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Monday, March 2, 2015

Being Here Is More Than a Vacation

Earlier this winter, when I announced here in “Books on Northport” that David and I would be taking a sabbatical, one of my readers (and you know who you are, BB!) asked about the difference between a vacation and a sabbatical. Actually, before he raised the issue he’d done a little homework and looked up a definition of sabbatical. Basically, a sabbatical involves some kind of professional creative work and time to “recharge the batteries,” often in a setting away from home. The away-from-setting may be chosen for its research possibilities, but that’s not always a necessary consideration.

But wait – isn’t an ordinary vacation supposed to “recharge the batteries,” too?

In the academic world, faculty members long for time to do what each calls “my own work.” Teaching, of course, is the primary job of most college and university professors, but they are also expected to (and usually want very much to) produce their original work – scientific research, creative writing, works of art, inventions, or whatever – and that can be hard to do simultaneously with the demands of preparing classes, teaching, grading, and advising students. Hence the sabbatical.

In our regular Michigan lives, I have a bookstore, which in summer is open seven days a week. The schedule isn’t quite as rigorous the rest of the year, but business is still a constant presence in my head, the first thing there when I wake up each morning.

David is not quite so tied to his gallery -- since the bookstore is right next door, he can come and go more freely, knowing I’ll keep an eye on things -- but he, too, although he produces more painting in his gallery than I get writing done in my bookstore, feels the pressure of business concerns on a daily basis. And naturally our days off are consumed with personal, household, and business errands.

Four years ago, down in Aripeka, Florida, I wrote ten short stories, and David made between 20 and 30 new paintings. It was an extremely productive winter for both of us. But that was four years ago, and while he has been productive since then, I have felt stagnant. So when the opportunity came along to rent this little cabin in southeast Arizona, even before we left Michigan my mind started recharging! I began a novel. I looked back at an unfinished short story. And then we started driving across the country....

my corner

Now here we are. I have finished the short story, and I written eleven chapters of the novel. It feels good.

David is having second thoughts about writing he’d planned to do and isn’t pushing himself to write, but that’s all right. He bought some new brushes and has the beginning of some new work underway, both drawing and painting. I’ve not been as diligent at my drawing as I’d anticipated but am not pushing myself in that direction. Getting as much writing done as I have been is the main thing; for me, drawing is meditation, not “my own work.”

The vastness of the Western landscape had us both overwhelmed for the first few weeks. It is so BIG! The effect gained by being here depends on being surrounded by the desert and mountains. But just being here, driving around and looking, sitting and looking, soaking it in, looking, looking, looking – all that is energizing, all of it refilling the wells of creativity.

It’s that kind of recharging, I realize – not electric, as with an engine or batteries, but more profound, as with an aquifer.

We’re reading a lot. David was thoroughly absorbed in Huffington’s biography of Picasso and read every word of it hungrily. He and I both read a fabulous book on coyotes and are now sharing a book on horses and racing by Jane Smiley. If you want to know what else I’ve read since our arrival, just look over at my “Books Read 2015” list, but my point is this: We read and discuss; we look at everything and talk about what we see; we pay a lot of attention to cloud formations, as if we are children again, lying on our backs in the summer grass. My short story was set in Scotland, and my novel is set in Michigan. Some of David’s drawing is figurative, nothing to do with landscape at all. That doesn’t matter. We’re working, and it feels good.

MANY books added since this photo taken!
Having a home base is important. During the day we are free to go out exploring, and then we come home to the cabin every night -- nesting, building our sabbatical libraries, and organizing and reorganizing our work spaces, secure in the knowledge that we have weeks in which to spread out and concentrate on work that is very personal to us and involves no one other than ourselves. 

Not everyone has the luxury of taking months away from work. I realize that. At the same time, since neither of us has a regular job or a position with benefits, we cannot look forward to ordinary retirement, either. Instead of the retirement other people have, we have this -- unpaid sabbatical time we have arranged to give ourselves and each other.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Ongoing Motor Home Debate: Man vs. Woman!

[Note to those looking for action and adventure: This post is all talk. For A&A, click here for a very exciting day in Willcox and here for sandhill cranes and my first trip to Mexico.]

David is attracted to the big American vehicles known as motor homes. I am not. He dreams of traveling in one, and his dream is my nightmare. He is drawn -- and I pull back as he tries to pull me forward. This struggle has been going on for years.

