Thursday, December 04, 2008

In the crowd

Wednesday was a hectic workday and today a juggling day.

I launched a survey of the faculty and staff of MU yesterday afternoon. It was created by a class, but I'm constantly online tweaking it and working with respondents.

And I'm doing that while trying to pay attention at the Information Valet conference. Poorly paying attention, that is.

That said, it's nice to be sitting in a crowd that has more working journalists than academics. So I should get my attention back to them ...

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Mental coffee

It's amazing how being busy can clear your mind. You'd think that a landslide of expectations and obligations would smother your sense of direction. But somehow it acts like that morning cup of coffee -- it focuses me on the task at hand.

Tuesday is a non-teaching day for me. Which really means it is a bust-your-bottom day. As this was the penultimate Tuesday before the term ends, it came with an extra level of urgency.

My research class -- cleverly called "Solving Practical Problems" -- is supposed to have its final survey in the field this week. Thanksgiving, procrastination and technical foibles got in the way, however. I spent the morning and much of the afternoon reformatting their questions so the online survey would actually work

During "breathers," I processed the 61 email messages that had arrived since midnight. That meant I had to answer sets of questions from two student researchers -- one from California and the other from New York -- who solicited me as an "expert." And field a half dozen questions about a GPS project I'm toying with. And find the revised dissertation I was supposed to read and approve.

But I took time to have lunch with Associate Dean Brian Brooks, my mentor and guide in the academic world. He wanted me to explain how I was working with Missouri community newspapers for my editorial writing class and to explore how we might expand the idea. He is always a great sounding board.

So now I'm hammering away at this blog before I have to leave for a meal with a church "Dinners for 8" group. Wednesday I teach, then jump into the RJI "Information Valet" conference.

Monday, December 01, 2008

This is your (insert adjective) life

I've never been excited about diary blogs. I like to write about my experiences, but not about the play-by-play.

But if you have read the notes to the left, you know I have discovered Twitter. I'm fascinated by how much one can express in a mere 140 characters. That fascination led me to revisit my view on diaries.

The actual driver was the blue mood I found myself in after assigning a group of students to write a "This I believe" essay. I realized that I had never made that type of statement myself and should put my ego where my mouth is.

Twitter is fun, but I've too long stayed away from more traditional writing. So I'll give it a try for the next few weeks. Perhaps documenting my daily thoughts will give me insight to what I believe -- or don't believe.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Clyde-o, the red-nosed professor

Oh fun. For Halloween I get to go as a leper. Or a teenager.

I don’t like to make light of people whose lives are hell – and I also am not poking fun at lepers. But I’m certainly getting the look.

Like a lot of men my age, my skin is paying me back for the abuse I gave it as a boy. In northern California’s blast-furnace summers, we started the summer with intentionally acquiring a cherry-red sunburn. The theory espoused by our elders is that after you burned once, you healed with a tan that spared you of further sunburns.
It didn’t really work, but even in black-and-white family photos you can see I turned dark as well-worn pair of Oxfords. And in a few, you can see my nose threatening to peel away to a stub.

Lo these many decades later, the blisters of those sunburns are turning into the scaly patches of “sunspots.” Worse, I am indeed a cancer survivor, though in the most unheroic way. I had a couple of basal cell skin cancers removed a few years ago. They are the most common form of cancer (a million new cases a year) and seldom kill you unless they are ignored. Not ignoring them means carving them out with a scapel.

But they start with those sunspots. So every year I have the doc squirt the latest crop with liquid nitrogen. It doesn’t hurt at first, but in a few days it looks and feels like someone stabbed the spot with a hot poker. And like a burn, it heals and away.

This year my dermatologist asked if I would try a new treatment that lasts five years or more and doesn't burn. I just had to put up with a red and spotted face for about a month.

Ergo the leprous look. Each night I rub fluorouracil cream onto my face and ears, and each morning I awaken with spots that are a bit redder. After three weeks of this, the spots – and chance of cancer – are supposed to go away.

Fluorouracil is pretty neat stuff. It’s a chemotherapy chemical that attacks the DNA of screwed-up cell while leaving the good skin alone. Kind of a smart bomb for overly bronzed bodies. No pain but great gain.

By the end of the week, my face should be in full bloom. So now the big question: Do I dab on some of my wife’s makeup or celebrate the season with a ghoulish countenance?

I suppose I could also just put on a geeky plaid shirt and flip-flops. In some of my classes, no one would ever know . . .

