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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Mom and Pop and Stardom

Mom: I got three comments on my new blog.

Pop: Three? That's not very many.

Mom: It's more than zero.

Pop: Have you ever had zero?

Mom: Yes, many times.

Pop, who is a star, sees Mom as some kind of star, but in reality she is more like a dust bunny.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"Why Paris?"

In the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris, France, talking heads keep asking, “Why Paris?” They ask if the reason is this or that or the other thing, everyone looking for a simple answer. But the world is complicated, not simple.

France, like the United States, has long been a nation of both native peoples and immigrants. Both countries also have legacies of imperialism, France with official colonies, the United States with de facto cheap labor satellites in service to American capitalism. In both countries, the past haunts the present, and the present in one place on earth touches the present in other places. 

France and the United States are very different when it comes to geographic area and neighbors. The U.S. shares borders only with Canada and Mexico, and the contiguous states between those two borders is immense, while France forms part of a much smaller continent, divided into numerous smaller nation-states, with much more porous borders since European Union.

Terrorism attacks, it should be remembered, have not been confined to France and the United States. They have taken place this month in Lebanon and Jordan; the bombing of a U.S. embassy in Kenya in 1998 killed 247 Kenyans (20 for every American who died); nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls between the ages of 16 and 18 were abducted in 2014.

Historically, “war” has meant the clash of armies. Sending troops to war meant they would go into battle against other armed troops. American troops in the Revolutionary War and Vietnamese troops in the last century adopted techniques of guerrilla warfare, rather than charging at each other across open fields, but they were still armed troops engaging other armed troops in what could be recognized and called battle – a deadly game, to be sure, with civilian casualties, but still with a few recognized rules.

No more. No rules. When and how (no doubt gradually) the changes came about can be argued, but the fact is indisputable.

Do we in the West care more, care disproportionately, about “our own” and ignore terrorism elsewhere? One Facebook post decried the lack of posts on Beiruit, at the same time Paris postings were everywhere. One reason for that, I think, is that we share the news we hear, and what we hear on American radio and read in our newspapers is by and large the news that touches Americans most directly. When I want news about Ethiopia, I have to seek it out; what’s happening in Paris is on the radio 24 hours a day. But I agree that it is important to look beyond the headlines to the rest of the world.

To the original question, “Why Paris?,” however, there is no simple answer. But after September 11, 2001, did anyone ask, “Why New York?” It seemed obvious, didn’t it?

Paris is obvious for the same reason.

Paris, like New York, has long been a dream city for people all over the world. It is a center of art and culture, of business and finance, of fashion and of government. It is, if you will, New York and Washington, D.C., combined. And it is beautiful. Many who live elsewhere hold it in their hearts as a second home, and many who have yet to see it for the first time hold it in their dreams.

It is important that we not forget victims and grief and fear in other parts of the world. Did you know that Beirut was once called “the Paris of the Middle East”? Even had it never been called that, the people of Beirut are as deserving of compassion as the people of Paris. At the same time, it’s only natural that our hearts are drawn to what is familiar, to the country President Obama rightly called “our oldest ally,” the city that welcomed American GIs and artists and writers and students, following World War II.

Paris, c’est une phare. Que la lumi√®re sois jamais √®teinte.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Dear Young Ones

Parents, step-parents, and grandparents, we have come to an age where the greater length of the path lies behind us. It is a strange realization, one that prompts me to tell you a story. Isn’t that what old folks do? Tell stories to the young ones? Here’s mine, and I make no excuse for its rambling nature or scanty conclusion.

A couple of decades ago, David and I made an expedition to the other side of Michigan, “the sunrise side,” where both his parents were born. Out in the countryside beyond Tawas we found his father’s old one-room school. We explored on foot the nearby area where his grandfather’s farm had been, though no trace of it remained. A short drive away, we found his grandparents’ graves in a little country cemetery. 

