Sunday, April 29, 2012


Bei with her cousin Jesse on the Olympic Peninsula, 2010.
(Click for larger images)

I wrote a short post last year about a quick visit to Austin, Texas, where my two sisters live with their families. Bei has no less than six first cousins, scattered literally from coast to coast and from north to south. My brother, Clark, lived close to us (in Denver) for a while, so Bei is close to his son, Jesse, and they still love to get together even though now Clark and his family live on the Olympic Peninsula. Jesse's enthusiasm is unbounded, and is currently directed towards baseball, but I suspect that he and Bei will manage to find common ground when they (hopefully) see each other this summer.  My sister Emily's daughter Sofia, loves to hang out with her older cousin, Bei. They have a mutual interest in fashion, and generally sidestep their less sophisticated boy cousins.  Em's son, Manny, about Bei's age and an avid guitarist, is a rising young star in Austin's music scene with his band, Taco and the Enchiladas. My other sister, Kim, has a son, Ruess, who recently earned his black belt.  

Ellen's sister, Connelle, in New Jersey, has twin Chinese daughters, Lauren and Leigh, who are older than Bei. They are currently slogging through a tough crew season, and are incredibly talented academically and artistically. Bei has always loved Lauren and Leigh, and now soaks in every insight into their teenage world.  

Collectively, the cousins are a formidable group of kids.  

My parents were both only-children, so I never had first cousins, but I had three siblings.  Bei is an only-child herself, so I love that she has this large group of cousins in her life.  I wonder what stories they will remember together when they are grown up?

Bei and Jesse, Olympic Peninsula, 2010.

Bei and Jesse, Olympic Peninsula, 2010.

Jesse, Lake Crescent Lodge, Olympic Peninsula, 2010.

Bei, Point Breeze, Virginia, 2010.

Jesse, Pt. Breeze, Virginia, 2010.

Bei, Ruess, Sofia, Manny, Pedernales State Park, Texas, 2011.

Leigh (L), Bei, and Lauren (R), Snowy Range, Wyoming, 2011.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Yosemite Valley: 1982-83

Mike Fisher, Rex Hong, Ken Driese.  Yosemite 1983 imitating the famous photo of John Long, Jim Bridwell and Billy Westbay.  I'm almost certain we didn't stuff anything into our pants.  I mean, why would we??
(Click photo to make larger if you dare)

Yesterday was my birthday and as I related on Facebook, 30-years ago, in 1982, I spent April 25th on Dinner Ledge, Washington Column, Yosemite, with a bunch of good friends who jumared up there to celebrate.  We had cake (a little worse for the hauling), beer, and a nocturnal visit from a ringtail cat who enjoyed some cake.  The next morning, Rex Hong and I jumared our ropes over the notorious rope-cutting Kor Roof and continued to the summit of the Column. 

During that same spring, Rex and I climbed the Salathe Wall on El Cap.  It was our first trip the big stone, and I was scared, truth be told, but after a while you are so committed that it doesn't matter anymore.  We did a lot of aid, and we took a long time--at least 4 nights on the wall.  Now, of course, it is done in less than a day.  As I recall, Todd Skinner and Paul Piana were working on the free ascent then, and there was chalk in unlikely places.  I took my two longest lead falls on that route--both caused by inexperience and leapfrogging aid gear while hurrying to beat darkness to a bivy.  

Here are a few old photos that I scanned this morning.  In 1982 I was much more interested in climbing than in taking good pictures.  

Me, following Rex's lead up Adrenaline.  I learned a lot from trying to survive as Rex's partner.  His abilities were considerably more advanced than mine.

Rex Hong at the top of the South Face, Washington's Column.  April 26, 1982.

Jim Olson (left) and Les Hutchinson (right) photographing Rusty Hardin with a damaged cig.  I wish Rusty was still around.

Rex, Salathe Wall.  1982.  Aiding off of El Cap Spire.

Rex.  2nd headwall pitch, top of the Salathe Wall.  1982.

Neil Starret (blue), Jim Doss (brown), Greg Marin (in bag).  Dinner Ledge.  1982.

Rex.  El Cap Spire.  Salathe Wall.  

Rusty Hardin.  Dinner Ledge.  April 1982.

Hauling the pig.  Salathe Wall.  1982.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Governor's Capitol Art Exhibition

All three of the images that I submitted for Wyoming Governor's Capitol Art Exhibition were accepted by the jury.  I'm excited to be part of this show for the 2nd year.  The reception this year is June 30 in Cheyenne.  I'll provide more information later in June.  These images will be displayed as 12" x 18" framed prints and are for sale.  Part of the proceeds support the arts in Wyoming.  All of these images have appeared in this blog before.

