The Things We Do

After the election, I decided to focus more on things here on the home front—at the neighborhood and city as well as the state level. It started with volunteering to “adopt” a storm drain. There were six at the intersection half a block north of our house, and we could pick whichever one we wanted. But it was just too hard to choose, so we adopted all six. This winter with the frequent thaws, we’ve been out there chopping out the snow and ice so the water can drain. You might be surprised at how difficult it can be to find a storm drain in the winter. And when you find one, you’d think the one across the street would be right across the street, right? Well, no.

But it’s always rewarding—good exercise and a sense of doing something in the community. And sometimes people stop and thank us. The bus drivers almost always wave. That feels good too. We’ve also started shoveling out both ends of our alley (where the snow always seems to accrue). We reap a very direct advantage from this, so it is not exactly a civic deed. Nonetheless, one day when we were clearing out the snow, a guy stopped his truck and asked if he could spell one of us for a while—he just wanted to help out. Maybe we will even get to meet more of our neighbors!

The other thing we’ve done right here in our neighborhood is volunteer for our small urban orchard. It is just starting out (no fruit until next year) but we will help to water and mulch and other sundry tasks as assigned. After the trees start to bear, we will also help with harvest and gleaning. It is quite an exciting project—a variety of fruit trees, including apple, crabapple, plum, pear, peach, and cherry. I wonder what a Minnesota peach will taste like?

There are a few town hall meetings coming up—two of them held/sponsored by my state senator and representative. There is also a town hall meeting in February on the minimum wage of $15 for the city of Minneapolis. I absolutely want a higher minimum wage, but I don’t know that $15 and just for the city of Minneapolis is the way to go. Geographically speaking, Minneapolis is a relatively small part of the 7-county metro area. And with a population of approximately 394,000, we are also a relatively small portion (approximately 13.5%) of the population. I need to learn more.

I have stuck to my New Year’s resolution to send a postcard a week to our new Senate majority leader. I have already heard back from him—not wordy responses but acknowledging my concerns (in this case, responding to two separate postcards, one about infrastructure and the other about healthcare). I did not actually expect him to respond to my postcards. I don’t think I’ll tell him that. I’ve also written about funding the University of Minnesota; a potential crackdown on protesters—potentially making it a felony with some serious financial implications; a suggestion that the state NOT invest in developing a from-scratch computer program to distribute health insurance premium rebates (as that has not worked so well in the past—the build from scratch part); and the definition and use of the word “exponential” (sorry, but it’s numbers AND words, an intersection I can’t ignore).

The acknowledgment has further spurred me, and I have chosen to believe that he actually appreciates these postcards. I know this is a glass half-full to overflowing viewpoint, but why not? I am always respectful and try to send interesting postcards (and a nice variety—I have scads that I’ve collected for the haiku project).

Anyway, I should have made the resolution to send AT LEAST one postcard a week, because I have already sent 10! They are addressing so many things in the Legislature (as well they should, leaving so many things undone last year) that I feel I can’t wait a week on some things. I sent three postcards on healthcare, and the legislation is now signed and done. It is a decent piece of legislation, and both sides compromised. The Republicans put some interesting things on the table that I want to learn more about: a farmers health insurance co-op, and a reinsurance program. Since I am one of the 5% that purchases my health insurance independently on the market, I watch this issue very carefully.

Not long ago I got together with a friend for lunch. We were talking about things we were doing since the election. She has doubled her volunteer commitment at a local nonprofit, working a shift two days a week instead of one. She’s made phone calls to national House and Senate leaders (and our reps as well) on various issues. She participated in the women’s march in St. Paul.

It wasn’t a tallying, it wasn’t a comparison, and often it wasn’t even the focus of the discussion. But as we moved on to the second beer, I realized that even just between the two of us, we are doing quite a lot! Lots of contact with government representatives (she more national, I more local), local involvement, even drinking local beer. Yes, I know. Civic to the bone.

