This is me.

Amidst yesterday’s holiday junk mail, I spotted a holiday catalog from Pier 1 Imports.

On the cover, there was a striking marketing slogan: “Pier 1 – This is me.”

I wondered whether, in fact, that might be true, so I meandered through 16 color pages of Christmas stuff for the home. There were a lot of pillows (I spend a third of my life sleeping), a bunch of decorative old-style lanterns (already own one), a LED outline of a cactus and another of a pink unicorn (probably not me), cups and glasses (I drink liquids, many times each day in fact), plastic Christmas tree ornaments with pictures of Mary, Santa, a teddy bear, an angel and a dove (not really me, but the angel was pretty), five different dining room chairs, and several plush reindeers on the same page as a small tower of nutcracker figurines.

Overall, not so much me, and probably not so much anybody I know very well. I do have a friend whose house is filled with all sorts of art and furniture and smaller items from China. I used to have a friend (he passed) whose living room walls were covered with interesting optical illusions and other magical art from the past two centuries. My wife’s mother liked owls and giraffes, and there were several of them in her home, made of metal, wood, canvas and other materials (some from Pier 1, in fact).

As I look around my own home, I wonder. Does my home environment somehow define me? And how would purchases from a particular brand or store help me to understand who I am and who I might someday be?

There’s a flippant answer to this question, but there may be a deeper one, too. My house is filled with books. My wife and I both enjoy reading. Do books define who we are, or perhaps build the belief and knowledge structure that help us to understand our place in the world? (Stories are powerful, moreso  when the stories are epic or historically/socially/emotionally eye-opening). Would the complete lack of physical books in the home provide a different definition? What if those books were digital, reduced to a chip on a Kindle or a droplet in the cloud? Same definition or a different one? What if our only book was a Bible?–this is true in many homes.

If I lived in a minimalist / modernist home with no clutter at all, would I be living a simple and uncluttered life? Does a cluttered office suggest a broad and deep spectrum of interests, a tendency toward hoarding, or profound plans for a well-researched future project?

If I shop at Old Navy, or Brooks Brothers, or a vintage clothing shop where nothing is new, would that define me in some way? If I don’t shop at all, does my anti-consumerism stance define me in any particular way? If I refuse to eat animals, or wear animal parts on my body, tend my own organic pesticide free garden, and budget my carbon footprint as an exemplar, am I socially responsible or an increasingly common type of millenial? If I drive a Jaguar or the priciest Tesla, as a reward for over-the-top sales performance, am I  communicating some significant message about myself to the world, or over-compensating for self-doubt?

Maybe stuff is a ridiculous way to construct identity. And maybe it reveals some essential truth about modern life.

And maybe it’s time to check for the today’s mail. Nope. No Sears catalog. Nevermore. The book that once defined the American dream is gone, leaving only pretenders and ghosts of a former world.

A Perfectly Curious Book

Professor Susan Engel remembers growing up. She recalls small details. Not only did she eat bugs, she remembers when and where, and which bugs she ate (potato bugs). As a pre-schooler, she remembers watching TV while sitting under the ironing board, comfortably asking all sorts of questions of Nonna, who was ironing the family’s clothes above her. In a one-room school house, Mrs. Grubb’s imbalanced approach to curiosity and education began a lifetime of inquiry. One of Professor Engel’s works-in-progress is a evaluative measure for curiosity, which seems consistent with the way most people think about school in the 21st century, and, to me, wildly  counterintuitive.

The right book tends to find me at precisely the right time. That’s what happened yesterday when I started The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood. It’s fair to say that I devoured it in a single weekend.

In my studies and writing about creativity, curiosity has always been an underground river. I can hear it and sense it,  but it’s difficult to see. Curiosity differs with each person and their current motivation, and with every situation. It also tends to vary in duration and intensity depending upon personal interest at the moment, and available information.

Curiosity behaviors are familiar, easy to recognize: “We pick up objects to look at them more closely, peel things open and take them apart, ask other people questions, read books, do experiments, and wander into unfamiliar situations.”

Some people are more likely to do this than others.

“The quality of a child’s attachment has a powerful influence on the vigor and depth of her exploration of the world around her.” When a child is insecure or uncertain about their bond with mom, he or she is less likely to “make physical and psychological expeditions to gather information.” As the book unfolds, this becomes one of its most important ideas. In lower-income, and/or lower-education households, parents tend to provide specific operating instructions for life (“put that down,” “come to the table,” “not now,” “leave the dog alone”), but parents in households less troubled with economic issues often encourage and entertain open questions, theoretical ideas, and forms of play. Reading and storytelling may have little to do with the practical. Open-minded freedom builds self-confidence, resilience, and curiosity. (Not so sure? This is a 200 page book extensive references to past work by serious scholars).

