Latest Reading: Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen’s book always relax me and keep me turning pages. This book is set in Key West, Florida and it made me miss my time living in the tropics. I lived in the tropics from 1992 to 1999 and then again from 2002 to 2008. Hiaasen’s crime novels always have colorful characters and are set in the crazy state of Florida. Hiaasen was a reporter for the Miami Herald for many years and weaves in the stories he probably covered of con men, gangsters, and eccentric people to color his novels. One time on a layover in Miami I did drive about halfway down the keys and I want to get back there someday to stay awhile and see what life is like at the southernmost part of the continental USA.

My favorite character in this particular thriller/crime novel is the down-on-his-luck health inspector, Andrew Yancy. He was demoted from the police as a detective and is trying to get back into the good graces of the sheriff so he can get back on the force. He is tall and handsome and Hiaasen always includes beautiful, crazy women in his novels, so despite his low salary, Yancy is able to attract women. Every character is going to for something and their interactions are hilarious. Hiaasen mixes in news stories so reality television, the New Jersey mafia, corrupt lawyers, Florida real estate, and ecology are all featured in the plot. The eponymous Razor Girl is a con artist that helps thugs catch people who have somehow ran foul of gangsters. It is an enjoyable read and I recommend the book.

I checked out the book from the Great Lakes Digital Library which I access through my home library in West Iron County, Michigan. The software, Libby, gives user statistics. I picked up “the book” 16 times and it took me 9 hours and 41 minutes to read it. Interesting insight about reading. Although the library does not have all the books I want, I am finding enough to save me several hundred dollars over the course of a year.

Hike in the Hills of Tavaksay

Oliver and Dad at the peak of достарказы

I set a goal to explore and map hiking areas of the Ugam-Chatkal National Park. Yesterday, my son Oliver, my wife Nadia, and I took our dog Obi for a walk through the foothills of Tavaksay. It was my first time in the area and I was careful to give a good experience to Nadia, who enjoys walking in nature but does not like steep terrain. This area is perfect for beginners and in the spring, the hills are green and the bushes and plants are just starting to come into flower.

We walked to the west of the Tavaksay River where the waterfalls were located. Often, walking up a canyon can be difficult. We instead took a trail just to the west of the river and chose the peak, Dostarkaz, which may be a Turkic word that in Central Asia refers to a table cloth or place where to eat a meal. At 1,180 meters in elevation, the flat-topped mountain would be a nice place for a picnic. We discovered that we could have driven closer to the famous canyon and waterfalls along the road we hiked and we’ll try that the next time we are up there. For the first time, it was a delightful 10.56-kilometer walk in the foothills. We saw many herds of sheep and horses taking advantage of the new green growth of grasses after a winter of snow.

The Benefits of Yoga

I completed Travis Elliot’s 30 for 30 Yoga Program. It is a series of power yoga sessions of 30 minutes for 30 days. I took more than 30 days because during the week I often don’t find the time to do the workouts. Starting in January, I completed the 30 workouts in mid-March.

My body is tighter since I’ve been in my 50s and I finally reached the point where I love doing yoga. I tried yoga several times years ago but didn’t see the point of it. Now as I am older, the benefits of flexibility to my aging body are tremendous. I don’t want to be a stiff, creaky, old man. At least not for a while. I was beginning to feel like an old man, stiff, sore, etc. The yoga workouts have improved my flexibility and strength and I feel younger! Compared to the practitioners in his studio in the videos, I have a long way to go, but importantly, it is helping me improve my health. Not only physically, but it is also a great stress reliever. After a workout, I feel refreshed and the tension headache that may have been starting or nagging thoughts in my mind, disappear and I feel calmer. I am taking to heart Elliot’s advice that my breathing is my fortress of strength. Deep breathing does relax me. I am moving on to his 45 for 45 and I’ll see how I do with the extra 15 minutes of workouts.

Another source of pleasure and exercise for me is tennis. Nadia and I found an open court at the Olympic Tennis School yesterday. They don’t have the clay courts going yet, but we rented a hard court (60,000 UZS). It was awesome and I am glad to see my wife back into exercise.

