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Monday, May 31, 2010

A Salute to My Father’s Memory

(The cemetery photographs in this post were taken at our cemetery here in Leelanau Township, not in the Illinois cemetery where my father is buried.)

When I was a little girl, my father and I were the best of friends. He carried me horsey-back. (We both loved horses, so there was no talk of “piggy-back” between us.) He read a chapter to me every night from Peter Pan: The Adventures of Peter and Wendy, a book the two of us practically learned by heart; he also made up bedtime stories, for me and my sisters, about the adventures of an imaginary squirrel family. On Sundays after church we daughters in turn got to go with him to “Daddy’s office” (he was a civil engineer for a small regional railroad) and sit up at the big, high drafting tables, shading in contour maps with colored pencils and enjoying cold chocolate milk from machines in the basement. And as a little girl I especially loved the way he looked in his uniform, all dressed up for parades, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve. He had been in Holland and the South Pacific during World War II, then in Paris and the south of France, still in the military, after the end of the war in Europe.

Having heard French phrases from him all my life, it was natural that I would want to study the language in high school and long to see Paris for myself, but if French consolidated a bond with my father, my adolescent years also brought painful changes to our relationship. As I began to have my own opinions on various aspects of life, we disagreed often, the disagreements seldom easy for either of us and stubbornly persistent through the following years.

On my parents’ last visit together to northern Michigan, therefore, my strategy was for the three of us to take long drives past orchards in bloom and also by as many horses as I could work into the itinerary. Love of horses, of Paris and a deep appreciation for the French language: these formed an oasis of peaceful common ground in my adult relationship with my father.

Since the military in general and World War II in particular constituted the high points of his life, my father is buried in the military section of a pleasant, tree-shaded old cemetery, and the last time I went to visit his grave with my mother and my husband, my eye was caught by a tiny scrap of worn, faded fabric on the ground, a small shred from one of those little American flags people stick in the ground near graves on holidays. I couldn’t leave it there.

You see, when I was young, both at home and at school I was taught respect for the flag, one of the rules being that it was never to touch the ground. Thus this little scrap, like a partial page from a holy book, called up in me all my parents’ and teachers’ old lessons, and finding it near my father’s grave made it seem even more important, so I picked it up and put it in my pocket, something to store away with a miscellany of small items too important to discard, though no one looking at the collection would see value in any of it. I got it out yesterday to photograph it.

“The old colonel,” as he liked to call himself in later life, enjoyed saluting his fellow officers and being saluted in turn. Actually, he enjoyed having his daughters salute him, too, which wore somewhat thin for us as we got older. It wasn’t always easy being the daughter of a retired military man. But as I was thinking about all this the other day, I realized gratefully that while he undoubtedly would have liked to have had a son, he never once gave us the message that he was disappointed in our being girls.

Dad, I salute your memory today, in gratitude for your contribution to our freedom. Thanks to you and your comrades-in-arms over the generations, my sisters and I are free to vote and free to disagree with each other, our fellow Americans and even our government. Though none of us will ever do it (unless someone opts out of the pact we made), we’re even free to run for public office. Thank you all.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Letter to My Sister About a Book

Dear Deborah,

Good morning! It isn’t even 7 o’clock yet, I haven’t been outdoors to water the garden, but I just finished reading The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Story of Surprising Second Chances. Thank you so much for getting and sending me three signed copies of the book that arrived in yesterday’s mail (I’ll keep the one inscribed “For Dog Ears Books”), and if you’re still in touch with the author, please tell her how thoroughly I enjoyed her story. You told me she is a very down-to-earth person, and that quality shines through her writing.

So Amy Dickinson replaced Ann Landers, eh? Now I’m curious to read her column and see what kind of advice she dispenses within the confines of “Ask Amy.” She is very forthright in the book about how often advice to her as a single mother, on finding an appropriate man, fell short of the mark.
...I have spent years looking, not looking, expecting, not expecting, being proactive, making phone calls, admitting to crushes, denying attraction, and leaving it all up to the Universe. None of this works.

Then her next sentence says: “But it all works.” And throughout the book, during all those years (17) that she was raising her daughter without a mate of her own, it’s clear that Amy was never alone. She had the “mighty queens,” as her daughter named them—her mother, sisters, aunts and cousins, with only one uncle and a couple of male cousins in the lot, and she had the comfort and security and familiarity of her small town, in addition to big city life, first in Washington, D.C., and then in Chicago. Her family was a constant, and her small town was a constant.

