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Friday, February 27, 2009

Still Looking Around

“Do you think there are more psychic readers in Florida than in Michigan?” I asked David one day as we were toolin’ down the road and I was, as is my habit, trying not to miss anything along the way. Not that there aren’t large areas of population in Michigan, but as an Up North resident, I’m used to small towns, light traffic and lots of open space, so my question was kind of a reality check. How would, say, Spring Hill compare to Dearborn?

David’s answer: “There’s more of everything in Florida. There are more people here, for starters. A deputy sheriff in Miami once told me that when anybody goes missing Up North during the winter months, the first place they look for him is Florida.”

I suppose I could look up statistics for population, traffic accidents, crime, employment (and its lack), etc., but it’s the quirky stuff I notice. Besides psychic readers, I note a plethora of nail salons, tattoo parlors, motorcycle dealerships and pet groomers. I wonder how many customers remain, in the economic downturn, for regular professional manicures. Is the call for psychic readings down or up?

Here’s something I began spotting only about a week and a half ago: “In Memoriam” notices stenciled onto the back windows of cars and trucks, usually giving birth and death dates of the dearly departed. The names are not limited to a single ethnic group. Is this a new thing, I ask friends, or is it a Florida thing? Willie doesn't think there is such a thing as a "Florida thing." He says every part of the U.S. is like every other part. I beg to differ! Those of you back in Michigan--what do you say?

There’s definitely more litter in Florida than in Michigan. Sad. The absence of a state bottle-and-can deposit-and-return law is obvious to anyone with eyes open. Why no such law? It would mean jobs, and those who didn’t get official jobs out of it could get something out of collecting the bottles and cans thrown by those too lazy to return them to the store. It’s “nice,” I suppose, that volunteers take responsibility for cleaning up certain stretches of road, but it seems to me there are more important volunteer roles to be filled than unpaid servant to the trash-prone. The ideal scenario would be if residents and visitors alike saw themselves as guardians of Florida’s beauty and never tossed so much as a gum wrapper out their car windows. But I acknowledge that the world runs on motivation, and deposits would motivate returns.

What isn’t there a lot of? I notice the absence of amenities that used to be common, especially in populous areas. This is true across the country, I’m sure, and not unique to Florida, but the thought follows naturally in my mind: “What’s everywhere?” to “What’s missing?” I’m talking about things like pay phones and mailboxes. Cell phones have done in pay phones but what about all those handy, sturdy, blue metal boxes that used to stand on the sidewalks of residential neighborhoods, downtowns and shopping centers--what happened to them, and when did they begin to disappear? One woman I talked to could not remember the name of the Michigan town where her own daughter lives, because they communicate exclusively by cell phone and e-mail. Fortunately, here in little Aripeka we can walk to the post office, and the days we get three pieces of personal, hand-written mail are red-letter days. Jackpot!

Well, the week began cool and very windy, especially out on Pine Island, where it was much too cold Monday afternoon to read on the beach. Just as well, since I’d suggested to David that the book of short stories I’d just started was one he might enjoy, and so he’d tried and enjoyed it over coffee at Paesano’s Bakery and Deli, while I tried to sketch a nearby table and chairs, so now, if one of us got to read it at the beach, which one would it be? The book is Silent Cruise: A Novella and Stories, by Timothy Taylor, a Canadian writer who seems, in story after story, never to put a stylistic foot wrong. Most of his settings are quirky and off-center, too, and Taylor has done his homework, bringing to each the detailed background knowledge that gives his characters depth and believability. So far he has taken me into the disparate and often not even marginally overlapping worlds of antiques, painting, jazz, an auto junkyard, and fine artisanal cheese-making. Here are a couple of examples from a couple of different stories:
She let the flavours swim through her for a moment. There was clover here, she thought, letting her eyes drift shut. There was the scent of broom and a faint saline back-breeze. Was that earthy undertone the purple vein; she wondered. The flavours carried her aloft, to a point above the farm where all was visible and yet within her grasp. At once vertiginous and exhilarating. One might crash to earth from here or never touch down again. – from “Pope’s Own”

Epoch-shift, I found myself thinking, listening to the heavy words my wife was now saying. An epoch-shift described by the dropping-away of items that characterized the receding epoch. Not like the shift from fauvism to expressionism. Not like the relationship between pop art and its antecedent abstract expressionism. Those had been growths, movements onward. Actions that embraced and accommodated new components within revised versions of an old system.
Not like that. Instead, Gillian opened her mouth and formally ushered us into an epoch of perpetual loss, a transition that could not be observed approaching because it did not bring with it any reference to the post. Nothing swept around the bend to be either admired or loathed in advance. An epoch merely fell away and was replaced by nothing.
“And I had no means to know the hour of its passing. – from “Francisco’s Watch”

But, as I say, it was too windy for reading, so we watched people and birds instead. A couple of little girls, wearing long-sleeved cover-ups over their bathing suits, kept warm by running up and down the shore, their colorful kites soaring high overhead.

Friday postscript: I finished the Taylor book this morning, and David is three stories in. The title story, “Silent Cruise,” we shared. I read most of it aloud, until a point where that became impossible for me. David then read a few pages to himself, I read those pages to myself, and then I took up reading aloud again we finished it together. With all the other things going on in our life this past week, we were glad to have Taylor with us. The first move I made after arriving at the library today was to seek out his first novel, Stanley Park.

As for what there is more of here than in Michigan, I read in this morning’s newspaper that Florida leads the nation in motorcycle deaths. I’d already noticed there are more white crosses with plastic flowers along the roadsides than we see at home. Obviously, there are more palm trees!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Up On My Soapbox Once Again

David likes to quote what he claims is an ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Whenever I hear this, I always wonder how any time on earth could ever have been uninteresting. What would that mean, anyway? One might be rich or poor, ignorant or wise, live in times of peace or war, famine or plenty, town or country, in brute savagery or the most utter refinement or anywhere in between, and no matter how difficult a struggle life might be, how could it ever fail to be interesting?

No one today, I think, would deny that our day in history is interesting. What will happen next? Finding out is something to get up for. “Why go on living?” Schopenhauer asked. Curiosity is my bottom-line reason, when all else fails. Can anyone be said to be living if that person lacks curiosity? I also find it worthwhile to get up every morning simply to see my immediate surroundings. Usually I intend that term to cover all the senses--if blind, it would still be worthwhile, here, for instance, to feel the sun and the breeze and hear the birds--but in the context of reading Drawing on the Artist Within, by Betty Edwards, my thought narrows to the visual sense. Looking closely at something as ordinary as a pile of onions seems worthwhile to me. Also, pencil sketching is something I do in Florida (never at home in Michigan, where my life seems, even in our old farmhouse or cozy bookstore, like one mad rush-rush-rush from one must-do activity to the next), and Betty Edwards and Frederick Franck are the teachers in books to whom I turn again and again.

