would have written Fate of the Edsel and Business Adventures might not have Warren Buffett and Bill Gates proclaiming it the best business book of all time.

Where the rubber leaves the road is where the story turns interesting. No one was taking pictures of the cars that stayed in their lane. Ford executives blamed the Russians for launching sputnik at the same time of the Edsel launch. A semanticist, writing a nasty review of the Edsel for A Review of General Semantics in 1958, compared automobiles to words “as important symbols in American cultures,” then asked why buy the Edsel when you can get Playboy for 50 cents. By the late 1950s, even the Russians thought they were getting the better of this American salami.

The Edsel was considered a symbol of the times in America- “clumsy, powerful, dowdy, gauche, well meaning.” So what if some of the advertising failed the reality  principle. Sometimes a sledgehammer, not a tooth pick touch, was required for operating all the fancy dashboard gadgets. Hundreds of names were considered for the car. Overruling the market research, executives preferred to suck up to the boss and named the car for Edsel Ford.

But it was in 1957 that more powerful words became symbols. The words were written by a poet in Russia and nearly published in Ann Arbor, home of the Ford executive plotting the Edsel. The University of Michigan initially acquired the rights to the manuscript, to the horror of the CIA. Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was smuggled out of Russia and the CIA wanted the manuscript published in Europe, without any evidence of American or CIA involvement in the publication. After much pressure from the CIA, the University of Michigan relinquished the rights. Doctor Zhivago was published in Italy in November of 1957 and earned Pasternak the Nobel Prize. Surviving two world wars, revolution, Lenin and Stalin, Pasternak wrote the poem Hamlet with the famous line “life is no stroll through a field.” In The Zhivago Affair, written by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee,  Stalin in 1932  makes a toast to a group of writers meeting at the home of Maxim Gorky- “The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks.” Stalin demanded Russian writers use their words as engineers on the assembly line- massing producing souls to Stalin’s specification like the Ford executives poured over details of the Edsel.

It was this “loss of faith in the value of one’s own opinion” that Pasternak risked his life in writing Doctor Zhivago. It was why the CIA’s Soviet Division, many of them with backgrounds in literature, believed in the power of words and turned “priests, athletes, students, businessmen, tourists, soldiers, musicians, and diplomats” into book publicists for Pasternak. All levels of society were targeted. Russian truck drivers had Doctor Zhivago thrust into their hands. The mass production of souls went down with the Edsel.


Running uphill has benefits

Mackinac Island church

One of the benefits of maturity is using misery as a teachable moment to oneself. After missing most of the nice weather running events with a bad knee, I thought the Mackinac Island Great Turtle Trail Run would be a nice and easy run. Mulling the half marathon while wiggling the knee, I found the convenient rationale for selecting the 5.7 mile trail run instead. I also discovered that stomping the knee in frustration doesn’t work as a cure. All the excuses also don’t work. I listened to everyone around me at the start of the 5.7 trail run explain their litany of excuses why they signed up for the 5.7 rather than the half marathon. It takes one to know one. I recognized that I was in my own tribe when I heard my thoughts coming from their mouths on why the big event failed to get the applicant. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, from a literary perspective, begins with Ring Lardner’s Alibi Ike, Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, and works up to Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab.  First chuck alibis, advance to chuck the spears out there in the blue. A neighbor recognized me and said she watched me run the same route at home and had to introduce herself. This was teachable moment number one. I ran the simple, flat five mile route without the slightest variation. It led to injury and complacency. I rarely saw my neighbor running this route. She entered the half marathon with her daughter. She was too nice to smirk. My expectation for something easy began straight uphill and continued through the trails and more hills, realizing this course was perhaps payback for signing up for the short run.

The car miles have outnumbered by one hundred to one the miles on my running shoes this year. Alibi Ike laced up in the Asics for a big year, but darn if all these alibis keep stopping him. Teachable moment number two- doing the work daily, regardless the duration, strengthens the mind and body and the work habits far more than these plans for the weekend warriors. I wasn’t sure what was weaker as I ran uphill- my mind or my legs. But this isn’t about running.

One of the most memorable sights that I saw at the bottom of the hill this year was a shack, surrounded on all sides by liquor stores and abandoned buildings. The shack was in a neighborhood that assaulted your eyes with advertisements for alcohol, lottery, food stamps, and ruin porn. There weren’t any windows on the shack, which was probably a good thing, considering the view. A large banner was nailed to the shack with the message “All Things Are Possible.” The race to the bottom ended here.

