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Monday, December 31, 2018

What Might You Love?

Mountains at last!

Arizona is not all desert, because so much of it is mountain. Scores of separate ranges, each with a name of its own, are sprinkled here and there, and in the southern part of the state they often rise abruptly from the desert floor itself. In fact it is impossible to move anywhere so far away from them that the horizon is not ringed around with peaks. 

- Joseph Wood Krutch, The Voice of the Desert: A Naturalist’s Interpretation

In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Catherine, the naive young heroine of the novel, has an opportunity to travel far from her small home circle for the first time and to meet people with views and experiences wider than her own. She is introduced to new kinds of reading and also new ways of looking at the world. Her impressionability is not lost on Henry, at first a chance acquaintance who very soon becomes a major figure in Catherine’s mental and emotional world. 

Older and more sophisticated, Henry is also possessed of a subtle, teasing nature not always understood by Catherine and only held partially in check by his more gentle sister. Though their conversation often leaves her uncomprehending, Catherine is enchanted by both siblings and begins to look at the world through their eyes, finding beauty where she had never previously looked for it, in small, easily overlooked details — for example, a blooming hyacinth. Henry is amused but does not taunt, instead saying approvingly, if tongue-in-cheek, “It is good to have as many holds on happiness as possible.”

Henry might have been teasing Catherine, but I think he was absolutely right to say that about happiness — though as I reflect for a moment I can see that a Buddhist might disagree, for is love not attachment? Never. mind, though. I am not going down that road this morning. Neither the Buddhist path nor that of philosophical debate. Love and the holds it gives us on happiness are my theme this morning.

Thrilling mountains in New Mexico!

On our way west, as we crossed the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas and the first, flat stretch of New Mexico, I was impatient for mountains. Finally, in New Mexico, seeing our first mountain of the trip in the distance. it, I couldn’t help smiling happily. Soon, larger ones appeared. Now, surrounded by mountains every day, I wake in the dark eager for dawn to light up my high desert neighborhood. Though the sky was cloudy for our first couple of days here, there was sufficient daylight to show the contours of the slopes, and as we made the first drive from Dos Cabezas to Willcox I began mentally drawing the mountains on the other side of the playa in soft pencil, a very sketchy mental drawing, mostly broken planes of light and dark, and I felt that smile again on my face.

“I guess I love mountains,” I mused aloud, wonderingly, to the Artist. 

“I guess you do,” he agreed.

“It’s something I never would have known about myself if we’d never come out here.” I went on, enlarging upon  my theme, the strangeness of surprises lying in wait in the self. “It’s like being predisposed to be allergic to something,” I went on, groping for expression. “If you’re never exposed to it, the allergy doesn’t get triggered. It never manifests.” Then my epiphany burst full-blown: “Love is like an allergy in reverse!” 

Strange notion, is it not? My darling might have argued with me, citing counterexamples to my claim,  different kinds of love and different ways of looking at love, but instead he agreed, understanding me instantly and perfectly, and I sighed and thought contentedly how fortunate he and I were to encounter one another so many years ago, giving our love a chance to be born when we might easily have gone a lifetime without it.

A more conventional way of expressing my idea, I realized a few days later, is to say that there is a contingency to falling in love, and I’ve known that for a long time. That which comes, over time, to feel necessary to our happiness — a partner, a child, certain places and activities — was not always so, pre-ordained by the stars. If we had never met … if we had not found Sarah that day at the Humane Society shelter … if my father had not studied French in high school and been stationed in France after the Liberation … if I had not been born to literate parents, with books and music in our house for as long as I can remember … if I had never seen a horse … if we had not gone camping on Lake Michigan when I was 12 years old … if, if, if … then I might not have had the opportunity to fall in love with David and Sarah and the French language and books and horses and Michigan. 

My friend and correspondent in New South Wales, Australia, for instance, also loves books and dogs (we share those passions) but has otherwise an entirely different set of loves from mine. She does not love horses and has never seen Michigan — and yet her life, too, is full, with many holds on happiness.