What strikes me this morning, though, as I read Edwards, goes beyond my trying to learn to make better drawings. This second book by hers (the first was Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain) begins with a general discussion of creativity—what people have said about it, what it might be, and how she believes it can be taught. (She does teach, too, so this is not a case of a stranger to the classroom pontificating on what should go on in schools.) Surely, in our very interesting current times, when so many problems clamor for solutions, we need to think carefully about how human beings come to a moment of insight, that “flash of light thrown on [a] subject,” the illumination that is to ordinary mental plodding or recording or what David and I call “squirrel-caging” almost what joy is to being in a coma. And so we need to pay attention to people like Edwards, who makes the “modest claim” (which some will find counterintuitive, revolutionary or even suspect) that creativity can be taught:
Through learning to draw perceived objects or persons, you can learn new ways of seeing that guide strategies in creative thinking and problem solving just as, through learning to read, you acquire verbal knowledge and learn the strategies of logical, analytical thought. Using the two modes together, you can learn to think more productively, whatever your creative goals may be. The products of your creative responses to the world will be uniquely your own, your mark on the world. And you will have taken a giant step toward acquiring a modern brain. For in the years ahead, I believe that perceptual skills combined with verbal skills will be viewed as the basic necessities for creative human thought.

Her language is modest. I find the argument, on the other hand, riveting. Now there is a strong argument for teaching art in schools. A parallel argument can be and has been offered for music. Put them together, and voilà! Educating “well-rounded” students is more than an arbitrary option, a luxury to be pursued in times of wealth and ease but lopped off when budgets call for “austerity.” It is in these most challenging times that we most need to nurture creativity and the building of brains likely to generate or receive (the metaphysics of it don’t need to concern us) new problem-solving insights.

Our friend Willie agreed with me at dinner recently (after we had disagreed on many subjects) that every new solution creates new problems but that, even so, there are times when “doing nothing” is not an option. “Problem-free” will never be an attribute of human life, for solitary individuals or those in society. The best we can do is to figure out which problems we can and are willing to live with.

One of my philosophy professors in graduate school was also a musician, and another of his friends at the time (whose own insights all fell into narrow, scholarly lines) thought that the philosopher-musician’s guitar playing was a waste of his time. I don’t think so. More professionals of every stripe need to climb outside their cubicles and stretch and expand the power of their brains by trying something completely new.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Books and the World

A friend has come to visit, bringing Florida’s Birds: A Handbook and Reference, by Herbert W. Kale, II, & David S. Maehr. And the National Audubon Society Pocket Guide [to] Familiar Birds of Sea and Shore, and already I have learned something that may stick: the female belted kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon) is more colorful than the male. I would not have guessed that this kingfisher, perched on a wire hung with fishing line and bobbers over Hammock Creek, was a female, since the general rule for birds is that the more colorful is the male. That makes me think that the natural law people overlook something very important: in nature, it seems, every rule admits of exceptions. Exceptions are as natural as rules. That’s my philosophical insight for today.

Fortified with insight, fresh air and coffee, I turn to the late John Updike. Oh, the luscious sentences! No, that word is all wrong, overblown. His are the sentences of a poet. The foreword alone to Hugging the Shore, his book of critical essays, is a laugh-aloud piece—I’m talking about laughter of appreciation for the way Updike skewers the essential time after time. Here is the first sentence of the foreword, the explanation for the title of the collection:

Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea.

And here’s a borrowed thought for the day, a major insight Updike shares with us:

At all times, an old world is collapsing and a new world arising; we have better eyes for the collapse than for the rise, for the old one is the world we know.

It’s good to have good friends when an old world is collapsing--i.e. (read that quote again), at all times! We hugged the shore yesterday in their good company, over beer, oysters, mussels and snails, a great pleasure and quite a change from our usual quiet routine.

To answer questions about where we are this winter, here is an orienting shot:

Looking back in the other direction, toward the island (between the two forks) where the house is, one sees no houses from the bridge but only elegant egrets taking the morning sun in trees draped with Spanish moss and—look carefully—a couple of towels (not ours) also positioned to catch the sun.

Last night before dinner we all trooped out to the bridge to see the sunset. That’s a lie. We sauntered. We strolled. We lolly-gagged. It’s back to work today, but there will be another sunset tonight.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Another Side of Pasco County

Way out here on the Gulf, where Aripeka straddles the county line between Pasco and Hernando, life is quiet, and a dozen people make a crowd. Inland there is a wide zone of commercial development and subdivisions, but after that there are more “empty” stretches-- big cattle ranches and horse farms whose pastures reach to the horizon, and, farther back from the only feasible east-west road from here to there, to the north and south, many square miles of roadless wetlands and lakes. When David suggested going to the fair, I agreed with alacrity, expecting plenty of horses.

Monday was the first day of the fair, the paper said. Nowhere did it say (or we missed it) that the gates would not be open until three p.m., so our 11 a.m. arrival was doomed to disappointment. “Can’t we just go in and look at the horses?” No, we couldn’t. The parade comes before the fair opens. The parade would be downtown.

We were early even for the parade, which was not scheduled to begin until 1 p.m., but just as they do in Northport for the dog parade, people were already setting up chairs on the edges of the sidewalks, and it was a beautiful, sunny day to stroll around town and take in the sights. After lunch at an outdoor café, we got our own chairs out of the van, set them up and relaxed to wait through the last half hour. It was worth it. Forty minutes’ of parade! Many school bands, some of them quite good; lots of lovely young beauty queens; several 4-H clubs and FFA groups; a few comedy entries; lots of floats.

It wasn’t the day we had planned, but if we had been able to stick to our plan we would have missed the parade. Such an obvious lesson for Life to clobber us over the head with, but that’s all right, too.

The Pasco County Fair goes on all this week. The steeplechase is next month!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Indigo Roads and More Books

David and I decided to make an expedition to Inverness, up in inland Citrus County, on the Friday before Presidents Day Monday. If two-lane state roads are “blue highways” (in William Least Heat Moon’s memorable terminology), the even narrower two-lane county highways of Florida might be called “indigo roads.” We knew it would be warm in the car, so after Sarah had a good indoor play session with Weiser and Ida, we let her stay home for a day.

