Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fartin' Around in Fergus Falls

I drove for what seemed like a million miles, north from Omaha, up I-29, through Sioux Falls (in truth...I stopped at Taco John's, and at Barnes and Noble, and Savers), into a stretch of nothingness between Sioux Falls and Fargo that would make even Alberto Barambio fall asleep.

But then I went east, into Minnesota - hallowed ground - and into Fergus Falls, where my brother Michael resides.

It was exciting to make it into Minnesota. Maybe it was because the six hours on the road hadn't been very interesting; there was not much to look at in the Dakotas. But I entered Minnesota and only had about twenty miles to go to reach Fergus, and excitement overcame me. I yelled happily.

To be honest, this post will not be exciting, and there are not many interesting pictures that my visit to Minnesota yielded. However, the time there was super quality, mostly because my brother is super quality.

There were three parts. I will write about them.

One: we drove many miles to a lakeside pizza barn and laid the place to waste. Beautiful spot right on water, happily buzzing people all over, and a chair next to Michael Haggar. Could it get any better? It did, when a massive stack of nachos arrived at our table (see below). Of course, all that we talked about superseded all our food, our location, and the pleasant atmosphere. It had been a good long while since we'd sat down and had a proper Haggar brother-to-Haggar brother conversation, laden with depth and snide remarks, and so, since words would fail to truly do our time together that night any justice, I will just say: It was good. Not "good" like girls at Bethel chirp it when you ask them how they are, but "good" like when God saw that it was, after the third or fifth day, perhaps. It was like that.

Two: the next day Michael worked, as he does, so I explored the town he'd been calling home for the past ten or so months. First I went to Victor Lundeen's; it had the postcards I was looking for, and also a million other pretty neat northern Minnesota souvenirs and paraphernalia items. "'M' Is for Minnesota." I was hungry then, so I went to the Viking Cafe and had the best burger I'd had in a while (see below). Just a down home small town diner, decorated loosely in Nordic-scented helmets, ships, and waitresses. When my belly was full, I tooled around along the river walkway next to the Otter Tail River; I tried to find the actual waterfalls that gave the town its name, but I was only able to locate the damn that may have originally caused Fergus Falls to spring up. After reading there for a few hours, I biked to Grotto Park. There was a huge statue of an otter, the same otter statue that was on the only Fergus Falls postcard I deemed interesting enough to send to anyone, and there was a small island that was simply overrun with big frickin' birds: storks, swans, geese, pterodactyl. It was good.

Three: I was taking a nap when Michael arrived home that evening and told me, "We're going kayaking. Get in the car." We drove many miles to another lake, grabbed a kayak, and got into a placid, pristine lake, the kind you picture when you think, "Northern Minnesota." It was beautiful, quiet, peaceful. We turned down a creek/river/body of water and meandered past reeds and blue sky and large water birds and the setting sun for two hours. Of course, as was true of the previous night, our amazing surroundings did not hold a candle to the things we talked about. Again, it was good good good to discuss and share, especially in a boat on some river in the middle of nowhere. Words fail. And I didn't bring a camera, so here is a photo in Beijing after I got back of me with a moose that could have once had a distant cousin in Minnesota. 

And after we got done, we went and got ice cream.

Then the next day, I got into the car of Michael's that I was borrowing and drove back to Rock Rapids. And so it was.

Such times make me think, "What the heck am I thinking, choosing to live far away in China?" I walk away wondering why I would leave not only the lovely country and food and stuff we have in the Midwest but also - of course - my own blood, my own kin, my brother and sister and parents. And Simon. When those thoughts come up, I dismiss them and concentrate on just being happy with my short time at home, utilized and spent well with the Haggar family. Always a good time, always a good time.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Owning Omaha

The Missouri River starts in the Rocky Mountains in western Montana, winds through the western hills and central flats of North Dakota and the prairies of South Dakota, and then forms the northeastern border of Nebraska and South Dakota east of the Karl E. Mundt National Wildlife Refuge. It then meanders on in a squiggle of muddy tranquility, now north, now east, now south. Lewis and Clark, on their expedition in the early 1800's to find a northwest passage to the Pacific Ocean, traversed all 2,341 miles of the Missouri before heading further westward. Drainage from the Missouri River's watershed covers almost half a million square miles, which includes ten American states and two Canadian provinces. This water body played critical roles in the development of the U.S., providing such services as transport for the fur trade and electricity from hydroelectric dams. In such glory, the Missouri River continues on, still heading generally eastward as the border of Nebraska and South Dakota, until it hits Sioux City and Iowa, where it forms the boundary of those two states in a more southerly manner until, after flowing slowly between the Hitchcock and Boyer Chute nature centers, the Missouri runs abreast of Omaha.