Almost every long-married couple (if your experience is different, please share it with me!) has recurrent, never-resolved debates, and some of them make no difference whatsoever. An example of such a trivial debate is ours over spotted horses: I love an Apaloosa, and David wouldn’t have one as a gift. To him, only a solid color (preferably black but definitely dark) is acceptable in a horse. I love a dapple myself. I also love a buckskin. I like black horses, too – just not exclusively. The bottom line, however, is that it is highly unlikely we are going to become horse owners at this stage in our lives. Nothing is riding on a decision. No decision is called for.

I wish I could say the same about the motor home debate, but I fear it could be otherwise.

Recently I had a couple of new insights into our different opinions. The insights hardly promise to resolve the differences, but they’re interesting, nonetheless – at least to me.

Last summer David spotted a motor home he considered an ideal size (which I saw as alarmingly, dismayingly enormous), and he began dreaming out loud about how wonderful it would be to take on the road. My reaction was: “It’s so big we would never be able to explore dirt roads or two-tracks. We’d be on expressways all the time (and I hate expressways). Furthermore, it’s so complicated, like hauling a house around, that you would be completely absorbed in driving and worrying about every aspect of the vehicle, and you wouldn’t pay any attention to me at all.” I summed up my view by telling him, “It would be, literally, hell on wheels!” He laughed and was unconvinced, but he did see, I think, where I was coming from. Whenever a car we’re in starts making a strange noise, forget conversation! How would it be, then, with all the potential for problems in a motor home?

Okay, now forward to this winter. A friend who came to visit us here in southeast Arizona is traveling this season in a small motor home. Her husband is back home in Michigan. She’s traveling with her two cats – and having the time of her life! David saw her vehicle as too small for us, and she admitted that when her husband joins her on the road from time to time, a larger motor home would suit them better.

She and David got into a long discussion on the merits of motor home travel, in general. He asked what it cost to stay places overnight. She prefers state parks to RV “campgrounds” (the scare quotes are mine, as you could probably guess; most people use the term with no irony intended) because the state parks are cheaper, but they’re still not cheap. David asked about mileage. Not great. My observation then was that considering the overnight fees and gas consumption, traveling in a motor home wasn’t much cheaper than staying in motels.

“But you can make your own meals in your motor home, instead of eating in restaurants,” my friend pointed out. She and David also raved about the convenience of being to “pull over and take a nap” whenever they got tired.

“A man convinced against his will/is of the same opinion still,” wrote Ogden Nash, and the same is true of a woman. But I was not even convinced. When I travel, I like eating in restaurants and not having to shop, cook, and do dishes! I like staying in a motel where clean sheets and towels are provided, and the bed is immaculately made and the bathroom has been cleaned by someone other than me!

The next day I accompanied our friend, in her vehicle, to a big truck stop out by the expressway, where she could “dump.” Need I say more? Offsetting all the “conveniences” of taking a home with you on the road, as I see it, is that you also take along all the concerns of having a home with you on the road. Locking such a vehicle involves much more than a click. Powering and fueling and monitoring all its systems is quite a job.

I would never want to be responsible for all the complex systems of such a mode of travel -- and, of course, I would not be if David were the driver and expedition leader, but then, neither would I have a relatively carefree travel companion, because, as I pointed out to him last winter, he would be constantly monitoring the house we were hauling around behind us. It’s no simple turtle shell! If it were not making some strange noise, he would be listening to make sure there was no strange noise. The concerns of traveling in a car would be multiplied and supersized.

Size – that's another issue.

Whenever my attention is called to a motor home, my first response is to its size. I tell David I would be embarrassed to be a passenger in one of the behemoths we see on the road. Besides the fuel expense and the mental energy one of those things would demand (detracting from my enjoyment of new scenery and regional culture), the sheer look of excess repels me. Our friend’s current vehicle is not like that. It’s modest in size and looks like something I could drive (if I had to). But David considers it “too small,” and Karen agrees that it’s too small when she and her husband are living in it together. But if it’s something I might have to drive, a pickup with topper or van with rear extension is as much as I want to consider.

We’re still stuck, aren’t we? Why? Is there any possible resolution? Maybe not, but that’s probably because we are trying to compare apples and oranges, and maybe recognizing that will at least shed some light on the debate.

