Category Archives: Essays

Getting to Grey Owl

Without a Map

By Sarah Woods

MOST TRAVEL WRITERS harbor a secret hope they will uncover something special as they voyage. But many never do. It’s rare to make a discovery in this world. To trail-blaze. To set the world alight; to reveal something new. We travel writers notice stuff, sure, and write it down for the enjoyment of others; most of us end wrapping rather ordinary experience up in ribbons to make it appear more extraordinary than it was.

Kurt Caswell’s Getting to Grey Owl isn’t a standard travel book — far from it. While some pieces are easier reads than others (you’d expect as much from a collection spanning two decades), Caswell writes vividly throughout, with humor and pathos (we learn early on that he has loved and lost), and not just about beautiful vistas or exotic locales; booze joints, bunk beds, and back alleys all have their place. Caswell, who teaches literature and creative writing in the Honors College at Texas Tech University, begins his travels in Japan in 1992 and ends them with a trip to Iceland in 2013 — in between, over the course of two decades, he visits more than a dozen countries on four different continents. Always, he’s as interested in the people as he is in place.

For example, on a river trip in China, boarding at Guilin and disembarking at Yangshuo, Caswell admits to being utterly beguiled by the exotic rosebud lips and coarse black hair of Chinese women. It is also in China, and in the same essay, that Caswell fails to cotton on to the hard-sell advances of a sexually savvy masseuse keen to deliver a “reaaaally goooood ma—ssage.” He fleetingly considers accepting the offer; and is later troubled, wondering why he did not.
While in Italy, Caswell goes to Venice, which he explores without a map (as I do). He is a rather reluctant tourist; still, Caswell can’t help but succumb to the lure of a gondola ride (again, like me.) He also spends lots of money sipping outrageously over-priced coffee (and I’m heartened by this, too.)

Caswell’s travels in Spain hark back, briefly, to the days of Hemingway. In Seville, he decides to attend a bullfight; it’s all rather sad and bloody. He’d ignored the advice of a barman (a pre-fight nerve-steadier is the order of day), and neglected to pack a bag “to vomit in,” because “it’s disgusting,” he writes. As the bull enters the ring he finds himself cheering, then quickly realizes the event is not a contest. “It’s a tragedy,” he writes, and as he observes the bull’s bloody demise, he reflects on man’s 20,000-year relationship with the animal to ponder why the custom continues.

He doesn’t tell us that Spain’s fondness for bullfighting is on the wane. Although Spain’s parliament awarded bullfighting national cultural heritage status in 2014, a 2013 poll showed that 75 percent of Spaniards have not attended a bullfight in the past five years, and that only 29 percent support it. Still, for Caswell, this is mainly an episode of gore, guts, and gloom, not about culture.

Another story centers on ascending four small mountains in the UK and Ireland: Mount Snowdon in Wales at 1085 meters, Ireland’s Mount Carrantuohill at 1039 meters, Ben Nevis in Scotland at 1,344 meters and Scafell Pike at 978 meters. Caswell must have a strong stomach, because Scafell Pike isn’t just England’s highest mountain; it is home to one of the nation’s highest makeshift toilets. I pulled myself up to the summit, red-faced and weary, only to be greeted by the nauseating stench of human waste. Could it be that Caswell didn’t notice? Or had the shocking amounts of litter and excrement been cleared away after my ascent? He briefly remembers another great climb, up the steep winding trail that leads to the top of 620-foot Multnomah Falls, the second-highest waterfall in America, and its sublime vista. But back on Scafell Pike, Caswell can see little through the drizzle, which lends his essay a Wordsworthian air. And when anxiety strikes, Caswell, like Wordsworth himself, “wanders lonely as a cloud” feeling lost and bereft. He recognizes nothing familiar. Nothing comforting. No flower, tree, or creature. As he contemplates weeping, I worried for him, but I needn’t have: that same evening he is rescued by a friendly Samaritan, Xiaolin, a radiant Taiwanese.

In Iceland — the land of ice and fire — Caswell writes of fjords, glaciers, low-lying northern sun, treacherous snow paths, and arctic foxes, as well as his relationship with Scott Dewing, a friend for over 30 years. Travel is the glue that has cemented their bond. As boys, they were competitive; now Scott is happily married and devoted to family life while Caswell is flying solo after a break up. Scott sometimes yearns for Caswell’s solitude — Caswell often longs for his friend’s family life. Caswell is full of wanderlust, Scott is steady. Caswell has long, thick hair, and Scott’s is thinning. But although each man envies his friend, neither attempts to eclipse the other.

In other tales, Caswell stays closer to home, describing excursions into Anasazi Country, Utah (in four separate trips over 10 years, 1996 – 2006), and the tricky mountain paths of Idaho. However, it is the Scottish town of Inverness that provides Caswell with his most bizarre encounter. As one of the prettiest of Scotland’s seven cities, Inverness sits in the south of the rugged Highlands, on the wide sweeping banks of the fabled River Ness. Crowned by a pink castle that looks like a wedding cake about to topple into the waters below, Inverness is famous for its small historic central core, already a thriving trading port in the 6th century. The town has famously survived Jacobite bombs and ground-shaking tremors, and is now a picturesque gateway to the leaping Atlantic salmon that swim the River Ness. It’s a stone’s throw from Culloden Battlefield, Moray Firth and the boats that cruise down the Caledonian Canal to reach Loch Ness. Yet I don’t learn this from Caswell, because his encounter isn’t with the landscape or its wildlife, but rather with Tia, a transgender hostess whom he meets in a restaurant. Once again, as in China, he is slow on the uptake, assuming that Tia is all woman. She is not.

“She was the most gorgeous creature I’d seen all day, ” he writes.

Shouler-length black hair, kinda ratty and witchy, huge dark eyes like Bambi blinking at that raging forest fire, a long graceful line down the length of her tight black trousers, and the most unexpectedly perfect chest. She spoke in a dark smoker’s voice, which, unbeknownst to me until then, kinda turned me on.

Tia and Caswell share a moment outside in the dark street over a cigarette before bidding each other goodnight. Did they go home together to share a bed, as Tia suggests? Caswell isn’t saying. Curiously, he ends the chapter this way: “And from here, gentle reader, our scene becomes so filled with mist, it’s impossible to know what happened next.”

