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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

ZAMM Meditation, Part III: My Conclusions

This is my third and final post on an intense re-reading of an old book from decades past. Posts one and two will show you where I began and some of the country I traveled through. I must say that in some ways I feel as if I’ve been away from my present life for a while and am only now returning.

The one section of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that I thought I remembered from my first reading fourteen years ago did not come until so near the end of the story that I had started to wonder if I’d been confused, thinking of some other book. But then, at last, there I was in the “dreary room ... where the late-afternoon sun ... hardly penetrated the window dirt and polluted city air beyond,” the room with its close atmosphere, “[w]an and pale and depressing,” the round table cracked and allowed to remain unrepaired for years—and yes, most importantly, the professor’s attack on a student who had nothing at all to do with his, the professor’s, own unhappiness and fear. After the attack in the book, the faces of the other students become “carefully composed in defense against more of this sort of questioning.” Ah, yes, how well I remember!

The table in the seminar room I knew was not round, and the atmosphere in the room I knew varied from one professor to another (with some it was intellectually pleasurable even when philosophically frightening), but one day, with one professor, I knew the room in the way the narrator of ZAMM describes the room he knew. My experience is another story, not part of the book, but it explains why this brief literary episode engraved itself on my memory while all the rest slipped away.
In the next sessions the shamed student is no longer present. No surprise. The class is completely frozen, as is inevitable when an incident like that has taken place. Each session, just one person does all the talking, the Professor of Philosophy, and he talks and talks and talks to faces that have turned into masks of neutrality.

In my seminar, not the seminar in the book, I was the “shamed student,” but I did not disappear for the remainder of the class sessions. Immediately following “the Incident,” at the close of that particular class, I did retreat to my graduate student office and send concerned friends away from the closed, locked door while I sat alone in the darkness, in near-shock. Later, however, after one friend asked, “Why did he attack you like that?” I finally worked out the why of it and realized it had nothing to do with me. I even called the professor to arrange an appointment in his office, my purpose to give him an opportunity to apologize to me--but of course I could not say that outright. “What did you think of how our last class went?” I asked, making the question very general and open-ended, not wanting to begin by complaining. “I hope you didn’t take my response to your presentation as an attack,” he said. Clever move! If I had seen him as attacking me, he implied, I was misinterpreting the situation; if he hadn’t attacked me, he had no reason to apologize. I told him that other people in the class also had seen his response as an attack. Well, we were wrong, he said, and he was sorry we had gotten that false impression. For that, our error, he was sorry, in the sense that one is sorry to hear of any unfortunate event, such as the death of a friend’s cat, a death one had no part in bringing about. He hoped, he said, that I would continue to participate in the extracurricular study group that met at his apartment on Sunday afternoons, he said. No, I would not, I told him. And that was all. Case closed. Life went on, and so did the class. The one first-year student who had rashly come to my defense transferred to another school, but the rest of us soldiered on, battle-scarred and wary comrades-in-arms.

The experience of Phaedrus in the “dreary room” is a critical turning point in Pirsig's book. It was a crisis in the development and course of the character’s thought, and the course and development of his thought is part of what is allegorized in the road trip. The journey narrated in the book in ZAMM is geographical, intellectual and spiritual. That is my thesis.

Beginning my re-reading with a question about the narrator’s identity and veracity, the question of whether to see the book as memoir or fiction, I began very soon to recognize ghosts as a major theme. When I started realizing how many references there were to ghosts, I turned back to the beginning and found the first reference in the introduction, where the author harks back to a creative writing seminar he had with poet and literary critic Allen Tate and class discussions on The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James.
. . . I was completely convinced that this was just a straightforward ghost story, but Tate said no, Henry James is up to more than that. The governess is not the heroine of this story. She is the villain. It is not the ghost who kills the children but the governess’s hysterical belief that a ghost exists.

In Pirsig’s book, his son, Chris, asks one evening if his father believes in ghosts. His father, the narrator, says no, because ghosts are unscientific, but soon he takes a new position, saying “Modern man has his ghosts and spirits, too, you know.” The laws of science, he explains, are only in our minds, nowhere out in the world, and thus they are ghosts. This theme is developed later in the book.

Another ghost appears when the narrator recalls an old poem by Goethe, in which a father is riding [a horse?] along a beach, holding his son in his arms. The son cries out that he sees a ghost. The father reassures him that there is none. When asked how the poem ends, the narrator says that the boy dies. As he puts it, “The ghost wins.” The reader feels a chill.

When the narrator and his son revisit the college building where the father used to teach, both feel an alien, frightening presence, and the boy flees. The narrator goes on to find his old classroom but notes, “In this place he is the reality and I am the ghost.” He is not talking about his son. Here, as he does throughout the story, the narrator is referring to his former self in the third person. The implication is that normally the former self is the ghost. What would it mean for Chris if that ghost were to win?

We have ghosts in literature (the James story and the Goethe poem), scientific laws as ghosts, a former self as a ghost but that former ghost sometimes becoming reality, making the narrator himself the ghost, but we are not done yet. The former self, to whom the narrator gives the name Phaedrus, went back into the history of philosophy in search of ghosts, specifically, “in pursuit of the ghost of reason.” When and how, he wonders, did thought and truth become channeled into a narrowly logical, analytic path? And what happened along the way to what he calls Quality, something he sees as the source of all, prior to divisions and definitions? It is his relentless pursuit of the “ghost of reason” that leads Phaedrus to the “dreary room,” and it is only a short trip from there to the mental hospital.