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Facing the music with Itzhak

Musicians intrigue me beyond description. They are our access to an alternate universe where countless emotions flow freely on the backs clefs and dancing notes. From thin air, musicians pluck magic that sticks in my brain for days, weeks or a lifetime.

I’ve always wanted to have music, but that simply is not my lot. Words live in me. Music just visits.

Monday I had more than a simple visit; I was treated to a visage. Itzhak Perlman’s face, to be exact.

Last spring my wife asked if I would like a special musical treat for my March birthday. Cecile knows I can’t tell a sonata from a sing-along, but she also knows I love “historical” opportunities. That’s how we ended up with front-row seats for violinist Itzhak Perlman’s scheduled Columbia concert.

A health problem kept the Perlman from playing for my birthday, but the cherubic master finally came to Jesse Hall this week.

I’ve been to concerts of many kinds in many halls. I am often sadly disappointed by classical music performances that seldom seem as good as listening to my own stereo. But this time Itzhak Perlman’s face was no farther from me than if it had been on the television in my living room. That face became the concert for my eyes that his Stradivarius gave to my ears.

Perlman doesn’t play music. He releases it. To watch him tuck his violin beneath his chin and look down the strings is much like watching a pigeon fancier touch the bird to his lips before giving it to the sky.

And when he plays, it is a constant conversation with the score. Some notes he had to coax – furrowing his brow in concentration. Others he welcomed with a big smile. And during a Beethoven sonata, I swear that Perlman seduced the music into the air.

My lasting impression, however, will be of Itzhak Perlman playing Stravinsky’s Suite Italiene. He greeted the piece as an old friend, laughed with it, reminisced with the sernata and danced the jig of friends for the tarantella.

I watched in awe as he cracked open the door to that other place where beautiful sounds eliminated crowds, the exhaustion of touring and even the polio that hobbles Perlman’s legs. He did not read the notes on the stand before him so much as he glanced back to make sure his friends were still following him into the concert hall. His was not the stare of concentration, but the approving gaze of love.

Today I peck at a tuneless keyboard and try to capture some small part of the wonder I experienced last night. I still don’t have music. But at least I’ve come face to face with it.

And that in turn gave me words.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Coming home is easy. Coming down is not.

I’m suffering withdrawal pains. Adventure withdrawal, I suppose.

When I finally realized (with help) what an anti-social SOB I have been for the past two weeks, I started looking for the source of my irritability. I found it in Mongolia.

I spent the first two weeks of June chasing Chingaas Khaan (aka Genghis Khan) across the dry landscape of one of the world’s most remote countries. It was part of a University of Missouri program that may rank as one of the best means devised of developing international awareness. The Global Scholars program joins teams of Mizzou academics from across the campus with scholars from other campuses for intense study tours of different countries each year.

Not to teach, but to learn. Few of the scholars selected have any previous experience with the country. But on their return they spread the knowledge of another culture across the curriculum.

And the trip to Mongolia certainly hit the mark for me. I will include snippets of information about the Mongolian press, political system, weather and religion in my curriculum for years.

So why am I such a curmudgeon?

While the Global Scholars program irreversibly changed my attitudes toward Mongolia, it temporarily transported me to a new life. Not a life I long to keep, but one I enjoyed more than I realized.

To step out of a comfortable American cocoon into a world that constantly challenges your senses is both breathtaking and overwhelming. I was bombarded with imagery and ideas foreign to both my scholarly mind and my writer’s imagination. Countless books and movies tried to give me a taste of “adventure”. But Indiana Jones and his friends are just the hors d'oeuvres that hint of the banquet.

But the new places were just a portion of the experience. The new faces that soon became familiar friends were equally important.

For two weeks I spent day and night – and even bunked – with people that I would have never met and less likely would have socialized with. I explored the back streets if Ulaanbaatar and our minds with Marty Walker, the retired Marine colonel who now keeps the College of Engineering shipshape. Nicole Monnier, the Russian professor with a disarming pixie stature and delightful a smile, would set me back on my heels with her acerbic wit and criticism. Physical therapy professor Marian Minor looked perfect for the stereotype of gentle grandmother – but then she wowed us with tales of scubadiving and world travel.

There were 12 of us in all. Twelve very different souls packed into bouncing Russian vans, aching from the hard beds in Mongolian gers and trying to smile as we ate another meal of over-boiled beef and noodles.

But we also looked together in awe upon the Eternal Blue Sky and the sheer vastness of the Mongolian countryside. And we sat wide-eyed as historians told us about an amazing genius our culture dismisses as a ruthless barbarian.