Unfortunately, curiosity is very difficult to define and even harder to measure. (Not that learning is easy to measure, unless it’s wrapped in the short-term evaluative tools that structure contemporary education.)

This 2015 book pays less attention to mobile devices and the internet and social media than I do. A Second Edition would be wonderful, especially if Professor Engel expands the book to connect these innovations to curiosity and personalized learning.

Returning to economic advantage and curiosity, “children growing up in poverty hear far fewer total number of words, have a harder time learning to read, and ultimately are less likely to do well in school by the time they are in third grade…” Professor Engel goes on, “if a child lives with parents who only use words to manage practical tasks, he may struggle to use language for less practical, more contemplative purposes.” In turn, this affects the ability of children to formulate and ask good questions, which is a very important way to express curiosity and learn about the world and one’s place in it.

Focus not on the school experience, because that’s only part of child’s experience. Instead, focus on what children hear adults say and see adults do. Early on, children overtly mimic. Grown adults mimic too… following a parent or aunt or uncle’s path as a result of a gift or what seemed to be an inconsequential conversation at the time. I just found a book about world cultures that my aunt and uncle gave me when I was nine years old. I remember reading the book dozens of times. Many decades later, it’s clear that the book shaped my current professional activities in global education. I did not learn much of this in school, or in any formal setting. It was my own curiosity that shaped these ideas, and continues to shape them today.

School simply isn’t the place to nurture curiosity. There’s just too much other stuff to do. There is constant pressure to prepare the students for the upcoming test, to complete the project on schedule, to score the grades necessary for advancement. Distractions–which are essential to curiosity and exploration–are deeply discouraged. Inquisitive students must be not derail the classroom conversation, however interesting and significant their questions may be.

Is curiosity the opposite of education?

The good Professor doesn’t take the argument this far, but she sometimes comes close. Borrowing some of her own thinking and adding it to my own… Curiosity is intuitive, fluid, wide, deep, driven by interest, exceedingly difficult to measure, and essentially unrestricted by time and space. Education is defined by curriculum experts and highly structured. It is highly structured to make efficient use of time and space, and adheres to a strict timetable measured by 45 minute intervals, weeks of achievement, school years and grade levels. Education cannot run too deep or too wide because there are so many items that must be taught to so many people. Education is driven by rules, not student interest (for some, this changes in higher education). Measurement of short-term impact can be done, but the longer the period of measurement, the more variables complicate the results.

Traditional coursework on The Civil War takes students through causes (difficult to understand without lots of broader context), Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, Emancipation Proclamation, John Wilkes Booth, funeral cortege, and the dull political history of Andrew Johnson and reconstruction. Lots of education happening here, but the sheer volume of information smothers any attempt at global context or personal investigation of related stories. The story is just too complicated for education. It’s better suited to the uneven and long-term learning that curiosity can provide.

A student guided by curiosity might begin with the failure of tobacco as the South’s cash crop, its replacement with cotton and big cotton’s reliance upon the slave trade. Follow that line and you’ll bump into the enormous economic leap made possible by the cotton gin. Then, it’s off to England where Manchester’s mills make a fortune with cheap cotton from American slaves. When that supply is threatened by events leading up to the Civil War, the British look to India for an alternative cotton source, amplifying the growth and power of the British Empire. India becomes a glorious distraction–stunning history, spectacular music, art, dance, religion, food. Later, a fight for independence with Gandhi and nonviolent protest as a new way of thinking that informs US student protests to help end the Vietnam War, and Martin Luther King, Jr. to challenge authority in very productive ways. Back to Manchester for its rivalry with nearby Liverpool; follow  that line to the economic and social conditions that breed The Beatles and change popular music and culture (including George Harrison’s encounters with Indian music, and so on).

I know we don’t teach that way, but I know I learn that way.

As I understand more about how we teach, and how we learn, there may be more to eating bugs than there is to textbooks.

Nothing Succeeds Like Succession

This has been a rough week for the U.S. President. As questions pile up, I checked in on the line of succession. I cast no political aspersions. Instead, I just follow the rule of law, and check bios on government sites and in Wikipedia.

If the current president remains in office for his full term, then there is no presidential succession.

If, somehow, Vice President Mike Pence was involved with the misadventures that caused the current president to leave office early, what happens next?

Every schoolchild seems to know that The Speaker of the House would become President of the United States. Certainly, this fact adds spice to Nancy Pelosi’s current effort to fill that role. At 70 years old, Mr. Trump wins the prize as the nation’s oldest man to take office. If there is a President Pelosi, two notable notes would accompany her way to the Oval Office. First, she would be the first non-male human to become President of the United States, notable because the U.S. would remain among the few rich nations that has never elected a female leader. Second, she would be 79 years old (by March 2019), taking the oldest incoming President from the the man currently in office. She would also become our second Catholic president (you’ll recall that John Kennedy was the first).

