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Monday, March 31, 2008

Iron and Steel

Except for a family vacation when I was a teenager, I have no real memories of my birthplace, Aberdeen, South Dakota. No visual or detailed memories, anyway—only a warm, happy response to any tiny bungalow covered with grey shingles, which after many years I realized must connect to otherwise unretrievable memories of that first family home. I began first grade and graduated from high school in Joliet, Illinois, where my mother and youngest sister live there to this day. Periodically, then, I make my way south down M-37 to Grand Rapids, tilt southwest toward Holland, and finally venture into the suburban sprawl of northwest Indiana and northeast Illinois, a very different world from my Up North country farmhouse and small-town bookshop.

It’s good to be with family, and it’s a “trip” encountering and dredging up and sharing old memories. While I’ll never be a Michigan “native,” though, Michigan has been my home for almost 40 years, and I’m always homesick in Illinois. The memory banks, Illinois and Michigan, are mostly separate from one another. That’s why it gave me a warm, happy feeling to find pieces of northern Michigan down there on the prairie while out walking my dog. In case you can’t read the letters in this image, they spell out “East Jordan Iron Works” and “East Jordan, Michigan” and “Made in USA.”

My mother was reading the latest Jan Karon novel while I was there. I took along Walter Mosley’s BLONDE FAITH to read in bed at night. On Saturday my mother and sisters and I visited the Joliet Historical Museum and found a book signing in process. Paul W. Jaenicke and Ralph E. Eisenbrandt were signing ELGIN, JOLIET AND EASTERN RAILWAY, one of the “Images of Rail” series put out by Arcadia Publishing, a publisher doing an excellent job preserving local history throughout the Midwest. The reason my parents moved from Aberdeen to Joliet was that my father took a job with the EJ&E. (We were already a railroad family, my father a surveyor in South Dakota for the Milwaukee Road, his father a “hogger” for the Pennsylvania Railroad back in Ohio.) “’Egypt, Jerusalem and Everywhere,’ we called it,” one of the authors in Joliet on Saturday said. I’d never heard that one before.

Historically, though, iron and steel connected Michigan and Illinois in many ways. Then there was the Illinois & Michigan (I&M) canal, passing right through Joliet’s neighbor town, Lockport. I like the state names linked that way. I also like the fact that we share the same Great Lake and that its name is Michigan.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

View from the Road

Extensive tree damage along the roadside this year is impossible not to notice. Each affected tree has enormous, eye-popping holes up and down its trunk, with a mountain of sawdust at the base. Kay Charter, of Saving Birds Through Habitat, confirms our friend Kathie Snedeker’s supposition that pileated woodpeckers are the cause. Kay says they’re going after insects (her first suspicion is carpenter ants) and that the tree undoubtedly had “heart rot.” (We’re checking out the ant theory with the county extension service, but obviously some delicious insect inhabits these trees in great number.) The dying tree feeds the insects, the insects feed the woodpeckers, and the wheel keeps turning.

This tree is not far from Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern on M-22, where revolutionary changes are afoot. Changes? At the Happy Hour? Those who don’t like the introduction of television (!) to the bar aren’t at all squeamish about the smoke-free policy that will go into effect April 1 (no fooling), and, turning the tables, the smokers probably don’t mind the TV, but everyone’s going to have to give a little on this round. It is, after all, the Happy Hour.

If you haven’t already done it, check out Joe Borri’s blog (it's in my list) and see if you can fit your life into a six-word synopsis. Mine, I think, pretty much covers it all: poetry, philosophy and bookselling.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Maple Syrup Time

“The sugar-making season was ever hailed with delight by the boys of the household in colonial days, who found in this work in the woods a wonderful outlet for the love of wild life which was strong in them. It had in truth a touch of going a-gypsying, if any work as hard as sugaring-off could have anything in common with gypsy life. The maple-trees were tapped as soon as the sap began to run in the trunk and showed at the end of the twigs; this was in late winter if mild, or in the earliest spring. A notch was cut in the trunk of the tree at a convenient height from the ground, usually four or five feet, and the running sap was guided by setting in the notch a semicircular basswood spout cut and set with a special tool called a tapping-gauge. In earlier days the trees were ‘boxed,’ that is, a great gash cut across the side and scooped out and down to gather the sap. This often proved fatal to the trees, and [the practice] was abandoned. A trough, usually made of a butternut log about three feet long, was dug out, Indian fashion, and placed under the end of the spout. These troughs were made deep enough to hold about ten quarts. In later years a hole was bored in the tree with an augur; and sap-buckets were used instead of troughs.”

This passage is from HOME LIFE IN COLONIAL DAYS, “written by Alice Morse Earle in the year MDCCCXCVIII” [published by Macmillan Company the same year] and “Illustrated by Photographs, Gathered by the Author, of Real Things, Works and Happenings of Olden Times.” An image from Earle’s book contrasts with the modern equivalent, technology having changed radically, but as visiting friends from Australia assured us after a stint in the sugar bush of relatives, the work and the fun are much the same. Our friends did go indoors to sleep after their work, however, unlike the colonial boys who, “When there was a ‘good run of sap,’” might camp out several nights in a row. “Indeed,” Ms. Earle noted in this chapter (“Food From Forest and Sea”), “I have never heard any one speak nor seen any account of a night spent in a sugar-camp except with keen expressions of delight. If possible, the time was chosen during a term of moonlight; the snow still covered the fields and its pure shining white light could be seen through the trees.”