I’ve thought before, many times, of how the contingent in a life becomes necessary, but my thoughts were mostly terms of specific persons and places or, if in categories, familiar ones one might encounter anywhere, such as books and horses. Discovering in myself a love of mountains surprises me. For most of my life, I looked at photographs and paintings of mountains and remained unmoved, even while recognizing their beauty. It was beauty that had nothing to do with me, I felt. Really. I could look objectively at the most impressive mountain image and turn away with a shrug. It was not Michigan, after all. Perhaps the landscape of Mars is beautiful, too, but what has it to do with me? Surely no one can expect me to feel love for it.

And yet, somehow, where I least expected it, a new love has crept upon me, so gradually that I can hardly say when it began. I have learnt (as Henry put it) to love mountains. Mountains in general. The sight of them now makes my heart glad. I love that wherever we go in our winter neighborhood, we are surrounded by mountains — the Dos Cabezas, the Chiricahuas, the PinaleƱos, and the Dragoons that separate our Sulphur Springs Valley from the San Pedro Valley to the west.

That is the generality of my new love, but the particular is even stronger. When, three miles or so from the New Mexico-Arizona state line, I discern for the first time the twin peaks of Dos Cabezas, then I have a feeling of coming home similar to what I feel when crossing from Indiana into Michigan. Closer to home in Michigan is catching the first sight of Grand Traverse Bay and what my friend Laura calls “the coming home tree,” that beautiful old willow standing against the water at the T intersection, and then turning left to re-enter Leelanau County. Similarly, here in Cochise County there is one long curve at last, my "coming home curve," the sight of my mountain and the land opening out below it, exposed rocks along the side of the road with prickly pear cactus and century plants against the rock face, and then a reverse curve as Highway 186 climbs up again, and there it is — the cemetery, the Dos Cabezas sign, the cattle guard, and the sign with the image of a horned cow, while up and to the left is the single cabeza that presides over the ghost town, over the Philadelphia Wash, and over our little winter cabin. 

Yes, I now love mountains in general, but these mountains — this range, its distinctive twin peaks, and my peak in particular — are special. Not the tallest mountains in the Southwest, they are the mountains where my heart now feels at home. 

What will you open your heart to and fall in love with in 2019? A world of possibilities awaits....

Friday, December 28, 2018

I Miss the Old Days! (A Decade Ago)

Here ensues a lengthy reflection.
Do you, my reader, read with less attention and perhaps even less memory for what you have read? Do you notice when reading on a screen that you are increasingly reading for key words and skimming over the rest? Has this habit or style of screen reading bled over to your reading of hard copy? … Very important, are you less able to find the same enveloping pleasure you once derived from your former reading self?
  • Maryanne Wolf, Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World
It was in the fall of 2007 that I first began writing “Books in Northport,” and while I have no intention of leaving this writing medium, which I have taken with me far from Northport, to Florida for a few winters and, more recently, now to southeast Arizona, as well as posting after the fact about a trip last January to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, I have to confess that I miss my early days of blogging. 

In those early days, I truly had — not always, but often — the sense of initiating a conversation with some of my posts. Comments from readers let me know that people “out there” were connecting to my words and images. On occasion and over time, often with intriguing blogs of their own that I followed, those who commented became my friends, and once in a while our posts and comments intertwined. One of my readers and someone whose blog I followed was a young woman in China whose parents were young enough that I could have been (in some other life) their parents! Neige (she blogged in French) and I loved our visits to one another’s lives.

In those days, from my yellow leather chair, my morning perch that fall and winter when my dial-up connection was so slow that I kept a book by my side to read while waiting for downsized images to upload, I felt like a world traveler, meeting new people, exploring their worlds, and inviting them into mine. Although we were meeting only in digital space, the leisurely nature of blogs tended to slow and concentrate our online attention. In other words, we spent time with each other.

After a while, though, the snake entered the garden. Two snakes, actually. The first was spam. 

I recall the first spam I got, one I initially (naively) took for a real comment, from a real person, until a friend clued me in. The apparent comment went something like this: “Interesting content. I’ll be back to visit again.” Followed by a link. Ah, yes, those links! There was no person on the other end of what looked like a comment, but only a roaming “bot”-snake, planting links wherever it could slither in, links to lure people in to order flowers online, book cruises, and worse. Ugh! Spam threatened to take the fun out of blogging for me. My solution, suggested by a veteran blogger, was to moderate comments. 