Deborah, you are so right! Freeville, New York, is a lot like Northport, Michigan! The winter population of Northport isn’t much more than Freeville’s 400-some. (I’m too lazy to look back for the exact number she gives.) You and I didn’t grow up in that kind of place, but you’ve heard enough from me in recent years about Northport. Freeville’s one church is next door to its school; Northport’s school is across the street from two of the four church buildings (five congregations) in town.

The creek? You know we have a creek, too! Outside our village, cherry orchards rather than dairy herds are the rule. And no “private” family event is too small for neighbors to share:

In small towns, everybody knows where the bodies are buried—literally. Our town cemetery contains headstones bearing the names of local families, and I know the intimate details and familial backstories of many of them. Of course the downside to knowing your neighbors’ stories is that they know yours too.

Late in the book this theme recurs:
I’m surrounded by people who are not impressed with me. They don’t care that my syndicated column has twenty-two million readers, that I’ve been on the Today show—that I’ve locked horns with Bill O’Reilly, or that my name was once used as a clue on Jeopardy! They remember what a doofus I was in high school.

It’s true, there is no place to hide in a small town, where people see you both all dressed up—for weddings and funerals, graduation and concerts—and in your old dirty work clothes much of the rest of the time, Northport has its share of single mothers and of kids who grow up but can't tear themselves away or can't stay away permanently. It's a good thing that young people want to be here, isn't it? Not long ago a new resident of Northport told me how much she loved the town and how great it could be if this and that were done. Now I’m thinking that people in a small town are a lot like the town itself: we have plenty of room for improvement, but the point of love, it seems, is not to lose sight of the good all around you. Though she couldn’t wait to “get away” and actually got as far as “London, England” (the way her mother always said it), Amy Dickinson came home again, and she describes her little hometown lovingly. The way she wrote about Halloween, for instance...

Her father—what a trip! Don’t want to give that away, though, since I have those couple of signed copies to sell today at Dog Ears Books. And I haven't touched in this letter on the mother-daughter relationship, which is really the core of the book. I’m happy the story ended where it did and in the way it did. Did you have tears in your eyes at the end? I’ll bet you did, sister! We are related, after all! Thank you again so much!

Today is Cars in the Park and, at 11 a.m., the Blessing of the Pets. It's a beautiful day in Northport. Wish you were here!

Love always,

Friday, May 28, 2010

Friday of Holiday Weekend, Sunny and Bright

I'm guessing that most people have more to do today than sit in front of a computer screen reading blogs. My own mind is going in at least 20 different directions, and my body needs to follow suit--walk to the post office, water windowboxes, flip the signs around to say OPEN in the bookstore windows, etc. The morning already started well in the garden, the one place on earth where I always feel like a benevolent goddess.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

I Know You’re Out There!

Beautiful day, beautiful day. --Hello, you! You know who you are. You’re someone who reads this blog but doesn’t leave comments, and let me be very clear from the outside that I am not singling you out for criticism! No, I just want to salute you and thank you for reading. It means a lot to me.

Trying to leave comments can be frustrating. I wrote it, hit “publish,” copied the silly string of letters, so where did it go? (Gerry, thank you for persevering when our respective platforms are being stinky with each other!) Many times, too, we read something without feeling compelled to leave a response. Yes, me, too, though I do leave comments regularly on blogs whose writers I’ve come to know, through the ether if not in person, and occasionally on a site I’ve visited for the first time. Other times? Often? I read, enjoy and move on. In fact, I’m more likely to send a link to a friend about a post that strikes me than I am to leave a comment for the blogger. So I do understand, because I'm there, too.

On the other hand, I must say that it was very affirming to receive five different e-mail messages from various of you in response to a recent post. Shall I do a Sally Field? No, that would be going too far. Just—thanks! Thanks for reading. You give me the heart to go on.

Thanks, also, to Christy, who wants to open a bookstore in her Missouri hometown and has been e-mailing me with questions after reading one or more of my contributions to the Bookshop Blog. Christy, look how beautifully the flowering plant you sent goes with the color of the walls at Dog Ears Books! I'm not ignoring your last two e-mails, either. It was a busy morning here at the bookstore.