Bath Ranch, Laramie Basin.
(Click images to view larger)

Grain Silos, Chugwater, Wyoming.

Boulder, Skull Rim, Red Desert, Wyoming

Friday, April 20, 2012

Ancestors and Crow Indians

Some of my ancestors on my Mom's side, in Alabama.  
(click photos to view large)

Dan Hayward, a photographer here in Laramie, gave a presentation in Laramie yesterday about a project he’s working on comparing his contemporary photographs of the Crow Indian Reservation to photographs from the early 1900s taken by a Native American photographer named Richard Throssel.  Dan’s objective is to compare how two photographers with utterly different contexts view similar scenes, and how these photographic contexts communicate differently. 

One of Throssel’s photographs was a gorgeous portrait of awoman named Pretty Shield, a Crow medicine woman.  Pretty Shield was the great great great grandmother of Audrey Plenty Hoops, who happens to be going to school here at the University of Wyoming.  She spoke for the first half hour of the presentation, walking us through her remarkably detailed knowledge of the lineage of her ancestors from Pretty Hoop to herself.  Audrey  showed photographs of some of them and told funny and intimate stories, as if she had been there herself.  It was surprisingly moving.

The writer Milan Kundera, in his book Immortality, posits that there is no eternal life, but instead that we live on only in the memories of those that knew us personally (he calls this “small immortality”), or for famous or well-known people, in the public memory (“great immortality”).

The Crow seem to embody this notion of immortality in their welcoming of long-dead ancestors into their daily lives. Audrey spoke of her many “grandmothers” as though she saw them every day.  I, on the other hand, know very little about my ancestors before my grandparents.  My parents are organizing our family trees and I look forward to learning more.  I’m slowly collecting photographs of my ancestors that my father scans and sends to me, but in many of them I know nothing about the people pictured.  Our culture could learn from the Crow in this regard. 

Pretty Hoop was born in 1856 and died in 1944, at the age of 88, but she walks today in the minds of her descendants.  Imagine the changes she saw in her lifetime and the perspective that she passed to her children, grandchildren and great great great grandchildren. I wonder what ancestral wisdom in my family has been lost over the generations.

My Dad with his mother, probably during a trip to Arizona.

Me and my sister, Kim, with my Mom's father, Oscar Lee McCall, at his furniture store in Enterprise, Alabama.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Farm Equipment

East of Chugwater, Wyoming. 
(click to enlarge)

I wonder how much old farm equipment is scattered across the Great Plains, sinking into the grass and creating rabbit habitat?  There must be a lot.  Eastern Wyoming is barely hospitable enough to support serious agriculture, at least compared to the heart of the Plains, and yet even here each wheat farmer seems to have his own bone yard of slowly rusting tractors, wagons, and other complicated machines that I can't identify (where I grew up, farming equipment was limited to lawn mowers).  And that isn't even counting the cars and trucks.

Van Tassell Road, north of Torrington, Wyoming 

 Van Tassell Road

Van Tassel Road 

Van Tassell Road

Friday, April 13, 2012

Fashion and Passion

Bei, age 4, with large high heels in China.
(Click to enlarge)

I'm curious about fashion photography in the same way that I'm curious about particle physics or religious faith.  I'm incapable of really understanding it, but sometimes I can't take my eyes away.  At a personal level, I've been wearing the same clothes since I was about 10 years old and except for shorter hair and a general surrender to gravity, not much else about my appearance has changed either.  Still, I sat down last night and watched a fantastic documentary on Bill Cunningham, the famously eccentric and relentlessly productive NYT street and fashion photographer,  responsible for the Sunday NYT "On the Street" column featuring his images of fashion on ordinary people on the streets of New York that he produces each week, despite being over 80 years old and apparently never driving a car.  Cunningham rides his bicycle everywhere, lived most of his career in a tiny apartment in Carnegie Hall (once home to an eclectic mix of artists), slept on a mattress propped up by milk crates, and at least according to him, never had time for a romantic relationship of any kind ("I was too busy.").  He's a testament to the power of passion and love of what one does.  Watch the movie if this sounds interesting--you can stream it on Netflix (I received no compensation for that).

