What Can I Give You?

I had lunch with a friend the other day, and she brought me a gift bag—a couple of magazines and a few bottles and jars that she knew I would find useful in my herbal work.

We had a good long lunch, including a discussion of South of the Border, West of the Sun, by Haruki Murakami. We have a bit of a tradition of meeting and discussing a Murakami book at Pepito’s in Minneapolis in February.

Murakami stretches your mind. Or maybe it’s your imagination. Or maybe he prods the id. It leads to good and sometimes far-ranging discussion. If you like odd fiction, you might like Murakami (start with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). If you don’t like odd fiction, you might like Murakami (start with Norwegian Wood). Murakami is one of the few authors whose books I will read and reread. Always something new, something—huh?

We skirted around politics. Not that we have major differences, mind you. But rather because last time we got together we did get into politics, and it felt like we were swallowed by a whirlpool and two hours later spit out the other side. Not that we disagreed or argued, but almost like a two-hour vent. Or even a two-hour rage. We were both disquieted by that.

Our get-togethers are usually very happy making, with talk of books and food, writing and friends and family, and possible personal concerns we might want a bit of help working through. Usually I go home all relaxed and happy and feeling like my soul has been nourished (corny but true, so there). But not after the politics for two hours. Even agreeing, it drained us. So we have put a moratorium on talking about politics. (Although since we make the rules, we can make exceptions if we think it’s important.)

As the conversation moved into other areas, my friend mentioned her upcoming Lenten project (she does a Lent thing every year; I kind of like the idea, but I’ve not yet done it myself). Okay, I’m just going to very pridefully say that she told me that I inspired her Lenten project.

Specifically, she said the occasional things I send her in the mail (I love using snail mail; I visit the post box several times a week) are a special moment in her day (personal mail being relatively rare these days). So she’s decided to send a card to someone on each day of Lent. A friend, a relative, a mentor, someone she admires.

Can we focus on this most excellent idea for a moment? Okay, I am not of the Lenten variety, but don’t most people typically give something up for Lent? And I guess my friend is doing that, in that she is giving up a bit of time in writing the notes. But more importantly, at least to my wee mind, it’s like she’s turning the idea of Lent inside out. Instead of taking away, she’s giving.

I love it when my friends humble me.

She mentioned that she probably needed to get cards for her project, and being rather Lent uninformed, I asked when (soon) and how long (40 days). I knew I had a few cards I could give her and I passed them on after our long lunch.

But later in the evening as I was reading, it niggled. I have so many cards. I have a huge variety of cards (lots that I receive free in the mail from charities, but also just a lot of cards accumulated over the years). And then I remembered a gift that a different friend had sent me a couple of years ago, when I was rather early into my postcard project. She sent me a package of 50 unique postcards. I was awash in delight—so many new possibilities for matching message to postcard.

So I went through the card drawer and pulled together a package of cards. A wide variety that I hope will cross a variety of folk. And I remembered the gift economy—giving what you have when you can. You want, I have, I give.

I have so much more of so many things than I need. Sometimes I latch onto things simply because they could be useful some day. In the gift economy, if my friend needs cards and I have cards, I give her some of mine. Maybe she’ll like them, maybe not (I ask her to return the cards she doesn’t use) but she doesn’t have to go out shopping, and I’ve gotten rid of a bit of my surplus of cards.

But the gift economy is more than that. When I was at my best with it, every time I got together with someone, I tried to bring them a gift. Something small usually—a jar of ginger jam, a magazine, or some rhubarb. A poem. An article from the newspaper. It’s a way of saying, I value you. I think about you. It’s nice to give people things—sharing what you have, or just thinking, what might they want or appreciate that I happen to have?

It feels good. I have a couple of friends who do this occasionally, and I always feel very special. I feel lucky, and blessed. And when I give something to someone, I always feel happy and a little bit lightened.

Note: The gift doesn’t have to be something physical, it could be a service, or a favor. The most common around here is shoveling walks. Minimally one tries to do at least a few inches over the border of the neighbor’s walk, but copying my neighbor across the street, last year I started shoveling both my neighbors’ sidewalk up to their personal walk (about half the full sidewalk). This year, someone shoveled our front walk three times. That has never happened before.

The gift economy: I swear, it’s contagious.

Speaking American

9780544703391I love language. I love language differences. I particularly love regional variations in language use.