Brian Wansink, a researcher into eating habits, writes in his book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think about the differences between what men and women consider “comfort food.” For men, a warm, home-cooked casserole or meat-and-potatoes meal is “comfort food,” while the phrase conjures up in a woman’s mind images of ice cream, candy, and snacks. Why? Because they have different associations with the word “comfort” and with the foods they put in the category. The foods men put in the comfort food category are those that make them feel taken care of. Is it any surprise that they imagine a woman taking care of them? And that where they see “comfort,” the woman sees “work”? Women’s comfort foods are those that don’t require work: they are “hassle-free.”

Men’s comfort: Be waited on!

Women’s comfort: Put your feet up and relax!

In the motor home debate, the key issue might be defined as “freedom,” and here again, what David sees as freedom, I see as work. Someone would be fixing those meals, doing that laundry, cleaning that vehicle. Not to mention that someone elsehe – would be focused on the smooth running of the vehicle rather than on his companion and the world around. This, of course, is my perspective. The “freedom” touted by advocates, my husband included, looks to me like the complete opposite for both of us.

Can’t we stop and take naps in the car? I could relax pretty well with my feet up on the dashboard. How about you?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Well Within Reach

Why is Sarah so excited?

Dog and Cats: A friend from Michigan is traveling the West with two cats. When Karen turned up in our yard, Sarah, who loves company, was very happy. Realizing quickly that there was at least one cat aboard (the other stayed out of sight), Sarah was fascinated. But since the cats go everywhere Karen goes, when she and I took off the next day to see the cranes, Sarah had to stay home. A dog and two cats in the vehicle? No, thank you!

Sheep: On our way to Whitewater Draw, we stopped to sheep, the first I’d seen on that road. Did they only arrive within the last couple of days? At the sheep stop, we could hear cranes overhead and were finally able to spot them in formation but flying much too high to be visible as cranes. I could only identify them by their calls.

Cranes: We were not disappointed at the Draw, our day’s #1 objective. There were fewer people than when David and I visited in January and, thankfully, not the fierce wind we’d experienced there. Cranes were gathered in two major areas, one near the parking area and another group out far beyond the paths and water. We went all the way out to the end of the farthest path to see the latter group, highly satisfied despite the fact that no flocks wheeled overhead.

Douglas – and Lunch: Next, the restaurant I’d promised Karen along the way having been closed on Wednesdays, we agreed to drive on to Douglas, a new destination for me, an American town on the Mexican border. Douglas turned out to be quite a lovely town, full of beautiful architecture and palm trees and many houses with that hipped style of roof I so loved years ago in Georgia. There was also a street parallel to the border with small, old-looking adobe buildings that I want to take David back to see. That street looked like the 19th-century beginnings of a town that did not become a ghost town but grew “inland.”

We found a beautiful restaurant, and lunch was inexpensive and delicious. One of the taco plates, called “cabeza,” featured chopped onion and cabbage, so of course I had to order dos tacos cabezas, in honor or my winter digs – but then forgot, in my hunger and eagerness, to photograph them for the blog. Rats!

Karen wanted to walk across the border to buy a bottle of tequila, her #2 objective of the day. Initially I’d said I’d wait for her in the vehicle, with the cats. I had my passport with me but was a little nervous about going across. Then at the last minute I changed my mind. Lots of people were walking across, including plenty of kids, and my friend, a retired airline attendant, is one of the most experienced travelers I know. So why not?

Mexico: The first building that caught our eye was this one. Is it a nightclub? Wow! Talk about an eye-popping façade!

“But this is nothing like Nogales,” Karen said on the other side as we looked up and down the street for a liquor store, not seeing one anywhere in sight. “In Nogales, it’s liquor store, dentist office, eyeglasses, liquor store, dentist office, eyeglasses.” No, Agua Prieta – at least, as much of it as we saw -- is nothing like that. There were several pharmacies just inside the border, which I pointed out as likely destinations for medical tourists (I only photographed this old, closed pharmacy; others looked bright and lively), but other than that, most places looked run-down and faded. We had to watch our steps carefully, too, for changes in sidewalk elevation and crumbling curbs. There were no hordes of tourists in t-shirts, for sure -- maybe no tourists at all? I was the only person I saw carrying a camera -- and no rows of stalls selling tourist items. This was a poor border town, spritzing itself up here and there (one very pretty hotel; another big building going up a block or two away) and struggling along everywhere else.