A few days later, after reading the newspaper I was a bit despondent. I went online and signed two petitions (one sponsored by a Minnesota senator, one by moveon.org) and sent a congratulatory postcard to the Senate leader for the healthcare legislation which was actually quite a good compromise. But it felt so little.

And then I remembered the lunch with my friend, and when it all added up, it had seemed like a lot. And I thought it might be inspiring to track that for two or four years. So I emailed my friend and another good friend of ours with this idea: Report in on what you’re doing. It will give each of us other ideas, as we have different approaches and different areas of priority. Even if each of us did one thing a week, at the end of a year, that would be more than 150 actions. It’s not meant to be competitive, but I do hope it challenges us. And I know it will encourage us, just having this list of ongoing things that we’re doing, small and large: a postcard sent, a phone-call to a senator, attending a town hall meeting, a petition, an email, a volunteer gig, a letter to the editor, a march, a poem.

This is not a partisan thing. Everyone can do something to make community stronger, to make their voice heard, to make sure everyone’s voices are heard. Start where you’re comfortable. Maybe make a pact with a friend, keep a list. Do one thing this month, this year, tomorrow.

These are the things we do.

When it comes down to it, perhaps they’re the only things that matter.

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A Whimsical Year

A few years ago, my family adopted the tradition of no “new” gifts at Christmas. You could make something, provide a service, regift, or even buy something used, but buying new was forbidden. It has been a lovely tradition, and has migrated far beyond my family Christmas.

The best idea I have come up with so far is the Whimsy Box.

This grew out of an original idea of coupons to be redeemed over the year (e.g., homemade meal of choice, dinner at favorite restaurant, a day getting lost in Fort Snelling State Park). I originally thought big—a special meal out, a special meal in, a full day at the park), maybe 10-12 a year. A lot of them were fun, but we didn’t do them all. Mood, life, timing. Sigh.

This year, as Christmas rolled around, I didn’t want to do coupons. I wanted to do something a bit more fun, with a spark of spontaneity. Hence, the Whimsy Box.

Partly the idea stemmed from the box: a fine tie box (a Native Northwest design that we got in Victoria, British Columbia; it has hinges)—a box I had thought to use as a box for a gift (thinking the box half the gift), but I changed my mind (thinking 95% chance recipient will throw said box in trash).

Not a box I was ready to part with. Beautiful box. A box for ideas. A box of the imagination. A box for suggestions. Suggestions!

Hence the Whimsy Box: I took this tie box, and filled it with whimsical ideas—things I think we will both find fun, often at the drop of a hat. More than 10. A lot more than 10. More like 50. Some examples:

  • Happy Hour at Dixie’s (great catfish basket)como-tropical
  • Take a walk by the river
  • Spend a winter afternoon at the Como Conservatory
  • Go to the downtown library (Minneapolis)
  • Spend a day at a state park
  • Walk to the mailbox
  • Learn a yoga pose
  • Visit our friend in Hastings
  • Go for a walk in the snow at night
  • Take the bus to Uptown and go to the bookstores
  • Go to Minnehaha Falls

And, since Hal has taken an interest in learning to cook a bit (ever since reading Real Food, by Nina Plank), I included several kitchen basics: learn how to fry an egg, learn how to make French toast, learn how to make pea soup, for example. And also, I thought it might be fun for us to learn how to make something together (even in our small awkward kitchen) and so I threw that idea in the box as well. We have talked about possibly doing a frittata.

This is a super easy and very personal gift you can tailor to individual preferences, whether it be to spend more time together, explore new places, spend less time together (not as crazy as it sounds—example: “I will leave the house for an afternoon and you can have the entire house to yourself.”), get more exercise, try new restaurants, get more culture, etc.

We have already had a lot of fun with it (a walk to leave books at a Little Free Library, learning to make French toast), and this weekend, I think we may make the frittata.

Monthly Reading Themes 2017

I mentioned in the last post that I’m continuing the monthly reading theme with my friend Sheila (this will be the 4th year, and I think we enjoy it more each year!).

