Good-bye to my Alaska boots

There are times when it’s better to say good-bye.

Many years ago, I made several trips to Alaska for the Quill project. I recall it being in November when I first visited Shungnak, along the Kobuk River, about 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It was beautiful weather, but cold, with temperatures in the afternoon below 0˚F, dropping to -20˚F or less than that overnight.

My hosts Bonnie and Hans were rightly concerned about my citified clothes, especially my ordinary hiking boots. They insisted that I needed Sorel winter boots. With fewer than 200 people, Shungnak had what you might generously call only one small general store, but it was no place to shop for fancy boots, or boots of any kind. Items like that have to wait on the infrequent air deliveries.

Amazingly, there was an available pair of boots, just for me. Hans and Bonnie had about 25 sled dogs, who slept outside in that cold climate. Hans would warm up huge pots of food for them. One time, he got a small burn hole in his boot. You can see the small innertube patch in the photo. The boots by then had become a bit worn in other ways, so he purchased a new pair, but kept the old ones around. Fortunately, we both wear size 14, so his boots fit me perfectly.

I was very appreciative of them, especially on a long sled dog ride, which is a story for another time. Since I had more villages to visit, Hans graciously gave me his old boots.

Later, in McGrath, I met some folks waiting for the small plane we’d be taking towards Juneau. They asked where I was from, and I told them Cambridge, Massachusetts. They looked me over. My clothes were getting a bit travel worn from village life and sleeping on floors. But they especially focused on my boots. Finally, one old man said,

“There’s no way you came from Cambridge, Massachusetts, looking like this!”

That bare nugget of a story then started to spread. Somehow, in pre-web Alaska, people would learn within hours all that was happening in the next village 100 miles away. As I traveled, I first found myself being asked whether I was that city guy dressing up to look Alaskan. Then, I dropped out of the story entirely, and I began to hear about “some guy” who wore worn and patched boots, just as if he kept a pack of sled dogs.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been back to Alaska for a long time. The boots have been moved from one closet to another. I’ve been thankful for them on cold days with heavy snow, but I never felt that my climate did them justice.

I reluctantly decided that it’s time to say good-bye. Maybe I can find some guy who spends his life out on the streets, who has feet as big as mine, and who could make much better use of them. So, this is just a little message to say thanks to Hans and Bonnie, and to the boots that kept me warm and will always be in my memories.

Saving the coots, one dinghy at a time

Today is the 125th anniversary of the birth of Arthur Mitchell Ransome. He was an English author and journalist, who is best known for writing the Swallows and Amazons series of children’s books.

Ransome is still popular in England, especially among those who live in or travel to the Lake District or the Norfolk Broads, where the books are set. He’s less known in the US, which is a pity. The books relate holiday adventures of children, including sailing, fishing, and camping, and offer adventures for both young and old.

We lived with our kids inside of those books during our 1996-97 sabbatical year, as we traveled in China, Australia, and Europe. While in England, we visited many of the places described in the book. Little did I know at the outset that we would be living the adventures themselves.

We had an inauspicious arrival in England in March, 1997. We were tired from a year of international travel, living in strange places, eating new foods, and each living out of a ten kilo bag of clothes and toiletries. As we left Heathrow airport we encountered a huge downpour and to top it off, it was late afternoon and getting dark.

Coot Club, the fifth book in the series, was published in 1934. BBC produced a film based on Coot Club in 1984. In the book, Dick and Dorothea Callum visit the Norfolk Broads over Easter holidays, hoping to learn to sail.

Being devoted Swallows and Amazons readers, and as it was almost Easter season, we had to journey to the Broads ourselves. En route, I had this conversation with eleven-year-old Emily:

Emily: We’ll be staying in a houseboat there, right?
Me: Emily, I wish we could, but it’s after five already. We have no reservation anywhere, much less a houseboat.
E: But in Coot Club, they were in the Norfolk Broads and they stayed in a houseboat.
M: That was in the novel, but we’re not. You can’t just find a houseboat any old time,
E: I know we will.
M: It’s off season. I have no idea whether there are any houseboats, much less how to find one. I’m afraid we’ll be sleeping in the car.
E: I know we will.
M: [gives up]

Just as I was beginning to look for an unflooded spot to park the car for the unpleasant night ahead, we rounded a turn and saw a house lit up. There was a sign out front:

HOUSEBOAT FOR RENT

E: See?
M: OK, there are houseboats, but I still don’t know. Is it really available? Can you rent it for a couple of nights? Please don’t get any unrealistic expectations. I don’t want you (or ten-year-old Stephen, her silent ally in this parent-child struggle) to be disappointed.

Nevertheless. I went up to the door:

M: Do you really have a houseboat for rent?
Owner: Yes.
M: Is it available now for a short rental?
O: Yes, I hadn’t planned to open the boats up so early in the season, but decided just today to get one of them ready.