And here’s where we stump the school children. If, for some reason, Pelosi is unable to serve, who’s next? Here’s a quiz:

  • Secretary of State
  • Secretary of Defense
  • Secretary of the Treasury
  • Somebody else
  • We hold a new election

The answer is Orrin Hatch (“somebody else”). He would win award for oldest incoming President. At 85 years old (his birthday is in March, and I assume none of this would happen before that time), our Senate president pro tempore is the next in line for the Oval. Presumably, the title is unfamiliar to just about everybody, so I checked senate.org for a definition. “The Constitution provides for a president pro tempore to preside over the Senate in the absence of the vice president. Except for the years from 1886 to 1947, the president pro tempore has been included in the presidential line of succession.” Orrin Hatch is the longest serving Republican Senator in the history of our nation. He would be our first Mormon President (not sure anybody cares about the religion of the President these days).

Next up would be Secretary of State, then Secretary of the Treasury, then Secretary of Defense (and then, Attorney General). Although it is theoretically possible that Pence may have been compromised if the Trump campaign was compromised, it’s likely that either of our 80+ year old legislators would serve out the term. Still, they are older than anyone who has served in that office before.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is only 54 years old, consistent with past presidents’ age on their start date, and also on religion (he’s Presbyterian, the presidents’ second most common religion). He is a former congressman and a former CIA Director.

Secretary of the Treasury Stephen Mnuchin is 55 years old, and he would be the nation’s first Jewish president. He’s a finance guy with a lot of motion picture producer credits on his resume, including The LEGO Movie, American Sniper, Mad Max: Fury Road, Wonder Woman, Sully, and about two dozen more.

Next in line would the Attorney General, but I haven’t done the research to figure out what might happen if the line of succession landed on the Acting Attorney General. I’m guessing that nobody knows that answer, but the quick and easy solution would be to drop down one more slot on the list to Secretary of the Interior, who is, of course, Ryan Zinke. He’s a former Navy Seal and a former congressman. That’s him fishing on the top of our succession report.

The Success of Smaller Cities

Traveling the world, I find myself drawn not the megapolis, but to the smaller cities where life seems so much more reasonable. The year 2018 included travel to Bulgaria, where I enjoyed Stara Zagora, an old place in the less-traveled center of the county, and in Slovenia, the charms of wandering around Ljubljana made me want to spend more time in sidewalk cafes along the old river bed. I really enjoyed my time in both Sheffield and Manchester, England, too.. And in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Certainly, the charms of London and Paris, and New York City (we’re exploring Brooklyn like tourists) are abundant, but there is something hopeful and forward-thinking about smaller cities that have found their way in the faster-paced, deeply complicated, economically confounding 21st century.

Given endless time and money, I would explore every small city I could, and maybe that’s what I’m doing. Along the way, I’ve become quite jealous of James and Deborah Fallows, who managed not only to do the trip by traveling in their own small plane, but also visiting about two dozen small cities and writing a popular new book about their adventures. It’s called Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America.

What have I learned from my travels? What did they learn from their travels? Did we learn any of the same things?