The view at the top of the hill on Mackinac Island was worth the effort. I had walked around the island and up the hills for two hours before the race and went to the start line already tired but convinced the race to the bottom is for losers. I will be back next year for the half marathon, or Alibi Ike dies.


Wounded trees and wounded men

Tree Port Hope

This poor little tree needs imagination to make something of it. You have to really think of the gale winds, worst snow and ice storms in a century, heavy rains, the birds and deer scattering for protection, freighters for the steel mills backing off. All that’s left is the lighthouse next to the tree, more than one hundred years of storms in its history. This tree, along with the one hundred year anniversary of the start of World War One, brings to mind the quote “wounded trees and wounded men.” In The Great War and Modern Memory,  Paul Fussell writes of British soldier and front line survivor, David Jones, and his World War One epic poem In Parenthesis. “The awful vulnerability of both man and nature- and their paradoxical privilege of glory- is what Jones learned at the front.’ Wounded trees and wounded men,’ he says, ‘are very much an abiding image in my mind as a hang-over from the war.'” The battered landscape speaks “with a grimly voice.” The warning in its scars: “We are on a hazardous advance toward’s No Man’s Land and the unknown world beyond it.”

The vulnerability of man and nature says it well. The decline of the farm and rural life is shocking out here. The rural “ruin porn” doesn’t get nearly the attention of a Detroit. But Detroit always shocks me more, a concrete battlefield marking the collapse of an era that began with World War One and mass production. Detroit bulldozed many of its trees and poured concrete to become the arsenal of democracy. Its scars are in the concrete and decay of abandoned buildings. Homeless women,sitting on broken concrete, their sunburned faces dusty orange and craggy, hold up signs for help that the motorists ignore. The United Nations criticizes plans to shut off water to thousands of Detroiters who can’t pay the water bill. Lake Huron, Detroit’s indifferent neighbor, might as well be on the other side of the world. Crime has made many areas of Detroit a No Man’s Land, its fate left to nature to heal. The big dreams of urban planners have died many times in the concrete landscape. Even the trees are now fighting off invasive species.

Detroit is still hockey town, and that means there will always be admiration for the Russians, regardless of who occupies the Kremlin. There are other similarities to Russia in the Upper Midwest, beginning with the winters. The Russian writers are my favorites. Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate has none of the romance that made World War One a “literary war.” Grossman’s World War Two classic also includes the trees: “Once, when I lived in the Northern forests, I thought that good was to be found neither in man, nor in the predatory world of animals and insects, but in the silent kingdom of the trees. Far from it! I saw the forest’s slow movement, the treacherous way it battled against the grass and bushes for each inch of soil…in time the deciduous trees become decrepit; then the heavyweight spruces burst through the  light beneath their canopy, executing the alders and the beeches. This is the life of the forest- a constant struggle of everything against everything. Only the blind conceive of the kingdom of trees and grass as the world of good..is it that life itself is evil?” Hitler and Stalin will make you ask those kind of questions. The wounded trees and wounded men want to know.

But it’s this constant struggle in the forest that builds resilience. The forest, unlike the concrete, contains life with all its pain and glory. The forest fights back against the invasive species. Kids wander the streets of Detroit, their world almost entombed in the lifeless concrete. The suburbs fare a little better. The water bills are paid. But there is submission to the cement boundaries. Of all the sights witnessed on these roads, two made the biggest impression, and contrast. In the cement jungle of the suburbs, a boy stands meekly with his father while waiting for the school bus. The weather is perfect. The school is less than a quarter mile from where the boy waits with his parent. But he chooses not to walk the short distance alone to school. The bus must take him. While in northern Michigan, a girl comes out of the forest, jogging at a fast clip. The weather is terrible. It’s forty degrees and raining hard. I will never forget the expression on her face. She smiled when she saw me watching her. She looked free, unlike the boy in the suburbs.

Everything gives rise to obedience- both hope and hopelessness, writes Grossman in Life and Fate. Rebellion begins with the trees.


