Last week an overloaded boat full of African migrants seeking refuge in Europe capsized off the Italian island of Lampedusa, at the cost of at least 143 lives. I learned of Lampedusa only weeks ago, while playing the online game Geoguessr. What I saw onscreen was a quite rundown Italian city. I had no idea there was such an island just 70 miles off the coast of Tunisia. It didn’t look like a safe and welcoming place to be a stranger, but apparently other migrants have sought refuge there, too.
The director of health services for Lampedusa, Pietro Bartolo, was interviewed on TV. He seemed like a genuinely compassionate man, moved to tears by the tragedy that had happened in his jurisdiction. One observation he made has stuck with me: The children among the victims, he said, were wearing new shoes, a sure sign of hope.
I’ve thought of those new shoes ever since. I’ve thought of all the parents over time, including those in my own family history, who have dressed their children in new shoes for a long, dangerous journey to a new and strange destination where life is supposed to be better. Few of us can look back and say with certainty that our ancestors have stayed put in the one place they were born to and felt entitled to claim as home. Migration, exile, displacement, refugee status are common to the histories of all peoples. Those hope-shod children and their parents deserve our compassion always, and, too often, our grief.
I have been at work the last couple of weeks drafting a chapter on 1877. Yes, I just picked a year that might show changes afoot that advance the story I’m telling about the transformation of a landscape–to be precise, the drainage of a large wetland. I chose 1877 because I happened to learn that my great-great grandfather closed his blacksmith shop that year, at age 50. I figured there would be other reasons for doing so besides the toll on his body. 1877 turned out to be a good choice, but I won’t tell why here. That’s the story I’ve been drafting. You’ll have to wait for the book, which no one will be happier to see completed than its author.
One of the notable events of 1877 was the locust plague—an invasion of grasshoppers that crawled, flew, and wafted in on the wind as a drought spread from the west into my home territory in Southern Minnesota. Anxiety about the crop-eating insects turned out to be worse than the damage they actually did in Freeborn County. Its many lakes and wetlands did not make a hospitable environment for grasshoppers.
Just a few minutes ago, I stepped out my front door to water the young oak tree in my boulevard, because a heat wave in August and September has brought drought conditions in 2013, too. Clinging to the screen on my door was a creature like this one.
This photo, cropped and enlarged and framed, spent the summer hanging in the Westminster Gallery in downtown Minneapolis. It was taken by Maria Register, who snapped it because it was such a rare sighting, and because she thought the bug looked out of place. She called it a grasshopper and surmised it would be more at home in the grass, where its color would work as camouflage. She titled the photo “An Unlikely Beauty.” (The image here is a smudge compared to the framed photo.) A visitor to the photo exhibit said, however, that it was not a grasshopper but a locust, and that it was the same species of locust that wrought havoc on the plains and prairies in the 1870s. It likes the dirt.
So why did another of these rarities–or maybe the same one–turn up today, just as I completed my first full draft? Shall I take it as a talisman? Is it a warning or a sign of approval? Or shall I just blame its appearance on the drought that is compelling me to water my young tree? I just went out to move the hose, and the insect was still there.
I have gone missing from this blog for most of the summer. Yes, I’m still mourning the loss of Leila and still being surprised by her absence in odd moments. The prime explanation for my silence, however, is that I’ve been writing elsewhere. I’ve been working, pushing ahead on the research and drafting of a book I’ve had underway for too long now.
This week may see a let-up in the pace of my work. The forecast is for temperatures in the 90s, approaching 100, with heat indexes (indices) already higher than that thanks to the sticky humidity. My brain grinds slowly in hot, humid weather, and I’ve found it wise to be forgiving and set my expectations low. I don’t have air-conditioning. That’s my choice, not a complaint. It’s enough to be sealed inside the house all winter with a gas furnace blasting. I don’t want to spend my summer in a refrigerator. Instead, I adapt to the heat.