Have you checked out some of the other blogs in my list? Here’s a post from “Get Your Botany On!” you don't want to miss, and you don’t have to be a botanist to enjoy it and learn from it.

Here in Northport, at the store, my back-ordered copies of Rabbi Hirschfield's book are in. I have You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right in both paper and hardcover. Purchase now so you can read the book (or at least start it) before his June 6 lecture. It will whet your appetite for his talk.

And that seems like enough for one day, doesn’t it? Maybe, in closing, a little video of Northport Creek on this lovely day in May:

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

From Obsession and Rejection to More Nuanced--and Deeper--Appreciation

This is the story of how I came, first, to see France as vastly superior to my own country and then, after a while, how I got over that bias and was able to appreciate my own country again, still loving France, loving both though seeing neither one as perfect. This post is all words. I just put that one image (an old one from last year of Sarah and one of her buds) at the top to lure you in. And I’m writing here about my experience and feelings and opinions, no one else’s.

Last night, by the time I could no longer keep my eyes open and focused, the moment when sleep overtook me after a long, full day, I had reached page 387 of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, a novel set in India shortly after Partition (the splitting off of Pakistan). The cast of characters accompanied me into dreams. And yet, I awoke this morning to a surge of Paris memories.

Paris is like New York, in that everyone who has ever been there and loved it in the past, before you got there, is sure that “then” it was much better than “now,” whenever “now is (never stationary, never the same river twice). Those people who got there long before you will sadly tell you it’s too late now, that you’ve missed the city at its best and richest—and I would quote from E.B. White’s Here Is New York, an American classic, but unfortunately I have no copy on hand at the moment, and online excerpts tend to focus on the city being now “destructible,” rather than all its visitors thinking they hit it at the best moment in time and everyone coming after them arriving too late, and anyway, that book is about New York, and it was Paris that stole my heart, as it had my father’s decades earlier. “You’ll never have the time I had there!” he exclaimed. Well, no, I could not hope for that. I would not be an American Army captain arriving on the scene to hear Edith Piaf sing on the glorious dawn after the Liberation of the City of Light from the long Nazi Occupation. But I didn’t want anyone else’s Paris, only to find my own.

Other people will tell you that Paris (again, the same things are said of New York City) is unfriendly to visitors. One person assured me I would have a terrible time in the spring of 1987 because “they hate Americans over there.” Many aspects of traveling alone disturbed my pre-flight peace of mind, but never that fear. “No,” I replied with confidence, “they will love me because I will be so happy to be there!”

To be there. Whether it is Paris, France, or the red canyons of the American West or anywhere in the world you can name, being there is nothing, absolutely nothing at all, like looking at pictures of the place or watching a movie set with the same scenes. When David and I went back together in the year 2000, the dinner we had one night with his English friend, Justin, and my French friend, Hélène, brought together three of the loves of my life: David, Paris, Helene. But I am getting ahead of my story....

Revenons à nos moutons. (I love that old French saying!) Back to 1987, that is. I was there, waking that first morning to pigeons cooing, fluttering past my bedroom window, to French voices speaking and singing (yes), to the distinctive clink of spoon against china echoing against the stone walls of the air shaft. Being there, I was surrounded not only by sights but also by sounds and by smells--no, call them perfumes, even that damp stone smell, even the diesel odor of heavy traffic. I couldn’t breathe in the air deeply enough. When the chestnut trees bloomed, my joy became so intense it was almost pain, but there was no question of “taking leave of my senses.” My senses were overloaded but continued to be greedy for more.

Hélène recognized herself in me, I think—this tendency we shared to excessive response (as some would see it).. Of my parents’ generation, both an only child and childless, separated for decades from her own artist husband (another thing we had in common at that time), my landlady looked out for me. “Take an umbrella!” she would say on a rainy day, urging hers on me. “Don’t waste your money on expensive wine. I buy it in bulk.” But there was so much more to her, so much more to our connection than that. One evening we were watching television together, and an old clip came on, Jacques Brel singing “Ne Me Quittes Pas.” We know the English lyrics as “If You Go Away,” but the French words are pleading, “Don’t leave me!” Abruptly, Hélène got up from the table, went to her room, closed the door and came out no more that evening. Had I said something wrong? No, she explained the next morning. She had been overcome by memory and emotion.

