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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

You Wanna “Debate”?


What do you want to debate? How much the president paid – or, more to the point, didn’t -- in federal income tax? Whether or not there should be hearings for a Supreme Court nominee not only in an election year but as the election process is already underway? What each candidate proposes as far as the nation’s health care is concerned? 


No, I will not be watching – or listening, either. What each man will say is pretty much a foregone conclusion, and my only question is how big a train wreck it will be. Will there be name-calling? Shouting? Will there be onstage stalking? We will find out soon enough, but the morning after will be soon enough for me, so although I know many of you will, I don’t need to follow it “in the moment.” I’d rather be elsewhere.

We are having a lot of rain this week here in northern Michigan, but bright, fast-changing colors gleam in the rain, and this morning we had a shot of bright, bright sunshine, welcome for however long it may last. And yes, I am here in Michigan. But I am also on the Great Plains, and for a few minutes of every morning and evening I am in France before I was born. Mine, you see, is a magical life, and if you are a reader (as I hope you are), your life is magical, too, not limited by time or space. Is that not a rich blessing?


The drowsy heat of middle August lay heavy as a furred robe on the upper country of the Shell River, the North Platte of the white man. Almost every noon the thunders built themselves a dark cloud to ride the far crowd of Laramie Peak. But down along the river no rain came to lay the dust of the emigrant road, and no cloud shaded the ‘dobe walls and bastions of Fort Laramie, the soldier town that was only a little island of whites in a great sea of Indian country two thousand miles wide. 


-      Mari Sandoz, Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas


So it begins, this lyrical biography called “one of the great stories of the West” (Atlantic Monthly), a “glorious hero tale” (John C. Neihardt in the New York Times), and “a splendidly done thing” (Washington Star). Mari Sandoz wrote many books set in her native Great Plains country (Old Jules, the story of her father, among them), and thanks to the University of Nebraska Press, with their Bison Books imprint, these titles are available in well-designed modern paperback form for a new generation of readers, as well as those of us still catching up to books missed earlier in our lives. I’m already thinking that Crazy Horse belongs on the American classics list. Maybe Old Jules, too. (I’m sure many people would think so.) The books Sandoz wrote were and probably are still considered “regional,” but every book set in the United States is set in one or more regions of the land; there is no reason, then, to set “regional” in opposition to “American,” in my opinion, that is, the opinion of someone who loves to travel, either by automobile, train, or armchair.


If you’re the kind of reader I am, you usually have more than one book going at a time (sometimes as many as four, in my case), and the other one I’m enjoying at an extremely leisurely pace -- only a page or two at a time -- is one I’ve read before, the first volume of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. I’ve written about Proust before and will not try your patience with a long quote in French, but I’ll tell you that the two pages I read this morning performed a near-miracle, pulling me out of the Slough of Despond and into the light of day. “Life is worth living so we can read Proust,” I exclaimed happily to the Artist over our morning coffee. “He saw and felt and noticed every last detail in his surroundings and then every association those details called up. What a rich life!” The Artist was amused.


Once in a while the Artist gets bogged down, as so many of us do, in the relentless stream of what seems like uniformly bad national and world news. “They’re not telling us the good things,” I say, and he asks rhetorically, “What good things? What’s happening that’s good?” In truth, sometimes I’m the one who’s down, and he has to remind me of all our blessings. I’m only reporting our conversation from this one Tuesday morning.


There was bad news from the agencies too – more soldiers there, with little soldier chiefs for agents and more treaty men coming to buy the Black Hills, making a strong talk of starving the Indians into going to the Missouri or the south place called Indian Territory.


The news! When has it ever been good? One of the hardest things about reading the story of Crazy Horse is that he lived during dreadful times for the Lakota Sioux. “Culture clash” is one way those times are sometimes described, but the phrase completely leaves out the power dynamics of a strong, armed national government and a relentless flood of pioneering homesteaders overwhelming traditions of those who had lived off the land for generations. 


The news! Big, bad happenings! Disastrous events and ongoing horror shows! 


