Father Knows Best

bikeI grew up in a small town. When I was in sixth grade or so, I wanted a new bicycle (having pretty much outgrown my little bike with the banana seat). I had my eye on a fancy new 10-speed and wanted to go to “the cities” (as Minneapolis-St. Paul is still called in greater Minnesota) and pick from the cream of the crop. Nope, my dad said. I could have any bicycle I wanted, but I had to buy it in town. My hometown of about 1,500 had two hardware stores (three grocery stores, a general store, two furniture stores, a movie theater, a bowling alley, and a roller rink) so it’s not like I didn’t have options, but I whined. Usually I could wrangle my way with my dad.

Not this time. He didn’t even remotely budge. Hometown purchase it was. He was a small business owner (one of those furniture stores). He knew the value of social relations. He was instilling in me a number of values here that I didn’t realize for years: the importance of social relations, the value of buying local, and the difference between being a customer and a consumer.

ImpulseI had not particularly marked the customer/consumer difference until reading The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification, by Paul Roberts. Shopping used to entail a social obligation. The person that owns the grocery store is my neighbor. You say hello, you have a little chat. They see what you buy, you talk about your leaky roof, her dog, your sore back. Historically, economic relations have been completely intertwined with social relationships. Buying meant being a customer, “a socially constructed, socially constrained role that required us to engage in an often complicated and time-consuming social interaction every time we made a purchase.”

And then came the big-box stores. According to Roberts, “The genius of the big-box retail stores, for example, wasn’t just their low, low prices, but the depersonalized, one-stop format that let us minimize shopping’s social obligations.” (Well and wasn’t that a welcome thing for many of those small-town people who didn’t actually WANT the person behind the drugstore counter to see what they were purchasing, but that’s a topic for a different blog.)

But my dad knew what he was talking about. My argument that the bicycle would be cheaper in the cities held no weight with him. He knew people could find cheaper furniture, too, if they were willing to obviate their social obligations. And then where would our small town be? Main Street would be empty, which it pretty much is today—in my hometown and many like it throughout the midwest. Roberts cites research on the big-box phenomenon and its impact on small towns:

closedWithin two years of a new Walmart coming to town, local shops within a twenty-mile radius see sales decline by 25-60%. These kinds of losses lead to the closing of small-town stores, leaving residents with fewer shopping options. The success of a big-box store can substantially increase the distance people have to drive for groceries. My hometown now has only one grocery store, but they are lucky. Many small towns don’t have any grocery stores at all anymore.

Not only have they lost their local shopping options, they’ve lost a large chunk of their supportive infrastructure: Local merchants provide more stable work environments, are more supportive of local social programs, initiatives, and community affairs in general.

So it happened. Most of Main Street went away, to the detriment of the local residents both in terms of convenience and livelihood. Why do we do this? According to Roberts, it has a lot to do with intertemporal decision making. In short, immediate desire often trumps delayed gratification. Less and less are we willing to put off until tomorrow what we can have today, even if we can’t afford it (that’s what credit is for). I’m giving it short shrift—there’s so much more there.

The Impulse Society is fascinating reading, looking at our increasing self-preoccupation and its relation to marketing, economics, culture, politics, digital technology, friendship networks, and power (a mere starter list). I expect I’ll fill you in more as I continue. It’s that kind of book. In the meantime, I’m going to work towards being more of a customer, and less of a consumer.

The Pleasures and Follies of Reading Themes

The reading theme for January is “year.” (Reading theme: I’m doing this with my friend Sheila—we’ve identified themes for each month of the year. Mostly that means the theme word is in the title of a book, but sometimes we get more creative.)

I have just finished The Checkered Years: A Bonanza Farm Diary 1884-88, by Mary Dodge Woodward. Sometimes I like diaries and sometimes not, and this one I loved. I read a year a day, from 1884 to 1888, the lives of this family—she a widow—in the Dakota Territory (eight miles from Fargo). I can’t imagine such a life (except this book has now helped me experience it in some small way): “I baked seventeen loaves of bread today, making seventy-four loaves since last Sunday, not to mention twenty-one pies, and puddings, cakes, and doughnuts.” That’s just the baking of course. There’s also the cooking, the washing, the garden, the sewing, the chickens….