So, we ended up in a dry houseboat that night, just as the Callum children do when they stay on the Teasel. There was even a dinghy attached, just as in Coot Club. More conversation ensued:

E: Tomorrow we can go out to protect the baby coots from the Hullabaloos, just as they did in Coot Club.
M: I’ll ask whether we can use the dinghy, but I don’t even know what a coot is.
E: I know we will.
M: Even if there are coots, I don’t know that any of them have babies now.
E: I know they will.
M: And there may not be any Hullabaloos either.
E: There will be and we need to protect the coots from them.
M: [gives up]

The next morning we went out in the dinghy, as I remember, just Emily, Stephen, and me. We followed along one of the canals so common in the Broads. Around a bend, we saw a water bird’s nest. Inside were baby coots. Just then, a large motorboat filled with Hullabaloos came into view, heading perilously towards the coots’ nest. We quickly maneuvered the dinghy so that it stood between the motorboat and the nest, protecting it from the Hullabaloos, just as the children did in Coot Club.

We came to know the boats of Coot Club: the Hullabaloo’s motorboat, the Teasel, the dinghy, and esepcially, the childrens’s pirate boat, the Death and Glory. The Death and Glory is described as “an old black ship’s boat, with a stumpy little mast and a black flag at the masthead.” It’s rowed with oars or propelled by a “grey, ragged, patched old lugsail, far too small for the boat.”

As we related our adventure to the houseboat owner, he reminded us about that boat, too. He asked, would we like to see it?

E&S: Yes!
M: But that’s not possible.

Then he told us that when the BBC produced the Coot Club film, they used the Death and Glory boat. He now had that very boat on his property, just 100 yards from where we had been staying.

Yes, we went to see it, yes it was wonderful, and yes, I learned something about arguing with my children about literature and life.

Turtles in China and Australia

During our sabbatical in Beijing and Brisbane, we had a surprising common theme: turtles.

I’ve always liked turtles, so perhaps it was natural that I saw them everywhere we turned. It started when we asked Caroline, a ten-year-old friend from Canada, about her classes at the Bei Da elementary school. She described a strange typing class, which involved typing expressions such as “FD 100 RT 120 FD 100 RT 120”. Although she didn’t realize it at first, this was not typing class, but computer programming using the Logo language. The commands were eventually to be used to command a robotic turtle, or one on a computer screen. In this example, the turtle would be commanded to draw an equilateral triangle, 100 pixels on a side.

We decided that turtle talk was a nice, limited domain in which to practice our feeble Chinese. Wang Dongyi, a Chinese friend, was helping us with that, and we were helping him with his English. Before long we had a bustling turtle circus going in our apartment at Shao Yuan on the Bei Da campus. Caroline, Emily, and Stephen played the turtles, with occasional help from certain childlike adults. We’d issue Logo commands in Chinese or English, and learn from the consequences of the turtles’ behaviors. In this way, we were all practicing both language and programming skills. We of course had to learn the Chinese word for sea turtle, Hai Gui (海归), so that we could say Turtle Emily, forward 30, or its equivalent in Chinese.

These navigational commands happened to be useful for us visitors, as we were continually seeking of giving directions. We began to refer to taxis as Hai Gui, since they needed to execute programs such as forward ten blocks, left, then forward three more.

Hai Gui, from Woodblock Dreams

We saw images and sculptures of turtles. We even ate Hai Gui, probably more than we realized, since we couldn’t always identify or obtain a name for what we were eating. We then learned that the “Hai Gui” or “sea turtles” of China are the returning professionals who contribute to the growth of the Chinese economy. These are the students who were sent abroad, like baby sea turtles, to get advanced degrees and Western experiences, then return to lay their eggs in their homeland.

When we reached Australia, we spent a lot of time outdoors, taking advantage of the beautiful countryside in Queensland. We saw many turtles in lakes and in the ocean, and even swam with adult loggerheads. One highlight, near Bundaberg, was Mon Repos Beach, one of the two largest Loggerhead turtle rookeries in the South Pacific Ocean. Successful breeding there aids survival of this endangered species. The research program conducts animal surveys of nesting turtles, studies of reproduction, migration, behavior, incubation, and genetics.

Visitors can watch the turtles, and if they’re lucky, see the adults lay eggs (from mid November to February) or even better, see the hatchlings emerge and crawl to the sea (from January until the end of March). We couldn’t miss that. The night we went was magical. We saw baby turtles hatch and then crawl to the sea. Emily and Stephen took on the role of turtle guides, standing with legs spread and using a flashlight to guide the way. The turtles would follow the light until they neared the ocean edge and then could follow the moonlight.

Susan and I would not have done well as turtle guides since watching Emily and Stephen do this was too wonderful on its own. As Susan wrote in an email at the time, “The theme of any future message will be turtles; we did see the hatchlings and Stephen and I swam with a huge loggerhead on the [Great Barrier] Reef, a few seconds that were worth the total airfare.”

In that year, we were Hai Gui ourselves, emerging from our safe nest with little understanding of the world we were about to encounter.

My father’s birthday

My father, Bertram Camp Bruce, was born on November 19, 1915. Had his heart been healthier, he might have lived until his birthday today, but instead he died on December 12, 1969, almost 40 years ago. His death punctuated a tumultuous decade, for the world, for the country, and for my family and me.