Over the years of our deepening friendship, during my visits and in letters, Hélène shared bits and pieces of her life with me, and across what should have been a generational and cultural gap we recognized each as what Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables) called “kindred spirits.” Hélène loved my love of Paris, too, so my forecast was borne out—I’m realizing this only today, for the first time, as I type the words: “They will love me because I will be so happy to be there,” I had said in Kalamazoo, and so it came to pass, surprisingly, with the woman from whom I rented my room on the rue de Vaugirard!

But the month, my first visit, came to an end, and I had to go home. I cried as the plane took off, feeling the pain of every mile that separated me from the place I had grown to love. Landing in Chicago, I recoiled upon hearing flat Midwestern voices again. Does this sound terrible? I’m being honest. I hadn’t wanted to come home and no longer felt “at home” in my own country.

It got worse. American coffee was insipid, bread soft and tasteless, supermarket peaches and avocados unripe, hard, bland. “It must be a relief to go to the grocery store where everything is in nice, clean packages,” commented a well-meaning relative. No, it was not, not at all. I wanted my bread unwrapped, still warm from the oven, tucked under my arm. I wanted every single piece of fruit, every vegetable, hand picked for me personally and handed to me to pop into my string bag. I wanted chunks of cheese—all kinds of wonderful cheese!--sliced off to match the space between my two hands held apart, and those chunks wrapped in paper and tied with string. I wanted the speed and breeze and smells and crowds of the Métro. I wanted the chestnut trees and Guignol and for people to call me “Madame” in respectful tones and to greet me with “Bonjour,” not “Hi.” In short, I wanted a French life, and instead found myself painfully cut off from that reality, imprisoned in America!

It took a while for these extremes of obsession and rejection to calm down. As I made trips across the Atlantic over succeeding years, gradually I came to see that France was no more a perfect country than was the United States and that U.S. life had some pretty wonderful things to offer. I still loved the growling male voices and the twittering female voices of Paris (provincial voices are different) but hated the way little girls were dressed, all frills and pink in little short skirts so they didn’t dare run in the playgrounds and risk falling down. I only received my B.A. at age 38 and thus began graduate school very late in life, so I found the French educational system, much less flexible and forgiving, distinctly inferior to the experience I was able to obtain in the U.S.: (Step out of line in France and, unless things have changed since, you’re out for life. England, by contrast, has institutionalized programs for “nontraditional” students, as we older ones dropping back in are called.) I’d adjusted to walking on French sidewalks without making eye contact but preferred the way people looked right at me, acknowledging my existence, in Chicago. I preferred some aspects of life in France to the American equivalent but found other American aspects more congenial than the French counterparts, politics and social programs and environmental awareness as well as obvious things like food and manners. I realize that some people would love one country and hate the other. I love both and am critical of both, a member of the “loyal opposition,” as dissident Catholics like to say of their relationship to Rome.

So that’s where I am now, neither idealizing nor demonizing France or the United States or any other country on earth. People are people. We are never perfect, so how can we expect to have perfect institutions? Every tribe, every nation, every government, every country neighborhood or small village or urban metropolis is an experiment in the organization of human society. Similarities are fascinating, contrasts equally so; large countries have problems not faced by small ones and vice versa. And on it goes, human imagination and tradition and geography and everything else cross-fertilizing to produce novel combinations on our precious, beautiful earth.

We dream, we leap, we hope to fly...we fall and crash and dust ourselves off and get up and try again. Such a short time each of us has here, but why should that be cause for despair? It is such a gift, life on earth, despite the sometimes destructive forces of nature and the less innocent destructive projects of man against man.

This post is dedicated to my friend S., as we forgive each other for pain caused by wounds unintentionally inflicted and go on with a richer understanding of ourselves and others. Thank you, S. The past two days of conversation have been intense, often painful, but exciting, too, as learning always is. Now the challenge for me will be to keep these lessons and insights in mind for the rest of my life.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Snippets from My World Today

That is not snow in front of the Leelanau Township Library (don't forget book discussion group this coming Wednesday at 1 p.m.) but petals drifted to ground from the ornamental crabapples. Soft spring rain arrived yesterday, bringing up the level of the creek I would still like to see renamed Wildcat Creek....