And we talked. I plowed the fields of my mind with an adventure but cultivated it with unexpected friendship.

I had never met a scholar on Buddhism before Jim Hubbard. I laughed with Amanda Sprochi over the challenge of being a vegetarian in a land that proclaims “meat for man, grass for animals.” Monika Fischer was gracious when I tried my high school German. The elite academic status of noted Amazon expert David Campbell at first intimidated me. But his amazing range of knowledge and his glimpses into the core of humanity worldwide captivated me.

We all talked and talked and talked. About heady concepts from our academic worlds and about the inane in our real worlds. By the end of the two weeks, my mind was just as full of visions, sounds and ideas as my camera was full of photos and my heart was full of emotion.

That was a few weeks ago. Now it is unbearably slipping away – leaving me unbearable.

I vowed to keep in touch with my new friends, to retain every bit of my new knowledge and to hold tightly to my awakened sense of adventure. But I don’t talk to the gang, other than to share an occasional e-mail. Every time I look at one of my pictures, I find another I can’t remember enough about to write a caption. And I sit at this damned computer day after day rather than riding the steppes or even exploring my own neighborhood.

Withdrawal hurts. I’m not a stoic; I tend to share my pain far too freely. So my family and friends suffer this summer for the enjoyment I had. Knowing that fact hurts even worse.

But the up side of fading memories is that life goes on. And gets better. Some friendships rekindle and memories unexpectedly return with a few notes of a song, a once-again familiar smell or a rediscovered scene in a photograph.

Then I’ll smile. Patience, Clyde. The true reward of past adventures is in the future.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Surprises from nature and man

So remember how I wrote about how dry Mongolia is? And how peaceful Mongolians are?

And then I left the country.

Just as we were packing up, it started to sprinkle. The drizzle turned to downpour that kept up for five days. Look at this comparison of how I saw the Selbe River compared to the shot Brian White took just a few days later:

Mongolia started to turn green again. Pasture was assured for the herds. A pleasant democratic election was a few days away. Life looked good.

So much for the idyllic. When the former Communist Mongolian Peoples Democratic Party declared victory, the rival Democratic Party cried foul and alleged voter fraud. Some people were more than a bit politically peeved -- a crowd attacked the MPDP headquarters and burned it. The riot left 400 police injured and pall of smoke -- and dread -- over Ulaanbaatar.

And now madness has set in. Someone torched the Cultural Palace and National Art Gallery, damaging the artworks students were unable to save from the flames.

I cannot tell you how sad I am to hear this latest turn in events. Both parties had defensible policies -- but different version of how Mongolia should develop its new-found natural riches.

Political anger is an emotion I understand well. I can recall my rage at Richard Nixon and the sick feeling in my stomach when I read of the Bush Administration's attacks on Constitutional rights.

I'm writing this from Charlottesville, in the Shenedoah Valley of Virginia. They know disagreement here -- locals in gray helped VMI professor Thomas Jackson "stand like a stone wall" until Phil Sheriden's boys in blue ripped through. Thousands died within a few miles of me over a political disagreement.

I know that many of the landmarks of the South were lost in the battles, as they always are in war. But to turn your anger pointedly on the cultural archive of a people who have influenced the world for 800 years or more is insane. And very sad.

Brian White is providing continuing eye-witness reports on his blog. More on-scene reports on the situation are from Radio Australia and The Associated Press.

Monday, June 23, 2008

It's not easy being brown

I never really appreciated the wonder of green.

After two weeks in Mongolia, I just spent three days in Boston. Like the Sceptered Isle for which it is named, New England practically glows in its lushness (I think mere politics kept it from being New Ireland.)

Where Mongolia is dominated by the grays and browns of its gritty soil, Boston fills the eye with chlorophyll. Given my Britannic genes, it was like soaking in a warm bath after a day of hard labor.

I know, however, how unfair it is to judge a land by your heritage. I spent several years in Texas, where the highest point on the horizon is a freeway overpass. I nearly when crazy for lack of a comforting mantle of surrounding hills. I had a friend, however, who had been terrified by a trip to my native West. Those mountains, he said, loomed over him like mountains.

The Mongolians more than love their open spaces – The Eternal Blue Sky is their spiritual anchor. And drought-parched land is such a part of their land that they don’t really see the lack of lawns in their cities or the brown of the landscape. When rains finally cause the hardy grass to jump out of the soil, their jubilation is for better pasture.

