Black History Month Reading Day 6

I’ve finished Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly. What an excellent book! Both deeper and broader than the movie, the book covers a longer period of time, a larger swath of people (including African American men) and, occasionally, areas outside Langley and the state of Virginia. The book, Hidden Figures, is about many more hidden figures than the three highlighted in the movie.

I loved the book. I loved the movie. As is usually true, the book holds a lot more than the movie. There’s a lot of history, and many more stories in the book than could ever make it into one movie. It would have to be a documentary. Or several documentaries.

But here’s something. Almost always I will say I loved the book more than the movie (there are a few exceptions, and I’ll think of one soon—maybe The Hours). But in this case, I didn’t love the book more than the movie, but nor did I love the movie more than the book. I loved them differently, in a way that I’m not sure has ever happened to me before.

The movie was a good bit of history, but its primary impact on me was emotional. I was just there with these women. Certainly I learned a lot in the movie, but when I walked out of the movie, I was all yes!—Give women a chance and a place at the table and we can do just about anything. And these black women who broke so many barriers in the face of so much discrimination—it makes me pause in awe.

The book layered a lot more history on that good feeling, which was also a good feeling.

And then somewhere in there I took a break and watched Bagdad Café again. Does anyone out there know/remember this movie? One of my all-time faves (I think it would have to be in my top 10). I loved this movie for the music first, most specifically “Calling You” by Jevetta Steele—a mesmerizing and haunting song. I am not sure I can listen to this song without being moved to tears (is there any other song that falls into that category? Oh, yes, “What a Wonderful World,” by Louis Armstrong).

It might not work if you haven’t seen the movie (the emotional wallop of the song, I mean), not sure—I’ve mostly only heard it watching the movie (at least a dozen times now).

But this quirky movie is worth watching if it has escaped your radar. It’s one of those movies I seem to enjoy just a bit more each time, and I never tire of C.C.H. Pounder.

And I have recently learned that this song that I have loved for decades is sung by a local musician. Yes, right here in the Twin Cities. Jevetta Steele, part of the Steele family. (Thank you dear spouse for bringing this to my attention; I have a tendency to miss things close to home.)

Back to books. In the land of poetry, I’m On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove. About two-thirds through, I am thoroughly enjoying it. I especially liked the second section, “Freedom: Bird’s-Eye View,” which contains several gems. One of the best known may be “Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967,” and that certainly is a most excellent poem. I thought to include that one because I love it. But I decided on this one because it’s shorter and perhaps a little less well known.

The First Book

Open it.

Go ahead, it won’t bite.
Well . . . maybe a little.

More a nip, like. A tingle.
It’s pleasurable, really.

You see, it keeps on opening.
You may fall in.

Sure, it’s hard to get started;
remember learning to use

knife and fork? Dig in:
You’ll never reach bottom.

It’s not like it’s the end of the world—
just the world as you think

you know it.

–Rita Dove

We’re still in serious winter here in Minnesota, so I’m going back to hibernating with my books. Stay warm (to those of you in the winter climes) and happy reading to all!

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Early Birds 2018

I start a new bird list at the beginning of each year. (This is in addition to my life list—all the different birds I’ve seen since I started paying attention; and my yard list—all the birds I’ve seen in or from my yard or the house.) The new year started out on a good note.

The first bird of the year was a goldfinch. Any year that a house sparrow is not my first bird is a good year. But a goldfinch seemed especially fine. I don’t see goldfinches in my yard every day, or even very often, so having a goldfinch greet me on my first look out the back window on the morning of January 1 was a fine start to the birding year.

The next bird to arrive was the house sparrow, but along with the house sparrow, umm—not a house sparrow. Female house finch! I never did see a male (much more obvious, like a sparrow with a head bathed in raspberry), but the female hung around for quite a while. I’m attributing this in large part to the fact that I threw out some birdseed on December 31st—it was so cold! In addition to water, I always try to put out extra birdseed on these extra cold days (meaning the high temperatures are below zero).

That was the exciting start to the birding day (and year). Later in the day (back at the window), I saw a blue jay. I love the jays—sassy birds, smart too, and always fun to watch. They have a huge number of calls and songs. The jay was followed by a cardinal. I see cardinals in the yard pretty much every day, but it’s not a guarantee, and I was glad to welcome him to the new year. Mid-afternoon some crows flew overhead, moseying towards their roosting area near downtown. Just as we’re nearing dusk, I hear honking and look overhead. Canada geese.

