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Monday, April 29, 2013

As Giddy as a Baby on a Swing

Color on the ground
“Calendar” spring arrives annually on March 20 or 21 (depending on the year), regardless of the weather. That’s the spring solstice, the 24-hour period where day and night equal each other in length. “Meteorological” spring, by contrast, is determined by changes in temperature and precipitation, so here in the “mid-latitudes,” March 1 through May 31 is designated as spring by meteorologists. The first of March? Are they kidding?

All that aside, what can we call the kind of spring that bursts forth at last in all its intoxicating glory, the day that daffodils begin opening and peepers go mad in the wetlands and the air is finally warm and everyone wants to be outdoors and the whole world is happy, happy, happy? “Ecological” comes closer to the idea than “calendar” or “meteorological” but still leaves out that all-important feeling component. “Ecological” sounds like something observed and dispassionately recorded, doesn’t it?  Hardly the way we feel. Well, this year, 2013, in Leelanau County, “felt” spring exploded joyously on Saturday, April 27. There were earlier hints and allegations, but no one could doubt Saturday’s evidence. It surged in the blood and sang in the heart, bringing out smiles and laughter.

Sarah in woods
So why on earth would I go to work early, indoors, with spring bursting all around me? Saran and I had gone out even earlier, as soon as the sun was up, and I found one brave little spring beauty blooming among the crowds of wild leeks in the woods (a day later there were too many spring beauty blossoms to count), while Sarah sniffed and sniffed. Besides looking, I listened and listened, scanning the still-bare treetops for the morning’s song-makers. But  there was that big blank space of wall above my new bookstore desk area, crying out to be covered, and I could hardly wait to start rehanging my own personal art wall, a mix of Michigan and Paris scenes. There! Very satisfying! 

Come see the wall "in person"
He's a good worker
Bill Coohon came over in the afternoon to help out with our new door confusion. You see, directly over my new entry door AND the door to my neighbor’s business is a big sign saying LAW OFFICE. The word LAW is actually over the new bookstore door (OFFICE over the office door), and the first couple of people who stopped by on Saturday morning stood in front of the bookstore window looking lost and making questioning gestures at me through the glass. “What? Where? How?” Which way to turn? We hope the big new letters on the new door will help. Bill certainly did a good job with them, don’t you think?

This way in!
Many old friends and a few new ones did eventually find their way inside, and we got a little giddy, what with the warm spring day and the exciting bookstore changes. 

What is she holding forth about this time?
Is Sarah following the plot?
Oh, look! Paintings, too!
By the time we closed up and went home, the first of the old daffodils under the silver maple were open to the sun. It’s really true. It’s really spring. We can feel it at last.

More sunshine yellow

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Future: Gene Logsdon Is Optimistic

April 2013
That’s what I keep reminding myself as I drive along Leelanau County roads this spring, my eye continually drawn to ravaged ash trees. The emerald ash borer only reached us this past year, but now it is clear that large numbers have arrived, with appetites intact. What Fall 2013 will look like without the subtle, varied, yummy colors of ash leaves? Will the species recover? Gene Logsdon, as I say, is optimistic, and while I’ve written about Logsdon and ash trees before, here is his hopeful forecast again, from A Sanctuary of Trees, for those who don’t want to follow my link backwards.
I have enough dead ashes in my woodland to supply all the firewood I will need for the rest of my life. But when foresters and landscapers tell me to kiss the white ash goodby, I lead them by the nose into my woods. Right along the path to the barn, there are two patches of ash seedlings – scores of them. I exchange greetings with them several times a day. They are my good friends. The tallest of them is about five feet now, growing slowly in the partial shade, the top sprig nipped off last winter by a deer, but none the worse for it. It is three years old and still only the diameter of my finger. Obviously it is not yet old enough to interest a borer. It will take six to eight years anyway for these seedlings to reach borer-food size, during which time the borers, running out of bigger ashes, will start to starve. I hope.
Another thing I tell myself over and over and have voiced once or twice to David, also, is that I’m glad I started noticing the fall colors of the ash trees a few years back. What if I’d not been aware of them, if their glory had vanished and I’d never known it?