But I love green and always will. I’ll also always love Mongolia and the Eternal Blue Sky, I can’t easily comprehend finding the splendor in dry emptiness just as I delight in eye-filling foliage. But like the unqualified love for both my children, it is part of my soul.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Mongolia's past is prologue

So is the past just a portent of Mongolia’s future?

Although I had visited before and fallen in love with the Mongolian people, the country itself was still something of a distant mirage in my mind. My 15 days with the University of Missouri Global Scholars program, however, awakened me to both the reality and dream of the land of Chingaas Khaan.

Much of Mongolia is shockingly bleak. In the drought-stricken Khentii region, finding a live blade of grass took hands-and-knees inspection. The cows, camels, sheep, goats and yaks wandering the steppes did little better with their parched tongues. A precious few herders live the traditional life in felt gers, moving frequently in search of better pastures.

But in Ulaanbaatar, construction cranes rival hood ornaments on upscale new cars. Fashions and hemlines are high. And so is the optimism. Someone is pumping lots of money into this forgotten nation.

Mongolia must be the most overlooked keystone in the global economy. The fact that it is a democratic country nestled between Russia and China is alone enough to raise an eyebrow. But since finding that the hooves of its herds pounded over huge mineral reserves and potential oil fields, Mongolia is poised for another of its many evolutions.

Chingaas Khaan was nothing if not wily. He understood that the best road to success was adaptation. He invented the Mongolian Way – an intensely emotional way of retaining his culture as a spiritual value while absorbing and capitalizing on the attributes of other peoples.

I have no doubt that Mongolia will put its own ancient spin on the 21st century. The gers won’t disappear as nearly half the population moves to the city – but they will likely become as “authentic” as the teepees in the American Southwest.

The potential of wealth for a country of 2.5 million souls evokes visions of Middle East sheikdoms or Latin American banana republics. But I don’t think so. Mongolians are both hard-headed about their independence and loyal to the teachings of Chingaas Khaan. Back in his day, the Great Leader developed a unique method of pillaging – he sent teams of accountants to the vanquished city to catalogue the booty so that it could be doled out to Mongolians in what he considered a just way.

If I wait another six years for a third visit, I have no doubt that I will find another Mongolia. Change is in the dry Mongolian air. While I’ve heard Westerners bemoan the fading of those quaint traditional herders, that’s really a selfish wish for their own entertainment.

Besides, you can count on some Chiingist to erect a “Mongol Land” under the Eternal Blue Sky.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Going to the Gobi

The Gobi Desert. It is hard to imagine a more forbidden name. Sandstorms, nomads, camels with two humps. And no water.

I unfolded my legs from an eight-hour train ride from the Gobi. It is indeed dry. Sandstorms are awesome but not fun. But the camels are a blast.

We spent three days wandering around in the desert in a Russian van that had no first gear and only worked in four-wheel-drive for a few feet. Gritty sand blew into everything -- I doubt my camera will last much longer.

But the Gobi is not without life. small lizards scurry across the sand and large green insects vaguely akin to grasshoppers cling to the thorny brush.

The people in the Gobi are mining the region's new gold -- tourists. A monk wearing a cartoon-emblazoned towel led us through a new-age "World Energy Center." A group of believers chanted then plopped onto the sand to suck up energy. Ger camps are blossoming everywhere.

My favorite adventure was a stop at the ger of a young couple who raise camels. Bactrian camels are almost like big dogs. I loved them, expecially when they gave me the reins and I got to jog through the desert unaccompanied.

But the Gobi has long been conquered. As far as I walked and rode into this vast and legendary desert, the tracks of inconsiderate man were everywhere. The discarded beer can is the universal symbol for "We Were Here." Garbage is our legacy.

Here are more photos.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The greater Mongolia

Today was our wrap-up session, as half the group leaves for home tomorrow and the rest (including me) goes on a side jaunt to the Gobi Desert. The farewells were bittersweet, but the conclusion of the tour gave us a chance to contemplate Mongolia as the academics we are.

This is a country of surprises, challenges and opportunities. It is all but unknown to most of America, but once changed the entire civilized world and is positioned to have major impact again.

Our trip to the very rural countryside emphasized the contrasts in Mongolia. We were all delighted to return to Ulaanbaatar, which in comparison seems on the cutting edge of modernity. As Brian White noted about the capital, "We are hanging on to civilized life by our fingertips here."

But as the sages among us have noted, all that could change in an eye blink. Mongolia has discovered that its herds of goats graze over a fortune of buried minerals. Will it become the new Kuwait? And if so, will the people benefit or just the leaders and their foreign sponsors?