Bei, unlike her father (or mother), is fascinated by fashion, once pronouncing that she wanted to be a "fashion consulter," proving once and for all that nurture and nature are indeed independent forces.  Even when she was four (she's now almost 11) she was very much interested in clothes.  We lived in China that year, and for Christmas her greatest wish was to have her own high heeled shoes.  This motivated me to stretch my Mandarin and my dignity to the limit in a ladies' shoe store in Lijiang, where I finally convinced the skeptical salespeople that I truly did want to buy the smallest available pair of red stiletto heels for my 4-year-old daughter.  They were appalled.  

Passion is a fascinating quality in any context, and a driving force for anyone who loves what they do.  Bill Cunningham, now relocated to a "nicer" apartment (the Carnegie apartments were tragically converted to business space and the artists evicted), had his new landlord remove all of the kitchen cabinets so that he could move six decades of negatives into the vacated space.  Among those are images of some of the most iconic figures (fashion and otherwise) of the last century, along with many more of  unnamed people on the street, dressed provocatively, and captured on film by one of the most prolific photographers of our time. 

 Bei, age 4,  Lijiang, China.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Hawk Springs, Wyoming

Old garage at Hawk Springs, chocked full of interesting looking stuff.
(Click to enlarge)

Hawk Springs, Wyoming is a small "town" that occupies a road intersection between Cheyenne and Torrington.  Ed Sherline and I stopped there in March during our road trip to the Eastern Plains, attracted to the run-down look of the place and the collection of abandoned cars in a small lot to the right of the building pictured above.  There was a not-too-welcoming warning painted on the back door of this place that said something to the effect of "Keep your f-ing thieving hands off of my stuff," so we were a little loathe to penetrate too deeply onto the property, even though I doubt that anyone was watching us down the barrel of their shotgun.  I did risk peering into a broken window.  Some interesting things were in there, including a very old car (Model-T vintage), antique cigarette signs, and old bicycle parts.  The remainder of the space was filled with not-so-interesting things:  old tires (many), milk crates, unidentifiable crap.  I hope to return one day and explore further.

Welding is available.

Old car graveyard, Hawk Springs.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Adoption in China -- Reblog

Bei in Jiangxi, China before we met her. 2001.
(click image to view larger)

Bei, proudly made-up for a cello concert, December 2011.

Bei just returned from the Teton Science School, her first multi-day trip away from home.  She had fun, but was also homesick, which is both upsetting and endearing for us parents.  We're happy to have her home.  I've been meaning to repost this blog entry that I wrote when we lived in China in 2005, and this seems like a good time--I'm too busy with work to create much in the way of new posts until the semester ends.  This post first appeared in my China blog, and was recently published in Alice Renouf's book, "Yin Yang: American Perspectives on Living in China."

Adoption in China

Part of our motivation for coming to China this year was, of course, that this is our daughter Bei’s home country.  The Chinese are immensely curious about Bei and they are surprisingly confused when they see her with us—two obviously white parents.  There is little shyness in China about staring, and people stand on the street looking back and forth from Bei to Ellen to me in confusion.  If it is just one of us with Bei they may ask if the absent parent is Chinese.  The relief of understanding a mystery leaps onto their faces when we tell them that Bei is adopted (“Ta shi shou yang de.” – “She is adopted.”) and the reaction is always a thumbs-up or an expression of how lucky Bei is, to which we reply that we are the lucky ones. 

During our train ride from Shanghai to Kunming we passed directly through Bei’s hometown just after dawn on a dreary Sunday morning.  Feng Cheng is a small, nondescript, typical southeastern Chinese city, with concrete apartment buildings and stores surrounded by rice paddies and, in this part of the Jiangxi Province, coal mines.  Evenly spaced trees line the highway that followed the railroad tracks, and a few trucks and bicycles moved along it in the early morning.   I snapped some blurry photos through the train window to save for Bei, who was still sleeping. 

In one field I saw a man with a little girl about Bei’s age and, as we passed, he hoisted her onto his shoulders for the walk back into town, much as we often carry Bei when she is too tired to walk.  I couldn’t help but think about how easily Bei could have been that girl, living an utterly different life in China, instead of sleeping through the dawn in a soft sleeper train bed with two American parents.  And I couldn’t help but imagine that somewhere in that town, maybe even within sight of the rail line, Bei’s birth mother was busy making breakfast, unaware that the one-day old girl she had left at a Feng Cheng school gate in 2001 was passing through town and dreaming four year old dreams in English. 