My first adaptation is to remove my watch, which pinches my sweaty skin. The word “watch” is fitting, because I watch mine compulsively. Going without it frees me somewhat from the constraints of time. (I can still cast glances at the top corner of my computer.) I have been living in the 1870s the last few weeks, anyway, reading microfilmed newspapers from 1877, the year the railroads came through my hometown from every direction, the year my great-great grandfather retired from blacksmithing, the year McCormick farm machinery and sewing machines and pianos peppered the advertising sections of my hometown newspaper.
Now, to get myself through this hot week, I’ve moved back two more centuries. Last week I happened upon an essay, “Tidens historia” (the History of Time) in a collection by the Swedish historian Peter Englund titled Förflutenhetens landskap (Landscapes of the Past). I found this book in a Little Free Library standing near the hardware store in my neighborhood. I’ve begun taking my own Scandinavian cast-offs there, to trade with the unknown reader of Swedish who left this treasure. Englund points out that the minute hand on the clock wasn’t developed until the 1670s, the same decade in which people who could afford them began carrying miniature clocks on their persons. Before then, there was no standard way to divide time into such brief segments as a minute, and even the measure of hours was irregular, different from one locale to another. Only after the introduction of the minute hand did time begin to be seen as a measurable commodity, with a monetary value, or, more germane to my situation, the moral expectation that each minute be put to good use. Moreover, humans living in the 1670s could still travel no faster than a horse could run or a ship could sail, Englund says.
So what’s the rush? This week there will be none, and if there’s work produced, I’ll welcome it as a bonus. As long as I’m living outside of time, I need not feel bothered, either, that I haven’t written a blog post before now.
Early in 2001 a young labrador mix–maybe a year or two–strayed from her home north of the Twin Cities. No one knows who housebroke her so perfectly or taught her “sit” and “down” and to wait for an “OK” before exiting the door on her walk. No one knows whether her leaving was deliberate or a garbage sniffing gone too far. No one knows what name those people called into the dusk when she didn’t return.
By the time she was brought to the Animal Humane Society she was skinny and dehydrated. Kennel cough left her quiet and subdued enough to lie in her pen looking demure while the other adult dogs barked and howled and leaped against the fencing.
I wasn’t shopping for a dog. Our mischievous woodwork-chewing, chocolate-binging, furniture-marking Rebel had died three years before. My life was nearing its empty-nest phase. One daughter would soon graduate from high school. The other had a year of college left and was living at home, but her plan was to go to Korea after graduation. She had turned 21 the day before and thought it an important enough milestone for an extra day of celebration. “Let’s go to the Humane Society and just look at the dogs,” she suggested. That quiet, demure black one caught us.
Over the last twelve years I have often wished I could tell those people in or near Coon Rapids what became of their sweet girl. She never got to hunt ducks, which I presume they were training her for, but all her instincts were poised on the mallards swimming in our city lakes. I apologized to her many times for my inability to satisfy them. The first time we left her home alone she found a copy of Packinghouse Daughter and not only chewed its edges but ripped the dustjacket right across the photo of my face. We bought her a kennel, and it became not only a place of confinement but her refuge from scolding looks and loud voices. She needed little scolding, however. She never chewed another object that didn’t belong to her. She never stole food off countertops, although she was a determined sidewalk scavenger.
She became the perfect companion for a work-at-home writer. She wasn’t needy, didn’t whine for attention, didn’t follow my heels up and down stairs. She liked her own space–preferably in front of the window on my Tempurpedic mattress, and she was known to move upstairs or down when the humans got too noisy. Someone once called her “catlike,” but I would dispute that. She didn’t cuddle but relished back massages. She communicated her needs with a focused stare. She was an obsessive fetcher. I couldn’t shovel snow without finding a frisbee or a deflated football in every other shovelful.