Rather than allowing anyone to leave a comment that would appear instantly, as soon as someone (or something) on the other end posted it, I changed my blog settings so that I received notification when a comment was left, and then it was up to me to publish, delete, or mark as spam. For a while, the solution seemed to work okay for most of my readers, though right from the start some were confused by no longer seeing their comments immediately, with the result that they might leave the same comment three times and then e-mail me to say they were unable to post. It was a period of adjustment for us all.

But that was only Phase 1 of problems with moderation. 

Phase 2 developed when the platform upped the ante for people wanting to comment, requiring a Google password and insisting that people wanting to join the conversation jump through visual hoops to prove “I am not a robot.” Good friends told me they tried and tried and finally gave up. 

(At the end of this post, I will come back to address the comment-moderation problem, but the end is — sigh! my poor, patient reader, if you exist at all out there in digital space! — still still quite a way down the line.) 

Need for moderation and problems readers had with moderation: that was the first snake. The second snake was Facebook — and this connects to my opening quote from Reader, Come Home, written a Tufts University professor and researcher whose expertise is in the cognitive neuroscience of reading. Here is a passage from the beginning of her book:

…[W]hen I was a child learning to read, I did not think about reading. Like Alice, I simply jumped down reading’s hole into Wonderland and disappeared for most of my childhood. When I was a young woman, I did not think about reading. I simply became Elizabeth Bennett, Dorothea Brooke, and Isabel Archer at every opportunity. Sometimes I became men like Alyosha Karamazov, Hans Castorp, and Holden Caulfield. But always I was lifted to places very far from the little town of Eldorado, Illinois, and always I burned with emotions I could never otherwise have imagined. 

When I read the blog of the young woman in China or that of the older woman up in the Maritime Provinces of Canada, or even those by someone in the U.P. or right in my own Leelanau County, I too was “lifted to places very far” from my own  old farmhouse. You might think that Facebook does the same thing, since there I can see friends’ posts from all over the world, but while I appreciate those picture windows on distant places, I don’t feel as if I am entering those worlds. The depth isn’t there, and there isn’t time, because one person’s set of photographs from a Caribbean island is only one set in an endless “news feed.” They are postcards rather than letters. As I see it, not every form of online reading and writing is “the same,” any more than any writing that ends up in a physical book to be read is like the content of any other book. Some speed us up, others slow us down.

Facebook relates to the world of blogging not only because both are online, but also because I am not the only blogger who posts links to my blog on Facebook, hoping to bring in readers who would otherwise not seek me out in the longer, more leisurely medium. The results? Not always what I’d hoped. 

Some very good friends, real friends, people I know and even love in my face-to-face world, tell me they have “no time to read blogs.” When I hear that from someone trying to limit his or her online time in general, I understand it better than when the same apologetic excuse — and believe me, no excuse is ever necessary! My blog is there for anyone interested in my world and thoughts, but it is not required reading for anyone! — comes from someone who seems to be, when I do my once-a-day check-in, on Facebook 24/7. Their phones they have always with them! Notifications come with sound alerts whenever a friend posts, and it takes only a moment to “like” or leave a few words of comment on Facebook. To follow a link, on the other hand, and to read an entire newspaper or magazine article or essay or blog post, makes a deeper and lengthier demand. 

And so it happens that most Facebook friends scroll past my links. An altruistic few may “like” or leave a comment based on the link’s image but without following the link to read the blog post. Fewer still are moved to follow the link and read what has sometimes (not always, I admit) taken me quite a while to put together carefully and thoughtfully, occasionally revising over a few days before posting — and I am grateful to everyone who does so! But here the first snake circles back with his poisonous bite, because those readers are the ones most likely to want to leave comments and also most likely to be stymied by moderation roadblocks! Curses!

Cottonwood in Willcox, AZ, a week ago
My meandering, desultory blog suits my musing philosopher’s mind, and I have no desire to leave the slow lane that is my preferred world: books in print — real books! — and reading silently or aloud those books in print; lengthy, thoughtful, exploratory blog posts; walks in woods or fields or deserts with my dog; face-to-face, side-by-side conversations with the Artist and our friends and family; exploring the larger world in search of horses and wildlife, mountains and lakes; thinking about and exploring, also, day to day, my thoughts and those of others, wherever encountered. In short, I do not want my mind to transform itself into a grasshopper, unable to concentrate, impatient with silence, too impatient to follow a complicated narrative or argument!