We have had cold, clear nights and shining moonlight this wint’ry spring. Here’s hoping it will be a good maple syrup and sugar season.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Michigan Spring and Nature Study

Yes, yes, yes, there is fresh snow this morning, on the ground and still coming down. Blustery wind, too. If, however, one were to exercise the magic power of flight and zoom up to the treetops, one would find plenty of signs of spring. These popple buds burst forth a few days ago. No, I didn’t fly up to the tops of the trees. Shallow-rooted and short-lived, popples (Populus tremuloides, of the family Amentiferae--has catkins) fall over regularly, and the treetop from which I broke this branch was on the ground, handy for picking on a disappointingly cold and grey Easter Sunday. Catkins are such a cheery sight!

Vinson Brown’s book, THE AMATEUR NATURALIST’S HANDBOOK, designed to “make all the outdoors your classroom,” is one I am just itching to share with Spencer. Here’s a nugget of thought to tuck in next to the popple branch: “In the evolution of the plant, scientists tell us that the leaf was once a stem and the petal, sepal, and in fact all the parts of the flower, once leaves. If you will remember this simplicity as you start to learn the names of different plants, you will not be so worried by their seeming complexity, and you will be better able to see the relation of the parts to the whole….” (How do you suppose catkins fit into this picture, Spencer?)

Frequent mention of the studies of famous naturalists is inspiring. Jean Lamarck (his cloud classification and evolutionary theory both rejected by subsequent researchers) is a name familiar in connection with evolution, but I hadn’t realized that he was the first to systematize the study of clouds, making his observations from bed in the city of Paris: lying ill with yellow jaundice, unable to go outdoors into “Nature” for months, he watched clouds through his window. (That story reminded me of the physicist Richard Feynman, conducting experiments with ants on a hospital windowsill while visiting his dying wife. Scientific curiosity never sleeps.) Clouds, in Brown’s view, are an irresistible area of study for the “wise naturalist.” There is no long chapter on clouds, but the subject comes up again and again. “Since cloud study is one of the most fascinating and easily learned of all nature studies, it becomes far more pleasure than work.” All right! I can hardly wait for summer, when sweet mornings and balmy evenings invite me to lie on my back and cloud-watch.

Neither can I pass from famous naturalists without mentioning Asa Gray's student, Liberty Hyde Bailey, our own native son naturalist and horticulturist from the shores of Lake Michigan.

Brown’s chapter on animal study includes directions for making different kinds of live traps and indoor housing for insects, snakes, mammals and so forth, with plenty of cautions about making cages large enough and keeping them clean, and I know that Spencer would not miss a word of this. (One of their family pets in St. Paul is Sammy, a Peruvian Rainbow Boa.) The author cautions that most wild animals will not become pets and that it’s “not a good idea to keep one very long. Keep it long enough to study its actions and its habits and then let it go. It will make you feel better to know that your wild creature is free and active in the woods and fields once more.”

Those are just a few samples from this captivating book, which is generously illustrated with line drawings to make the material come alive.

Our domestic princess, Sarah, had eyes as wide as saucers yesterday evening when she saw a RABBIT! out by David’s studio barn. It may have been the first rabbit she’s ever seen! Sarah lacks serious scientific curiosity and disciplined method. There was no way she was going to sit still for ten minutes to observe that rabbit. Only the leash kept her from giving chase.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Guest Book Review: THE ZOO SAVERS

THE ZOO SAVERS, by John Todd, reviewed by Spencer Willits, age 9

Eddie was always interested in animals so he started the Zoofers Club. Soon he finds that three macaws are missing. The only clue the Zoofers have is some fishing line used to net up the cage. It's up to the Zoofers to find and nab the thieves. But can these kids handle it?

I thought THE ZOO SAVERS was a great mystery book and I always wanted to read "Just one more page!" It always kept me wondering what would happen next.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Easter

Donna at the Treasure Chest has been pouring coffee for Northport for the last couple of months, providing a warm welcome, hot breakfasts, and always a surprise or twenty in the décor. Here we have the first forced forsythia of the season. Am I going out on a limb if I guess that these branches were brought in by neighbor Pat Scott?

Named for horticulturalist William Forsyth, doesn’t it stand to reason there would be a festival somewhere for this bright spring-flowering shrub? I can recall driving back through northern Florida and Georgia about this time of year, reveling in the flowers, some towns all forsythia, some roads lined for miles with blooming redbud, so I’m not surprised to find a Forsythia Festival in Forsyth, Georgia. It even included a used book sale! Alas, it was weeks ago—and that was there, we were here….

The farm eggs I buy have brown shells: no brightly colored eggs for Easter here. We have no little ones in residence, anyway. Instead of emptying a basket, therefore, we’ll take a ramble over hill and field, inspecting twigs for incipient buds.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Hoping for Sun

This sunny day picture is from a few days ago. There’s something about very simple road signs that I find appealing. I especially like the laconic nature of the warning against this taxicab yellow background, in the shape that could say so many different things but this time says only BUMP, suggesting, “You might want to think about slowing down as you go around this corner. I’m not saying you have to, but you might be glad you did.” Note also in this picture the plastic energy-saving panels inside the hardware store windows…the dirty snow piled in front of the shed…muddy puddles in the street…blue sky. We are on the cusp of a season transition, my friends. I have confidence that winter will not last forever—and neither will the sewer work that will start up again with spring’s arrival. (Hence, BUMP.)

We did not have a sunny day yesterday, after all, but neither did we have the all-day snow that Kalamazoo and St. Paul family reported. This morning is another clear dawn, and I’ll hope this time the clear skies last all day.