  • Most of these cities have a bona-fide downtown district where people shop, visit and hang out during the day, on weekends, and even at night. There are cafes, restaurants, retail open into the evening and sometimes later. I love finding the bookstore/cafe/bar that used to be a bank, the place where Tuesdays are open mic night, and people just sit around on comfy couches. One such place, the Book and Bar in Portsmouth, used to be a customs house and post office. It’s now open until midnight on Wednesday and Thursday nights, and until 1AM on Friday and Saturday nights. And it’s a great place to buy books. Food and drink are good, too.
  • They are very open to people from other places, and welcome these people as neighbors. Yes, this runs counter to the nationalist thinking that dominates the national conversation. Fallows: “Cities as different as Sioux Falls, Burlington (VT), and Fresno have gone to extraordinary lengths to assimilate refugees from recent wars. Greenville (SC)’s mayor asked us to listen for how many languages we heard spoken on the streets from residents or from visitors.
  • There is a research university nearby. Often, but not always. Why does this matter? The international students and faculty, which leads to international restaurants, and smart families demanding more from the community and local schools, too. This is usually tied to an appreciation of the importance of public libraries, children’s programs, and similarly positive activities and enterprises. In Manchester, there is a substantial university community. Ditto for Rochester, NY, which struggles with a proper downtown (it faded away in the 1970s, and never returned), but benefits from several neighborhoods that may qualify because of the restaurant, music, club and other activities nearly every night of the week. In this category, I would probably add a good independent film theater that sometimes shows foreign films, and, a good vinyl record store (or, several good vintage clothing shops, I guess).
  • And a good community college, too. In the words of the Fallows: “Not every city can have a research university. Any ambitious one can have a community college…Just about every other world-historical trend is pushing the United States (and other countries) toward a less equal, more polarized existence: labor replacing technology, globalized trade, self-segregated residential housing patterns, and the American practice of unequal district-based funding for public schools. Community colleges are the main exception, potentially offering a a connection to higher-wage technical jobs for people who might otherwise be left with no job or one at minimum wage. East Mississippi Community College has taken people from welfare and prepared them for jobs in nearby factories that pay twice as much as local median household income. Fresno City College works with tech firms and California State University, to train the children of farmworker families (among others) for higher-tech agribusiness jobs…we saw a number of such schools that were clearly forces in the right direction. The more often and the more specifically people talk about their community college, the better we ended up feeling about the direction of that town.”
  • They support several innovative schools. The specific approach or content associated with innovation seems to matter less than the imagination and bold decisions that make the school possible and allow it to thrive. It may be a specialty in technology, or mental health, or a maker culture, or it may celebrate the richness of local traditions, or global competence. The important idea here is the willingness of the community to take the time and the initiative to understand its responsibilities to the next generations, and to play an active role in their education. The Fallows celebrate “the intensity of experimentation.” As I spend time in schools throughout the world, the ones that stand out are the ones that want to stand out. For them, there is no crisis in education. There is opportunity and often success–accompanied by tremendous community involvement and authentic civic pride. You can see it on the children’s faces, you can easily observe it by watching behavior in the hallways and listening to the chatter, and, almost always, you can measure it (even with the over-the-top evaluation tools that many schools must use, regardless of their relevance to the ultimate goal of raising empowered kids).
  • People share a common mythology, and most people tell the same story about their town. I first noticed this in Bulgaria–every school child knew all seven of their city’s previous names (Bulgaria has been ruled by the Turkish and other peoples for a very long time). They know the history. They use the same words and phrases to describe what is meaningful and beautiful. It’s a delightful sort of local propaganda, but it certainly builds unity and identity in a way that feels authentic. I saw this in Ljubljana, in Manchester, and in so many other places. Big city folks may treat these stories with skepticism as they point out inconsistencies and ironies, but these local belief systems are very important, and often guide small cities to do the right thing.
  • National politics is over-rated, overwrought, and less interesting on a local level than national news would have us believe. In this country, coverage of ordinary people is lackluster and spotty. When you spend time in a cafe, or another public setting, you find good and decent people who care about one another and about their communities. They are concerned about what’s happening in the nation’s capital (I visited Whitesburg, Kentucky on the day of the Kavanaugh hearings, and that was a concern, but hardly the overriding concern of the day).
  • A small number of people “make this town go.” They may or may not be politically ambitious. They may be educators, or religious leaders, or people in the community who care. So they build fire department buildings, make sure the hospitals are well-funded, and help people in need. They also make sure the community is engaged, and see one another at events that are both fun and meaningful. I met some of these people. The Fallows met a lot of them. We both saw the same thing–and this is probably a small city phenomenon, more difficult to achieve and sustain in a larger city. Often, the strength of partnerships between private companies and public service providers is just plain normal–not special, so it doesn’t get much attention. But it works.
  •  They drink local craft beer. Increasingly, according to James Fallows, the local craft brewery and its popularity is a useful indicator of city pride and city progress. Not sure I agree because we’re now seeing remote ownership of these enterprises–maybe ten or fifteen years ago, he was right. And in the places where local beer in a local brewpub is owned by, managed by, and lovingly nurtured by local dreamers, he’s spot on. Me, I look for a local maker culture, a local music culture, a local food culture (farm to table, etc.), and anything resembling a new independent bookstore. I want to see the old city bar transformed into an extremely popular and fairly priced breakfast place where college students, day workers, and politicians all order muffins, pancakes, fresh juice and fresher coffee from the same blackboard menu. That’s the place I ate breakfast in Cumberland, Maryland, a city whose history was so captivating, I spend over $20 on a picture book about its history, even though my time as a visitor was under four hours.

Muffin and Friend, Cafe Mark, Cumberland, Maryland, USA

A Credible Faker–and A Future of Journalism

I’ve never been a fan of the term “fake news” because it over-simplifies the problem of poor instruction in critical thinking and media literacy. News stories have always been fabricated, and always constructed to persuade, disrupt, or otherwise confuse the audience or the reader. And honest journalism has long existed on the far side of the spectrum. Most of what’s in between is the mediocrity that describes most of the contents of a 24-hour news cycle.

It’s always been easy to print and publish truth or nonsense under an assumed or otherwise made-up identity. The now-esteemed Alexander Hamilton did it, and so did founding fathers James Madison and John Jay. In my early days of magazine writing, I sometimes wrote under an assumed name.