The final piece in the collection — Caswell’s search for Grey Owl’s Cabin in Saskatchewan — gives the book its title. As with the writer’s other rambles, this quest is fodder for a lyrical and reflective essay executed with whimsy and awe. Caswell’s style serves him well: whether he is on a lung-busting hike in Wales, cruising through mysterious Chinese waters, or bartering for a rug in a Moroccan market, his writings are as much an exploration of his inner as outer landscape. He muses as he meanders, wonders as he wanders — about the meaning of life, of love, of lust, of aging, and of the end itself. But for a man so intensely thoughtful and well-traveled, Caswell seems worryingly naive. It strikes me now that his various unwise encounters add a frisson of adventure to his adventures; adding danger to the dangers. But to stroll in strange cities by dark, to drink too much in iffy bars, to loiter too long in the wrong places seems either reckless or gormless, as if the author simply didn’t notice the potential for harm.

Caswell is distracted in part because he’s anxious about the state of the world and he frets about his carbon footprint. A deep thinker, his unanswered questions about the role of the travel writer and the health of the planet resonate perfectly. Undertaking immense journeys to write about environmental disaster, burning thousands of gallons of jet to bring us news of melting glaciers and the decline of arctic? Caswell can’t help but ask if it wouldn’t be better to stay home. He worries if writing and researching a story on climate change — as he has done — is actually worth its weight in carbon. His conclusion, if I’m not mistaken, is that it is important to justify your travels by ensuring that they make some kind of difference.

Will the story of Caswell’s trip to Grey Owl’s Cabin help to save the earth? No, it will not. His discoveries and revelations are mostly of a personal nature. But will it cause us to relish the idea of wandering? Inspire us to yearn for more wriggle room? To more deeply examine our motives and ourselves? Undoubtedly, yes.

¤

Sarah Woods has travelled for two decades non-stop, circumnavigating the globe in several directions and clocking up over 620,000 miles along the way. She has traveled all the continents and navigated many of the world’s most iconic landscapes. She is a veteran of jungle treks and wildlife conservation expeditions and an early pioneer of Giving Something Back and responsible travel. Now based in the UK, Sarah is a regular travel expert/contributor to daytime TV and BBC radio, and she has written extensively for more than 70 magazines worldwide, including National Geographic, WanderlustBBC WildlifeWild Travel, and Traveller. She works closely with Europe’s biggest wildlife conservation charity, the RSPB, is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and a Member of the British Guild of Travel Writers and the International Travel Alliance.

cecil lion

An Open Letter to Dr. Walter Palmer, Dentist, Hunter

By Deanne Stillman

Dear Dr. Palmer:

Due to the news story that you’ve recently been involved in, I know a lot about you. Or at least enough to write you this letter. You probably don’t know anything about me, and I’d like to introduce myself. I’m a writer, teacher, American citizen, fan of baseball, heavy metal, blues, jazz and all that has rhythm and a beat and a tune that you can breathe and dance and sway to. I like German chocolate cake and espresso and roast duck and sometimes I take my espresso with amaretto. I also eat the beef of cattle and bison, but not very often; more generally, I go for kale but really my favorite thing is crepes, at any time of the day or night. I should mention as well that I like hiking and wide open space, especially if sand is involved, and every now and then, I try to surf, but mostly end up hanging twenty – and then falling off anyway.

I don’t think I’ve ever written to a dentist before, although I’ve sent Christmas cards and thank you notes. I want to let you know that I have no fear of those in your profession and I’ve liked all of my dentists. One in fact was so wonderful that I almost considered staying in the wrong town, even though that would have meant not seeing my best friends ever again or re-uniting with an old boyfriend. Over the years I’ve noticed that some of my dentists, and doctors as well, have photographs of wild animals on their walls; I recall one thoughtful and light-hearted dentist who even had such images on the ceiling, to offer patients a beautiful thing to look at as they lay prone in his chair, perhaps undergoing an uncomfortable procedure.

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Photo by Larry Lasker

As for the subject at hand, Cecil the Lion, I am not trying to be coy when I say that it must be rough to get busted – by millions of people on the internet, no less – for something that a lot of other people do all of the time all over the world on a regular basis. I refer specifically to hunting wildlife for sport, and more specifically, in your case, to the recent killing of Cecil in Zimbabwe. I know that you may engage in such activity in the name of conservation, along with the many others who pay large sums of money to hunt and kill wild animals in exotic and domestic locations, often at the behest of sponsors and guides who are part of a licensed network, though not always. In your case, many things have converged; we live in a time during which the world is mad as hell and isn’t gonna take it any more. Because of the internet, and depending on what “it” is at any given time, this anger increases exponentially, and the person who is the focus of whatever the world is mad about at any particular moment assumes association with that selfsame act. You are the person who now represents trophy killing everywhere.

There are so many things I want to ask you. When did you first come into contact with lions? When you were a little boy, did you see them at the circus atop their mounts and gaze in wonderment at their flowing manes and static power as their trainer kept them in place and then took a bow?   Did you see them at the zoo, behind bars, and if so what did you think? I would often accompany my mother, an artist, to our local wild animal dwelling. She liked to draw the animals, in particular the small capuchin monkeys on Monkey Island and after that, we would wander over to the big cat house. I remember watching the lions pacing, pacing, pacing inside their cage. There was a sign that said they were the king of the jungle and it had some other information that was scientific that I don’t remember. Even locked up, they retained a magnificence. There was still a flicker in their eyes, or so I like to think, but maybe my memory here stems from the fact that I had been listening to a recording of famous poems around that time, and had developed a fascination for one in particular, about another big cat, and lately, I can’t shake it. It was “The Tyger” by William Blake, and it had the well-known phrase, “Tiger tiger burning bright.” Maybe you know it? It’s been recorded many times by British orators and “covered” by rock bands. Here are a couple of verses:

TIGER, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

In Los Angeles where I live, flames of that fire have licked at our gates in recent days. A cougar who lives at Griffith Park and thereabouts holed up for a few days in a dark space in a home near its range, creating a media frenzy and talk of how to make it leave and what if it attacked. Known as P22, the mountain lion slipped away one night, evading anchor folk and the rest of us, and according to its tracking collar, safely returned to what remains of the wilderness. As I wrote here at the time, the presence of P22 brought to mind how we have appropriated cougar spirit in our lives, and so too have I been thinking about how we have commandeered lion essence, or talk about it at least, as we go about our daily lives. By any chance, Dr. Palmer, are you a Leo? If not, you most likely know one or two such folk who have been born under this astrological sign, which is Latin for lion, so named by the ancients because at a certain time of the year, certain stars configured themselves so as to resemble the king of the jungle and those who emerged under this constellation were said to be imprinted with the characteristics of the lion, which is to say, they were fierce, courageous, they were the king.