Last night I brought home SOD AND STUBBLE, by John Ise. It looked so familiar, and I tried to figure out when I would have read it. Possibly for that History Through Literature class at Western Michigan University? But the book, as I realized when I got into it, is nonfiction, a memoir of the author’s parents’ life on the Kansas prairie, so now I’m thinking the professor must have assigned it when I did an Independent Study in agricultural history. If only I could remember all I have “learned” in my life! How many hundreds of brands of barbed wire were there in those days? (A recent book on the subject could probably tell me.) My days spent toiling in the regional archives as a research assistant left the indelible impression of constant movement, waves of immigrants to southwest Michigan, only a few staying to found dynasties of three and four generations. Here’s the opening sentence of SOD AND STUBBLE: ”It was bright mid-afternoon, of the third of June, eighteen seventy-three, on the prairies of Western Kansas.” Nice place to go for an evening this time of year.

Watch for a cheery surprise tomorrow (hint: flowering) and an even better one on Monday, when I will post the first children’s book review from Spencer Willits in Minnesota.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Bare Bones

Not far behind the barn, lying in the snow, whose bones are these, and who left them here? Haunting questions for dog and human alike.

I woke this morning, believe it or not, with ideas from Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book already wrestling around in my mind like wakeful puppies who’d had enough sleep. (Yes, Sarah needed to get outside, too.) In the fourth chapter of EXPERIMENTS IN ETHICS Appiah discusses modules, or modes, of moral response (the difference in term depending on whose theory is being referenced). Modes identified by, for example, psychologist Jonathan Haidt are six or more in number, and here is Haidt’s taxonomy as presented by Appiah:

(1) avoidance or alleviation of harm
(2) fairness and reciprocity
(3) hierarchy and respect
(4) purity and pollution
(5) in-group/out-group boundaries
(6) awe and elevation

For me these call to mind almost instantly the schemata (his term) identified by philosopher Mark Johnson (METAPHORS WE LIVE BY, with George Lakoff; THE BODY IN THE MIND.. Johnson believes, and I tend to agree with him, that while these basic structures take on different garb from one culture to another, they themselves are universal and arise from embodied experience. A glance at the list is enough to see how easily each translates to a simple visual representation: the first a perfect circle threatened with loss; the second a set of balanced scales; third a ladder; fourth a marked circle; fifth two or more circles; sixth a representation of higher and lower levels without the ladder joining them. That’s rough. The point is only how simple a sketch is necessary to make sense of the ideas.

One of the most interesting in its historical evolution is that of hierarchy. Appiah claims that the development of democracy took the respect originally due (that word is a clue) to social superiors and made it the appropriate response (à la Kant) to all human beings. “As topsy-turvy as it sounds, then, a great deal of egalitarian rhetoric speaks the language of hierarchy.”

Sarah was good on her leash this morning, having had a training session with Marcia yesterday at the bookstore, and you can bet I kept her on that leash, what with coyotes barking and yipping not far to the north. She heard them and was very interested. Some kind of doggie-schema in her little puppy mind was telling her that those sounds came from beings somewhat like herself. She wasn’t sure they were friends but not sure they weren’t, either, and that’s where the danger lies for a non-wild pup.

Looks like a sunny day ahead.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Topics Old, New, Spring, Green

At 1:48 a.m. the official vernal equinox occurred as the sun passed over the equator. These little cranesbill, modestcousins of the true geranium family, weren’t waiting for the equinox but showed their green at least two days ahead of the astronomical divide.

Here’s a topic I’ve had simmering for a while now, long enough ago that it’s not cutting edge news any more, but the Written Nerd’s current blog posting reminded me to get with it:

Some parents in St. Paul, Minnesota, are dismayed and alarmed by a new elective offered at one area middle school: “The Graphic Novel.” (Sorry to report that the link I had for this article no longer works. You can search for it and buy a copy of the piece from St. Paul’s Pioneer Press.) Is this a “dumbing down” of literary content, indeed of education itself? I think the panic and anger are misplaced and way overblown.

My sister the reading specialist always says that anything that gets kids reading helps them read better. If reading is enjoyable, they’ll want to read; if it’s boring (to them), they’ll turn off. Graphic novels are not boring to kids. Fifty years ago, kids were sneaking comic books into their school desks. Today’s graphic novels are several cuts above “Archie and Veronica,” but even the comic book lovers of that era were reading, as opposed to sleeping on their desks or staring blankly out the window.

Who doesn’t love pictures? “Readers aren’t visualizing in their minds if they have the pictures on the page”? Maybe this will nudge them in that direction, especially as they begin to write and draw their own graphic novels. Even if they don’t make their own, why wouldn’t their minds get in the habit of making pictures to go with text if that’s what their normal experience? And does anyone ever argue that looking at paintings is bad because the imagery is given by the painting rather than generated by the viewer? On the other hand, lack of pictures is no guarantee of literary quality. I won’t mention any popular pulp series books for boys and girls, because I like to keep the blog positive, but the value of a book is in its content and style, not its format.

The article mentions how helpful graphic novels are for ESL students. I can vouch for the help Mickey Mouse gave me in picking up colloquial French and even very common, everyday words and expressions my high school textbook had never mentioned.

Good grief, the class is offered as an elective!

Last but not least (and you thought “elective” was my trump card!), many of the same adults enraged by graphic novels in schools probably think all that computer time in schools is just ducky, with very little idea what students are actually doing at computer screens.

Well, now comes a whole new line of comics/graphic novels (???) for very young children, those just learning to read. The woman responsible grew up in France, where literary comic books have a long, respectable tradition, and when English gave her trouble here in the U.S., Françoise Mouly found American comic books helpful in making the language transition. An artist herself, she went on to arrange for the publication of high-quality artistic comic books such as she had known in France. The first one was MAUS. Ring a bell?

But, a confession: I haven’t gotten into graphic novels yet, either on my own or at Dog Ears Books. I’ve learned to be careful ordering books in a genre I don’t know. It’s important to find out from lovers of that genre which titles, authors and illustrators are highly regarded. I trust myself to judge many genres, but we all have our weak spots. Suggestions and guiding tips welcome!