Sleepwalking through history

WWI poster

Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands is a brutal book about what Hitler and Stalin did to Eastern Europe. One statistic explains the murderous machine of Hitler and Stalin- children born in Soviet Ukraine in 1933 had a life expectancy of merely seven years. Hitler couldn’t match the early brutality of Stalin. The constraints of World War One forced Hitler to catch up with Stalin which he did with the words of an SS officer: “The more of these bastards go down, the fewer of them we’ll have to feed.” A child in Ukraine, after losing his entire family to Stalin’s genocide, said weakly before succumbing, “Everything dies.” Everyone lied as millions perished. An honest person suffered the most and died first. Walter Duranty of the New York Times won the Pulitzer Prize for writing lies to cover for Stalin’s genocide. Malcolm Muggeridge was one of the courageous few, writing Stalin’s genocide was “one of the most monstrous crimes in history, so terrible that people in the future will scarcely be able to believe that it happened.” George Orwell witnessed the monstrous lies in the Bloodlands where twenty million perished through the actions of Hitler and Stalin to eradicate the right to be human.

No book about World War One can match Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers and combined with Bloodlands, makes events in Russia and Ukraine seem like reliving a terrible history. In the buildup to World War One, diplomats complained, “Russian diplomacy was one long and manifold lie.” The British empire was fading and economic trade had also the seductive effect of making bribery a convenient tool for the enemies of capitalism. The “security dilemma” meant as one government improved its defense to ensure security, other countries felt more insecure and built their defenses until the network of odd alliances only needed a trigger to begin the killing fields of World War. That trigger was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914. A team of young assassins plotted to kill Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. The first assassin threw his bomb and missed, took weak cyanide that failed to kill him, jumped off a bridge into a river too shallow to drown him, and delegated the act of war to his teammate assassin who succeeded in killing the archduke and his wife. But not before the archduke, after escaping the first bomb, was forced to listen to the mayor of Sarajevo make prepared remarks, exclaiming in shock, “All the citizens of Sarajevo find that their souls are filled with happiness and most enthusiastically greet your highness..” The mayor was too stunned to change his speech. The archduke shouted back at him, “I come here as your guest and you greet me with bombs!” Then the second assassin’s bullets struck.

Michigan’s military museum in Frankenmuth is filled with stories and memorabilia of Michigan soldiers from World War One to the War on Terror. The Polar Bear Unit, nearly all from Michigan, was sent to northern Russia at the end of World War One to help fight the new communist government. More than 200 in the Polar Bear Unit were killed and hundreds wounded in fighting near the Arctic Circle. World War Two and Vietnam cover more walls. Duane Hackney, of Flint, enlisted in the Air Force. Hackney had more than 200 pararescue missions in the Vietnam War, earning Airman of the Year, the Cheney Award, Air Force Cross, Silver Star, 4 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 18 Air Medals, and dozens more medals. Another wall and more stories in the glass cases of the local Green Berets and Special Forces soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then you get to the story of James  Thompson, an African-American from Detroit. Thompson had fought in World War Two and was an officer in the all black 24th infantry during the Korean War. He was taken prisoner, surviving 1004 days in a North Korean prison camp. His 24th infantry was accused of “running like rabbits” and “bugging out.” His prison camp didn’t have a roof or blankets. Many prisoners died in the below zero temperatures. The Korean War prisoners were criticized after the war for failing to escape. The Chinese took control of Camp 5 and put the white and black prisoners through indoctrination sessions. The Chinese failed to convert and turn the black soldiers but that didn’t stop the critics at home from accusing the black POWs of Camp 5 from collaborating to receive preferential treatment. James Thompson wanted the truth told, that he and the POWs of Camp 5 served with honor and sacrifice.

As the sleepwalkers awoke to the horrors of World War One, California Senator Hiram Johnson said, “The first casualty, when war comes, is truth.”


To build a fire

river snowstorm

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal explains the reasons for tiny Norway’s historical excellence in the Winter Olympics. The country of five million, with a culture of egalitarianism,  has won more than three hundred medals in the Winter Olympics. Kids younger than age 11 must be awarded the same prize. I heard a radio interview last week, while enduring yet another snowstorm, in which the commentator complained the problem with American kids today is that everyone is given a prize, regardless of their performance. His lament was Norway’s most important trait, except for one important difference. Although Norwegian kids were all given the same prize, their training and competitions were never cancelled due to bad weather. These egalitarian kids showed up in the coldest temps, the worst weather, to learn their sport. The Norwegians embrace the beauty and hardship of the outdoors. The pain and cold of the wild trains the body and mind to become resilient. Cross country skiing, especially, demands endurance, years of practice, and high tolerance to pain. Cross country skiing is Norway’s most dominant sport.

