"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Chocolat Savant

Curled up as I am in the south brown chair at 3rd Crow Wing—there are two brown chairs in the living room—in front of the picture window as the sun brightens the living room in the late afternoon hours, my view is as much of the north wall of the living room as it is the picture window towards the lake.  The first day at the Cabin, I hauled various wooden boxes from their places around the Cabin and arranged them into a bookshelf system, something I’d seen done a few times and always wanted to try.  The Cabin is full of these wooden boxes, orange crates, peach crates, Hauenstein beer crates from the brewery in New Ulm, where my mother grew up.  Some boxes go horizontal, some go vertical, and I arrange them in various patterns until the composition pleases me.  Then I start putting books on my new shelves.

I have books for the summer that need a home, the books I’ve hauled north so I can complete my comprehensives this summer, books that I’ve rescued from various thrift stores, and those I’ve ordered from Amazon since I arrived.  I’ve spent time at the local library once or twice a week, but I find myself strangely disappointed by its selection.  I think that if I returned to Hubbard County to live, I would be spending a lot of money buying books, filling up every inch of wall space with bookshelves packed with colored spines of stories.

But my parents have been in and out of 3rd Crow Wing in the last few weeks, selling their house, moving Gram from her assisted living here to her new place in Minneapolis. They and their puppy, Daisy, have been sleeping in their camper, not the house.  The first night they were here, we watched Chocolat, and my mother and I were surprised that my father stayed awake for it.  But watching that movie and Vianne’s magical knack for picking someone’s favorite chocolate concoction, I was reminded of something:  I want to be that kind of savant for those looking for books in my shelves.  I want to be that person that someone comes to my house and says, “I need something to read,” and I can put a pensive finger to my lips, look across the spines of the books there, and pick out something that I know the person will like.  The kind of book that they never knew they couldn’t live without.

I may need more books for this.

And bookshelves.

Sometimes, already, I get to do this, but it’s harder when my family is so far away from my library.  My mother is the most willing to take my suggestions.  She doesn’t like violence, likes a satisfying ending.  She likes mysteries, but not too dark.  For her, I’ll pick Nevada Barr off my shelves, or Kathy Reichs.  She likes her Louis L’Amours—the only author that my parents can both agree on.  My father, however, is a tougher sell.  Not because I can’t read him, but because he’s stubborn.  I can tell him that he’ll love Lee Child until I run out of oxygen, but that man will find every excuse not to read them until he has no other options left to him—and then he reads them, loves them, and reads everything they ever wrote.  It’s gotten to the point where I look at him, shake my head, and scold, “Just read the damn book already!”  He tends not to remember that I’ve never steered him wrong yet.  It’s that first, hard step to get him into the pages that’s the obstacle.  I’d give my mother Tana French, but not my father.  My father likes strong, male protagonists.  I wonder if I could get him to read Nevada Barr, though, given that her protagonist is a park ranger in various national parks.  I will try.  After he reads Dennis Lehane.

My sisters are trickier.  K2 likes clever, witty fiction.  For her I’ll pull down Jennifer Crusie, though lately she’s been engulfed by Hunger Games and Game of Thrones—neither of which series I own.  For years, K2 and I traded the same copy of The Count of Monte Cristo and I suspect she still has it, hoarding it somewhere.  K2, I would give what I call “critical imagination” books—spinoffs of various classics, like Mrs. Dewinter or Rebecca’s Tale, spinoffs of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.  After Christmas one year, I gave her the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice (the one with Colin Firth), and two Jane Austen spinoffs—the Jane Austen Book Club and another variation of Pride and Prejudice. 

K3, I once made the mistake of giving popular fiction, which I knew was wrong when I handed it to her, but I somehow did it anyway.  I don’t think she ever read it.  K3 prefers nonfiction, but political nonfiction, political memoirs, Michael Pollan, Jonathan Safran Foer, and those.  K3 is more likely to read CNN before bed rather than a book, so she is incredibly well-informed.  I did give her David Sedaris once, but that felt vaguely wrong too.  For all that she is my sister, she is my youngest sister, four years younger, and she is still as much a mystery today in our adulthood as she was when we were children.  I do want her to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, though.

I also want to be the Aunt Karen (or right now, Aunt Kinny) who has the magical bookshelves for C., my blond dynamo of a niece, to pull from.  I collected children’s books long before I ever knew she would arrive, just for the promise of nieces and nephews who would someday visit my house.  For birthdays, I give my goddaughter Emily and my nieces-by-friendship-not-blood Harper and Violet books.  Violet got The Little Blue Truck for her first birthday.  But I want my shelves to be books that offer something new and exciting anytime my nieces come to visit, books for when they’re toddlers, books for when they’re starting to read, books that I can read to them at bedtime, books they can curl up with when they’re cuddled up next to the picture window at 3rd Crow Wing, watching a hummingbird named Harlan at the feeder. 

Right now, my crates and crates of children’s books are in the basement of K2’s house, on the lower shelves of their living room bookshelf, just waiting for C. to pull them down. Sometimes, C. double-fists her books:  sitting with her mom, or K3, or her Nana, as they’re reading to her and C. has a different book open on her lap.  