I think the good things -- some of the best things – never make the news cycle precisely because they are not disasters or horror shows. Not “newsworthy,” in other words. Instead they are background constants, such the regularity of night and day and the annual round of seasons; parts of ordinary life too easily taken for granted because of their ordinariness, like family and friends and health and beauty; and stunning moments encountered in the natural world or in human interaction that surprise us with their grace. A peach tree growing in the compost or an understanding smile where we fearfully anticipated an angry frown.


May you experience today moments of grace, as well as the strength, although we cannot literally shake hands these days, to extend a metaphorical hand of friendship to someone rather than yield to the temptation of an angry gesture. Are we to be outdone by bonobos?


Saturday, September 26, 2020

And the Ant and the Grasshopper Shall Live in One Body


The Artist with whom I share a life likes to quote an obscure source to the effect that every artist must be two people, one to do the work and the other to say “Stop!” He sometimes adds, “And they must live in the same body.” 


As fall comes on here in northern Michigan, and as another Election Day looms, who among us are the busy ants – harvesting, canning, putting gardens to bed, mowing the grass one more time, putting away summer clothes and bringing out winter garments, volunteering on political campaigns and voting drives – and who are the carefree grasshoppers? 

Giddy grasshoppers indulge in long walks, read voraciously, and find comfort in correspondence with friends, in music and art and poetry. 

Ants get their work done. Grasshoppers take time to smell the roses.

I hope that all of you, dear readers, are managing to both Ant and Grasshopper as days grow shorter and the cool of evening settles in earlier and earlier. 


Because in the best of times, fall is a season of ambivalence. She borrows warm days from August, offers delightful reprises of June growth, and then taunts us with bitter November winds. She gives generously the brilliant reds and oranges and yellows and purples of turning leaves but only by draining them of spring and summer chlorophyll. How the poignant beauty of autumn pierces the heart! Because we know full well that winter is the next act in the year’s play.


It is time, says the Ant in us, to lay in stores against the barren season. It is time, says the Grasshopper, for more song and dance! We must prepare for an uncertain future, says the Ant. We must seize the present hour! says the Grasshopper.


In my reading life, too, I shuffle the deck pretty frequently to give both ant and grasshopper minds their due, following a serious work of history with light fiction or a serious novel with breezy memoir or poetry or even a children’s book. 


Does it feel as if these fraught times of ours are too important to waste a minute in singing and dancing? That we need to wear ourselves out with work and worry and can’t afford joy? Here is advice from White Eagle of the Hopi Nation, important words for all of us in these turbulent times:


You do not help at all being sad and without energy. You help if good things emanate from the Universe now. It is through joy that one resists. Also, when the storm passes, each of you will be very important in the reconstruction of this new world.


So let your inner grasshopper out of that little metaphorical bamboo cage for frequent recess time and give her a chance to hop and skip and fiddle and play. When it’s the ant’s turn, the work will still be there, waiting for you.


Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The President Is NOT a Pragmatist!

What I write today will matter to very few of you. It’s one of those boringly sincere attempts at clarification that generally meets with the response “Oh, who cares?” In this case, who cares other than philosophers? Well, that would be me, so I care, and if anyone else has the patience to bear with me for a few paragraphs, you have my heartfelt gratitude in advance. Thank you, thank you, thank you!


The president and his chief henchman in the Senate are often called “pragmatists” because they will do “whatever works” for their immediate gain. People applying the label to them believe that “whatever works” to win some particular victory, score points over opposition, solidify (if only temporarily) a position (however specious the support for it) – those people think that’s exactly what and all that pragmatism is. 


They are wrong. 


While those who call the president a “pragmatist” are clearly using the word in the casual, loose, inaccurate sense currently bandied about, the term is wrongly used in a much more important sense that would evidence knowledge of the history of philosophy – and I’m not asking the American public to go back and read Plato, for heaven’s sake, only to have some small, even superficial nodding acquaintance with America's most important contribution to world philosophy, a contribution as recent as the 20th century. Twentieth century – remember that? Unless you’re an adolescent or a child, there should be something familiar there.


