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Friday, April 28, 2023

Dismantling a Life

Moving on --

As I’ve gone about this past week, packing boxes and making trips from the ghost town to the storage yard, I can’t help remembering one of my son’s favorite novels from years back, Snow Crash (1992) by Neal Stephenson. My son’s reading tastes, once he reached adolescence, diverged quite a bit from my own, and he knew Snow Crash wasn’t something I would ever pick up myself, so on a trip from Leland to Kalamazoo he offered to read aloud from it as I drove. I love having someone read aloud to me! -- Though when he was younger and tried with The Hobbit (he loved it so much and wanted to share it with me), I always fell asleep. Come to think of it, our reading tastes diverged about that time, rather than later, as he was big into fantasy, science fiction, and horror (Stephen King his favorite writer for years), and I was not. But Snow Crash held my interest for the trip. Also, as the driver – it was morning, too – I did not have the option of falling asleep.

I don't have to live in this space -- just store "stuff" in it.

The protagonist of Stephenson’s satiric novel is named just that: Hiro Protagonist. In the real world Hiro appears as a pizza delivery person and lives in a storage unit. But has an entirely different and very glamorous life in virtual reality, where his avatar is a warrior prince. Snow Crash has been called “smart, cool, funny, witty, and action-packed,” “mind-altering,” “bizarre, outrageous,” etc., etc. Themes include (this from another online site) “history, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, religion, computer science, politics, cryptography, memetics, and philosophy.” (What’s not to love?) The plot involves (surprise! not really) a computer virus causing an “infocalypse” that Hiro (or rather his avatar) must oppose in the neon-lit streets of the Metaverse, and the mental visuals keep a reader’s or a listener’s mind jumping back and forth like Roger Rabbit on hallucinogenic drugs.


Not only do I recommend this book, I think I’d put it on a “must read” list, which means I need to go back to it myself. Doesn’t the plot, with its malignant virus, disinformation, virtual reality, and underclass life sound like much of our fearful world today? Is this our future? Did Stephenson think it might be? Do you think it might be? Written in 1992, this novel would be a perfect final bookend to a survey of twentieth-century American literature, in my opinion. (What novel would you choose to begin a 20th-century survey?)


I have strayed far from my intended subject today, “dismantling a life.” Thinking about my storage unit led me off on the tangent, but it was good to work an actual book into a Books in Northport post, n’est-ce pas? 


But, coming back to our sheep – 


After several consecutive winters in a modest rental cabin in an Arizona ghost town, the last place the Artist and I were at home together, the time has come for me to disassemble that life. ‘Disassemble’ was the first word I used in correspondence with friends. Yesterday, however, the word ‘dismantling’ came to mind, and I tried it out this morning on my hiking and dog-walking partner, who is going through her own big upheaval. (Coincidentally, she is moving back to Michigan -- not to my corner of the state, but we’ll visit.) She has been 20 years in her Arizona home and is also de-acquisitioning and packing, day after day. “Dismantling a life,” she repeated over and over, awe-struck. 

One Christmas, not long ago...

Very recently...

My once-cozy corner dismantled.

There are worse ways an established life can be interrupted and lost: bankruptcy, fire, tornado, war, exile are all tragedies that human beings around the world have faced throughout history. In comparison, my move is unbelievably mild: just empty bookcases, blank walls, in place of the formerly cozy, sweet little refuge the Artist and I had created for ourselves. 

“Are you sad?” a friend asked. I told her yes and no. I’m not weepy, let alone panicked or hysterical. I’m going about the tasks of moving one step at a time, one day at a time, in my most pragmatic, get-it-done fashion, which would not have been my modus operandi decades ago, but I am a calmer person now and more confident in my ability to weather life-altering episodes. After all, I’ve already faced the worst: my husband died. Whatever life throws at me now, I just deal with it.


Still, as a sympathetic friend, originally from Kalamazoo and now a dedicated Tucson resident with her husband for decades, noted about all the things I need to pack, store, or donate, “It probably astounds you how much you accumulated over these few years. And because you acquired them together, they are essential; each one holds a story.” It's true, and it’s amazing how certain, very small, and apparently inconsequential items evoke emotion-soaked memories. 


