June 2005


After waiting until the flurry of spring semester (and the drudge of grading) wore off, I’ve finally begun Marilynne Robinson’s long-awaited, Pulitzer Prize-winning second novel. Months ago when I first bought Gilead, I was disappointed by its opening: the book didn’t “grab” me in the way that Housekeeping had. In retrospect (and in all fairness to Robinson), I don’t believe Housekeeping grabbed me immediately, either. Robinson’s prose is careful and poignant, its charms developing softly and slowly.

Gilead is well-crafted, but it doesn’t shimmer like a jewel. Instead, its beauties are simple and ordinary, like those of a well-worn quilt. The story of a dying preacher as told to his young son, Gilead captures the vision of a person who’s been on this earth long enough to recognize wonder in the simple things: a couple of rowdy men laughing, a mother blowing bubbles with her child.

It’s no wonder that passages of Robinson’s novel remind me of the plain, simple goodness of Tom Montag‘s memoir, Curlew: Home. Tom’s proud of the fact that he’s a farm boy from Iowa, and although Robinson was born and raised in Idaho, Gilead, which takes its title from an Iowa town of the same name, shows that her stint teaching at the University of Iowa has not been in vain, the prose and perspective of that state rubbing off on her in the best of ways.

Now that I’ve finished Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, which is the 2005 Summer Reading Program selection at Keene State College, I’m re-reading Home Town, Kidder’s narrative about the town of Northampton, Massachusetts. Having loved Home Town when I read it for a book group over a year ago, I’m looking forward to teaching it alongside Mountains, which profiles a very different landscape.

Whereas Kidder in Mountains Beyond Mountains travels the globe to chronicle Dr. Paul Farmer’s quest to eradicate infectious disease in places such as Haiti, Cuba, and Russia, in Home Town Kidder tells the story of one New England city and its denizens: a “townie” police officer with FBI dreams, a single mother pursuing a degree at Smith College, a brilliant lawyer plagued with obsessive-compulsive disorder. A biography of a community in both its geographic and interpersonal senses, Home Town explores the ways that place influences people and how people return the compliment.

I look forward to reading and discussing this book with Keene State College freshmen as they navigate the transition between the places they come from and the places they dream of going.

Although I bought The Art of Possibility: Tranforming Professional and Personal Life after I saw its authors, married partners Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, on a TV show several years ago, I’m only now taking the time to read it. Beginning with the premise that our lives are shaped by inner narratives that are both arbitrary and “invented,” the Zanders share practical techniques and illustrative anecdotes to show how even ordinary people can practice “the art of possibility” by approaching life from a positive perspective. Since this notion of “the art of possibility” is one that has resonated in my head (and provided at least one blog-post title) since I first heard it all those years ago, it’s only fitting that I finally read (and enjoy) the book in its entirety.

While visiting Washington, DC this past Saturday, I met K‘s sister at the Folger Shakespeare Library, where amongst other things we talked (in the shadow of the Bard himself) about place and the differences between here and there. In a day and age when travel is easy and families are often scattered, what keeps us rooted in a particular place? Why live, say, in Keene rather than Washington, or in New England rather than the Midwest?

Now that homogenous corporations like McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, and the Gap have invaded, it seems, even the tiniest town, what gives, we wondered, a given place its particularity? If I were plunked down unaware at the intersection of Walk and Don’t Walk, America, what (if anything) about my surroundings would help me orient myself? Would I be able to find myself (literally) by looking around me, or would the corner of any given town look like the corner of any other given town?

By way of suggesting one way of approaching this question, perhaps, K’s sister pointed me toward Washington’s Eastern Market with its weekends-only crafts fair, seafood vendors, and farmer’s and flea markets. Strolling Eastern Market on a Saturday morning with pencam in hand, would I find a splash of local color that bespeaks the “Washington” where people live, not the “Washington” where tourists merely visit?

Like the New York City shops that stock abundance on shelves, a good farmer’s or flea market typifies the riches of a given community. Here, on display and for the asking, is the fat of the land: local produce…

and fresh flowers, just picked.

Here too are displayed in all their richness and splendor the handiwork of local artists and artisans, the heart and soul of any community.

And most significantly, at good craft fairs and in thriving farmer’s and flea markets, you can see that most important of local resources: the faces of ordinary folks as they shop wares with friends…

and interact with merchants.

On a hot summer Saturday while other folks were searching for treasures among the stalls of Eastern’s flea market, I was looking for the local color–the spirit of place–that fosters such activity.

For me, the ultimate find came by accident: a nameless woman who (unsuspecting?) looked straight at me and my shot-from-the-hip pencam right at the moment I snapped. Perhaps this moment of connection–two ordinary folks whose eyes accidentally meet through a barrier of sunglass and camera lens–is what turns any given place into that most precious commodity: community.