October 2012
But according to Logsdon, it is not too late. If there are no tall, stately ash trees adding their fall color to October’s landscape, look carefully along the roadsides and around the edges of the woods. Look for the whippersnappers. Those little darlings! In time – we may hope, along with Logsdon – they will be tall, stately trees themselves.

Look to the young of our own species, too, for when we are gone, it will be their world. What kind of world will they inherit from us? Here is the Leelanau Children's Center in Northport, on parade Friday, April 26.

"Day of the Young Child"
The days are getting longer. Morning comes early. It’s spring, and it’s good to be alive. Don't you feel a little younger today, no matter how old you are?

Wild leeks in the woods

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Second Amendment Arguments

A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. 
- Second Amendment to the United States Constitution
Like most of you, I suppose, I think a lot these days about guns and the arguments advanced by both sides of what passes for a national debate. An article in Hillsdale College’s Imprimis (March 2013, Volume 42, no. 3) adapted from a lecture given at Hillsdale’s Kirby Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, D.C., is unsurprisingly adamant in support of gun owners’ rights. (Anyone living in Michigan and knowing anything about Hillsdale College, that is, would not be surprised.) Edward J. Erler makes a strong case for the right to bear arms as an individual, not a collective right, though he may overstate it (or perhaps this was an editorial decision at Hillsdale) with a section heading that reads “The Whole People Are the Militia.” Are the whole people "well regulated"? In what way, and how? If the answer is simply that our society is governed by the rule of law, I hardly think that was what the framers had in mind, but there are other aspects of Erler’s overall argument, including but not limited to the defense of semi-automatic weapons, that I find far more troubling – and, I must say, at times confused and even contradictory, and it is those aspects I want to address.

Stolen Guns

Erler states that “most gun crimes are committed with stolen or illegally obtained weapons...” (clear statistics on percentages are difficult to obtain; most crimes are not committed with guns at all) and notes (statistics bear this out) that most of the guns stolen and used in crimes are handguns. (See Bureau of Justice statistics on firearms and crime.)

Stolen guns are a problem. Who would disagree? Erler’s solution is twofold: (1) more responsible, law-abiding citizens should own guns; (2) prosecution and penalties for crimes involving guns should be swift and harsh. He also argues that semi-automatic weapons, “so-called assault rifles,” as he puts it, are seldom used by criminals but are “extremely well-adapted for home defense,” so presumably (3) more law-abiding citizens should, in his view, arm themselves with semi-automatic weapons. That is, he believes there should be more, not fewer, semi-automatic weapons in American homes. He seems to have no quarrel with a ban on fully automatic weapons, which might be ever so slightly reassuring if the line he draws did not seem completely arbitrary: the government may legitimately ban automatic weapons, he seems to think, but a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles he finds a violation of freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. It would be interesting to hear how he thinks the framers would have drawn this line or what specific wording in the Second Amendment supports the distinction.

One question about having more guns in American homes seems logical: If there are more guns are in the homes of law-abiding citizens, won’t more guns be stolen? Stolen guns are and must be stolen from their rightful owners. That, after all, is what stealing is. Locking up guns is one proposed solution to not having your guns stolen, but I cannot find that it is Erler’s answer – perhaps because he does not ask the question. (He may have addressed it elsewhere. Anyone wanting to find out is welcome to search his published work more thoroughly than I have done.) His reasoning for semi-automatic weapons in the home is that since “assault rifles are rarely used by criminals, because they are neither easily portable nor easily concealed,” homeowners defending their private citadels with assault weapons (excuse me, “so-called assault weapons; Erler himself objects to and then makes use of the phrase himself without scare quotes) will be better equipped to avoid becoming crime victims. But is this not a dangerous escalation of what we might call the domestic arms race? In light of the fact that most crime is not committed with guns, protecting against it with assault rifles seems extreme.