After I’d written the above and saved it as a draft posting, I went to the post office, and while picking up a package at the counter I noticed a magazine left behind. Well, it was BOOKLIST, and the current issue is--YES! TA-DA!--“Spotlight on Graphic Novels”! Serendipity, synchronicity, and lucky for me in addition that my bookstore is in such a small town that the librarian, whose magazine it was, agreed to loan it to me for a few days. The two of us are in the same boat, both needing to update our stock of information. (I’ll still welcome tips, hints and suggestions.) I guess I know what my required reading (self-imposed) is for today.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Northport, Michigan: Still Alive

We're not at our most glamorous in mid-March, but we are here. A few years ago the Traverse City newspaper published a two-page spread that would have made people think the town of Northport was completely deserted, ready to be boarded up and abandoned. Our little village is far emptier in March than it is in January, when the TC paper took a shot from this same vantage point, but you can see that although, yes, the harbor is empty of boats (are there many boats in the Clinch Park marina in the winter?), there are still signs of life. I didn't wait around, either, but just stopped and snapped. Life! It's all around!

We have had some losses recently, though, in Leelanau County and beyond. Funeral services were held today at the Methodist church in Leland for George Grosvenor of Leland, whose family continues the tradition of running seasonal ferry service to North and South Manitou Islands. The book world lost science fiction writer Arthur C. Clark, who died in his adopted home of Sri Lanka, while the director of films “The English Patient,” “Cold Mountain,” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” 54-year-old Anthony Minghella, died shortly after completing his HBO pilot for the “Ladies No. 1 Detective Series” series. What will become of Precious Ramotswe on television now?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What It Takes? Or Not

By exercising the virtue of perseverance, I managed to “sleep in” until 7 o’clock this morning, postponing the awful moment of going out into yet another cold morning with—yes!—new snow on the ground. Sigh. Fortunately, the morning’s e-mail brought me this link from Walt (thanks, Walt!) and a reason to smile. Then there was a message from dmarks, who’s been writing about castles in his blog (“Throwaway” in links list to the right). He knew about Curwood Castle in Owosso but not about Kalamazoo’s beloved Henderson Castle. (I Googled the latter and found that it is now a B&B. Wouldn’t that be a great place to stay? Probably don’t take dogs, though.) And as you can see, I got all but the last two (missing!) pieces of the jigsaw puzzle properly placed this morning, though four days ago I was ready to throw in the towel. I’d like to think that perseverance is a virtue, but Kwame Anthony Appiah’s new book, EXPERIMENTS IN ETHICS, casts doubt on virtues in general, at least as philosophy has traditionally defined them.

Appiah’s overall question in the book is “Can moral philosophy be naturalized?” That is, can the study of ethics be advanced by looking across disciplinary borders into such fields as psychology and behavioral economics? Appiah notes in his first chapter that the partition separating philosophy from other studies is of fairly recent origin and short duration, historically speaking. Aristotle would never have accepted such narrow boundaries, while relative moderns Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill were equally at home in philosophy, psychology and economics. In our own day, more and more philosophers are rebelling against the arbitrary, confining and self-defeating disciplinary limits that would deny us the use of the experimental sciences.

It’s Appiah’s second chapter that calls virtues and character into doubt. We ascribe virtues to individuals, and we attribute motivation for their actions to what we fondly imagine as their character. The best novelists have always known, however, that reality is far more complex and less clearly drawn. Do I “persevere” only when I have nothing better, i.e., more tempting, to do? Is it perseverance or merely inertia? Am I motivated to act or suspended in action?

Appiah cites studies in which individuals were observed to respond more kindly to strangers if they (the responders) had just previously found a dime in a pay phone coin return tray or if they were, at the time someone asked for help, simultaneously exposed to delicious fresh bakery odors. When asked why we performed a certain act, we will come up with reasons, he notes, but the truth is that we are often completely unaware of our own motivation, and what moves us to act may have nothing to do with reason. Even poor Kant (who took took quite a beating in the first chapter of EXPERIMENTS IN ETHICS) was aware of the dark, closed nature of the human heart, its secrets known only to God. The idea of hidden, confused or unknown motivation is not new. What’s happening now is that carefully designed experimental situations are revealing some of our own secrets to us.

Well, I succeeded in getting a good night’s sleep and in completing a jigsaw puzzle, so now, rather than writing any more today, I will return to my reading.

Monday, March 17, 2008

St. Paddy's

Think green as you look at this salmon-colored page. Think spring. Think THE WILD IRISH. A blessin' on ye all from one American mutt with an Irish grandfather to all the rest of ye. Oh, the corn! Oh, the corned beef! Did not have beef tonight but enjoyed potatoes and little baby cabbages called Brussels sprouts!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Looking Hard to See Spring

Okay, this is just a miniature lake of snowmelt in our side yard, but I hope you see its larger significance. Spring is on the way! Our friend George reports a robin sighting. He also heard the first red-winged blackbird. (The redwing “song” always reminds me of the sound of old swingset chains and makes me nostalgic for first grade.) Here at the farm, I heard geese early Friday morning and later caught sight of a V overhead. “They’re back!” I cried out in joy. “They’re crazy!” responded David, shaking his head. The earliest I have a record of hearing spring peepers is March 26, and he couldn’t believe that, either.

Saturday’s weather (dreary gloom) does not bear recounting, but John and Tegan’s visit to the bookstore brought light and cheer (not to mention all Tegan’s help on the almost-finished jigsaw puzzle), as did that of our philosophical friend, Big Steve, and the late-day appearance of some Traverse City folks who hadn’t been to Northport since Dog Ears Books moved from Nagonaba (back) to Waukazoo Street. Susan stopped in only briefly, saying she just came to pick up her book order, but she always comes to see Sarah on Saturdays, and she’s always as welcome as—the flowers that bloom in the spring, tra-la!