Seven bird species on the first day of the year is not bad, especially since I didn’t leave the house.

January 3: a spectacular add—bald eagle. Not spectacular because it’s so rare, but because the sighting was so very fun. I was out shoveling the walk on a very cold day, and I heard crows calling to the north. I look up and see they are chasing after an eagle (this is called mobbing). The eagle is flying fairly low—just above the treetops, and then whee! it swoops down and into the street, only just a few feet above the pavement. It flew along for several yards, and then started the ascent back to the sky. I heave a breath of relief (it’s a fairly busy street) and continue to watch the eagle. It moves up and up and slowly drifts south (all of this happened about a short city block to the north) until it’s right overhead.

Even as I was standing there I realized I must look like an idiot, and had done for a good 15-20 minutes, standing on my front sidewalk in a windchill of -20 or so, staring into the sky with a big grin on my face. And I couldn’t care one bit because it was one of my more magical birding moments. I watched until I couldn’t anymore because I’d be staring right at the sun. It felt like a New Year’s gift.

Also on the 3rd, I saw my first black-capped chickadee of the year, and my first junco. I love both these birds, but the chickadee especially makes me smile. Black-capped chickadees are year-round residents in Minnesota, and a fun backyard visitor most especially in the winter when the birds are fewer. I also saw a rock dove (aka pigeon)—the only bird on my list so far that is not on my yard list.

Except for the white-breasted nuthatch that I saw on the 7th—a warmer day and we walked to the pizza place. I heard the nuthatch call before I saw it.

And that was it for a while, until the 14th. I was looking out the back window at a group of Canada geese overhead (I always look up; it’s winter, there aren’t that many birds, and I want to respect the ones that stick it out), and one of these geese seems more of a duck. What? I look closer, and no, not a duck, a very small Canada goose—Cackling goose! This is a new bird for my yard list.

So far, the early birds bode well.

Happy birding!

Leaping into Autumn

How’d that happen? It seemed like it was all summer all the time, and then I turned around and it was fall. I think it was the freeze warning a couple of days ago. We didn’t frost in Minneapolis, but lots of other parts of Minnesota did.

The frost put me in mind of the herbs that I want to harvest before freeze—rosemary, feverfew, catnip, lemongrass. I went to grab a basket for the fresh-cut herbs, but all my baskets seemed to be full with pretty much already dried herbs. Yikes! I needed to take care of these herbs before harvesting yet more.

First, I had to gather things together. The cat seemed to have had a bit of a heyday in there swatting at the herbs (he is particularly fond of the lemongrass, for some reason—much more so than catnip, interestingly enough). He also seems to have squashed my drying calendula (which I realized was pretty much completely dried since most of it was decimated into wee bits). Sigh. Luckily, I still have some left from last year and as well as plenty from my herbal friend in California.

I sorted yarrow, lemongrass, sage, rosemary, catnip, and lemon balm. For cleaning, I started with the lemon balm and then did the catnap. These two got combined, and I poured organic vodka over them. In six weeks, I will have a wonderfully effective mild sleep aid (just a small sip before bed). Also good for anxiety and upset stomach.

Next I cleaned the yarrow. Then I sat and looked at my list and thought for awhile about what I wanted to do with the yarrow. I usually tincture it, but I have plenty of yarrow tincture on hand. So I cleaned the rosemary and added it to the yarrow (used the pestle to ground it up pretty well, especially the rosemary), and covered them with olive oil. This is a new combo I’ve not tried before, but it should be good for arthritis. And it should smell good (rosemary has many medicinal properties, but I think its sharp, happy-making aroma might be the most powerful).

Sage and lemongrass didn’t seem like a good combination to me, so they remain. I think I will keep the lemongrass to use in salves (it imparts a nice lemony scent), and perhaps use the sage primarily in its customary culinary role. (Sage dressing for Thanksgiving, anyone?)

When I saw all the clean-up I needed to do before harvest, I checked the weather for the next few days. The lowest prediction is 38 degrees, and then next week we climb back up to toy with the 70s. I decided that if the lemongrass, catnip, and rosemary had survived this far, they could wait until next week. But I did harvest the feverfew, because I have none in back-up (which really surprised me when I moved into almost panic mode while going through the pharmacopeia and coming up feverfewless).