Do lions figure into your life, I wonder? Do you dream about them? Do you love or hate the Detroit Lions? Have you been to a production of “The Lion King”? Most likely you’ve seen the MGM lion at the movies, possibly one of the most well-known marketing mascots of all time. Do you have any thoughts one way or another when he roars, even if only to know that the roar signals the start of something big?   When you were in Zimbabwe, did you hear lions roar? When that happened, what happened to you?

In the timeless time, aboriginal hunters said that a desired animal would present itself to the one who desired it, head into the line of attack and make eye contact just before it was felled, as if to say, “I’m yours. Take me.” The animal knew that conditions required its sacrifice; the tribe was hungry and on the animal, the two-legged members of its circle were dependent. After the animal was taken, there was ceremony and the web was not broken.

Dr. Palmer, let me put it to you this way: I am asking you to come in and lay down your arms. If you give up trophy hunting in honor of Cecil, you wouldn’t be alone. In fact, you’d be in fine company.

May I introduce you to Aldo Leopold? He happens to be a founder of the wilderness system that we have in America today, and helped take the country from outdated concepts of wildlife management which he himself was involved with to an approach that was more inclusive of animals and their welfare. His writings about the environment were far ahead of his time, and they have since become an underpinning of the modern campaign for ecosystem and wildlife protection.   Before he became such an influential person, he was a hunter, a bounty hunter in effect, paid by the government in his capacity as manager of the Gila Wilderness in Arizona, and he liked it. Yet it was through hunting that he came to renounce the practice of killing wild animals in order to save things. His turn-around was not conceptual, not the result of an idea; it happened one moment after he killed a wolf and he wrote about it in his seminal piece, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” which appears in Sand County Almanac,  his collection of essays about how we live on and with the land and share it with other creatures great and small. It was first published in 1949, though this particular hunt had happened sometime earlier. Here’s an excerpt, describing the sojourn and his transformation:

A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf…

My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

And so, I ask you again: Dr. Palmer, would you come in and lay down your arms? If you give up trophy hunting in honor of Cecil, you wouldn’t be alone. Aldo Leopold wasn’t; in fact, he had fine company.

May I introduce you to Ernest Thompson Seton? It was in his footsteps that Leopold travelled, although that does not seem to have been on his mind, in an overt way at least. Yet it is very likely that any well-informed hunter of his era, and any wilderness-minded individual, would have known the story of the famed wolf called Lobo, the one whose brutal killing at the hands of Seton, the dedicated hunter, changed the life of this man – and the country. You see, in 1893 he responded to a call for help from ranchers in New Mexico; their cattle was under siege, they said, and one wolf in particular was to blame, leading his pack in all manner of bloodthirsty raids and making it impossible to stake out a decent life in the wilderness. So Seton travelled to the beleaguered region to stalk the animal known as “vermin” – using terminology that is still in use today, applied to many wild animals – during the final stages of the great wolf removals of that era. It was not the first of such hunts for him; in fact as the Telegraph reported several years ago, before he had emigrated to the United States from Canada, he had written the definitive manual on how to catch wolves. By the time he arrived in New Mexico for the hunt he would document in a short story, only several wolves remained, including Old Lobo. Along with a posse of other men, Seton spent months tracking the “outlaw,” as he was treated and called, wanted just as badly as any fugitive who had eluded the hanging tree.   And oh that Lobo was smart, all right; as Seton later wrote, the wolf had “disarmed” his traps, avoiding bait that was laced with strychnine and cyanide while managing to extract sustenance from a thing that would have otherwise killed him. This only added to his notoriety and allure, making him all the more defiant and wanted, and his stalkers took the ability to elude them as an affront, and Seton noted that the situation had become a humiliation. Finally, he discovered that Lobo had a mate, a white wolf known as Blanca, and now he had a way to catch Lobo. After luring Blanca into a baited trap, he killed her, “the first death blow we had been able to inflict on the pack,” he said. And then something happened that surprised him, and it was so shattering that it would lead him to write “Lobo, the King of Currumpaw,” a story that came to guide the country along a new path of greater protections for wolves after it appeared in an illustrated collection of his stories called Wild Animals I Have Known. Here is an excerpt:

At intervals during the tragedy, and afterward as we rode homeward, we heard the roar of Lobo as he wandered about on the distant mesas, where he seemed to be searching for Blanca. He had never really deserted her, but, knowing that he could not save her, his deep-rooted dread of firearms had been too much for him when he saw us approaching. All that day we heard him wailing as he roamed in his quest, and I remarked at length to one of the boys, “Now, indeed, I truly know that Blanca was his mate.”

As evening fell he seemed to be coming toward the home canyon, for his voice sounded continually nearer.

There was an unmistakable note of sorrow in it now. It was no longer the loud, defiant howl, but a long, plaintive wail; “Blanca! Blanca!” he seemed to call. And as night came down, I noticed that he was not far from the place where we had overtaken her. At length he seemed to find the trail, and when he came to the spot where we had killed her, his heartbroken wailing was piteous to hear. It was sadder than I could possibly have believed. Even the stolid cowboys noticed it, and said they had “never heard a wolf carry on like that before.” He seemed to know exactly what had taken place, for her blood had stained the place of her death…

He then set steel traps for Lobo, 130 of them, buried and concealed them, and dragged Blanca across each one, laying down her scent. Lobo responded to one of them, and it gripped each of his legs in a way that was final, and that’s how Seton found him, the next day, a “a great grizzly form” arising from the ground, “vainly endeavoring to escape.” Yet the old wolf continued to struggle, the light still fierce his eyes, and the men further subdued him, deciding not to shoot him and end his pain, but instead placing him atop a horse and taking him back to their camp, where they could secure his hide.   En route, Seton noted that Lobo’s eyes were no longer focused on his hunters, but

Afar on the great rolling mesas they were fixed, his passing kingdom, where his famous band was now scattered. And he gazed till the pony descended the pathway into the canyon, and the rocks cut off the view….[Back at camp] I set meat and water beside him but he paid no heed. He lay calmly on his breast, and gazed with those steadfast yellow eyes away past me down through the gateway of the canyon, over the open plains—his plains—nor moved a muscle when I touched him. When the sun went down he was still gazing fixedly across the prairie. I expected he would call up his band when night came, and prepared for them, but he had called once in his extremity, and none had come; he would never call again.

A lion shorn of his strength, an eagle robbed of his freedom, or a dove bereft of his mate, all die, it is said, of a broken heart; and who will aver that this grim bandit could bear the three-fold brunt, heart-whole? This only I know, that when the morning dawned, he was lying there still in his position of calm repose, his body unwounded, but his spirit was gone—the old kingwolf was dead.