Backtracking west to Pine Island for coffee at Willy’s Tropical Breeze Café before entering the highway, we had coffee at a picnic table on the deck, where I filled the first page in my sketchbook for three years. Sketching is something I do only in Florida and it’s nothing I plan to use in any way, but it felt good to break through the impasse at last. David is a very encouraging and unobtrusive teacher. That day he gave me helpful tips on perspective and shading. It was a good way to start the dy.

Then it was north on 19 and east on an indigo road I chose from the gazetteer, only because it went in the direction we wanted to go, with no idea what kind of road we would encounter—even whether or not it would be paved. It could not have been better! Paved, smooth, rural, and lined with horse farms and cattle ranches!

We might have driven more slowly and stopped along the way, except that we knew that the bookstore in Inverness, Rainy Day Editions, closed at 2 p.m., and this time we were determined to make it in the door. Made it! I asked proprietor Bill Bissell about the arm he’d broken three years ago, and he was touched that we remembered. He has had his bookstore in Inverness for 17 years, and before that he worked in a bookstore in St. Petersburg. When I asked if he would pose for a picture with me, he exclaimed, “I love this business!” Me, too! I love these encounters with far-flung colleagues, I was happy with the books I found to buy from Bill, and he was pleased, too, with my selections.

Well, usually in Inverness we go to the Deco Café, across from the courthouse, but this time something drew us to a new place, the Olde Towne Latin Café, even though there was no one sitting at either outdoor table, and inside we found the small place lively and cheery, with two other tables occupied and a customer at the counter, as well. We shared a big, hot, pressed Cuban sandwich, and I had the Cuban coffee. Both were perfect.

Now if only I could be sure that he read Christopher Milne’s The Path Through the Woods, which David and I are reading now with great delight, before selling it to me! It’s not a member of the “books on books” category but also of the even smaller category of “books on bookselling.” But I did not skip the first half of the book, covering Milne’s university days as a mathematics student and his five years as a WWII sapper. He is such an engaging writer, with such love for the world in all its detail and ambiguity, that every page is a joy.

Completely satisfied with the visit to Inverness, west out of town on 44 we went, then south from Lecanto until we’d closed the loop begun earlier in the day, more than ready to rejoin Sarah in quiet little Aripeka.

And now, about some of the books I’ve read recently….


Linda Colflesh, in Making Friends: Training Your Dog Positively, offers reassuring words to any dog owner whose pet is inclined to jump up on visitors. Sarah never jumps on us, but we have to be vigilant to keep her from overwhelming friends and visitors to the bookstore and gallery, and it isn’t helpful in those situations for someone to say, “Oh, it’s all right!” No, it isn’t! It’s not all right with us! Here’s how Colflesh begins that section:
Jumping up is the behavior problem listed most frequently on the registration sheets for my obedience classes. It is a good behavior problem to have, because it means you have a normal, friendly dog. I’d be concerned about the temperament of a dog, especially a puppy, who didn’t want to jump up.

See what I mean about encouraging? She admits it’s a problem but tells you it’s a “good … problem to have” and goes on to compliment your dog in the same sentence. Her cure for jumping up is not some kind of punishment, either, much less separating your dog from company (which doesn’t give the dog a chance to learn anything), but teaching the dog how to greet people—sitting to be petted. The attention the dog gets for doing the right thing is the reward. This example illustrates Colflesh’s general dog training philosophy.

Essential Dog, by Caroline Davis, is a Reader’s Digest book, very well organized, thoroughly illustrated, and clearly written. The main chapter headings are “Choosing a Dog,” “Canine Behavior,” Caring for a Dog,” “Training Your Dog,” and “Health Care.” Certain tips and bits of specific information are set in boxes, giving each page an easy-to-read magazine look. This would be one good source book for a family thinking about getting a dog. A table listing pros and cons of purebred vs. crossbred vs. mongrel is pretty even-handed, too, I’m glad to report.

Such fairness is not always present in advice on choosing a dog, authors Brian Kilcommons & Michael Capuzzo write in Mutts, America’s Dogs: A Guide to Choosing, Loving, and Living With Our Most Popular Canine. Instead, many books begin to answer the question of choosing a dog with a lengthy discussion of the different purebred types, warning against shelter dogs and those of unknown origin.
Added to this colossal waste is the spiritual cost of killing man’s best friend. The periodic slaughter of wolves, dolphins, or other wild creatures brings international outcry and is said to diminish our humanity; the annual slaughter of millions of equally intelligent dogs is routinely accepted….
“Every day in this country, parents with young children confront a choice—what kind of dog for our family?—armed with misleading or all the wrong information. Too often, they pass on these worthy but doomed dogs in favor of a purebred.

Full Disclosure (in case anyone doesn’t already know this): Our last dog (Nikki) was “pure mutt,” our present dog (Sarah) a “mixed breed.” So it won’t surprise anyone who knows me when I say that I learned a lot from Linda Colflesh and found the Caroline Davis book very informative, but it was Mutts that won my heart. Early on I was laughing out loud at the authors’ listing of the “ten most popular dogs in America.” (Almost 60 percent of American dogs are mutts, they claim, so it is wrong to call any purebred the top dog in America.) Their irresistible list—and if you’ve ever visited an animal shelter, you’ve seen all these dogs—begins with the Brown Dog! The main part of the book is then divided into Sporting Mutts, Hound Mutts, Working Mutts, etc. (and yes, under Herding Mutts, they say that the Border Collie-Australian Shepherd Mix owner should “expect a ton too much dog for average household use”), with portraits and stories of real individual mutts in each category. Turning the pages, looking at the pictures, and reading the stories is like looking at an album of every neighborhood dog you ever knew. Well, at least that would be true of the neighborhood where I grew up, and it’s certainly true of our winter neighborhood here in Aripeka.


I bought The Stones of Balazuc, by John Merriman, because it is the story of a town in France’s Ardèche province, a region we visited almost eight years ago, stopping overnight at the home of an artist friend from Traverse City. Traveling without itinerary, in our usual make-no-reservations style, we were pleased to find Jeanie’s little village and stopped at a small grocery store, certain that everyone in town would be familiar with the woman painter from America. No, they didn’t recall any American women, artists or otherwise. I played what I expected to be my trump card: her house is an old silkworm farm. (Surely that would identify the place!) “Oh, well, most of the old houses around here were silkworm farms,” the shopkeeper said with a shrug. Really!