By chance, also, in a restaurant on the shore of Lake Huron , we ran into one of his distant cousins, a bald man with the unforgettable name Waldemar. He was sitting in a booth next to ours, and when the waitress addressed him by name, David said, “I wonder if that could be my cousin Waldemar.” It was, conversation ensued, and in the end Waldemar gave us directions to the homes of a couple more cousins on nearby farms. All these cousins, I should say, were of the first-cousin- once-removed or second-cousin relation.

The first old farmer we tracked down, Howard, lived with his wife at the end of a tree-lined dirt road in a most picturesque setting. Their farmyard featured among its outbuildings an old log barn like nothing I’d ever seen before, and to the north of that barn, concealed by a pretty line of trees, was a charming small brook. Howard and his wife make us welcome, and Howard climbed up into the loft of a newer barn to retrieve a piece of furniture put aside for David years before, a rustic twig table made by David’s paternal grandmother, who died before he was born. (We still have that table. You all have seen it.) I always thought we might return to Howard’s farm, so steeped in family history. We never have, but we sometimes speak of it, and David tells me stories of going there as a little boy, stories of fish-head skulls nailed to a shed wall, of driving a horse-drawn sulky (is there another kind?) down the dirt road when a wheel came off – but those are not my stories, not what I want to tell you today.

The other old farmer, Herman, a man well into his 80s, lived at the end of a long driveway going straight south off the east-west two-lane highway. Herman’s house and outbuildings sat out in the open, exposed to the sky like farms on the central Illinois prairie. We were not invited into the house but kept standing outside to talk with Herman, who stood on the stoop, just outside the doorway, his wife standing behind him, inside the door, silent. Herman might have invited us in (or he might not), but he was on his way out, hot on the trail , he told us, of a neighbor’s spotted pony he wanted to buy, and so we took our leave.

Our memory of Herman and the spotted pony entertained us for years. We would laugh and shake our heads and ask each other what that old man in his 80s thought he needed with a spotted pony! Lately we understand better and no longer laugh, although we still smile.

And this is what I want to tell you. It will probably come as quite a surprise, and you may have trouble believing it’s true. No one , no matter how old, ever gets over wanting that spotted pony.

David watches the special features that come with movies on DVDs , telling me, “I learned a lot,” as if he will be directing a movie in the near future, and I read farming magazines as if I’ll very soon be bringing worn-out soil back to fertility and breeding livestock. When we travel together, we assess strange towns and wild landscapes as if we might start new lives there. We picture to ourselves and to one another the wilderness cabins where our novels will be conceived and birthed. In conversations in strange motels we imagine the furniture re-arranged, paintings and bookshelves added, picturing a whole life we might put together in that one room. You have no idea how many parallel lives we have going!

No doubt you see us as completely settled into our chosen grooves, the dreamy painter and bookseller, content to be what we are and as we are for the rest of our lives, not at all busy launching new careers or building new houses or setting off for distant parts of the country. (Maybe even another country! A houseboat on the Seine!) Not very likely, is it? After all, how much energy do we have to make serious changes, to make new beginnings? How much savings do we have socked away for acquisition and startups?

We’re not deluded, young ones. We know what’s real and what’s feasible, and we do not regret the lives we have made. At the same time, our fantasies continue to blossom in ways that would astound you. It’s a jungle in there, fertile and crowded with possibilities of all kinds, and in that largely shared space – because a shared life is built on conversation -the two of us are still young and vibrant and full of dreams.

You cannot fully grasp what I’m trying to tell you, never having been as old as we are now, but I thought I should give you at least this little hint. It will better explain, perhaps, my excitement over that old scythe from the farm auction and David’s satisfaction in buying the bright-orange rowing scull. In his mind, he is skimming over Lake Leelanau, you see, and in mine I am mowing our back meadow by hand, like one of Tolstoy’s peasants. And it goes way beyond that! In imagination we are writing and directing movies together and applauding one another’s published novels. Every road we drive down leads through towns and past houses we look at with an eye to their possibilities for us. Can we see ourselves there? Could we make a life there? What would that life look like? He envisions a smooth, empty road in front of his Hayabusa as he cruises at 100 mph, and I become the world's oldest jockey on my lightning-fast Apaloosa.