Nadia and I enjoyed a couple sets of tennis at the Olympic Tennis Club

Hamburg Girls Choir Visits Tashkent

Ella and Anouk perform SkyFall

It was a special week for me and my family as we hosted the Hamburg Girls Choir. Jacob Spears, a friend and a music teacher at our school connected with the choir director, Gesa, and our school hosted the 50+ female choir on the Tashkent leg of the Central Asian tour. They performed at the State Conservatory of Uzbekistan with a local choir. You can watch that concert here. TIS faculty billeted choir members and the choir held workshops and a concert at our school. We hosted six delightful young women and our family enjoyed our time with them. The choir performed at a reception we hosted at our house on Sunday. I’ll upload the 360-degree video when it is ready. The TIS marketing person, Lindemann specializes in 360-degree recordings and you can see them on his YouTube page.

The power and beauty of the human voice are amazing. The choir encircled the audience during the performance in our home. I could hear the different parts of the choir coming from different sections of the circle. I had goosebumps and was carried away by the music. That for me is one of the peak experiences of being human. Despite all of our faults, humans can reach a sublime level sometimes and the choir reminded me of that. Their passion for music is infectious. It was truly an awe-inspiring (awesome) experience. I was also impressed with their technical expertise and I imagine all of the time and effort that goes into getting to that level of performance. My appreciation for music and musicians increased because of my close interactions with the girls.

We enjoyed hosting six choir members

I couldn’t help thinking about the long tradition of music from Germany. Gesa Werhahn comes from a long line of choral and music directors throughout history. Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, etc. Seeing young people carry on the tradition of making music gives me hope for the future.

I would like to thank the choir for coming to our school and trusting us to host the girls. The visit meant a lot to my family and our community.

Hamburg Choir Perform at our house!

My Visit to Vilnius, Lithuania – March 2023

The city of Vilnius is celebrating its 700th anniversary this year, 2023. It is the capital of Lithuania and is best known for its huge Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site. I visited Vilnius recently for a regional educators conference. This is my fourth visit to the city and walking along the Neris River or through the narrow streets of Old Town never gets old. I love the city and have had many good times there!

View of the city from the Gediminas Castle

A big part of my ancestry is Polish but I seem to go to Lithuania more than Poland. The two countries have a long history together and formed a federation for over 200 years from 1569 to 1795. I feel like I am getting to know my ancestry when visit. I didn’t realize that Poland is so much larger than Lithuania, with 38 million compared to 2.8 million Lithuanians.

Vilnius Town Hall

As with most European cities I visit, the people are generally taller, thinner, and better looking than Americans. There were lots of impressive-looking people. The Lithuanians have very light skin, mostly blue eyes, and most commonly light brown hair. Basketball is the most popular sport and the height really helps. I remember one of my favorite NBA players, Šarūnas Marčiulionis who played for the Golden State Warriors. Almost every day during my stay, the outdoor courts in front of our hotel in the park were full of young people playing pick-up hoops.

The highlight of my walking around the city was visiting the former Lukiškiu Prison. I was mainly interested because my children are fans of NetFlix’s series Stranger Things. The show filmed the fourth season of the show there. Prisons are not happy places and this particular prison has a long, sad history. Many Lithuanians and Poles were held there before being executed for sent to the gulags (remote prison camps). The Germans in World War II used it as a concentration camp for Jews and Poles. There were once so many Jews in the city that Napoleon called it “Jerusalem of the North”. Tragically, the city today does not have a significant Jewish population. The prison closed a couple of years ago and the owners conduct tours through it and tried to capitalize on the Stranger Things popularity by opening an Air B&B, but officials stopped it in respect to the many victims who died there. In the courtyard, however, I did see a bar and summer dining area, and other parts of the building have art studios.

My Turkish Airlines flight avoided Ukrainian air space

I also noticed a lot of support for neighboring Ukraine. There were flags and organizations asking for donations everywhere in the city. I can see why because it is sandwiched between Russia and Belarus. They may also fear Putin trying to connect Kaliningrad to Belarus. The country has one of the highest GDPs of the former Soviet Republics and I guess they have a good share of refugees. Our flights were a bit longer between Istanbul and Vilnius because we avoided Ukrainian air space.