Finally, near the end of the road trip the narrator describes himself as
. . . a heretic who’s recanted and thereby in everyone’s eyes saved his soul. Everyone’s eyes but one, who knows deep down inside that all he has saved is his skin.

I survive mainly by pleasing others. You do that to get out [of the mental hospital]. To get out you figure out what they want you to say and then you say it with as much skill and originality as possible and then, if they’re convinced, you get out. If I hadn’t turned on him [Phaedrus, the former self] I’d still be there, but he was true to what he believed right to the end. That’s the difference between us, and Chris knows it. And that’s the reason why sometimes I feel he’s the reality and I’m the ghost.

More than one reader has taken the passage above as the final truth of the book, the author’s avowal that the only way to survive in the world of other people is to become a hypocrite, to abandon one’s authentic self. This would be such an un-Zen conclusion that it cannot be correct. I believe the key to understanding the journey’s end, insofar as an “end” is contained in the book, is to look at the narrator and Phaedrus and all the ghosts one encounters through the lens of the father-son relationship.

Because Chris sees ghosts, too. He hears them in his father’s nightmare cries and sees them in his father’s eyes when they stare off into the distance. Which father frightens Chris more, Phaedrus or the narrator? The narrator remembers Chris as being very afraid in an episode from their life immediately prior to his hospitalization, but toward the end of the book Chris says that that episode was “fun.” This trip together, by contrast, is no fun at all. Why isn’t it?

Phaedrus, the narrator tells us, “was true to what he believed right to the end.” In pursuing the idea of Quality, however, he abandoned quality in his life. Obsessed with his truth, he was determined to vanquish his foes and “win," and his studies became the marshalling of an arsenal. He made the "dreary room" his personal battleground. Next to this philosophical war and what he felt was at stake in it, his family counted for nothing, and when he realized he could not win, Phaedrus disintegrated. Hospitalization and electroshock treatments followed. The patient released from the hospital is the narrator of the story of Phaedrus, someone who has cobbled together a new self at the expense of the man he was. His concern now is to hold things together, to be safe, in part by distancing himself from his past, including his own son. As much as a "mind divided against itself," what we see in the narrator is a heart in hiding.

The first destination in this book is geographical. It is the end of the journey for the four people who began the trip together. They arrive at the home of friends the narrator knew in his former life, and the couple returns from there to Minnesota, while the father and son continue their trip. The second destination is intellectual, symbolized by the mountain peak, the story of Phaedrus and his search for Quality, told along with the mountain climbing section of the father-son trip, a real part of a real trip but also serving as allegory for the father’s relentless and solitary intellectual search.

If Chris had agreed to be put on a bus for home when the two of them realize that the trip is not working, if the author had recounted only the geographical and intellectual journey, perhaps the “survive by pleasing others” passage would be his final words of wisdom and all he had to offer. But there is another trip and another destination. The surprise is that the third destination turns out not to be the Pacific Ocean, after all. I think this surprises even the narrator.
We round a sharp turn up an overhanging cliff. The ocean stretches forever, cold and blue out there, and produces a strange sense of despair. Coastal people never really know what the ocean symbolizes to land-locked inland people—what a great distant dream it is, present but unseen in the deepest levels of subconsciousness, and when they arrive at the ocean and the conscious images are compared with the subconscious dream there is a sense of defeat at having come so far to be so stopped by a mystery that can never be fathomed. The source of it all.

The narrator recognizes the ocean as the source of life, the allegorical equivalent to Quality as Phaedrus dreamed it, but he also realizes that this source is an unfathomable and cold mystery, with nothing more to give him than what he already has. To reach the spiritual destination the narrator must stop seeing himself as two different people, one real and one a ghost. He must stop referring to his “former self” in the third person and using the passive voice to recount that life. Can he do this? Finally, their trip apparently a failure, his son in tears of desperation, a cliff beckoning, with nothing left to lose, the father and son have a real conversation at last. The father’s recurring nightmare is explained by his son’s memory of a very real incident, and when he realizes that he has not been holding his son together all this time but that the boy has been holding him together the father finds himself and is at last able to be with his son.

I’m not going to give an excerpt from the book’s climactic scene. To do so would be to cheat you of your own arrival when you read the book, but following it the father and son ride without helmets for the first time. They can talk to each other without shouting. The boy stands up on the pedals and can see the road ahead, over his father’s shoulders, for the first time. As earlier they left the mountain peak behind, they now turn away from the cold, inhuman ocean and begin to travel together toward the warmth of a human relationship. This is the real spiritual destination, this reintegration of self and the father-son reunion it makes possible, although this destination could not even be glimpsed until it was reached. And it is “destination” without being an end of the journey.
Rich air and strange perfumes from the flowers of the trees and shrubs enshroud us. Inland now the chill is gone and the heat is upon us again. . . .It seems like I’ve been bone-chilled by the ocean damp for so long I’ve forgotten what heat is like.