Guns and Crime

Another logical question is much more difficult to answer: Does gun ownership reduce crime? These seemingly straightforward statistical question is deceptively simple, in that it looks for correlation between two and only two variables. Not surprisingly, the evidence for clear results and a clear direction of causation is murky, and each side picks and chooses among statistics to find numbers supporting its position. For instance, when homicide numbers go down, but homicides by guns goes up, is it fair to credit gun ownership with a drop in violent crime? Here’s a chilling statistic from the same article: "The presence of guns in a home during domestic violence increases the homicide chance for women by 500 percent, according to a 2003 study of domestic violence incidences in 11 cities." But “more guns” is only part of Erler’s solution to the problem of crimes involving guns. The other half, having to do with punishment and prevention. is that we should lock more people up. We should also, he thinks, hand down the death penalty more often and lock some people up before they can commit crimes.

The United States of America, which we like to think of as the freest country in the world, already has a greater percentage of its population behind bars than any other country in the world. Is this a solution or a problem? A retired cop who was a guest speaker once in my ethics class told my students, “If you need to draw your gun, you’ve already lost control of the situation.” If we need to lock up so many Americans, if we need the death penalty, it looks to me as if we’ve definitely lost control of the social situation.

Involuntary Incarceration

Erler’s advocacy of involuntary incarceration is totally baffling. Given his staunch support for the Second Amendment, one might expect he would bring the same vigilance guarding the Fourth Amendment, which gives “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizure.” It is a strange inversion of priorities that would put the rights of ownership above the rights of personal freedom, freedom in one’s own person being the very basis of all natural rights. The argument from natural law, which Erler at other times is eager to invoke, is passed over silently when he – and others, who defend guns and point to mental illness as the problem – call for involuntary incarceration where no crime has – “yet,” as they say – been committed.

Gun advocates' promotion of involuntary incarceration as a solution to violence is strange not only from a philosophical point of view but also in light of centuries of abuse of those declared mentally ill by governments for political reasons. Totalitarian governments across the political spectrum, from Communist to Fascist, governments elected and those ruling by blood, have never been shy about calling “mad” those who would oppose or even question their power. If the concern of gun advocates is truly that a free citizenry be able to defend itself against excesses by government – Erler points to the “right of revolution, an essential ingredient of the social compact” – their simultaneous advocacy of involuntary incarceration would seem to close the very door they are fighting, with their guns, to keep open. Who is in a better position to provide for himself and his family and defend himself, his family, and his property – the free man without an assault weapon or the man behind bars?

Erler gives a passing nod to the “horrible exceptions – the mass shootings in recent years....” Those shooters, he argues, were mentally ill and should have been incarcerated before they could kill. (We might note that most of them could not be punished afterward since they turned their weapons on themselves before they could be captured and brought to trial.) Here is Erler on his opposition:
But the same progressives who advocate gun control also oppose the involuntary incarceration of mentally ill people who, in the case of these mass shootings, posed obvious dangers to society before they committed their horrendous acts of violence. From the point of view of the progressives who oppose involuntary incarceration of the mentally ill – you can thank the ACLU and like-minded organizations – it is better to disarm the entire population, and deprive them of their constitutional freedoms, than to incarcerate a few mentally ill persons who are prone to engage in violent crimes.
Has a citizen with a legally obtained handgun been “disarmed” if he has no assault rifle? When, in the absence of violence, is the danger of it to society “obvious”? That is, how is someone “prone” to violence identified before he engages in a violent act? Again, I would point to the strange inversion of rights in Erler’s position. He sees gun control advocates seeking to "deprive" a population of (one) constitutional freedom (I see the goal as setting limits, not depriving), whereas his position opens the door to the taking-away of a much more fundamental constitutional right, the freedom of the person.

Americans who break the law are subject to the law and have the right to trial. Those declared mentally ill by government-appointed experts have no such recourse, no way to defend themselves against charges that are not "charges" but "diagnoses." Neither is their incarceration given any time limit. Those locked away for being mentally ill, even if they have committed no crime, can be stripped of all their rights, sometimes for the rest of their lives, and in the current climate of government cost-cutting it is difficult to see that greater numbers of incarcerated mentally ill could receive appropriate treatment in humane living conditions.