Another highlight was a special reception held at the Vilnius Town Hall. The neoclassical-style building was redesigned and constructed in 1799.  It was a special night as teachers from the American International School of Vilnius performed and we had some nice appetizers and drinks. An office off to the right on the second floor was awesome and we all took pictures behind the desk. It looked like the backdrop for a coup d’ tet video announcement. The room oozed power and intimidation.

Latest Reading: Prague: A Novel by

I am always in for an expatriate novel and Arthur Phillip’s 2002 book, Prague, was an interesting read. It is set in 1990 in Budapest, Hungary, shortly after the fall of communism. The story centers around a group of young American, Australian, and Canadian expats enjoying life in the beautiful, but the decaying city of Budapest. Arthur Phillips lived in Budapest from 1990-1992 and got the zeitgeist right. 

Waiting for Mom in Vorosmarty Ter (Square) in Budapest Hungary – Sunday September 20, 2009

My family and I visited Budapest often between 2008 and 2014 when we lived in Belgrade, Serbia. It was just a three-hour drive north through the flat Vojvodina and Hungarian plains.  I loved walking across the bridges over the Danube with the kids. We stayed in apartments or hotels downtown and always had a nice time. Nadia loved the Christmas markets and I loved the thermal hot baths in the winter. One of the best photos I have is of my daughter Ocean reaching over to kiss my cheek in one of the squares surrounded by 19th-century buildings. It reminded me of Milan Kundera’s idea of being able to live moments infinitely. The early morning light, the honest reach of a daughter to a father, and her soft baby hands on my forearm and her breath on my cheek. A moment of pure love and family. I also remember Nadia and me running the Budapest Half Marathon and the exhilaration of running through the streets with 5000 other people. 

Budapest Marathon – September 5, 2010

My experiences in the city are much different than the characters in the novel. I relate however because I was a young expatriate in my 20s once. The novel is named Prague but set in Budapest. Back then, Prague was the “hot city” for expatriates and the belief of people living in Budapest was that Prague was where it is at. I think there is a Prague for everyone, a place with greener pastures. Usually, this turns out not to be true and you make the best of whatever place you are in. Phillips explores the idea of the romantic expatriate city, like Paris in the 1920s. The scenes in the book where one of the characters starts to fall in love with another expat remind me of seeing Nadia and falling in love with her in the late 1990s in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Instead of Budapest, I spent my young expatriate years on the Caribbean coast of Colombia in the port city of Barranquilla (home of Shakira & Sofia Vergara) and my early 30s in Bolivia. Santa Cruz is the most romantic city in the world to me because of our courtship.

Phillips is a beautiful writer and there were some great lines in the book.

“…about to face the disillusionment of boring jobs with glamorous titles…”  Emily is one of the characters in the book, fresh out of the University of Nebraska. She is the US Ambassador’s assistant and the job does sound exotic, but actually, for her it was mundane. Getting coffee, giving advice on how to dress, doing errands, etc. That is one thing young teachers need to know when going overseas, is that teaching is teaching, and Monday through Friday, our lives are similar to what they would be in our home countries. Of course, the students are more worldly and serious, and unusual things do come up from time to time, but overall, you are there to teach, not sightsee. 

Nadia and the kids in the Plaza de Septiembre de 24 – Santa Cruz, Bolivia – July 2016

I grew tired of reading about the mistakes of youth. It pained me to follow the immaturity and foibles of the characters. The 20s are a tough age in my opinion as you are trying to figure out what you like, what you can do for a career, and most importantly, find a partner. I think back to how immature I was and the things I thought were cool and important, were not really cool and important. I did however make some good decisions. I am happy I pursued and stayed with a global nomad lifestyle. It changed who I was and I look back at all of my wonderful experiences through the decades abroad. I believe I had more opportunities and escaped the ordinary life educators live domestically. I also made a great decision to marry Nadia. After all these years, I still find her beautiful and fun to be with. 

I got off track on the book review, but for those of you who lived abroad in your twenties, this book will remind you of that time. 

Ocean’s Team Wins Basketball Tournament

Ocean’s Team Won the Title

We had a busy Saturday with Ocean’s Junior Varsity Girls’ Basketball Team competing in the city championship. They defeated Skola 86 in the finals to win. That completes the double championship combined with the Central Asian Basketball Tournament a couple of weeks ago. I am happy to see Ocean participate in team sports. I hope she continues to play basketball and other sports.