Last night was a lovely evening at home for reading on the porch until it got too cool for comfort, after which reading indoors by the fire was equally lovely. Finally, after a movie, came reading in bed, and that was good, too. I confess that the most recent book on my list as of today, one I read yesterday in its entirety, is a book I have read before, Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris. It was just as good the second time around.
When I read about food, sometimes a single word is enough to detonate a chain reaction of associative memories. ... The word ptarmigan catapults me back ten years to an expedition I accompanied to the Canadian Arctic, during which a polar-bear biologist, tired of canned beans, shot a half dozen ptarmigan. We plucked them, fried them, and gnawed the bones with such ravening carnivorism that I knew on the spot I could never, ever become a vegetarian. Sometimes just the contiguous letters pt are enough to call up in me a nostalgic rush of guilt and greed. I may thus be the only person in the world who salivates when she reads the words ‘ptomaine poisoning.’ - Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris

The movie? Don’t ask! No more Werner Herzog! I have suffered enough! Books are better!

So before falling asleep, clearing my mind of W.H., I got all the way to Part Four of A Suitable Boy. At the end of Part Three Lata was carried off to Calcutta by her mother to get her away from an “unsuitable boy,” and in Calcutta she will have to put up with her horrible tyrant of a brother, so there is plenty of conflict ahead, obviously, and I will not abandon this tome of over 1400 pages after a mere hundred and eighty-seven. I’ve thought of including a gadget on this blog, “Pages Read So Far in A SUITABLE BOY: 187,” to be updated as appropriate. That way, if ever I might be tempted (as I have not yet been) to give up on the book, the thought of public shame would be enough to keep me reading. Public? Not all that public. One or two people might notice. Still (my thoughts continue), it might be rather amusing....

And now at Dog Ears Books I have three books by Bob Butz:

(1) An Uncrowded Place: The delights and dilemmas of life Up North and a young man’s search for home; (2) Beast of Never, Cat of God: The Search for the Eastern Puma; and, finally, (3) Going Out Green: One Man’s Adventure Planning His Own Burial. I was fine with cremation as a plan until I found out how much energy is consumed along with the body. (Had I known, our Nikki would have been wrapped in one of her old blankets and laid to rest in the ground.) Not your kind of subject? What about those “big cat tracks” birders found in the woods of our neighborhood? Cougar, mountain lion, puma—whatever you call the cat, it scares me much more than why bears or wary coyotes.

Geese flew over the house this morning, honking.

Tonight there is a performance of “Cinderella” up at the NCAC, performed by Northport students, and admission is free. Plan to be in your seats by 7 p.m. 7:12: [Gotcha! It was "Alice in Wonderland," and you missed the curtain!]

This is the last weekend before Memorial Day weekend. Tomorrow is the last Sunday the bookstore will not be open until after Labor Day. Drive-Thru BBQ next door also shifts to a seven-day week beginning next weekend, and our local branch bank, after today, will be open on Saturday mornings. Here are a few other sights from Saturday morning, May 22:

Plenty of places offering morning coffee and sustenance in Northport, and this is only a partial list.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Anne-Marie Oomen: A Michigan Treasure

Her new book of essays, An American Map, is out this spring from Wayne State University’s “Made in Michigan” series, and all Anne-Marie’s fervent and loyal fans are thrilled. Here is a very small sample, chosen from the penultimate essay of the book, “Finding (My) America., the landscape described that of the Michigan’s Drummond Island alvar.
Even our geological past is made of what water left, compressed shell and plant life, a limestone liturgy written in glacial scrape over these flats. The limestone layer, which in the rest of the Great Lakes regions drifts from dozens to hundreds of feet below our surface, is the surface here, revealed as a plain, a geological page where a lean layer of beleaguered loam writes an ancient history.

Long-time followers of Oomen’s work will not be surprised by her passion for and deep knowledge of Michigan. New to this volume of memoir essays are travels farther afield—Missouri, California, Colorado, Puerto Rico. Anne-Marie has always been able to make her personal life personal to her readers, as well, and in these essays she guides us to places, insights and partial, perhaps temporary answers to the very large questions of life, by means of very specific and concrete experience. They are better than no answers at all, even if they prove ephemeral and we have to search for them all over again.