We all know that baby elephants walk…but did you know that when the mood strikes, baby elephants love to swim?

Although the buildings at the National Zoo don’t open until 10 am, the grounds (designed in part by my hero, Frederick Law Olmsted) are open to walkers at 7 am. Wanting to avoid both crowds and heat, on Monday I arrived at the zoo soon after its gates opened, knowing that many animals are housed outside and all are typically more active in the morning than at other times of day.

If you’ve been to zoos only to watch elephants stand stone-like as they swat flies with their tails, you need to go to a zoo in the morning, when the babies and even adults are active. Although Mama Elephant wanted no part of Junior’s antics, he was entertainment enough, swimming in his pool to retrieve two rugged floating balls which he then kicked around soccer-like and ultimately tried (unsuccessfully) to stand upon.

In high school, I was a volunteer intern at my local zoo, where I did an assortment of dirty jobs (and earned extra credit) one afternoon a week. After my shift was done in the late afternoon, I’d walk around the zoo grounds, which at that time of day were rapidly emptying of visitors as parents whisked their kids home to dinner and bedtime. The animals were always more active as evening approached and the crowds went home. Being ogled by screaming kids and tired parents gets understandably old, and I found that normally elusive creatures would venture out of hiding to watch me if I approached their enclosures quietly and alone.

Although I have the usual moral qualms about keeping wild animals in captivity, I’ve always had a child-like fascination with zoos. No number of illustrated books and educational videos can capture the imagination as can watching a living creature in the flesh: there’s no way of counting the number of conservationists who (like me) had their interest for wildlife fueled by frequent trips to the zoo. Obviously I’d rather see a giraffe walking wild on an African savanna than strolling a largish enclosure at a zoo…but since habitat loss is one of the biggest threats facing giraffes and other wild creatures, zoos are one way of educating the public–particularly children–about the importance of habitat preservation.

The problem with zoos, in my opinion, isn’t in their aims to educate and inform through the display of captive creatures. The problem with zoos, in my opinion, is the fact that the throngs of people who visit them frighten off the very animals they’ve come to see. Just as popular National Parks can be “loved to death” by bloated crowds of visitors who leave a detrimental mark by littering, feeding animals, and eroding trails, zoo animals typically flee from the noise and over-stimulation of the teeming masses who have come to see them. Instead of seeing creatures that are playful, inquisitive, and alert, most zoo visitors see glimpses of animals that are hiding, resting, and otherwise avoiding human contact.

In the early morning hours before zoos are choked with visitors, though, you can see the Usual Suspects out and about, playing and exploring their enclosures and interacting with keepers before the crowds descend. Just like Dorothy in Oz, you can see lions…

and tigers…

and bears: oh my!

Yes, if you go to the National Zoo before the buildings open, you might have the same luck as I did, being able to walk right up to the giant panda exhibit without any lines in time to see the star attraction taking a stroll before settling in for a snooze. Apparently, it’s exhausting work to be a much-loved animal celebrity, what with the fans and the paparazzi and such.

And if giant pandas are the perpetual favorite at the National Zoo, let’s not forget the newest attraction: yes, I saw the cheetah cubs that were born at the zoo in April. Although my photos are blurry–these little guys are fuzzy, and I don’t have a foot-long telephoto lens like several other zoo visitors did–here’s photographic proof that the cheetah cubs do indeed spend their days nursing…

resting…

and playing.

When it comes to attracting (and entertaining) visitors, it seems these cheetah cubs took a page from the giant pandas’ play book. When you’re cute and fuzzy, nearly anything you do is guaranteed to draw a crowd.

You might remember me once telling how years ago I startled guards and museum visitors alike by sitting cross-legged on the floor of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts to admire John Singleton Copley’s painting Watson and the Shark. What a pleasant surprise it was to discover that Watson now lives at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, where I couldn’t help but snap this picture. It seems Copley’s painting is as popular with viewers (and photographers) in DC as it was in Boston.

I’m back home after my recent travels, so now I have (literally) hundreds of photos to sort and sift through. I expect I’ll be sharing the best of these over the next few days. In the meantime, it’s good to be home.

Yes, it’s true. After seeing far too many funky old rest stops on my road trip to and from Ohio this past weekend, I’m traveling once again…this time by plane to Washington, DC. So instead of taking advantage of funky old rest stops, for the next few days I’ll be contemplating (and perhaps photographing) airport terminals and other accoutrements of the wandering life. Blogging will be light until I’m back on Tuesday, so in the meantime, happy trails!

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