Mostly she loved to walk. We took three walks a day: before breakfast, early-to-mid afternoon, and either before or after the 10:00 news. She never learned to heel, so she always led the way, and we walked at a good clip. (I never enforced heeling, because I’d just as soon see a dog enjoy some good sniffing.) We became neighborhood fixtures. I suspect I was that woman who gets pulled around and talks to her dog. She drew attention from passersby–just an ordinary black lab, but with charisma. Salespeople stepped out of stores to offer her treats. Once a man who lived on our walking route ran across the street barefoot to hug me and thank me for taking such good care of my dog. She took good care of me. My whole body still longs to walk on that schedule.
She never passed up a meal, not until last week. On Sunday, the cook preparing to open the Thai restaurant on our walk brought out a metal bowl full of chicken and beef and set it down on the sidewalk for her. On Monday she hung around her dish asking for seconds. On Tuesday she stopped eating altogether. Even a piece of chicken couldn’t tempt her. A nasal tumor had pushed one eyesocket forward weeks before and was distending the other. Her breathing had become more and more obstructed. She obviously hurt but still never complained. On Friday, we put her to sleep.
A neighbor had objected to the planned euthanasia, which left me second-guessing the awful decision. She was, after all, still walking, still greeting people and wagging her tail. I asked our vet, Dr. Teresa Hershey, for her advice, and here is part of what she wrote in an email:
“What I like best about dogs is they find joy even in bad situations. It sounds like Leila is doing that- she’s so good-natured. . . .Your neighbor sounds like she loves Leila, but she doesn’t see Leila all of the time like you do. And Leila probably puts on her best face for company.”
I won’t be shopping for another dog soon. Leila, the best, may be the last, although I won’t say never. I’m thinking I can have my wood floors redone. I can come and go at will, on my schedule. I can take a long car trip. My nest is truly empty now, eerily empty.
Here in Minnesota we expect another winter storm tomorrow, past the midway point of April, before the snow from our early April storm has even finished melting away. The 50 degree day promised at the end of every week’s weather calendar keeps moving ahead, luring us day by day through a cold and dreary spring. This past Monday, my favorite radio show, “Bop Street” on KFAI, played a series of doleful songs about spring. I was listening passively while I finished up preparations for my class that evening, yet I could feel my mood sinking lower and lower. I caught on to the trick when Frank Sinatra’s voice began the dirge-like “Spring Is Here”: “Why doesn’t my heart go dancing? . . . Why doesn’t the breeze delight me? . . . Could it be because nobody loves me?” Thank you, emcee Pete Lee, for making me laugh out loud.
My old dog, Leila, is on her last legs, but they still trod ahead of me at the end of the leash on our thrice-daily walks. She has tumors in snout and neck, yet she still scans every nook and cranny with her good eye and her good nostril. Dogs may be the most optimistic species on earth. Today she stood outside the butcher shop, nose in the crack of the door, tail wagging, waiting for one of the treats she knows is inside. The shop wouldn’t open for another two hours, but I stood there with her until even her tireless patience gave out and she moved on to the birdseed stash outside the Tibetan gift shop.
Cancer has struck our human family, too, fifteen years after its last appearance. My sister is on a six-week chemo holiday, eating to put on weight, feeling her scalp turn fuzzy again without the weekly onslaught of toxins. We wait for the sun to shine on her upcoming round of scans and lab tests.
Monday evening when I pulled into the parking lot at the Loft, where I was about to teach my last class of this session, I heard a faint bird song. When I opened my car door it came clearer and I saw its source: a female cardinal at the top of a tree in the adjoining lot. She wasn’t chirping any of the formulaic patterns we recognize as cardinal sounds; she was singing a full-out melody more reminiscent of the nightingale I heard one midsummer night in Sweden. I carried that tune with me into the classroom and might be hearing it still, were it not for the news that came over the radio on my drive home after class: a terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon.