The author says in his introduction that he has changed a few facts to shape his narrative, but it no longer matters to me how much is memoir and how much fiction. It matters very little to me (but a little bit, I admit) that Aristotle hardly receives fair treatment. The fact that the author mistranslated the name Phaedrus, as he admits in the introduction, troubles me not at all. It isn’t important. The most important story is the allegory.

In retrospect, I can see that in the seminar room I knew I was not the target. The flak just happened to hit me, although it looked as intentional to my fellow students as it felt to me. That kind of thing happens a lot between human beings. Thinking of that professor of ours and of the final pages of ZAMM while mowing the lawn later in the day, I wondered if there is any hate that is not at bottom a hurt or a fleeing from hurt or fear of being hurt. This was a very rich re-reading for me.

Monday, May 30, 2011


Don't we all deserve a holiday break from philosophy? Sometimes I wonder how visitors would see our little Northport scenic sites if some famous person had grown up in the village. Had Thoreau lived on its shore or Annie Dillard written about it, the old mill pond would attract tourists from all over the world. As it is, the pond is enshrined in the memory of every kid who ever caught a first fish here.

This past year the pond was dredged, and more recently the viewing platform was expanded. When vegetation fills in again, this will be a pretty summer spot.

Let's explore downstream a bit. One of my minor dreams is to see Northport Creek renamed Wildcat Creek. Yeah, in my dreams....

Doesn't the footbridge look inviting?

If you lived along the banks of the creek, even if you only rented a house for a weekend, one of these comfortable lounging chairs by the gurgling water could be your place to relax. You'd also have a ringside seat on the seasonal succession of wildflowers--and some domestic ones, too, escaped or intentionally planted here. How many plants can you identify below?

The last downstream stretch of the creek flows behind the old depot building, behind which the caboose is parked at present.

Finally, the creek debouches into Grand Traverse Bay. Hi, Gerry! I know you're over there on the other side!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

My Morning Train of Thought

The past cannot remember the past. The future can’t generate the future. The cutting edge of this instant right here and now is always nothing less than the totality of everything there is.

I’ve already posted about my re-reading of this book and how glad I am to be discovering it again. Three paragraphs before the one quoted above, I put down the book and wrote in my notes “362 – Bergson!” The parallel with my philosophical “main man” was striking, and it made me happy and excited.

Bergson’s thought is often misunderstood,. He did not oppose analysis and was not anti-intellectual. The function of the intellect, he argued, is to analyze and solve problems, not to reveal ultimate reality. What Bergson and the narrator of ZAMM say, then, is that an exclusively analytical focus will miss reality. The narrator goes further than Bergson in one respect and claims that problem-solving must go beyond analysis, too, because (and here is the core of Bergsonian thought) reality does not hold still. Life is fluid and creative and always moving forward, The narrator first gives us an analogy of knowledge as a train, with Classical Knowledge as the engine and boxcars and Romantic Knowledge in none of the parts—because
Romantic Quality ... isn’t any “part” of the train. It’s the leading edge of the engine, a two-dimensional surface of no real significance unless you understand that the train isn’t a static entity at all. A train really isn’t a train if it can’t go anywhere. In the process of examining the train and subdividing it into parts we’ve inadvertently stopped it, so that it really isn’t a train we’re examining. That’s why we get stuck.

The real train of knowledge isn’t a static entity that can be stopped and subdivided. It’s always going somewhere. On a track called Quality. And that engine and all those 120 boxcars are never gong anywhere except where the track of Quality takes them; and romantic Quality, the leading edge of the engine, takes them along that track.

Romantic reality is the cutting edge of experience. It’s the leading edge of the train of knowledge that keeps the whole train on the track. Traditional knowledge is only the collective memory of where that leading edge has been. At the leading edge there are no subjects, no objects, only the track of Quality ahead, and if you have no formal way of evaluating, no way of acknowledging this Quality, then the entire train has no way of knowing where to go. You don’t have pure reason—you have pure confusion. The leading edge is where absolutely all the action is. The leading edge contains all the infinite possibilities of the future. It contains all the history of the past. Where else could they be contained?

(Following what I've just quoted comes the short paragraph quoted at the top of this post.)

For Bergson, if you’ll permit me this little side trip, all of life (not only human) is in motion. He called the leading edge Creative Evolution, but he would object to ZAMM’s analogy because it posits a track already laid down ahead of the train, while that seemingly simple phrase “all the infinite possibilities of the future” should be our clue that the leading edge, as it moves forward, generates the very track on which it runs.

Literary questions that have been in my mind as I’ve been reading remain there as questions (roughly 130 pages from the end at present), but one thing that I’m realizing more and more as I go along is the allegorical nature of this story. The high and low places, the long, grueling stretches, the underbrush through which one must hack and chop one’s way, the loneliness, the promise of the sparkling sea at the end of the road—all these aspects of the physical road trip and the mountain climbing adventure mirror the narrator’s philosophical struggle. Yet the descriptions of natural beauty, of roads and towns, are so detailed that it’s easy to read ZAMM as a travel book and feel the philosophy as an add-on, which it is not at all, and right there is the richness of this book. In the course of a lifetime one can read and re-read it, appreciating it from the different perspectives that increasing age and experience allow until finally one reads it as several books at once, the story unfolding on multiple levels.