This winter began with a major ice storm, knocking out power for a week during Christmas, and about the same time that I had just finished reading Jack London’s short story To Build a Fire. Then the snow came and hasn’t stopped, breaking records across the state. While the New York Times runs stories about global warming and the disappearance of snow, poor Detroit gets buried in the white stuff. Another cold shoulder for the city once known for its mass egalitarianism.

Salon has an interesting article on “the hunt for the Great American Novel.” The schlock of middlebrow culture, meaning the stuff that I like, throws snowballs at the elite writers creating art fiction in the post post-modern world. Realism and traditional narration are not admired in the pink Christmas tree society of the super novelists. The great writers of the past are viewed as boring cross country skiing compared to the daredevils on a snowboard. In defense of Jack London, he didn’t take a class on frostbite, snow blindness, and malnutrition to research his stories. He lived it. Melville and Hemingway didn’t google how to hunt whales and sharks.The Great American Novel is winning the gold medal in cross country skiing.

In Jack London’s To Build a Fire, the protagonist possesses alertness to the “things of life” but fails to understand the significance. London suffered frostbite and scurvy while in the Klondike, writing to a friend that the Artic cold was a “vast white silence, as if all the earth lay still and stark dead in her white shroud waiting judgment day.” Refusing to quit, London writes, “From the hunger of my childhood, cold eyes have looked upon me, or questioned, or snickered and sneered. What above all was that they were some of my friends- not professed but real friends. I have calloused my exterior and receive the strokes as though they were not; as to how they hurt, no one knows but my own soul and me. So be it. The end is not yet. If I die I shall die hard, fighting to the last, and hell shall receive no fitter inmate than myself. But for good or ill, it shall be as it has been- alone.” While the flashy wordplay of the super novelist melts with the spring thaw, the significance of a great writer’s words endures through all seasons.

The super technologist can also be like the protagonist in London’s To Build a Fire, always connected, continually alert, but failing to comprehend significance. Take your hands off the steering wheel, allow the engineers in the gated communities of Silicon Valley do the driving, and the thinking, for you. Until the frightened deer runs in front of your car on a snowy night and you must make a decision that the engineers can’t compute. The algorithms of Facebook, with much help from the Like and Click farms, create their own animal farms. The page views of the most popular sites resemble a flock of birds. I listened to another radio interview awhile ago in which an historian, I can’t remember who, discussed his book about Britain between World War One and World War Two, and the false hopes the British had in technology solving their problems. Their optimism in technology turned to disillusionment with the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler. The Cold War doesn’t appear to be over anytime soon. One of the best novels that I’ve read recently is Russian writer Mikhail Shisken’s The Light and the Dark. The great ones can work in bad weather.


The dance for all seasons

Dancing in the snow

The Frankenmuth colony didn’t get off to a good start in the 1840s. The ship carrying the German missionaries ran aground. Storms and strong winds sent their ship into icebergs and the ship crashed a second time, into an English trawler on the Atlantic. The steamboat taking them from New York to Michigan somehow collided with a coal train. They finally arrived, sick with smallpox and malaria. Their spirits didn’t improve when they saw the 650 acres along the Cass River purchased for less than two thousand dollars. Their new home was cold, desolate, barren of the human comforts they had been accustomed to in Bavaria. They would require courage to survive and named their new colony Frankenmuth for “Courage of the Franconians.”

This “Christmas capital of the world” is also home to Michigan’s Military and Space Museum.  The flashy exhibits are elsewhere. These stories are about the African-American prisoner of war in Korea, longest serving prisoners of war in Vietnam, soldiers fighting in two wars (Korea, Vietnam), and the female local soldier killed in a roadside bomb. Owen Hammerberg  was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1941. He was the last to receive the Medal of Honor for non-combat service before Congress changed the rules. He was a Navy diver who went down to rescue his mates trapped under sixty feet of water and mud. The sunken ship caved in on him, pinning him as he worked to rescue the two divers. He died shielding his mates. The historical society for this Christmas capital doesn’t have an exhibit about the history of Santa and Saint Nicholas. Those are at Bronner’s, the largest Christmas store in the world. You must go past the Christmas decorations and tourists flocking the Main Street to discover  an exhibit on “The Hmong Among Us,” the Vietnam War, the CIA’s secret war in Laos, and the refugee camps. One of the local war heroes was the most decorated airman in the Air Force. Duane Hackney was a pararescue jumper and veteran of 200 missions in the Vietnam War. A YouTube video about him includes a comment from a Hmong who had fought in Laos with the CIA’s legendary case officer Jerry “Hog” Daniels. It’s an odd juxtaposition, like the large Nativity Scene here and a beer museum next to it. On one side the sunny disposition of decorations and ornaments and feelings of warmth, a temporary sense of escape from the real world. Farther down are the secret battles, prisoners, and rescuers. The authentic self must learn to dance in all kinds of weather. That’s the meaning of this fountain in Frankenmuth celebrating the courage of the original settlers.