As a Minnesotan, I fancy myself acquainted with snow and blizzards, but winter on the prairie in Dakota Territory in the 1880s makes my Minneapolis winter seem like Florida.

I do not think people anywhere else guard against cold as they do here. I doubt if they wear three pairs of drawers, a buffalo coat over a cloth coat, a fur cap, a mask, and arctics over two or three pairs of socks and a pair of shoes.

January 12, 1888. 42 degrees below zero:

I doubt if there is a poet living who possesses vim enough to write a poem about a Dakota storm. I guess a blizzard would knock all the poetry out of a man. There is no romance about this country.”

But despite the brutal winter, Woodward sees beauty all around, on the same day: “Today a Jack rabbit came very near the house. He looked beautiful, as large as a dog and snow white. I beg the boys not to shoot them and then, in summer they eat my vegetables.”

Possibly most fascinating is the mention of several mirages, most commonly in winter. I was familiar with desert mirages, but not prairie mirages.

There was a grand mirage this morning. Katie and I, as we hung out our clothes, watched a train sailing in the air; but we could see none of the farm houses between the cars and us, although there must have been many. We could see timber a hundred miles away; while villages ten miles away looked close at hand.”

I found the whole book fascinating and engaging, and very humbling.

dotyThe other extremely good year book that I’ve read is Dog Years, by Mark Doty. This is the story of the dogs that span 16 years of his life, a time that his partner died of AIDS, but it really is pretty much all about the dogs. I am not a dog person and I wanted to get a dog before I was even halfway through this book. If you even remotely like dogs you will likely love Dog Years.

In the world of fiction I started the year theme with Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years. My first Anne Tyler. Not a long book, but it took me nearly three weeks to finish. I guess I am not an Anne Tyler fan. I will give her another chance (but not for a good while). Three weeks! And I have so many good “year” fiction books! But then John Sandford’s new book, Deadline, came in at the library (I just can’t buy him new anymore), and I picked it up yesterday and finished it today. It’s really nice to get sucked into a book like that and who cares about the theme?

hareI’ve still got over a week left in January, for a couple of those enticing fiction books. The Year of the Hare and Leap Year are floating to the top. But who knows? Moods change.

Unfortunately, in nonfiction I have read all the year books that called to me. IHoover have a few left in the pile: A Year at the Movies, A Year in Provence, and The Years of the Forest. I’m not in the mood for France, so that will go back on the shelf; the movie book—it doesn’t look as enticing as it did several years ago when I found it in the dollar bin, and I think I’ll take it back to Half Price Books. The Years of the Forest is a small regret, because I love Helen Hoover. But after years of brutal winters (oh, summers too) on the prairie with Mary Dodge Woodward, I’m not keen to jump into brutal winters (summers too) in the north woods.

So this morning I needed a new nonfiction book to start, having finished The Checkered Years. Feeling just slightly guilty, I bypassed the few remaining “year” books, and picked up The Impulse Society, by Paul Roberts. I’m only to page 11, so I can’t say much. But based on this from the introduction, I think it will be interesting:

In everything from eating and socializing to marriage and parenting to politics, the norms and expectations of our self-centered culture are making it steadily harder to behave in civic, social ways. We struggle to make, or keep, long-term commitments. We find it harder to engage with, or even tolerate, people or ideas that don’t relate directly and immediately to us. Empathy weakens, and with it, our faith in the idea, essential to a working democracy, that we have anything in common.”

It sounds a bit like an updated Bowling Alone. I’ll keep you posted.

Birds 2015

nuthatchEvery January I start a new annual bird list. It’s a fun thing to do—it injects a little new life into the birding. I like to track when I first see things, and also maybe compete with myself a little bit. Today I started the official list (which is to say on a spreadsheet, as opposed to the scrap of paper I had been scribbling them on up to now).