Here are the 12 themes for 2017:

  • January: Light
  • February: Long Titles
  • March: Literary Forms
  • April: Emotions
  • May: Terrain
  • June: Celestial Objects
  • July: Proper Nouns
  • August: The ________
  • September: Man/Woman/Child
  • October: House/Home
  • Novembers: _________ & _________
  • December: Things with Wings

One of my favorite things about the monthly themes is that they cause me to look at my books through a new lens, often leading me to books that have been patiently waiting on the shelf for many years. This month for the Light theme, I finally pulled out Diane Ackerman’s The Moon By Whale Light, which I got 14 years ago! And I’m planning to start A Certain Slant of Light, by Cynthia Thayer (which has also been on the shelf for 14 years), either today or tomorrow. I’ve almost finished the poetry book, Bodies of Light, by Athena Kildegaard (4 years), and have just started Ordinary Light, by Tracy K. Smith (1 year). More Light updates as the month progresses.

I am super excited about the Long Titles theme in February (ironically the shortest month). This is purely fun. Look at these titles, and this is just from poetry:

  • Cloudy with a Fire in the Basement, Ronna Bloom
  • Like the New Moon, I Will Live My Life, Robert Bly
  • Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, B. H. Fairchild
  • The Mothers on the Other Side of the World, James Baker Hall
  • Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, Tony Hoagland
  • Encouragement for a Man Falling to His Death, Christopher Kennedy
  • You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, Anna Moschovakis
  • Running Like A Woman With Her Hair on Fire, Martina Newberry
  • A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far, Adrienne Rich
  • In a Landscape of Having To Repeat, Martha Ronk
  • On the Waterbed They Sank To Their Own Levels, Sarah Rosenblatt
  • The Porch Is a Journey Different from the House, Ever Saskya
  • The Man Who Sleeps in My Office, Jason Sommer
  • Combing the Snakes from His Hair, James Thomas Stevens
  • The Girl with Bees in Her Hair, Eleanor Rand Wilner
  • Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man, Ronaldo V. Wilson
  • Diamonds on the Back of a Snake, Pam Wynn

I mean seriously, is that a fun list or what? We had in mind a general “rule” that a title had to be at least five words to be considered Long. Quick glances at fiction and nonfiction also find significant numbers of books with long (and interesting) titles.

Literary Forms (March) is another theme I’m particularly looking forward to, encompassing any book with a literary form in its title: diary, letter, narrative, poem, story, field notes, footnotes, recipe, lexicon, etc.

April is for Emotions. I know I have a lot of happiness books (The Happiness Paradox, The Happiness Project, I Care About Your Happiness, and two books simply titled Happiness), but that much Happy might get a little samey over a month. Calm! I have a couple of books in the calm realm. And then there’s Stephen King’s Joyland. I expect a scan of the mystery shelves might yield some fear, and fantasy might have—enchantment?

May is Terrain. Terrain is a catch-all for landscape, prairie, farm, desert, field, land, mountain. I have until just this moment thought of this theme entirely in terms of nonfiction (having so many rural, prairie, farm, field, land, etc. books). Poetry should be okay; poetry covers a lot of land. But what of fiction? I have at least one desert and one prairie. Hmmm. This will be interesting. Stretching is always optional, of course.

June is Celestial Objects. Probably we could do just sun, moon, and stars, but why limit ourselves? Planets, constellations, galaxies, the universe!

July is Proper Nouns. This has a lot of potential, as you might guess. I’m going to focus mostly on geographic proper nouns—I have so many books, fiction and nonfiction, with a city or country in the title. But it could also be a park, or an ocean, or a mountain range. Or Wrigley Field (which would also work for the Terrain theme in May…).

August is The _______. This theme arose completely and totally from a theme we had last year which was one-word titles (The Wedding would not count as a one-word title; we were unusually strict in specifying that “The” was not allowable). Of course we both ran across a ton of The ________ books that we wanted to read. We will be reading at least some of those in August.