Our projects at home may appear small to you these days – insignificant and barely there. You may puzzle over my modest pile of old bricks and David’s four stout wooden posts and wonder, if you even notice them, what we hope to make of such small beginnings. Ah, but if you could only see our future with our minds’ eyes!

Spotted ponies! Spotted ponies by the thousands, still out there on the horizon, thundering along the ridge, raising clouds of dust!


Saturday, October 3, 2015

Warning: More Than Nursery School Attention Span Required

What is “scientific”? I wonder if my friends and I see it the same way.
I was delighted by the first two paragraphs of Wendell Berry's letter published in October 22, 2015, issue of New York Review of Books (received in my p.o. box this morning) before I looked down to see his name, upon which my delight increased tenfold. Finishing his letter, I went on to read Edmund Phelps in what was billed as a reply, whereupon my delight vanished.
Berry's points, sufficiently clear that one need not possess a degree in economics to understand them, are that (1) agriculture is a huge part of the American economy and that (2) current industrial and chemical practices visited on the land are toxic and unsustainable. Nowhere in his so-called reply does Phelps address these points. Instead he leaps to a generalized defense of "modernity," as he defines it,dragging a string of red herrings across the path.
Phelps sees threats to free speech, in the university classroom and elsewhere. This is no answer to economists ignoring agriculture or to the current and widespread destructive practices of corporate-scale farming. And where is his evidence for the claim that free speech is "ever more limited"? Who in this country has been jailed recently for speech? What newspapers, magazines, and publishing houses have been shut down? As far as university classes go, administration guidelines to faculty probably have much more to do with the fact that higher education is now run more and more on a modern business model -- mustn't alienate "customers"! -- than with any fears of government censorship.
And does Phelps really find mandatory testing of new products an undesirable curb on ingenuity? Is this a scientific, "modern" view? Would he return us to the days of thalidomide on the market?
The general attitude of Phelps is one I have encountered before, often in individuals with backgrounds such as engineering. They seem to feel that whatever comes out of a laboratory is, by definition, "scientific" and, therefore, to be adopted without question. I find this view unscientific in the extreme. A more enlightened view of modern science is to recognize its necessary reliance on ceaseless experimentation and testing. Independent studies of agricultural practices point in a very different direction from corporate-subsidized studies. I recommend readers to the monthly magazine AcresUSA, "the voice of eco-agriculture," published since 1971.
If I were a cartoonist, I would draw a picture. Wendell Berry and the Acres people, along with all the organic farmers and CSA families I know, would be standing at the edge of a precipice, holding up big detour signs, while a river of lemmings, wearing t-shirts with slogans for GMOs, CAFOs, and agrichemicals would be running at them full-tilt, pushing them aside to leap to their doom. Sadly, if the lemmings succeed, the rest of us will not be left standing on the cliff but will be dragged along to our doom.
Surely, "the West's modern project" – that which Phelps takes himself to be defending against Wendell Berry and imaginary quashers of free speech -- can do better. All that's needed is objective and rigorous scrutiny of the evidence and a willingness to adapt. Is that not modern and scientific?


I posted the foregoing on Facebook, having modified somewhat a letter sent to NYRB editor. Facebook (for those few unacquainted with that bantering, slogan-ridden, wisecracking social media platform) does not generally offer high-level exchange of thought, but I did receive an insightful comment from one friend, who included this link. The bottom line is that as bad as things were before, they are worse since 1996 with the rollback of the Delaney Clause, a legislative protection in place since 1950 and now removed by Congress, with only one voice raised in protest. Read it and weep. For those who attention span has   already been overtaxed, here are a few highlights: 

"With the Delaney Clause dead on the floor of Congress, some 80 pesticides that were about to be outlawed as carcinogens will now remain in use. Call it the Dow-Monsanto bail-out bill, since these two companies make most of the chemical killers that were on the list to be banned."

“Chemicals go a long way in a small body,” Clinton said. He could have been more specific. The new law now ensures that when children eat strawberries, they will also be ingesting the deadly chemical residue left by benamyl, captan, and methyl bromide. The average apple and peach has eight different pesticides embedded in it. Grapes have six and celery five. Children get as much as 35 percent of their likely lifetime dose of such toxins by the time they are five."