And in Omaha sits my sister. And her cats.

So, I went to visit her there.

Because I had never met my sister Christina's boyfriend (except via a large Thanksgiving Day Skype session in which at least six people were involved), because I had not seen her current apartment, because I had not yet measured her cats' from nose to tail, and because I was home for the summer and wanted to see my dearly beloved family members.

So, I went to visit her there.

And it was good.

First! We met - although my usually-decent sense of direction attempted to betray me - in Bellevue at a certain authentic Korean restaurant. Neither Christina nor her man friend - who shall hereafter be referred to as Rune - were in the restaurant as I waltzed in an uncharacteristic twenty-five minutes late, but Rune soon returned from the parking lot where he'd been watching for cellphoneless me and the Buick I was driving, and Christina soon emerged from the bathroom where she'd been doing some ghastly deed, and the weekend of Nebraskan mayhem was set in motion...with 불고기 and 김치 and 돼지불고기!

Then we went to a quaint bar called Crescent Moon and watched baseball and waited for one of our brother's high school friends to show up. I ordered a beer that I actually liked. We laughed a lot. The high school friend came. All was well.

All through the evening Christina and Rune had been whispering about the secret freaking plan they had for the next day. No clues were given as to what this secret freaking plan included, so I could only dream of what lay in store for us when we rose.

The secret freaking plan did not actually include cats, but there were two cats lying around in store for us when we got up. There is Hamm, and he is a boy, and he is quite shy, and he was extremely small the last time I'd been in Omaha. There is also Ollie, and she is a girl, and she is not very shy, and she was extremely small the last time I'd been in Omaha. It was good to see them, although they would likely not meow the same about me.

A short drive took us to a nice breakfast cafe. Delicious.

Then the secret freaking plan began to unfold. Christina's car approached the Missouri River and a mock pirate cove. We had arrived.

The three of us boarded the River City Star - pictured below - and it began its voyage on the Missouri River. Park Ranger Steph shared valuable information about the length, depth, flood capabilities, and Lewis and Clark adventures concerning the Mighty Mo. Then the boat veered under the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge and past downtown Omaha. Picturesque.

We were, of course, in high spirits, and Christina and Rune - longtime residents of the Omaha area - shared different tidbits about the river, the city, the bridges, structures populating the shore of the Big Muddy, and how the side of the river opposite Omaha - i.e., Iowa - was a barren wasteland as far as culture and civilization. My brow furrowed, but upon closer inspection, the two appeared to be correct, as nothing could be seen but a police car and some trees on the eastern shore.

Hunger - and's her car - drove us to the Old Market, a cool,vintage section of the city where many a shop and restaurant lie. "Upstream Brewing Company" was the name of the establishment at which we ate; "Reuben" was the name of the sandwich I ate. It was enormously tasty. Do you have any questions?

The secret freaking plan unfolded more as we lurched back to the car and headed southwest toward Lincoln. But we did not end up there, or near it, much to Jake Lemke's chagrin. Our destination was the Strategic Air and Space Museum, home of thirty-three airplanes and a slough of other space equipment.

Slick architecture: the calling card of the U.S. military air branch.


This was only the beginning...

Large and in charge. 

Christina climbed up, got into this airplane, and flew it through the north wall of the building. 

Here's everything. It was a lot. 

This was when I proposed a reasonable solution to solving the problems in Syria, North Korea, the Ukraine, Iraq, Nigeria, and Sioux County.

It's a museum, so exploring the interior live and in person is far superior than reading some bearded guy's blog post account of the experience. Go there. See it for yourself. If you live too far away or don't have enough gas money, know this, and then view the photos: SAC has a vast array of planes and other air vehicles, mostly from World War II, but there were also some space craft and Vietnam aircraft. Quite intriguing for anyone interested in those subjects or periods of time.

We couldn't reach up to China, but we would have pointed there if we could have.

Christina gave this man a curious, cat-like look. 

Museum? Or hangar? 

She just, sort of...floated away. 

This is an atomic bomb. Don't panic.

This craft can reach a ground speed of over 350 miles per hour. All you need in order to drive it is a valid Iowa driver's license.

Lawn ornaments.

Aw, yeah.