There was a happy ending to this story, when I asked for a phone book and found Jeanie and the shopkeeper, after answering my question about the pay phone outside (yes, you needed a card to use it, and no, the shop didn’t sell the cards), offered me the use of her cell phone. (It kills me when people tell me that the French don’t like Americans! They were nothing but nice to us, everywhere we went, and David doesn’t even speak French.) Jeanie answered, and everything worked out.

Long digression. Je m’excuse! What I started to say is that the book interested me because it’s set in a region of France with which we have some slight personal familiarity. So David was keen, too, and I started reading it aloud, and we found it engaging despite the academic style (and frequent sentences that editing could have improved), but what we really wanted was something about the old silkworm days, to give us a background on the place where we had spent such a memorable night. Ah, marvelous! That, it turns out, is really the meat and potatoes of the book—or should I say, in the spirit of the province, the wine and chestnuts? Mais, oh-là-là, les pauvres Ardèchois! One hundred, two hundred years ago, Balazuc was facing challenges similar to those faced today by Northport, Michigan, and other small American towns: that is, the entire province of Ardèche, like other regions, was losing its young people in an unprecedented rural exodus known as le grand départ. Much of the reason for the exodus from the Ardèche was a tale frequently occurring in the history of agricultural the world over, that of a land given over to monoculture, unable to support itself when the single crop failed. (Does Ireland come to mind?)

Actually, it was even worse than that for Balazuc. The earth there still more rock than soil, Balazuc’s peasants and small land-holders did not completely forsake cultivation of grapes or chestnut trees for mulberry trees and silkworms, but following on the heels of the parasite that devastated the silkworms came plant lice in the vineyards and chestnut blight. Nor was that all. Year after year of massive floods carried away the little soil that had scraped together to produce a few potatoes. Chapter Four closes plaintively: “Abandoned terraces on steep slopes today offer silent witness to le grand départ.”

That was as far as we got before the story bogged down, and we enjoyed that much. he fault of the writing is not the author’s academic style so much as the way he orders sentences within paragraphs. Logic is lacking, and the confusion of being hopped back and forth with so little ceremony is discouraging. Too bad, because the research in the book is first-rate and the facts themselves fascinating.

On my own, I recently finished Toute une vie pour se déniaiser, by Amelie Plume. This interior dialogue between two facets of one woman’s personality, a woman exactly my own age, reviewing her life from childhood to grandmotherhood, could not fail to hold my attention. After all, although the author (and the two internal voices that make up her plural “I”) has spent her sixty years in Switzerland, the Sixties in Europe and the Sixties in America were remarkably similar. Her desire to capture the present moment as it passes rang a sympathetic tone in me, too. La vie qui vit, le temps qui s’écoule—oui, oui! Mysterious moments occurred, when context left opaque for me the author’s neologisms (or Suissismes?). Never mind. Sometimes it feels best to read without a dictionary, to be immersed in the author’s language and swim as best one can. In the same way, I always think that people who find poetry difficult should just let it rain down on them rather than trying to analyze every line to death in a laborious attempt to “understand.”

My next choice was Anne Tyler’s Digging to America, and when I bought it, the woman at the register said her book club had read it. “Was it good?” I asked, making conversation. She hesitated before replying in a noncommittal tone, “It was different.” “I like Anne Tyler,” I offered, hoping to get her to say more. “Yes,” the woman said calmly, “she’s thought-provoking.” Not the first description that would come to my mind, but not one I could reject as false, either. What I appreciate about other Tyler novels I’ve read is the gentle eccentricity of her characters. They are never maniacs but can usually be described as “oddballs,” people who don’t quite fit into the American mainstream but drift and eddy about in their own quiet backwaters. Digging to America is different. Its theme might be “outsiderness” (a term that only appears once, very late in the novel), but it is the outsiderness of temperament and culture, not of eccentricity.

The characters in Digging to America, most of them very much in the mainstream of Baltimore’s educated middle class, feel themselves to be different. Sixty-year-old Maryam, a widow and new grandmother of a baby adopted from Korea, feels different because she was born and grew up in Iran. Hers was also, to all appearances, an old-fashioned arranged marriage, though we learn from her reflections on that marriage that there was much more to the story than her son realizes. That son, Sami, whom his mother sees as thoroughly American, though he grew up in the United States speaking American English, says he always felt he had to try harder to “fit in” than his Anglo-appearing friends. As an adult, to entertain Iranian-American relatives, he likes to rant about “Americans” as if he were not one himself. (I’ve heard fourth-generation Americans do the same thing. It seems a very American thing to do. Do people in all cultures do this?) Ziba, his wife, born in Iran but educated in the U.S., feels she and her husband are different even from their Iranian relatives. After all, they could not have a biological child of their own, and their Korean-born daughter does not carry their bloodline.

The other couple whose adopted Korean baby arrived on the same plane—and with whom Sami and Ziba have bonded over the years, thanks to the other woman’s insistence that the two girls grow up as friends--have no ethnic issues with their own American-ness, and the Iranian-Americans cannot imagine that organic, know-it-all Bitsy and laid-back, easy-going Brad would feel any insecurity at all about who they are. But Bitsy doesn’t want anyone to know that Brad is her second husband, and having given up her own career plans for her second marriage, she does everything to insure that motherhood will take up every moment of her day (by keeping her baby in cloth diapers, not enrolling her in preschool, etc.) and still secretly worries about how little she has done with her life.

One element of suspense in this story (Tyler stories all contain elements of mild suspense, though no reader will be on the edge of her seat with concern) has to do with Ziba’s mother-in-law, Maryah, and Bitsy’s father, Dave. After Bitsy’s mother, Connie, dies, will Dave and Maryah become a couple? If not, will the failure be traceable to cultural and ethnic differences? “You belong as much as I do,” Dave tells Maryah earnestly. We all think the others belong more.” Just the way we think other families celebrate a “real” Christmas or (this came to my mind) we think there were kids in high school so popular or gifted that they didn’t worry about being liked or being successful.

The two young couples annually celebrate the “Arrival” of their adopted daughters with a party that grows larger year by year. Sami and Ziba have called their Korean baby Susan, while Brad and Bitsy kept Ho-Jin’s given birth name and do the same with their second adopted child, Xiu-Mei from China. How do the children feel about growing up American? Do they feel different from native-born children living with birth parents? And how will the two adoptive families by changed by having these children in their midst? The ending is surprising, not at all telegraphed ahead of time, but it’s quietly perfect. Has no one yet conceived of a film version of Digging to America? I still don’t have a clue what reservations the woman in the book club had with this book!