The commentators who study terrorism tell us that the attackers intend to arouse fear just as much as they intend to kill and maim. They want us to remain in a perpetual state of fear, questioning our reliance on our government’s capacity to protect us, uncertain about everything we normally take for granted, afraid even to leave our houses.
I will walk my dog again this afternoon, this evening after dark, again tomorrow, for as long as she’s capable. I’ll be listening for the cardinals, whatever they choose to sing. I worry about the spring birds surviving the coming storm, but I’ve seen on my computer screen how the Decorah eagles, feathers soaked in the freezing rain, hunker down over their hatchlings knowing the sun will come eventually and dry them all out again. We just have to trust a bit longer.
This morning I had the pleasure of hearing a sermon preached by Anna Kendig, who will be ordained to the Presbyterian ministry this coming Saturday. I watched Anna grow up, and I still remember the sermon she gave on behalf of her fellow seniors on a Youth Sunday about ten years ago. It was a “real” sermon, a metaphoric tour de force that used the church’s stained-glass windows to articulate an already mature faith. I’m pleased that Anna found her vocation early. She’s a natural.
Of course her commanding presence in the pulpit set me thinking about all the would-be female ministers who were denied access to it in earlier times. Oddly, I can say that I am a beneficiary of that unjust exclusion. My earliest memories of worship feature at their center a round little woman in a blue suit named Florence Lien, who surely would have been an ordained Lutheran pastor had she not been born too soon. Instead, she became the Sunday School director at First Lutheran Church in Albert Lea, Minnesota. She gathered her underage charges in the smaller, modern chapel, not the dim, imposing, sacred space of the big sanctuary. I can still feel the smooth, blond finish on the pew and the stiffness of the starched dishtowel with a hole cut for my head that I wore as a member of the Cherub Choir. Miss Lien’s words to us laid the foundation of our faith. One story she told us still serves me well: Two girls were dawdling along on their way to school when they suddenly realized they would be late. One girl wanted to kneel on the sidewalk and pray that they arrive on time, but the other had a wiser idea: “We can pray while we run,” she said. It’s the best example I know of how grace and free will can co-exist.
Remembering Miss Lien got me to thinking about the spinster teachers who conducted my education at Lincoln Elementary School: Cleo Reiter, Agnes Preus (of the Minnesota Norwegian Lutheran Preuses, who, if male, were likely clergy), Bernice Olson, Mary Kampen, Lillian Purdue, and Lois Ann Kriesel (not a lifelong spinster). They were spinsters because the Albert Lea School District, like many others in the 1950s, did not hire married women. I left my second grade teacher, Madeline Feil, out of the list because she became an exception to the rule. She had announced just before Christmas vacation that we would have a different teacher when we returned to school because she was getting married. Yet she reappeared in January, for lack of a ready replacement, calling herself Mrs. Maceman, which the waxy-eared among us heard as Mrs. Basement. The professions were no longer closed to women, but enterprising women were roundly discouraged from becoming the doctors or lawyers or public officials or artists or business executives they might be today. A woman of intellect became a teacher, and many of these spinster teachers instilled their unfulfilled ambitions in their promising female students. I am the grateful beneficiary of the limitations placed on their lives. I had an excellent education.
The exclusion of married women was lifted by the time I started junior high, but still the district enforced an anti-nepotism policy. When teaching couples arrived in town, the husband usually got the job in Albert Lea while the wife waited for opportunities to open in the smaller rural districts nearby. The women employed in the high school tended still to be spinster teachers. I profiled one remarkable woman, career English teacher Sybil Yates, in Packinghouse Daughter. My journalism teacher, Edna Gercken, held the local clergymen’s association at bay when they wanted me removed as editor of the Ah La Ha Sa for arguing against prayer in public schools. Freedom of the press was sacrosanct to Miss Gercken, even if those exercising it were minors. I still evaluate the layout of a newspaper page through Miss Gercken’s eyes. My sophomore World History teacher, Elsie Sebert, was the sharpest of them all, and I feel privileged to have been taught by her. One day she told us that when she was walking along the street uptown, boys who had been students of hers always stopped to greet her. The girls, however, went out of their way to avoid her. “They think it’s contagious,” she said. “What they don’t realize is that some of us are old maids by choice.” I was stunned. No one had ever said aloud what other girls besides me probably longed to hear: That a woman could commit herself to a dream, an ambition, a vocation and let her prospects for marriage be as they may. Our spinster teachers had not simply been passed up in the game of romance. Many had chosen, and our education was richer for their choice, unfair though it was to make them choose.