One of the nice things about being an international educator is being able to see your children at school during they day. Last week I came upon Ocean and her friend Eleanor practicing their French language in the hallway.

We are hosting members of the Hamburg, Germany Girls’ Choir this weekend and we took them out to Milly Bog, a recently renovated park here in Tashkent. It is next to the Magic Kingdom Mall, which I describe as Disneyland meets Dubai. There is a big pool/fountain and it definitely has a Dubai Mall vibe. Tashkenters love going to Dubai and so I see what the developers were going for. It is really nice to walk around at night and Milly Bog (National Park) is a huge green space.

The weather was so nice this week with temperatures reaching 70F. I have had enough of winter and don’t want to see cold or rain for a while. I also went for a run in the afternoon. I am trying to get back into shape after the long, cold winter… One of my favorite places to exercise in Tashkent is along the Ankhor Canal.

Sunset along the Ankhor Canal

Latest Reading: Graham Greene “The End of the Affair”

Graham Greene and Catherine Watson

I’ve read several Graham Greene expatriate novels and he is one of my favorite authors. He traveled widely and for a time, worked for MI6. I love stories about expatriates and their adventures abroad and I recommend his books, The Quiet American and The Heart of the Matter. Recently I checked out one of his more famous novels, the 1951 The End of the Affair. It is set in 1940s London and is a fictional account of a real-life affair he had. The book is also one of his four novels in that he incorporates the Catholic Church. The main character is an author, Maurice Bendrix, who falls in love with Sarah, the wife of a friend and government employee, Henry Miles.

My biggest takeaway from the story was the inner dialogue our minds have about our relationships. As the title indicates, Bendrix has an affair with Sarah that ends because of his jealousy and obsessions which Greene describes in the first part of the novel. Several years after the affair is over, he hires a private detective to trail Sarah because he is still obsessed with her. The detective manages to find one of her diaries from the period and the reader gets her side of why they broke up. Upon finding out Sarah’s feelings from the diary, he contacts her again, but tragically, she dies from pneumonia before they can restart their relationship. Bendrix had the love of his life and he messed it up due to a lack of communication with her and in his mind, thinking she was not in love with him as much as he was with her.

The other takeaway is the loveless marriage. Henry and Sarah are friends and partners, but there is no passion and love in their marriage. I think she stays with him because he has a good income, is comfortable, and is away a lot from the home and not becoming enraged with her affairs, Sarah stays with Henry. I wonder what percentage of marriages are of convenience and not love after so many years. I am lucky I met my wife Nadia and we are still in love with each other after more than 25 years together and three children. I think part of it is we laugh together often and she is younger than me. It keeps me younger, too.

I didn’t like the philosophical parts of the novel about the existence of God or the role of the Catholic Church. I think the importance of religion and the church has faded in the 70+ years since the book was published. The next time I am in London, I would like to check out the Clapham Common, a park in the city where this story takes place. In my mind, while reading the book, I envisioned “The Common” to be a smaller plaza, but looking on Google Maps, it is more like New York’s Central Park. There is a plaque there dedicated to Greene as he lived there from 1935 to 1940.

The book was made into a movie twice and I see why. Some of the scenes take place during German bombing raids and it would be quite visually striking for the screen. Ralph Fiennes is a good casting choice for Bendrix. It sounds similar to the English Patient.

Latest Reading: “Camera Hunter: George Shiras III and the Birth of Wildlife Photography”

I read Northern Michigan University Professor James H. McCommon’s biography of George Shiras III (1859-1942) with great interest because of his ties to Marquette, Michigan. Shiras was from a wealthy law family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father was a Supreme Court Justice. The family had a vacation home in Marquette, the largest town in the Upper Peninsula. The city has several areas and a planetarium named after him, so I was interested in learning more about his life.

With air travel today, I don’t see a family like the Shiras family choosing to vacation regularly in the UP. Today, wealthy families travel all over the world. In the late 19th century, it took a long time to get anywhere and so people went on holidays closer to home. Shiras married the daughter of another famous Marquette pioneer, Peter White, so he is kind of UP royalty.

