In Person

After the Marathon: We Contain Multitudes

This past Monday, I watched the Boston Marathon. I live in Newton, so I went over and watched it about a mile from my house. I was standing a little before mile 19, from about eleven that morning, until about one. So nothing had happened yet except the marathon itself. Patriots’ Day is always this particular Monday, closest to April 19th, which is also always the first Monday of school vacation. I haven’t seen a marathon for years, because we’ve usually been away. But this year I was here, and I felt pretty silly that we have been living so close by for so long and I hadn’t gone to watch. I knew there would be a festival sort of atmosphere. I knew it would be one of those heart-warming community events that make you feel good about humanity, although I didn’t know exactly how it would work. On Monday, I woke up feeling a little fizz of excitement, to be honest. One child was away on his school vacation, with my husband; one child was asleep, because she’s a teenager; one was going to come with me but reneged at the last minute. So I biked over alone. I was feeling sad about that, but then lo and behold when I got there and parked my bike, I realized that across Comm Ave.—on the other side of the course—were my brother- and sister-in-law, who don’t even live in Newton and could have been spectating from anywhere along the 26.2 miles, but were instead precisely where I was. I crossed over. “God didn’t want me to be alone at the marathon,” I said. It was early; I didn’t realize how early, marathon-wise, it was. There were a few wheelchairs, and a few of the elite women. Most of them had already gone by. We were now waiting for the elite male runners. Before long there was a phalanx of motorcycles, and photographer trucks, and then, finally, a small pack of slender men. “Oh,” breathed Teresa. “Oh. They glide.” We marveled at the efficiency of their strides. Their faces didn’t show strain but, rather, authority. Then they were gone. Following the leader pack was the rest of the elites, more spread out. A kid near us had a vuvuzela, which nicely punctuated things. We could see each individual runner; clap and cheer; and then chat some more. We talked about how my husband—one of four brothers—ran the marathon in high school, and how a couple of years later no one in the family was running it and so another brother, Sam, called John, the brother I was standing with now, on March first and said, “You training yet?” That was back before you had to qualify. They both ran it, that year, in four hours. John—no longer a runner, but a dedicated walker—said he started wearing Rockports after he saw a guy running in them one year. We saw a barefoot guy go by. A few Vibram sock-shoe guys.  On the edge of the other side, Marines, in full gear, were walking the route. My nephew is a Marine; Teresa said his pack, in basic, had been seventy pounds. We hollered, “Thank you!” to them. They waved back. There was still an anticipation I couldn’t identify; all the elites had passed. Whoever was going to win had come and gone. Then I noticed my bike, which I’d left on the other side, was about to tip over. So during a lull I dashed across to fix it. There was a lemonade stand there, and I bought a chocolate chip cookie. I took a bite and then felt sort of ridiculous, being surrounded by these low-BMI types, so I stuck it in my pocket. Then I waited for a chance to cross back. But it didn’t come. The flow of runners was steadily increasing. I waited five, ten minutes. I was stuck. I shrugged theatrically, across the four lanes, at my brother- and sister-in-law.  I was alone again, but the woman I was standing next to, who had her two kids with her, was very nice. She was one of those people you just start talking to—and marathon day is one of those times you just start talking to people. But we didn’t talk much, because our business now was cheering. The runners were constant now. At first they stayed, decorously, in the right lane, next to us. I thought of calling to John and Teresa to come over to me, because I was closer. I could see the runners’ faces, their shirts. The shirts were the thing. You began to want connection. You began to read the shirts. “Go Children’s Hospital!” “Go Brazil!” “Go Denmark!” “Go Chile!” “Go Friends of Griffin!” Some smart ones—repeats, probably—had their names magic-markered on their fronts. “Go Kelly!” “Go Doug!” “Go Manuel!” “Go Chris!” Some people were in costume. “Go hamburger!” “Go bee!” “Go Wonder Woman!” There’s a guy from my church who’s run two dozen Bostons, always in costume. This year he was going as Prince William. I kept watching, but never saw him. I thought it would be impossible to miss