I have not been much troubled by bad reviews of my publications. They have been few, thankfully, and they have generally not surprised me. I knew that Beyond Good Intentions would disgruntle some readers, because it takes up matters already controversial among adoptive parents. No book review has yet left me feeling personally aggrieved. Errors frustrate me–misquotes, for example, or when my hometown, Albert Lea, MN, is confused with its near neighbor and meatpacking sister, Austin. But to hurt me, a reviewer would have to catch me falling far short of some literary or moral standard I have set for myself.
Yet a certain type of bad review arouses my pity and makes me worry for the condition of reading in the United States. These are written by readers who read every bit of a book on the same level plane, with no eye or ear–or dare I say brain?–for alterations in tone, the use of irony, word play, shifts in perspective or any of the tools a writer uses to enrich and deepen a book’s meaning. Any single string of words is to be read literally, regardless of tone or context. Oh, what these poor readers are missing, and not just in my book. This review of Packinghouse Daughter, posted on the website Goodreads, may be the worst I’ve ever received:
Nov 21, 2012
Karl rated it one star
This book was required reading in a college level introductory creative nonfiction English class. People are selling this book as a look into union life and the “working class” family. What is left for the reader to figure out is the author is a communist. I attribute the 1959 violent strike to union leader Ralph Helstein who was influenced by Saul Alinsky (a Machiavellian style of community organizing), See page 359. [Author: The book is 280 pages long.]
This book is being used as a tool for indoctrination on college campuses to promote the conflict between the proletariat and bourgeoisie – class envy.
The author first hints at being a communist on p.5 with her “boyfriend Len” short for Lenin and then goes into discussing her years of protesting while at the University of Chicago. A second reference to her communist ideology is on p.203,”If ever anyone was ripe for communist influence, at least Marx’s theory of class conflict, it was fourteen-year-old me.”
This type of thinking deposits lifelong class hatred in its practitioners. An entire chapter is devoted to this hatred in, “My Vengeance On The Wienie Moguls.” This should be a warning to people not to embrace the class envy promoted in this book.
The poor guy just doesn’t get self-irony. Does he even see the irony in the name with which he has signed his review?
Give me the readers who, although they may read on that same flat plane, at least own up to their tastes. This post also appeared on Goodreads:
Apr 13, 2009
Dmitri rated it one star
This book was the first assigned for a class on the history of labor. I dropped the class after having to read this. It confirmed my preference of military history to social history.
Tomorrow’s election will, I hope, bring an end to one of the nastiest, most mendacious campaign seasons I’ve ever lived through. The influx of millions of dollars from SuperPacs, self-serving interest groups kept anonymous and accountable to no one, some of them even organized as tax-free non-profits, threatens to undermine our democracy. I’ve been muting their ads on TV, but unless I look away, I still see how slow-motion video distorts the face of Rick Nolan, a candidate for Congress in Minnesota’s eighth district, to make him look monstrous. It’s a sorry substitute for civil discussion of political disagreements.