September is Man/Woman/Child. This is far out enough that I haven’t given it a lot of thought, except to notice I’ve at least got a few books in poetry. And I’m for sure planning to read Just Kids (Patti Smith) for this theme, which is already coloring just a bit outside the lines. It will be interesting to see how this falls out. I think children will be seriously underrepresented in my collection!

October is House/Home, a repeat from 2016 because we both had so many books left over that we still wanted to read. And plus we realized that we had forgotten a House book we both love, House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski. House of Leaves is a beautiful package in and of itself, one of the scariest books I’ve ever read (excepting The Shining, by Stephen King), and perhaps one of the most brilliant. Note: The basic premise of House of Leaves is that a house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. This does not sound at all scary. But as I was glued to this book, reading alone, in a large house, I started to get quite freaked out about the closet behind me…. Anyway, Sheila and I specifically chose October for House/Home and we plan to reread House of Leaves together.

The November theme is ______ & _____ (e.g., Lost and Found, Pride and Prejudice). This is so far off I haven’t thought about it at all except to note I have a few poetry books that fit the bill, and two books called Lost and Found (one fiction, one nonfiction).

December is Things with Wings. This is an expansion from an initial thought of birds. Things with wings will also include bees, butterflies and moths, airplanes, mansions and hospitals, flies, bats, and chairs. This will continue to evolve as it is still nearly a year away.

Read along! Pick a theme that appeals to you or intrigues you, and see what you find on your shelves or at the local library. For Light in the month of January, I can’t recommend anything more highly than All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. Let me know what you read—and whether you like it or not.

Happy Reading!

The Books of 2016

I love reading books, I love buying books, I love browsing books, and I love playing with and organizing books. Books are one of the major things in my life.

Throughout the year, I track the number of books I buy on a monthly basis. You may find that strange, but when you find large portions of your budget going into one category, you like to drill down and see what’s going on. In 2008, I bought 267 books (I like to think this is the peak, but the truth is, I haven’t compiled the data from the prior years; it is possible, and not improbable, that the actual annual peak was even higher than 267).

I do not read anywhere near 267 books in a typical year. The problem isn’t that I wasn’t reading. It’s that I was buying at least twice as much as I was reading, which led to a space-flow (as opposed to a cash-flow) problem. Small house, double-shelved books, piles of books on various surfaces. So I started cutting back with a goal of buying only as many books as I read in a given year. It has been a long road, but this year I bought only 85 books while I read 154. A serious improvement!

Of the 154 books I read, excluding the rereads,* 13 books came out on top as the best books of 2016.

A few comments:

Artful, by Ali Smith, completely revised my view of rereading books: She suggests that one would never say one “knows” a symphony or is done with a symphony after listening to it one time. You listen to it again and again, and each time you understand it better; a different nuance, a different mood. But people read books one time, and then they’re done. Rereading is rare, and reserved only for the best. As for myself, I tend not to reread even the books that I love, because there are so many new books out there that I want to read. But Artful has called me back to rereading, reminding me that there always seems to be something new in a book, every time you read it.

House of Coates, by Brad Zellar, left me wondering. Is it true? Not true? A compelling book no matter what, but especially if you’re from Minnesota, or have ever driven past the House of Coates, in Coates, MN.

A Mathematician’s Lament, by Paul Lockheart, unexpectedly and completely rekindled my interest in mathematics. It actually made me happy-excited about numbers again—a feeling I last had in the early stages of algebra.

Speaking American, by Josh Katz, is pure entertainment for people interested in regional language differences. In MN we say pop while most other places say soda, and we make a hotdish while most of the rest of the country makes a casserole. This fun book with maps explores these differences throughout the United States. It’s hard not to read in one sitting.