In the evening David and I drove all the way to Traverse City for a couple hours of music at Horizon Books, downstairs in the Shine café, and our effort was more than repaid. Musicians Graham Parsons and Joe Artibee had come all the way from the Keewanaw peninsula, after all, so what was our 40-minute drive compared to theirs? And did we buy the CD? You bet! Serious musicianship, surprising lyrics, easy harmony and stage charm won us over. Graham and Joe will tour with their full band complement this summer. For now, if you’re anywhere in Michigan, check out the spring schedule for Squeaky Clean Cretins here.

Sunny day! A day to spend with David and Sarah and John Locke’s SECOND TREATISE ON GOVERNMENT. I've been bouncing between philosophy and murder mysteries these days. That makes for odd reflections, but I'll save those for another day.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Diverting Thoughts

Two days in a row without a snow scene! Here are some of last summer’s geraniums and lobelia, valiantly blooming in the window long after I expected them to quit, and there's the neon OPEN sign in the window of Stubbs Sweetwater Grill! Where else can we direct our thoughts so as not to bog down in the arrival of yet another March snowfall this morning? Well, if you’re thinking books (as I so often am), here are a couple of items to muse on.

“The third bi-annual Salon du livre du Grand Sudbury is expected to draw 27,000 people in May, making it the largest francophone cultural event in Northern Ontario.” That’s more French speakers and readers in the wilds of northern Ontario than I’d have imagined, and it’s a trek I’d love to make, up through pre-Cambrian scenery, halfway to Montreal (and I apologize for failing in my efforts to insert an active link here). Will the mountain ash be in bloom that early? Maybe not, but perhaps the snow buntings will still be around, and anyway, the pines will be green, the waters blue.

Then there was the wonderful contribution this morning from Carol Fitzgerald of the Book Reporter to Shelf Awareness, suggesting how many new books Governor Spitzer could have bought with the money he spent—ahem!—otherwise. I’ve added Shelf Awareness to my links list at right.

Or are you thinking locally grown fruit and wondering what cherry growers do all winter? The first Leelanau Township orchard farmer I asked gave this reply: “The smart ones I know contemplate their stock portfolios or soak up rays in Florida. The rest of us try and figure out what they did wrong last year and where they are going to get the money to do it again this year.” Kind of like bookselling, is it, Gene?

If you’re an artist and/or connected to an art gallery, think about what it would be like to live in a genuine art village. Would you like it? Why or why not? What would you look for? Take the survey here.

I got a beautiful seed catalog in the mail the other day, and that set me to dreaming, and David and I replaced about half the bookstore lightbulbs today with energy-saving bulbs.

What else (besides snow!) is on your mind these days?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Here, once again, is the Voice of Bruce, giving his inimitable review of Cormac McCarthy’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN:

“The story is set in a small town in Texas, so I guess we could call it a Western, but it’s not one that John Wayne would recognize. No one wears hats, so you can’t tell the good and bad guys apart. And everyone drives 4WD vehicles instead of riding horses, and they shoot at each other with machine guns instead of six-shooters. And all that violence--. John Wayne would be horrified.

“The plot centers on two main characters. The first is a young man who stumbles on a cache of drug money and decides to run, with the drug dealers in hot pursuit. The second is the local sheriff (a John Wayne type), who wants nothing but a peaceful life for his town and himself, but now he feels compelled to catch the druggies and rescue the misguided young man. It’s rather like the odds Gary Cooper faced in 'High Noon,' only the ending here is different.

“McCarthy contrasts the rather ordinary lives of these two characters with the violent world that they encounter with the druggies. He uses the contrast to illustrate his theme that America has become so violent that we folks of the older generation, who are traditionally in charge of maintaining law and order, can no longer fight successfully against the tide of crime and lawlessness. Thus the title of the book.

“The book’s violence, while disturbing, is a necessary part of the story. Fortunately, while reading (unlike while viewing a film) you the reader can skip over the worst of these bits and enjoy an entertaining story. So even though the film won Best Picture, I recommend you read the book instead.”

- Bruce Balas, 3/12/2008

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Late Winter Fragments

My prediction: we will not have another morning as cold as yesterday’s six degrees below zero (I’m not betting on it, only predicting), and to reinforce my own optimism, here’s a gallery of late winter images from the past week. Beautiful! Now, enough!

Under this morning’s starry sky, when Sarah and I went out for our first walk of the day, we heard coyotes yipping and howling again in the nearby woods, for the second day in a row. Claudia, our neighbor, was surprised. “Usually they come through about three o’clock,” she said, “heading north.” Have they denned up closer to us this year?

Today’s news from “Shelf Awareness” brought an item about the Alexander McCall Smith series, THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY. A 2-hour HBO pilot was recently completed in Botswana. The detective protagonist of the series, Precious Ramotswe, is dear to the hearts of Smith’s readers, and we will bring high expectations to meeting her onscreen.

Take a look at the French Roads Connection blog today for the backstory on our ill-begotten Michigan primary.

Friends Al and Ken are comfortable in the red leather chairs, enjoying their coffee and sharing stories of birding adventures. Sarah is curled up in her luxurious new bookstore bed. Bruce has promised another book review, which I’m expecting any moment, so cross your fingers and check in tomorrow to see if it arrived.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Best Dog Buddies

See how she’s grown! Here’s Sarah, the new bookshop dog, with her pal, Dusty, the gallery dog, first in January, then in March. They had super-fun together on Sunday, getting outdoors for a long, romping run in the snow and sunshine. Sarah's energy (unlike mine) is boundless: too bad she can't take a turn writiing the blog.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Eye-Popping Revelations

Here’s another Peterson Park shot from Friday. This cottonwood is magnificent in all seasons but seems especially so in winter, bared to its bones. Sunny days and starry nights we’ve been having—consequently, all very, very cold!