him; but I hadn’t realized, really realized, how many people there would be. They had now spread across Comm Ave to all four lanes. We had been standing in the street since the lemonade stand was behind us, but now we had to get up on the curb, to make room. They filled the whole road edge to edge. I was reading shirts as fast as I could. I had started clapping, and now I couldn’t stop. How could you stop? It wasn’t like a play with a standing ovation and eventually your hands are killing you and even though the thing was brilliant you have to stop. This was slow, steady clapping, for the steady stream of runners. My hands went numb. I kept clapping, and the runners kept coming. A guy with a huge head of blue hair. “Go hair!” Three shirtless guys. “Go shirtless guys!” More friends of Griffin. “Go friends of Griffin!” There were all the people raising money—“Go Dana Farber!” “Go Mass General!” You couldn’t really yell, “Go brain cancer!” so you hoped those people had names on their shirts, or instead you yelled “Great job!” There were municipal running clubs and ballerinas and the Easter Bunny and Anchorage and Kansas City. There was Duke and Trinity and Wayne State and lots of Michigans, for some reason. There was Army and Navy and the Air Force Academy, and there were still the Marines trudging by. Maybe because—as I now realize—it was still on the early side, meaning these were the qualifiers with better times, I didn’t see a lot of agony. There were a few who would start walking, head down. We said “You can do it,” and “You’re amazing,” which I meant, because I would sooner eat cement than run a marathon. One woman panted, “How many more hills?” but then she was gone. One guy handed us an empty plastic water bottle as he passed and said, “Do you mind throwing this away?” One guy slowed down to shake the hand of one of the walking Marines and said, “Thank you for your service.” The Marine said, “It’s an honor.” I was in the presence of people who could run a marathon and, at mile 19, still talk. John and Teresa waved across at me and left. An old guy came by selling cowbells and I bought one. I let the kids near me use it for a while and then they gave it back and I could use it instead of clapping, and the feeling gradually returned to my palms. But I had to keep making noise. Because they kept coming. We were standing at the top of a hill and you could look down Comm Ave. and see a river of people with no end. The excitement and the good cheer were so high and I realized I kept standing there because I was waiting for the climax, the resolution; but of course there wouldn’t be one. Not here at mile 19. I could feel, in the muted exhilaration of the runners, two-thirds of the way there, Heartbreak Hill still to come, how the marathon would be its own self-contained narrative, its own drama, for each of them. It would have its own plot, its own rise and fall of action, and I would be a tiny, tiny part of it, some crazy-lady voice yelling, “Go Cedar Rapids!” somewhere along mile 19, along with all the screaming Wellesley women, all the Boston College kids, all the hands holding out cups of water, all the clapping, all the cowbells; the despair, the nausea, the temptation to stop, the pushing through; the journey up, and then down Heartbreak Hill, and down Beacon Street, and then Boylston, and under the clock, and over the finish line. I stayed for more than two hours but I finally left, although it felt like leaving in the middle of a movie, because I had errands to run on that day off. Two hours later, I would call my kids, to see whether they liked the crunchy or the puffy cheese doodles from Trader Joe’s, and they would tell me what they were seeing on T.V., and I would hurry home. What I experienced Monday was an ordinary marathon. The awe at the human effort, the thousands of stories running by, the endurance, the athleticism, the will—it was all run-of-the-mill extraordinary. If there is such a thing. People wiser than I have loved the marathon for years. I just discovered it, really, and next year, without question, it will be different. As I write this they haven’t yet found who did it. It’s looking more and more like domestic terrorism, and I suspect it’s only a few people, or even just one, someone pathetic who has slid over the line into evil, looking up bombmaking directions online. But even if it’s a larger conspiracy—even if it was some vast international network—it is dwarfed by what I saw on Monday, on Commonwealth Avenue, at the top of just one of the many hills (there are always more, there is always one more): the runners coming, coming, not stopping. Thousands. Thousands. Thousands. Image: Stewart Dawson
In Person