It is not just foreigners who adopt children in China, and it has been interesting to learn that adoption here is viewed quite differently than it is in the U.S.  One of the most surprising things that we have discovered, initially through conversations with our friend Wei Hong in Shanghai (the wife of our American instructor there) is that, in China, adoption is often a huge secret that is kept from the adoptive child for as long as possible.  In fact, it isn’t a stretch to imagine adopted people living their entire lives here without ever knowing that they were adopted.  And remarkably, according to Wei Hong, who has an adopted cousin, everyone else in the family and in the family’s social circle EXCEPT the adopted child knows about the truth. 

Of course our philosophy in the U.S. about sharing the adoption story is quite the opposite—we start talking about adoption and birth parents from the earliest opportunity so that it ISN’T a big surprise for the child.   Our thinking is that if the child is aware of adoption from the beginning, they integrate this identity as they grow up with their adoptive parents and they avoid dealing with an unanticipated sea change in the context of their lives upon discovery of their history.  And of course there is an implicit understanding by us that adoption is not shameful or something to be hidden away. 

So why do the Chinese take the opposite approach—hiding this enormous truth, the mother of all elephants in the closet??  I can speculate based on a few conversations, some reading and the results of an assignment that I gave my second year writing students here in Lijiang. 

One obvious hypothesis is that there is a sense of shame in China about adoption—aren’t big secrets often related to a need to hide something shameful?  But if this were the case, why would everyone except the child be let in on the secret?  This suggests that perhaps the parents are not themselves ashamed, but feel that the child’s very history might be shameful for the child.  To them, keeping the truth a secret may be a design to protect the child.

Protecting the child from shame by keeping the secret may have something to do with trying to save “face” for the adopted child.  The concept of face in China is more important than it is for us in the U.S. (though we do have it), and perhaps there is some feeling that an adopted child would experience a loss of face upon finding out about her history.  This does not seem like a huge stretch.  In the book, “Encountering the Chinese – A Guide for Americans,” the authors (Hu and Grove) put it this way:

As people grow into adulthood, they gradually adopt certain claims regarding their own characteristics and traits, and they learn to make these claims, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, to others.  People also learn to recognize other individuals’ implicit claims about themselves and to accept (or in some cases to appear to accept) those claims…This set of claims, or line, of each person is his or her face.

Face is important in China because of the nature of social relationships here (according to Hu and Grove).   In contrast to the relatively transient social relationships in the U.S. and some other western countries, the Chinese are strongly tied to their families and social groups for their entire lives, with relatively less mobility than us.  As a result, it is critical to maintain these relationships which means maintaining a stable self image – “face.”   In a sense, losing face means losing your status in your entire social support group – being exiled.

But does this really apply to the dilemma of whether to tell a child about adoption or to keep it a secret?  It seems to me that if a child’s identity includes early knowledge of adoption, that there is no issue of “face” since there would be no catastrophic change of self image (loss of face) for the child within the child’s family and social group.  So maybe this concept doesn’t explain the issue after all. 

The explanation offered by Wei Hong for the secrecy in her family was that the parents feared that if a child knew she was adopted, she might love her parents less.  This viewpoint is supported by at least some of the students in my classes who, aside from representing the relatively rare slice of the Chinese population that goes to college, come from all over the China and offer a geographic cross-section of Chinese thinking among their generation. 

Ying Zhou Na (Sandra – Class 4), a Chinese student, explains it like this (unedited):

If I adopt a child, I won’t tell her that she is adopted.  I think it is not necessary to tell her who are her birth parents.  I also can give her a warm family, as good as her birth parents could do.  I’m afraid that she will be sad at hearing the news that she is adopted.  She may keep silent to us later.  To keep secret to her is better than to tell her the truth, I believe.  Personally speaking, I don’t want to tell her the truth either.  As I consider that it may affect our close relationship.

The writing is a little clumsy, but you get the idea.  And this sentiment was expressed by many students in my classes. 

But other students refute this and suggest another reason for keeping secrets that seems to come closer to the heart of the issue for the Chinese I’ve talked with. 

Wang Hai Lian (Shannon – Class 4) writes (again, unedited):

By tradition, Chinese parents always not tell their adopted children who are adopted.  It is not because they are afraid the adopted children loved them less, but it will be hurt the children’s heart and do harmful of children’s growth.  In my opinion, if the family have several children who are birth children and adopted children, the parents should not have to tell the child who are adopted.  If the family have only adopted child, maybe they have lots of adopted child, the parents should have had to tell the children.  Even if the children and parents were become close friends maybe child could keep touch with birth parent but they always loved and close with their adoptive parents.  I known my uncle have two daughter.  So he give his little daughter to other people who haven’t child.  After fourteen years, my uncle went to her home and wanted her called him father.  I don’t know when her adopted parents told her that she were a adopted child, but her only told my uncle: “I only have one family and one parents.  I never know you and never wants to know you.”