The first bird I saw this year was a white-breasted nuthatch. Not a bad first bird. It was followed by its more mundane brethren: House Sparrow, Canada Goose, Rock Pigeon, and American Crow.

cardinalsBut my backyard was barren. I used to have cardinals all the time, but when we had the squirrel problem I quit feeding the birds and they pretty much stopped visiting (except for the occasional stopover at the heated birdbath). Since the house walls have been squirrel free for over a month now, I decided to take a chance and put out a little safflower (loved by cardinals, not so much by squirrels and sparrows). Within 48 hours I had cardinals in my backyard, and they have been regular visitors since. This morning there were four (two male, two female). Right now there’s a pair. Lovely.

flickerThe heated birdbath is its own draw. I looked out back one morning and there was a Northern Flicker taking a long drink. This is a nice bird to have on my list so early in the year. The day before I had spotted my first Blue Jay of the year, also at the birdbath. Yes, they’re common, but that flash of blue against the white snow was brilliant. And their proud happy shrieks always make me smile.

Today I saw my first junco of the year. I was quite pleased about this because last year I didn’t see a junco until mid-February. But I’m still missing two very common winter birds: Downy Woodpecker and Black-Capped Chickadee. Here’s my complete list to date (in order of appearance):

  • White-Breasted Nuthatch
  • House Sparrow
  • Canada Goose
  • Rock Pigeon
  • American Crow
  • Northern Cardinal
  • American Robin
  • Hairy Woodpecker
  • European Starling
  • Blue Jay
  • Northern Flicker
  • Mallard
  • American Goldfinch
  • Dark-Eyed Junco
  • Bald Eagle

I saw the Bald Eagles this afternoon while I was driving on the River Road. Two of them soaring overhead. Bald Eagles are not at all uncommon around here, especially so close to the river. Nonetheless, it was a nice “yippee!” for my year list.

PileatedOne bird that is not quite so common that I’m hoping to see soon is the Pileated Woodpecker. There is a pair that occasionally visit the tree next door. I have seen evidence of them (large wood chips on fresh snow and freshly pecked large holes that are amazingly round), but I haven’t espied one yet. The last time I saw them, I heard them first (they are large birds and have large voices). Last year I saw one on January 2, so I am keeping an eye on that woodpecker tree.

Happy Birding!

Looking Back

PoohI’ve been looking back at 2014, my “year to be.” One of the main things I wanted to do in 2014 was read as much as I wanted. That turned out to be 211 books. More than anything else, I read poetry—85 books of poetry. That’s a lot, but it’s less than 2 a week, and poetry books are short, after all, so it’s really not all quite so much as it may seem.

In addition to all that poetry, I read 70 nonfiction books and 56 fiction books (mostly novels, including a few graphic novels). Here are my favorite books that I read in 2014, in order of favoritism (though the order—and possibly even the books—would change should I redo this list on a different day):

  1. Winnie-the-Pooh, A. A. Milne (How this gem of a book eluded me until midlife I know not, but Pooh still holds much wisdom.)
  2. The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson (I learned so much about the Great Migration of African Americans from the south. So gripping, so well-told, I felt like I learned it in my bones.)
  3. The Days of Anna Madrigal, Armistead Maupin (The final book in the Tales of the City series. The content is good, but I loved it mostly because it was such a wonderful finale to the series. I love these people.)
  4. Geography III, Elizabeth Bishop (Poetry. Beautiful. Includes one of my all time favorite villanelles, One Art, and many other most excellent poems.)
  5. The House By the Sea and Recovering: A Journal, by May Sarton (I love May Sarton’s journals. I expect to read a couple more of them in 2015. Thank goodness she wrote several.)
  6. Turn Here Sweet Corn, Atina Diffley (A local organic farm story with a David and Goliath component. Atina Diffley is one of my heros.)
  7. Kate, Remembered, A. Scott Berg. (I love Katharine Hepburn and this book made me love her more. A strong, fascinating woman.)
  8. The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi. (A dystopian near future where the world is pretty much under the control of food corporations. Think of a merge of Cargill, ADM, and Monsanto. This seems so NOT science fiction that I started saving seeds immediately. Okay, I had already started before.)

In the kitchen, I was planning to report how many new dishes I had learned to cook in 2014. But I think more important than that is how comfortable I have started to become in my kitchen, and how much more I know about basic cooking in general. Recently my neighbor called, asking about cooking a chicken carcass for stock. How long? And with what? Like I am living in a different universe than I did a year ago, I had answers, and  several things on hand for use in the stock, including bay leaf, peppercorns, celery, carrot, and parsnip.