It begins with a question:
Lately I have been thinking about how discrete places, and perhaps an entire country, might become placeless. No, not placeless, for that is more or less impossible, but how places might lose their individuality, and in turn lose their meaning....

Are they still out there—places where meaning and geography and people are linked so closely they make the stories that give us identity, that give us people?

[Digression: Recent years’ travel has brought this question to my mind again and again. One old friend of my husband’s who now making his home overseas claims dismissively that “Every part of the States is like every other part.” When he is here, he drives expressways, going from Point A to Point B (such a phrase seems appropriate to expressways) in the shortest possible time. Okay, you know I hate expressways, and more than expressways I hate the ubiquitous clusters of gas stations and fast food joints around the exits, along with the big box suburban commercial sprawl that reaches out to snare the unwary. Yes, that part of “America” is the same everywhere—which is precisely why I want to avoid it and take a more leisurely, meandering route on two-lane pavement through small towns farmlands, woods, prairie, hills, seeing architecture that varies according to the region and accents and dialect that change along the way. What surprises and delights me on these long, slow trips is the variety continues to thrive, all across the country. Even in our little Leelanau County, no two small villages look the same or have the same character. Each is unique.]

Those not yet familiar with Anne-Marie Oomen’s work are in the enviable position of having other treasures to discover for the first time. Besides the new title, there are Oomen’s first two books of memoir, Pulling Down the Barn and House of Fields, and a poetic tour de force entitled Un-Coded Woman, that last a small book of poems building one upon the other, subtly and chronologically, to form a short, powerful, unified narrative, a kind of novel in verse. I first read it not expecting the connections and found myself drawn into the world of a character whose life gathered depth and complexity with each page.

An active member of and participant in the Michigan Writers group (and still an ex officio member of the Board), Oomen is, besides an extraordinary writer, one of finest teachers of writing in northern Michigan. Only this morning a friend came in to pick up a book order, and we started talking about An American Map, only to realize we were in the same writing workshop with her years ago and that valuable lessons from that day are still with us.

She is a literary treasure, and we are deeply fortunate to have her in northern Michigan.

Changing the subject, I got my window boxes planted today in front of the bookstore. Traffic is becoming heavier, boats are being trailered to the harbor, lines are forming in the grocery store: the season is nearly upon us. It "feels like" rain today, but none has fallen so far. Weather this week has been idyllic. We live for these days.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

If You “Love Northport” What Do You Love?

We live halfway between Leland and Northport, and my husband has a “Leland person” since 1950 or so, although he’s oftener found in Northport these days. One of our friends, born and raised in Leland, calls herself a “Leland person living in Northport.” Old affinities never die. People, however, do sometimes change their habits.

I first came up to Traverse City in 1970 and began living in Leland (after interim years in Kalamazoo, Cincinnati and Champaign-Urbana) in 1993, establishing my bookstore in Northport that same year. Our home base has been out in the country now for nine years, and I have never lived within the village limits of Northport, but when a good friend who is a native of this place introduced me to newcomers as a “Northport person” it made me happy. This village, this township—this is my home. I have pledged allegiance to this place with my bookstore, in the face of long odds.

Nothing is perfect. Taxes and sewer assessments have recently strained tempers and pocketbooks in Northport, with the result that some old friends are no longer on speaking terms. (The same thing happened years ago when Leland got its first sewer system; this is not a phenomenon unique to Northport.) Business owners are always nervous about staying in business from year to hear, while willing volunteers with time to spare are tapped over and over, and school board members, administration and teachers are rarely unanimous on any given issue. That’s just life.

Today, though, what I want to do is to love everything and everyone in Northport—those who shop locally and those who drive to Traverse City; those who smile and greet (the majority) but also the occasional scowling grouch, who may just be having a very bad day; the wild, scruffy, untidy corners it is in my deepest nature to cherish and the spit-polished and manicured areas in which people take much pride, as well.

We are all here for such a very short time. Some will be remembered as long as the town has memory, and some will be quickly forgotten. Today, though, the sun is shining, swallows are building nests, gardens are being tended, and the light on the water of Grand Traverse Bay is blinding in its glory. We are lucky to be here. I am lucky to be here.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

More Happy News for Michigan Author

The news got even better this month for Donald Lystra, whose first novel, Season of Water and Ice, already received a Michigan Notable award in 2009. Now the Midwest Independent Publishers Association has chosen the book for its 2009 Midwest Book Award for fiction.