David is reading and generally absorbing books about painting, along with Joyce Cary’s novel about a painter, The Horse’s Mouth, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Bring on the Empty Horses, by David Niven.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Good Stuff, Good Days

“This is your favorite part of the day, isn’t it?” David teased as we watched Sarah run and wrestle to her heart’s content with Digby, a seven-month-old golden retriever with a 20-lb. advantage over our feisty girl. It does make me happy to see Sarah enjoying herself. David must like it, too, or he wouldn’t suggest—before I even bring it up—going to the dog park at least every other day.

(I didn’t read aloud to David the scary bit in the wonderful book by Kilcommons and Capuzzo, Mutts, where they say of our girl’s mix, Border collie-Australian shepherd, “Are you prepared to take on the responsibility of another very intelligent, very demanding child?” The dog park is saving all our lives this winter, far from the fields of home!)

The park, Hernando County’s first, finally opened in January (just in time for Sarah!), after three years in planning and development. Rotary Club gave it the final needed boost. Not everyone is thrilled as we are (though everyone there gives it raves!), with one disgruntled letter-writer to the Hernando Times fuming about so much money spent on dogs. I think he’s missed the point. The park could have cost a lot less, but along with the fenced enclosures the county decided to provide, on the other side of the parking lot, picnic tables and restrooms for people. Because dog parks are not “just for dogs”—they’re for dogs and people with dogs, just as playgrounds are for children and people with children. And it’s obvious to me that dog owners are benefiting at least as much as dogs from this new opportunity to come together with strangers and get acquainted. Just as the park accommodates dogs of all ages, sizes, breeds and mixes, so all generations of human beings from all possible backgrounds find common ground there. It’s a happy scene. Dogs almost always get along better without the restraint of leashes, and owners give each other training tips and encouragement, sharing and exchanging information, forming friendships alongside their dogs.

Another of my favorite times of day is any time, morning, afternoon or evening, on the bridge over the South Fork of Hammock Creek. It’s always beautiful, and there’s always something to watch—people fishing, wading birds stalking a meal, or just the tide going in or out. But the North Fork bridge is good, too, especially on a misty morning, and it was in the North Fork that we saw the cruising bottle-nosed dolphins.

As is probably true elsewhere in the country, good news like the dog park has mostly to do with community action, while bad news comes largely from forces outside community control. So I take heart news out of St. Petersburg (article in the St. Petersburg Times) about a community meeting in Tampa. The group is following “Obama for America” campaign meeting guidelines, and the organizer, Mani Ghansah, who wants to promote conversation and discussion on the president’s economic stimulus package, was quoted as saying, “Just casting a vote and walking away doesn’t work.” The group will forward to the White House ideas coming out of their discussions. Wouldn’t it be a blessing if these economic hard times brought about a rebirth of democratic participation? Are “we the people” realizing at last that we have a stake in the political process and that, to have a say in any important way, we need to pay attention and inform ourselves on how our country is being run? That would be the silver lining in the dark clouds, and there are signs that it’s happening.

President Obama himself came to Fort Myers on Tuesday. Tickets for that “town meeting” were given out free, two per person, first-come, first-served. I wonder how long they lasted! No county in Florida is yet suffering the near 15% unemployment rate of Elkhart, Indiana, but it’s bad here, too, since Florida’s economy runs largely on real estate and the crisis first appeared in the real estate market.

I'm on Chapter 14 of the YA novel (my winter project), and David has started a couple of new paintings, one a large figurative piece. So we are "getting our work done," as a professor of mine said years ago of Nietzsche ("He got his work done") when asked by another student if N. were the professor's role model.

Our bedtime reading has taken on historical dimensions with The Stones of Balazuc, by John Merriman. More about that in a future post. Plus more about dog books. And I'll also have something to say local food and about that miscreant Parnell and the horror he has visited on Georgia agriculture.

I also see that the images in this post are pretty monochromatic, so in closing here's a little more color than nature intended:

Finally, lest it seem my memory has gone to total mush and that I'm really not in touch with the world around me at all, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ABE & CHUCK!

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Lengthy Miscellany

Another misty morning arrives on Hammock Creek, and adventure beckons.

David and I love flea markets. One of our first outings together was to the Bank Street flea market in Kalamazoo, and many a summer weekend we trekked out to Paw Paw to roam the aisles of tables and blankets spread out in sun and shade with everything from baby clothing and used books to deer antlers, tires, china bric-a-brac and tools old and new. There are no flea markets in or around Traverse City, however, and it’s something we miss Up North, so it’s a treat here in Hernando County, Florida, to find ourselves poised between two flea markets, the big, indoor USA Flea Market south of us and the more rural, low-key, outdoorsy Howard’s Flea Market up north of Chassahowitzka. We went to Howard’s on Saturday. It felt like old times. It felt like dear little Paw Paw! Here’s David, happy to have found just what he came looking for, a pair of TV “rabbit ears” antennae (he jokes that they may soon become “collectible”) and a second folding chair for us to take to the beach (in case it ever gets warm enough).

You never know what you will find at the flea market, which is part of the fun. The items pictured here caught my attention and made me think of friends Bob and Ellen back home. They will understand why if they see this picture.

Another place we always feel at home and happy is Tarpon Springs, and it was last Friday, sitting on a bench overlooking the mouth of the Anclote River, that I finished The Bookseller of Kabul, reading the final chapter aloud to David, even though doing so required many pauses to explain the relationships between characters. The end was difficult. From my vantage point of freedom and happiness, I didn’t want to believe that Leila gave up hope, that she did not “fight for” (his phrase, as reported by the author) a life with Karim and a career as a teacher, and that for the rest of her life she would be no more than an almost invisible servant, lowliest member of the family. These are real people, not fictional characters, I kept reminding myself. I wondered if Sultan, the bookseller, or any of his English-speaking family members, had read this book and what, if anything, that might mean for the lives of any individuals in the story. It is such a huge responsibility, I always think--writing and publishing intimate details about the lives of living human beings. How does one dare?

In general terms, I also think about how impossible—no, not impossible but certainly miserable!--life can be when authority is absolutely divorced from responsibility rather than residing in the same person, so that orders come from outside the will of those who bear the burden of carrying them out. Susan Och’s comment a few days back stayed with me. She mentioned a scene near the end of the book that shed light for her on why terrorism exists. I’m guessing (Susan, tell me if I’m wrong) it was the chapter in which a Western journalist, looking for adventure and headlines, found two sides struggling for power, each making identical accusations about the other, while he knew all along that the U.S. was playing the factions against each other (as the journalist did too on a much smaller scale) and arming both sides. But besides armed power struggles between military and/or terrorist groups there are innumerable smaller struggles within and between individuals. Mansur and Aimal, though they work outside the home, are no happier than their aunt, the family drudge, and they are no closer than Leila to finding a way out of the prisons of their lives. (The patriarch’s rule is absolute. The only family member who has been in a literal prison, and still a risk-taker, he is the only one in the family free to make decisions for himself, as well as for the others.) The struggles seem, on the surface, to be against the weight of tradition, but it is tradition narrowly interpreted and rigidly imposed, its natural evolution condemned, that suffocates these people. What they struggle against, finally, I realize, is hopelessness. Hopelessness—in an individual soul, a family, a neighborhood or a country--is fertile ground for violence, violence itself a subculture that flourishes where other culture is not allowed natural growth.