Now She Has a Name: When a Serial Killer Visited My Small Town

Until the day the golfer spotted a dismembered head in the cool waters of Stony Brook, the scariest beast in Hopewell was the New Jersey Devil. As elementary school students, we were shown videos of the Devil rampaging flocks of sheep and terrorizing farmers in the Pine Barrens. This was frightening, to be sure, but the Pine Barrens were several hours by car southeast of Hopewell (pop. 2200) and the videos never showed the Devil's face owing to budgeting constraints, as the filmmakers could not afford any special effects. Plus we had a professional hockey team named after him -- the Devils -- and they were an inspiration to young children, not a menace. I remember receiving the news about the head late one night in a house in the Sourland Mountains in 1989. My friend George and I were locked in a fierce battle of Nintendo Ice Hockey, the chief variables of the game being to decide whether to choose a slow, plump player, who could shoot the puck hard and check anything in his path; a skinny player who was extremely lithe but who had a weak shot and could be easily bumped off his skates; or a medium-sized player who was a compromise between the other two body types. It was an addictive formula, and one that Nintendo continues to exploit in its games today. Anyway, we were engrossed in this battle when George’s parents mounted the stairs and solemnly told us that a severed head had been found in a creek by the Hopewell Valley Golf Club, and added that they had locked the doors and we'd been up late enough playing-your-games-and-you-should-get-some-sleep. We did not sleep that night, of course. The thought of a head without its body was something that had never occurred to us, and we were old enough, about 10, to know that someone had killed this body before lopping off its head. We consoled ourselves, as our world views splintered and cracked, by watching The Ultimate Warrior thrash his opponents on the World Wrestling Federation until the sun pried open our dreary eyelids. The local news followed the story of the severed head closely, and blood tests eventually revealed that it contained the AIDS virus. In 1989, AIDS was associated with two things, gays and blacks, and we believed you could contract it by cutting your head on metal and that the symptom was a long white hair on your tongue and throat. This only compounded our sense of terror: a dismembered head with a misunderstood virus. The place where the head had been found was more bizarre, the seventh hole of an idyllic golf club. My family didn't belong to the club, but I had been there with friends to swim in the pool, which had a deep-end colored a malevolent blue, so bottomless were its waters, and lifeguards that sneered as they twirled their whistles around their fingers. In my memories, the swimming pool is always sun-dappled and solar flared -- enough to please J.J. Abrams -- because we only went swimming on sunny days. Hopewell was a small town, and safe and complacent with its five churches, its family-owned deli, sport hunting shop, and pharmacy. It had once been a hotbed of the Ku Klux Klan, and before that a scene of fierce resistance during the Revolutionary War. Charles Lindbergh’s baby had been kidnapped from a second story window, and then discarded in the woods just outside town, but by the late 1980s Hopewell had become a desirable backwater with its ample green spaces, acres of woods, pristine creeks, Harvest Festival, and Memorial Day parade, where kids of all colors could roam freely without fear. We would ride our Huffies and Schwinns by the golf course, right over the spot where Stony Brook, the stream in which the head had been found, dipped beneath the road. As time went on, and the head was never claimed, rumors began to circulate, and always seemed to end in one of two possibilities: the Mafia or a serial killer had done it. Serial killers were, of course, far scarier to a 10 year old than the Mafia. Unlike the Mafia, which (television had us believe) followed a moral code, serial killers were imbued with their own unique compass. As a kid, my main concern was to find out how many other killers were out there, because that would promote my survival. My parents reassured me that we were safe -- what else could you say to a child about such a thing? -- and I would believe them until the sun went down and our home filled with shadows. But there were deeper questions, too: Why hadn’t anyone noticed that a head was missing? Wasn’t the family looking for the head? The thought that no family member cared enough about this person’s head to claim it back was even more terrifying. If your family can’t search for your missing head, then what good are