Sorry, that was sarcastic. Let me begin again. 


The modern school of thought that came to be known as pragmatism, while forerunners of it can be found all the way back to Ancient Greece ("nothing new under the sun"?), originated right here in North America, with honors generally going to logician and experimental scientist Charles Sanders Peirce ((1839-1914). Peirce was by most accounts a difficult and eccentric individual, but he recognized that scientific research could not be carried out along the lines suggested by Descartes, wherein an individual begins an inquiry into truth by doubting everything, but instead requires a community of investigators who begin their investigations with the assumption that reality exists independent of opinion. 


I ask you, does this sound like the president’s approach? 


Pragmatism as applied to science simply is the much-vaunted scientific principle: based on what we know at the beginning, we predict the results of an experiment and then test our predictions. 


If a proposition is true, then anyone who investigated the matter long enough and well enough would eventually acknowledge its truth: truth is a matter of long-term convergence of opinion. “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed upon by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real.

-      The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 1995


Do not be misled by the phrase “convergence of opinion” and see in it truth as something conveniently made up out of whole cloth. Truth in science is subject to empirical testing. It is provisional, in that future testing can always uncover errors and thus increase knowledge, but Peirce, please note, did not doubt an underlying, pre-existent reality. It is because of reality that extensive experiments by a scientific community can uncover truths.


Most of us are not experimental scientists and are more familiar with the name John Dewey than that of Charles Sanders Peirce. John Dewey, I note, has long been made a whipping boy by certain conservative voices, but most of them (in my opinion, because that's what you get here, but I will not leave that opinion unsupported) are whipping a straw man they call “Dewey,” and not the philosopher I know at all. 


John Dewey (1859-1952) was concerned with social issues, including education and politics, and he brought the philosophy of pragmatism to bear on these issues. How so? He believed human beings investigate questions of right and wrong by setting up and testing hypotheses about issues, always keeping in mind that conclusions might require future revision. In other words, we learn through experience. Does that sound dangerous? 

Dewey was no wild-eyed mad scientist! He viewed all of human history as having already tested basic rights and wrongs. So we have no need need to experiment to learn that lying or murder or cheating are wrong. Human history has already made those experiments. In this, I believe Dewey remained Kantian, and we see the Golden Rule here, also, as Kant appealed to it in his various versions of the Categorical Imperative.  


Dewey on education is a huge subject, and although it is there that his critics generally aim at the straw man they construct, education is a side issue for me today., so I’ll merely quote again briefly from The Oxford Companion to Philosophy:


…Dewey focused on the nature and practical improvement of education, arguing that children cannot be understood as empty vessels, passively awaiting the pouring in of knowledge, but must rather be seen as active centres of impulse, shaped by but also shaping their environment.


Now I suppose if you see children as empty vessels waiting to have knowledge poured into them, you might find Dewey a wild-eyed radical, but who that has ever been around children – or ever been a child! – could hold the view that children are passive, empty vessels? Really?


Actually, I once knew an otherwise very intelligent person who believed that “doing” philosophy (as we all said in graduate school) consisted of “learning the moves” from the best teachers available. The best teachers were necessary because, this person believed, a student could never be (do) better than his or her teacher. I was amazed by such a view. A student unable to criticize? To me, that implied a student unable to think! And so, I ventured to inquire, you believe Western thought has been getting stupider and stupider since Socrates, because all of Western philosophy comes down to us through a succession of teachers and students who began at the feet of Socrates? Yes. Well, I didn’t buy it then and never would.


The pragmatists would never have bought such a view of philosophy or anything else, either. They believed in the progress of thought, in the growth of knowledge, and the gradually increasing enlightenment of human beings. --There are times, I acknowledge, when it is difficult to believe in progress of any kind. At least, it does not seem a steady march forward, does it? But that too is a big topic for another day. 


My main twofold point today is simply that (1) pragmatism is a serious, native-born American philosophy; and (2) pragmatism is not “whatever works for a single individual” – to score a point, win the pot, or whatever. Pragmatism has to do with the advancement of science and the betterment of society. 