And, of course, we’ve been enjoying doctored photographs for a long time. If a friend cannot attend a wedding, he or she can be Photoshopped (a new verb?) into the image. We add sunrises and sunsets, make photographic models that much prettier, and so on. Many of us are now learning to do this with video as well. “I can’t believe my eyes” seems like a good way of thinking about what we see, especially on screens.

And that brings us to the fake news anchor, with the adjective fake referring not to the news itself, but to the anchor who is confidently delivering information as a kind of digital puppet (lots of connotations for puppet in that scenario). He can be programmed to read just about anything, from any source, but he looks quite human and his delivery, which will only improve, is already pretty darned good.

Have a look. And consider the possibilities for teachers, professors, and politicians, all programmed to say what you, or somebody else, wants them to say.

Most Americans Won’t Vote Next Week–But You Can Change That!

In theory, Americans know a lot about how we elect our leaders. In practice, we may not. Returning to basics, here’s a quick rundown on what we need to know for Tuesday.

I’m hoping you will forward this information to every American who may or may not vote in next week’s election:

  • We are voting for every seat in the U.S. House of Representatives (435 seats).
  • We are voting for 1 in 3 seats in the U.S. Senate (35 of 100 seats).
  • We are voting for 2 in 3 state governors (36 of 50 governors).

Clearly, this is not a minor election. At best, about half of Americans will vote, and half will not. However, voters are not equally distributed among age groups (these numbers are based upon the actual results of the most recent mid-term election, in 2014):

  • 1 in 2 voters over age 60+ did not vote
  • 2 in 3 voters age 30-44 did not vote
  • 5 in 6 voters age 18-29 did not vote

If you care deeply about the future of the United States, your job is straightforward and simple.

Pass this blog post along to everyone you know, and ask them to please vote in this election. This goes double for people who are in the 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s, triple for those in their 30s and 40s–but the most important thing you can do is to motivate people under 30 years to set the course of the nation for the next 2 years or more.

Please share.

 

Source of voting info: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2018/08/01/are-young-voters-going-to-sway-the-midterms-new-data-show-thats-not-very-likely/?utm_term=.62c73e888ecf

Begin with a Single Step

“Hiking in the tropics is not everyone’s cup of mango juice. Here, humidity, sweat, jungles, mud, mosquitoes, and the possibility of meeting creatures ranging from jaguars to the venomous fer-de-lance viper are all part of the fun of attempting to cross Panama from its border with Colombia to its border with Costa Rica.” – TransPanama Trail, Panama

“Wallabies hop through the tall grass. A burrawong grasps a backpack zipper in his beak and starts to undo it. A snake slithers by: there’s a 100 percent chance it’s venomous.” — Overland Track, Australia

“It would not be an exaggeration to say that recreational mountain hiking was born in the Alps. Once the shroud of medieval superstition was lifted, the mountains exerted an almost magical pull on scientists and adventurers alike…. Some of the routes and passes have been used as corridors of transportation since the Middle ages, and even before, when they allowed people from one valley to cross over into the next.” — The Haute Route, France and Switzerland

“It is a network of trails, a funnel of routes that leads to the Cathedral…where a daily mass announces and celebrates the pilgrims who flow in, sometimes at a rate of thousands a day.” — Camino de Santiago de Compostela, Spain

“The view from Mackinnon Pass is certainly up there in ‘the finest walk in the world’ category. If, that is, you get a chance to see the snow-covered peaks and the hovering clouds that create their patchwork of light and shadow…Waist-high water flooding the trail and waterfalls blowing sideways may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the sheer power of the experience eclipses so many others. It’s the kind of adventure that sticks with you, years later, when you are spinning stories and mining memories. — Milford Track, New Zealand

Maybe it’s possible to everywhere you want to go in a single lifetime. Certainly, there is no shortage of great walks, pleasant strolls, and world-class hikes at our disposal. Getting there costs money, and it’s not as if you can limit your adventure to a day (often a week, or a month, is insufficient), but most of the great hikes of the world are free. Some require reservations because the routes can become overloaded, but only during peak season, which, of course, varies depending upon where you are in the world.

Karen Berger is one of the lucky people–she has hiked nearly 20,000 miles “including thru-hikes of America’s triple crown (Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide). And now, I think of myself as one of the lucky people, too (armchair division) because I’ve studied the pictures and read her inviting prose in a terrific not-quite-coffee-table book published with the American Hiking Society. It’s called Great Hiking Trails of the World–and I love the sub-title: “80 Trails, 75,000 Miles, 38 Countries, 6 Continents.”

More than two dozen of the hikes are in the United States (which is a bit disappointing because I would have liked to see more in South America, Africa, and Asia). There are nine in England, Scotland and Wales, and someday, I hope to walk at least a few of them. The dream is the walk from northern to southern Europe, just because the transverse looks kind of cool, but the most interesting candidate is probably the Pyrenees High Route, one of the few wilderness courses in Europe.