Even professionals who would not want to see involuntary incarceration completely abolished warn about its potential for abuse.
In any troubled relationship between the powerful and the less powerful, like the relationship between a repressive totalitarian government and a dissident citizen, or between parents and a gay teenager, or between husband and wife in a patriarchal society, the language and ideas of psychiatry and mental health practice are open to abuse as a form of social control. In these instances, the mechanism of involuntary commitment is also open to abuse as a way to confine those who are threatening to the social or political order. 
- Alicia Curtis, “Involuntary Commitment,” in Bad Subjects, Issue #58, December 2001. (Click here for full article.)
Curtis cites recent abuses in China, as well as common cases within living memory in our own country where parents could commit a gay teenager for being gay or a husband have his wife locked away for not keeping the house clean. It doesn’t require a wild imagination to come up with dystopian possibilities on the current political horizon.

In Summary

How dangerous is our world today? Where are the greatest potential threats? How might these threats be mitigated? How do we want to balance freedom and safety? These are the questions behind the debate, the questions both sides presume to answer with the positions they take.

When gun advocates see danger in stolen guns, it is difficult to see how more guns available to be stolen will solve the problem.

When they point to potential abuses of government as the danger, their advocacy of involuntary incarceration looks paradoxical, contradictory, and extremely problematic.

Their clarion call for the death penalty clearly speaks to emotions of anger and frustration, but as there has never been evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent, this so-called solution would only lock the barn door after the horse had run away or been stolen – or after the barn had been burned down.

*   *   *

Again, I will remind you that I do not have an editor, so besides comments of a substantive nature, any needed corrections are always welcome.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Color My World Sunshine-Bright

Bright yellow rubberized raincoat cheers me up.

Standing water
It’s shaping up to be a rainy day today in northern Michigan. Is this good or bad? Lake levels, going by the shore of Grand Traverse Bay, still seem low; on the other hand, inland fields are full of rain and snowmelt puddles the size of large ponds. Is the ground saturated? Tricky question where so much soil is clay, because clay forms a barrier that traps water so that it can't move further down, except where it can run downhill, as a lot of it is already doing this season, heading for little creeks that eventually feed into Lake Michigan.

Running water --

-- headed for the Big Lake
We had very welcome sunshine on Monday and the warmest temperatures so far this spring, with open water  appearing on Lake Leelanau and remnants of ice (turned a punky green) gliding slowly toward the Leland River, the outlet for the whole 8,607-acre (North and South combined) inland lake.

North Lake Leelanau

It wasn’t until evening that I had a chance to see the disappearing ice on Lake Leelanau because I spent most of the day indoors at the bookstore, climbing up a ladder and back down again, moving the ladder, pouring paint and spreading it on my new wall, as well as on a couple areas of old stucco wall (above the front windows and where the old woodstove used to be years back) that never got painted the last time around. In the photo below you can see, up at the left, a small bit of dirty beige yet to be covered. The stucco areas, at least, and maybe the new wall, too, could use a second coat, and that’s my job for today. But what a cheery change! And doesn’t the new wall look just the color of sunshine?

A peek through our new interior door into Clare's gallery space shows you her new wall color, too. We're still waiting for first crocuses, but Dog Ears Books and Red Mullein Gallery are already colorful.

Out in the woods on Sunday I did run across one very bright spot of color on the ground and would have taken longer to ponder and photograph the sight, except that Sarah discovered something more interesting to her: a fairly fresh, predator-ravaged dead skunk. "Leave it!" and move on seemed the wisest course of action. I've reordered the Audubon North American mushroom field guide, but I don't expect to be bringing these bright red cups to the table. Something about their color shouts "Stop!" almost as loudly as the odor of skunk carcass shouted "Leave it!"

Mystery fungus
Author/book note: Those who missed Loreen Niewenhuis last Thursday and/or those who want to see and hear her again, along with a slide/video show of her latest adventure, will have a second chance in July when she comes back to Northport as part of the summer author series at our wonderful local library. I also, of course, have the story of her adventure at Dog Ears Books now – even a few signed copies, while they last.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Happy Birthday, Messeret, Wherever You Are

I've tried lots of other ways, so now I'm trying this. My old graduate school friend and I kept in touch for years, but then we lost sight of each other. Messeret, I miss you! And today is your birthday, so HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Answers to Time-Honored Journalistic Questions

This was the notice on the bookstore door, reminding people that our kick-off 20th anniversary year event was being held at Brew North coffee house. So that answers the Who? and Where? questions, I hope. The When? was yesterday, Thursday afternoon, April 18.