I may be an optimist, but I think Mongolia may take the "good" path to its future. The sultans of the Middle East historically grabbed the wealth for themselves when they conquered. But Chingaas Khaan had a trailing army of accountants who inventoried all the booty in a captured city and then divided it among the Mongolian people.

The Mongolians may let the Chinese, Koreans and Canadians turn the first spades in the mineral boom, but I have no doubt they will hold onto a major share of the total wealth. If the Mongolians are true to their heritage, that means we may see a wealthy country of highly educated and articulate people who keep in the office while the tourists go out to the countryside to see the quaint (and by then subsidized) nomads.

Today was our wrap-up session, as half the group leaves for home tomorrow and the rest (including me) goes on a side jaunt to the Gobi Desert. The farewells were bittersweet, but the conclusion of the tour gave us a chance to contemplate Mongolia as the academics we are.

This is a country of surprises, challenges and opportunities. It is all but unknown to most of America, but once changed the entire civilized world and is positioned to have major impact again.

Our trip to the very rural countryside emphasized the contrasts in Mongolia. We were all delighted to return to Ulaanbaatar, which in comparison seems on the cutting edge of modernity. As Brian White noted about the capital, "We are hanging on to civilized life by our fingertips here."

But as the sages among us have noted, all that could change in an eye blink. Mongolia has discovered that its herds of goats graze over a fortune of buried minerals. Will it become the new Kuwait? And if so, will the people benefit or just the leaders and their foreign sponsors?

I may be an optimist, but I think Mongolia may take the "good" path to its future. The sultans of the Middle East historically grabbed the wealth for themselves when they conquered. But Chingaas Khaan had a trailing army of accountants who inventoried all the booty in a captured city and then divided it among the Mongolian people.

The Mongolians may let the Chinese, Koreans and Canadians turn the first spades in the mineral boom, but I have no doubt they will hold onto a major share of the total wealth. If the Mongolians are true to their heritage, we may see a wealthy country of highly educated and articulate people who keep in the office while the tourists go out to the countryside to see the quaint (and by then subsidized) nomads.
Today was our wrapup session, as half the group leaves for home tomorrow and the rest (including me) goes on a side jaunt to the Gobi Desert. The farewells were bittersweet, but

Monday, June 09, 2008

Road to adventure

My energy and my enthusiasm are at odds with each other tonight. It is after midnight and I am dog tired. But my head is still swimming with the sights, sounds and smells of three days on the road in rural Mongolia.

Chingaas Khaan spent most of his youth in Khentii region of northeast Mongolia. Later it was his staging ground for the reorganization of bands of nomadic herders into the mighty Mongol nation.

Accompanied by Mongolian historians O. Sukhbaatar and Munkh-Erdene Lhamsuren, we caravaned through Khenti in two Russian jeep/vans and a more modern but less comfortable Mitsubishi. It was a tour of history, wonder, lifestyles and vistas tempered with a developing environmental disaster.

Mongolia is dry in the best of years. But this year the rains did not come to Khenti. The grass in the pasture takes a good eye to find. The cattle are thin and many carcasses littered the landscape. And this is early summer. With no grass now, the livestock have little chance of making it through the sub-zero weather.

If he herds die, so do the Mongolians.

Bed beckons, but there are plenty of photos on the Flickr site. And here is the short version to be fleshed out later.
-- "Road" is a relative term in Mongolia. At times it meant nothing at all as we simply drove off across the trackless steppes looking for our next waypoint.
-- "Road sign" is not a relative term in Mongolia. It is simply meaningless.
-- Camels are curious, but don't like cookies.
-- Milk tea is really salty milk and water, but tastes surprisingly good.
-- A ger is strangely roomy comfortable.
-- Mongolian faces are beautiful. As are their hearts. They welcomed this band of strangers into their gers, fed us from their larders and charmed us with incomprehensible words but universal smiles.
-- Chingaas Khaan camped in more places than there are inns in which Washington slept.
-- We erroneously start the history of Mongolia in the 1200's when Chingaas Khaan rose to power. But centuries before him the Turkic people, the Huns and others rode the steppes. Still earlier -- much earlier -- Stone Age people turned giant stones into art.
-- The secret to keeping a UAZ van on the road is to carry an extra distributor in your tool box
-- Dust storms are nasty. Just nasty. You taste them for days.
-- Hours, miles and bruised tailbones fade rapidly when you spend them with a handful of colleagues from various MU departments. I learned as much about myself, my school and my profession on this trip as I did about the simple cow herder who conquered most of the civilized world.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Too much to tell

In the past couple of days, I've chatted with Buddhist monk, posed with Lenin's statue, eaten horse for lunch, examined the bullet-riddled skulls of purged Mongolians, wandered the infamous Ulaanbaatar Black Market and, well, had one hell of a time.