In addition to items in our living space, there are all the outdoor sights – the mountains, the valley, the coming of spring and the backyard bird visitors. Everywhere I look, there are scenes we saw together, and I remember our conversations about what we were seeing. So many memories! The Willcox Livestock Auction, the Willcox Junior Rodeo, ordinary trips to the library and post office, visits with friends in their homes and places of business. On and on and on they go, memories seemingly endless and beyond counting.

One among THOUSANDS of sights we saw together

Driving to Willcox this morning to meet a group of friends for breakfast, I thought of how often people say, “I want my life back!” What they mean, of course, is that they want again the life they used to have, the way things were in the past, before some terrible event occurred. "But just the good parts," one of those breakfast friends pointed out when I shared the thought with her. Right!

Assembly of "ghost town ladies," as I think of them -- such good friends!

The Artist and I had a five-year hiatus in our life together. We thought we had lost each other forever -- and not only what we'd had but what we'd hoped to have. Then, miraculously, we managed to come together again! “I’ve got my life back!” he said joyfully, and I felt the same. But it was more than that. We not only regained what we’d thought lost but built on it and enriched it and made a better life together than it had ever been before. We were even able – a blessing! – to grow old together!

Leaving Phoenix to come "home" to Dos Cabezas

I call it a blessing and a miracle, but naturally it required commitment, dedication, and perseverance through difficult times. Still, it might have been otherwise. We were very, very fortunate.


The truth is that life is time, and time takes all of our lives and dismantles them, sooner or later. “I’ve had a good life,” the Artist said often in his last months. So have I. We had a good life. And soon I will be back in my Michigan farmhouse and my Michigan bookstore, and Sunny and I will be welcoming friends to a different sort of country scenery. And that will be good, too. 

Monday, April 24, 2023

Which Way to Turn?

Hwy 186, roadside wildflowers

It’s midday on Sunday and too warm in the sun to go for a walk. Tip of the hat there to a late Michigan friend, who would never listen to complaints of a hot summer day (in Michigan) after the long, cold winter. He convinced me to say warm instead, and now I think of him every time I have occasion to say it. 


Sunny and I were out at sunrise and back home in the shade by 8 a.m. We could have been out earlier than that, not waiting for sunrise, but the momma was moving slowly, and I’ve pretty much kept the same slow pace most of the day, going at my packing in a random puttering mode, the same approach I usually take to housecleaning. There’s a lot of parallel between those two multitask projects. Just now, though, a nap would be welcome. “To sleep, perchance to dream”? No, I don’t consider dreaming a problem, since I’m always hoping to have a little conversation with the Artist in my dreams. It’s the getting-to-sleep part that can be so elusive.


But what shall it be today, books or an outdoor adventure? I have photographs I haven't posted from an ordinary morning dog walk in the ghost town neighborhood, as well as thoughts about one particular shelf of books important to the Artist and to me.


Say, here’s a crazy idea: I could alternate book notes with adventure photographs, going back and forth between indoors and outdoors. Does that sound completely off the wall? No matter, I’m going to try it -- and if I give up and don’t post the result, you won’t be reading this at all, so ha!


Where to begin?

One of many full bookshelves

Books: I’m sitting in the big chair right next to the bookcase with the shelf contents I've been thinking of sharing, so let’s start here. We’ll go left to right, the way we read a book, although the first shelf item on the left isn’t a book at all but a calendar for 2021, with photographs of our great-grandsons from 2020. Below you see the cover. My stepdaughter has chosen the photographs and put together a calendar of the boys every year since they were born. 

Then, right snug up against the calendar is a beautiful Phaidon volume of the pastels of Odilon Redon. A gift inscription inside reads:


I thought you would enjoy seeing one of the painters who inspired Chagall in his early days – 

I think Redon is to Chagall what Vivaldo is to Bach.


There are three givers’ names, but clearly only one (‘I’) of them wrote the inscription. Oddly, I don’t remember which of us, the Artist or I, discovered and purchased this book. I can only say that Redon has long been a favorite of mine and that the Artist with whom I shared a life did not disparage that preference.