This week I’ve been hearing 60’s music everywhere–Ray Charles, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, The Supremes. There’s no need to make that time more vivid, but the music amplifies it for me. My father loved opera, musicals, symphony, classical and romantic chamber music, big band, jazz, and popular singers of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. But his wide-ranging love of music didn’t extend to 60’s pop and folk. He enjoyed talking with the young people who visited Bruce Piano Co., and was of course happy to sell guitars or amps, as long as he didn’t have to attend the next concert using them.

I enjoyed, and still do, 60’s music. I even listened to it while working in the shop during the summer at Bruce Piano Co., since Fred, the technician, liked it too. But I’m very glad that my father taught me to enjoy other kids of music as well.

I wish we could listen to music together again.

Goodbye, maple

We had to take down a beautiful maple tree at the back of the house that was way too close to the foundation. Still, there are other maples nearby. And look at the dogwoods. Burning bush, pruned by the deer up to nose height. And leaves from yesterday’s storms. We still have plenty of trees. –Susan Bruce

What do Boston & Cambridge have to say to Champaign Unit 4?

violin_may06Ann Abbott inspired me to say more about the connections between the Boston desegregation experience in my last post and that of Champaign Unit 4.

I’d have to say that Boston is a good example of how not to do it. As I said in that post, Judge Garrity made the correct, and only legally justifiable decision, but rulings alone cannot accomplish much if there is widespread resistance, especially from political and religious leaders, school officials, and media. The racism thwarted integration of the schools, and in the process did major damage to the school system and to Boston as a civilized city.

In contrast, just across the Charles River, Cambridge managed relatively successful desegregation during the same period. Cambridge adopted a “freedom of choice” or “controlled open enrollment” desegregation plan in 1981. Parents would specify a list of  the schools they wanted their children to attend. Their preferences were followed as long as explicit desegregation controls could be maintained. There were no guarantees of attending any particular school.

Graham_parksBecause the program was coupled with interesting magnet programs at every school, there were many viable options for families. As parents we almost welcomed the fact that we didn’t have to make the final choice between the Maynard School’s dual language (two-way Spanish-English bilingual) program, Tobin’s School of the Future, with innovative uses new technologies, the Graham & Parks Alternative Public School, with its open education plan (see mural above), or the closer by Peabody, Fitzgerald, or Lincoln schools, each with things to recommend it. It helped that Cambridge did not have the urban sprawl of midwestern cities, which meant that unlike Champaign, Cambridge offered several schools within walking distance.

Although not without its problems, this plan was effective in substantially desegregating Cambridge schools, and maintained public support and involvement with the public schools. It’s not surprising then that Robert Peterkin, Superintendent, was called in as a consultant on the similar plan in Champaign. The story in Champaign is still unfolding (as it is in Cambridge and Boston as well). But if I had to draw lessons today from these three experiences, I’d say that it’s essential for Champaign residents today to avoid the disastrous path of resistance that Boston experienced

champaignThe Champaign school district has been struggling to address concerns such as too many black students in special education and discipline referrals; too few in gifted and honors classes; and black students being bused out of their neighborhoods. Responses such as denying the problems or siting new schools outside of black communities (though still technically north side) remind me of Boston’s response. Everyone would benefit if the school system and residents were to embrace not only the technical details of the Cambridge (or similar) plan, but also the spirit that saw how desegregation could enrich the learning for all.

References

The bottom line in health care

healthIn my previous post on Single-payer health care: Why not?, I talked about our family’s experiences with health care in France, UK, Ireland, Italy, China, Australia, and other places in comparison to that in the US. This included health care for children and the elderly, and both minor (blood donation, physicals, skin growth removal) and major (broken hip, eye infection) procedures.

Thinking a bit more about this I realized that there were four essential facts that emerged from this wide variety of experiences. In every industrialized country except the US,

  1. Equitable: Everyone has the right to health care.
  2. Effective: People live longer, healthier lives.
  3. Economical: They spend less on health care, as much as 50% less.
  4. Efficient: There is much less bureaucracy, fewer forms, less running around, less waiting.

dollarI might add a fifth point, too: The scare stories that we hear (“you have to wait forever!” “you can’t choose your doctor!”) are simply false, or they index issues that are the same or worse in the US. The information we get about health care promotes profit, not health.

There are many issues–changing demographics, new technologies, new medical knowledge, changing standards, globalization, and more–which affect health care. But the fundamental difference in the current US situation is that health care is driven by the bottom line. Insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, media corporations, hospitals and clinics, doctors and other health care professionals, and all others involved in health care operate in a system in which rewards bear little relation to the overall quality of care or efficient use of resources.

One can debate each of the points above, but the evidence from OECD, UN, WHO, WTO, and other international organizations is overwhelming in support of them. Other systems offer health care that is more equitable, more effective, more economical, and more efficient.

So, why is single-payer, or national health care not even worth discussing? Why does the Obama plan dismiss it? Why does even public broadcasting ignore it?