Another major kitchen marker: At the outset of 2014 I was reading a cooking/sustainable living book that said you should never turn on your oven for just one thing. My god. I only wanted to finally have one thing to put in the oven! More than one? Who could do that? (Well, my mother, for one, when I was growing up.) But the other night I made porcupine meatballs (for dinner), meatloaf (for the freezer), and roasted vegetables (for dinner, lunches, and leftovers). Four pans in the oven at once (two of vegetables—I tend to get carried away). A year ago a seed was planted, and now I am not only using my oven, but I am usually using it for more than one thing at once (at least most of the time).

2014: A good year for reading and cooking. I learned about several medicinal herbs and did a lot of writing (blog, poetry, letters, journals). I got out in nature a lot more, walking by the river and bicycling. I relied on my two best friends more, and learned that good friends can help you get through most anything.

2015: Gardening, herbs, music, and writing. Poetry. Wild card. A second year to be.

New Year Haiku

I’m enjoying my new approach to haiku in 2015—focusing more on something in the day, something beautiful, something significant. (As opposed to more or less describing my day, which is what I’d been doing in 2014.) Perhaps, not surprisingly, I’m finding this a lot more fun. Here are a few examples:

January 1

sun on the window
as the bus rumbles along
warming my cold heart

January 2

what’s all this honking?
hundreds of Canada geese
not a car in sight

January 5

frozen for hours
I thought the rabbit was dead
then it hopped away

January 6

it’s below zero
but a long day with a friend
warms me from within

January 7

watching the backyard
flash of blue at the birdbath
first jay of the year

I hope your year is as beautiful!

December Reprise

December was an indoor month, with cooking and baking, writing Christmas cards and making Christmas gifts, and, unfortunately, the flu. I also read 15 books in December, 6 each of nonfiction and poetry, and 3 novels. Most of the books were mediocre (possibly due more to my mood and my busyness rather than the books themselves). The only book I feel compelled to rave about is The Really Short Poems of A. R. Ammons, and I’ve already written about it. But in case you missed that post, here is an additional poem from the book that I loved:

Crow Ride

When the crow
lands, the
tip of the sprung spruce

bough weighs
so low, the
system so friction-free,

the bobbing lasts
way past any
interest in the subject.

–A. R. Ammons

I love poetry that makes me laugh.

potatoesI did quite of a bit of cooking in December, but nothing new or challenging: ginger jam, applesauce, tuna hotdish (vastly improved with buttermilk), roasted red potatoes with rosemary, peanut butter cookies (with Hershey kisses), oatmeal raisin cookies, apple-cranberry crisp, spaghetti, chicken adobo, meatloaf, roasted vegetables, and red fruit salad. And I have indeed decided to go ahead with my “learn how to make one new thing each month” project, even though I haven’t identified the particular 12 items. I have only decided for certain on beef stroganoff for January. I do have a list of ideas, but I also like the idea of being flexible, leaving space for context, whimsy, and inspiration.

I didn’t do a lot of herbal work in December—merely decanted a few items (hops tincture, St. Johns’ Wort oil, and St. John’s Wort tincture). There were also herbs in a number of the Christmas gifts I made, but since we missed Christmas and the gifts are still to be given, and some of my family occasionally read this blog, I will not elaborate for now. Suffice it to say I had a very fine day of making and packaging gifts.

I continued the Haiku Project in December—my 14th month! I’ve enjoyed it so much I’ve decided to continue, and Lori (my Montana friend) has happily agreed to continue collecting them for me. I’m looking forward to growing my poetry in the coming year. I want to explore other poetry forms (starting with the triolet). I guess I will have to rename it the Poetry Postcard Project. As you might guess, I am particularly interested in short forms which lend themselves to postcards.

MNI’ve also continued the Obama postcard project (28 cards so far) and will definitely continue that in 2015. I think it’s important that our public officials hear from us, and if a few other people read your ideas along the way, all the better.

December was a month of minor mishaps: my car battery died (again), the dryer started making a horrible racket (now repaired), the cat peed on my chair, and we had the flu on Christmas Day.

snow treesThe biggest thing that happened in December was the Winter Solstice. Finally the days are getting longer, and I like to think that I can already notice it. We had a brown Christmas, but on December 27 we woke up to five inches of fluffy snow. Beautiful.

Still beautiful.