Cheating and lying, blaming and name-calling undermine our trust in one another and would, as strategies adopted by us all, make our institutions unworkable. These strategies are not pragmatic! They may be the moves of an egotistical opportunist who can’t see further than tomorrow, but they do not serve to further the cause of business or government or science or ordinary life in civilized society or anything that might be called progress. 

President Obama was a pragmatist, and his first concern was for the United States and for all Americans. The Republican-led Senate, however, cared more about blocking any positive achievements that might reflect well on a Democratic administration than with across-the-aisle cooperation to make gains for ordinary Americans. Now, for all President Trump’s bellowing “America First!” his impulsive, richocheting utterances and shifting, unstable, momentary alliances illustrate something very different. 

In short, to call the current president a “pragmatist” is to give a good American philosophy a very bad name.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Glow, Little Glow Worm – Don’t Give Up!

 What on earth put that song into a crowded dream filling my imagination just before I woke a couple mornings ago at 5:30 a.m.? How many years must it have been since I heard the Mills Brothers singing the little glow worm song on the radio, and how much other music, how many other songs, would have come between that long-ago day and this dark morning? “Glimmer, glimmer!” What pulled that song out of some dim, long-buried storage bank and put it into my head with its surprising lyrics and close harmonies? What is it that brings a memory like that unexpectedly to the surface?


The leaves were the color of sweet potatoes and of the summer sun when it sets. They had begun to fall from the branches….

-      Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration


Halfway through The Warmth of Other Suns, I was fully engrossed, nearly mesmerized, by the three particular stories the author tells, the half-century tapestry in which those particular appear as threads, and by Wilkerson’s writing itself. She incorporates historical records and statistics smoothly into the epic, always and in every line remaining, above all, a writer. Her phrase about leaves “the color of sweet potatoes” is one small example of an almost novelistic style that makes every scene vividly alive. I read the book before falling asleep and when waking up. 

Then at my bookstore one afternoon (during the midafternoon lull), I was surprised by how quickly I fell into another book I hadn’t meant to read, just peek into, Page Smith’s Trial By Fire, Volume 5 in his 8-volume People’s History of the United States. It is probably no coincidence that Howard Zinn used the same title for his own one-volume history of our country, as Page Smith, while a professor of history, considered himself – and was considered by others – very much a “populist” historian, writing not for a small academic audience but for Americans at large.

It was the final paragraph of his short introduction to Volume 5 that stopped me in my tracks and then quickly made me want to go on to the first chapter: 


What cannot be sufficiently emphasized is that since people do not exist for the convenience or the scrutiny of historians, a certain violence, or at least, disservice, is inevitably done to the full and breathtaking complexity of the truth whenever someone, assuming the role of a historian, attempts to deal with life in the mode called “history.” This is most notably true in writing about black people in America [my emphasis added]. …I am continually and painfully aware of my deficiencies as an uncertain practitioner of the art [or history] and nowhere so acutely as in trying, as a white man, to comprehend the nature of what we call today, somewhat glibly, “the black experience.” 

-      Page Smith, introduction to his Trial By Fire


Trial By Fire was published in 1982, that is, 38 years ago, while The Warmth of Other Suns bears a 2010 publication date. The older book’s author was a white man, the newer one written by a black woman, Smith a historian, Wilkerson a journalist who had to become a historian in researching her book, both of them prize-winning American authors. Something told me that reading these two books in tandem would be an even richer experience than reading only one could possibly be, although either is clearly worth any American’s concentrated time.

Because that is the question, isn’t it? How did we get to where we are now? 

I have already learned from Smith that our country’s founders had doubts and fears from the very beginning about the new union’s ability to hold together and not break up over the issue of slavery. And it should surprise no one that Wilkerson’s migrants – Ida Mae Gladney, who moved to Chicago during Depression era; George Starling, who fled Florida citrus groves for a new life in New York’s Harlem following World War II; and Dr. Robert Foster, whose successful career in California could never have been achieved by a black man in his native Louisiana – encountered prejudice and barriers in the North in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, despite the absence of the odious Jim Crow laws that had held them down in the South.