It was great! The whole high school came!

How? Loreen Niewenhuis is a terrific presenter -- personable, engaging, down-to-earth, and often funny. The students and others in the audience clearly appreciated both her sense of adventure and the scientific research she does before and during her long lakeshore walks. Loreen alternated reading from her book (she has a lovely reading voice, soft yet perfectly audible and well articulated) and taking questions from the audience. The variety gave a comfortable informality to a very professional presentation.

I've said Loreen is engaging. The students were engaged. They were attentive. They asked excellent questions. I was so happy to connect local students -- at last -- with one of the many top-notch visiting authors who have come to Dog Ears Books over the years. I hope this will be only the first of many such engagements. Why? Does anyone need to ask why? I hope not!

Following the presentation came the usual milling around, more informal chat with the author, a bit of bookselling, and gift Dog Ears Books pens for all in attendance -- except that we ran out of pens, so a couple students will have to pick theirs up at the bookstore. "No problem," they assured me. 

Loreen hung out at the bookstore afterwards until close to 5 o'clock, when we went next door for a bite at the Garage Bar & Grill, where David joined us, all of us well satisfied with our day. 

Many, many, many thanks to English teacher Jenny Walter for helping to put this event together, and many, many, many thanks to Erik and Deirdre Owen for volunteering their space at Brew North, as well as to Dominic Iseli-Smith for helping set up ahead of time. This was a true community effort and success. 

And now it's time for me to turn my attention and energy to painting my new bookstore wall.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Winner! And, Let's Meet Across the Street

We only had six names, so we put everyone's name in Bruce's hat twice. I hope no one minds that it is a University of Michigan cap.

The fickle hand of fate --. Oops, sorry, Bruce! Bruce's hand reaches out....

Whose name is it?

It's Karen! Karen wins the free book! I would have made a little video of the drawing but have had trouble uploading videos so tried to squeak a little drama out of it in this cheap, old-fashioned way.

And now for today: It's raining, but the fierce overnight winds have settled down, so it's not a bad day, as I can attest from my morning errands around town under an umbrella, which came after an earlier dog walk without umbrella, as old coat and hood were easier to manage in the fields and woods.

Walking is our theme for the day, as our first 2013 Dog Ears Books guest author -- the first guest author of our 20th anniversary year! -- comes to Northport to read from her new book and answer questions about her latest long adventure on foot. I'm saying that Loreen walked 2,000 miles to get to Northport, because her first book was an account of a 1,000-mile circuit of Lake Michigan, and her new book tells of walks taken on all five Great Lakes, for a total of a second 1,000 miles. She walked in all kinds of weather, too, so no fair anyone complaining to her about today's rain!

Just remember, the bookstore will not be at the bookstore today. Instead we will gather at Brew North coffee house, across the street, courtesy of the ever genial and generous Erik and Deirdre Owen. Come around noon, get a cuppa, and make yourself comfortable before the 12:15-2:15 event. Books will be available, cash or check only, and the author will be happy to sign them for you.

So don't let a little rain keep you home. As my grandmother used to say complacently when I worried that she would get wet without an umbrella, "I'm not sugar! I won't melt!"

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"The Last Bookshop"?

The building is undergoing renovation inside and out.
Last bookshop??? How would you feel?

As a booklover and bookseller and a lifelong lover of bookstores old and new, I cannot resist movies with bookstore themes. Well, here’s another, a new one. The old bookseller waited 25 years for a customer....

-- Just back after viewing: DO NOT MISS THIS! I wanted to reach out and pluck books from the shelves! “It’s a book.  . . .  It will give you memories of things you will never experience.” Magic! The old bookseller character is wonderful!