Pirsig's narrator talks about getting "stuck" and how good it is. I always told my students that confusion was a good sign: it meant they were really thinking. Mistakes are learning opportunities. I love this stuff!

By the end of the weekend I hope to have reached the end of the book and hope to be able to write something intelligent and intelligible about the nature of the narrator and about the recurring theme of ghosts. Will I have anything to say about bookselling or gardening or the holiday weekend or events around Northport? Who knows? I’m laying my track as my train moves forward.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Vroom, vroom!

The real University ... has no specific location. It owns no property, pays no salary and receives no material dues. The real University is a state of mind. It is that great heritage of rational thought that has been brought down to us through the centuries.... – Robert M. Pirsig, ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE

Life has been very busy lately, with the season heating up. That’s metaphorically speaking. We did have a couple of beautifully summery days when young people shed shoes on downtown streets before the temperature plunged again, getting down into the 30s at night. Not, I'm happy to say, before my morel bonanza or before I finally this year, for the first time, got the wild asparagus before it went to seed, but it's been hard to be cold again after being warm. (Spring, that fickle young thing!) My straw bale gardening project is coming along, too, and I’ll be posting something about that soon; for today, however, it’s a philosophical road trip. Hop on! Don’t be scared! Philosophy will not hurt you!

One of the several reading groups I’m in is a kind of support group for a young man in difficult circumstances (to say the least) who is making a herculean effort to finish his high school work from far off-campus. Four or five of us are reading books “with” him for his last elective credit, sharing our impressions after he has written up his. Our current book is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I read for the first time only 14 years ago, having stayed away from it for years out of some kind of overly fastidious feeling that anything that popular couldn’t be that good. Surprise—it was. I'm currently halfway through for my second reading and realize I hardly remember anything from my first. (The one part I do remember I haven't gotten to yet.) I am really glad to be rediscovering this book.

The narrator gives the name Phaedrus to the self he was before his hospitalization and shock treatment for mental illness. He, the narrator, refers to Phaedrus in the third person because he himself is "not that person any more." In what ways not? Well, a big way is that he has lost most of his memories of that earlier life. The narrator also describes the way Phaedrus dealt with other people, implying that he, the narrator, is different, but already I’m wondering if this is true.

ZAMM is a road trip novel as well as a philosophical novel. The narrator and his son travel cross-country with a married couple, through prairie, plains and mountains, with moments high and low along the way. Here is my strongest praise for the book: It is so well written that I do not skip the sections on motorcycle maintenance. When the four travelers reach their destination, the town where Phaedrus taught in the English department, Chris, the narrator’s son, remembers some of the streets and the school where his father taught and fills in some memories of that past for his father. We get the picture that this was not a happy time for the family.

For me the orienting theme of this book is ghosts. From the first time Chris brings up the subject of ghosts as the travelers are sitting around the campfire, the narrator uses it for his philosophical musings. The imagination conjures up phantoms of all kinds, whether former selves, other souls or forms of ideas through which we see the world. Are they "real"? If they are not, is anything?

The part of the book that has stayed with me, a part still ahead in my re-reading, is the seminar room. Ha! Seminar room--or torture chamber? I remember it well. I knew that room myself. I was there. How will it be revisiting it this time around? I’ll get back to you on this.

P.S. I take it back. This is a scary book.

P.P.S. The seminar room was not always a torture chamber. It depended on which professor was giving the seminar.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Weekend Country Fun

We had visitors over the weekend. Our oldest grandson and three of his buddies managed to coordinate a trip Up North. Two of the guys slept in our young Dave's vintage VW camper.

A third chose the semicivilized relative comfort of our front porch, while a fourth slung his hammock in what still remains (we've been hacking away at it lately) of our popple grove.

In the morning, everyone was glad that the tramping around in the grove, as well as Sarah's interested sniffing--which was our first clue that they were there--had spared the lives of these adorable little bunnies in their soft, down-lined nest. No, my vegetable garden will not need rabbits, but who can look on these tiny lives and not feel protective toward them?

There was other weekend excitement, well timed. You know I'm not going to give away the secret location, but look at these beautiful morels! Why is Gumby wearing morels as oven mitts? How did Barbie get involved? What is Pokey's role in the scene? You must remember from older posts on Barbies and plastic horses how we are in this family.

It's good to know the younger generation shares our sensibilities.

Conversation with the four twenty-somethings was good, running the gamut from banking and bees, chickens and dogs to vehicles and wildflowers. They are mechanics, inventors, gardeners, campers and hard workers who also know how to play. Oh, and they read books, too. They give us hope for the future.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


The Archimedes Codex, by R.Netz and W. Noel (DaCapo Press, 2007), 312pp. (nonfiction).

This is the fascinating true story of a very old and valuable book (or codex, as it is termed by book historians) and the efforts necessary to restore and read it. The story begins almost 800 years ago.