As Page Smith noted,


Slavery was not, of course, the only sin Americans had to answer for to the Almighty. Racial prejudice was everywhere apparent in the North….

-      Smith, ibid.


That racial prejudice that Wilkerson’s migrants encountered in the 1950s was all the more nerve-wracking because of its unpredictability.


There were no colored or white signs in New York. That was the unnerving and tricky part of making your way through a place that looked free. You never knew when perfect strangers would remind you that, as far as they were concerned, you weren’t equal and might never be.

-      Wilkerson, op. cit.


Understanding our nation’s past cannot change the past. That should go without saying. Historical understanding is vital, however, if we hope for a better future, because in addition to generals and battles, state laws and federal policies –always, then as now, consequences fell on individuals and families, ordinary people just trying to live their lives, and so, now as then, people’s lives are at stake, children’s futures are at stake. 

But neither are we obligated to accomplish a half-century’s worth of progress in any 24-four period [since ‘ought’ implies ‘can,’ as the philosophers say]. We can, however, brighten the corners where we are (as the old Sunday school song advised), and I see people doing that everywhere I look. Road builders are laying down fresh new pavement, farmers are harvesting corn, painters are painting, quilters are quilting, and on it goes. One foot in front of the other, one day at a time. A smile, a word of encouragement, a sympathetic ear, opening our hearts and stretching our minds a little every day as we go about our ordinary lives. 

We simply cannot afford to be distracted by angry shouters throwing red herrings across the path and trying to prevent understanding. The true enemies are not our fellow Americans on “the other side” but those who would divide us into “sides” to enhance their own power gains.

Sept. 20 - Sunday morning

I began writing this post a couple of days ago. Last night I woke in the wee dark hours and finished reading Wilkerson’s book before the sun was up. She thoroughly and beautifully accomplishes the tasks she set herself, collecting oral histories and presenting intimate portraits of three selected migrants, while also searching out and distilling and incorporating newspaper, literary, and scholarly accounts of the Great Migration, from the beginning of the movement to the present, to pull that 50-year sweep of history together and examine and critique what has been said of the southern black people who moved north from 1915 to 1970 and separate truth from myth. Informative, compelling, important, and brilliant!

And now, two days after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and having come to the last page of The Warmth of Other Suns, I can’t help thinking once again that the temptation (while I certainly understand it!) to give in to weariness over the news or hopelessness over current politics – that temptation to give up – can  very well be seen as what has been called “white fragility.” Or is it “liberal fragility”? "Bourgeois fragility"? Whatever it is, we cannot afford it. 

Ruth Bader Ginsberg did not give up. Immigrants and migrants moving to strange new places for what they hoped would be better lives did not give up. Survivors of all kinds, in hellish situations, with their very lives at risk, did not give up (obviously), or they would not have survived. How delicate and fragile are we 21st-century Americans in these admittedly difficult times but – let’s face it – in material circumstances many immigrants and migrants and survivors would find enviable, even idyllic? Cowboy up! Cowgirl up! 

I am giving myself this pep talk, too, you understand, not preaching from some high-and-mighty place above the fray. Glow, little glow worms! Brighten the corners where you are.



Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Past, Present, Future –

It’s hard to say where my most recent reading trips into the past began. Maybe with Carol Anderson’s White Rage, a detailed history of race relations in the U.S. from the Civil War forward. Then I went back to the beginnings of the Civil War, reading Bruce Catton’s The Coming Fury, the first book in his centennial Civil War trilogy. Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Boys (fiction) and The Compton Cowboys (nonfiction), by Walter Thompson-Hernandez brought me into the 20th and 21st centuries, before Margaret Walker’s novel, Jubilee, and Isabel Wilkerson’s nonfiction history titled The Warmth of Other Suns took me back again into the history of my country, to remote corners where ordinary people yearned and clashed and misunderstood one another and projected their fears onto one another out of ignorance and misunderstanding. 