Then, majestically, royally, we drove back to Omaha. The rest of the evening was spent eating Turkish döner, taking a walk through a nice neighborhood of Omaha, bothering the cats, and talking talking talking.

Omaha is a cool city. The Missouri River and SAC are cool places. Hamm and Ollie are cool cats. But my sister is awesome. Rune is pretty neat, also. I had not met him before but was glad to finally get to. He and Christina go well together.

Christina I hadn't seen in 565 days, save the previous weekend. Obviously it was spectacular to see her, to hear what was going on in her life, to tell her what was going on in mine, to talk of times past and times present, to laugh. Words cannot do justice to quality sibling time. Perhaps things should just be left at that.

But the brief Midwest tour was not over! The next day, Monday, I left bright and early and headed north on Interstate 29, through Nebraska, through Sioux Falls, through South Dakota, through North Dakota, and into Minnesota...where another Haggar awaited me.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Relaxing in Rock Rapids

And then, when the smoke had cleared, when my brother and sister had returned to their respective homes in their respective towns and my friends had gone back to their homes in the Twin Cities and my father had left Rock Rapids for South Dakota and it was just me and my mom and the cat: I did nothing.

Actually, that's not really accurate. I did many things. For example, I:

1. Watched my first Twins game in almost two years (they beat the crap out of Colorado (where Justin Morneau plays) 13-5); I knew only one guy in the lineup, Brian Dozier.

2. Observed the end of the World Cup final (old news, but a good game).

3. Ate at a church youth group 50's-drive-in-style fundraiser dinner; for a free will donation, one could show up and order hot dogs, burgers, chips, ice cream, and soda and enjoy the company of many other hungry church goers.

4. Listened to my church's praise team practice some jams under my mom's gentle supervision.

5. Took a bike ride.

6. Hosted a sloppy Joe dinner at my parents' house, a dinner party attended only by an old high school friend and his fiancee. And my mom.

7. Consumed brats from the Sunshine Foods' parking lot.

8. Dined at Pizza Ranch; it was gluttony, pure and simple.

9. Picked my dad up after his South Dakota Native American reservation seminar.

10. Got a new haircut that was and is designed for a more grown-up hair style.

11. Hung out with Grandma Schoon in Sioux Falls for an afternoon.

12. Shopped with my mom; JC Penny's is not the same anymore.

13. Bothered Simon, the biggest cat in the western hemisphere. 

Which maybe sounds like a lot. But the majority of that week of July 12-19 was spent sitting around the house doing hardly anything...reading, dinking around on my laptop, studying a bit, Skyping a bit. Which is hard for me; I am an achiever/producer type, according to various personality tests, and for me to have unstructured time that does not contribute to some end goal can be hard. I want to work toward something.

But! Given the fast, intense pace that life in Beijing can often impose on a soul, a week of not doing anything important is needed, sometimes. It's like a Sabbath. A week-long Sabbath. And to be honest, I had been looking forward to a week like this for quite some time, a week during which I would not have anything stressful going on, a week with few to no obligations, a week of unstructured time that would not contribute to some end goal. Just to let the mind wander, and perhaps reflect a bit about the past year, and perhaps look forward to the year to come.

It was also easier to bum around like a hobo knowing that on July 19, a nice, sunny Saturday, the unstructured week would end and I would begin again to do stuff and see people and live a fuller life. With that knowledge, I was able to relax and take naps and lie on the floor and look out the window with more ease.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

欢迎归来...Whatever That Means...

And then, on Friday, July 11, I went home. From San Francisco to Dallas to Sioux Falls.

There, at Joe Foss Field, were my father and the Mike and Hilary Moravec train. And it was good.

Minutes later, my brother Michael and his lady friend appeared. And Joe Foss.

To kill a half hour, the six of us drove to Falls Park.

Then to Applebee's on 10th Street, where my mom and sister were waiting to have a huge meal with us.

And so it was.

My family is awesome, and my friends are awesome. Friday night, July 11, was an eight-person party at the Haggar house in Rock Rapids; Saturday was a trip to Sioux Falls to send my dad on a Native American reservation tour seminar voyage; Sunday was church and a potluck. The nuclear Haggar family was together for about twelve hours, and then the numbers were reduced until it was just my mom and me by Sunday night.

And it was good.

I have excellent friends in Beijing, people I love and hope to be close to as long as possible, and my life is good there. But coming home to the family and to the can't be beat. What can I say that would do Dan, Sue, Christina, and Michael justice? They are amazing, and they battled work and the road and cars that were not in the best of health to come see my re-entry back into the Midwest. And it was awesome to see them, break bread with them, and speak together. Not enough of that happens in our lives, and it is mostly my fault.