I took the chain from his neck, a cowboy helped me to carry him to the shed where lay the remains of Blanca, and as we laid him beside her, the cattle-man exclaimed: “There, you would come to her, now you are together again.

 So I ask you again, Dr. Palmer, won’t you come in and lay down your arms? If you give up trophy hunting in honor of Cecil, you wouldn’t be alone. In fact, you’d be in fine company. Along with the men I have mentioned, there are others out there. Like you, they have taken the lives of wild animals in the name of other things, but not always. I know because I’ve met them. When they are young and in their prime, they are unreachable, defiant, afraid. They are receiving approval for their acts from a circle of friends and it is a thing with which they are familiar and it sustains them. They are equipped with all manner of gear and accessories, “varmint calls” that let them “hunt the hunters” and after they’ve done it, they display the take proudly and sometimes are photographed with it in a manner such as you know. Years later, some are full of remorse, or more accurately, some of their kind, for I have not followed their lives individually, but have met and spent time with different sorts of hunters at different stages of their lives, and those who have killed for sport and are remorseful cannot show this feeling to their friends. Sometimes they come to my talks, after others have left, unassuming, defeated, not really a part of this world. “I’m sorry,” they say, on the verge of tears in certain instances, sometimes extending a hand. And then they tell me what they have done, which is to say kill wild horses (as mustangs and the ongoing war against them is the subject of one of my books). They regret their role in the decimation of our herds, living in the West as most of them do, and now looking out their back doors, say, if they have a home (some are without one, living on the road, cast aside like the animals we do not want), and seeing a Wal-Mart, for instance, or string of fast food establishments, on the horizon of the once open range. “It’s all gone,” they say, and they know they have been part of the wipe-out, which extends to all wild animals at this point, and they have participated in the wars against all of these animals (if you think that a wild horse is a “varmint,” you generally think that wolves and mountain lions and bobcats are too, and they have, for instance, used the carcasses of wild horse to attract other four-leggeds so they can kill them). Now, with everything gone and the land empty, they ask me what they can do. “To make things right,” they say, like a prayer, and they tear up and begin to have trouble talking and then they leave, vanishing into the national vapors. “In America,” Jim Harrison once wrote, “there are a lot of bodies by the side of the road.”

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Photo by Larry Lasker

Finally, there is one more thing I’d like to say and then I’ll be on my way.   Earlier this year, my dear friend, Michael Blake, passed away.   You may not be familiar with his name, but you well may know his legacy. He wrote “Dances with Wolves” – the book and the movie. Throughout his life, Michael spoke on behalf of all wild things, including mountain lions, and like me, he was a long-time defender of wild horses. Here is an excerpt from “Horse Number 1202,” a poem he wrote about a wild horse after it was seized from the wilderness and penned up in a government corral:

In city traffic
I remember his eyes
So dark and wet
So full of God

Michael adopted this stallion sometime after he was seized from the land, and he named him “Twelve,” part of the government brand on his neck. He took him home to Wolf House, the wilderness ranch in Arizona that Michael named in tribute to Jack London and his writing studio in northern California.  On the spread in the Sonoran Desert, Michael lived with other rescued horses, a rescued raven and various dogs and cats, working on new stories and traveling between bouts of cancer, trying to bring attention to the plight of wild horses. “Whatever he may be doing at this moment,” he once wrote of Twelve in his book about him, “it is of no harm to anyone or anything. He has never performed a destructive act in his life. Lying or cheating for personal gain is not part of his being, nor is the accumulation of wealth for its own sake. The only system he is part of is that of the Creator.”

There came a time that Michael could no longer fight an increasing number of maladies. He began alternating his days between friends and family and then finally, he moved to a hospice. The last time I spoke with him was in a phone call at Christmas, arranged by a mutual friend, John Coinman, who has memorialized the West in song. John and his wife Jo Anderson were helping Michael connect with close pals in his final days, and sometimes John would dial the phone and hand it off to Michael.   As we often did over the years, we talked about our writing and then Michael told me about some things that were bothering him, such as the fact that among other things, he couldn’t remember the parts of speech (or maybe that was in an earlier conversation; they’re all conflated now). In any case, the implication was: what did that mean for him as a writer and if he couldn’t write, then what?, for that was where he lived, but he didn’t say that, and somewhere in the conversation, he told me to keep writing, which is something he always said, but this time it took on a heightened meaning.   I could hear the anguish in his voice, and he was passing the baton, or so I like to think, yet you see, he still had these stories in his head. He told me he so, and I believed him. The thing was, he could not get them out and on to the page; he simply could not remember how to write a sentence. And so the songs remained inside him – or in the thousands of pages he inscribed before he died, now in his archives. But what is surely an opera for all time made its way through Michael and we are all the better for it. Recently, his ashes were scattered over Twelve’s burial site at Wolf House. “Although his age could not be proven,” Michael said, “it was somewhere in the vicinity of forty years…I have visited his grave nearly every day since he died, driven not so much by grief as a sense of honor.”

Since the moment he walked on, to use Native American parlance, I’ve been wanting to write something for Michael, but I did not know how or what to say. I think that now, with this letter, I’ve said it.

I wasn’t sure how to begin and now, I’m not quite sure how to sign off. I guess I’ll keep it simple and thank you for your time, Dr. Palmer. And if you’ve gotten this far, I’d like to put it out there one more time: won’t you come in and lay down your arms? You wouldn’t be alone.

Sincerely,

Deanne Stillman

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Translating and Tweeting

By Joanna Chen

I’m in the lotus position above Iceland. I have two seats to myself and one more whenever the guy next to me totters down the aisle for another whiskey on the rocks. Whenever he does this, I stretch my legs out onto his seat as well. Sometimes I go stand at the back of the plane, where the airline attendants are snacking on potato chips and laughing together. They adjust their smiles as I come towards them. I’d like a cup of tea, I say. The tea is handed to me in a plastic cup and I continue to stand there, moving from one leg to the other, stretching as unobtrusively as I can. Do you need the bathroom? The flight attendant asks me brightly, and I shake my head and obediently return to my seat.

My legs crave movement but the rest of me loves this limbo, this hovering above the sea, this island that is me, surrounded by whimpering babies and businessmen in open-necked shirts popping peanuts and watching movies on their personal screens. I love watching other peoples’ movies as they flicker in the darkness, without knowing what the actors are saying but trying to guess. I love these poems I am translating, scattered on the empty seat beside me, their Hebrew syllables easing into English, shaking off the heavy “r” at the back of the throat, the gutturals.