Gus and Henry

Odilon Redon

Outdoors: I have two folders of Mascot Mine Road photos, as my friend and I have often found ourselves on that road, either starting out for higher ground or coming out on the road after hiking straight back uphill and through washes. Such ordinary morning dog walks aren’t the kind that require extensive thought ahead of time. We just choose alternatives as they present themselves and see where we end up. The concrete structure in the photo below, however (we’re looking up at it in this image), is one I hadn’t seen close up before, so we left the road and started toward it. 



Books: When the Artist and I ran across a reference to a book about Richard Brautigan, David was intrigued, as he had had occasion to hang out with Brautigan one fall when the writer came to Leelanau County to visit Jim Harrison. Since neither Richard nor David hunted, the two of them rode around the county together while Jim and his other buddies were in the field with their dogs. To make the book more intriguing to us, the author, Willliam Hjortsberg, is the father of poet Max Hjortsberg, married to Jim's younger daughter. 


Jubilee Hitchhiker is a very big book, 859 pages long, and weighing roughly seven pounds. David was rather overwhelmed by the amount of detail in the account of Brautigan’s death. I ordered the book from here in Dos Cabezas in March of 2021 and can’t say for sure if the Artist managed to read it all or skipped around from one part to another.

Outdoors: Okay, brace yourselves for the big, scary, unexpected moment, neither telegraphed nor captured in the photograph below of my friend approaching the concrete structure. As we reached the structure, I asked my friend something about it, and then, as we were gazing down over the edge, I stupidly asked Sunny if she wanted to put her paws up on the edge and look over with us. I mean, I thought she would do it just that way, but no! My puppy jumped up onto the edge and would have been over and down, down, down in a flash if I hadn’t immediately grabbed her! We called the dogs away from there and had quite a discussion on what kind of the equipment and gymnastics would have been necessary to get her out, had Sunny fallen in! It is very deep!

Books: And now, back to the bookshelf, we reach Melville’s Moby Dick, one of the Artist’s all-time favorite books – or so he said, although when it came to re-reading (my barometer for what “favorite book” means), he was far more likely to choose Wind in the Willows or Harlan Hubbard’s Shantyboat or Machiavelli’s The Prince or the classic Zen in the Art of Archery or Jim Harrison’s memoir, Off to the Side. Still, when asked what he considered the best book ever written, he generally named Moby Dick, and this Reader’s Digest edition – unabridged, please note! – is a handsome volume, perfect for picking up and opening anywhere, which is the way the Artist often liked to read his favorite books. 

Outdoors: Below you see some of the hardest sort of climbing: loose rocks. Why are we taking this difficult route, anyway???



Books: Here is one of the Artist’s favorite books, for sure. The photograph on the front of the dust jacket shows Jim pretty much as he was when I first made his acquaintance. The front flap is tucked in where the Artist was last reading, at page 118. (He had read the entire book numerous times.) A paragraph on that page begins, 


When I was around fourteen and became a Bible-thumping fundamentalist for a year or so it was my curiosity that stole my faith. A Baptist minister told me that I shouldn’t be reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and that Beethoven and Mozart were the devil’s music.

        - Jim Harrison, Off to the Side 


Yes, those were indeed simpler times....


Outdoors: Now we are going sideways, approaching our favorite, near-to-home “ruins” from the loose rock slope, rather than the easy-to-walk road. I am so glad to get to solid footing at last. Very solid!


Books: Billy Collins, another poet. The Artist enjoyed Billy Collins, and I was happy to take him a copy of The Trouble with Poetry for Valentine’s Day when he was in the hospital in – which time was it? Chandler, I guess. That’s when he asked me to hand him his shoulder bag so he could inscribe and give me the book he had brought to the hospital. The last hospital, that was….

Outdoors: “Ruins” again, now close up. We are at mid-level here.

Books: Paris Was Ours: Thirty-Two Writers Reflect on the City of Light. He loved this book! (And Paris was ours!) It was also one of the essays in this book that convinced the Artist that he wanted, at last, to read Proust.

Outdoors: From the sublime to the comic, I give you now – dog butts!