What can I say that would do Mike and Hilary justice? Mike has picked me up from more airports more times than anyone. Than anyone! Christchurch, Minneapolis, Sioux Falls. Super to see the Moravecs and to spend some good time with them. They gave up not only time but also risked coming to the dreaded state of Iowa - a land mass that Mike has mocked since time began. But he and his wife came, and that made my life better. 

What can I say that would do Simon justice? He's too big for words.

Three cheers for returning to familiarity and places full of memories! Three cheers for fatty, tasty foods and relaxing during summer vacation! Three cheers for being together! Three cheers for getting cared for and for showing someone that you care! The next twenty-six days were shaping up to kick butt.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

California: With a Woman

On June 3, I left David Emmert and headed to the airport to join forces with...a lady. Few folks have ever left David Emmert for a woman before, but it must be noted that, on that fateful Thursday, that is exactly what happened. I went to the San Francisco airport to collect Ellen when she arrived in The Bay Area from New York.

Our plan was to spend a few days in San Francisco, take in the Fourth of July there over the water, and then take a few more days and drive down California's Highway 1, down the western coast of the U.S., enjoy the beautiful drive, battle Los Angeles for a day, then drive back to San Francisco and get out of dodge. And that is exactly what we did.

San Francisco was beautiful but freezing. Maybe in my mind I thought it would be warm because it was California. No. No, no, no. But that didn't stop us from exploring the Ferry Building and the surrounding bay sights: the different bridges, art decor, the bay itself, and its coffee. 

Then we tarried on to San Francisco's Chinatown. Was it the most ironic stop of the trip? Yes, not only because Ellen and I live in China, but also because we ate Vietnamese food, took some pictures next to a huge American flag painted on the wall, and got ripped off on overpriced postage (maybe that is not actually ironic but actually very true to life...who knows).

It was sweet just exploring the city area as well. Cool architecture and fun atmosphere, as it was the Fourth of July on this first day of exploration. Any place that looked interesting, we checked it out, like this church and art institute. Relaxified.

Evening brought Ellen and I to the famed Fisherman's Wharf and the various piers that populate the area. The ultimate goal was, of course, to view fireworks over the waters of San Francisco Bay, so as the sun slowly slowly went down and the wind violently violently blew, pictures of everything - especially seagulls - were taken, ice cream was eaten, sweatshirts for warmth were purchased, and lobster and clam bisque was consumed.

Finally night fell and Ellen got to see for the first time America's most prominent Independence Day activity: fireworks.

A million-person and million-mile walk back to the metro station concluded the freezing evening. Our warm Airbnb residence in the Mission area of S.F. was much appreciated at the end of the chilly 4th.

The next day - July 5 - Ellen and I tackled the Golden Gate Bridge. The plan was simple: we went back to Fishermen's Wharf, rented bikes, and rode them to the bridge, stopping only when one of my tires went brutally flat. It was a nice ride, with some sun and some clouds, and also with many pictures:

It's true that, after we reached the foot of the bridge, I led us on a perhaps ill-fated ride/walk through Presidio Park - which is inhabited by giant hills of all shapes and sizes, and that that was a bit tiring and disheartening, but spirits picked up again after a walk through Golden Gate Park and reunification with another former student from CCS: Yurie! Awesome to see her, of course. We ate Thai food and talked of times past and of the present and of the impending future. Yurie is a champ, and, as always, it reminded me of why I teach: not because of English grammar or the importance of literature, but because of relationships and having impact in the lives of young people.

Good-bye, San Francisco. We're off. On July 6 it was time to go, so Ellen and I went and grabbed our trusty Ford steed - it remained nameless the entire trip, sadly - and headed south on Highway 1, down the coast, through Big Sur. To be honest, not a lot happened other than driving, stopping, photographing, and observing the extremely beautiful coastline on which Highway 1 runs. The first day was a bit dreary and included some traffic, and we stayed in an amazingly quaint town called Carmel; the second day was quite sunny, was more awesome, and ended in Santa Barbara.


Santa Barbara was sunny and beautiful. There wasn't a ton to do there, except mosey around on the beach, each rainbow sherbert ice cream, and get some sun, was a really nice place in which to do those things.

In the late afternoon we drove through Los Angeles into Anaheim to find our second Airbnb stop. We were greeted by a cat named Storm; she was the resident in that apartment with whom we had the most interaction and appeared to be a slim preview of Simon, whom I was anticipating petting in Iowa.