The rest of the best of 2016:

  • A Year in Japan, Kate T. Williamson (beautiful book)
  • Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton
  • All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
  • The Senator Next Door, Amy Klobuchar
  • Letters of a Woman Homesteader, Elinore Pruitt Stewart
  • Real Food, Nina Planck
  • Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream, Jennifer Ackerman
  • Nimona/Lumberjanes, Noelle Stevenson (graphic novels)
  • The Preservationist, David Maine (a retelling of the story of Noah)

*The reread books are The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien; and Journal of a Solitude, by May Sarton. Both of these books would be in my top 10 all-time favorite books, always worth rereading.

Also in 2016, I have managed to get rid of many many bags of books. Most to bookstores (and a few to Little Free Libraries). A conservative figure would be 200, but I think it’s closer to 350 (books, not bags).

I think one of the reasons I bought fewer books this year is because the monthly reading themes keep me focused more on my own collection. What books do I have that I might have forgotten about that fit this theme? Every month I look at the shelves with new eyes. Two of my favorite themes from last year were one-word titles (e.g., Georgia, Pinhook, Fidelity, Nimona); and work/occupation (purely fun just finding the titles: Auto Mechanic’s Daughter, A Mathematician’s Lament, The Orchardist, The Senator Next Door, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, The Cartographer’s Vacation—so many to choose from!).

The themes for 2017 have been decided. January’s theme is Light. If I hadn’t just read it a few months ago, I’d reread All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr—the best fiction book I read last year. If anyone out there is interested in following along with the monthly reading themes, I couldn’t recommend a better Light book for the month of January.

I’ll leave the rest of the themes for a later post. They are their own exuberance.

New Year’s Resolutions

I am not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions, though I’ve made them off and on throughout the years with greater and (mostly) lesser success. This year however, I am making three New Year’s resolutions, which is quite unprecedented.

New Year’s Resolution #1: Get back to The B Suite and blog at least once a week. My spouse and I have had several months to get used to mutual retirement. As patterns settle in (and we settle in), I’m starting to feel pulled back to writing. I’ve kept up with the daily haiku project (more than three years now!) and the change of the calendar into a new year and the lengthening day is calling me back to blogging as well.

New Year’s Resolution #2: Get involved in things more locally. While I am not going to drop out of politics at the national level (I will continue to write my senators and representatives on key issues), I am going to focus my primary efforts closer to home. The national Republican sweep included the Minnesota Legislature, with a new Senate majority. The new Senate majority leader said he wants to build bridges—and let’s be honest, there is a LOT of middle ground between Democrats and Republicans. Lots of bridge potential. And so…

Specifically for New Year’s Resolution #2, I decided to write a weekly postcard to the Senate majority leader, giving him my invaluable input on a weekly basis (hopefully in an informative, or at least entertaining, way). I decided to introduce myself via email, telling him to expect said postcards for one year. I have already heard back, and he is looking forward to the postcards!

Seriously. He responded within a day. I wrote to my senator in my district two months ago and she never bothered to get back to me. And here is this new Senate leader and he knows I am a Democrat in Minneapolis (because I told him) and he still responded and wants to hear what I might have to say.

And call me naïve, but I actually do think he might listen. There are some politicians who really do want to work across the aisles. I want to vote for more of them.

Also in the land of Resolution #2, we have “adopted” the six sewer storm drains at the end of the block (Minneapolis Adopt-a-Drain Project). Mostly it’s a piece of cake, but six storm drains in October make for a lot of wet and heavy leaves. And then again, chopping them out for the (relatively rare) winter rain was a bit of a project as well. In a perhaps more interesting vein, we have also volunteered to be caretakers of our neighborhood orchard (a new neighborhood project on an empty triangle of land—peach, pear, apple, and plum trees). We will help with watering and harvesting.

New Year’s Resolution #3: Don’t Forget the May Baskets. I skipped this last year, and I don’t want to miss it again. It’s a great way to appreciate neighbors and celebrate Spring. And for someone who is a non-morning person it is particularly exhilarating. There’s nothing quite like leaving a gift on someone’s doorstep, ringing the bell and running away without getting caught. A total blast from the past.

Happy New Year to you! Any interesting resolutions?