I’ve been excited about Season of Water and Ice since the author, a long-time customer of Dog Ears Books, first sent me an advance copy. How wonderful, after reading it, not just to say “Thank you” but to be able to write a glowing review of the novel for my blog. Don says mine was the book's first review, as far as he knows. I am very happy for him and also personally gratified that other readers, reviewers and critics continue to confirm my literary opinion.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What You Were Too Polite To Say Yesterday

Yesterday I published photos of what I called my “home gym” and in doing so revealed my shameful gardening negligence, surely to the horror of any serious gardening viewer/readers. That rocky, worn-out soil! How can she hope to produce anything edible in that dry dust?

Well, it’s true: I have not kept up with the garden, and it deserves better. The year I first dug it (all by hand), the ground was as hard as concrete. By the following year, thanks to heavy mulching that first season, there were earthworms. (I was very proud of that.) Then for several subsequent seasons, an annual application of rich worm castings from the compost pile and continued mulching kept the tiny area productive and healthy.

Okay, time to get back on track! Monday’s #1 task, then, way more important than laundry and lawn-mowing, was getting down into the compost pit, digging deep, and hauling the rich compost to the poor old garden.

Earthworms. Don’t say “Yuck!” They are my “little buddies,” my partners in production. They work for free, never take a day off, and their joy is my joy. They are beautiful in my eyes.

If worms aren’t your cup of tea, how about the contrast between the worn-out and the amended soil, one on one side, the other on the other of this row of volunteer chard?

I thought I was too tired to read last night, after gardening and weeding and mowing and laundry and dinner prep and cleanup and much more mowing, but managed to get through another 30 or 40 pages of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. At the rate I’m going, it probably will not take me all summer, after all.

One last note for today is about a new blog in my list: Charles Nelson, a California engineer, is also a graduate of Northport High School and member of a large local Norwegian clan, and his posted thoughts cover a wide range of subjects. Read his report on this year's local asparagus here. Only today he enlarged my store of local knowledge by telling me that Stubb’s (restaurant and bar), across and down the street from Dog Ears Books on Waukazoo Street, was named for a real person named Stubb, who ran a bar and poolroom there for many years.

What I already knew is that Woody’s Settling Inn, across the street from Stubb's, was not named for a real Woody but for Woody Allen, who never had a connection with Northport other than being a favorite movie-maker of Clayton Weeks who bought the old Hotel Bar years ago and remodeled and renamed it. The former Woody’s building will be torn down (eventually) to make room for the Northport Area Heritage Association (NAHA) museum.

Not confused yet? The building housing Dog Ears Books and the Painted Horse Gallery, the old garage building at 106 Waukazoo, is owned by Woody Palmer, and there is no connection between Woody Palmer and the old Woody’s down the street, but Woody tells me that the Painted Horse Gallery will open again for the 2010 season, and that’s good news.

Now, are you ready for the quiz?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Reading vs. Working Out: Is This a Fair Contest?

One of the small reading groups in which I participate (How many will there be this summer? Will our Ulysses group choose another book this year? Will the small group willing to read something in French get it together to do so?) chose our next round of books last night, and it’s lucky I’m ahead of the game with two of the titles, because one of them is L-O-N-G! It’s Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which does not end until page 1,349. There are even family trees on the endpapers, sure sign of many characters and plot complications to keep straight. I must say, though, that right on the first page I was interested and entertained, and the first 20 or so pages move along at a lively pace. Our first assignment with this book was 100 pages, but I can see I won’t be stopping there.

Other books chosen were Wendell Berry’s Bringing It to the Table (my choice); Season of Water and Ice; An American Map; and People of the Book. Three novels and two books of essays this time around--should be a good year for that group, regardless of how far we all get with Vikram Seth.

The Leelanau Township Library book discussion group will meet next on May 26 to discuss The Town, third book in Conrad Richter's The Awakening Land trilogy, and to choose books for the next year’s cycle. Everyone brings one or two recommended books, and all books go on the table. The group circles the table, examining the books, and then people have a chance to give a pitch for each recommendation, after which the group circles a second time, to for books they would like to read. If I remember correctly, there is no rule on how many books a person may vote for, which may sound odd, but somehow the system works out just fine.