Earlier last week, we ventured north on Hwy. 19 to visit Callahan’s Books. Still among the living! The shop has undergone massive organization since its inception and is filled with narrow, space-saving shelves filled with paperback books, arranged by author within categories (mystery, romance, adventure, etc.), but against the back wall we found an assortment of hardcover books, and it was on these shelves (after first scoring a paperback Walter Mosley that I haven’t read before) that I found several irresistible titles. One of them absolutely insisted on being purchased and read: Dr. Nina and the Panther. What a title! Would the panther be roaming the scrubland of northern Florida? Or maybe northern Michigan? A quick look sufficed to tell me that the encounter took place on a wooded mountain in Pennsylvania, but there was still something about this book--. It was not a novel but, like the one I had just finished, another true-life story. It was also similar in being absolutely compelling from start to finish. Beginning it on the evening of the day I finished The Bookseller of Kabul, I was close to the end by nightfall.

In the case of Dr. Nina and the Panther, the life presented by the author is that of her own mother. The child Nina, we quickly learn, had to face much more than a panther to make her way in the world. When three older siblings die in rapid succession, followed by the newest baby in the family (there were other older children who had already left home), Nina’s mother detaches emotionally from the two little girls still living. It is their father alone who continues to bestow attention and affection on them, but the mother’s growing attachment to the Seventh-Day Adventist faith spells the end of her marriage and for the girls’ family life with their father. Their mother takes them to a summer Adventist camp in Pennsylvania, and when the camp breaks up at the end of the season, mother and children stay on in the mountains for three years, living in a tent. Nina’s mother continually assures the children that “the Lord will provide,” but it is young Nina who puts food on the table.

She gathers mushrooms, berries and nuts in spring and fall and hires out as a farm laborer in summer. In winter she and her sister are home-schooled by their mother (this the mother seems to have done very successfully) in geography, history, mathematics, Greek, Latin and French. They also study the Bible and learn it practically by heart. When a relative back East offers a home for the mother and younger child but says she cannot take two children, Nina’s mother matter-of-factly decides that her older girl will have to travel by train, alone, to Chicago, to live with an Adventist family. Nina would have arrived in Chicago barefoot had it not been for the intervention of a kindly shopkeeper who insisted she take a pair of shoes and socks on credit. In Chicago, after being examined extensively by the high school principal, twelve-year-old Nina is placed in the senior class and graduates with the class, after only one year of formal schooling.

By the age of 24 Nina was licensed to practice medicine. It was no easy path from high school graduation to medical degree for a woman in horse-and-buggy days, but then her path had never been easy. So what, I keep asking myself, made it possible for Nina to persevere? And what would it take for Leila to pursue her dreams?

Neither American society nor the Seventh-Day Adventist Church was encouraging girls to study medicine at the beginning of the 20th century. Quite the contrary. Nor did Nina’s mother encourage her to think she could become a doctor. Her mother did, however, educate her daughters, and she taught them to inquire and to reason as well as to read, inculcating a habit of free inquiry. The mother’s very helplessness, along with the father’s absence, instead of crippling the girl, seemed to propel her out into the world on her own. If no one was going to take care of her, very well then—she would take care of herself! When Nina entered medical school, she was one of only five women in her class. Only two of the five graduated with their degrees in medicine.

Leila’s life could not be more different. Her brother, strong and successful, cannot be questioned by wives or sons, much less by a younger sister. Leila is literate, but education, even for boys in the family, does not mean asking questions. Necessity does not push Leila out into the world to make a living; on the contrary, social expectations and taboos conspire to keep her from just such a fate. Sultan (it was only coincidence that we had bought Sultan date-filled cookies the same week I was reading this book) would say that his sister, his wives, his mother and daughters are sheltered from the world. He provides the shelter—and in an apartment building riddled with bullet holes, it would be hard to argue that his protection is unnecessary. How many women in Afghanistan find it possible to persevere in the face of their obstacles? Endurance can be hard enough. Perseverance sometimes seems superhuman.

I draw no conclusions here. To do so would be facile. The list of differences one could draw up between the two societies and the historical periods in which Nina and Leila came of age, between their families, the differences in temperament between the two young women—that list would be endless. The more I reflect on their lives, the more complex my questions become. One fact only tangentially related to my questions keeps coming into my mind over and over again, too: It is that the most effective method of population control is the education of girls. An editorial in the newspaper this morning about the contributions of Ruth Bader Ginsburg also made a connection for me. Anyone else on this? On what it takes for girls to see professional success as a possibility in their own futures?

Finally, here is a glimpse of something that says "old Florida" to me.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

'Wild Soul' Finds Winter Haven

Besides the books one reads from start to finish—for me, those I’m keeping a list of this year, so as not to lose track of titles and authors—there are those one keeps at hand for reference. One such for me, this winter in Florida, is the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Florida, by Peter Alden et al. (NY: Knopf, 1998). Here is a list of subjects included: topography and geology; habitats; conservation and ecology; weather; night sky; flora (from algae and lichens to trees); invertebrates (marine, freshwater and land); fishes; amphibians; reptiles; birds; mammals. There is also a lengthy section on parks and preserves. This book keeps migrating from car to house, and I sometimes wish I had two copies—but that seems lazy and excessive, doesn’t it? Having only one copy, I had to run out and retrieve it from the glove compartment late yesterday afternoon to identify the longnose gar, Lepisosteus osseus, I’d seen lying on the bridge over the South Fork of Hammock Creek. (Why the fish were lying there, dead, is another question, one the book doesn’t answer.) And luckily we had it with us the last time we were driving around Tarpon Springs, so I was able to name the wild tamarind trees we were seeing in people’s yards. What names these Florida trees have! Such magic! Wild tamarind, chinaberry, sea grape!