In the Middle Ages, around the year 1229, a monk in a monastery is given the task of writing a book of prayers. Before he begins writing, however, the monk needs to construct a book in which to record his prayers. In the monastery’s library, he finds an old book written on vellum (animal skin) in a style of Greek that he can’t read, so he takes apart the book, erases the Greek writing as best he can, writes his prayers in Latin over the Greek and reassembles the book.

By a quirk of fate, the old book the monk used was a 400-year-old copy of writings by the Greek mathematician Archimedes, originally written on papyrus around the year 200 B.C. The fact that these original writings were exact copies of Archimedes’ writings (none of which are in existence any longer) would make the little prayer book extremely valuable, if only the monk hadn’t erased the old Greek when he wrote his prayers, but unfortunately there was no way of reading the erased words with the technology available in the 13th century—or at any time until very recently.

But then, fast forward: the prayer book is purchased in 1998 by a well-to-do businessman with an interest in history. Gambling that he can develop a new method of reading a book that has been erased and written over (this kind of book is called a palimpsest), he pays over $2,000,000 for it. The Archimedes Codex is the story of the team this purchaser assembles and their search for a brand-new way to be able to decipher the writing under the prayers. To give you an idea of the size of their task, it takes the team four years just to disassemble the book so it can be tested! At the same time, other members of the team are developing, with the latest physics of light reflection and refraction (and with the use of computers to interpret the data), a method of having Archimedes’ original 2000-year-old writings reappear. When this is accomplished, the experts in ancient Greek need to translate the text into English, which is especially tricky because the Greeks originally wrote only in capital letters without spaces between the words. How all this is accomplished is a fascinating story. It sounds as if it would be very technical, but the book is written by two team members who are teachers as well as historians, and they explain everything very clearly and with lots of diagrams and photos.

This book is great reading for anyone interested, as I am, in the history of books and writing, as well as in mathematics, science and computers, and you’re going to learn a whole lot of neat stuff as you read. For instance, did you know that all writing was done in capital letters until the ninth century when the monks copying old writings to be preserved found they could get more writing on a page if they used small letters that could be run together?

- Bruce Balas, Omena, Michigan

P.S. from PJ: To read about the wonderful world of books from another perspective, go to Jerry Dennis's blog today. It's a humdinger!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Northport Is Getting Ready For You

New “Welcome” banners went up in the village today. I like them. Bright blue and white, featuring a sailboat, they are nice and fresh and coordinate well with last year’s new signs. The inclusion of the speed limit sign in my photos above was not an accident, either. What is a vacation for if you don't slow down?

Enhancements to the marina began by moving the harbormaster’s building temporarily onto land. Then, as good luck would have it, Bruce was on duty at the bookstore the day I walked down to the bank at just the right moment to see the tugboat and work barge coming into harbor to drive the pilings for the new harbormaster house. I couldn’t stay to watch the whole procedure. Here is what I did have time to see:

Windows have now been installed at what will be the new Garage Door Bar and Grill next door to Dog Ears Books. I went through the opening where the “garage door” will be to take this shot looking back east. The window on the left opens out onto Waukazoo Street. The entry is at the corner of the building. On the right is the “garage door,” which will open onto the patio in fine weather to facilitate indoor/outdoor dining.

This morning I made my first visit and purchase of the season at Northport Nursery but neglected to take pictures there, having too many items to accomplish and check off the morning to-do list. Next time I go back (to buy plants for the bookstore window boxes and seedling vegetable plants for home) I’ll take a few shots of the nursery stock, seedlings, flowers, etc. Promise!

I am now halfway through Danielle Sosin’s The Long-Shining Waters, this year’s National Milkweed Fiction award-winning novel, set in 1622, 1902 and 2000. I find I'm relating most closely to the 1902 sections, and I wonder what responses other readers will have, but I need to set the novel aside for a few days to read Gene Logsdon’s The Contrary Farmer and re-read Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, two commitments that must be honored in a timely manner. My friend Gloria in Traverse City wasn't kidding when she named her bookstore So Many Books, So Little Time!

You may notice that Danielle Sosin and Bonnie Jo Campbell are both on my bookstore calendar with the time given simply as whatever o’clock rather than in “” format. That’s because they are fitting their visits between other engagements and doing, in essence, “drive-by” signings (I’m just pleased that they will be here at all), so I’ll be more than happy to take reservations for their books from anyone who can’t slip into their brief windows of opportunity.

All over town and countryside, trees are leafing out. Here is the big beech tree you remember when you come down the corner and turn onto Waukazoo Street. It is beautiful in every season, but doesn't it look particularly lovely in its early spring color?

Coming next on Books in Northport: a guest book review by Bruce Balas.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Life in the Slow Lane and Books in Person

There's a lovely little trade periodical I've subscribed to now for about a year called Book Source Magazine. Published by a bookseller in Cazenovia, New York, with additional contributions from England and Australia, BSM is a periodical Charles Lamb could have appreciated. How quirky is it to publish a small print magazine about books these days? I love it! John Huckans also writes about gardening in his Notes and Comment section at the beginning of each issue. He’s going to try ranunculus this year, and I’m campaigning to sell him on hellebores.