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Junk Mail

Tear open the envelope.

Turn it inside out:

A clearing for a poem.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Short Form, Grey Morning

Scolding crows scatter

like seeds from shattered pods,

smatter of rain on breeze.


Thursday, July 2, 2015

Think Twice Before Throwing Out Quilts

One Sunday on an NPR show about religion I heard an interview with David Murrow, the author of Why Men Hate Going to Church. His basic thesis is simple. Everything about churches, he says, from the hymns to the religious metaphors to the flowers on the altar and quilts on the wall is aimed at women. Church is too feminine. Christianity, he might have said, has been feminized, and there’s not much room in churches for men to feel comfortable.

He objected several times in the interview to lace and quilts. Not manly. I’ve seen churches that featured, along with women’s handcrafted quilts, beautiful pieces of woodwork by men. In the interview, Murrow did not suggest bringing in men’s work, only throwing out women’s.

Get rid of the flowers, too, he says. Flowers are “feminine”? Flowers, I would remind Mr. Murrow, possess not only pistils but also stamens. Flowers are part of nature, i.e., creation. This is a problem?

When it comes to the hymns, I’m afraid Murrow has cherry-picked his facts. He cites “Onward, Christian Soldiers” as the old kind of hymn a man could sing but ignores a 1913 hymn often sung, in the old midcentury (20th) days, on the very same Sundays,  In the Garden," by Charles A. Miles. Sappy, romantic, elevator-type hymns are nothing new. Actually, “In the Garden” was one of my father’s favorites. How many hymns over the centuries have been of the martial variety, anyway? And should churches really be in the business of reviving the Crusades?

My own problem with most modern “praise music” isn’t that it’s “feminine” but that it’s sappy. That is, it sounds sappy to me. When I go to church, I don’t want to hear elevator music. For a lot of younger people, though, it’s what they’ve grown up with, and to them it is church music.

When asking why women outnumber men in churches, here are a few demographic facts the author might have consulted. More boy babies than girl babies are born, but beginning with the 25-54 age group, females outnumber males in the U.S., and the difference grows greater with age. For the 65+ age group in 2010, there were 132 for every hundred men.

As for the metaphors, I’m afraid Murrow is asking that Scripture be thrown out with the bathwater. He objects to the term “lost,” for instance, saying that men don’t like thinking of themselves as lost, which is why they hate asking for directions. So that parable of the lost sheep? Get rid of it! 

(If you’re curious about other parables, here’s a listBut be forewarned: You’ll find flowers! If you find admonitions to be a brave soldier or a captain of industry, let me know.) 

Murrow is also down on all “relationship” talk in the church. “Love thy neighbor”? “God is love”? Feminine talk! That won’t bring in “the guys,” as he calls them. Guys don't like to hear about relationships!

A long-time woman in local politics used to say she had learned years before from her mentor, “You gotta take care of your base!” Remember the Aesop fable of the dog who saw his reflection in the water and thought he was looking at another dog who had a bone? Those tempted to follow Mr. Morrow’s advice should think carefully about the ambitious reach they are contemplating.

If someone who has not read and does not plan to read a certain book can write a review of it, then this is a book review. Otherwise, I don't know what to call it. You be the judge.

One final word:

At the annual St. Wenceslaus chicken dinner, the men of the church cook the chicken, and they do a fantastic job of it. Real men are not scared away by  the presence of quilts.

Quilts at St. Wenceslaus Church, Gills Pier, Michigan

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Who Will Read Your Blog -- or Your Book?

I remarked recently to one writing friend (frustrated at a number of friends who had not read his book) that I think a lot of people resist reading novels by people they know out of nervous terror. What if it’s lousy? What if I hate it so much I can’t get through the damn thing? Embarrassed ahead of time for their writing friend by the possibility they won’t enjoy the book, they postpone opening it at all, and it gets misplaced or buried or put away on a shelf and forgotten. Better to make excuses for not having gotten around to it yet, they seem to think, than feel pressured to like and praise.