But I feel bad about restricting the conversation and keeping others out. That’s another problem with Facebook, too, by the way: what’s posted there becomes a conversation among people who have already designated each other as friends. What about potential friends, such as those I met in my first years of blogging? 

Well, so here is my experiment for the beginning of the new year. I am going to change my settings back to eliminate moderation of comments. That should also (I hope) eliminate hassles. I hope so, anyway. Results of the experiment will decide how long I decide to forego moderation. If no one comments — or if there is a tsunami of spam — I may just heave a sigh and concede failure. But let’s try it, eh? 

Now, for starters, has anyone else read Maryanne Wolf’s book or anything else on the subject of how digital reading is changing our brains and our reading habits in general? How many books do you read, how many print news articles, and how much time to you spend reading online? How did you answer Wolf’s questions at the top of this post? Do you worry about the time your children or grandchildren or students are spending on digital media? And what else would you like to read about here on “Books in Northport”? Suggestions welcome.

Happy new year, friends! May peace, health, and happiness be yours!

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Best Wishes for Happiness and Peace

From our pack in our winter desert digs
to you and yours, wherever you are

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

It Isn’t Winter Yet — But Almost Christmas

Those mesquite branches are not bare.
“You’ll be somewhere warm,” people back home commented, often enviously, when they learned of our winter plans. Not really, I would tell them, insisting that we would not have real warmth until about March, when spring would come to the high desert, admitting however that, while night temperatures would dip below the freezing mark, we wouldn’t have to shovel snow or have our driveway plowed, even in the event of a light snow, and we could expect sunshine almost every day. Oh, the sunshine! I feel spoiled for that reason alone. 

But it was February first when we began our winter here in 2015 and January 15 when we arrived in 2018, and now we are still in calendar year 2018, already here, and astonished to find ourselves in what seems to be autumn rather than winter. The days do get warm, after all — a high of 61 degrees expected today in Willcox, with 70s in Tucson — and we don’t know if this is normal for December here, since we’ve never before arrived early enough that the mesquite bushes (and a few pods) were still green and the big cottonwoods in Railroad Park in Willcox just turning from green to brown, their branches not yet bare. 

Or that one species of flowering plant (turpentinebush?) in the wash has not gone completely to seed but is still attracting butterflies and pollinating flies. Butterflies! In December! They were small white ones, like those we call cabbage butterflies in the Midwest. One other plant up by the cabin had a still-yellow blossom, also. 

Ten hours and two minutes of daylight today. We are almost at the turn-around point: first the solstice, and then the days will begin to grow longer. We take it all for granted, we moderns, and do not pray or make sacrifices to gods for more hours of sunshine. Somehow, though, I feel an offering of gratitude is in order. I am deeply grateful for the bright sky that lifts my tired, Midwestern, winter-worn spirit and delighted by a cactus wren’s morning greeting.

A Midwesterner could make a problem out of sunny warmth in December, in that it “doesn’t feel like Christmas,” but I brought Christmas lights from Michigan to string in our high desert cabin windows, a box of folded paper Moravian stars, another set of easily packed, brightly colored ornaments, and the bare minimum of decorating ingenuity I possess. So you see, while it may not be winter, and the weather outside is anything but “frightful,” we are ready for a little Christmas in our mountain retreat, settling in to enjoy the last couple days of autumn and welcome winter when it comes in its turn.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Finding Friends Along the Way

My new equine friends above belong to one of my sister’s friends, and Deborah and Sheryl have been wanting to get me out to meet the horses for a long time. Oh, the darlings! They are (clockwise from lower left) Lucy (Alpha mare), Flicka, Traveler, and Blackie. When Deborah and I got out to the stable on Tuesday evening (well, late afternoon, but darkness had already fallen), the horses were in for the night, their stalls full of fresh bedding, and, just finishing their dinner, they were ready to be brushed and fed their bedtime apples. Those horses were no happier to be brushed and given treats than I was to curry their coats and hold out a flat hand with chunks of apple, first to Lucy (since she’s the boss) and then to the others in the order their names are given above, sweet, patient Blackie waiting the longest — last but hardly least in my book, he was such a sweetie! 

Nor were horses the only excitement that day in Springfield, Illinois. (I have to backtrack in my account of our trek west so as not to leave out these important events.) My sister and I also visited a venerable downtown Springfield bookstore with the wonderful name Prairie Archives. 