they, in the end? Most of my questions about the head were fed by what my parents called “an active imagination,” but in hindsight the threats were never were too far away. While vacationing at my grandparents’ cabin in Wisconsin, my mom hid an ax under the bed because the bodies of slaughtered children had been turning up in the woods, before Jeffrey Dahmer had been caught; my best friend in Hopewell had once lived in Arkansas down the street from the mother of John Wayne Gacy, a serial killer who had apparently visited her regularly as my friend rode his bigwheel tricycle down the street. Much later, working with asylum seekers in South Africa, I regularly met men and women from the Democratic Republic of Congo who fled war-torn areas where roving militias dismembered the bodies of civilian victims. The difference was that the practice was fed by a heady mix of psychotropic drugs, psychological warfare, and perverted interpretations of animist traditions. The scale of such murders was terrifying, but there were reasons in place. It was war and the militias feared the spirits of their victims. There was a certain logic. As a Nigerian-American, I’ve also become accustomed to a few stereotypes, most of which revolve around Nigerian email scams, but also the selling of body parts. Not just internal organs, but arms, legs, feet, little fingers. (Just watch the South African film District 9, and you’ll see Nigerians who get off on dismembering people and also having sex with aliens from outerspace.) But again, there is a sort of reasoning to that illicit traffic. The bodies for these occult rituals are sliced apart for spiritual purposes, not as ends unto themselves. Last week, after a 24-year search for more information about the head, the New Jersey State Police finally discovered the identity of the victim. She was a prostitute who had changed her name no less than 15 times, and she was identified by DNA tests that matched her with her aunt, who had filed a missing persons report with the police in 2001. Her name was Heidi Balch. She is believed to have been the first victim killed by Joel Rifkin, who confessed to murdering someone with the name of one of her aliases in 1993, and who had been sentenced to 200 years in prison after killing 17 prostitutes on a rampage. Rifkin claimed to have begun murdering prostitutes because he had contracted AIDS from one. The HIV virus was the main character of South African author Kgebetli Moele’s 2009 novel The Book of the Dead, and the protagonist moved from victim to victim boasting of its conquests. It was not Moele’s best book -- that would be Room 207, a must read -- but it was chilling to read how the virus thrived on intimacy and broken relationships. Revenge was never the point of the virus in that story: it lived only for the sake of living. Rifkin, by contrast, claimed to be butchering for revenge and not for pleasure. In this, the fictional virus holds the moral upperhand, for it doesn't pretend to be serving some larger purpose. Like science fiction, serial killers twist our values on their head and allow us to reflect back on ourselves -- What would happen if our planet had two suns instead of one? Or if we communicated through telepathy? -- and, in the case of serial killers -- what if you didn't care if you killed someone? Or took pleasure in the killing? Serial killers are big business. Their psychological profiles and crafty, nefarious plotting can be patiently examined in a television series like Dexter or Bates Motel and people will watch them. Only after I read the news about the discovery did I realize how long I had suppressed even thinking about the murder. For two decades, I now realized, I had been holding my breath as we drove along the road past the golf course; and all that time the head loomed spectral and ghoulish in the crenellations of my mind. The New Jersey State Police managed to trace Heidi Balch’s identity by searching records of prostitution offenses at the time. If my consciousness was first shattered in 1989 when they found the head, it was this fact that shattered it again. Heidi Balch was killed because she had been pushed, by will or by circumstance, to the margins of our society to the extent that her very livelihood was a criminal act. Rifkin, Dahmer, and Gacy preyed on the weak and marginalized. It’s hard to imagine a sober conversation about legalizing prostitution in America today or empowering sex workers with rights, especially when abortion laws are becoming still more restrictive. Heidi Balch was unclaimed and nameless for 24 years. Now we know her name, but if she were alive today what would prevent us from forgetting her again? Image Credit: Weekly World News, May 23, 1989.