When I was growing up, I ordered a pop if I wanted a Coke or a 7-Up. I didn’t find out that this was not universal until I went to college. There I learned that some people who get what I call pop call it soda. To me, a soda was a pop with ice cream in it. I have learned since that most of the country considers this an ice cream soda. (We did have a version of this soda—the root beer float: two scoops of ice cream in a large glass, slowly pour the root beer over the ice cream, add straw, go back to horror/James Bond/Hitchcock movie.)

Speaking American, by Josh Katz, is the book I’ve wanted to read for years. Here’s the soda score:


I had been under the impression, until I read this book, that only we Minnesotans were clueless in the pop definition thing. I am happily surprised to see that Iowa, both of the Dakotas, Michigan, Kansas, Nebraska, Ohio, and the most sensible parts of Wisconsin all use pop. Even Washington State largely uses pop. Hmm. I think henceforth I shall eschew soda, and use pop exclusively. I love regionalism. Linguistically speaking.

Here’s a fun one. I grew up totally and completely saying car’-mel, two syllables. Everyone says it that way here. Then I get married, and my New York spouse says care’-ah-mell. What? Really? It sounded so pretentious to me. And then I find out that it’s purely a regional thing:


The yard sale takes up several pages. Or perhaps I should say garage sale; they seem equally common. But in Connecticut you have the tag sale, and in southeast Wisconsin you have a rummage sale. In Brooklyn they have stoop sales.

I learned (should I be admitting this?) that a frying pan and a skillet are the same thing (a skillet more common in the central south, a frying pan more common everywhere else). I had always thought a skillet was cast iron, and a frying pan was anything else. Oooh—maybe that’s a Minnesotan differentiation. (Doubtful.)

Who would think icing and frosting could have a regional rift? But they do: In the South, people suggest you can use the two words interchangeably. The north says no, they are not interchangeable (icing is thin, often used on cookies and for a very thin coating of a frosting—like a glaze; frosting is thick and often fluffy; icing doesn’t fluff). You see? You see how we get into our regionalisms? I think it is great fun.

I had no idea that everyone in the world didn’t call the strip of grass between the street and the sidewalk the boulevard. I grew up in my small town calling it the boulevard. I think that’s pretty much standard across Minnesota (but I should do some research before you take it as fact). Turns out that about three-quarters of the country doesn’t have a word for this strip. I find that hard to believe! Seriously? Is it possible that most of the country has no word for that strip between the sidewalk and the street, that many of us in Minnesota plant with flowers and other fun plants (I have a neighbor on the corner that has blessedly planted raspberries on their boulevard—can you imagine anything more generous?).

A lot of the food differences are fun. Here’s one:


Yep, they got it right. I grew up calling them crayfish. (I wonder how many people call them anything at all anymore. Are they still common?)

Other fun things I learned:

  • Most people call athletic shoes tennis shoes (I call them tennies), but in the northeast and also southern Florida, they say sneakers.
  • Some regions celebrate the night before Halloween. They call it Mischief Night (South Jersey and Philadelphia), Devil’s Night (Michigan and Pittsburgh), Goosey Night (a small bit of North Jersey), and Cabbage Night (New York and Vermont sides of Lake Champlain).
  • I am in the minority when I pronounce aunt ahnt. Except for most of Minnesota and North Dakota, northern South Dakota, and the Northeast (and a standout in Virginia), everyone else says ant.
  • There are also regional pronunciation differences in pajamas, often (no, I don’t pronounce the T), crayons, quarter, coupon, lawyer, grocery, route, and been.
  • A groundhog and a woodchuck are the same thing. (Yes, I should have known that.)
  • While most of the country has no word for when it’s raining while the sun is shining, some areas in the northeast, Florida, and Minnesota (disparate!) call it a sunshower, while the deep south calls it “the devil beating his wife.” Who knew?

This is a purely fun book, great maps, informative, interesting, and beautiful. Did I mention fun? Usually I regift my books, but I think I will do this one on a loaner basis. I want to share it with a lot of people.

Reading in the New Year

I’ve been reading a lot of poetry this year—nine books so far. Most recently I finished Cloudy With a Fire in the Basement, by Ronna Bloom, which held a number of poems that I liked. Here is my favorite:


Today I found an intact jar of plum jam at the back
of the cupboard, it opened with a satisfying suck
and plummy smell. I made that jam, had

lost track. Was probably saving it.
Stop saving everything! Julia Child cries
touching my cheek.

Poetry opens me and I’m grateful. Thank God
for Grace Paley. She writes with her heart
and peasant body. And Adrienne Rich with that brow.

Is it just the High Holidays or my age?
I feel both more
and less Jewish around them.