Yet there is a way to counter the cynicism that wells up within when frustration and anger and fear of worse to come become hard to bear: It’s called door-knocking. I was introduced to door-knocking at age 7, when I went out with my dad to encourage fellow working-class citizens in the southwest part of Albert Lea, MN to vote DFL. (DFL stands for Democratic Farmer-Labor party, the Minnesota affiliate of the national Democratic party. The name represents the 1944 merger of the state Democratic party with the Farmer-Labor party, a progressive populist party that held the governorship and Senate and Congressional seats throughout the 1930s. Proposals to drop the FL arise from time to time, but the historically-minded among us do our best to retain the memory.) I immediately warmed to door-knocking, despite being an introvert. It helped, of course, to have a gregarious door-knocking partner like my dad, who could engage anyone in conversation about anything. I listened to lots of over-the-threshold talk about the relative merits of particular candidates, both “ours” and “theirs.” It was a generally pleasant way to pass the time, although I never seem to forget the woman who peered through the screen door at the Hubert Humphrey leaflet I held up and snarled, “I’d shoot him if I saw him.” It turned out to be an idle threat. She had plenty of chances to follow through, at local parades and at political rallies in city parks.
I’m still door-knocking all these decades later. Sometimes I have to peptalk my introverted self out onto the sidewalks, but I always come away both exhilarated and exhausted. I’ve walked through middle-class city and suburban neighborhoods where the lawn-signs tell you which houses to approach for a get-out-the-vote drive and which to pass by. I’ve door-knocked neighborhoods with doorbells hanging from frayed wires and voters housed in gerrymandered apartments with no accessible doors to knock on. I’ve been both welcomed and met warily, in every neighborhood.
This year I’ve been able to get out only once, this last weekend. My sister, who is sometimes my door-knocking partner, is sidelined by illness this year, and I have not yet persuaded my daughters that disrupting a stranger’s day can be a good time, so I went to the DFL headquarters alone and got assigned a partner, a woman named Julie who, thankfully, speaks a little Spanish. There hasn’t been much call for Swedish since the 1920s, probably. Our assignment looked quick–just one block on one side of the street. But the street was lined with apartment buildings, with an average of three floors and eight apartments per floor. One building was firmly locked, with no doorbell, and no one responded to our loud hammering, but we were welcomed into the others and allowed to go from door to door. Nearly everyone we found at home was an immigrant, either East African or Latino. Immigrant voters make a day of door-knocking a joy. At a duplex tucked in among the apartment buildings, five little kids came running down the stairs and invited us up to talk to their parents. Their mothers, two Somali sisters, came out of the kitchen where they were obviously cooking a meal, and invited us in to the living room. Yes, they were registered to vote, and yes, they knew the location of their polling place. Like many of the other immigrants we encountered, they were eager to vote and thrilled to be voting. They do not take their right to vote lightly. They even thanked us for taking the time to knock on their door. An East African man in one of the apartments asked about a friend in St. Paul who works from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. With only one hour at the end of the day to get back to her neighborhood polling place, how could she vote? I told him that by law employers have to allow time for their employees to vote. “She’ll be in line at 7:00 a.m. then,” he said. “She’ll just be late to work, because she’s not going to miss voting!”
I’m glad to find that as jaded as I might get, new Americans will remind me of what matters, of what’s really at stake, and I’ll recover the excitement and pleasure I felt trailing my dad from conversation to conversation, knowing someday I’d be a voter, too.
This morning while I was driving along Excelsior Boulevard in St. Louis Park, MN (hometown of Senator Al Franken, Thomas Friedman, and the Coen Brothers) I made a sad, but not surprising, discovery: The building that housed one of my favorite stores, Latitudes, was standing empty and for rent. Latitudes sold globes and maps from all over the world. Of course I’m regretting now that I didn’t stop in more frequently and make more purchases. I knew, though, that it was only a matter of time before Latitudes would be done in by GPS systems and Google Maps and the like. People are too hurried and harried now for all that unfolding and refolding. All they want is the quickest route from here to there. They don’t want to be distracted by landmarks along the way or encumbered by trivia about where they ARE, where they exist in the larger scope of things.