But I still have to pack for a weekend trek to the the steppes and I'm too tired to write. So instead take a gander at the zillion photos I put on Flickr. I'll write again when I get back from the wilds.

The Grand Tour updated

Before World War 1, affluent young men and women celebrated their entree to civilized life by taking "The Grand Tour," a leisurely cruise to exotic ports around the world.

Winthrop and Penelope, buzz off. Meet Turk and Spence, the "two idiots with $600" and a desire to see the world.

When we were touring the Mongolian National Museum in Ulaanbaatar, I heard an accent from one of my favorite places in the world. "North England?" I asked as I passed a somewhat scruffy young man asking his friend where the **** they were supposed to be going next.

"Yeah, Manchester. You from America?" And indeed I was. There is an instant and amazing kinship among people who hear something close to their native tongue in a sea of unintelligible voices. And when I told him I was a journalism professor, his smile broadened, he nudged his friend and said, "Have we got a story for you!"

I wish I had met Paul Turko and John Spencer about 40 years ago. I take it back. I probably wouldn't be writing if I had.

Turk and Spence just graduated from Leeds University but wanted to have an adventure before going on to grad school. So they scraped up 300 pounds ($600) each, stuck out their thumbs and hitched rides to Ukraine.

And there they met Natasha Fedorova, whose gentle smile and gazelle-like grace would stop traffic on any continent. Natasha gave her boss an excuse, grabbed her bag and joined the adventure.

They took a train across Russia to Irkusk, delighted in the deep waters of Lake Baikal and headed down to Ulaanbaatar. Only to find me. Bummer.

The saving races is that they ran into Degi first. With true Mongol style, he offered them a place to sleep, access to his favorite watering holes and expert translation/guide service.

When I left the four, Turk and Spence were loudly debating their next move and wondering whether the Pacific Ocean was really a barrier to hitch hiking. Natasha looked bemused. Degi just patiently waited for the two Brits to stop talking and get moving.

And I'm sure they did. Keep an eye out for them. Or at least watch their YouTube movie for a bit of fun (but remember Manchester United fans seldom spare the course language).

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Clyde TV, Mongolia edition

I'm a print journalist, so video does not come naturally. But the Web makes it easy to add motion images. And now my still camera -- a Panasonic Lumix FZ7 -- has a nice video feature that lets me take nice shots without hauling a special camera.

So I gave it a try this morning. With the 13-hour time difference, I could not sleep. I was up at 3:30 a.m. I did email and sorted photos, then decided to walk through the awakening streets of Ulaanbaatar.

Here's a still image of what I saw, but you might enjoy this brief video. Be prepared -- I had no camera operator or remote control, so had to do a bit of running to get into the scene.

The Ulaanbaatar look

Dark stringy hair, weathered brow. A worn wool coat ( a deel) and felt boots with turned up toes. It's the Mongol look, right?

Go West, young man. All the way to Paris in this case. Although you still see traditional garb on the streets of Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolians out chic Americans coast to coast. I've never seen so many men in expensive suits, women in heels and expensive outfits or such great hair on both genders.

No nation can be fairly stereotype, but all in all the Mongolians are handsome people. They are fairly tall, have elegant facial lines I always associated with the "Indian princess" of old movies and a grace of movement I envy.

They are also exceedingly clean. That sounds like a given unless you have looked at the streets and surroundings of Ulaanbaatar. Dirt is the operative word. It's too cold and too dry for lawns or other landscaping. If it is not paved here, it is just dirt and rocks. And not many paths or shortcuts are paved.

But no one seems to have dust on their shoes, spattered trouser cuffs or telltale dirty handprints on their shirts. It's a trick I wish I had learned as a 5-year old. And especially as a 57-year old.

Here are a few street scenes of Mongolian fashions. I hope you are pleasantly surprised.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Khey, Chet it right, will you?

One of the interesting lessons of my first day of class in Mongolia is that I may have never correctly pronounced anything to do with the country – other than the name of the country itself.

The Great Khan is the Great Han. K is a silent letter in Mongolian. And Genghis – especially when pronounced as “Jengis,” is a puzzle for Mongolians. He is Chingaas (“cheen gus”).

