Sunday, March 28, 2021

Only Collect

As I often do, I'm going to preface this post with a warning: beware of peregrination. Where I start is undoubtedly not where I will end. I'm not even sure it will even make sense. But connections have been buzzing through my busy brain for the last couple of days, and this is my effort to collect them--and to excuse the title.

Larry McMurtry died yesterday. He was only 84. I say only, because my father died at 83, and that was far too young for me. Anyway, I'm not really much of a McMurtry fan; I've only ever read Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, and except for Hud (a million years ago), I hadn't seen any of the films made from his books. But I was a fan of his store in Archer City, Booked Up (pictured at left) to where in our halcyon days friends would caravan out for a day of frolicking among the four warehouses that housed the wonderfully expansive collection of books in the most unlikely of places. We'd head out in the morning, stop for lunch at The Green Frog Cafe in Jacksboro, and not head back until we'd spent ourselves silly on boxes full of literary and philosophical treasures.

There weren't many bargains to be had, because McMurtry knew what he had and what everything was worth, but those trips were responsible for many linear feet of bookshelf occupants in our house to this day. I only spoke to him once, when he asked me if he could move my pile of books to a bench so he wouldn't trip over them while shelving new arrivals. But he was usually on site, and often managing the till when we checked out.

In 2013, I joined a Kickstarter campaign to fund a film about the gigantic auction McMurtry held to sell off the contents of all but one of his spaces, Books: A Documentary. I got a great tee-shirt, a tote bag, and some nifty bookmarks, but haven't heard anything about the film itself since 2014. 

Now, The Beloved Spouse and I own several thousand books, but we don't collect them. Lots of people do, which is why the auction at Booked Up did very well. The shop in the original building still exists (although what will become of it now, I don't know), but it's been at least a decade since our last trip. We've become more sparing in our accumulation of late, and the Plague has forced us to order books online. One of the reasons that McKinney was attractive enough for us to move here twenty years ago is that it had an antiquarian bookshop just off the Square downtown.  Alas, it closed a couple of years ago when the proprietor and his dog got too old to manage it. It's probably a tattoo parlor now; I haven't even looked to see what took its place. Archer City is a much smaller county seat than McKinney is, and it's rather surprising that McMurtry managed to keep the larger version of his enterprise going for as long as he did.

So, that was Thing One. Thing Two was inspired by my having noted in the letters section of this week's New Yorker a comment about Ann Pachett's piece in the March 8 issue, "How To Practice." Because The New Yorker occupies its own large share of space in our house (on shelves and coffee tables), I was able to locate it quickly, which I wanted to do because it's all about what the Swedes call "death cleaning." I'm at the stage in life where I love horrifying friends and family by talking frankly about a matter I consider immensely practical--even though I'm only just now in my 74th year, still ten years younger than my father was when he died. (Had he lived, he'd have turned 100 this Groundhog Day.) 

Patchett's lovely little piece re-inspired me to go back to what I'd started some time ago. I've already done a great deal of tidying up and have begun to address some new issues, but the article renewed my resolve. I didn't know this, but TBS was already thinking along the same lines and just now walked through our study on his way out to the garage to see what he could do about its contents. 

The impetus on his part began a few days ago when we rather suddenly realized that getting out of Texas was almost impossible--in part because of the effort it would take to get ourselves ready to move. Not even considering the expense of transporting what we don't want to get rid of, the physical labor involved is probably beyond us at this point. Nevertheless, the daily reminders of human mortality, and Patchett's timely admonition that what we don't take care of ourselves will be left to our survivors, makes a new effort at sorting-through our accidental collections a not just timely but also appropriate activity to occupy us for as long as the Plague persists.

What complicates the whole process is our increasing consciousness of waste. Everything that can be, must be recycled or repurposed or donated. So what can be, will be sorted into boxes for appropriate children, siblings, nieces, and nephews. We will, however, ask first, since we've been informed by numerous articles on similar topics that millennials don't want our crap. They're into experiences not stuff. But I'm not totally convinced, so I will ask. And then we'll box up the good stuff that might bring in a little cash at an estate sale, which my beloved daughter will no doubt be able to handle far better than I would. My greatest gift to her will, I hope, be the successful sorting of the boxes of memorabilia my mother had shipped to Dallas when she left Taiwan, and still hadn't dealt with when she died just before we moved north.