In Person

Literature in the Fortress

Left to right: Ali Dayan Hasan, Basharat Peer, Selma Dabbagh, Mohammed Hanif, Lyse Doucet, with Arundhati Roy on screen. From the beginning, there was a hint of the surreal to the recent Lahore Literary Festival, but it was difficult to put my finger on the root of that unsettling emotion, especially given the overall aura of triumph. A response to similar events elsewhere in the region - the most famous in Jaipur; the most rivalry-inducing, for the last four years, in Karachi - the festival seemed its own victory party, a massive and successful gambit in Lahore’s bid to reclaim its title as the “cultural capital” of Pakistan. The excitement had Lahore full of visitors, Mall Road festooned with banners, the Alhamra Arts Council packed with people, and in the middle of all that buzz it seemed almost churlish to have the suspicion that something odd was at work. The urge to make every(positive)thing in Pakistan somehow momentous and meaningful is dangerous - every movie cannot offer a revitalization or renaissance of cinema, every political party cannot, at this point, be logically seen as a rebirth of hope - but there was some predictable truth to the truism that the festival played, in Lahore, a very different role than it would have in a country or a city where such events are more common and less fraught. In part of course this had to do with the unimaginable odds that Pakistan has been facing, not just the most dramatic and terrible (including for example two recent, devastating attacks on the Hazara community, in Quetta; including for example the murder of a prominent doctor and his twelve-year-old son, in broad daylight as they drove to the boy’s school -- located on the same Mall Road where we were gathered -- simply because they were Shia), but also the more subtle and insidious, which have been at work far longer than any terrorist. In part also the intensity of the enthusiasm had to do with the possibilities of literature in Pakistan, and with the great role that writers here can play. A month after “Jaipur” and a week after “Karachi,” the writers arrived “for Lahore,” and got the kind of reception that would greet the hypothetical combination of Tony Judt and Jay-Z: writers here combine the virtues and the functions of public intellectuals with those of celebrities. The ambiance at the Alhamra was like that which I imagine would surround a traveling circus, or one of those massive, star-studded concerts that travels the globe, with everyone eager to hear everything, see everything, learn everything. My uneasiness wasn’t because of the common criticisms of the festival, which are both obvious and, in the end, not completely relevant. Despite no admission cost and what one assumes were the best of intentions, the festival was largely if not entirely an elite event, focused mostly on those who read, write, and think in English (and those who read, write, and think about literature in English, which is a smaller subset anywhere in the world), those who were willing and eager to laugh at jokes about General Zia-ul-Haq’s possible prostate exams or the relative marginality of drunks, airheads, and homosexuals. The festival may have been an echo chamber in which an unconsciously but nonetheless carefully defined “we” could talk amongst ourselves for a moment - and so what? But it was only a weekend, and with so much packed into only three days, there was no way to be able to see everything: constant double-booking organized the chaos. All three of the Alhamra’s massive halls were almost constantly in use, and choosing whether to listen to Shehan Karunatilaka talk about Chinaman or a conversation between Daniyal Mueenuddin, Ebba Koch, Jeet Thayil, and H.M. Naqvi about “a sense of place” was like having to choose your favorite Beatle. In nearly every panel I attended, the houses were so full that people were sitting in aisles and standing on steps, or lurking just outside the doors, hoping to slip in if someone left to take a phone call. The audiences included gaggles of spiky-haired teenagers, flirtatious college students, grandparents, and babies who had no choice but to perch on parental knees, uncomprehending of anything but, perhaps, the import of the moment. Which everyone understood: more important than the generational cross-section was the excitement, the passion running through the discussions, the constant questions and answers that made panels run beyond their time limits. The city was, briefly, a salon, and everyone wanted to be invited. The festival’s most charming event was a conversation between two Urdu writers, the poet Zehra Nigah and Intizar Hussain, recently nominated for the Man Booker International Prize for his fiction. It was toward the end of the festival’s first busy day, and the massive, sloping hall was only half-full; most of the audience crowded into the front section, but as a preemptive measure, given the claustrophobia the day had induced, I climbed to the top. From that vantage point the room was like a cave, and far below me there were these two tiny figures; the only word that seemed appropriate for the two of them was “dignified.” Their ostensible topic was the translation of poetry, but after a few pro forma questions elicited only the obvious (poetry is harder to translate than prose; some translations are