[LATE-BREAKING NEWS: Latitudes has not gone out of business, but it has moved to a smaller location and beefed up its online sales. Since I had already composed this blog entry, I'm going to post it anyway. I think the trend still holds.]
I am a map-loving, atavistic oddball. I have collected and perused maps since before I ever went anywhere, before I even crossed the Iowa border nine miles south of my childhood house. I keep my maps in the big bottom drawer in the kitchen cupboard, except for the ones I consult frequently. Those lie on a bookcase in the dining room, within reach of the table where I spread them out. I’m not content with the close-up view of point A or the route to point B. I need context, always, in every aspect of my life.
Recently my daughter moved to a new apartment in San Francisco. I found the address easily on Google Maps, clicked on the satellite view, and saw nearby rooftops labeled with the names of the businesses they house. So, I had some sense of her new neighborhood, but I wanted to see it in relation to the rest of the city. I had an errand in a nearby strip mall with a Barnes and Noble store, so I went in and grabbed a sturdy, plastic San Francisco map. When I unfolded it at home, I realized it was a tourist map, with sectional close-ups of the places tourists would likely want to visit. My daughter’s street wasn’t on it, not anywhere. Latitudes carried “real” maps, full maps, and I got one and spread it out on the table. There I could see my daughter’s street in its context, in relation to downtown, her work, her transportation to work, the ocean, the airport, Golden Gate Park, the route she runs every morning. I could imagine a whole life, lived day-by-day in a real place, a whole city, the whole Bay Area, so much more encompassing and satisfying than a quick trip from here to there, or “there” alone.
Google Maps is handy and has its charms. One day, while trying to find out how many houses Mitt Romney owns (4–in the U.S., anyway), I landed on a website that promises aerial and street views of celebrity homes. I found Bob Dylan’s house in Malibu and zoomed in close. It’s a far cry from the Zimmerman family’s stucco foursquare in Hibbing, MN, which my friends and I scouted out on a post-Labor Day trip along the Iron Range. If you type “Iron Range” in Google Map’s search box, it suggests “Iron Range, Hibbing, MN,” which offers you a close-up of what appears to be the Hull-Rust Mine, the world’s largest open-pit iron mine, though there’s no explanatory label or caption. Minnesota’s Official State Highway Map shows you the whole Mesabi Range stretching from Coleraine to Aurora, the Vermilion Range between Tower and Babbitt, the Cuyuna Range north of Aitkin. It even shows you the tiny towns like Makinen and Palo, where Finnish miners blacklisted for union organizing ended up farming in the cutover white pine forest. Google Maps brings up Makinen, a lone junction, isolated out in the woods, entirely out of context.
As for those celebrity houses, I admit to looking at several more. But zooming in on Malibu or Belmont, MA mansions doesn’t show me their relation to South Central Los Angeles or South Boston. I can’t see how wealth is concentrated or what maintains it, nor does my field of vision include the places where people do with far less. I have to seek those out, separately, although in my mind they fit together.
Speaking of context, I must comment on my pleasant Sunday afternoon at Common Good Bookstore in St. Paul, MN (check the corner of Snelling and Grand), an independent bookstore that stays in business because it is not its owner’s (Garrison Keillor’s) primary source of income. I had been invited to introduce a debuting writer, Josh Garrett-Davis, and his new memoir, Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains. This book is the sort of memoir I strive to write and long to read. Josh could have written an ordinary memoir, one that focused on his puny (a relative term, not a judgment call) childhood in South Dakota, as the only child of divorced parents. But Josh is a context guy. Instead, he locates himself firmly in Pierre (East River) and Hot Springs (West River), South Dakota, in the 1980s and 90s, then reaches back in both family and public history and across the Great Plains, from east to west and north to south, to create for himself a “personal mythology” that explains who he is, where he has come from, and how that expansive context has shaped his worldview. It’s a rich, intelligent book that makes fascinating associations between one feature of the Great Plains and another. And it opens, even before the title page, with a map.