I am heading to New York. I will try to shake off the jet lag and then fly on to Vermont for the inaugural Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference. I think of home longingly. I think how the leaves fell from the trees yesterday all at once, as if they were in a hurry to fall before I left, to show me that they are truly sorry I am going.

I lingered at home until dusk. I listened to the birds that visit the valley where I live in early summer, calling to each other, settling for the night. By the time I left, the old wooden table on the front porch was covered in leaves of green and yellow. I considered brushing them off but decided against it. There was no point. The leaves would continue to fall after I left.

The man in my row offers to buy me a drink and I smile and say no, thank you. He shrugs, orders himself another one and ignores me for the rest of the flight. Later, he switches places with a woman sitting further down the plane. I can’t work out if she’s his wife; he brings her over, points to the seat and shrugs his shoulders in my direction again. Her head is covered with a pale scarf and she wears an enormous amount of mascara on her eyelashes. She stares at the screen in front of her, at the icon of an airplane moving across the globe on a yellow line that turns green when the distance is covered. Under the airplane is a vast sea, indicated by the kind of blue you see on the balmiest of days at the beach. The woman reaches out long, tapering fingers to the screen and plays with the picture until it becomes a twirling globe and the airplane is flying on top of the globe, against an inky sky scattered with stars.

She manipulates the screen again and the landscape moves, revealing green furrows and what appear to be deserts; we’re flying over Kazakhstan. She draws the globe together with her fingers and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Iran crowd in together at one end of the globe. She moves around the globe, this time very quickly, as if she is afraid to lose something. Japan, North Korea, and the East China Sea become visible, their names floating in an indigo crater. Our eyes meet for a second across the empty seat. She keeps turning the globe this way and that, her fingers hovering over Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay, and I imagine the people of Bolivia looking up for a moment at the sky, wondering who is moving it. The globe spins, and the woman leans forward, minimizing the distance we are traveling so that Amman appears on one side and New York on the other, divided by a short yellow line. We are almost there.

I sleep badly on my first night in New York. The next day I head out with my friend, Ali, to the Whitney Museum of American Art. I linger over an E. E. Cummings abstract painting, “Noise Number 13,” at the swirling colors and conical shapes that appear to expand and contract, a visual depiction of sound. I didn’t know E. E. Cummings painted. I think of the woman on the plane, expanding her own boundaries. Later Ali and I stand on the terrace and look down at people moving like ants along the High Line and I watch the trees, green against the drab, vibrant metropolis, swaying eloquently in the wind.

I sleep badly (again) and fly to Vermont the next day. On the drive up there from the airport, I sit in the front seat clutching my bag. The driver tells us there are bears in the woods. “If you see a bear,” he says, “don’t move. Just freeze.” “One person was killed by a bear in the woods,” the guy in the back chimes in, winking at me. I peer out of the window at the dark spruce trees. The road winds up to the mountain and I’m filled with foreboding. A whole week ahead of me and there are bears in the woods.

The next morning, still jet lagged and unable to sleep, I check out the schedule and decide to join what is listed on the handout as a bird walk. I go down at 6:30am to the entrance of the Bread Loaf Inn. It’s raining a little and mist rests lightly over the mountain. A small crowd is gathered under the yellow porch. I’m the only translator here on this first walk; everyone else is from the parallel Orion Environmentalists Writers’ Conference. They’re sipping coffee in biodegradable cups and chatting together. Some have binoculars around their necks. The packet I received prior to coming to the conference said to bring a jacket. I‘m here for the translators’ conference and here is my first error in translation: I brought a blazer, not a jacket; I’m British. I begin blessing my friend, Ali, for lending me something more subtle as we cross over the meadow in a long line, the damp squelching under our feet. I am also wearing her boots. We walk to the middle of the meadow. We are looking for migratory birds that pass through this area in the month of June. And then, the sentence that resonates for me throughout the conference: “Let’s see what we can hear,” Orion conference co-director, Chip Blake, says, cocking his head to one side and placing a hand to his ear. Everyone follows suit. “Hear that?” Chip asks. Everyone nods. I hear nothing. All I can hear is the wind and the faint sound of water gurgling along down below in the woods. “Anyone know what that is?” Chip asks. We stand there. “That’s a red-eyed vireo,” he explains. He repeats this on every morning walk and the answer is always the same; it really is a red-eyed vireo. The idea of seeing what can be heard, like E. E. Cummings’s synesthetic painting, breaks through boundaries, translating sound into a visual dimension. And these beautiful bird walks, that open every single morning at the conference, become the real gateway for me to the act of translation. These are the woods of Robert Frost and his words echo in my ears as I take these walks:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

These walks into the woods of Vermont are all about translation. They reveal how the sparrow marks its territory between trees by squawking, how the hairy kingfisher’s notes pierce through the wind in the treetops, undecipherable by human ears. It’s the difference between a jacket and a blazer. It’s the thin, high call of the waxwing, and the witchety-witch call of the yellow-rumped warbler, whose young form what are known as punk flocks, before drifting southward. Week-old punks, but not the punks I know, up here on the mountain. It’s the winter wren, whose loud voice carries above the rushing water, close to where it nests in winter. I saw very few of these birds with my own eyes, although Bill Johnston, the acclaimed translator and Bread Loaf faculty member, hands me his binoculars on the fourth day so I can see an eastern kingfisher dive-bombing a crow. Like translation, bird-watching demands close reading.

Later that day, in Johnston’s lecture on The Quest for a Voice, I think less about the role of the translator striving to capture the authorial voice, and more about those birds, traversing continents, flying in on the weather system, dropping onto Bread Loaf Mountain as if they are standing on the platform in a subway, waiting for a fast train, as one of the people on these walks remarked. I want to know where they are going and how they talk to each other.

We translators talk to each other a lot. We discuss the lure of language prisms. We critique translations from unfamiliar languages: Swedish, Korean, Arabic, Latin, and my own Hebrew, among other languages. We listen not just for meaning but for tone, pitch, rhythm, and texture. You cannot see it but you can hear it if you listen, and look, carefully.

In the middle of the week, we all walk over to Robert Frost’s farm for a long and delicious picnic. On the way, a translator friend and I take a detour to Frost’s cabin, where we peek through the windows. Turning to leave, we catch a yellow-striped ribbon snake slipping lazily through the grass. On the last day, I listen to Alison Hawthorne Deming talking about the importance of place in our writing and how everything comes down to animals, plants, and rocks. I understand how all these translate into feelings and rhythms, how the snake has its own unhurried language. Up here in the mountains of Vermont, there is time to learn other methods of communicative translation. For this, after all, is what translation is all about. It’s about migration to other worlds and other cultures, to the hidden lives of others.