Mortality is central to being human. And memory is what staves it off, or at least makes it bearable. And the older we get, the more fragile memory--and mortality--become. Writers whose works have influenced our lives are well worth remembering, and so are the objects our forebears have left us and that have filled our homes and helped to shape our memories. Quite often, those objects actually consist of beloved books that have been passed on through generations. It was clear that many of the books I brought back from Booked Up had been just that sort of memento.

Because writers often gravitate towards books, it's probably no real coincidence that both Ann Patchett and Larry McMurtry own(ed) bookshops. Patchett's independent Parnassus Books in Nashville is rather different from McMurtry's, but if I ever have a chance to visit my oldest friend in the world (who lives there) I imagine it will be one of the first places I seek out. If TBS and I ever do shake off the bonds that keep us in Texas, I'm pretty sure we'll settle somewhere with a shop or two. 

Larry McMurtry notes in Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, as a reason for opening up his "anthology of bookshops past," that "books are the fuel of genius." And even though his legacy in Archer City is rather smaller than it once would have been, and even if it fades away for good now that he's gone, it's one that lives in the many of us who visited and spent so many happy hours within its several walls.

Image credit: The photo, an interior shot of one of Booked Up's four warehouses, is by someone called "Cohee (Talk)" via Wikipedia.


Sunday, March 21, 2021

Spring At Last--More Or Less

I meant to get this up yesterday, on the actual date of the equinox, but I became sidetracked by revisiting old spring posts and comparing notes with myself. For a different spring celebration, peek back to last year's post with its better photos and better outcome: Finding Things to Celebrate: The Vernal Equinox.

This year, everything's late, with the exception of one lone iris; these usually appear toward the middle of April, but this one was apparently confused by the unusual weather. Wisteria, which should be in full feather at this point, is only just beginning to bloom. I can smell a  bit of holly blossom, but the flowers are still almost invisible. Daffodils are pretty much gone, but it does look like the paperwhites will survive, since their stems are back. Meager bits of redbuds are showing, but it's clear that we've lost a major trunk. I may give up and plant a more robust version in its corner, now that I've moved the compost bins (to keep Molly from using them to vault up to next-door's fence). I do enjoy encouraging the volunteers, however.

There should be better sun in that corner this year, due to the severe pruning we did of the privets last fall. Speaking of which, there's still no sign of life on those. But one I planted on the back fence two years ago is leafing out nicely, although it won't be of much use as a screening plant for a while, because it's still quite small.

By this time last year, the figs were promising; big leaves had emerged and a couple of tiny figlets were popping up. This year: nothing. It may have frozen down to the ground this year (as it has in the past), which means we'll have no figs until quite late, if at all. Sigh.

What this all adds up to is that every day brings a small adventure. As soon as I can get to a nursery, I'll fill in some gaps with perennials. I'll get baby veg from Whole foods, and maybe a couple of well-started tomatoes from Costco, but I'm a little less ambitious than I have been.  Now that the greenhouse is in, the soil needs building up, which means assembling compost and well-rotted goodies from behind the garage. This is the site of an attempt at hugulkultur, but has mostly been forgotten, so it's probably time to do something with whatever has come of it. What we need to be doing now is planning for the future that involves mostly things that come back without our help. Now that I have access to a local farmers' co-op, growing an abundance of my own food is less compelling.

The Beloved Spouse and I recently came to a rather sudden realization that moving west permanently is so impractical as to be impossible. (It involves clearing out the garage.) So we've begun to focus on making our place as habitable as we can, and as tolerable as is practicable. This involves putting up a well-insulated tool shed to block the pool pump noise from next door, creating more seclusion by judicious planting along the back and side fences, and rewilding major swaths of the property--while still maintaining spaces for pet-entertainment, human conviviality, and post-pandemic social engagement. 

To address our continuing malaise about where we live, we've vowed to take Porco and the pets and just get out on the road, frequently. In early April, we're taking a trip to Lake Mineral Wells, one of my old hiking haunts from about forty years back. A longer trip much further west is in early planning stages, and exactly when will depend on traffic. RV travel has been quite popular during the Plague, so we're unsure about when we should go. At the moment it looks like late spring or early fall, to avoid as many crowds as possible. The popularity of Nomadland and YouTube RV vlogs makes us a bit leery of gigantic fifth-wheels taking over the desert in mobs. But we will be able to boondock, so that promises to open up some options.

By April 2 we'll both have been fully vaccinated, and so will most of our family. Things are thus looking up, and we should have a fair-weather respite before warm-weather storm conditions begin factoring into our travel ambitions. 

I've written before about my efforts at learning to love the prairie, but hadn't realized at the time that it would become so difficult. Noise, politics, greed, and concrete are only a few of the components that make retirement much tougher than we had anticipated. Some of that has been ameliorated by the regime change in DC, but it will be some time before this part of the world gets over its antipathy toward intelligence, wisdom, and expertise. [Revisiting the linked post (to 9 May 2017) has provided a bit of perspective (we were also contemplating permanence at the time); the current condition of my memory makes it difficult to recall all of the many attempts I've made to reconcile myself to exile in Texas.]

Unfortunately, time is what we have less and less of. But spring does make it easier to ease our anxieties and make better use of that time, by ushering a welcome breath of optimism. 

If anyone who reads this is wondering (as my students used to, constantly) why anyone would want to maintain a blog (let alone more than one), philosophizing and fostering memory both provide compelling excuses. Not many folks frequent my posts, but in the absence of friends and family to keep memory alive, writing is its own reward. I recommend it to young and old alike, because time itself is so very fleeting. 

The last year, as problematic as it has been, is gone. Already. Although far too many people have suffered far to grievously,  it will not be long now before what becomes normality (I'm not sure we can actually return to it) overcomes the recollection of at least a few of the trials.

So, if you haven't already, I urge you to at least begin to keep a journal. Think about shifting from daily snippets on Facebook to longer, more thoughtful posts directed at your family and its collective memory. I have only recently discovered how very fortunate I have been to acquire a repository of family letters, and to have kept numerous journals and several blogs. I rejected Facebook and Twitter from the beginning, and will have more to say about what Jenny Odell calls the Attention Economy in my next post. In the meantime, I'm going out to lay in my hammock with Odell's book, and enjoy the first full day of spring.

Be well, stay safe, and get vaccinated!!


Thursday, March 11, 2021

Getting There

Actually, I'm not sure where "there" is, but "somewhere not here" (a corruption of a bit of dialogue from the "Ariel" episode of Firefly) comes to mind. So does a temporal interpretation, as in "somewhere in the future" (or "somewhere not now"). A bit of nonsense, of course, but I live in Texas. Only because I don't really have a choice in the matter. And I live in Texas at this particular moment in time (having been in and out of the state for varying stretches over the last seventy years). But we do love this house, and enjoy our time "just hangin'" with the "buds" (above) in good weather.

What gets in the way of our ability to be better satisfied with our lot are conditions like our governor's recent display of bad judgement, and the persistence of neighborhood nastiness that assumes anyone who doesn't believe that Dr. Seuss was banned, or that Mr. Potato Head was tragically emasculated hates America.  I've had to turn off notifications to a "what is this world coming to" thread on the Nextdoor app because so many folks who live around here see cultural sensitivity or empathy as evidence of a socialist campaign to "cancel" the sanctity of American culture.

Anyway, what I'm really musing about these days is the possibility of being able to travel west to visit family in Idaho and Washington. We were beginning to map out just such a trip last March, before having to dial back our plans to accommodate a cardiac intervention (stent) and the uncertainty brought on by the descent of the pandemic.

Now, however, a year on, I've been fully vaccinated, and The Beloved Spouse received his first dose yesterday, with the next one scheduled for April 2. My problematic cardiac history earned me the solicitous care-taking of my heart docs, so even though I'm a bit young for the top of the first tier (I'm "only" 73), I got on a list through the hospital (lovingly called in our family "the Baylor Scott White Hospital, Resort Hotel, and Spa") with which I do all too frequent business. 

My daughter, who is a crackerjack IT admin, and who shares some of my crappy cardiac genes, found an appointment in Houston, and made a day trip down there to get her first dose. Then she found a slot in Amarillo for her second--and used frequent flyer miles and a free rental car to take advantage of that. Her problem-solving and travel-arranging skills came in handy, and have helped relieve a great deal of angst connected with her in-office work schedule. 

As it turns out, thanks to the recovery bill, vaccination rates should be picking up considerably in the near future, and some semblance of normality may well resume sooner than we had any right to expect-- especially in a segment of the country with a problematic attitude toward science, expertise, and reason.

What all this leaves a bit of room for now is anticipating the advent of spring.

This is going to provide an interesting exercise in phenology, because the winter storms have produced enough damage to promise a range of surprises. The biggest question at the moment is whether or not the three large privet copses we've nurtured over the years will survive.  Most folks regard them as trash trees, but we like them because they're volunteers that grow fast, provide lots of shade, bloom with lovely white flowers, and even give the birds something to eat after they've denuded our hollies. The latter did quite well, actually, although mobs of robins and cedar waxwings crowded them for food and shelter during the storms. By the time the snow was gone, so were all the berries, including any that had been knocked off during the melee.

But the privet leaves are all brown now, and are falling off. We'll have to wait and see if they'll re-leaf, or if we'll have to turn them into firewood for the log-burner we're planning to install before next winter.

Some of the perennials have survived, but others (like my lovely Lilies of the Nile) seem to have succumbed. Just before the storms, I had bought two fragrant climbing yellow bare-root rose bushes, but didn't have a chance to plant them. They, too, appear to be non-starters. Nevertheless, the Roses of Sharon sport tiny green spots where flowers will later emerge (white, pinky-purple, and blue), and the daffodils and muscari have emerged  in all their usual glory along the fence behind the greenhouse. I had covered the daffs with rugs before the storm, and cut the blooming paperwhites to bring indoors. The daffodils made it, but the un-covered (and de-blossomed) paperwhites are now mush. I'll have to try and dig them up later to see if they'll need replacing.


To my surprise, a few of the geraniums I unwisely left on the back porch during the hard freeze that penetrated the house (it got down to 18F inside) actually survived and are now greening. And my faithful pot of pansies--which won't make it through the summer--got by with a couple of bedsheets to protect them.

Alas, it appears as though the row of nandinas that came with the house when we bought it seem to have met their collective demises. This will, however, permit us to chop down the dead wood and place a well-insulated tool shed up next to the fence in hopes that it will block at least some of the noise from next-door's pool pump. I experienced ten minutes of sheer, quiet bliss the other day when it was apparently shut down for maintenance. And then it was turned back on, so the animals and I abandoned the yard in disappointment. Plants do little for noise abatement, but a reinforced, insulated shed stuffed with gardening tools may well offer better help.

One of the real treats of back-yard living around here is the frequent appearance of assorted raptors. On my way out the back door a couple of days ago, I heard a sound that made me look up. Upon doing so, I was greeted loudly by what seems to be a young red-tailed hawk.

TBS, who is a great lover of majestic, screechy birds, came out with our new Celestron binoculars (my birthday gift timed to observe the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction last December), but we weren't prepared to erect the tripod and attach his phone's camera. So I just shot a little video with my antique iPhone and then watched it fly away--without catching that, either. Sometimes it may just be best to enjoy things while we can, because of their ephemeral nature.

Like a surprise visit by a gorgeous animal that obliterates the highway noise of a suburban neighborhood in a problematic part of the universe. 

Spring begins on Saturday, the 20th: a harbinger of better times.