And then there is the capital with all the vowels. Ulanbaataar in my lexicon was OOO-lon ba TAR. Here, its “AlonBAtar” – said quickly with all ahhing and no oooing.

I was wrong about trying to learn the Mongolian phrase for "where is the toilet" so I don't even need to remember to drop the "h" in jorlong khaan baidag ve. The International Sign Language for Guys system works well here. You can hop on one foot while grabbing your crotch in any place on the planet and some fellow will direct you to the can.

And this is not a one-small-drink country, so give up on the chance you will be able to toast with a cheery "Erüül mehdiin tölöö’" when your turn comes around the table.

So a simple "bye-arsh-te" and a nod of thanks will do.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The long and the shorts of it

We are here!

Our skivvies are not …

Missouri’s learned envoys to the Land of the Endless Blue Sky arrived in Ulaanbaatar Sunday evening after (hang on… 2 ½ to St. Louis, almost 5 to LA, carry the layover, 13 to Seoul times a cramped leg plus transfer to Mongolia ) one heck of a long time on our bottoms in a variety of semi-comfortable seats. But we were all in good spirits, especially when Dan, Monke and Brian from the trip showed up and we found that Ted from Tennessee had been on the plane with use.

We chatted away with excitement while watching the bags plop onto the carrousel at glacial speed. And we grinned at each other as the crowd of fellow travelers dwindled.
And then we looked at each other in dismay when the last bag came up the belt – and wasn’t one of ours.

Our baggage is somewhere between Mongolia and Seoul. Or Seoul and Los Angeles. Or Los Angeles and the moon.
We were not alone. Several other long-distance passengers were left baggedly clueless. I knew we were in trouble when a very patient and very polite Mongolian official smiled and whipped out a sheet with pictures of various types of bags and descriptions in Cyrillic text. I wasn’t even exactly sure of the color of my new case and less sure how you describe a rolling backpack.

Korean Airlines has but one flight per day to Ulaanbaatar, so the best we can hope for is to have clean underwear sometime Monday night.

In the meantime we took a bus down the bumpy road to the Flower Hotel. Brian White, the host from CIEE, explained that Ulaanbaatar is like Las Vegas – very pretty at night. You make the call in the daylight.

It is indeed a city of lights. Not a lot of traffic, but interesting signs – the Hanburger. The Khan Brau beer palace, etc.

The Flower Hotel is older but nice. It has a famous Japanese restaurant and a bathhouse. But I most appreciated the in-room Internet for just $4 a day. And the bed. I talked to Cecile by video Skype, washed out my shorts and went to bed about midnight.

And here I am. Ready for my first meal and my first day of adventure – armed with the key phrase of the day.

Jorlong khaan baidag ve. (Where is the bathroom?)

Sometime in nowhere

I knew that an excursion into the world of Genghis Khan was a “timeless adventure,” but I didn’t take that phrase so personally.

I’m not really sure where I am. I’m not sure what time it is and I’m not really even sure what day it is.

There is little map of the Pacific Ocean on the video screen staring at me from the seatback on this Korean Airlines jumbo jet. The little picture of a plane is hovering over what I seem to recall is the Kamchatka Peninsula. Hmm. Isn’t that where the Russians shot down a Korean Airlines jumbo jet a few years ago?

So am I in Russia, or just a part of that cartoon airplane on the map? I think for now my home is Seat 23E, a reasonably comfortable cocoon tended by a bevy of graceful and bilingual ladies bearing plastic cups of orange juice. A Korean girl who just finished her junior year at an Austin high school is dozing on my right. She’s going home to visit her parents. Next to her is an older Korean-American woman who is even more talkative than me – I know she is from Orlando, doesn’t like CNN and told me her three all-time favorite preachers. I had a hard time politely coming up with a list of my own. I don’t think the old guy on the bench in front of Tiger Barber counts.

The lucky fellow with the aisle seat to my left installs scoring devices on bombing ranges. He has expensive earphones, quickly dismissed the video games on our seatback screens and has whipped through a couple of movies since we boarded. Not much you can say to someone wearing a sound-deadening Bose headset. He lets me get out when my kidneys wake up, though. And at least he won’t complain when I snore.