The conference ends. The networking is over, the barn socials are over, the walks and readings too. My notebook is full of email addresses; my head is full of ideas. I’m still not sleeping properly, and rise early to take a final walk, this time on my own. I help myself to coffee and exit the Inn, crossing the road to the meadow where we went on the first day. I want to reenter the woods we visited and feel the soft, dense ground under my borrowed rain boots. I begin walking across the meadow and there it is, just ahead of me, a tiny bird with gray, black and white markings. It rises into the air, chirping like Morse code, and I lift up my head and follow with my eyes as it flies across the meadow and beyond. Finally, a red-eyed vireo.

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Reading in the Dark: My Winter with T. C. Boyle

By Michelle Brafman

I devoured T.C. Boyle’s novels and stories after the PEN/Faulkner Foundation asked me to moderate an event called “All Things Animate Beating in Unison: An Evening with T.C. Boyle.” I read them as he wrote them, a novel followed by a cluster of short stories, rinse and repeat. I started in late December and stopped the night of the Boyle event, six days after the end of a cruel winter.

I decided on that brisk spring night that I would not read T.C. Boyle for a long while, and it wasn’t because I didn’t love his work, because I still do, or that reading him would not make me a better writer, because it definitively would, or that I hadn’t found a dozen models of the point of view I am trying to pull off in my next novel, because I did.

I decided not to read T.C. Boyle past the sixth day of spring because I knew that I would always associate him with the winter of my developmentally disabled sister-in-law’s torturous demise. I know now that I will also link him with the joyful moments of my family and professional life, only made sweeter by the looming death we lived with every day as her caregivers.

In early January, I made a pledge that I was going to endeavor to read everything Boyle had ever written: 15 novels and around 100 short stories. I failed at my goal, but not without putting a nice dent in his canon. Breakfast is the only meal my family consistently shares, and while my husband divvied up The Washington Post, I sat at the head of the table with my shiny new red 915 page hardcover beauty, T.C. Boyle’s Short Stories Volume II. I didn’t read like a writer. I didn’t attach Post-It notes to my favorite pages or underline sentences that hummed or dissect narrative structures that should come with a warning: “Don’t try this at home.” I simply followed the stories wherever they took me: to an abortion clinic, an Alaskan bar, a virtual peep show.

I assigned “Balto,” and “Hit Man” to a student whom I tutor, and we unpacked them together, and then I read a dozen more stories sitting in the bleachers of my son’s swim meets. I read passages of “Greasy Lake” aloud to my husband, and he smiled because he appreciates a well-crafted sentence and an apt rock ‘n’ roll epigraph, although he’s not a Springsteen fan. And when friends asked me how I was doing, I often responded by describing a T.C. Boyle story or tidbit from an interview I’d just read because really, who wants to hear the gory details of a long and protracted cancer death? My family had built a cocoon around itself as confining as my sister-in-law’s apartment, thick with the scent of the Bengay her hospice nurses rubbed on her lower back. Periodically, we’d let relatives and close friends inside; for me, Boyle had taken up permanent residence with us.

I read “Chicxulub” after coming home from a difficult visit with my sister-in-law, her arms and legs skinny as chopsticks and excruciatingly painful to the touch. I cried, not only because I shared the narrator’s imagining of the tragic fate of a daughter, but because the meteor that had hit my sister-in-law hadn’t been kind enough to knock her out completely. Much of the beginning and ending of life revolves around waste management, and as my sister-in-law’s body shut down, ironically, I read Road to Wellville, its numerous scatological references resonating with me a little more than I’d wished. It did feel good to laugh, though. During one of many snow days, I curled up with When the Killing’s Done and renewed my connection to the natural world, its vastness taking me outside of myself for a span of pages. On the sub-zero degree night before my sister-in-law’s funeral, I read Boyle’s newest novel, The Harder They Come, in a Syracuse Hampton Inn while my children stretched out beside me on our king-size bed and watched reruns of an insipid Disney sitcom. I finished the book the next night in another Hampton Inn room in Pennsylvania because the snow thwarted our plans to drive back to DC. I found the novel’s violence a disturbing comfort.

Between stories and more novels, I read essays, the most profound, “This Monkey, My Back.” As a somewhat obsessive person, I was stirred by Boyle’s description of his writing as an addiction “as powerful and overmastering an urge as putting a bottle to your lips or a spike in our arm.” Yes, writing was just the vice I needed to make it through the winter, and maybe beyond. So I wrote, mainly junk and journal entries of moments with my sister-in-law: my little boy bringing her snow in a plastic cup, spending date night watching Family Feud with her, sitting with my husband while he told her that she wasn’t going to get better, that kind of thing. By simply moving my fingers across the keyboard, I was able to hold on to the human moments hidden in her suffering.

When I told a friend about Boyle’s influence over the past few months of my life, she suggested that I would have attached such meaning to anything I’d read. But that’s not true. I believe that books find you when you need them most. I wouldn’t have read them at all had I not had this assignment from PEN/Faulkner. I couldn’t concentrate without a good reason to, and even if I could have, I wouldn’t have sought out T.C. Boyle. And I wouldn’t have had a companion throughout my winter.

Now it is summer, and we are molting. My sister-in-law’s death is a receding headline in our lives, although if someone appears truly interested, I’ll find myself blurting out details about the funeral or shiva. But that’s rarer and rarer as the days progress. I am grateful to T.C. Boyle for his unwitting visit to our grief bubble.

It is time to let him go.

Christopher Lee

The Killing Time

Our friend Ann Louise Bardach interviewed Christopher Lee for Los Angeles’s WET magazine in 1981. We post it with her permission here in memorium.

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Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born in London on May 27, 1922. During WWII, he served in the British Royal Air Force in some intelligence capacity, the details of which he says he would rather not discuss. After the War, Lee decided to try acting. He appeared in his first film in 1949 and starred in The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957. Over the next decade, he became a fixture in the horror genre, often outclassing the gory potboilers in which he starred. In person, he’s quite tall but not spooky at all.

A.L. Bardach chats with Lee about his war years, which proved an odd sort of inspiration to his future career. Continue reading

The Goats: A Middle Eastern Pastoral

By Joanna Chen

It’s that time of year. The goats are here again. They’re back with their shepherds, munching their way along the lower slopes below the forest that surrounds the village where I live. They have all the time in the world, wandering around from slope to slope leading down to the main road. They walk slowly along, dipping down to the low-growing bushes and the wild oregano, raising their necks to branches that crackle when bitten through.