Books: A couple of little paperbacks come next, Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery and Matsuo Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, followed by a mass market paperback, Ava: My Story, by Ava Gardner. He was crazy about Ava Gardner! 

Outdoors: For me, part of the appeal of this particular set of mining ruins was the way it reminded me of Mayan ruins in Mexico. Here we are high above and looking down on the Mascot Mine Road. If you click on the image and employ the magic of zoom, you’ll be able to see cattle grazing on the hillside opposite.

Books: The Book of Unusual Knowledge was a Christmas gift from a brother-in-law that really hit the mark. For one thing, it is definitely an open-anywhere kind of book, and for another it’s full of odd and surprising facts and stories. He loved that kind of browsing.

Outdoors: Another aspect of the “ruins” that seem much older than the early 20th century. But then, these structures were built a hundred years ago….

Books: More books by another friend, these two novels by Ellen Airgood. The more recent, Tin Camp Road, is an ARC and inscribed “To Pamela and David, with love.” (We love you, too, Ellen and Rick! Such happy memories in Grand Marais!) Airgood perfectly captures place in her books. Also, real life!

Outdoors: Again, below, zooming may be in order. Don’t these stones look as if frost has painted their edges? I think it’s some kind of calcium deposit, but I really don’t know.

Books: We arrive now at the French connection: Swann’s Way, the birthday present he didn’t live long enough to read; My Life in France, the Julia Child memoir we read aloud to each other with infinite enjoyment; and a little paperback Simenon policier


Outdoors: Now for two obvious mineral deposits below, iron and calcium. 

Books: A slim booklet by another friend, author Kathleen Stocking, called “Looking for God’s Infinite Plan in the Footprints of Wolves,” is followed on the shelf by a heavy volume comprising three complete Jane Austen novels. I don’t know that the Artist ever read any of Austen’s books, but he knew I loved them (know them almost by heart), so he was always agreeable to watching a movie version, even the long BBC series of “Pride and Prejudice” starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. Oh, wait, wait, wait! One time I began reading Pride and Prejudice aloud to him, and he was pleasantly surprised to realize that it was funny. No one had ever told him that before, he said. I’m pretty sure we didn’t read the whole book, though.

Outdoors: Here we have a view of Mascot Mine Road on a different day, under cloudy skies. Somewhere I have more photos of Sunny and Yogi at the ruins, but where are they? Maybe on my phone?

Books: Peter Matthiessen is another writer David met through Jim Harrison. I have the paperback copy of The Snow Leopard on this shelf, a hardcover copy on the shelf below. Then come three more little paperbacks, these by Farley Mowat. We read People of the Deer aloud together and often quoted from the movie version of Never Cry Wolf: “Good idea!” Then River Notes, by Barry Lopez. Our rivers were the Paw Paw, the Kalamazoo, the Little Rabbit, the Crystal, and the Leland River (formerly known as the Carp).

Outdoors: But what you really want from outdoor adventures is dogs, not architecture, so here are Sunny and Yogi, together again after a separation of almost two weeks. 

AET: Always Expecting Treats!

Books: Almost done now, and here we are with Antoine de St.-ExupĂ©ry’s Vol de Nuit and The Little Prince. I have referenced The Little Prince more than once on this blog, having to do first with losing Peasy, our troubled dog, and then again after I lost the Artist.

Outdoors: I don’t know about the rest of you, but that’s about all the back-and-forth I can take, and luckily we have reached the end of the bookshelf. Your reward for sticking with me -- and a freebie for those who cheated by just scrolling for the photos -- is one last happy photo of Sunny Juliet, with her Dos Cabezas pal, Yogi. 

Thanks for enjoying our Arizona adventures with us. Sunny and I will be seeing you back in Michigan before too long. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Getting "Out in Nature” (Kind of a Book Review)

Sunny and I get out every morning, and the desert is greening up now.

Strange beings, human beings, aren’t we? So often we forget that we are not separate from nature but natural creatures ourselves, which means that we are always “in,” as in “part of” nature. At the same time, we also know the difference between indoors and outdoors, the difference between houses and shopping malls and office buildings and classrooms as opposed to parks and woods, beaches, mountains, and campgrounds, and so, in a way, the scientific “news” in Florence Williams’s book, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2017, paper, $15.95) didn’t seem like news to me at all. 