Prairie Archives, housed in the former J.C. Penney building on East Adams Street, lives up to its wonderful name. Books of and for all ages, maps, art prints -- intoxicating atmosphere! For nearly half an hour I was too giddy to do little more than wander from one room to the next, exclaiming (quietly, to my sister) my admiration for my surroundings. 

At last I settled down in the foreign language room long enough to find a couple of Simenon paperbacks. Next some sweet, tiny books in the children’s room called my name. By then, growing calmer, I was at last able to breathe normally, put on my professional bookseller identity, and ask for books on Michigan. The owner’s son and a couple of other staff provided friendly assistance. What an enchanting place!

When I went up front to pay for my purchases, owner John R. Paul and I got into a discussion of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and where to find the best pasties. If I lived in Springfield, I would be making weekly visits to — and purchases from — Prairie Archives!

Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas — the immensity of the American plat pays, especially the High Plains, still amazes us, though we have journeyed through it before. This post would wander far from its theme, however, if I were to backtrack visually and verbally across the vast interior spaces of the North American continent. Instead I am compressing my account to focus on a few stops, leaping now from Illinois to New Mexico.

Tucumcari, New Mexico, bills itself as the “mural capital of New Mexico,” and as we admired some of the first examples we came across, the style seemed very familiar. We wondered if the artist could be the mural painter from Benson, the one we’d first met with his wife on top of a mountain (Masai Point) in the Chiricahua National Monument. We looked for a signature but didn’t find one at first.  Not all the murals in town are by one person, but we were interested in a certain style, one we recognized. Then, around another block was the artist himself, at work on a scaffold, and it was Doug Quarles! 

Talk about serendipity! We enjoyed the chance to catch up with Doug and Sharon (they have moved from Benson to Tucumcari since last we saw them), while Sarah made the most of an opportunity to stretch out on a sun-warmed sidewalk, quite a relief after sub-freezing temperatures and a 60mph wind the night before in Liberal, Kansas! Here is some more of Doug's work, but you should really stop in Tucumcari and see it all.

One more night on the road for our pack, in Alamogordo, and then our last day’s travel took us through Las Cruces, Deming, and Lordsburg to the Arizona line. I was eager to reach the state line and catch my first sight of the Dos Cabezas peaks, but when we ducked off the road for a coffee in Deming and saw this pretty little bookstore — so inviting! — there was no resisting. And we were so glad we didn’t try!

Readers’ Cove is owned by Margaret Fairman and Dan Gauss, and we wandered from room to room in delight, encountering a bookstore cat in the first room we explored. Later, in another room, the Artist made friends with Ziggy, the bookstore dog. 

cat on rocking chair

dog making friends

Margaret, bookseller on duty, was as friendly, open, and welcoming as her shop, too. 

She and the Artist and I had book talk, dog talk, Michigan talk, and more. I could have settled in for the entire day, if we hadn’t been almost at our destination. But Deming, NM, isn’t that far from Willcox, AZ, the Artist noted. It could be a day trip (though a long day). Or perhaps an overnight, combined with a jog up to Silver City, which people tell us is worth a visit?

Yes, my bookstore is closed for the winter, but I am still mindful of my calling, because a wonderful part of being an independent bookseller is the collegiality of the business. Colleagues, we are, not competitors. We leave the killer instinct to the behemoths — and whose dream would you rather feed -- world domination or neighborhood welcome? If you would keep treasure islands like Prairie Archives, Readers’ Cove, Dog Ears Books and others on the literary map, you must be a frequent visitor and a regular paying customer. Nothing less will do it. 

So wherever you are spending the winter, at home or away, to visit indie bookstores — and do not leave empty-handed! I did not leave this bookstore or Prairie Archives empty-handed! How could I, when I must practice what I preach, and when I am an incurable lover of both books and bookstores?

Thus today's lesson: Visit independent bookstores. Buy books in independent bookstores. And visit horses, too (and dogs and cats). Bookshop proprietors will be happy to see you, and when you go to visit horses, apples or carrots will assure you of a warm welcome there. 

Stables and bookstores: some of my favorite places! No, the Artist and I do not make the drive to Arizona nonstop, and yes, we do get worn out, but the beautiful scenes and lovely people along the way make every trip rewarding and memorable.