(– As we continue to do today, I can’t help thinking, present intruding into my reading of the past.) 

If Walker’s Vyry had been an actual person rather than a fictional character, she might have found her way into Wilkerson’s book, although only peripherally, since she was one who stayed rather than joining the Great Migration north. Be that as it may, she seems just as real as Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a woman Wilkerson writes of so beautifully, who when a girl in Mississippi had no concern for shades of darkness or lightness in her suitors: 

 …One color of wildflower was no better than another to her, so she made no distinctions whatsoever. She had a way of looking past the outer layer of people and seemed to regard everyone she met with a kind of searching intensity, as if this were the first person she had ever seen. 

Imagine being the object of that kind of attention! No wonder the elderly Ida Mae was so beloved in her Chicago neighborhood, with everyone, even those who made their living outside the law, looking out for her health and safety. 

On the other hand (back again, as back and forth my thoughts travel), Margaret Walker’s Vyry finds that color complicates her life from the beginning in a more complicated than way than usual, not only because her mother is black and enslaved -- that would be bad enough -- but additionally because her father is the plantation owner who owns her mother. Added to that, the plantation owner’s lawful wife has a daughter the same age as Vyry, and the two girls are so similar in looks that a guest once mistakes them for twins, ensuring that Big Missy, Lillian’s mother, will hate Vyry forever. Later in the story, it is because Vyry can be mistaken for white that she overhears conversations (during the Reconstruction period in the South) that alert her to the dangers she and her family continue to face from fearful whites who hate and resent the former slaves and few free blacks among them. 

Anyone tempted by the notion that the South’s secession from the Union and the ensuing war was not about slavery needs to read the story of the two Democratic conventions held in 1863, told in detail in Catton’s The Coming Fury. 

Terrible things happened in our country’s history, as conquerors of the land gained mile by bloody mile, and yet somehow I can more easily face the “sins of our fathers” than the current anguished divisions, probably because the people of earlier centuries, killers and victims alike, are no longer in danger, while it feels as if everyone today is endangered, simply by being alive on earth. Threatened by viruses, by fires and floods, and by human-on-human violence, both physical and emotional. Hate erupts between strangers on a daily basis. “Go outside,” some advise, claiming that nature will heal our souls, but there’s no leaving home right now even in beautiful northern Michigan without being confronted by forests of political campaign signs, and it is very hard to look away and not read each one, very hard not to see our own neighbors (because we are not seeing the people, only their yard signs) in terms of friends and foes – not because we want to go to war with our neighbors but because all of us (on both sides, I’m sure) feel our country’s future and the future of democracy itself are under threat. 


Although fairly consistently “waking into dread,” often as early as 3 a.m., I also visit islands of peace on a semi-regular basis. There was Labor Day at home, filling jars with summer bounty for our winter’s delectation. There was the (last!) farmers market the following Saturday, and that same afternoon, as part of a visit from David’s daughter, we had a sunny afternoon spent with her on back roads down in Sleeping Bear country while Bruce tended shop for us in Northport. Sarah enjoyed being along on that adventure, and we all loved being within the Lakeshore boundaries and away from campaign signs. 

There have been other miscellaneous country walks and cruises, drives to visit cattle and horses and to note the beginnings of fall color and onset of fall wildflowers – pyrotechnical goldenrod, bouquets of asters, subtle stands of horse mint that always delight my eye. 

 Even necessary automotive errands and appointments in Traverse City, business that might otherwise seem tedious, afforded us an opportunity to explore a delightful little treasure of public land on Monday: nature center (closed), wildflower gardens and plantings, trails, and viewing platform over the former Sabin Pond, where the Boardman River now runs free again, a meandering, rippling, path through open meadow, fresh, running water sparkling in the sunshine. 

So, as it does until – for each of us one day – it does no longer, life goes on. And while our emotional responses to each day vary, as does the weather of northern Michigan, we go on putting one foot in front of the other, taking one breath at a time, looking up from our books and out through our windows and around at our immediate surroundings to life’s gifts, great and small. What else can I tell you?