Another at-hand reference book is my handy Dictionario manual de la lengua Española, for though it may or may not help with every trendy, hip word to be found in the magazine Vanidades, it will surely do for more ordinary, pedestrian questions of translation. The magazine, by the way, confirms for me what everyone already knows, which is that the vocabulary we understand, whether in our native language or another, is always larger than the vocabulary we use and that context is all-important to understanding. Just as Mickey Mouse comic books cleared up many mysteries of spoken French for me in Paris, articles on los royals ingleses or diseños aglobados, with clues provided in accompanying photographs, elucidate words that would otherwise hide their meanings from me. One small piece in a 2006 issue of the magazine, however, leaped out at me immediately, fully revealed: I didn’t need to look for the author of the newly re-issued Spanish edition of Quince días en las soledades americanas, knowing instantly that this was one of my favorite of Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings, Quinze jours dans le désert américan, or, in English, A Fortnight in the Wilderness, his account of the overland trek he and Beaumont made, on horseback with Indian guides, through what was at that time trackless Michigan forest. What makes the story particularly moving is the author’s acute realization that what he is seeing will not long remain as it is but will soon be “civilized,” the wilderness lost forever.

I’ve also decided that some books I will not read in their entirety this winter (maybe later), and one of these is Scott Weidensaul’s Return to Wild America (2005). It isn’t that the whole book isn’t worth reading but that I want to concentrate on where I am, and so it is the fifth chapter, “The South’s Wild Soul,” that is pertinent right now. (Michigan makes no appearance in this book that concentrates mainly on coastal America.) David and I have explored some of the edges of areas Weidensaul discusses. We did not penetrate deep into the Everglades but did walk the boardwalk at the Fakahatchee Strand, with its giant cypress and fascinating strangler figs. A bit of Florida terminology:
The water moving across lower Florida, through the Everglades and the Big Cypress, is a shallow sheetflow, but in a few places the slightly acidic water has, with time, eroded the limestone bedrock to create the long sloughs that mark strand forests. The Fakahatchee Slough is three feet deep—a river valley, in effect, or, in Owen’s phrase, ‘the Grand Canyon of Florida.’

Collier County wilderness is like nothing else in the country, but I appreciate the fact that Weidensaul started his search for wild Florida in the north, in the country most snowbirds hurry through or over to get to the warm, sunny beaches of Miami on the Atlantic or Tampa Bay or Naples on the Gulf of Mexico. Probably because it is so much cooler and lacks sand beaches, development has been slower in northern, less dramatic Florida, its inroads more modest. This description of Weidensaul's is what I see when Sarah and I go out in the mornings:
Foot-long mullet leaped across the water like skipped stones, and two little blue herons squabbled over a morsel. An osprey, its voice creaky, flew among the moss-draped cypresses.

Or some days, a variation--

Out on Highway 19, the area may look like nothing but land pillaged for commerce (all too much of it, these days, failing or abandoned), but there are also simple little roadside stands selling boiled peanuts, oranges and tomatoes, fresh shrimp and smoked mullet, and two steps off the road one finds quiet, somewhat funky old residential developments or shady trailer parks, and then it is only another two steps to the wild edge of things. Chassahowitzka Wildlife Refuge, Weeki Wachee Preserve, a bird sanctuary between Hudson and Aripeka, little Jenkins Creek between Aripeka and Weeki Wachee—and these are only official acres set aside in our immediate vicinity, not the full story. Farther north are many more parks and preserves, one for almost every spring and river, and here in Aripeka itself, at the forked mouth of Hammock Creek (as at the mouth of the Suwannee River up in Dixie County and at many other spots where fresh water meets salt), necessity dictates that mangroves and tides be left to their own devices. This is their world. It is the world of the herons, the manatee, and all the marine inhabitants whose lives are still a complete mystery to me.

When our friend Gene took us up the Suwannee in his “crick boat” three years ago, we entered trackless wilderness such as existed in Michigan two hundred years ago. Forests fell in Michigan, and farms took their place, but Florida climate and vegetation put up more of a fight. Still, that they have held as much ground as they have, for so long, so much watery wonderland jungle still undrained, is something of a miracle. In recent years, with rising taxes in south Florida, development began moving ever northward, reaching into Hernando County.

Every aspect of life, I like to say, is a double-edged sword. The current hard times have hit especially hard among Florida’s working class. Maybe, I can’t help thinking, the reason they don’t complain more than they do is that they realize that this one evil is holding off another and that the only hope for the survival of wild and semi-wild Florida is some kind of slow-down or reversal in building trends. It often happens, after all, whether in Florida or Michigan or Colorado or elsewhere, that along with loss of wildlife habitat comes loss of affordable housing for people needing to make their living one day at a time. I don’t know. I’m just a visitor, after all. But this half-wild, half-struggling, moss-draped, epiphyite-rich world of clattering palms and constantly shedding live oaks, world of psychic readers and bridge-fishing, of buildings all bright colors on the highway and overtaken by mold and decay if left untended in the shade—this world so different from Michigan (and not much like glamorous south Florida, either) has taken hold of my heart. It is, now that I think of it, parallel to the Michigan I love—near-wild, slightly seedy, rough-around-the-edges Michigan, where every poet has to be a carpenter, too, in order to survive. These are worlds I would not trade for a single gated community. Not that anyone has offered to make me a deal.

And yes, so far I've posted mostly scenic photographs. For those of you who like your pictures funky, gritty, 'postmodern' or whatever, never fear--those images will appear in time. I'm making a few collections....

Monday, February 2, 2009

Working--Sometimes Around Dogs

Sarah is my dog…our dog…our girl. It’s a lot of trouble having her with us on the road and here in Florida, there’s no denying. Back home she and I could take off across the field in the morning, up through the orchards, into the woods, and though I carried a leash with me it was never snapped to her collar. Here it’s different. We’re in a strange place, the houses are close together, the traffic is fast, and all the wide-open spaces that look so inviting are either “No Trespassing” or “Wildlife Refuge.” None are places a dog can run. But I love having her with us and am willing to put up with all the trouble. Our world had a big hole in it after we lost Nikki, and now it’s complete again with Sarah. People who are not dog people think that’s crazy (or pitiful), but dog people understand perfectly.

Sarah’s new friends, Ida and Weiser (the latter short for Budweiser), are Aripeka dogs and always have been. They don’t even wear collars, though Christine assures me they’re up to date on shots. Christine was Donnie’s girlfriend, and Ida and Weiser were Donnie’s dogs, and now Donnie is dead, and we’re staying in his house this winter. The dogs sleep at Christine’s, but she drops them off by Donnie’s house before she goes to work in the morning, because this is where they’re used to hanging out. During the day they come and go as they please, on their own recognizance, as it were. They’re know the neighborhood, they’re traffic-smart, and everyone in town knows them and greets them by name. In warm weather they may take a swim or two in the creek.