Another early morning walk today, but not officially as early as the eastern sky was saying. I do not like “springing forward” and losing a morning hour just when dawn instead of dark is finally beckoning me outdoors. So this morning when the clock (should have, if I’d set it ahead) read eight o’clock, Sarah and I were out in the fields, and I was murmuring, It’s really only seven o’clock….

I started writing about this the other day, and here goes the rest: Near the end of his page-turner of a book, PREDICTABLY IRRATIONAL, Dan Ariely compares the behavior of diners in an American restaurant with a similar experimental group in Hong Kong. Rather than each ordering what he or she most wanted, only the first to give an order at the table did so. Americans ordering subsequently, in order to emphasize their individuality, chose to order something different from the first person; in Hong Kong, a sense of group solidarity had subsequent Chinese ordering whatever the first person had chosen. Ariely’s point is not about cultural differences. It’s about human sameness. Whether seeking to stand out from the crowd or to be a part of it, individuals in both cultures put their own real preferences aside rather than choosing to (as the utilitarians would say) maximize their personal eating pleasure. We are, it turns out, not all that “rational,” after all. We make the same kinds of failure-to-maximize choices again and again, contrary to classic economic theory.

Now the author asks—here’s a question I really love!—“Wouldn’t economics make a lot more sense if it were based on how people behave, instead of how they should behave?” Because his studies show that economics isn’t any more hard-headed or reality-based than philosophy! Economists as a group (behavioral economists like Ariely being the renegades) are as wedded to idealistic assumptions as Immanuel Kant. Supposedly more rigorous sciences are not immune, either. Medical research on efficacy of drugs and even surgical treatments is doomed unless it also takes into account the beliefs of medical practitioners and their patients, because belief can plays a role in so-called objective results.

Another group of Ariely studies had to do with the effect of exposure to certain numbers or words on unrelated tasks performed following exposure to the numbers or words. People who focused first on small numbers unrelated to price gave lower price figures when asked the most they would pay for three different items; those focused on higher numbers indicated a willingness to pay more. Experimental subjects asked to recall as many of the Ten Commandments as they could or even simply to read a short statement about an honor code were much less likely to cheat on a test given immediately afterward, even in a situation designed to invite cheating. College students given a list of words associated with old age walked more slowly when they left the building than students given a different set of words. In the face of this evidence, can anyone still maintain that constant media violence has no effect on the behavior of normal individuals? Maybe--.

Because everyone, as several of the author’s experiments demonstrate, reads expectations and beliefs into experience. Perceptions are shaped by expectations and beliefs. How can two people see “the same thing” so differently? Ariely shows there is no “same thing.” And yet… and yet….

There is in this book no acceptance of defeat. There is concern—deep concern—but also suggestions (both general and specific), and there is hope. What fun it would be to spend an evening with Dan Ariely! Well, I just did, so now it’s your turn!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Beautiful Places

The sun was shining, the dog and I were restless in the bookshop, and there was no river of impatient customers beating down our door, so we piled into the car and drove out to Peterson Park. I hadn't been out there since fall. Worth the trip! Who even needs a plowed road into the park when drawn irresistibly by beauty and excitement? Lakeshore or sunshore? There's North Manitou Island out in the distance, and you can even see the curve of the earth at the horizon, a drifting band of Arctic ice at the shoreline. Click! Click! Click! Every prospect pleased.

Last night I returned to England's Lake District, continuing with the life of Beatrix Potter. The accomplishments of Mrs. Heelis (as she preferred to be called after marrying William Heelis) were formidable. At home in the country, her writing and painting first had to make room for sheep-raising and tenant farm management, later for her considerable duties to the National Trust, which included not only raising money but also directly managing for the Trust large properties she had bought and transferred over, for their perpetual preservation. So much of what is preserved in the Lake District, so beloved of poets, hikers and naturalists from all over the world, has remained beautiful and wild and open to the public because of the unrelenting hard work of the author of THE TALE OF PETER RABBIT.

And yet, in Linda Lear’s biography, BEATRIX POTTER: A LIFE IN NATURE, we find a very simple, unassuming, straightforward, hard-working woman, whose own mother looked down on her for dressing as a “country woman.” Hooray, Beatrix! I say. Beatrix “retained a romantic’s love of both inclement weather and the rugged landscape. She had a quiet acceptance that things will often go wrong, yet she had remarkable patience and optimism. Loving the natural world as she did, Beatrix had long ago accepted that nature was wild, cruel and endlessly beautiful.” I fall short of her example in almost every way, but she has my deepest admiration.

Can one be a romantic if one loses the love of inclement weather? That’s my question for the morning, but the sun is bright above the horizon, and before it was up, puppy Sarah and I had already been out for a long, cold overland ramble in the first light of dawn. Surely that must count for something! Anyway, only a romantic would have a bookstore in Northport, right?

Friday, March 7, 2008

Lunch at School

Had I taken a photo of this scene upon arrival rather than eating first and clicking later, you would see a big crowd! In fact, it wasn’t easy finding an empty place at a table for the soup and salad lunch, an event put on by the senior class to make money for their senior trip to Chicago. The small gym, set up with tables and chairs, was packed with students, parents and grandparents, along with plenty of local people like me with no family members in school at all. It turned out that Ryan Blessing, the senior who had come down to the bookstore on Monday to see if Dog Ears Books would contribute a prize for the raffle (yes, of course) had made the soup I chose, which was different and delicious, and if I can get the recipe from him, I'll share it in some future post. It was fun to sit with friends, fun to look around the room and see so many happy, familiar faces.