good, others are bad; translation is important), the moderator was wise enough to let them simply talk and reminisce about their work and about their lives, about a moment when a very different and almost-vanished literary culture was taken almost for granted. That was in some ways a hint, an explanation for the hysterical tinge to the laughter, the edge to the applause. The surreal feeling had in fact begun to crystallize earlier, at a panel on the “literature of resistance,” when organizers attempted to play a video message from Arundhati Roy. The screen flickered and the sardine-packed audience went quiet, even the panelists on stage turning to look as those wise wide eyes and that half-smile appeared behind them. After a few seconds of a penetrating stare, her lips began to move, but there were no words. Eventually, as if to fill in the silence, we began making those noises that accompany technological glitches, muttering that eventually bubbled into laughter as the wordless message ran once and then looped back to the beginning. In the interest of time, the moderator, Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch, started the discussion under the still-running video, as though from Delhi Roy were looking down and keeping watch on us. After the conversation was over, technicians pulled off some backstage magic and got sound and video to sync up. Once again, that penetrating stare, now with someone behind the camera counting off “three, two, one,” and then there was a boy’s voice asking Arundhati Roy, “Is there any message you would like to give the festival-protest?” The awkward hyphenate made me think of how Roy described such double-barreled terms, when she found herself frequently described as a “writer-activist”: “Like a sofa-bed.” Her message sounded a cautionary note about the risk of “protest” becoming a “cool, middle-class acquisition - like an iPod,” the importance, for someone protesting, of clarifying both what you are protesting against and what you are protesting for - which is one of those ideas that is, particularly in circumstances in which there is plenty of both, obvious to the point of being forgotten. Her recommendation was to foreground the idea of “justice”; one of the panelists, Mohammed Hanif, made the equally obvious point that a festival, in the end, is really not a protest at all (except, perhaps, in the sense of the best revenge being living well). The idea stuck with me, though. The incredible urgency, the amazing passion, the unequivocal triumph of the festival - that happened because it was in fact a certain kind of protest. Victory, even if only in a battle rather than a war, comes from the risk of defeat, from having an opponent, and after that question was asked both seemed present, palpable, reasonable explanations for that feeling that had been hovering over my shoulder. So if we are going to clarify what it is we were perhaps protesting against, or at least one of the things - perhaps it was that this is a world under siege, that these are soldiers for whom victory can, in the end, only be pyrrhic. It turns out then that the setting was appropriate. On Lahore’s wide, tree-shaded Mall Road, which maintains some of its colonial-era grandeur despite the indignities of traffic and underpasses, the Alhamra buildings, completed in 1992, were designed by the architect Nayyar Ali Dada. He won several prizes for his work, and the complex is wonderful, those massive brick-clad halls studded in what seems almost a garden, full of winding paths and spontaneous courtyards. The automatic and in fact intentional association is to the Mughal buildings of old Lahore, the castles, the tombs, and, in particular, the fortresses: With their gates and high walls, with the imposing immensity of brick and stone, those fortresses were meant to be the places of last refuge. It was hard to shake the feeling that the same could be said of the Alhamra. Thus it is worth remembering the building’s namesake, that other old fortress in Spain. The Alhambra was the citadel of the final territory lost to the Catholic monarchs; its defeat was the sign of the end. It was of the Alhambra that the last of the kings, marching south to exile, turned to catch one final glimpse. Image credit: Ali Agha
In Person

The Secret Lives of Poets: Dispatches from AWP

The first time I attended AWP -- the annual conference of creative writing programs, literary magazines, pale-skinned mole people (here on out referred to colloquially as “writers”), and, at least this year, a surprising number of people who appeared to have been left over from a plushy convention -- it was by accident. It was 2001 and the conference was being held in Palm Springs, my hometown, at a hotel where as a teenager in the 1980s I’d worked by the pool handing out towels and stealing things, and which also hosted my high school’s Senior Prom (theme: Forever Young) and Career Day (theme: Why The Military Might Be a Good Option!). A friend of mine was presenting at the conference, so I figured what the hell, I’d pop in. There was a book fair in the Grand Ballroom -- where I’d drunkenly slow-danced to “Eternal Flame” and where I learned about how I might make a damn fine Marine -- but by the time I got there, it was half-filled with a bunch of tables representing literary magazines and universities and maybe 200 people were