Note: Others were open, but I couldn't resist photographing this wall

Karen kept apologizing. “It’s too bad this is your first experience of Mexico. You’d really like Nogales. It’s nothing like this.”

Okay, I’m sure it isn’t. On the other hand, having expected a completely tourist experience, I didn’t mind at all seeing an ordinary, more work-a-day town. “It feels more like a real place,” I told her. “I’m not disappointed at all.” And I wasn’t – not in the town or what I was seeing there. The only thing that disappointed me was my own memory! I felt tongue-tied, and my distracted brain kept fluttering with excitement and going into spins as I tried to remember my most rudimentary Spanish. My friend Laurie would have been very disappointed in me, I’m afraid! What, for example, is the verb for ‘to buy’? Karen doesn’t speak Spanish, and I would have liked to be able to say “My friend wants to buy tequila.” No could do.

Two men in a little party store (looking like any little U.S. party store, by the way) spoke English, however, and gave us directions to a liquor store. A block that way, another block that way. Okay, we did it. Then, tequila purchased and in the bag, we were ready to start back north.

Colorful tiles greeted us on the American side of the customs desk, and a fascinating, surprising picture greeted our eyes as we drove away from the border area: dozens of school children, loaded down with bags and backpacks, were streaming towards Mexico. They were born in the U.S., Karen explained to me, so they have the right to attend school here, but they live with their families in Mexico.

Pirtleville: The day included one more surprise, a colorful Arizona cemetery that looked as if it could easily have been in Mexico. We stopped, and I walked around with my camera but could not feel satisfied with the results. Like the desert and the mountains, it is the overall vista that is so impressive, and there was no way I could get my images close enough, far enough, wide enough, and big enough – all at once – to convey the impression of the reality.

Cows: On the way back to Dos Cabezas, we stopped to see some pretty-faced cattle in a feed lot. Sweet though their faces were, I was not moved to outrage by their plight. Why not? Am I becoming insensitive to animals, the more attention I pay to the challenges of farming and ranching, or was it the scenes of poverty in Mexico and those children crossing the border every day in hopes of a better life that had my mind more focused on human struggle?

Coyotes and Deer: It seemed that the excitement of the day was behind us as we reached the north end of the Kansas Settlement Road and turned onto Hwy. 186 toward Dos Cabezas. Then Karen exclaimed, “What’s that?” Something had run across in front of us, up ahead. Then another one! By the time the third one was crossing, we were close enough to see clearly that it was a coyote. No one behind us, so Karen stopped, and we could see all three there beyond the road, looking back at us. They look smaller and brighter in color than our Michigan coyotes. But did they wait for us to pull out our cameras and focus? They did not! Well, anyway, we saw them. “That was great!” David and I have heard coyotes here many nights, but these were the first I’d seen, and I was pleased to be able to add three coyotes to my list of six roadrunners, two mule deer, two javelinas (dead), and many Southwest birds. Then, “Look!” To our left, running along the base of a low mountain, parallel to the road, like animals in a safari film, were a herd of half-a-dozen deer. Mule deer? Whitetail? We were past them, and they were out of sight before I could be sure.

Home and Cat and Dog: David had spent most of the day at home, reading and drawing and painting, enjoying a rare day of solitude but eager to hear about our adventures. Karen and I put together a big taco spread for supper and told him all about it.

Sarah stuck to my side like a burr all evening. “She missed you,” David said. I missed her, too. I kept thinking she was in the van with us and then remembering we had only Karen’s cats with us. (Friendly little part-Siamese Frankie was in and out of my lap all day.) But here’s a question: did Sarah simply want to be close to me that evening or to Frankie’s tantalizing scent, as well?

P.S. Look here for the weather we had on Tuesday evening....

Monday, February 23, 2015

In My Dreams, I Have Always Been a Cowgirl. Was That a Singing Cowgirl?

Ready for ME?

Dream Scenes

It’s true. Ask my mother. My very earliest career aspiration was cowgirl. Later came veterinarian, poet, singer, actor, writer, philosopher, and, finally, bookseller. But girlhood cowgirl dreams are like creeks during drought times: they may go underground for years, but they never die.