Lots of autumnal signals outside my herbal obsessions: Last week I saw white-throated sparrows in the backyard, migrating south for the winter (not very far south—they overwinter in Iowa and the southern United States; one year I had a white-throated sparrow at my feeder throughout most of the winter, very exciting for a Minnesota birder). I also spotted a Tennessee warbler in my backyard a few days ago. Definitely migration season.

And of course the trees, the plants, the colors, the leaves. The trees closest to the Mississippi are starting to get serious color. A lot of trees in Minneapolis are still green, but the sugar maples are already fiery orange and bright red. Beautiful contrast to neighboring trees just starting to mosey into yellow.

No crunchy leaves underfoot yet. The best part of autumn is still to come.

October Is for Home

The reading theme this month is house/home. When better than in October, when you’re starting to move from the outdoor of summer towards the indoor of winter. This is a repeat from last year because we both had so many books we didn’t get to. Since I’ve not been reading so much in the last couple of months, I didn’t do my usual careful gleaning of the nonfiction shelves. Still, I have a nice assortment to choose from:

  • Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, Paul Collins
  • The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, Kao Kalia Yang (local author)
  • The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca, Tahir Shah
  • February House, Sherill Tippins
  • Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, Thich Nhat Hanh
  • A Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, Brianna Karp
  • The City Homesteader, Scott Meyer

Number one on my list just now is Sixpence House. I feel about ready to get lost in a town of books. I’m also quite interested in The Latehomecomer which has been on my to-read list for years now, and also February House, which is about a house shared by W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, in Brooklyn during 1940 and 1941 (described as a yearlong party).

My fiction shelves surprised me. Apparently, I had been more diligent in reading my homely fiction that I realized. Still, several viable contenders:

  • At Home With the Glynns, Eric Kraft
  • Lions at Lamb House, Edwin Yoder*
  • Homecoming, Caren Gussof
  • The Irresistible Henry House, Lisa Grunwald
  • The Teahouse Fire, Ellis Avery
  • The Newsboys’ Lodging House, Jon Boorstin*
  • The Homecoming Party, Carmine Abate

*Both of these books have William James as a character. That in and of itself makes them appeal to me, and reading them in the same month could be just the thing. Also very high on my to-read list is The Irresistible Henry House, which I think might be one of those don’t-want-to-leave-your-chair books.

But the month starts with Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (one of the scariest books I’ve ever read; right up there with Stephen King’s The Shining). But House of Leaves is much more complex and multilayered than The Shining, with a design that makes its own thread. I’ve read it twice before. The first time I mostly got scared and was kind of amazed; the second time I noted a lot of design detail that I missed on the first go. On this third read, I’m wondering if the scary factor will still be there. The time is right: October with its shorter days, and dark rainy damp evenings (thunderstorms as I write) is perfect for a long scary book.

The September theme (man/woman/boy/girl/child), much like the August theme, was a bit of a bust, and for the same reason: I just didn’t read that much in September. I read a child, a girl, two men, a woman, and kids. Just Kids, by Patti Smith, would be the standout. And purely because the titles are fun, I will mention Running Like a Woman With Her Hair on Fire, by Martina Newberry, and The Man Who Sleeps in My Office, by Jason Sommer (both poetry).

Happy reading, and happy belated equinox!

Postcard Project Mid-Year Report (Belated)

At the start of the year, tired and frustrated with partisan politics, I decided to write a postcard every week to the Minnesota Republican Senate Majority Leader, who seems to be an amiable, well-intentioned man. My intent was not to rile or rage, but simply to impart my opinion in a respectful manner. He is a conservative from a small (but fun) town in northern Minnesota. I am a liberal in Minneapolis.

He had said he wanted to build bridges and work in a bipartisan manner. I, too, want to build bridges and work in a bipartisan manner. Hence, the postcard project. I thought if he received a thoughtful, well-reasoned (and occasionally entertaining) postcard from a liberal every week, that it perhaps might move the needle a little, if not in terms of beliefs or values, at least in how we view the person across the aisle.

And move the needle it did. But surprise surprise, not his needle—my needle. Totally unanticipated outcome from this project.