As much as I enjoyed reading what Karen wrote, it’s the photographs that draw me in. The book is about the size of a vinyl record album cover, and most of the images are full-page (or two-page spreads), so the flowery valley and the distant mountains and the thick clouds on Sweden’s Kungsleden are full of life, and the cliffs of the Wales Coast Path are very much as I remembered them in real life. That path will soon be connected with the England Coastal Path, and together they’ll keep a hiker busy for 3,670 miles. If you’re hiking 2 miles per hour, that’s 1,835 hours–basically, a full year’s walk should you decide to devote a year of your life to nothing but hiking. Most people are day hikers, perhaps devoting a few days or as much as a week to a really good walk. (In case you’re curious, The Appalachian Trail publishes historical stats on its website–long hikes are gaining popularity).

Overall, this is a wonderful book about adventure–but it’s accessible, enjoyable and easily appreciated by anyone who dreams of where they might go someday. For that reason, I’ll nominate Great Hiking Trails of the World as one of the best ideas for a holiday gift this year. Second best gift: take somebody on a really long, spectacular hike. Maybe next year.

Behold the Bookstore

“The store was often empty for a couple of hours at a time, and then, when somebody did come in, it would be to ask about a book remembered from the Sunday-school library, or a grandmother’s bookcase, or left behind twenty years ago in a foreign hotel. The title was usually forgotten, but the person would tell me the story….Then, they would leave without a glance at the riches around them….A few people did explain in gratitude, said what a glorious addition to the town. They would browse for a half an hour, an hour, before spending seventy-five cents.”

The words were written by Alice Munro and published in a novella called The Albanian Virgin” by the New Yorker magazine in 1994. They came to mind because Penelope Fitzgerald’s brief 1978 novel about an unwanted bookshop, The Bookshop, was recently released in as a film starring Emily Mortimer (familiar to US audiences from her role in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom series).

Roaming around Manhattan yesterday, and wandering into a wonderful neighborhood shop called The Corner Bookstore on the Upper East Side. It was a pleasant place to spend an hour, and spend money on two books (one about architecture for me, one about birds as a gift). Perhaps pleasant is the wrong word. It was an irresistible place to spend an hour because the books were fetchingly arranged to capture my imagination.

The role of the contemporary bookstore isn’t very different from its role a century ago. It’s a fine place to explore ideas and stories, to examine the cover art and the typography, to physically handle the books and enjoy their new-ness. Certainly, Amazon has changed the plumbing, but the relationship between book and consumer, and book and reader, would be familiar to Dickens, or for that matter, Mao (who once was a bookseller).

I know that because of Jorge Carrión, who published a book last year called Bookshops: A Reader’s History, a product best enjoyed when and if purchased from a local bookseller. It’s fun to travel the world with Carrión, and to travel through history, too. There is no true beginning to the journey, but the author contemplates the importance of the great library at Alexandria as a kind of starting place for available collections of printed works. He’s unsure whether Librarie Kauffmann in Athens is still in business, but he tells the story anyway: it grew from a book stall selling second-hand goods, then became the center of thought, literacy and enlightenment for French speaking families, scholars, and intellectuals in Athens in the 20th century. He describes it as “one of those bookshops to get a stamp on your imaginary bookshop passport.”

William Thackery probably shopped at 1 Trinity Street in Cambridge, a site that has sold books for about 600 years, but necessarily to the public. In Krakow, there’s Matras, which used to be called Gebether and Wolf, and it dates back to the 1610, though not with an entirely continuous history. P&G Wells is probably the oldest bookstore in England–this Winchester shop can show you receipts dating back to 1729. Click on the picture to visit their modern website.

History is well-captured in this September 26, 1786 bit from Goethe, written in his journal published as Italian Journey:

“I had entered a bookshop which, in Italy, is a peculiar place. The books are all in stitched covers, and at any time of the day, you can find good company int he shop. Everyone who is in any way connected with literature–secular clergy, nobility, artists–drop in. You ask for a book, browse in it, or take part in a conversation as the occasional arises. There were about a half dozen people there when I entered, and when I asked for the work of Palladio, they all focused their attention on me. While the proprietor was looking for the book, they spoke highly of it and gave me all kinds of information about the original edition and the reprint. They were all acquainted with the work, and with the merits of the author.”

What fun–it’s easy to imagine finding myself in the very same situation.