I was caught in a white out near midnight in northern Michigan. I followed the tail lights of the truck in front of me until his tail lights suddenly swerved across the two lane road and went into a ditch. He couldn’t find the way back and drove almost into the trees. I watched him, amazed. I wasn’t sure if I was still on the road but I sure knew he got off on the wrong exit. Suddenly he panicked, swerving back across the road and into another the ditch. The truck lurched back and forth as the driver tried to find his way onto the road. One moment, he’s riding high in his $40,000 truck, secure about his place in the world. Then he’s in a ditch and the snow is coming down hard on him, distorting his vision. Maybe he had on some Christmas songs and Christmas gifts in the back.Or else he was coming home drunk from a Christmas party. The German missionaries began their trip across the Atlantic with a drunk pilot.

There’s a new biography of one of my favorites, Jack London. One of London’s best stories is White Fang, about the Wild trying to conquer life and man: “…Life is an offense to it, for life is movement, and the Wild aims always to destroy movement. It freezes the water to prevent it running to the sea…” The land of Jack London is “vast, silent, desolate… so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even sadness…with laughter cold as frost…wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and effort of life…It was the Wild, the savage, frozen hearted Northland Wild.” London’s “wolfish dogs” are defiant of the elements, the cold harsh terrain.

There’s defiance in the Frankenmuth fountain, a refusal to allow the hardship to break the early settlers. It’s also hung on the walls of the Military and Space Museum.  It keeps you warm when going out in the cold, and into the ditch.


Chekhov on Lake Huron

Port Hope lighthouse fall

Alice Munro has been labeled Chekhov on Lake Huron. Jane Smiley described Munro’s writing as quietly powerful, a good comment also for Lake Huron. If there was a Nobel Prize for Lighthouses, this one near Port Hope might have won a 2013 Nobel. Its light shines across Lake Huron, directly toward the familiar settings of Alice Munro’s short stories. Jane Smiley writes in the Washington Post about Chekhov on Lake Huron: “Her voice was practically a whisper, saying: ‘Look around you! Look within! But look closely, carefully. The world is more complex than you realize.’” There were only four comments, compelling one reader of the article to comment that Washington didn’t have any culture, despite its pretensions. Or maybe the world is just too complex for the power brokers to understand.

This lighthouse doesn’t attract a lot of tourists, although a Kickstarter project that concluded in summer will finance a film with the lighthouse as its centerpiece. The motels around here don’t triple the rates for summer tourists like they do for the Lake Michigan side. The clerk near the silently powerful waters of Lake Huron asks what brings you here. On the Lake Michigan side, the motel clerk explains that all rooms are booked, even with triple rates. You’re kidding, I said. Tourists, the clerk explained. Tourists? For what? I said. A young man held a “homeless war vet” sign as the tourists drove past him, saving their money for the inflated motels. A fat kid sticks his head in the car window and shouts at me, “We need a ride.” It’s a familiar shtick. The hustlers never seem to have car problems on the side of a road or highway. The car breaks down or runs out of gas in a perfectly parked high traffic spot just far enough from the front door to escape the looks from security. The kid lacks marketing skills. His eyes are hardened, like he has gotten too used to getting punched no in the face. The other person who makes it a “We need a ride” has stayed out of sight.

This lighthouse facing out across Lake Huron to Alice Munro doesn’t promise a free ride. There’s pain in this lighthouse. But its home base is named Port Hope. The lighthouse beams its own version of look around you! So I keep pad and pen in the car and write down descriptions of the fat kid’s dark rings around his eyes and dirty brown shirt and the black woman sitting slumped over on the parking lot across from the homeless vet. The two of them are competing for dollars and mercy. She could be the kid’s mother. Maybe I was wrong about it being a shtick.