Thursday, September 10, 2020

How Do You Spell That?

It always seems to me that I shouldn’t have to double-check the spelling of Keweenaw, after calling Michigan home since 1967, but perusal of Schoolcraft’s Expedition to Lake Itasca report and appendices in the same volume containing reports and letters from others in his party – Dr. Houghton, the geologist; Rev. Boutwell, the preacher; and Lt. Allen, the military leader – has convinced me that it’s okay for my memory to need refreshing. Here are a few variants of the name I have found so far:







And I’m sure this list does not exhaust the possibilities. 


Spelling has been standardized since 1832, but some things never change, as evidenced by this note made by Rev. Boutwell on June 28:


The musketoes here are voracious, long billed and dyspeptic. They gore me until the blood runs.


Almost 200 years later, those 'musketoes' can still be maddening, but they will not be so today. Here below the Bridge, our furnace came on last night. And for those of my readers unfamiliar with Michigan names, 'Mackinac' is pronounced Mackinaw, whichever way it is spelled.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Is It Over?

Labor Day is the traditional end of the summer vacation season, the day after which students return to school and tourist town streets turn empty. But this is 2020, the year of COVID-19, and who knows what fall 2020 will bring? Spring and summer were certainly not same-old, same-old!


With many students of all ages are taking classes online, and many parents are working from home, online or by phone, will that translate to more late-season vacationers? Or will cool air and grey skies send everyone back into their home bubbles for the duration?


This Is Not Social Media


I thought of using that subhead as my headline today. It probably isn’t as important to my readers as it is to me; however, it’s something I want to say. Facebook is social media. Twitter is social media. Instagram, I guess, and many other platforms with which I have no firsthand acquaintance are social media. On those platforms, people post (usually briefly), and others comment, and sometimes long threads “go viral,” resulting in (usual brief) fame or notoriety (infamy) for the person who posted and/or commenters.


A blog is something different. 


Blog posts – amazing the speed of change in our virtual world! – have already become “old-fashioned.” Though they may include links to other sites, they are generally original writings and longer than most social media posts. Moreover, if the blogger sticks with the blog, it can develop over the years a distinctive narrative voice. Or voices, plural


“Books in Northport” is sometimes casual, often discursive, at times meditative, and once in a while (I try to keep this to a minimum) a bit pugnacious, but it always comes directly from me. A blog, like a diary or journal, is a habit, albeit a publicly offered discipline, one to which the writer -- if no one else! -- returns again and again, essaying, seeking clarity, noting personal milestones, pinning down memories and thoughts. 


Here you find news from my bookstore in Northport, Michigan, and mention or sometimes reviews of books I’m reading, but also reports and photographs from my husband’s art world, from our travels (presently nonexistent), from the woods and fields and beaches of Michigan to the mountains and deserts of Arizona. Here are frequent images of our old dog, with now and then images of other people’s horses (since I have none of my own), however tenuous or nonexistent any link between those horses and my Northport book world.

In short, “Books in Northport” goes beyond books and far beyond Northport. It is my world – specific, particular, personal, idiosyncratic. Once in a while someone leaves a comment, and when that happens I try always to respond, but most of the time I’m the only one “speaking” here, and when you come to read my posts, we are not rallying with hundreds or thousands of other people and shouting at each other on some allegedly neutral ground. You are visiting my world -- and I thank you for spending time here with me! I truly appreciate it.


And now I’d like to close today with a few words from the journal and letters of Lieutenant James Allen. Allen accompanied Henry Rowe Schoolcraft on an expedition to the source of the Mississippi in 1832, and his writings are included as Appendix C in Schoolcraft’s Expedition to Lake Itasca, published by Michigan State University Press (1958; 1993):


June 9 …We passed Twin [Two-Hearted] river, twenty-four miles from Whitefish point. It is a small stream, and its mouth is so much filled with sand that it can only be entered by very light craft, and in smooth water. We have travelled to day forty-five miles.