Many students shared this opinion.  To tell a young child the truth about adoption would break the child’s spirit and taint their view of the world.   All children should see their world as a beautiful and happy place with no lurking shadows to darken their days.  To these students the illusion of a perfect world for a child is the most important thing.  This central philosophy of a sacred happy childhood was repeated in paper after paper as well as in class discussions.  When a child is young, their ability to cope is low and adoption truth could be catastrophic.  This, of course, assumes that adoption, while fundamentally devastating, can perhaps be swallowed when a person grows to maturity with the strength built upon an idyllic childhood.   

The majority of students felt that eventually, an adoptee should be told the truth.  When pressed, they surmised that “eventually” meant when they were fully mature adults.

Zoe (Sui Shanru)  Writing Class 5 summed this view up like this:

I think adoptive parents should tell their child that she is adopted when she is old enough.  After all, the adoption is a fact that they must face.  So, we must tell them.  But we must choose a suitable time at the same time.  Because, in my opinion, they are pure when they are young.  They should live happily.  We should make them believe that the world is wonderful.  The persons around them are kind and love them.  I also think a little child don’t have the ability to distinguish right and wrong.  They are easy to do something wrong.  If they know the fact early, they may be self-abased.  And they will think, “Why my birth parents abandoned me?”  So they will give up themselves.  They can’t understand even though their birth parents had some difficulties that they are reluctant to discuss or mention.  So, as for this question, I think the adoptive parents should tell their child that she is adopted when they grow old enough to think deeply.

Hou Jun Ping from the Gansu Province agrees:

For my part, I think adoptive parents should tell their child the truth.  The child has the right to know everything about himself.  If I were a adoptive mother, I would tell my child he is adopted.  I won’t tell him when he is young. One of my aunt’s daughters was adopted at 2 years old by another aunt.  My aunt is kind to her and kept the secret for a long time.  At last, my aunt told my adopted cousin the truth.  My cousin said, “Mum, I knew I’m not your birth daughter early, then I was unhappy.  Now I understand you.  I’m your birth daughter and you are my birth mother.”  Now my cousin has two [sets of] parents.  She lives a happy life.  The adoptive parents should tell their child that she is adopted.

But an adopted girl (Chinese name) from one of my writing classes refuted many of the arguments of her peers:

By Kenny (Peng Yan)  Writing Class 5:

In my opinion, adoptive parents should tell their children that they are adopted.  Because when they grow up to be a teen, they must think lots of things that making them very sad.  But if they told their children the truth when they were a small child, it might be a habit:  [become internalized] they know they are adopted but they don’t care. 
It is just my opinion, because I am a adopted child, too.  I was very young.  I learned the truth by my mother.  Although sometimes I am sad that I was adopted, I knew that my adoptive parents love me very much, especially my mother.  She makes me very happy and I don’t feel different with others.  I appreciate her of course.  I love them as if they are my birth parents.

Zhang Lu Yan supports this idea but describes a more ambitious course of moral and political development for her future adopted child, a “brave boy”:

If I had an adopted child, I would tell him that he was adopted.  I said “he” because I had a wish that one day I could adopt an African boy.  I want to adopt an African boy because there are many kids homeless and ill or starve to death everyday in Africa.  I want to adopt a boy because I think boys are more brave than girls.  I will teach him everything when he is young.  I want him to be tough-minded.  I want him to be responsible.  I want him to have strong self-respect.  So I teach him at his youth.  When he grows up he should be prepared to face himself, to face his country and to devote to his country.  Thus, I will tell him that he is adopted with no hesitation.  It’s my choice to adopt him, but it’s his choice to decide what he can do to the world when he can rely on his own effort.

As westerners steeped in individualism, we have confidence in the strength of our children and in their ability to grow strong in the shelter of our love with full knowledge of their adoption histories.  Life books, adoption stories, heritage camps and early musings about birth mothers are part of our roadmap.  And of course for us, this system feels like the right path.  And I think it is.  But as I glimpsed the little girl and her father, walking home between rice paddies outside of Feng Cheng in southeastern China, how could I know what her life might be like?  For me and Ellen, and Bei, the train left Feng Cheng on it’s way west to a different life.