Yesterday’s lunch reminded me of the annual senior project night and graduation and all the other school events and how well attended they are by the entire community. I’ve never lived in a place where what happens at the local school is such a matter of vital concern to just about everyone in town! Some residents don’t do all their regular shopping here, and they go to any one of five different churches or none at all, but the little public school unites us. It really is the heart and soul of Northport.

When I arrived back "downtown" the sun was breaking through the clouds, and I felt much more cheerful, settling into a red leather chair (Sarah in the other) to look into an absolutely fascinating book on behavioral economics, PREDICTABLY IRRATIONAL, by Dan Ariely, which presents a story, as Duke University puts it, “’predictably irrational’ but highly entertaining.” Here are a few of Ariely’s experimental observations: We’ll pay more just to get something (else) “Free!” We’ll pay more to avoid the cheapest of something but go for a cheaper whatever if we can compare it to another that costs a lot more, and we’ll hesitate to buy at all in the absence of any way of making a comparison. In the throes of passion, prior reasoning and resolution go out the window. Once we’ve committed to anything—bought it or even just bid on it—somehow making it our “own,” its value goes up in our eyes. (Ah, this explains the browsers who complain to me from time to time that I have a book priced too low! No one who tells me I’ve priced a book too low ever buys the book, though you’d think they’d scent a bargain and snatch it up. But no, since they paid more elsewhere, they want to go on believing that what they paid somehow represents the item’s “real worth.”) Impersonal market exchanges and personal social exchanges can be at odds with one another in surprising ways. Halfway through this eye-opening book, I already have a lot of new ideas to juggle.

And the sun is shining again today!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Are You Sick of Both (Snow and Probability)?

The sky is cloudy again, and it’s snowing again, too. “The snow was beautiful this morning!” exclaimed Denise Holland before quickly admitting, “but I wish it would go away!” Today’s picture is from yesterday’s weather, a shot south-southeast from Omena across the icy bay, Arctic in appearance but bathed in sunshine.

Bob Bergdoll from Omena (who most recently finished and highly recommends PEOPLE OF THE BOOK, by Geraldine Brooks) stopped in to distract me from the puzzle on Monday afternoon with his clear, simple, stunningly elegant proof of the probability problem. In essence, Bob’s chart is a truth table, of the sort beginning formal logic students learn to construct, with WIN and LOSE in place of TRUE and FALSE. There are three doors, therefore nine possible combinations. Where is the car, and what door is selected? Bob’s introduces columns are for “Stick with Selection” and “Switch Selection,” and all you have to do is add up the WINs in each column to see the result: three in one, six in the other. He made up the chart in preparation for writing a computer program, but the chart itself tells the story, making the program redundant.

Oh, the joys of logic! Teaching my first class in the subject at the University of Illinois when only a nervous graduate assistant, I first realized the power and comfort of this dry field. Three smart young men sat together by the windows, waiting for me to stumble. When one of them doubted that affirming the consequent was a fallacy (“Are you sure?” he pressed, eyes narrowed challengingly), what wonderful calm settled over me as I said to him, nodding, “Do the truth table.”

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Puzzling On

Morning star was bright above the barn Tuesday from the standpoint of Claudia’s drive, pre-dawn sky turning tropical blue above the clouds at the horizon. Sarah sniffed and snuffled eagerly at tracks in the snow—cat, rabbit, squirrel. When spring comes and snow is gone, Sarah will find smells in the grass even headier, while nose-poor I, without visible footprints for my eyes to follow, will be clueless.

After another hair-raising trip Monday over icy roads to Traverse City (David, my hero, at the wheel), a morning in a classroom full of students and our star of the day, Immanuel Kant, and a couple long, serious (but fun, I hope) training walks in Northport with Sarah while Bruce kept his vigil in the bookstore, it was a relief to turn to the problem of the jigsaw puzzle sky before shopping for groceries and fixing dinner. As the number of unplaced pieces decreases, I find the most successful strategy is to decide which empty spot to try to fill and then scan the possibilities with an eye out for those distinctive margins. Racing (tortoise-like) toward the finish I am! Today friend Chris G. was at the bookstore when David and I arrived back from Traverse City (Kant again to the second section), and he helped me get another row of sky pieces in, so the project is further along than what you see here (my picture-taking falling a little behind).

Tonight’s reading: PAGE ONE: VANISHED, by Nancy Barr. I started this second Robin Hamilton mystery back last summer, but my reading often gets derailed in the summer. Oh, well—good excuse to begin again at the beginning, settling in to a nice, long evening in the U.P. What could be better?

Monday, March 3, 2008

Pre-Dawn Bayou Visions

Sarah and I woke up about 4:30 a.m., half an hour before my alarm would wake me on teaching days if I needed it but hardly ever does because I’m usually awake before it goes off. First order of the morning: go outside with puppy. Side yard is a lake of melted snow, parking area a flooded skating rink. Drip, drip, drip. Will it be possible to negotiate driveway to road this morning? Will ice give way to mud by late afternoon? Back indoors, Sarah made short work of her breakfast, and I picked up CRUSADER’S CROSS to read the last few pages I’d been too sleepy to finish last night.