milling about. It had rained earlier in the day and everyone was complaining about that and the small earthquake that had hit. An earthquake in California. Who could imagine? I hadn’t registered for the conference, because I didn’t know what the hell it was, and because I was just meeting my friend, but no one seemed to notice or care, so I milled around the ballroom until I got bored, which happened swiftly, and then slipped into a mostly empty conference room where people were discussing the latest tech innovations in the literary world, which at the time basically meant people were talking about Eventually I wandered out to the pool area, partially in vain hope of running into my old boss, a gentleman named Tan Man who’d skipped town owing me $167 in suntan lotion sales commission 15 years earlier, and partially to avoid talking any further to a woman who kept trying to get me to buy her chapbook of poetry, and found it completely empty. I went back to the conference center, located the spot where I’d thrown up an entire strawberry wine cooler on a painting some years previous, located my friend and then learned that there was some kind of dance that night and that I could attend if I wanted to. I was informed of the following things: There would be dancing poets. They would likely play “It Takes Two” by Rob Base. A literary lion would end up having regrettable sex with someone half their age. I opted to go home. This year, the conference was held at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, a complex that apparently was designed to remind people of what it might be like if a SuperMax prison and a Chico’s had a baby, and the book fair was held in three cavernous exhibit halls which were packed, from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. each day, with well over 10,000 people. There were something like 932 different panels -- my favorites: "P.U.P: Poets in Unexpected Places," which truly is filled with possibilities, but which usually ends up with “not in bed with an undergrad,” and the oddly specific "1963: 50 Years Later"-- and there was no wandering into anything if you were unregistered, not with the phalanx of stone-faced security goons who stood guard over the entrances to everything checking lanyards. No roaming bands of thugs were going to walk out of the book fair with a stack of back issues of Brain, Child. Not with their teeth still in their mouth, anyway. I had a booth at the conference this year, as I have for the last several years, promoting the graduate school in creative writing I’m in charge of, which gave me an excellent chance to interact with the masses. (I also was forced to attend several off-site events with said masses, because once you become a professional writer, and then all of your friends become writers, you’re expected to both give readings and attend other people’s readings, even though not a single person over the age of five likes to be read to for more than about four minutes, and even then it’s a fucking stretch, but the social convention of being a writer suggests that we all are supposed to like these fucking things, and so we all go, and we all complain, and we all text while people are reading, even the people we like, but mostly when the people we don’t know start to read their bad mother poetry [which is any poem that contains the word “mother” in it, because no poem with the word “mother” in it is about how much they love their mothers, because if they loved their mothers, god, they wouldn’t be so fucking sad all the time], well, that’s when it gets vicious.) During these interactions, I was able to glean some important information about the American literary landscape, human behavior, and the secret lives of poets, which I provide to you now as a public service: 1. Whereas last year the young asexual crowd was lousy with bowties and handlebar mustaches, this year it was as if they were all LARPing a cross-over episode of Dr. Who and The Grapes of Wrath: dusty old cardigans, scraggly beards, suspenders, hats, old sport coats, long stares into the great middle distance, a general countenance that suggested the color brown, the far off wisdom that time is just a social construct, a tendency to clutch one’s messenger bag to one’s chest with the lost kind of forlornness that only arrives when one begins to see the raw truth that one’s thesis isn’t going to get approved. The preponderance of strange beards -- it was difficult to ascertain if they were countryman beards, hipster beards, or sexual reassignment beards, which complicated the issue -- suggested that the Grapes of Wrath were morphing into more of a Game of Thrones vibe in many cases, but also gave the attendees a feral appearance, as if they were already firmly entrenched in the midlist like the rest of us. 2. Apparently in Boston, it’s okay if a reading takes place in a subterranean bar that smells like human fecal matter. I feel this is true because I attended a reading at a subterranean bar that smelled of human fecal matter called the Cantab Lounge. To be fair, it also smelled like an animal of some size -- like, maybe a bison -- had also died somewhere inside the lounge and then human fecal matter was dumped on top of the poor beast. Oddly, in a room filled with highly perceptive people -- if you’re attending a reading, you’re highly perceptive, because