June 10, (Sunday.)—This being the Sabbath, by a rule of Mr. Schoolcraft’s, we do not travel, though the weather is fine. The rule however is convenient in observance, as it gives the men time to wash, bake, etc., which they have but little time to do when travelling. We are lying in a beautiful little bay, called the Grand Marais, from its having once been a marsh, which, within the recollection of some old voyageurs, now present, has been washed away to its present state. It is a safe harbor for boats, and is important for its being the only one between Shelldrake river and Grand island, a distance of near one hundred miles. It is half a mile in depth, opens to the west, and is difficult to enter with a strong west wind and heavy sea, which drive right into it. Traders have met with serious accidents in attempting to run into it under such circumstances….


You see, while the Artist and I (and our dog) are not today, as in so many other years the day after Labor Day, on our way to Lake Superior, yet I can travel there in the pages of a book.

Where are you traveling today, on roads or pages or simply in the world of your own mind?

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Every Day, Something New to Learn

 My son and I were talking on the phone one recent morning and saying how little alcohol either of us consumes, now that we are so – ahem! – let us say, mature. I tell him one beer does it for me. We went on to talk about wine, and I said red is supposed to be good for you, but he said he prefers white, since it doesn’t all the -- . We both paused, searching for the word he wanted.

“Tannins,” I said confidently. 

“No, it’s – congeners,” he said, pleased to retrieve a word that his mother had never heard or seen before in her life. 


In the context of wine, congeners are produced during fermentation, that is, “born with” the alcohol produced. In a more general definition, any pair of things belonging to a set by reason of resemblance or action can be called congeners. So I learned something new but will leave you on your own to search out whether or not tannins or congeners or both or neither cause headaches (white wine is lower in tannins) and whether or not white wine as good for you as red is supposed to be, because I’m not taking sides on any of this! 


Later the same morning, when a pair of my favorite local customer friends showed up at my bookstore, Walt told me he was pretty sure that Suzette Haden Elgin, whose verbal self-defense books I’d mentioned in a recent blog post, had also written science fiction. Really? I had no idea but looked her up online and found out that the linguist and science fiction author were indeed one and the same person. Astonishing! 

I’m giving you the Wikipedia site address but with at least one caution: What does it mean to credit SHE with having written the “dead skunk song”? Loudon Wainwright’s dead skunk song? Some other dead skunk song? Explain yourselves, Wikipedia!


I was sorry to learn that Elgin died in 2015, because that means it’s too late to write and thank her for all her wonderful work. Not being a sci-fi reader, I have only read the books on language but am now keen to read her novel of feminist speculative fictionNative Tongue, for which the author invented a new language she called Láadanwell prepared for the task by having written two doctoral dissertations, one on the English language and the other on the Navajo language. When philosopher Henri Bergson did his graduate work in Paris, there was a two-dissertation requirement, one to be written in French, the other in either Greek or Latin. I wonder if she wrote her second dissertation in Navajo.... 

Native Tongue, I see now, is the first in a trilogy. Well, I’ll start with that and see how it goes. Elgin also founded the Science Fiction Poetry Association, it turns out, and was dedicated, through her Ozark Center for Language Studies, to reducing violence. And if you follow this link, you can see her photograph -- and doesn’t she look like a lovely person? I am very pleased to have learned so much more about her. Thank you, Walt!


P.S. For today’s postscript, I’m going to shed all modesty and share a compliment I received last week. The young man and woman were serious browsers, quietly discovering and showing each other various books, but finally he said to me directly, “Your bookstore is amazing!” A welcome compliment! When I asked where they were from, and they said “Brooklyn,” and I asked “New York?” and they said “Yes,” he added, “This place?” And he gave thumbs up as he said, “New York quality!” Then I’m sure I blushed! I know I laughed with joy. And yes, they bought books, too, a true sign of appreciation!


My curated book collection, David’s beautiful original art: New York quality in Northport, Michigan! Who doesn’t love to be appreciated?


Learning and appreciation: pass it on!