Being a person of moderate intelligence, I knew that if I simply wrote vituperative postcards, they would not get the kind of attention I was seeking. That’s not my style, anyway. I’d rather entertain, I’d rather educate, I’d rather provide suggestions that seem to at least have a possibility of being considered, even if only for a moment. And as I got more into the postcard project, I started reading much more closely about state politics. Because of course it helps if you know what you’re talking about when you’re writing weekly missives to a senator.

Of course I’m always looking for news in the paper about my guy, but I read everything. And I notice this huge difference across the Republican party. Why this surprises me, I do not know, but there are as many ways of being a Republican as there are of being a Democrat. There are Republicans who are environmentalists; there are Evangelicals that are earth stewards (yes!). There is common ground to be found.

I am starting to understand a lot of conservative principles. And while this understanding has not changed my values, it is making me increasingly aware of places where our goals might be similar, but we approach it in such different ways we don’t see our commonalities.

Yes, wow, can you believe it? All this from a postcard project? But wait, there’s more! Towards the end of July, I realized I was learning so much that I decided to add another Republican to my postcard fold—head of the finance committee and very involved in healthcare policy (which I am super concerned about). So far I have sent her 9 postcards. I’ve sent the Senate Majority Leader 50 (50! Clearly not a postcard a week, but rather “a minimum of a postcard a week.”). I had no idea how compelling and fun this project would be.

I like to think they enjoy getting the postcards. I have a huge assortment (birds, cooking, various artists, botanicals, WPA posters, science fiction, other bookish postcards), and I try to tie the postcard image/picture to the message. Sometimes they’re a wee bit funny, and I like to think that every once in a while they evoke at least a smile.

The Nature of July

I am a heat wimp. I’ve spent much of July sitting at the dining room table reading under the ceiling fan. I have read 14 books so far this month. Let me quickly note that five were graphic novels (Anya’s Ghost, Camelot 3000, two volumes of Lumberjanes, and Xena, Warrior Princess). Three were poetry (average length, 113 pages). Let’s just say that heady reading has not served a large part of the July reading menu, though I do still hope to find out Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?

But one can’t sit in the dining room 24/7, so when a cool morning blew in a few days ago, Kathleen and I went birding. There were not a lot of birds to be seen (in part because the cattails obscured our view of the marsh). There was one particularly noisy resident; I searched and searched for this persistent singer to no avail. Later, the same sassy song taunts me on the other side of the road. Again I seek but do not find. Finally the poor bird took pity on me, and the marsh wren flew to the top of a cattail and sang and sang and sang. It was one of those I-love-birding moments.

Another sighting: A small bird was mobbing a red-tailed hawk, and every once in awhile, it would land on the hawk’s back and ride along for a few of the hawk’s wing strokes, and then go back to its pestering. It landed and sailed along three times while I was watching. Not for long, but definitely riding on the back of the hawk. I’ve never seen such a thing.

The lack of birds wasn’t much of a problem, because I kept getting distracted by the butterflies. One beautiful butterfly in particular I memorized, and then sketched it (badly, but captured size and color) as soon as I got back to the car. When I got home and looked it up, I found it was a painted lady. I had never even heard of lady butterflies. I spent hours perusing my butterfly book. Coppers, Checkerspots, Sulphurs, Fritillaries, Hairstreaks, Commas.

I have always thought of butterflies as inhabitants of sunny grasslands and prairies. But I’ve learned that some butterflies prefer moist woods, others like to be near water, others like woodland edges, some prefer shaded forest, and a whole subset favors roadsides. They seem to be pretty much everywhere. Not just sunny meadows.

In addition to thinking butterflies mostly hung out in prairies, I also thought they pretty much flew the same. You know—like butterflies. But some fly low to the ground. Some fly erratically, others sail. Some swerve from side to side. Some are fast, some slow.

And the names! Part of my enjoyment while flipping through the butterfly book was appreciating the fine names of some of these butterflies: Sleepy Orange, Fatal Metalmark, Crimson Patch, Question Mark, Mourning Cloak, Common Wood-Nymph, Confused Cloudywing, Dreamy Dustywing, Black Dash, Whirlabout, and California Sister. I would love to see a California Sister.

I decided to start a butterfly year list (which of course means I have a life list but I only started it last year and I forgot about it because the butterflies have been gone so long). But it is July and the butterflies are back, and I have remembered the up-side of birding in July. Butterflies.

So far I have 7 butterflies on my year list. I am hoping to get to 20. A whole new world awaits me.

If a Tree Falls in a City….