Reading indoors, but with doors and windows open, birdsong audible in the background

When I worked office jobs, back in the 1970s and 1980s, I often felt like a captive, so tethered to my telephone and typewriter (these were the old days) for hours, on such a short leash, that even going down the hall to the restroom meant being jerked back by a ringing phone. But was that just me -- or me and people like me but not everyone? What about those who say, “I’m not an outdoor person”?


Ah, but that’s where it gets interesting! Because some of the researchers looking at all the ways the outdoors benefits us felt no personal desire themselves to leave their computers and laboratories and were skeptical of other researchers’ work that found huge gains in physical and mental health among test populations. Some even work on developing “virtual nature,” an oxymoron if I ever heard one but quite a lively field, apparently. (Go figure!) 


One such skeptic was Frances Kuo, director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, whose research focused on urban environments, comparing public housing apartment complexes with various sorts of courtyards: (1) those with no greenery whatsoever, (2) those with both greenery and concrete, and (3) those with grass and trees. Over a two-year period, her study found the buildings in the middle group had 42% fewer crimes compared to the concrete-only group, and the buildings with the greenest surroundings had, compared to the non-green courtyard buildings, 48% fewer property crimes and 56% fewer violent crimes.


“I am not historically a nature lover,” Kuo told me. “I had no personal intuition when I started that these findings would come out the way they have. But twenty years later, I have convinced myself.” 


So to the question, “Do we really need to study this to know that nature is necessary to human beings?” the answer is yes, because in modern Western civilization Western science is such a driving force in our lives that until scientists are convinced, natural needs can be and usually are downplayed or outright ignored.


The Finns got into the research game early, for economic reasons, wanting to lower health care costs. Their studies would also, they believed, provide data for city planners, depending on conclusions those studies might reach, and for them subjects do more than take a walk in the park. Data is key. Questionnaires, blood pressure samples, heart rate measurements, even saliva samples taken before and after a half-hour walk, for example. The bottom line for the Finns was that five hours a month in natural settings was the minimum for the biggest health gains.

And then there was Roger Ulrich, not a skeptic but simply a curious scientist.


A young psychologist named Roger Ulrich was curious why so many Michigan drivers chose to go out of their way to take a tree-lined roadway to the mall. 


So first he had a group of volunteers in the 1980s view slides of nature scenes, while the another group saw “utilitarian urban buildings.” Okay, good. Next he subjected volunteers first to stress, by showing them “bloody accidents in a woodworking shop” (No, thank you!), and then showed them either scenes of either nature or city to see how long it would take them to recover from the stress. EEG readings of what Williams calls the “brains-on-nature” viewers returned to baseline within five minutes, while the urban viewers continued to exhibit stress ten minutes later. 

These studies, Williams tells us, were considered “soft science” at the time, and the field did not really grow for decades, but Ulrich kept at it. He followed the records of hospital patients following gallbladder surgery, those whose rooms had a window view of trees and those who could see only a brick wall from their beds. 


He found that the patients with the green views needed fewer postoperative days in the hospital, requested less pain medication and were described in nurses’ notes as having better attitudes. Published in Science in 1984, the study made a splash and has been cited by thousands of researchers. If you’ve ever noticed a nature photograph on the ceiling or walls of your dentist’s exam room, you have Ulrich to thank. 


Another name that appears over and over in The Nature Fix is that of data-seeker David Strayer. He’s the cognitive psychology researcher from the University of Utah who discovered what has been called (one of his friends coined the term) the “3-day effect” (explained in the Williams book without the popular term being used), a key to which is being in the wilderness unplugged – no cell phone, smart watch, or anything like that. Because the clever adaptations we make in our artificial environments are often not consistent with the way our brains work, our brains need restoration from time to time. 


I mean, can you believe that 36% of people [Americans only?] check their cell phones during sex?! No citation appears for this claim, made by one of Strayer’s academic wilderness companion researchers. Strayer himself made the statement that the “average person looks at their phone 150 times a day,” which I can quite easily believe.