Spend everything! they say. Here, have a plum.
The old women of culture come back, feed us,
tell us where we came from.

—Ronna Bloom

Another poetry book I read just a few weeks earlier—The Light of Invisible Bodies, by Jeanne Lohmann—also had a poem about plums that I loved:


Though it is early to talk of autumn
the purple asters begin to dry
into decline. Toward the end of summer
something delicious happens on a hot
afternoon when I bend over a blue
china plate to eat a ripe Satsuma plum.
Sticky and sweet, the juice slides off my chin,
the dark skin slips from the red heart
that waits for my tongue. A friend said this is
the only way to eat such plums
but love, I did not tell him of a tree
heavy with fruit, year after year
the unforgotten taste of desire.

—Jeanne Lohmann

I’ve only read two fiction books thus far, and of those the clear standout is A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny. This is the 7th book in her mystery series set in Three Pines, a small village in Quebec. Since it’s the 7th in the series, I won’t bother to say anything about it other than that I loved it. If you’ve already discovered Louise Penny, you’re probably way ahead of me in the series (I am behind—there are now 12). If you haven’t heard of her and like mysteries even a little bit, consider checking her out. (The first is Still Life.) This is the best mystery series I’ve run across in years (interesting characters, good character development, an appealing setting, and I always just want to keep reading).

In the nonfiction realm, I’m currently reading The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country, by Helen Russell (a Brit). I’m nearly one-third through, and it is fun, funny, and interesting. Did you know that Denmark is the happiest country in the world? They’re also ranked highest for work-life balance (I suspect those two rankings are not unrelated). I am beginning to uncover some of the roots of Danish happiness. So far I have learned about hygge—the importance of coziness. Examples of hygge include having throws and blankets on the sofa for extra coziness, and lots of pillows and cushions. But also a large dining table that will seat at least eight people for talking and relaxing around, and perhaps a designer candleholder and some Royal Copenhagen dinnerware.

Also on my nightstand: If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: Notes from Small-Town Alaska (Heather Lende) which I am just a few pages into (noted in the LA Times as “part Annie Dillard, part Anne Lamott”—perfect for February); Just One Damned Thing After Another, by Jodi Taylor (SF, also first in a series, time travel!); and The Mother on the Other Side of the World, by James Baker Hall (poetry).

In case you happened to notice that all those books have long titles, that is no coincidence. February’s reading theme is books with long titles (the minimum is five words). Loving this theme with tons of great and fun titles. How is it possible to be retired and not have enough time to read?

The Birds Of Winter

I visited Sax Zim Bog (northern Minnesota) this weekend, looking for the winter birds that can be found especially here. Sax Zim is most famous for owls—both the great gray owl and the northern hawk owl are frequently sighted. While most (but not all) of my trips to Sax Zim have included owl sightings, that was not in the cards for this weekend.

A small disappointment, but still. Lots of other birds out there.

red_breasted_nuthatch_7I added more than a dozen birds to my year list. Northern Minnesota specialties included the pine grosbeak (several flocks in different locations), red-breasted nuthatch (at least 20), common raven (lots), northern shrike (at least four—most often seen at the very tippy top of trees), boreal chickadee (which was heard but not seen), common redpoll, gray jay (also called a whiskey jack), and black-billed magpie.

bald_eagle_adult2I also saw my first bald eagles of the year—four, I think. They are pretty common in Minnesota, but I never fail to find them beautiful and majestic. Also new to the 2017 list: pine siskin, purple finch, herring gull, common goldeneye (a duck), and broad-winged hawk.

Over the course of the day, we noticed a lot more diversity among birders than we usually see. Mostly the birders we encounter (in these areas that are specifically noted for birds) are white and middle- to rather old-aged. But on this Sax Zim visit, while we didn’t encounter very many people at all, two of them were East Indian (they told us about the marten that had been seen—not a bird, but still, how fun to see a marten, which I have never seen). They also told us of the great gray owl which they had seen at 7 that morning (when we were just leaving Minneapolis). One of the other rare birder sightings was an African American. Yay!

bb_magpie_mikewisnickiAnd especially encouraging to me was a group of young people—early 20s maybe—seriously birding the bog. There were six of them, traveling in two cars. On one stretch of road we hopscotched a bit, and kept tabs on each other. They pointed out the magpies. We pointed out the gray jays. We all appreciated the ravens.

These young people in the bog, so clearly enjoying themselves and loving this setting, not just on a lark, but clearly into the birds.

It fills me with hope.