What does Louisiana crime fiction have in common with the philosophy of both Immanuel Kant and Confucius? James Lee Burke’s main cop character, James Robicheaux, has seen the worst. He did his tour in Vietnam and is routinely called to crime scenes to view murder victims. His own violence sometimes frightens him. Despite all this, he attends AA meetings, falls in love, marries, and takes comfort in his natural surroundings and his pets (a cat and a three-legged raccoon) because--like most of the damaged protagonists of the hard-boiled murder mystery subgenre (distinct from the cozy, tea-drinking subgenre)—he has not given up his dream of order, of law, of Eden. Robicheaux does not live in Kant’s Kingdom of Ends, but then none of us does. Nevertheless, the vision guides him, as in this passage from somewhere in the middle of the novel:

“But why brood upon the bloody work of neocolonial empires on a summer night on a leaf-blown street that belongs back in the year 1945? Why not fall in love with the world all over again…? Outside, the night was unseasonably cool, scented with shade-blooming flowers, the giant live oaks along the sidewalks lit by streetlamps, Spanish moss lifting in the breeze.” The vision, within reach for a few minutes or hours, is one of a peaceful world.

The truth is, Dave Robicheaux never fell out of love with the world. His era was the bloody confusion of Vietnam, not what must have looked to him in comparison the clarity of World War II, 1945 bringing that war to its rightful, victorious close. His Eden is overlaid with a veneer of civilization, and he struggles with disorder within as well as without, but he is still wanting the disparate parts of his world to love each other or at least to live in peace with each other. Sewage backs up after heavy rain, but brown pelicans reappear over the swamp, too, as he had hoped they would. He never permanently loses sight of what could be in the often dismal face of what is.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative works the same way. It isn’t how people reason all the time but how they would if the moral universe operated under natural law, and that vision of peace and harmony guide our sense of what could be. In Kant’s day, science was just coming into its own, yielding predictability thanks to order in nature. I think of the vision of Confucius, where perfectly ordered society on earth would mirror a perfect heavenly order. What would Kant and Confucius have made of chaos theory?

It is in crime fiction, paradoxically perhaps, that the vision of possible order and harmony lives on, surviving in the most fetid swamps of human depravity. Detectives searching out murderers in mystery novels don’t throw up their hands and theorize about what they can’t know. They roll up their sleeves and go to work.

In the end, for Robicheaux, his small personal island of beauty and love and clarity offers him “gifts enough.” He has been through hell but survives, a happy man. The reader knows that there will be future threats and that Robicheaux’s happiness will require further defense, so the comfort and satisfaction on the last page of the novel comes not simply in being given a character’s temporary happiness but in the knowledge that, because of who he is, he will hold onto his dream in the future as he has in the past. We want to drink ice tea beneath that sheltering live oak tree and believe in a world at peace with itself. We want to have the courage to make it right when it goes wrong.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

More Odds Than Ends

Today David fixed a big breakfast for us, I did a little laundry and fixed roast chicken for dinner, but basically we’ve had a day of rest, and I’ve been commuting mentally (my usual armchair travel) between northern Michigan and southern Louisiana. The sun was out for a while, air warm, and Sarah and I had a good ramble in the fields. Afterward she was content to lie on the rug and work over a big rawhide bone while David enjoyed ROAD FEVER, by Tim Cahilll, and I lost myself in James Lee Burke’s CRUSADER’S CROSS. More another day about the allure of murder mysteries in romantic places and the back-and-forth from violent crime to pastoral Eden.

My picture today is from the last February sunset. But now, it’s March, oh, it’s March! Only three weeks to the spring equinox! But did yesterday count as a lion or a lamb? And let’s not forget that it’s April, not March, that is the cruelest month. The perfection of May and June are nearer than they were but still a long, chilly, snowy, rainy, windy, muddy way off.

As for the probability problem, Ben W. thought it made a difference that the game show host knows where the prize is, but I don't see why. As long as the door he opens is not the door with the prize, so that the contestant has a chance to stick with his first choice or switch doors, how would the host’s knowledge affect the odds, any more than the odds are affected (not at all) by the lack of knowledge of the second competitor I introduced after the third door was eliminated? After all, if you’re betting on a racehorse, the odds for that horse in that race are what they are, whether you know the odds or not.

At least the problem has animated coffee conversation at the Treasure Chest this past week, and what with ever-new topics to chew over and Donna’s cheerful welcome and good breakfasts (the home-fried potatoes warm body and spirit these blustery days), Northport will make it through to spring. But then, we always do.

P.S. I’ve been asked about winter carnival, specifically about the outhouse race. There were five outhouses in competition this year, and if you go to the Chamber of Commerce site (in the links list) you can click from there to a site with videos. Sally Coohon, President of the Northport-Omena Chamber of Commerce, thought there were about 500 participants at this year’s winter carnival.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Weekend Begins

Tomorrow is Sunday! “Sunday, Sunday, SUNDAY at beautiful U.S. 30 drag strip!” went the manic radio commercial of my youth. David heard a similar one on Detroit radio, featuring a different drag strip. Saturday’s excitement this week (that would be today) was a continuation of the probability problem discussion with coffee drinkers and, later, with Ben Wetherbee (I asked him how the host’s knowledge of where the prize was changed the odds, and what if the host picked a door at random, revealing no car behind it—how would that make the odds any different?); a discussion on Kant and Schopenhauer with friend Big Steve; the arrival of a splendiferous (one of my father’s favorite terms) new dog bed for Sarah from friends Kathie and Amanda; and a late afternoon burst of sunshine to make Sarah’s and my homecoming even more fun than usual. Frisbee tossing and chasing! Oh, frabjus day!

Lest I give a false impression of my recreational reading, I should report that Thursday evening I was laughing so loudly and uncontrollably, weeping and choking and gasping for breath, over Bill Bryson’s THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE THUNDERBOLT KID that David had to close a door between us to carry on his long-distance telephone conversation. I’m not always wandering the corridors of philosophical speculation. In fact, tonight I’m planning to get back to that James Lee Burke murder mystery I started last week. It’s the weekend! Time for self-indulgence! Not only has a week past, but this latest month of February, longest in seven years, is over! Can spring be far behind?