Science, then, has found the following gains from time outdoors “in nature”: less stress, lowered anxiety, lowered aggression, heightened optimism, increased sense of well-being, and increased feelings of connection not only to “nature” but also to other human beings. 


(Obviously all this has surprised a lot of people. Do they forget how and where our species evolved? We are, first and foremost, earthlings! Yet I notice that the big money man behind the world’s arguably most experimental car, who is eager to send human beings to Mars, has yet to put himself into orbit. He sent a car instead. And then, see The Starship and the Canoe, by Kenneth Brower, a book I highly recommend, about physicist Freeman Dyson and his son, George Dyson. The physicist, obsessed with space travel, was for a time a regular reviewer for the New York Review of Books, a highly respected academic, but his son, living in a treehouse, was seen as an eccentric dreamer. As to which man can claim a firmer grasp of the human condition, its strengths and its limitations, you can pretty much guess where I come down -- not that I expect everyone to agree with me….)


Here's what some other countries are doing to meet their citizens' need for time in nature:

➡️ Sweden recognizes “horticulture therapy.” 


➡️ Singapore, the third-densest country on earth, intentionally increased its percentage of green space from 36% to 47%, even as its population grew by over two million people.


➡️ Japan has a long cultural history of attention to nature, and the country has developed 48 official “Forest Therapy” trails. Japanese medicine also recognizes “forest medicine” as a specialty.


Can it be that we human beings are finally waking up and paying attention to what we are and where we live? (Earthlings, earth.)


Recommendations From the Author


Williams draws her recommendations from various scientific sources, and one she particularly likes is the “nature pyramid” concept promoted by Tom Beatley of the Biophilic Cities Project at the University of Virginia. (Remember the food pyramid, you old folks?) The base of the nature pyramid is “daily interactions with nearby nature that help us destress, find focus and lighten our mental fatigue." (When I was working those office jobs, at least I walked an hour to work through my neighborhood and a campus with plenty of greenery and past a couple of ponds.) The next level up is weekly outings, followed by monthly excursions – each level also being more immersive – and finally reaching, at the summit, “rare but essential doses of wilderness.” Like this --

Yes, I made this pyramid just for YOU!

If you live in the country or in an urban environment with plenty of parks, you are lucky. (Stepkids and grandkids take note: Top city on the “ParkScore” index is Minneapolis.) Yet for myself, for all the time I spend outdoors, both in the Arizona winter and my Michigan summer, I have to admit I rarely if ever reach the pinnacle, retreating for at least three days into wilderness. Do you think exceeding the minimum on the other levels can make up for not reaching the top? That's something for scientists to check out, don't you think?

Desert thorn in bloom, Cochise County, AZ

Here I am (below) with my new "cousins" from the Phoenix area. When they came to visit, we hiked part of the Echo Canyon Loop in the Chiricahua National Monument. We loved our outdoor time together!

Me with Jim

Carol and me

Where can you walk in other countries


Hold onto your heartstrings! The answers are interesting. Finland has the concept of “everyman’s right,” which means there is no such thing as “trespassing” in privately owned forests. Anyone can walk and pick berries and mushrooms. The only forbidden activities on private land are cutting timber and hunting game. Scotland has similar “right-to-roam” laws. There you are prohibited from hunting, sheep-stealing, and digging up plants, but you can roam to your heart’s desire. 

America: Land of the Free?

One minor criticism 

This book could really have used an index! But imperfection is – well, an opportunity to embrace wabi sabi, right? The Artist loved that whole idea, and it's pretty much the way we two imperfect beings lived together….


Dear imperfection of a perfectly shaped clay pot!

If you think you don't need to go outdoors, you need to read this book, and if you love going outdoors, you can read it to feel even better about your fresh air time. The author tells us at the beginning that she is wrestling with a move from the Great West to Washington, D.C., looking for more and better ways to enjoy nature in her new urban environment. As one interviewee points out, parks are free, and more Americans need to get out in them. 

Florence Williams has done us all a service by putting her own experiences together with research reports. Well done! Recommended!