Category Archives: Essays

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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

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Death and the Author: A Brief Commemoration of Terry Pratchett

By Andrew M. Butler

By now, of course, Death is almost an old friend. You’ll know him when you see him—tall chap, skeletal, scythe, black cape, a BOOMING VOICE, rides a pale horse called Binky… and he’s a recurring character in virtually all of the Discworld novels written by Sir Terry Pratchett, who has died at home on March 12 2015 from a chest infection caused by early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. In an early volume, Mort (1987), Death moves from cameo to secondary lead, perhaps even antagonist, as he takes young Mort on as an apprentice. Whilst Mort struggles to carry on the work, Death finds work as a short order cook in a tavern and begins to get to know living people. The novel echoes earlier works featuring Death—Alberto Casella’s play Death Takes a Holiday (1924) and the films The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957) and Love and Death (Woody Allen, 1975)—but it is not just a parody: it explores the nature of work. A few books later, in Reaper Man (1991), Death is made redundant and seeks work on a farm as an odd-job man, only to find his traditional scything skills are threatened by threshing machines. The novel is a comedy, but it is also about stuff. Continue reading

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Another Perspective on Goshen

By Faheem Haider

SOME 20 YEARS AGO, while living in a small village near Goshen, New York, I got my first driver’s license at the Orange County Government Center, the Paul Rudolph–designed Brutalist marvel of concrete blocks outfitting the space around me, tracking my every step. Back then, I didn’t know very much about the provenance of the building, but I thought it a weirdly lovely structure left alone in a staid Victorian village. Since then, after many years away and a move back home, I’ve visited the “Rudolph building” to get other documents and a number of passports. Each time, I entered the building through an uncouth side entrance off a pedestrian parking lot. Some part of the dingy interior was always cordoned off, and buckets lined up in multiple rows to catch the sedimented leakage. Continue reading