I don’t dare let young country Sarah off her leash by this busy road, but I do let Weiser and Ida come into the house so all three of them can play together, and the two Aripeka dogs give Sarah some exercise and social life. The three of them have “worked it out,” as David says. Weiser and Ida pay attention when we speak to them and seem to understand and go along with most of what we ask of them.

Last Friday night, though, Christine was out late, and after sunset the temperature dropped considerably. Ida crawled under the house for shelter, but that wasn’t good enough for Weiser. He sat on the porch, in the dark, and barked for two hours, all the while we were sure that Christine would be along at any moment. Finally, though, we let him in, along with tag-along Ida, figuring it was the only way we would get any peace, but then Sarah was the one who wouldn’t settle down! These were her playmates, and she wanted to play! We only wanted to finish watching our movie in peace and go to bed, to sleep. Well, no dice. The barking had been bad, but the commotion indoors was no better. I was tired. Wouldn’t Christine worry if she came by to pick them up the dogs and didn’t find them? Was I reasoning or rationalizing? Whatever the truth of the matter, I put the Aripeka dogs out again, and we went to bed.

From outside the front door, a persistent Weiser launched once more into the routine that had already succeeded once. Trying to ignore him, I read aloud to David from Mowat’s People of the Deer, but the noise from the porch was incessant. We turned out the lights. The barking continued. I started counting the barks. Five barks, pause, three barks. Repeat. Repeat. Then three barks, pause, one bark. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Finally a long silence, during which I would hope against hope that he had settled down under the house for the night, but after ten minutes at the most the barking would begin again. Pillow over my head (David’s solution was a radio earphone), I canvassed the hopelessness of the situation: I would get no more sleep in Aripeka; the days and nights would be ruled by dogs; I would get no work done. These were late-night, worst-case-scenario, dark-of-soul thoughts.

Then I began to think of it, as David had been doing earlier, from the dogs’ perspective. For them it must seem almost as if Donnie had come back. There was life in the house again! I thought of how they ran to greet the van when we came home in the afternoon from a day’s errands and wanderings. I thought about Weiser’s grey muzzle and the predicted overnight low of near freezing. I caved. The Aripeka dogs came back into the house. I closed the pocket doors between the big room and the back area where our bedroom is and directed Sarah into her crate for the night. A couple of random barks from Weiser, a few pitiful whines from Sarah, and then peace at last!

First light of day brought the whole situation back to me in full force. I began with a trip to the bathroom, ignoring all wagging tails. When Sarah wouldn’t stop whining, I let her out into the big room with the others but after that ignored all three further while making coffee and settling down with my laptop to work on a chapter. There were a few rowdy play skirmishes, but quickly canines got the message that nothing much was going to happen for a while, and they settled down on the floor to wait. A miracle!

I kept working, and four cups of coffee later I had finished a chapter. Another miracle! Okay, time to get dressed now and take the dogs out into the sunshine!

Christine was pulling into the driveway as we started out, and Weiser and Ida casually joined her to have their breakfast, while Sarah and I continued (Sarah on leash) over the bridge, around past the post office and down the road for a serious walk. It was a beautiful morning. It was cold, but the Aripeka dogs were off my hands, Sarah wasn’t being as bad on her leash as she’s been lately, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and I’d finished a chapter! That chapter (the work is all “draft” at this stage) had taken three mornings. Multiplying the number of chapters still to go by three, I concluded that my project was feasible, despite recent time “lost” to fun and dogs.

So maybe this scene will work out, after all. Maybe, in fact, it will be all the better for the social life Sarah gets from Ida and Weiser and the discipline and order I must impose not only on myself but also on three healthy, fun-oriented dogs.

There are so many topics to be addressed this winter, in this place. There is the Florida economy, for one thing. David and I have been aware of changes between Florida three years ago and Florida today, many related to the struggling economy here. Florida politics would be another topic, as would Florida culture--or, cultures (plural). One photo-essay I’d like to put together is a study of Hwy. 19 between, say, Crystal River and Tarpon Springs, looking at bright colors, empty spaces, remnants of “old Florida,” and scenes where new and old, or appearances of prosperity and failure, stand in stark contrast. The flea market is deserving of a photo-essay, too. And I’ve only been making mention of my reading, not discussing the books in any depth.

And food! Just as many languages of the world are to be heard in Florida, so can one find all the foods of the world. Sunday morning at the big USA Flea Market, we found a new Vietnamese “food restaurant” to sample, Trang and Family Place. My “chicken stick” (chicken en brochette with onions and green pepper, kind of a Vietnamese shish-kebab) was very satisfying, and David’s Vietnamese “donut,” a ball of soft, deep-fried dough with a soft, sweet paste inside, sesame seeds outside, was different and interesting.

We’ve been eating well at home, too. Bowls of steaming collard greens, pockets of fresh tabouleh, fresh-squeezed orange juice, whole-wheat tortillas filled with black beans, cheese and salsa, and plates of rice piled high with mushrooms, beans, onions, tomatoes and a few thin strips of beef or pork.

Our friend Sandra takes the prize for home-cooking, though. Here is the beautiful stromboli she made for a birthday party the four of us attended down the pike a way. She promises to tell me how she makes it, though each making is largely improvisation.

It's raining today, with temperatures supposed to be warmer by the end of the week. It would be nice to see the end of nighttime lows in the 30’s.

I’m three-quarters of the way through The Archivist, and we are more than halfway through our bedtime reading, People of the Deer. Last night's chapter, the story of one winter and spring's starvation, was so stark and unsettling that I had to read a couple of pages into the next chapter so we wouldn't have nightmares. If Mowat did go to the Barrens to escape politics, he found politics working--or rather, not working--there with a vengeance. People who need animal fat to survive an Arctic winter cannot make do with white flour, and when they were given guns (to hunt fox for traders) and then left without ammunition, having left behind their old hunting ways, disaster was the result.

David has his painting studio set up now, and my own writing is coming along well. Yesterday morning’s work session was so productive that, the draft chapter produced so long, that in the end I called it two chapters, splitting it at the natural break (this after the good results of the dog-and-work morning). David asked me questions about my novel over our morning coffee. He is full of ideas for his own work, and sometimes when he sits staring into the middle distance, a book forgotten in his hands, I know that in his mind he’s painting. We feel very fortunate to be here, away from the snow, and have this time to work.