But getting back to books, the May-June issue has an article by a bookseller in Melbourne, Australia, the proprietor of Alice's Bookshop in North Carlton, and this man, Anthony Marshall, has put so many of my own feelings into words that I'm half in love with him. For starters, he has pulled all his Internet listings offline and is "no longer an internet bookseller. It's over, finished, done with. And I am delighted." He cites the diminishing returns of income for time involved (my chief reason for pulling out of my own online listing service) and the tedium of processing online orders and inquiries, “cataloguing and tracking down and packing books...: the paper-work and the e-mail work, the answering of stupid or vexatious or footling questions from prospective customers." Yes, yes, yes! He goes on:
And who wants to come into a bookshop where the bookseller is hunched like a hobbit before a flickering monitor, absorbed in his freakish fantasy virtual world when he should be at his desk ready to welcome you, if not with open arms, at least with a smile or a nod of the head and perhaps a word of greeting?

Mr. Marshall describes what he calls in general a "slow bookshop" as one in which "books are stocked not primarily for their ranking in the best-seller list but for their intrinsic and lasting worth." He notes that the bookseller in a slow bookshop may sometimes be seen reading a book or writing a letter by hand, adding, "Not everyone has given up on pen and ink." Do I need to mention that he has no interest in e-books? Here is a bookseller on the other side of the world, in the other half of the seasonal year, who feels as I do about my professional life! While reading, I underlined so many sentences and paragraphs in the article that I finally had to sit down to write, in longhand, a letter to the magazine's publisher, because I too:
...know intuitively that there are legions of people still in the world ... who are committed to the slow search, who are not in a hurry, who relish browsing in real bookshops: people who do not want the quick fix always and the shortest path, or the lowest price, but are prepared to meander down by-ways and the side-tracks: to be seduced by the delights and dangers of serendipity. To wait and see.

A few years back, I happened to mention to a casual acquaintance that I longed for my own little Cajun accordion. “Look on Ebay,” the person suggested, a trifle impatient with what he saw as my thwarted desire. That wasn't it at all. I didn’t feel thwarted and wasn’t concerned with immediate gratification. “No, I want to enjoy wanting it for a while,” I tried to explain. Slow bookshop people understand the pleasures of wanting and searching, as well as the “delights of dangers of serendipity.” It isn't only about finding what they want but also about wanting what they find.

And don't you just love the way Anthony Marshall writes? "Hunched like a hobbit"! "The delights and dangers of serendipity"! Isn't this great stuff? And the attitudes he expresses, e.g., that "there is more to life than efficiency and other economic imperatives." Hear, hear!

I feel he is talking about me and Dog Ears Books, as well as about himself and Alice's Bookshop when he writes, "In my slow bookshop, I face my customers and engage with the world, with life." Aye, that we do, so prepare to slow down when you visit Dog Ears Books. It’s that kind of dangerous place!

Book Source Magazine is published bimonthly. The basic subscription rate is $20; library rate $24; Canada and Mexico $24; $40 overseas airmail. Subscription requests and other correspondence should be directed to Book Source Magazine, P.O. Box 567, Cazenovia, NY 13035. The publisher can also be contacted by telephone or e-mail, (315) 655-8499 or bsm at windstream dot com.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Little Northport News

Northport was full of light and color on Thursday, with these bright tulips and daffodils blooming on Nagonaba Street between Dolls and More and the little bark-covered building housing Nature Gems (both former locations of Dog Ears Books). The awnings weren’t back up yet, nor the benches out, at Barb’s Bakery, but by Friday the bright fuchsia bench had appeared in front of the Pennington Collection on Mill Street, signaling the end of winter. The renovated Willowbrook Inn looked particularly attractive in the sunshine, and later I saw proprietor Pat Busch out on the deck, visiting with a couple of friends. Does his return signal the imminent re-opening of the Kampgrounds Kreamery?

There are signs of life again at Stubb’s Sweetwater Grill, re-opened after their winter break, and Bruce Viger’s new Garage Door Bar and Grill, also on Waukazoo Street, is moving right along with inspections. Meanwhile, back on Mill Street, the former Eat Spot has become North End--

--and will, so says the new sign, be open for breakfast and lunch and pizza. Northport is gradually waking up from its sleepy winter, as it always does. I wish I'd been counting the number of people who have exclaimed, "You're back!" We were here all winter, but who noticed? Ah, well, a few staunch, stout-hearted friends and book buyers did.

In only two weeks we’ll be heading into Memorial Day weekend, with Cars in the Park as usual on Saturday the 28th, always a popular event, and I want to highlight another event scheduled for that last Saturday in May. It will be the third annual Blessing of the Pets, sponsored by Black Sheep Crossing, Marty and Cherry Scott’s nonprofit animal rescue operation. Reverend Karen Schulte of Trinity Congregational Church will officiate at the all-faiths event, pets must be on leashes or in carriers, and each pet will receive a St. Francis medal and a treat. (Sarah still wears her medal from 2009.) The blessing will take place at the Marina Park Pavilion at 11 a.m. Our pets bless our lives, so why shouldn't we return the favor?

Memoir, the Fallibility of Memory and Ghostwriting

The danger of memoir is the unreliability of memory, and the danger comes with the territory. In remembering, I am telling myself a story about something that happened in my life. Did it happen the way I remember it?