But I can’t get a grip on time. I’m like the cartoon fellow in those educational cartoons, rocketing through space while a clock back home doesn’t move. I think I crossed the International Date Line for the seventh time in my life while dozing awhile ago. The seatback video map says it is 20:31 at Departure and 2:32 at Destination. But not MY departure – I started in St. Louis, not LA . Nor MY Destination – Seoul is just a dinner stop before we head to Ulaanbaatar. So what time is it in Seat 23E? Between the 24-hour clock on that video screen, the darkness in the cabin and the fact that I could eat, sleep or pee at any hour anyway, I don’t have a clue.

That’s kind of nice, really. I’m not anywhere or any time in particular.

I just am.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Genghis Clyde?

I’m getting out of here. WAY out of here.
I leave Saturday for 15 days in Mongolia as part of the Global Scholars program at the University of Missouri. Seven faculty and staff from different departments will join a half dozen others from additional universities to rediscover the legacy of Genghis Khan.

I’ll be in the good company of Amanda Sprochi from International Education, Monika Fischer and Nichole Monnier of Foreign Languages, Marty Walker of Engineering, Marian Minor of Physical Therapy and Lorie Thombs of Statistics. We will be joined by five professors from other universities.

"Mongolia" always seemed like something of a joke word to me, It was another way of saying “you can’t get there from here (“Emerald Street? Man, that’s way out in Mongolia!...”)

It’s not. When I first went there in 2002, to teach online journalism to news people with minimal access to the Web, I discovered it was a wonderful country with a rich history and friendly people. Wonderful, but cold as a the bells on yak herder's hat. It snowed in Ulaanbaatar this weekend.

I’ll be recording our adventure on my blog – aptly named Heard from Afar. So tune back in for the adventures of Genghis Clyde and the Mizzou Horde.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Just a game of catch

I think I went through some sort of baseball-inspired time warp last night.

Like most fathers, I’ve spent many hours playing catch with my son in the back yard or tossing Wiffle ball for him to smack. But more often than I am proud, his plea of “Can we play catch, Dad?” was answered with “I’m a bit busy right now, son.”

But when I was to throw the first ball out in a Mizzou baseball game next Sunday, I realized with some terror that my 57-year-old right arm had not thrown overhand in at least five years. That corresponds with the time my son left high school for college.
So I was relieved when Garrett offered to toss the ball around with me this week. But then he added “when I get some time.” Sounded a bit too familiar.

Garrett’s about to graduate as a mechanical engineer and is overwhelmed with classes, job interviews and the construction of a hydrogen fuel cell race car. So he is legitimately busy.

Despite all that, he made it over, last night, mitt in hand. Wre went out to a nearby field, where HE patiently gave ME advice.

“Let’s start close, Dad. "

“Keep it up where I can catch it, Dad.”

“That’s it! Throw it again just like that, Dad.”

I think the last time someone said that to me I was 12 years old. Except Dad didn’t call me "dad."

Catch with your boy – it’s always been wonderful. I just never thought it would be quite like this. It’s more than a game, in a way.

It’s catching life again.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Put me in, coach

I knew the scouts would find me eventually. Cannonball Clyde is finally taking the mound in a big-time ballgame.

Well, sort of. Two of my students are members of the Tiger Crew -- bat persons, grounds assistants and cheerleaders with personality. They arranged for me to throw in the first ball for the MU-Texas game Sunday, April 13.

Oh lord. What have I done?

Every boy in my neighborhood dreamed of becoming a pitcher. We all practiced standing at the mound with glove-hidden ball tucked near your groin. And looking over your shoulder to first base. And most of all, spitting.

I got that part. It was the actual pitching that did me in. I was pretty good at firing a fast one over the top of the backstop or bouncing it twice before crossing the plate.

So I've got a week to practice. Goal No. 1: Don't make a fool of yourself. Goal No. 2: Show 'em how to spit.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Going afar again

I'm back.

It's been a year since I last wrote, but it is time to fire up this blog again. I am, as it is, going about as far afar and you can go -- Mongolia.

I recently was selected to take part in the University of Missouri's Global Scholars tour "Mongolia: Empire and Democracy." Seven professors from various areas of Mizzou will join a dozen or so others on a mission to find the legacy of Chinggis Khaan -- aka Genghis Khan or Chingas Khan. Mongolian spelling doesn't translate well.

The tour participants gathered yesterday to meet, fret over logistics and see who knew what about where we were going. The group ranges from an engineer to a librarian to a statistician to a Russian teacher. All have travelled abroad, but none but me have been to Mongolia. And all are prepared for the adventure of their lives (so far).

We leave May 30 and return June 15. Between now and then, I'll write about the logistical, mental and cultural preparations. And a bit of dreaming, while I'm at it.

Stay tuned.