There is now an assortment of books about bookstores on my home shelves. One illustrates favorite bookstore facades in pen-and-ink and watercolor. Another describes favorite booksellers with stories about the stores and the people who inhabit them. I haven’t started to list or photograph bookstores that happen along the way as I travel, but Aqua Alta in Venice would certainly deserve a mention because you can climb a pile of books for a look at the adjacent canal. Scrivener’s in Derbyshire is probably worth a trip to England just to browse a few tens of thousands of volumes, but that should probably be scheduled to coincide with a day or a week in Hay-en-Wye, in Wales, which is an entire town devoted to bookshops and things literary. It’s now one of several book towns around the world. And yes, there is a book about these book towns–I very nearly bought it yesterday at The Corner Bookstore–and for course it’s called Book Towns. Someday, because I am now reading far too many books and articles about books and the places where you can bu them–I will visit Argentina. That’s because Jorge Carrión, and others, have told me about a spectacular old movie theater that is now a bookstore called Ateneo. Between now and my visit, I will need to learn to read Spanish, but that won’t stop me from browsing.

The Fun Begins in York

When times were rotten, New York City was nicknamed “Fun City”–a dark commentary on the nightmare of garbage strikes, teacher walkouts, and a financial meltdown. Even in its most hopeless years, New York’s challenges pale in comparison with York, a far smaller and far older place that provided Fun City with its formal name.

The fun begins in York about 10,000 years ago. The Romans showed up about 2,000 years ago–certainly by 71 AD–and you can walk the Roman wall that once guarded the city today. It’s a very pleasant walk on a summer’s day, complete with engaging city views, small cafes, and pretty places to take selfies (admittedly, only parts are original; some are newer, circa 1200 or so, and others, newer still circa 1800-1900). By 875 AD, York was a Viking stronghold–a very large cache of Viking goodies from as far off as Afghanistan can now be found in the British Museum, the result of a York excavation for a new shopping area. Here, we find the roots of York’s current name–the Vikings called their kingdom Jorvik, since corrupted to provide both York and New York their Danish-rooted names.

After the Vikings, York weathered a less distinguished period. One of the worst episodes: the burning of Jews supposedly under government protection in the 1100s–an old castle is still on the site. By 1300, York was both an important government and trading center for England, and remained so until the 1500s. You can walk the streets and see medieval buildings–not unlike walking the world of Harry Potter (celebrated by several souvenir shops).

All of this (except Potter, of course) took place well before anybody even considered the idea of New Amsterdam (founded 1625), or New York (renamed 1664). To celebrate the old days, I visited York with the sole expectation of attending a really excellent Early Music Festival, now held annually each July.

This year’s featured players included The Sixteen (arguably the finest early music vocal group in the world today), and the majestic Gallicantus (a vocal group) in concert with the Rose Consort of Viols (an instrumental group). The latter two performed in an old parish church called St Michael le Belfrey Church (circa 1525) with marvelous acoustics and an equally appealing visual character. The music of Gallicantus celebrated Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) and William Lawes (1602-1643), but I was most taken by a contemporary work in the old style by Judith Bingham (b. 1952) called “A Requiem for Mr. William Lawes.” Like so much early music (the term more or less refers to music preceding Bach, Vivaldi, etc.), this is vocal music that reaches directly into the soul, with astonishing countertenors (here David Allsopp and Mark Chambers) singing music that would later become the job of women. The sheer joy of listening to these wonderful musicians would have been sufficient, but the addition of a viol consort–not violins, not violas, as the musicians explained in a private interview, but viols that come up through a different strand of music history and were reproduced from paintings and other scant visual history).

Equally impressive: a Saturday afternoon concert called Revolting Women! featuring music composed by what was likely a small population of female composers from the era. The best was composed by a woman now recalled only by her pseudonym, Mrs Philharmonica, presumably from about 1715. Other names, bound to be unfamiliar, but worth researching, include Isabella Leonarda (1665-1729) and Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729). Their work was much enriched by the formidable professor, historian and superior violinist, Lucy Russell, whose name may be familiar from her work with the extraordinary Fitzwilliam String Quarter (which is known for more traditional classical repertoire).

Much as I adore good concerts in old churches, a warm summer day in York offers far too much fun to remain indoors for long. I was disappointed because my schedule would not allow me to attend Richard III at, of all things, a 1000-seat pop-up Shakespeare Rose Theater in the center of town (complete with a shopping and food arcade contemporary to the era). I also had limited time to fully explore Bloom!, a flower festival staged at what seemed to be a hundred places around town. Good used bookstores captured my attention, along with long walks along the river, and the inevitable Betty’s, a 1919 tea shop with wonderful food and spectacular pastries to enjoy along with fine tea service. (In fact, I escaped to nearby Harrogate, where I enjoyed both a lunch at Betty’s and also a walk around the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) Harlow Carr gardens, an easy local train ride from classic York train station). Given more time, I would have explored the interior of York Minster, a large and delightfully old cathedral as well–but the lines were long, the schedule a bit restrictive for my 48-hour visit. Including the nearby countryside (moors, Jane Austen, etc.), I would certainly allow at least 72 hours to explore the area, and you’d likely find plenty to do for even four or five days in the York and Yorkshire area (mostly easily reached by train, certainly easily reached by car or even day bus tours).