I wouldn’t be able to hang on in Northport for 25 years (July will be the 20-year mark) without my faithful local clientele and all the summer visitors we’ll soon be welcoming back, but this week’s author event, please remember, will take place not at the bookstore (still undergoing remodeling) but across the street at Brew North. Visiting author Loreen Niewenhuis will be on hand to share her latest adventure with us, A 1,000-Mile Great Lakes Walk. Come to Brew North a little after noon on Thursday, and be prepared to be inspired.

We will have rearranged by month's end.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Who Doesn't Love a Free NEW BOOK?

First, here’s a little about the book to be given away, followed by conversation with the storyteller and the writer, and then I’ll tell you how you can win a free copy.

* * * 

The Honey Thief  is a unique book of stories told by native Afghani Najaf Mazari to writer Robert Hillman. It is a portrait of the Hazara people – an ethnic group in the hills between Kabul and Kandahar. Man Booker Prize winner Thomas Keneally praised it as:
[A] dazzling narrative is full of wonders and unfamiliar magic, shadows and lightnings. The tales it tells are fascinating in their ordinariness and their strangeness. The Honey Thief is simply delightful to read on its own terms, but it also illuminates the real Afghanistan, that country many great powers have proved keen to invade but rarely to understand.
Filled with both fascinating facts and tall tales, The Honey Thief preserves the intimacy and beauty of the Hazara tradition of oral storytelling.

In “The Behsudi Dowry,” the character of Hameed is thought to be foolish and absentminded for his love of books. His parents can see no value in reading fiction. How was reading literature for pleasure viewed in your household and community growing up?

Najaf:  In Afghanistan, only a few very educated people read books other than the holy books. If my brothers or my father or my mother had seen me reading a novel, they would have thought I was insane and would have called a doctor or a mullah to fix me.

How did you become interested in the narrative of the refugee?

Robert:  At the time I first met Najaf, the Muslim refugees who were arriving in Australia on ramshackle boats were being characterised as criminals and terrorists in the press. This demonisation suited the politics of Australia just after 9/11 (or “11/9” as it is known here). It struck me that something vile was happening in my country—something that I might look back on in years to come and think, “Why didn’t you say something?” I wrote Najaf’s story as a way of saying something. The friendship we formed led to Najaf telling me more and more about the culture of the Hazara. The stories in The Honey Thief are, in a way, the backstory of Najaf’s life told in The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif.

The themes discussed throughout The Honey Thief—the importance of love, work, hope—are universal, crossing all kinds of boundaries of culture, faith, geography, and socioeconomic status. What is your hope for this book? More broadly, what role do you believe literature can play in uniting people across borders?

Najaf & Robert: Stories like those in The Honey Thief make a small difference here and there to the sympathy for people who are struggling through life. Literature cannot change people’s hearts completely. Just a little. A little is okay. We must remember that if stories that honour courage and enjoyment of life could suddenly change everything, then another book that teaches distrust and hatred might also change everything back. People don’t read stories like those in The Honey Thief in order to have their eyes opened. They read them for enjoyment; for pleasure. If it happens that some readers feel that they have gained more than enjoyment, that’s a good thing. We hope that readers will enjoy this book in the same way that they enjoy fresh food cooked by someone who loves good food. We hope that people will smile as they finish each story and say, “Well, that was wonderful!”

* * * 

Was that enough to pique your interest and whet your appetite? I’m sorry that (1) only readers with U.S. addresses (p.o. boxes okay) are eligible for the giveaway and (2) only comments, not e-mails, make for eligibility. So, to enter please leave a comment (that is the challenge!) saying what aspect of the information above interests you in reading this book. An assistant and I will put slips in a hat and draw out the winning name. We will then need your mailing address to send to the publisher.

Give it a try! Good luck!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Change Is in the Wind

Sign of things to come -- soon!
Please read the sign!
In the photo above, you see the sign for Red Mullein, the gallery that has been operating down in the old Depot building by the marina parking lot and soon to re-open at 106 Waukazoo Street. Clare is very busy these days, moving furniture and stock, but I'll let you know when she's ready to open for business.