Today the city cut down one of our boulevard trees. It wasn’t mine, it was my neighbor’s, but only a few feet from my property. I feel the loss keenly. (Ach! I have realized we have an uncommon use of the word boulevard in Minnesota. The boulevard refers to the space of grass [usually about 3’ wide] that separates sidewalks from streets.)

It was a big tree, a majestic tree. A tree of spirit. I will miss it dearly.

But it was dying, and had been for several years. Last Friday (a day of no wind to speak of) I was on the front porch and heard a loud crack and a thunderous crash, quite close to the house. A very mighty limb had given up the ghost and fallen to the ground. I was first on the scene, and the large branch was blocking the entire street. I tried to move it (fat chance!) and was happy to see three neighbors arrive (the crack and crash really was quite loud) and we moved the branch and cleaned up the debris in a couple of minutes. So we knew the tree was a goner. But seeing it dying and seeing it gone are two different things.

I watched the removal almost from the get-go. The noise woke me at 7:00 and I was on the front porch by 9:00. In spite of myself, I was absolutely fascinated. How do you cut down a tree that spreads over several houses, without causing damage?

First, you post no-parking signs. Then you close the street at both ends of the block. Then you unload the equipment (which included something very like a bobcat except it was designed to move logs—it completely fascinated me), park the equipment (truck for the logs), and move the equipment into position (the cherry picker—I’m sure it is not a cherry picker by name, but this is the lift that gets the sawyer up in the tree).

And while I mourn the tree, watching these men (I saw only men) work was almost like watching ballet.

(And I must say this just as an aside: Many people complain about lazy government workers, long breaks, and a lot of standing around. I am sitting on the front porch reading the paper, waiting for them to take a break. I don’t think they ever took a break.)

The linchpin seemed to be the guy up in the cherry picker. I have never seen an entire tree dismantled (I do hate to use that word for a tree, but it is still most appropriate from this perspective). There is a complete and total science (possibly also a bit of intuition, but I am only intuiting here) on taking down a tree. Some limbs you can let free-fall (this is what I saw mostly when I first arrived). This freaked me out for a bit until I realized that they only did it when they (the sawyer, actually) knew that it would fall directly on the road. He was never wrong.

So while I sing the praises of the sawyer, there was also this amazing ground crew, the rest of the ballet (because really, a ballet with only one person is hardly a ballet). When a branch dropped, the souped-up bobcat swooped to grab and move the logs; others gathered smaller branches and debris; and I kept waiting for them to take a break, to just stop for awhile, but they never did.

Back to the sawyer. I was particularly keen to know how they made sure these huge limbs don’t fall on people’s houses (having one hang above my very own house). It took me a little time (and a little coffee), but I finally realized they were using ropes. I watched one large branch, in particular, and as the sawyer made his final cut, I could not imagine how this would not damage something (my house, my neighbor’s house, or foliage at the very minimum). But I watched the limb, and the ropes, and it landed exactly in the middle of the street.

After all the limbs were cropped, the cherry picker moved, and they started sawing from the bottom. They sawed and sawed. The rest of the workmen were around, cleaning up bits of this and that, sweeping and raking up debris. One even sat down on a brick wall, for a moment. A bit of a lull. But the bobcat was moving and workers in the picture (though always at least two watching the tree and the cutting, which I found very reassuring). And then, the street is empty. No workers.

At the same time, spouse comes home and says the street might be blocked off all day, just as I say they’re almost done taking down the tree. Nah, he says, and goes out the front door to check it out. He gets 10’ from the door, and is warned back by the sawyer himself. The rest of the tree was down less than a minute later.

Right in the middle of the street.

I will miss the tree greatly. I’ve cried (several times now—it was very nearby and quite old, and I have a particular fondness for trees) and I have put flowers and some fresh currants (that the birds must have spared for this exact purpose) on the stump.

But I must also give kudos to the crew that arrived this morning and removed a tree that needed to be cut down, being in the city and dropping limbs as it was. They didn’t just take the big parts of the tree; throughout the process, they went around and picked up branches and twigs in the street and on neighboring lawns. One of the workers picked up a chunk of wood the size of a baseball. And then they swept the road and sidewalks after they were done.

Except for some sawdust and a few leaves and a stump, you’d hardly know they were here.

I will miss the tree, but I am thankful and slightly amazed at this ballet team that works together so well to do something so difficult.