Soon Memorial Day will be upon us, and the bookstore will be open seven days a week until Labor Day. Yikes! All those days in the bookstore and all those books to read in the evening—when and how will the bookseller squeeze in cardiovascular exercise and muscle toning? No problemo, my friends, when one lives in the country! Besides hikes with the dog, there are gardens to tend and grass to mow, and behold here the apparatus of my summer home gym, also known in environmental circles as “appropriate technology.”

It is technology appropriate to the worker (moi), to the task and to the scale of the projects. I love the absence of gasoline engine roar and the way I never have to worry about my tools failing to start.

Perhaps you’re thinking that with such slow tools, my reading time is sadly compromised. It’s all in the pacing. Frequent breaks are the answer. My energy for mowing, in particular, seems to last only for short spurts, and then it’s time to switch to reading or weeding.

There is a rhythm that establishes itself with the back-and-forth, accompanied by many tall glasses of cold well water. And after all, I do still buy, sell and read books on paper, another quiet technology needing no batteries, so my reading and my exercise are all of a piece in that way, too.

More country living: A woman at the post office this morning was picking up her box of 25 live chicks! I could only see toes and patches of down through the breathing holes in the cardboard, but their peeping sounded happy and contented. New books in Dog Ears this season, by the way, include Chicken Tractor:: The Permaculture Guide to Happy Hens and Healthy Soil and Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens: Care, Feeding, Facilities. As always, we also have many used books in stock on natural science and agricultural topics. It is gratifying to me to see the increased awareness and interest in these topics, always dear to my heart.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Short-Term Forecast: "It's All Good"

Weather today: bright and sunny, clear blue sky

Reading today: You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism, by Brad Hirschfield
Why is it that to make things, even spiritual things, more ours, we so often have to make them less someone else’s? Why does being right depend on everyone else’s being wrong”? Do other children have to be failures in order for ours to be successful? Do other women need to be ugly in order for my wife to be beautiful? In love and beauty we can make room for difference, or at least we seem to know that we should, but we have a harder time applying this expansiveness to tradition and truth.

Rabbi Hirschfield is this year’s Belko Peace Lecturer. He will give his public address in Northport, “Finding Faith Without Fanaticism,” on Sunday evening, Jun 6, at 7:00 p.m. at Trinity Congregational Church. President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and a popular commentator on religion and society (“one of America’s fifty most influential rabbis”), Hirschfield’s youthful adoption of orthodox Judaism (his family was not orthodox) also led him to embrace what he later saw as fanatical views. Still faithful to orthodox teachings and practices, his views of right and wrong have shifted considerably over the years.

What I’m getting from his book leads me to expect that Rabbi Hirschfield will be a compelling speaker and a good listener, with a sense of humor as well as strong commitments. Every speaker in this series has given our community food for thought, and this year will be no different.

Friday, May 14, 2010

My Sister Will Like Some (Not All) of These Little Things

Sarah helped me find the remains of a little, abandoned herb garden behind an empty building in town that used to house a restaurant. (Everyone in town will know from this description just where the garden remnant is.) You know how dogs are. She was lolly-gagging around, discriminating carefully between one spot of ground and another, as if she were building a house instead of merely taking a pee, and suddenly I smelled mint. Looked and saw it. Looked some more and saw chives. Looked some more, rubbed a leaf--lemon balm. What a nice surprise!

Later in the day, when we took another break and went out to one of Sarah's favorite places to run, I was not thrilled at all to see tentworms.

If you want to know more about them, this is one of the best sites I found. I took the hose to our little plum tree a couple of weeks ago to get rid of the tentworm webs there. But this time, on municipal ground, I took a closer look. Everything is fascinating when you look closer. I look at these bits of life and remind myself that from Nature's point of view, they are as valuable as anything else. We don't want them around, but they're just trying to make a living according to the kind of beings they are.

It's easier for me to be charmed and entranced by mosses and fungi and lichens. Who could fail to love British soldiers? I can resist a man in uniform easily, but not these little guys.

And then the rainbow of life on an old, punky, rain-soaked branch fallen from one of our basswood trees:

My question is, which comes first, the fungus or the weak punkiness of the wood? Does one bring on the other?