As for Dog Ears Books, we are still open, with a few changes, one of which is our new street entrance. It's going to take some getting used to (who will learn faster, Sarah or me?), and we'll need to move our OPEN flag holder, too.

our new entrance

The new door is fully functional, but when you come in -- if you come in this week or next -- you'll see why we don't plan to hold next week's guest author event in the bookstore. Reminder: That will be Loreen Niewenhuis, coming to introduce you to and sign copies for customers of her new book, A 1,000-Mile Great Lakes Walk, and the plan is still to gather from 12:15 to 2:15 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, April 18, across the street at Brew North, where's lots of room for Northporters and visitors of all ages.

Because -- this is what the bookstore looked like inside yesterday, Wednesday, April 10:

We have a temporary plastic wall!
We're a little crowded, too.
When the new drywall is all mudded and sanded, and the new wall painted, and bookstore shelving and furniture moved into permanent position against the new wall (well, as permanent as anything is in this business and this life), the picture will be completely different.

For now? We are still OPEN! We're also still on our winter (remodeling) hours, Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. You should use the new door to access the bookstore, and then -- pardon our dust and the current odd arrangement of our art books. As Loretta Castorini's father, played by Vincent Gardenia, said in the movie "Moonstruck" (one of my all-time favorite films), "Everything is temporary!" So we certainly can't let our bookstore life come to a stop, as long as it continues to evolve.

This view will change by month's end....

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

How Others See Us: “America,” the European Myth

". . . like the first morning . . ."

John Locke started it, with his Second Treatise on Government. “In the beginning,” he wrote, “all the world was America.” He wasn’t talking about a particular continent or set of continents but about human social life before the establishment of “civil society,” before established cultural traditions and legal concepts.

What would human life conducted in a pure “state of nature” look like? Where Thomas Hobbes imagined the state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” the constant warfare of “all against all,” and Jean-Jacques Rousseau envisioned “noble savages,” unspoiled rather than deformed by civilization, Locke (neither as pessimistic as Hobbes nor as idealistic as Rousseau) took a middle ground. Acknowledging and welcoming the advantages and protections conferred by civil society, he nevertheless saw their beginnings in the family, nature’s “first society,” with responsible adults working together to improve property and nurture children, long before there were laws or cultural traditions in place.

Locke’s idea of “all the world as America” fired the European imagination, as did the American frontier itself. Long into the 20th century, Hollywood Western adventure stories were as popular overseas as in the United States, Western movies even at times copied and filmed in European countries (“spaghetti Westerns”), and that fascination is not over yet. Epic literary tales like Jim Harrison’s Revenge find huge audiences abroad. “Jim Harrison?” exclaimed a bookseller I asked in Paris about French translations of our friend’s books. “J’adore Jim Harrison!”

What do most European tourists want to see when they visit the United States? New York, the Grand Canyon, Disney World, and Hollywood. A few may fly over Chicago and get an idea of Lake Michigan, but it is the open, empty expanses of land, the young mountain ranges, the soaring skyscrapers, and the Disney fantasy that best answer European preconceptions of our land.

I was reminded of the myth of America when I picked up Paris la Grande, by Philippe Meyer. Ah, Paris! Surely the antithesis of Chicago, wouldn’t you imagine? But immediately in the opening section the author astounds me by writing of Paris as “cette espèce d’Amerique où chacun peut espérer donner à sa vie un nouveau départ.” Paris, he is saying, is a kind of America -- because (and here comes the myth) one can come to Paris to start a new life on a blank slate! Coming either to Paris or to America, he believes, you can leave small town traditional life and escape your neighbors’ eyes and judgment!

When I was in graduate school, a friend from Ethiopia who had had a very French education up to that point was astonished to find that large numbers of Americans, like “country people” anywhere in the world, maintained attachments to specific regions and landscapes and to life in far-flung towns and villages. My love of Michigan amazed her. Why would I, an educated person, identify so strongly with a particular section of the country? Wasn’t “America” a more universal concept and therefore a more appropriate object for my devotion? She was also surprised to find intense religious feeling among so many Americans. Before coming here, she had imagined America as a land where inhabitants looked only to the future, relying on nothing but science and law, feeling no inhibitions and respecting no traditions.