Sometimes when my mother reads some story I’ve written about my childhood, she remarks to one of my sisters, “Pamela has a wonderful imagination.” Clearly, my mother thinks I’ve taken literary liberties with the past. Have I? A friend of ours is continually trying to “set the record straight” with his siblings. Will he ever succeed? I have no desire to substitute someone else’s memories for the ones I’ve cherished and relived for years--reinforcing them on each visit--but our friend is a historian and, as such, wedded to the idea of the facts, the facts and nothing but the facts.

Well, imagine that you do not consider yourself either writer or historian and you have someone else write your memoir. Your desire is to have your story told, and the ghostwriter invents a few literary devices and scenes to make it “better.” Should you object? Doesn’t the writer know better than you what makes a good story? I mean, is that what you think? Now imagine that your story becomes a best-selling book and you are asked to speak to groups across the country and are able in this way to raise a lot of money for your cause. What do you think now?

Do you know the book I’m talking about? Do you know the man whose story it is? What do you think of recent accusations of falsehood made against him?

The jury is still out on this one, but you can probably tell I’m sympathetic to the poor beleaguered nonwriter. I don’t think he set out to perpetrate a fraud. But again, what do you think?

Then there was Jim Harrison’s first non-poetry book, a novel titled Wolf: A False Memoir. That really puts the ball back in the reader’s court, doesn’t it?

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Hello, Wildflowers--and Snakes!

On the matter of the green-striped trillium from the other day, here it is on the cover of Ed and Connie Arnfield’s Roadside Guide to Michigan Plants,Trees, and Flowers: An Ecological Approach. I highly recommend the Arnfield ecological guide, unique in its presentation. One thing I noticed in the woods this morning is that while troutlily, wild leek and spring beauty seem to enjoy each other’s company, trillium is often found associating with bellwort and Dutchman’s breeches. Ed could explain the reasons for these groupings, I’m sure, but I’m guessing it has to do either with soil or with available light. Perhaps both are factors. You can see more photos of trillium and bellwort on my photo blog.

Of Trillium Grandiflora, Ed has this to say:
Probably the largest flower of its group, it is pure white and turns a pale pink as it ages. Some that are infected by an organism or a virus produce a central green stripe in the flower. The leaves are in threes, and the petals are in threes as well.

Another classic wildflower guide for our area is Michigan Wildflowers in Color, by Harry C. Lund. Yes, the blooms are arranged by color for easy reference, and the revised edition also includes public areas for wildflower walks from southern Michigan to the U.P.

As for snakes, I could have saved a lot of time the other evening if I’d had Michigan Snakes: A Field Guide and Pocket Reference (revised edition), by J. Alan Holman and James H. Harding, in hand instead of having to wait for image after image to download so I could find the snake that matched mine. That’s “mine,” as in the one that surprised me in the woodshed. For those of you who don’t yet have a field guide to snakes, you can visit the DNR site to see my pretty snake, harmless to humans, and Michigan’s only poisonous snake, too.

“All snakes are predators,” informs the DNR website calmly. Remain calm. Michigan snakes prey but not on us. The little sweetheart that found its way into our woodshed was a beautiful Eastern Milksnake, and here’s what Holman and Harding have to tell me about it:
The Eastern Milksnake is a slender, medium-sized (24 to 52 inches long) snake with brown or reddish brown, black-bordered blotches running down the light grey or tan back. There is often a Y- or V-shaped light marking on the top of the neck....

These secretive snakes are found in woodlands, fields, marshes and farmlands. They often hide under boards and trasn near barns and other buildings. Most often seen in spring and fall, Milksnakes appear to be primarily nocturnal in summer. The name “Milksnake” comes from the false belief that this species sucks milk from cows. They may indeed enter barns, or even houses, but in search of rodents. Because of this, they are also called barn snakes or house snakes. Another local name given to this snake in error is “spotted adder.” [my emphases added]

As a sworn enemy of mice in the house, I probably should have left the snake in our attached woodshed rather than relocating it to the garden. Maybe it will find its way back. Maybe I should invite it into the house! It certainly was beautiful--and fierce as a tiny kitten, too, raising its head and acting like a rattlesnake despite its small size, though it is not venomous but kills by constricting its prey. Could a small, young snake like “mine” swallow a mouse, let alone a rat? Maybe a baby mouse. That must be it. Get ‘em while they’re young. Good plan!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Competitive Side of My Life, or, How Could This Possibly Happen?

“Who helped you study for a spelling bee when you were a kid? Your father or your mother?” David asked last week. Both my parents were sticklers for proper English, but it was my mother who grilled me on spelling words. (My father got stuck trying to help me with math, a very different story.) My spelling fame peaked in sixth grade, however, when I went down on the word ‘hypocrisy.' Never having heard the word, I used the word ‘democracy’ for a model and got as far as H-Y-P-O-C-R- before going down in flames. But that was after all the other sixth-graders were already down, so although I was not recognized as such, I do feel I was the All-City Sixth-Grade Spelling Champion for Joliet, Illinois. Some eighth-grader must have won the crown--I mean, title.