Is there anything on earth that smells better than cows and hay and fresh cow manure? How about horses and hay and fresh horse manure! What about combining the horses and cows? HEAVEN!

When David read about a weekly livestock auction in Willcox, he knew that expedition had my name on it, and we drove over a couple days beforehand to make certain of the location. Cochise County leads the state of Arizona in cattle production, making Willcox (and not Bisbee, the county seat) the Cow Capitol, so I guess that makes the Willcox Livestock Auction (WLA) Arizona’s Cattle White House. 

Thursday finally came! Auction day! I wish I could include here the feel of the hot sun, the sound of calves bawling, and the smell of the dust and the cattle and the horses and the hay. I wanted to be everywhere at once – watching the riders and horses work the cows,

inside where the calves came in one side to be auctioned off and then scrambled out the other side when the gate was opened,

out by the pens where groups of calves awaited their turn in the auction house,

and especially in the outdoor stall shelters where the cowhorses, in turn, took breaks from their demanding work. 

I wanted to be on a horse, too, and also flicking a flyswatter at calves to move them from one side of the auction “ring” to the other, and I wouldn’t have said no to opening and closing an auction ring gate.

We sat indoors a while to watch the buying and selling and at first weren’t sure about the prices being knocked down. Per lot, or per animal? Because sometimes as many as eight would come through at once. Light dawned at last: the calves were being sold by the hundredweight. So if a 500-lb. calf brought in a $120 selling price, that calf would cost the buyer $600. It made sense.

We went outdoors again, into the sunlight, to watch the horses and riders work the cows (Midwesterner that I am, it’s hard for me not to put that word in “scare quotes,” when we’re talking calves and often steer calves) through a complicated system of pens and gates on their way to the auction ring. A man in a cowboy hat, walking by the pens with his little grandson at his side, asked, “You folks buyin’ today?” “Not today,” David answered. “Just lookin’ today.” David was wearing his cowboy hat, and his boots were appropriately scuffed and dusty. Two little boys looking for adventure caught their mother’s distant but vigilant eye. “You boys get outta that pen right now!”

As we were leaving, I was surprised to see one truck pulling out with an empty livestock trailer but quickly realized the driver must have been selling that day, not buying. We left in a Toyota sedan with a Michigan license plate. What did people conclude from that?

I could have stayed all day. I could go every day and stay all day! As we came back down Haskell Avenue into town, I noticed the new custom T-shirt shop open in an old gas station. “COWGIRL IN MY DREAMS,” I told David. “That’s what my t-shirt would say. And I bet a lot of other women would love it, too!”

Happy girl, living my dream

*  *  *

But the day was not over yet. After a lazy interlude of iced tea and corn nuts at Railroad Park, we went home to rest, have a light supper, change clothes, and then –

The Paris Opera

I’m not kidding. It was Les Noces de Figaro, i.e., “The Barber of Seville,” a videocast from the Opera de la Bastille in Paris, France, and we saw it at the Willcox Historic Theatre in Willcox, Arizona. 

The tickets were only $5 each! Never could we have seen such a show at that price in Northport or Traverse City, let alone in Paris! But yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s true: for a mere $10, the artist and bookseller on winter sabbatical were transported to Paris for the evening. I couldn’t believe it was happening!

Intermission interview

There was the handsome, urbane but enthusiastic announcer (whose name has escaped me), introducing the production in French (with, as you see, English subtitles for export audiences), and indeed, after a magnificent orchestral overture, the curtain rose, and we were there, in the Opera de la Bastille, watching Damiano Micheletti’s electrifying 20th-century staging of this well-known work.

I didn’t take any photographs during the opera itself. Even though the performers were not, in person, onstage in the theatre with us, it just didn’t seem right. Here, though, is the barber, a perfect Figaro!

And here is the chorus, taking their curtain call, a shot that shows you part of the two stories of the fantastic four-story revolving stage set. 

My heart had wings, there were stars in my eyes – and yet, on the way home, I kept an alert eye on the road ahead for javelinas and coyotes. We’d seen two dead javelinas on the side of the road the morning before, and they didn’t look like anything we’d want to run into ourselves.

Again – what a day! Quelle journée! Époustoufflante!