But that’s just it. Even America is not “America” in that sense – it is not, that is, the mythic “America” -- and it never was. Before Europeans “discovered” the continent, different peoples called different regions of the land home, and while some of them moved from one place to another with the seasons, it rarely occurred to any of them to leave the familiar entirely, without any reason, and strike out for parts unknown. Tradition is part of human life. Our first attachments can only be local.

Paris has its own traditions, and, like Chicago or Cincinnati, many of its neighborhoods are small towns in themselves, peopled by inhabitants who immigrated to the capital from an outlying province or a foreign country, bringing with them their food and customs. Like New York, Paris can be provincial, too, and much of its charm lies in that fact. Meyer recognizes as much, I learn as I read on, but it is still the possibility of anonymity in the metropolis that attracts him and, he believes, attracts most people who come to make their home there.

Isn’t the possibility of freedom in anonymity the attraction of most cities as opposed to small towns? I don’t see it as particular to Paris, much though I love Paris. Meyer’s migration from Versailles to Paris has much in common with Alfred Kazin’s escape from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and I found the delightful feeling of freedom myself in Cincinnati, where I could roam the streets and neighborhoods like a tourist no one knew (like Chiang Yee’s “silent traveler”) and then go home alone to my little student apartment to read and write.

Paris as “America”! Leave it to a Frenchman to come up with such a startling and controversial concept!

Can you imagine a French family coming to live in Northport with the expectation of escaping neighbors’ eyes? In our little village? And yet, ain’t we America, too?

* * * 

Another local note: En cherchant le vert du commencement du printemps ce matin, je l’ai trouvé! Not yet visible from the road, the first wild leeks are up an inch or two in the woods.

Spring is beginning to spring

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Detour: Fiction

[The morning after watching an Elia Kazan film, "America, America," I woke up with the beginning of this story in my head, so I got up and started writing. Clearly, the film was my inspiration, although the events in my story were not in Kazan's, and his setting is not mine.]

Once It Begins, It Goes On and On©

P. J. Grath

Here is a picture of my beloved, so big and strong he was! That morning he went to church with his sister, it happened. He never came home, and now I will never marry. That is reality in our little village.

It was not always so. We all used to live together like a family. The Alwadi people and the Mazawa people went to school together, farmed together, owned businesses together, married each other, – anything you can imagine people doing here, we did together, despite tribal and religious differences. The old ones remember that way of life, but all the young ones know is hatred. What no one can recall is how the old way gave way and became what it is today. It is as if it happened overnight, but surely that cannot be so, can it?

My own father was Mazawa. He was killed in the first fighting. By an Alwadi? I will never know, and that’s best, because my mother, after all, is Alwadi. Which am I? You tell me. When I have to leave the house, I go with my face covered and my head down. We no longer have friends or neighbors. No one can trust anyone.

What I am telling, this big change, if it did happen overnight, it had to have happened the night before my father was killed, but my thinking cannot wrap around that thought and push it back further, because everyone, Alwadi and Mazawa, loved my father. There was no reason for anyone to kill him. An accident it had to be. But if he had fallen from a roof or been kicked in the head by a mule – other ways of dying by accident – no one would have thought of revenge. So, since revenge was the first thought, hatred must have begun already in men’s minds, mustn’t it? Could one man start such hatred? Who could it have been? Why? Over what? It seems impossible, and yet it had to start somewhere before it could spread, isn’t it so?

What a shame my beloved’s sister came back here! She had married and was living in Morocco, safely out of the way. Then her husband died. She’d had a child and wanted to bring him back to her own home to raise him. Stupid! What kind of future does a boy have here? If she hadn’t come back, would her brother have been in church with her that morning? No, he would have been safe, she would have been safe, her child would have been safe.

Naturally, the bomb was set off on the men’s side of the church, so his sister, on the other side with her baby boy, escaped unharmed. Physically unharmed, that is. The men were buried in the rubble of the church’s collapse.

This is all I have now – this grave to visit, this photograph to hold. If I could find the man who started all this, I would kill him with my own hands. It would not bring back my beloved, but what else have I to live for if not revenge?