It was in 2007 that I heard about the Senior Spelling Bee in Traverse City, in which teams rather than individuals compete. Each team member must be at least 50 years old. It sounded like fun, and I was surprised how many people turned down my invitation in horror and fear, throwing up their hands and stepping back from the very idea of a spelling bee, until my friend Marilyn agreed to join me. The next year Trudy signed on, and we were three. And we have a good time at the Bee every year.

That’s not to say there isn’t a competitive element, however, and as the Dog Ears team has always finished in the top three, when the field had been whittled down to four teams last Friday I felt a slight quiver every time the Bee Master called, “Team 7.” My teammates are—it’s true, my friends, and you can’t deny it—more competitive than I and would not be happy to finish “out of the money” (no, there’s no money involved), and so I relaxed when the fourth team was spelled down after ten (!) error-free rounds. We’re home clean, I thought then, because whatever happens now is no big deal. We finished third in 2010, and we were fine with that.

So what happened in 2011? The third team went down, leaving us to face off against last year’s 2nd-place team. Okay. Do you know how that works? When a spelling bee gets down to the last two contestants, be they individuals or teams, the rules change. After an error is called, the competition must first correct the error and then correctly spell a second word to win. In principle, many errors might be made without ending the bee, if you can imagine how that might go. Well, in this case, when the Bee Master told the other team they had incorrectly spelled a word our team went with the only possible alternative spelling we could muster up, though it was not the first spelling two of us had come up with. We were told we were correct, and we were given another word. We spelled the next word correctly, were acclaimed winners and were congratulated by the team we had beaten. Ordinarily, this would be the end of the story.

But at home that night I looked up the word that had knocked the other team out and discovered that their spelling (the way I would have spelled it, too, had the word come to us first) had been correct! K-O-H-L-R-A-B-I. Oh, good heavens, now what? I called the Bee Master on the phone, and I think it’s fair to say he was flummoxed. (‘Flummox’ was another word in the Bee that day, one that put a team out of play.) “I think they won!” I told him, “they” being Team 1, Nancy and Cornelia. But no, said the Master, neither team had a clear win, since the winning team must (1) spell correctly a word missed by the other team and (2) spell correctly an additional word. In fine, the Bee had never finished!

And so it was that an impossible outcome came to be declared—a spelling bee ending in a tie! Any other ruling would have been a miscarriage of justice. And here they are, our fellow champions:

“Oh, well,” one of my teammates said, “our win was great while it lasted. And next year the competition will really be intense!”

I think the pressure on the judges will be intense next year, as well. All in good fun, of course.

Kathy from Australia asks me if adult spelling bees are a national phenomenon in the U.S. I don't know. If they're not, they should be. I can imagine independent bookstores starting up bees in towns where they don't exist, book clubs putting teams together--all sorts of good fun and brain calisthenics. Did I spell that word correctly?

The Mad Spring Dash Surges Forward

Sunday the sun shone, and the water in the bay was several colors of vivid blue, with sharp lines of demarcation at depth changes. No leaves on the trees yet, giving a clear view into any stand of woods to the bright green floor of wild leeks and spring wildflowers. We worked out in our yard for a while, making inroads against invasive popples and wild grapevines, drove to Suttons Bay for ice cream, came home and worked some more. It was a good day.

Monday morning as Sarah and I were on our way out to the woods, a few soft clouds moved in to obscure the sun. Trillium on the verge of opening was biding its time. Also, though I saw many, the ones I inspected all seemed to have that bright green striping indicating a virus.

Yes, toothwort, a member of the mustard family, is edible, and cruciforms are good for you, but who could harvest any plant after reading a description such as this? The mere words "spring ephemeral" dispose one to feel protective, don't they?

Then there was this little beauty:

The sweet troutlily had cast its shadow on its own leaf, momentary sunlight creating the effect.

Out in the open, again under clouds, a forsythia border provided the cheeriness of sunlight.

When human habitations are left to fall apart, it’s the roofs that fall in. Birds’ homes, by contrast, give way at the bottom, but this nest of grass and birchbark must have been perfect for raising last year’s brood. Even now, inhabitable without repair, it’s beautiful.

We had an appointment in Traverse City, the sun came out for the day as we drove south, and by the time we were returning home the edges of all the woods showed happy trillium faces open to the light. An Australian friend writes to tell me that trillium is the official wildflower of Ontario. I like that. Anyway, the brief, mad, dashing Up North sprint of the spring wildflowers is underway, and the pollinators (to see another one up close, visit my photo blog) couldn’t be happier. Neither could I.

This morning’s wind woke me early with the false dawn, and I reached for Wendell Berry’s Three Short Novels to start the day with Nathan Coulter. We’re going to have rain in northern Michigan today, so making a mental trip to the Ohio River under summer sunshine feels like a very good idea.
I stood in the patch of sun in front of the window and began puting on my clothes. The day was already hot. Hens were cackling, and a few sparrows fluttered their wings in the dust in front of the barn. I watched our milk cows wade into the pond to drink. Over Grandpa’s ridge I could see where the road came up from the river and went into Port William.

- Wendell Berry, Nathan Coulter

If you don't know the name Wendell Berry, read this story. Then come into Dog Ears, and I'll introduce you to some of his books. He is definitely on my hero list, and that list doesn't have a lot of names on it.