Monday, May 21, 2012

State of Mind: 3rd Crow Wing Monday

I've only been Up North for two weeks now, in this weird space of childhood memories and adult responsibilities, making new traditions and habits for myself in this place that holds so much of my identity and my memories.  The parentals have been in and out in the last two weeks, and I puppy-sat Daisy one of those days.  Right now, they're back in DL, Daisy has a spa appointment and puppy class today, then she gets spayed tomorrow.  The cats are quite glad to see her gone for a while.  Daisy has been trying to make friends, but it's not working--and frankly, from a human perspective, it's freaking hilarious.  Picture this:  energetic puppy, cranky Maeve.  Maeve growls and hisses, Daisy cocks her head, sits down, and echoes the noise back.  Maeve is not amused.  So, then, energetic puppy meets neurotic Galway:  Galway bats a paw (a claw-less paw) at Daisy, sometimes rather forcefully bats at her, Daisy sits down, bats a (much larger) paw back at Galway.  Galway is not amused.  Me, I think it's the best entertainment one can have, since the Cabin doesn't have cable or internet.

We're teaching Daisy to swim in the very shallow waters of 3rd Crow Wing, and as you can imagine, that's pretty funny too. She doesn't quite know what to do with herself when she splashes herself.  Instead of walking in the water, she likes to bounce like Tigger, like she's got springs in her ankles.  It's a really good way to wear out a puppy who's got more energy than my parents.  And I'm remembering summers here, swimming (only with an adult) and not being allowed to go past the end of the dock.  To my adult legs, that's barely knee deep.  And as we chase Daisy in the water, I point out a birch leaning over the ice ridge on the neighbor's property and comment that would make an excellent pirate ship.  We'd long ago lost our shoreline trees to erosion (before we put rocks there).

On the way up to the Cabin, I point out the baby white pines I've found.  When I'd told my mother about them last week, she exclaimed, "Oh, you found some Kermit trees!"  And I thought that was the best name in the world.  My grandparents were farmers by blood, but conservationists by heart.  I'd always thought that their conservationist ethic came from my grandfather, with his master's degree in agricultural economics and his work as a vocational agriculture teacher, but my mother says that it came from Gram.  My grandparents would find these little baby trees on their property and my grandfather would put stakes beside them, so nobody would trip or mow over them.  He would take care of them until they were large enough to transplant to another location with more sun, so they would have a better chance of growth.  Right now, the view to the lake is fairly well filled in with trees of 20-30 years, planted when I was a kid.

I can report to my grandmother that her prized pink and white showy lady's slipper did not get devoured by deer this spring, though it won't bloom till June (if we're lucky).  I put some chicken wire over it to protect it and I'll keep an eye on it while I'm up here.

When I walk the dirt road from the Cabin to the mailbox each day, I check the soft edges of the road, because that's where we find the best deer prints.  Or, in the case of three little girls with walking sticks, where it's easiest to fake deer prints.

This is the place I know.  This is the place that I return to when I need to be reminded of what I know and who I am.  This is a place where my knowledge of the world is solid.  Rural knowledge is not backward knowledge, something that has become extraordinarily important to teach my students in which ever class I happen to be standing in.  I know that the rain we got this weekend was a good rain, for fire danger and for the newly planted fields.  I know that the soil here at the Cabin is sand and erosion is a problem.  I know what poison ivy looks like and where I'm most likely to find it.  I know the difference between a red pine and a white pine and I know how to calculate how old a particular white pine is.

And then I start to think that how can you know a place if you don't know its water?  (Or its soil?)  This is water I know, this rain, this water, this lake.  I know 3rd Crow Wing.  I know how far I can walk out into its shallows without getting my shorts wet.  I know that because it's so shallow, it'll warm up much faster than most of the area lakes.  I know what we need to do on the hill to stop the rain from washing the soil--which is sand--down to the lake.  I know what this water tastes like, the water from our well.  It's not fresh and bright tasting, it's fairly flat and gray in flavor.  But it's ours.  And I know it's ours.

There's no better place in the world than to be sitting on my grandparents' ancient couch, staring out at 3rd Crow Wing and the leaves and needles that mostly obscure the view of the lake.  We just put out bird feeders this weekend, so hopefully that will start to attract birds and squirrels and other entertaining creatures.  Because the loons woke me from sleep this morning, after singing me to dreams last night.  I used to know which birds were which, but I've been gone from here for too long.

I need to get a bird book before I leave town.

What do you know?  And where do you know it?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Fall Teaching Assignments!

I left Nebraska a week ago, drove Up North, and I'm spending the summer at the Cabin, my grandparents' house (though nobody lives there permanently right now), and what's a better environment for a place writer and teacher to plan new classes, read and write for comps, and just generally decompress from two intense PhD years?  Not much.  Wake up to loons, spend days on the couch in your pajama pants with a pot of tea at your elbow, watching the leaves in the breeze off the lake, watching the lake itself until the leaves fill in the view.  Already I feel about fifty pounds lighter.  Stress is heavy.  And what's weird is that there isn't internet at the Cabin (always been a proper noun in our family) and I'm not missing it.  A trip once or twice a week into town for groceries and stuff, that'll be enough to check my internet.

Right now, I'm at the library for my internet, and my email inbox has delivered my fall teaching assignment!  I'm scheduled to teach Eng. 180, "Introduction to Literature," and Eng. 151H, an Honors section of "Rhetoric as Argument."  Except for having no blessed idea what I'm going to do for that 151, I'm pretty darned excited about the 180.  I've been messing with my "Scene of the Crime" syllabus as I've been enjoying the couch--and I read Erik Larson's Devil in the White City in two days, then read Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation in one day.  I was going to put Larson on the syllabus, but I think Vowell's going to be a much more interesting choice.  For one, she's freaking hilarious.

I'm starting pages for these classes, so if you're curious about how they're evolving, check them out!