The best part of the book was Shiras’s descriptions of the Upper Peninsula wildlife and topography from 1870 to the turn of the century. Long gone are the massive clouds of Passenger Pigeons migrating to the UP in the spring or five-foot-wide deer trails leading from Lake Superior south so deer and moose can find winter areas with less snow. Before logging, mining, and settlements, the Upper Peninsula was a much different place for the Shiras family than what I experienced 100 years later growing up in Iron County in the 1970s and 1980s. The mature forests mixed hardwoods were better for moose and woodland caribou than what you find today, white-tailed deer. It it tragic the effect of “market hunters” who killed thousands of wildlife game and sold them to towns and cities to the south. Much of the wildlife was wiped out and the mature forests were clear-cut.

The second half of the book describes his love of wildlife photography. Cameras were new back then and he set up rudimentary camera traps and flashes to capture some of the first photos of nocturnal wildlife.

A curious lynx photographed in 1902 by Shiras in Ontario

It is my wish that the UP returns to the same state as Shiras experienced in his youth. 98% of the region is covered with forests and it is recovering slowly. Species such as wolves, bald eagles, and moose are reintroduced. Too many people still build homes in the urban/wilderness interface, but it pales in comparison to the ravages of the early 20th century. I am glad the UP has a low profile and is still isolated today. I would like to try to visit the Dead River, the Laughing Whitefish Lake Preserve and the George Shiras trail this summer. Some other points I took from the book are below:

  • My birthplace, Sault Ste. Marie is the third oldest city in the United States. It was founded by French fur trappers and Native Americans taking advantage of the fishing on the St. Mary’s River, which carries water from Lake Superior to Lake Huron.
  • The “root beer” or “copper-brown” colors of rivers in the UP are from decayed organic matter leached from cedar swamps and the great forests.
  • Earthworms (Lumbricus terrestris) were brought to the UP from the Shiras family. Natural colonization of terrestrial earthworms after the glaciers melted had not reached the Northwoods region of the Great Lakes.
  • Northern Michigan and western Ontario were the last great stands of the Passenger Pigeon. In 1896, market hunters and residents killed the final flock of 250,000 near Petoskey. Shiras wrote, “It was doomed because it was a migrant. The rule in each state was to have an open season when these migrants were present and a closed season, if any, after they had gone.”
  • Shiras predicted in the 1930s that the “UP was destined to a long future as a recreational wilderness area.” The US forest service bought up denuded lands and abandoned farms in lieu of back taxes. These formed the Ottawa and Hiawatha national forests of today.
  • Barnegut boat – a flat boat designed for marshes with shallow water, first used in Barnegut, New Jersey.
  • potamodromous – fish that spend their entire life cycle in freshwater. The speckled trout of Lake Superior were huge and abundant but now have been replaced by European brown and rainbow trout.

USA Advances in the Davis Cup Tennis

The USA fan section with the Davis Cup Team (Oliver is back center behind the flag)

It was awesome to have the USA Davis Cup Team play at my home courts here in Tashkent! The Davis Cup Qualifier Draws found Team USA matched up against Uzbekistan. The USA is seeing a resurgence as a tennis power in men’s tennis with 10 players ranked in the Top 50 ATP Rankings. Uzbekistan had a young team and talking to officials with the Uzbek Tennis Federation, they wanted to put up a good fight and not get embarrassed. They accomplished their goal with well-played, close games throughout the four ties. They can also be proud of the organization and cordial reception they gave us as the hosts.

My big takeaways from seeing the professionals up close? All of them have consistent ground strokes and that should be expected considering how much of their lives have been devoted to tennis. I was amazed at how much of their body goes into their serve. All of them bend and coil and then unleash the power behind their swing. I noticed the ball toss is high and quite further in front of them than I thought it would be. It was also cool to see how seriously the US Tennis Association takes the Davis Cup. They have an entire support team behind the five players including a stringer, practice player, coach, logistics, masseuse, etc. Megan Rose, one of the USTA directors, was so helpful in giving us access to the team.

Oliver and I bond over tennis and that was the best part of the whole experience. We attended the second game on Friday and the two matches on Saturday. Owen, Oliver, Nadia, and I play tennis whenever we are together. The USA has a good chance to go all the way. Their doubles team is ranked in the top 10 and with many singles players to choose from, they will be able to adjust to surfaces and match ups in the next rounds.