Reading literature like Alice Munro is supposed to be good for the brain. The human brain prefers systems analysis and cheats to make it easier on the thinker. The culture is constantly priming us to think a certain way with its “cultural reminders.” Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow explains the impact of the priming effect, the individual’s conflict with life that causes ego depletion. Graham Greene said it more harshly in his novel Ministry of Fear: “Idealism had ended up with a bullet in the stomach at the foot of the stairs.” Greene’s novel was written during World War Two, a conflict with life resulting in the death of millions of egos.

Great literature must be in conflict with the world to compel the reader to think. Alice Munro’s short stories grow on you. The “mystery and authority” of her Lake Huron are present to the end. There’s a nagging feeling in many of the popular nonfiction books that something is missing. The narrative is too clean and tidy. Everything is primed to perfection in the author’s thesis and world view. The collapse of the family, a shipwreck on the Great Lakes, a late inning grand slam, Hitler’s rise to power, the bullet in the stomach at the foot of the stairs, don’t compute.

It’s almost a six hour drive from the fat homeless kid in the parking lot to the lighthouse near Port Hope. I pass the Amish farms and dozens of Amish are working on the farms and stacking massive wood piles. All the Amish look thin as a rake and resemble a lost tribe. The Amish are three hours and a couple centuries from metro Detroit. Some of them cheat and shop at Walmart. They have a stoic look and always keep to themselves. A group of Chinese visitors come in and stare at everything. The Amish ignore them. The fat kid should have gotten a ride with the Amish. The world is too complex for the rest of us.


There’s a bear in my box

Soo Locks

Marc Levinson’s The Box was published seven years ago. The book’s a classic about how the shipping container changed the world. The container revolution began in the 1950s during the Eisenhower era. Marc Levinson, an economist, puts a precise date on the first shot in this revolution. On April 26, 1956, a crane in New Jersey lifted 58 container boxers onto a ship to Houston and container traffic surged with new orders. The post World War Two era fitted perfectly, and more importantly, economically, into a container box. The Defense Department, led by business whiz and the very brightest of The Best and Brightest Robert McNamara,  used containerization as a revolutionary logistical tactic to beat back the Communists in Vietnam. That was the plan. McNamara’s logistical engineers created new supply lines to the other side of the world with containers, allowing the Vietnam War to continue for several more years, which wasn’t part of the plan. Not everything fits in a box. Read Seth Godin’s Poke the Box.

The Soo Locks in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is in the running for an 8th Wonder of the World contest sponsored by Virtual Tourist. Sleeping Bear Dunes is the other Michigan entry. The 11,000 ships that pass through the Soo Locks must navigate the 21 foot drop between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. The ship in the picture is 1,000 feet and transports mostly iron. The Locks are a remarkable engineering accomplishment but Sleeping Bear Dunes gets my vote for what the glaciers did in shaping this part of the Lake Michigan shoreline. Shaped by nature is preferred to containment.

Seth Godin writes a lot about the death of the Industrial Age. Michigan’s industrial decay is in such contrast with its natural beauty. The auto industry relies on the container box like McNamara’s logistical engineers. On the way to the Soo, I went into a grocery store near an abandoned auto plant. An elderly man approached me and asked if I could help him. His wife had died recently and he didn’t know how to do laundry. He wanted to know what laundry detergent to buy and how to measure it. He said he had worked at General Motors. Everything about his old way of life was gone. He had to start over, and do it alone.

The post Industrial Age has left Michigan with a lot of prisons and casinos. The highway signs seem to either promote a casino or warn of a prison nearby. I saw the signs for Sleeping Bear Dunes on the way home and though it was getting late, decided to make a climb up the dunes. I noticed the wind always likes to be in your face on the way up the hills you must climb, and seduce you to turn around and go down with the wind at your back. The rain was a bonus. The signs warned to stay on the trails. What trails? I was alone at the late hour, and in a hurry to get back home. I didn’t see any trails and didn’t have much time to look for one. I looked straight up the dunes and thought what the hell, if you want to go up, you have to go up. The dunes changed from hills to mountains halfway up and into a canyon at the first hill when I realized that I had gone the wrong way and the spot where I should have gone was way the hell over there. I didn’t have quite the reaction of Lewis and Clark when they stumbled on the Grand Canyon blocking their path, but I wondered if I should quit and turn back or just die on the side of a dune and let the sand bury me as in the Legend of Sleeping Bear. I had climbed too far to quit, but was too tired to go much farther, and unsure how far to go. It was also getting dark and rain clouds were gathering off Lake Michigan to torment this idiot climbing up Sleeping Bear Dunes alone.