And life is so busy, dontcha know? Everyone is “busy,” in one way or another. I know I am. Aren’t you?

Coming home after my winter sabbatical, I could tell instantly who read Books in Northport once in a while and who never looked at it once while I was away. Anyone asking, “So where did you spend the winter?” or “What did you do all winter?” obviously felt no curiosity, because pretty much my whole winter was right there online, in words and pictures, for anyone to follow. No charge to read it, either. Free! Followers who couldn’t deal with reading online (one friend I know of for sure) could at least scroll through and look at the photographs and enjoy the images, and even the time commitment for speed-reading the rest could probably be satisfied in 10 or 15 minutes a week. Leaving comments was and is always entirely optional, as is giving me feedback in person when we’re back together in the same room.

So why...?

“I don’t have time to read blogs,” I hear from a couple friends routinely on Facebook, it seems, 24/7. Huh?  Some say, more honestly, “I never read blogs.” Okay, I know where I stand with them. The worst is the apologetic, “I should read it....” There is no ‘should’! It’s there for anyone who’s interested! Not interested? Not obligated!

But also, I couldn’t help noticing that when I wrote this past winter of travel adventures or posted photographs of Southwest scenery, a comment or two would usually result, while if I wrote of my novel-in-progress and how the writing was coming along, the silence was deafening. If a post combined writing news and topics unrelated to writing, the latter got the responses.

Again, I can’t help thinking it’s embarrassing to a lot of people when someone mentions working on a novel. It’s as if you’re claiming to have been Marie Antoinette in a previous life. Uh, yeah, sure, they think, praying you’ll change the subject.

Interest. Priorities. How well friends know you -- or want to know you.

My life, my blog, and my writing are priorities in my life but not necessarily priorities for all my friends. Other people have, each and every one of them, their own lives, their own priorities and interests. None of us can pay attention to everything.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Thinkin’ About It

It’s funny how variable one’s feelings about life can be. Obviously, I’m talking about my life and how I feel, the only experience in the world I can have, but in the interest of seeking, if not universality, at least confirmation from one other person, I asked David how he felt.

“Can you put the question more precisely?” he asked back.

Well, I told him, I’m thinking about whether or not one’s life feels meaningful and satisfying or just plain foolish and a waste of time, and for me a lot of that (this winter, anyway) has to do with how my writing is going.

When I have a day or two of the writing not going well, that is, when I’m not happy with my words, no matter how many I’ve churned out, my whole existence seems pointless. I ask myself what meaning there can possibly be in living this way, occupying a private dream world, peopled with fictional characters, day after day. Why am I struggling so hard to describe appearance and clarify the emotions of people who are not even real? Who cares? No one! If I were to give up this entire project, the world would never miss it, so why go on?

Then the next morning it goes well. A complex character emerges into the light, the scene around him illuminated, as well, and I’m pretty sure other people, potential readers, would be able to see it all just as clearly as if they were watching live actors on a theatre stage -- or their own neighbors at home and on the street. Now I feel on top of my personal little world! No one else has read the words yet, no one else knows the character, but I know him, and I care about him, and there he is! If no one else cares, I still do!

And that’s the thing, I told David. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. When it comes to the rest of the world, I am not cast down by rejection or puffed up by praise. I don’t really give a rip what anyone else thinks: it’s only how I judge it that determines my satisfaction or dissatisfaction. 

“That’s pretty egoistic, isn’t it?” I remarked as I was laying this out. Not apologizing, you understand, just saying. I mean, it isn’t that I don’t see my feelings for what they are.

“It’s pretty much the way I feel about painting,” David answered.

We talked about that some more. If a person is going to be swayed by others’ opinions, David says, which others will determine the value of the work? People will not agree, and the artist will always be changing course, trying to please everyone.

Yes. And besides, I chimed in, what standards are others applying? Do they have standards at all, and if they do, are their standards mine?

Again, the double-edged sword, the two-sided coin. Laboring in obscurity, without obvious recognition or reward, creativity can have the satisfaction of being true to itself, and that’s the bright side of the coin.

Of course, when I’m around horses I’m not thinking about any of this stuff and am simply happy to be alive!