These are the goats that belong to the Bedouin shepherds and they’ll be here through the long summer that lies ahead. I look forward to sharing the forest near my house with them again. They remind me that there is a different pace of life. Continue reading

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What Really Happened: Writing a Memoir

By Morris Dickstein

In recent years, whenever someone asked me what I was working on, I would hesitate a moment. “A memoir,” I’d say, never quite sure of the reaction I’d get. Friends would perk up, perhaps pleased that I was doing something different, “creative” rather than critical. I could see they were curious to learn more about me. Other reactions were more skeptical, though the skeptics were usually too polite to object directly. Someone I knew in passing was less restrained: “What do you have to write about?” It was rude but there were times I agreed with him. Too many people were publishing memoirs: you could say there was a glut in the market. After all, what were my credentials for writing about myself? I hadn’t served as secretary of state, committed high crimes or misdemeanors, or found a cure for cancer. From a lifetime of teaching and writing, I couldn’t report on titanic battles with addiction or any spectacular breakdowns. It’s true that I had lived in interesting times, that accursed fate, but I was an intellectual, part of that rarefied breed, awash in a medium of arguments and ideas.

Though I’d been fortunate in my teachers and colleagues, I’d rarely hobnobbed with celebrities or journeyed to exotic places. London, Paris, Rome, Jerusalem – did they count? The Jewish immigrant culture from which I sprang had often, perhaps too often, been written about. Still, I had a story I wanted to tell — many stories, in fact — about a disappearing world I was eager recapture, a personal past still vibrantly alive for me, one that would engage readers if I could bring it to life for them. Some people I know plow straight ahead, never looking back; for them the past is an ash heap, memory an indulgence. The opposite has always held true for me: even when I was young, the accumulating past was a magnet, a flourishing landscape of memory that drew me in, partly as a way to understand the idiosyncratic person I’d become. It was hardly an accident that I was attracted to psychoanalysis and had spent years on the couch, talking my way through an interminable flow of memories and feelings.

Thanks to this wellspring of emotion bubbling up from earlier times, bits of my life would often surface in whatever writing I did. Reviewing a novel by Bernard Malamud triggered recollections of my father’s virtual indenture to his small dry goods store. Composing eulogies of departed teachers or friends, of course, led me to revisit the times and scenes I’d known with them. When I wrote a book about the 1960s, an era that idealized openness and first-person witness (“let it all hang out,” the mantra went), I dipped inevitably into my own experiences; the era had lit me up and changed my life. Better still, whenever the writing turned more personal I seemed to shift into another gear; I felt empowered, as if tapping into a sensitive region of the brain. I could sense the emotional temperature rising, the prose turning tighter, more incandescent. As I got older I also felt the urge to leave something behind, some of the sentient life that burned brightly in me. Would it simply be an album of memories, a sheaf of anecdotes, or would it carry a freight of meaning for others as well? Would it turn slack with factual recollection or glow with remembered incident and feeling? That challenge confronts any writer but perhaps the autobiographical writer most of all. A memoir, after all, is a form of licensed self-absorption — that’s part of what’s exciting about it for a writer. But how do you make it matter to other people, make it seriously real to them? There are lazy options I had no desire to take. At a time when the lines between private and public seem almost obliterated, for instance, writers are tempted to traffic in the lurid, the grossly unedifying, either to attract attention or simply to connect viscerally with readers. Losing any normal sense of shame, they take a tabloid view of their own lives, flaunting what should remain intimate and private.

Better writers mask such revelations, using fiction to expose yet also to camouflage their emotional terrain. My own memoir, Why Not Say What Happened, actually began as an idea for a novel, not a straight autobiography. Quite miraculously, it arrived in a single bolt of inspiration one morning in the unguarded time between waking up and getting out of bed, a delicious interval that invites fantasy and free association. In the early sixties, as an unhappy grad student in English at Yale, I was offered a fellowship to spend a year in Cambridge, England, working up a subject for a thesis. A wonderful idea: blessedly free time after years of course assignments, term papers, academic pressure. From a distance, venerable and historic Cambridge, Gothic yet pastoral Cambridge, looked like paradise, and in some ways it was. I relished the unstructured stretches of time to read widely; I also worked hard at breaking into a surprisingly different culture, whose social codes I could never quite crack. But much of the time I was miserable: homesick, adrift in a cold, wet climate, missing the girl I had left behind. The novel I imagined in that morning reverie would center on the story of that year abroad, with flashbacks and foreshadowings that evoked other phases of my life — the Jewish childhood in a large, boisterous extended family, the religious education I sometimes loved and sometimes rejected, the intellectual awakening I experienced as an undergraduate, the anxieties that sometimes had beset me earlier but emerged in force during that fretful English year.

As the novel took shape in my mind, it was even clear where it might begin. I was haunted by a creepy incident that played out the day I departed for Cambridge in October 1963. Driving on the Grand Central Parkway, just past LaGuardia Airport, I caught sight in my rear-view mirror of a huge car, a stretch limo or Lincoln Continental, rearing up, leaping the divider, and bearing down on a VW bug, some hundred yards behind me. I had passed through the spot not ten seconds earlier. I looked on in horror as the smaller car veered wildly from side to side to avoid getting crushed. Then, as the road curved, I lost sight of the scene, so brief and eerie that I wondered if I’d imagined it. A few hours later I boarded a plane for England and never found out what actually happened that day on the road. This open-ended memory, framed in the mirror like a movie clip, became an emblem of my troubled feelings all that year, the collision course from which the novel could set out.

I was trying to finish another book, long in the making, but every so often I’d turn this unwritten novel over in my mind, tinker with assorted plans for it. But once I was free to write the book I had a solid hunch it would never come off. My stabs at writing fiction in my 20s and 30s had usually petered out. My doubts grew as I thought back to distant England in 1963 and 1964, watching movies made on location then, wondering whether I could bring that distant, somewhat alien world to life. Writing it as fiction would offer me the opportunity to invent, to enhance or embroider whatever I remembered, but could I make it all fully present? My reverence for the alchemy of fiction might serve to disable me. If I hewed closely to my recollections of what really happened, I might as well come clean and cast it as a memoir. I’d still have to make it a believable world, alive on the page, but I could at least count on the unspoken contract with the reader, a bond of trust that I’d stay close to the facts according to my own lights. If my literary gifts were not really suited to fiction, they could yet provide all I needed for decent autobiographical writing.