What have I missed? The quiet pub where the World Cup semi-final victory for England was celebrated in a most dignified manner. The streets outside where everyone’s cheeks (probably both kinds) were painted with tiny English soccer flags, where people sang, loudly with with tremendous dancing exuberance, about how the Cup was “coming home.” Nearly every pub in town was pounding with energy and music–including, inexplicably, “Take Me Home Country Roads” and other boisterous (?) John Denver tunes to which every Brit seemed to know every word; the medley ended with the British (?) classic, “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” All great fun!

Food: very nice classy seafood to be found in Loch Fyne, which is not far from the old church headquarters of National Centre for Early Music (where many concerts are staged throughout the year). Just outside the city walls and down a few blocks, I stayed at the Mount Royal, a good old-style British hotel, perhaps more like an expanded inn, with a very nice outdoor garden and very comfortable rooms with ample space to stretch out. Good respite, very accommodating staff, and lovely to be able to take breakfast (and other meals) outside at leisure before re-entering, well, what turned out to be fun city in the truest sense of the words.

Do take the time to visit York. It’s just a few hours from London. It’s an easy train ride from Manchester, Liverpool and other cities in England, all worth visiting. And the next time I manage a visit, I want to wander the countryside (note to self: allow lots more time to explore this part of the world because it is beautiful, richly historic, and crazy fun).

 

 

Painting Outdoors

Technically, the correct term is “en plein air,” which means, more or less, “in the open air” when translated into English from the original French. For the experienced artist, plein air painting means spending the day outside, regardless of the weather, bugs, access to bathrooms, lugging heavy or messy gear, trying to concentrate while passers-by stop to tell you all about how their great niece used to be able to draw but met this guy and things didn’t work out but she’s still a really good artist even though she doesn’t draw as often as she used to and then wonders whether the girl drew, painted, or did something else entirely.

I love to paint outdoors. In fact, I strongly prefer painting outside to painting indoors, even though my easel and other gear is heavy (I paint with pastels, which weigh a lot when you carry too many of them, as I do), but I’ve never been quite sure whether I’m doing things properly. I don’t want to bother other artists who are, clearly, more experienced and more talented than I will ever be. So I muddle along.

Fortunately, the former editor of Plein Air magazine, who was, for many years, the editor of American Artist magazine, has written a very helpful (and inspirational) book entitled The Art of Plein Air Painting: An Essential Guide to the Materials, Concepts and Techniques for Painting Outdoors. His name is M. Stephen Doherty, and he is doing a wonderful job as the print version of a trusted teacher.

Willingness to paint outdoors requires more than straightforward skills. It requires a real desire to be part of the place that you’re painting. It’s a mindset, an attitude, a combination of willingness to be flexible and a desire to capture the light and sensibility that you cannot quite find by referring to a photograph. That’s why the book begins not with a discussion of portable easels (that comes later), but with an insightful illustrated essay posing as Chapter 1: “Why Paint Outdoors?” He focuses on the mental game and also shows himself in the game, on the street, easel set up just beside a construction site so he can get just the right view, messy paint-covered sweatshirt and slight scowl and all. He ponders how much of the work needs to be done outdoors–if you finish up indoors, which is often tempting if the weather or other conditions aren’t ideal–does a plein air painting retain its plein air status if it’s only 20 or 30 percent painted outdoors? How about 70 or 80 percent? No matter. If you do any of the work outdoors, Doherty says it counts.

The book’s emphasis is on oil painting–and that makes sense because most people who paint outside tend to work in oils. But he does take the time to address the needs of those who work in watercolor (which is difficult inside and even more difficult in the field), pastels, acrylics, and so on.

As with most books of this sort, there are profiles of artists that the author admires, and lessons to be learned from each of them. There are also good large photographs of many types of plein air paintings, useful both for inspiration and also for studying technique. I like to see a good history chapter, too, in part because it’s fun to consider myself part of a longer tradition that once included John Constable, and Jean-Baptiste Corot, and best of all, painters who were part of the majestic Hudson River School.

There are bits about drawing outdoors–I wish there was a lot more of that. There is plenty of good guidance about choosing locations, finding the best spot, knowing your physical limits, simplifying what you see so you don’t get lost in details. I wish there was more about patience–after a few hours of painting outdoors, the fatigue is always a factor, and I never know quite when to give it up for the day.

Most of all, though, there are pictures. Lots of pictures that were painted outside. Remember: Doherty was a long-time editor of one of the world’s finest magazines about art. He knows how to choose images, and that’s probably the book’s greatest strength. It is a joy to meander through the pages, browse, stop for deeper study, then move on to well-written commentary about most topics that plein air artists rarely see in book form.

Nice job!

Joseph McGurl is one of many superb artists included in The Art of Plein Air Painting. Click on the image to see more of McGurl’s work.

 

 

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