The story of Sleeping Bear Dunes is that a mother bear and her cubs were forced into Lake Michigan to avoid a terrible forest fire. They swam for hours and mother bear finally made it to shore. Her cubs were too exhausted and drowned as she watched from shore.  The Great Spirit Manitou shaped the dunes and the two islands in a symbol of faithfulness. Determined to climb to the top, I continued in the wind and rain. Finally making it to the top, I wanted to do a Rocky celebratory dance. Then I heard noise coming from over the dune. A father was playing with his little boy. A guy was taking pictures of his girlfriend. Two girls were giggling and walking down the trail. I stared and realized I was alone only because I had taken the idiotic way up.

Whatever it takes.


Q. How to live? A. Shut up, he explained



I began to really hate my reliance on Google Maps after getting lost for the umpteenth time. It might work great where there’s actually a reason to have traffic, but in northern Michigan Google Maps had so many errors, I felt as if this area of civilization was still in beta and the true modern explorer was a Walmart truck, not Silicon Valley.

In the overnight bag was a paperback of Sarah Bakewell’s National Book Critics award winner How to Live or A Life of Montaigne. The subject of “imperturbability” and “freedom from anxiety” were dealt with in Chapter Six, Q. How to Live? A. Use little tricks. Montaigne apparently was jealous of lunatics living in the world of their imagination, allowing escape from the pain and drudgery of the real world. Montaigne’s favorite story was about Lycas who went about the dull routines of his daily life with the belief that everything was theater. When the doctor cured Lycas of his delusion, he sued the doctor for taking away his source of pleasure. I ran out of tricks when cut off by the Walmart truck and the slow driver in front of me. Montaigne also valued being slow, forgetful, and other values undermining Dean Wormer’s lecture to Flounder in the movie Animal House that fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life. I thought for certain the girl in front of me was going to bring upon me severe whiplash and paralysis from the Walmart truck fast approaching in the rearview mirror if she didn’t get off the damn cell phone and hit the gas. She was slouched over, and not in a Montaigne life is cooler in the slow lane way, and I thought aha, she’s yapping away on her cell phone. I swerved to avoid the truck and blasted the car horn and she looked over at me, crying with an I’m doing the best I can look because look you blind bastard I’m in a big cast for my broken body.

Which leads to Chapter 19 Q. How to Live? A. Be ordinary and imperfect. Now this I can do. I read the self help books with ten point plans and a more positive attitude for climbing mountains, running with the bulls, knocking ’em dead on Broadway, the boardroom, and in combat with the bad guys. Brand Me, like a washing machine, or cattle. One good list with clear goals for the day, week, month, quarterly, yearly, and Brand Me gets the upgrade. According to the algorithms,  people similar to me on Twitter have been Abdul from Malaysia “who tweets a lot,” a girl with a heavily painted face specializing in urban paranormal which I have no clue what that means, and a guy who claims to be the coolest dork you’ll ever meet.

Montaigne says, don’t suffer from Facebook depression. Be ordinary and embrace your inner Abdul from Malaysia. So what if none of the VIPs follow you back, and instead you must suffer through 150,000 tweets from a writer of self published romance novels to get beyond the Unabomber stage of social media.

Montaigne’s death came in 1592 at the age of 59. The cause of death was an infected kidney stone and slow suffocation. His demise was painful, and ordinary. He reportedly suffered through the last act of his theater with stoicism. His body was moved during the French Revolution as a precautionary measure against the mob.  A few years later, they discovered that the wrong body was moved. Montaigne’s burial survived the French Revolution but a fire destroyed the church and his tomb had fallen apart. Chapter One, Q. How to live? A. Don’t worry about death. Montaigne didn’t.

Google Maps does a better job with the towns in the southern part of the state. Niles, Michigan is a small town full of ordinary life. Niles is where one of my favorite writers, Ring Lardner, was born. Q. How to live? A. Shut up, Ring Lardner would undoubtedly explain.


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