I still had to fashion a plot, grasp the narrative arc of at least part of my life. I would also want to probe what attracted me so strongly to the past. A peculiar, deeply irrational moment stuck in my mind and I decided it might serve as a prologue. Instead of the impending crash that I’d glimpsed on the highway, I would lead off with a scene toward the end of my grad school years in New Haven. Once, on an aimless walk, I knocked on the door of a seemingly empty place where I’d once lived, got no response, yet felt compelled to walk right in and wander around, though others were then clearly living there. As an interloper, I thought I might be assaulted at any moment. Trembling with emotion — where did it come from? — I was acting on an impulse I couldn’t resist, as if trespassing upon my own earlier world.

As I conjured up this feverish moment of more than forty years back, it set off a train of memories of that whole period, just before the year in Cambridge, when I was on my own for the first time. From there I could reach back to my parents’ marriage and my own childhood, to college adventures and the travels that followed, just as I had once imagined doing in the novel. Now the book unexpectedly began writing itself, telling me where it wanted to go, even where it had to end. I still needed to sort out what mattered only to me from what might also trigger recognition in others. “Follow the emotion,” a friend advised. If I cared enough, probed deeply enough, others would care as well. “My heart laid bare,” so Baudelaire described it. As a writer and critic, as a teacher, I’d also have to include the life of the mind, the books I’d read, the poetry I loved, the ideas that turned me on. But I felt it should not be a largely intellectual biography, an essay in cultural history, like those that some of my admired mentors had written. It had to be personal as well, something ripped from the gut. I needed to unburden or debrief myself, for there were moments and milestones weighing upon me. Above all I had to create myself as a character, not so different from a fictional narrator, and bring the spark of life to the sketches I drew of the people around me. Would they prove as memorable to others as they were to me? Above all I wanted to tell stories, irresistible stories, without putting the thinking mind to sleep.

It was odd to find myself doing research not in texts but in the corners and folds of my own psyche. I soon discovered there were vexing clauses in the all-important contract to tell the truth. What about the embarrassing stuff I’d discussed with virtually no one: episodes of panic attacks and physical symptoms, years in psychotherapy and then full-scale analysis? And what about the harsh or painful memories, crucial to any three-dimensional work, which might prove upsetting to others, uncles or cousins, teachers and friends, even their children and grandchildren, people I had no wish to anguish or harm? I didn’t intend to trace my own coming of age at their expense, except where honesty demanded it.

Strangely, I took heart from Orwell’s injunction not to trust any autobiography that didn’t tell us something discreditable — he actually said “disgraceful” — about the author. If nothing else, such details would add drama to my tale, lay out conflicts that would make up for the dearth of nail-biting melodrama. I could rely on Montaigne’s justification for writing about himself – that each man’s life potentially bears the whole form of the human condition. The trick was to grapple with it honestly, wherever it led, at some risk of looking bad or foolish. I would never allow it to become a confessional debauch, but I wondered: was there too much neurosis in my memoir, or not enough? Only the reader could judge. Some discretion was inevitable but I tried hard to avoid turning it into censorship. It took some inflation of ego to think I was worth writing about, but also a willingness to be exposed, to be vulnerable. Part of the story would be the reversals, the disappointments and serious losses, though surely Orwell exaggerated when he said, “any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” Whatever those setbacks were, I’d have the dubious pleasure of living through them again, savoring some past experiences, regretting others, revisiting indelible moments and trying hard to make sense of them at last.

Morris Dickstein’s memoir, Why Not Say What Happened: A Sentimental Education, has just come out from Liveright, along with a new edition of his cultural history of the 1960s, Gates of Eden. His previous books include Leopards in the Temple (2002), A Mirror in the Roadway (2005), and Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression (2009).

Lead photo by Nancy Crampton.

 

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A Song in Two Voices

Image: Steven Turville

By Joanna Chen

The only sure thing on polling day in Israel this year was the holiday atmosphere. Even my village joined in, with a cozy open-air market that was just being set up at the entrance as we walked by that morning on our way to the polling station. Organic vegetables, gold jewellery, scarves from India, hand-painted wooden toys, all made locally. Polling day doubles as family day, as the grown-up kids throng home to vote, walking along with their parents to the voting hall. One of our daughters is still registered in the village, and she joins us on our stroll. We take the dogs, and they run ahead, happy we are all together today. Only my son, who is too young to vote, seems low-spirited this morning. He walks a little ahead of us, head down, in sandals and a dirty t-shirt. We go early, because we have two invitations to see friends today. It’s a holiday, after all. Continue reading

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COUGAR TOWN: OF P22, MAGGIE THE CAT, AND ROOM AT THE INN

Image: National Geographic photographer Steve Winter

By Deanne Stillman

An animal whose name, whose type I should say, is used to malign women of a certain age, is now holed up in a home in Los Feliz. That is to say a cougar, aka a mountain lion, has found refuge in a dwelling for humans who live near Griffith Park, his most favored address, according to his tracking collar.

As this story broke, many questions came to mind. Why did P22 as he is known decide to spend time in a crawl space in a home on the 2700 block of Glendower Avenue? Did he feel comfortable there? Was he drawn to the three housecats who live there, members of his tribe, distant though they may be, in the area that is his (for he is one of the last of his kind in the region called Los Angeles and that is why he is tracked)? Has it come to this – he found his family, in, yes, a house? As officials from various agencies closed in, as newsfolk hovered and said “A very large houseguest is in the neighborhood” and other things of that nature, I wondered if he was making some kind of stand, a last one (I hoped not, as he was prodded and poked and blasted with bean bags and tennis balls – tactics which have moved “troublesome” mountain lions away from people in the past), and there was an undercurrent of fear and bloodlust, as there always is when a wild thing is cornered. Would he leap out from the crawl space and attack somebody? Would there then be a killer on the loose? Would he have to be taken out? Continue reading

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In Every City, A Forest

Image: Felix Kiessling

By Joanna Chen

The fact that a Lufthansa plane had crashed the day before I flew to Berlin did not deter me in the least. El-Al is safer, a neighbor told me, referring to Israel’s national airline. Their security is better, she said. On my walk to the forest the morning of my flight, a friend made a face when I said I was flying Lufthansa. “Oh well,” she said, realizing I really was going. “Lightning doesn’t strike twice.”

I’ve been to Berlin several times in the past few years. Last autumn I got on the plane with hand luggage only – a pair of flip-flops, my laptop and a couple of swirly summer skirts. My dismayed partner, accustomed to my dubious packing talents, handed me his sweater and bought me an umbrella when we met up at Berlin’s Tegel airport. Continue reading