Los Angeles. It didn't seem either Ellen or I was really excited about going there, but it was a destination point near the end of Highway 1, so we made the most of it. To be honest, I was quite intimidated by horror stories I'd heard about the traffic and expenses and what have you. So I wasn't excited to attack the traffic there, in that hot metropolis of four million souls. But set out we did, to check out the Hollywood Walk of Fame and other sundry attractions.

Stop 1: Hollywood Walk of Fame. It was a glitzy, touristy mess. We walked up and down the sidewalks, looking for the Anne Hathaway and Julie Roberts stars. Never found them, located some suitable others, but, ultimately, the goal was not achieved. It was sort of plain; not not fun, but just simple. There were many famous theaters and other buildings nearby, and various individuals dressed up in costumes of all sorts. There was a lot to look at.

Stop 2: Barnsdall Park, in order to see the Hollywood sign. We could see it, but it didn't show up super well in any pictures. But we saw it! And that is what is important, right? Right. You'll have to zoom in if you yourself want to take a gander. 

Stop 3: Beverly Hills Rodeo Drive. It is, as I discovered, as Ellen knew, a shopping street. We stopped in two stores; one was reasonable, although nothing was purchased, and the other...Ellen asked how much one of the watches cost at the Cartier store and was told it cost some $4,000. Then we walked around a bit more and left!

Stop 4: Sunset Boulevard. It was a bathroom break.

Stop 5: Little Tokyo. Probably my favorite place in L.A. Snooped around a li'l bit, popped into some shops here and there, ate some killer teriyaki chicken and dumplings. You can take the Asians (Ellen, not me) out of Asia, but you can't take the Asia out of the Asians (Ellen, not me). Just a cool atmosphere down there. Relaxed. Made me again want to move to Japan.

Then, on July 10, we drove back to San Francisco, stayed a night more in some downtown hotel, and the next day Ellen flew to Seattle and I flew to Sioux Falls. The end.

Excellent times, of course. Any excursion with people you enjoy will be loads of goodness. This was the first time I'd ever - ever! - gone on any sort of trip with a lady I was into. There were moments during which I thought, "This is the best time in the world!" and moments during which I felt stressed or frustrated, but overall, I loved going around with Ellen. She is obviously quite a bit of fun* and we can talk or make fun of anything (or I wouldn't hang out with her), and spending time with her in California was sweet. Let's do it again sometime.

It was, however, a trip in my home country. Before the trip - here comes a potentially snobby traveler comment - I knew the adventure that comes with exploring foreign countries - especially where English is not widely spoken and where I don't know how things are done - was obviously not going to be available on this California journey, in the U.S., where I grew up and where I know the score. So I was worried about whether I would get the same pleasure out of it; I didn't want to be disappointed with this journey. However, a) a trip somewhere new is a trip somewhere new, and I'd never been to the West Coast before, so I had no clue where anything was or how to get anywhere, any more than I'd know in Korea or Thailand or Turkey; b) I was with a girl whom I am dating; the feeling of wanting and needing to protect and provide came on strong, out of nowhere. In the past I had traveled either with dude friends or females who were just friends, and we all just went together. On this trip, I felt the need to be the man in the travel group. Different feeling. Not bad, but different. c) It was beautiful anyway, regardless of all the aforementioned elements, more beautiful than many foreign places I have traveled, more fun than many other spots I'd explored earlier in life. To get super snobby, many spots on the drive between San Francisco and Santa Barbara reminded me a lot of the western coastline of New Zealand's southern island, where Mike and I had driven five months previous. Both drives - California and New Zealand - are considered among the most beautiful in the world, so I guess similarities between them make sense.

So, the adventure was still there. Hundreds of typical traveling decisions had to be made, beautiful things were seen, new ground was covered, great food was eaten, relationships were deepened. New experiences were had. And it was good. And, hopefully, it will happen again sometime soon.

*Three pieces of evidence:
1. We were walking around. I suggested lunch. She said, "Let's go eat some unhealthy garbage."
2. I perhaps unwisely told Ellen about when, in my senior year of high school, I mooned the principal of a rival high school and about the consequences of that choice. I dramatically finished rehashing the tale and waiting excitedly to hear Ellen's reaction. She said, "I have been waiting a long time for the right moment to use these words: holy cow."
3. She took a picture of this kid murdering his ice cream cone and sent it to me later: