July 2005


Anyone care to propose, in a thousand words or less, a plausible story to explain this picture of an errant beach ball resting right next to a beaver-gnawed tree? (Picture taken yesterday during a hike on the Kilburn Pond Loop at Pisgah State Park.)

I recently finished a review copy of Louise Erdrich’s soon-to-be-released new novel, The Painted Drum. After having heard that part of Erdrich’s book is set here in New Hampshire, I was curious to see her writerly depiction of my adopted state.

The Painted Drum does indeed open in New Hampshire, in the fictional village of Stiles and Stokes. Faye Travers and her half-Ojibwe mother are antique dealers who make their living appraising local estates, so it is with eager curiosity that Faye inspects the belongings of John Jewett Tatro, a local man rumored to have an impressive collection of antiquities from his days as an agent on North Dakota’s Ojibwe reservation.

As readers of novels such as Love Medicine, Tracks, or The Beet Queen well know, Erdrich is an anthologist’s dream, writing novels whose chapters serve as self-contained short stories. “Revival Road,” the opening chapter of The Painted Drum, is as intricate as a well-crafted brooch, containing within it like jewels the themes of the narrative which is to follow. While giving requisite nods to New Hampshire local flavor–frost heaved roads, springtime blackflies, and seemingly ubiquitous Subarus–Erdrich brings into sharp focus a community that sees more than its share of sorrow but has yet to learn how to deal with tragedy.

Like many New Hampshire towns, Stiles and Stokes is divided between locals and transplants: families who have lived in the area for generations and the typically well-heeled outsiders who are drawn to the state by its colleges and tax-free status. Although she herself is a local, Faye Travers has much in common with cosmopolitan newcomers, including Kurt Krahe, a German stone artisan who is Travers’ neighbor and would-be suitor.

It is from Krahe that Travers learns a German term that proves significant throughout the entire novel: the notion of Zwischenraum, the space between things. Travers herself is a creature of this in-between realm, arbitrating between locals and newcomers in both her professional and personal life. Like a white car wedged between birch trees–an early image that presages later tragedy–Faye is caught between worlds: the New Hampshire world where Native antiquities are to be bought and sold no differently than any other forgotten mementos and the Ojibwe traditions of her mother’s ancestry, which insist that a painted drum she finds among Tatro’s belongings is both magical and deserving of special treatment.

This painted drum of the novel’s title exists in a Zwischenraum all its own. Discovered near the novel’s beginning, the drum’s true history is revealed in the novel’s middle portion, when Ojibwe storyteller Bernard Shaawano recounts how the drum came to be built and how it came to leave North Dakota. Although central to an understanding of the drum’s mystical powers, Shaawano’s story lacks the sharp focus of the novel’s opening. Whereas Faye Travers’ story is rooted in and perpetually returns to the actual world, Shaawano’s mundane life as an orderly at North Dakota hospital fades in the face of the family history he retells. Shaawano himself seems only a minor character, merely a mouthpiece for the traditional tale embodied in the drum. Framed by the mundane lives of Faye in New Hampshire and a North Dakota mother named Ira, Shaawano’s tale is a Zwischenraum fable shrouded in myth and mystery.

In the end, it is Ira and her three children who bring Shaawano’s mythic tale back to the realities of modern-day reservation life. Pinned by poverty, Ira makes some bad decisions as she struggles to raise three children on whatever resources she can scrounge or scam. For the drum to be truly magical, it needs to speak to the present-day realities of Ojibwe such as Ira: instead of remaining in a timeless Zwischenraum, the drum has to shape the future as well as the past. In the end, readers aren’t sure exactly where Travers, Shaawano, Ira and her children are headed, but the promise of the painted drum suggests that there is hope in the future and that long-dead ghosts can eventually be laid to rest.

    If you are interested in reading and reviewing soon-to-be-released books, check out HarperCollins’ First Look program. Sign-up is free, and you get to keep the books you review!

I recently began reading Jonathan Raban’s Waxwings, a novel set in Seattle at the height of the dotcom craze. The pulse of Seattle’s boom-or-bust culture is embodied in the three characters around which the novel revolves: Tom Janeway, a creative writing professor in charge of managing a literary endowment from a weathy online entrepeneur; Janeway’s wife Beth, a copywriter for a thriving dotcom startup whose options have recently vested; and Chink, an illegal Chinese immigrant struggling to survive in a city where the Haves are richer than ever. Seattle is a place I’ve always wanted to visit, so I look forward to seeing how Raban interweaves these three characters’ stories against the backdrop of a city that surged on the crest of online success.

Chautauqua tent

You wouldn’t believe it, but it’s true. Last night on the quad at Keene State College, William Jennings Bryan literally talked up a storm.

William Jennings Bryan works the crowd

What, you say? William Jennings Bryan couldn’t possibly have spoken at Keene State last night, having died in Dayton, Tennessee on July 26, 1925? Well, here’s photographic proof. On a hot New Hampshire night, who other than Bryan (best known for being the inspiration behind the fiery fundamentalist in the play-turned-movie Inherit the Wind) would be working the crowd in a three piece suit?

Unless some mad scientist has let his time machine run amok in southern New Hampshire, there’s only one explanation for why Bryan, 19th century anti-lynching activist Ida Wells-Barnett, and an incognito Teddy Roosevelt were mingling with the masses at Keene State last night. The 2005 Chautauqua has come to town!

Chautauqua is an annual event sponsored by the New Hampshire Humanities Council. The term “Chautauqua” dates back to 1874, when the Chautauqua Institute in New York began offering summer adult education programs for Sunday school teachers. Featuring presentations on the arts, religion, and education, the Chautauqua Institution created a format copied by other organizations offering traveling programs with lectures, dramatic presentations, and musical performances. Like the American lyceum system, Chautauqua is rooted in the 19th century, when a society without radio, television, or Internet relied upon lectures and public debates to educate and entertain.

Ida Wells-Barnett chats with an admirer

In New Hampshire’s annual Chautauqua, a cast of scholar-actors in period dress bring historical figures to life: in addition to Bryan, Wells-Barnett, and Roosevelt, this summer’s Chautauqua features presentations by Thomas Edison, peace activist Sarah Farmer, and restaurant entrepeneur Fred Harvey. Gathered under the theme of “America Reinvents Itself,” the 2005 Chautauqua encourages audiences to get into the mindset of 1905 America by bringing part of history alive. After hearing a lecture by a historical figure, audience members can ask that person questions in order to better understand the issues and arguments that underpin today’s American society.

Although thunderclouds descended–and then opened–before William Jennings Bryan (portrayed energetically by A. Theodore Kachel) could tackle the famously hot topic of evolution, my four-legged “date” and I enjoyed Dr. Brucella Wiggins Jordan’s portrayal of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, listening as we did from a comfy patch of grass just outside the Chautauqua tent. Jordan’s performance illustrated the historical knowledge and on-the-spot spontaneity a scholar turned historical reenactor must display on the Chautauqua stage. After Jordan had used the term “lynching” to refer to the 1892 shooting deaths of three African American businessmen in Memphis, Tennessee, an audience member asked what the word “lynching” meant. Mindful that her primetime performance was attended by a score of families with young children, Jordan in her role as Wells-Barnett answered the question delicately, defining “lynching” as an extra-judicial killing without divulging too many gorey details of how these killings took place.

Reggie is all ears

Although American history might not be the most popular academic subject, last night’s crowds were, like Reggie, all ears, eagerly listening to Wells-Barnett’s and Bryan’s lectures and asking thoughtful questions afterward. This isn’t to say, though, that my four-legged companion didn’t occasionally succeed at stealing the show, attracting more than his share of passing admirers, including Theodore Roosevelt himself. It seems Dr. Doug A. Mishler, who portrayed Roosevelt on Thursday night and served as emcee on Friday, is a dog lover, making a beeline from the Chautauqua stage to give Reggie a pat. Later (after Reg and I took an intermission break to find a water fountain) Mishler again cooed over Reg, remarking that only a well-cultured dog would drink neatly out of a paper cup. I’d tend to agree, and elaborate: only a well-cultured dog would attend Chautauqua in the first place.

If you’re in the Granite State and are looking for more than a cupful of culture, you can check out the 2005 Chautauqua tonight at Keene State College, July 24 at Greeley Park in Nashua, or July 25-27 at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth.

Today’s Photo Friday theme is Attractive, so that can mean only one thing here at Hoarded Ordinaries. Time for more plant porn.

Lest you think me perverse in my purveyance of such pictures, let me remind you that beautiful flowers are literally attractive, designed to attract the pollinating insects upon whom leafy futures rely. Unless cultivated by humans, flowers aren’t pretty for our benefit. Instead, it’s all about the bees…or beetles, or ants, or whatever sort of creepy-crawlies are responsible for spreading the pollen of potential from one plant to another.

