A slightly different format for this edition.
But first, a note about my first abandoned book of the year. Boris Fishman’s Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo was on several Best Of lists for 2016, and thus was added to my To Read list. Somewhere along the line, I think I got the wrong idea what it was about. I starting reading it expecting a funny view on life in America from the perspective of Russian immigrants. The immigrant angle was correct, but I was way off on the funny angle. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t good. But when you’re expecting something different, it can be tough to plow through. I lasted about 150 pages but then gave up.
Falling Off the Map – Pico Iyer
Kingdoms In The Air – Bob Shacochis
Sandwiched around Rodeo were these two travel books. Iyer wrote his in 1993, and it was based on his travels through several “lonely lands” in the final years of the Cold War. He traveled to countries that were isolated from the rest of the world, whether because of politics, distance, or history, to discover why those countries were different and how the people lived there felt about the gaps between them and the rest of the world. Shacochis’ book is new, but it pulls in essays about travel that span his entire, 40-year writing career. They are more centered on his interactions with the people he’s traveled with, some of whom became great, life-long friends. Both books are fine reads.
As I read both books, I thought about my love for writing about foreign lands. Whether straight history, or more travel-related texts like these, I have always been deeply interested in learning about other locations and cultures. When I was a kid I would devour all international news, was obsessed with maps, and even had a shortwave radio on which I listened to broadcasts from around the globe. Then there’s my interest in languages. I loved Spanish and Italian. I struggled through roughly two months of Russian as a college freshman and dropped it with relief with the Berlin Wall fell. Still, I was fascinated at the idea of learning it. And then there were the classes I took in college: if there was an offering about international politics and relations, the history of other countries, or any other study of non-American things, I was down for it.
And, yet, I’ve never really travelled. I’ve been to resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean a few times. But I’ve never gone to Europe, South America, Australia, or even Canada. Which seems weird for a guy so interested in learning about other places. I can kick ass at trivia games, but have never actually checked out London, Paris, Rome, etc.
My best explanation is that my family simply didn’t travel. My grandparents stayed in their little towns in Kansas, so my parents never took summer trips abroad. If they had dreams of traveling in college, those were dashed when I came along in the summer after my mom’s sophomore year. From then until the mid–80s, there was never the money to travel. Our trips were to central Kansas to visit the grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Even after my mom married my stepdad, and the finances improved, we stayed close to home. They would take weekend trips to hike at parks in Kansas and Missouri.
While I was in college, I toyed with the idea of spending a semester in both Costa Rica and Italy. Each time I mentioned the idea, it was met with skepticism by my parents. Granted, if I wouldn’t have been so erratic academically they might have greeted my request with more enthusiasm. But, despite them being fairly comfortable financially, they were also still recovering from the two years my stepdad didn’t work because he was fighting cancer. The day-to-day expenses were covered, but there was no savings left that could finance their kid to spend three months in another country.
I counter all that with my wife’s family. Her parents both travelled extensively before they got married. Her mom taught in Europe. Her dad was in the Peace Corps. Because they had a huge family together, there were no real family trips for them, either. But traveling was in the blood, and each of the kids traveled either during or immediately after college. One spent a year in Spain in college. Two of my in-laws did the Semester at Sea program as undergrads. One sister-in-law has built her career around traveling all over the globe. A brother-in-law married a woman who was born and raised in Kuwait, so they head to the Middle East fairly regularly.
So far in our girls’ lives we’ve traveled a fair amount around the US. They’ve been to Boston 2–3 times each, South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Colorado, and Kansas City. Yes, these are always fun/family trips, but I think we’ve built into them the expectation and desire to always be thinking about what your next trip is. I’m interested to see whether and how that blossoms in them when they get older. Will they want to travel through Europe, spend a semester in another country, or do Semester at Sea? Will they be content to travel to domestic cities and national parks? Or will they be like their dad and stay close to home?
As S and I approach our 15th anniversary we’ve started thinking about what trip we should take to celebrate. Should it be a family trip, or just us? Should we go to a beach somewhere and just relax, or pick a part of Europe to explore? As much as I love spending time with the sand and surf, I’m thinking that might be the year that I finally have to put my passport to use somewhere that’s more than a couple hours away from the US border.
A Handful of Dust – David Plowden
I’m constantly reading books about photography, since that’s my current obsession. Normally I won’t include them here, since I doubt they’re of much interest to you – especially the more technical ones. But this one seems to fit the theme of this post. Plowden spent most of his career photographing small, Midwestern towns. In this collection, he revisited towns he photographed in the 70s and 80s to document how they’ve begun to disappear. It’s a gorgeous record of how places like those where my parents grew up, and where I spent my summers as a kid, are slowly receding into the native, prairie grounds. It also makes me think this is a kind of travel I could easily do. There are plenty of shrinking small towns within driving distance of my house.
A good photography book should inspire. This certainly did that.