Of course, there’s a whole band of plants that aren’t attractive–literally speaking–because they rely upon wind, not insects, to spread their pollen. I wrote last year, for instance, about the difference between goldenrod and ragweed pollen. Goldenrod is insect-pollinated and thus has pretty flowers with heavy, sticky pollen. Ragweed is wind-pollinated and thus has light, easily-dispersed pollen that gets into people’s lungs and causes allergic distress. Ragweed flowers are green and nondescript, “attractive” only to Aeolus, keeper of the winds.

A stunning Day Lily, on the other hand, is so attractive…

it can lure even the rusty eye of a weathered old hummingbird sculpture.

Reggie takes a swim

What do you do with a thickly furred dog on a 90-degree day? You take him to the river for a walk ‘n’ wade.

Pickerelweed

Now that midsummer is well underway, the banks of the Ashuelot River here in Keene are thickly fringed with Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata), a blue-blossomed flower with heart-shaped leaves. Pictures don’t do this year’s crop of Pickerelweed justice. My trusty Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide says that Pickerelweed is “Common on margins of rivers and ponds,” and they ain’t lying. Right now the shores of the Ashuelot are smudged with blue blossoms, as if Mother Nature were wearing eyeshadow.

Although Pickerelweed is abundant and strikingly noticeable along the banks of the Ashuelot, I can’t seem to get any good photographs. Apparently I need to invest in a pair of hipwaders–or a canoe–to get anything other than fuzzy, taken-from-shore shots:

Pickerelweed

In person, the blurry blue of the near Pickerelweed is perfectly mirrored by a smudge of blue on the opposite shore: a river outlined in blue. But these pictures don’t do these “weeds” justice.

I also can’t seem to get a decent shot of the Water Lilies (Nymphaea) that are also currently in bloom in tranquil, lily-padded shallows:

Water lily

It seems that whenever I try to get a satisfactory close-up of either Pickerelweed or Water Lily, a Certain Someone gets in the way:

Reggie goes wading

Shady spot, Keene, NH

I woke up this morning feeling quiet and contemplative, in a mood for taking stock. Last night I met with a financial advisor: after years of living from paycheck to paycheck like a typical college student, I’ve decided it’s high time for me to get my accounts in order and start thinking about the rest of my life. This practice of looking at numbers–income and expenses, cash-flow and assets–invariably leads to questions about value: how am I currently living my life, and how do I want to live my life in the future?

There’s more than money fueling this morning’s contemplation. I’m in the heart of July and rounding the curve towards August, a personally significant time for me. Inwardly attuned to anniversaries, I’m mindful that it’s been two years since my ex-husband and I moved to Keene in July of 2003 and nearly one year since my ex and I separated last August. For me, July and August are irrevocably tinged with the taste of transitions: comings and goings. After living nearly a year on my own here in Keene, it seems natural that I’m inwardly taking stock: how’s it going, and are my emotional accounts in order?

Vase with flowers, Keene, NH

In revisiting this time last year, this morning I remembered the awful experience of those in-between days, the days of late July when I knew in my bones I was moving toward divorce but didn’t yet have the courage to say it. Last July I’d had several sessions with a counselor who observed the things I was saying about my marriage were nearly identical to what she regularly hears from women some 15 years older than me: women in their fifties who feel they’ve lost themselves in marriage and childrearing. You’re still young, the counselor remarked. It’s not too late to start over. When asked what it was that kept me in my marriage, I described the guilt I felt over leaving, especially right on the heels of finishing my PhD: wouldn’t it look like I’d used my husband, that there was a causal connection between reaching a goal gained through his support and then cutting the ties?

Lush and weathered, Keene, NH

Again that counselor said something that brought everything into sharp focus. Would I want to remain married to someone who stayed with me only out of guilt? Whether or not I liked the place I found myself, that’s where I’d come. I could either have the courage to say “Here’s where I’m at, and here’s where I’m going,” or I could agree to continue coasting, without a plan, in a direction I knew wasn’t good for anyone.

This morning as I began tallying my emotional accounts–nearly an entire fiscal (and physical) year on my own–I dipped into my blog archives to see how well I’d hidden what was really going on in my emotional life last year. What a fortuitous accident, then, to discover that this entry was what I’d written exactly one year ago today. Underneath my admiration for my Phoenix Friends who’d reinvented themselves after divorce was an unspoken realization that I needed to follow them. One year ago today, I looked at those who had been through the turnstile of divorce and wondered how they did it. Today one year later, I realize I’ve been through my own ‘stile and survived, having learned by doing.

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