dull people wouldn’t even attempt to attend a reading -- no one seemed all that concerned by the fact that we were literally standing inside of a toilet, which may have been because some excellent people were actually reading (my friends Rob Roberge and Jillian Lauren both read great, short pieces that involved grave robbing and sex, respectively, which is what readings should always contain: some stuff you’re interested in, delivered in an entertaining fashion, and with haste) or because they were just happy to be inside, since there was a blizzard outside. This also wasn’t a surprise: there’s always a blizzard or some other weather calamity at AWP, and yet every year people are surprised. It doesn’t help that most years the conference is held in a city prone to dreadful weather -- Chicago and Washington, D.C. most recently, and soon in Minnesota and, if we’re lucky, maybe Medicine Hat. Frozen climes one can deal with. Hearing someone read an essay that uses the term “I digress” more than once, and each time with too much irony, while being suffocated by the fumes of a rotting animal and human shit, well, it’s a tough pill to swallow. 3. Writers, when forced together in a giant mob of anxiety, tend to act oddly. Like the man named Dan, who looked like a more professorial Gene Wilder, who accosted me about some graduate program that, he wanted me to know, was run by a “real asshole.” I tried to tell him that the program he was talking about had nothing to do with me, nor was it even at the same university, but he didn’t seem to care (or perhaps believe), and instead just continued to rant until I asked him if he recognized that he was acting particularly strange. He said yes. (It should be noted: I didn’t know his name at the time of this interaction, because when he came to accost me, he hid his nametag and when I asked him his name, he refused to tell me. Thankfully, my friend Sean witnessed the whole thing and spent the next several hours tracking the man through the conference and finally was able to procure his business card by using a third party as a decoy. Dan’s business card was even more unusual than he was, since it listed the names of authors he was shepherding toward publishing fame. I’m not even entirely sure it was a real card. I mean, the card was real. I have it here in front of me. But I don’t know if anything else about it was.) 4. If you offer food at your booth, weird people will come and talk to you. Exhibit A: Man: [piling through a bowl of candy] Do you have any bigger candy bars? Me: No, just the miniatures. Man: I’d like something to bring home to my children. Me: So you’re going to bring home a candy bar? Man: They’ll be excited I got it in Boston. Me: But you could get a candy bar anywhere. Man: [still piling through the candy] They love Hershey’s Kisses. Do you mind if I take some Kisses? Me: I guess. Man: [starts shoving Hershey’s Kisses into his pockets] Me: They’re going to melt. Man: What? Me: The Kisses. They won’t make it home in your pockets. They’ll melt. Man: Those aren’t for them. They love Kisses and that reminds me of them. These are for me. Me: Oh. Okay. That makes perfect sense. Man: Will you have different candy tomorrow? Me: We’ll have meats and cheeses tomorrow. Come back. Make a sandwich for your kids. Man: Oh, I will! Thanks! Exhibit B: Woman: [grabbing a handful of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups] Where is this college? Me: California. Woman: Oh. I like California. I’ve never heard of this school. How would I get a job here? Me: Where? Woman: This school of yours. Me: It’s not mine. Woman: I’d love to work there. Me: Fifteen seconds ago, you didn’t even know the school existed. Woman: Just because I didn’t know it existed doesn’t mean I don’t want to work there. 5. There comes a time at every AWP conference where you realize that poets are just...different. This time, it was when I stumbled across what appeared to be a Bedouin poetry tent parked adjacent to the booth of the magazines A Public Space and Bomb and the publisher Soho Press. I poked my head into the tent, expecting one of those Bugs Bunny moments where an entire mansion would be hidden inside, but instead I found a darkened room where a man with a suspicious looking mustache was reading poetry to two women. There was a haunted-looking doll in one corner, several pillows that looked to have been stolen from the Sheraton in another, a battered suitcase, some blankets, and a smell that reminded me of dorm sex in the Bay Area circa 1992. The following conversation ensued between me and the gentleman with the mustache: Me: Hey. Mustache: Hi. Me: What are you doing in here? Mustache: Just reading some poetry to each other. Me: Oh. Ah. Okay. Mustache: [silence] Me: [staring, trying to figure out how I’d aged so quickly, how time had become my enemy, how the idea of building a tent sounded pretty cool, actually, but not something I could conceive doing without irony, and then thinking how perhaps these fine people had no need for irony, that I was clearly the fucktard in this equation and that they were doing what made them happy and that my desire to mock was born out of my own shallow sense of self and, fuck, man, I needed to get back home to see a professional about these things]: Well, cool. It was undeniably...odd...but you know what? It was also awesome. They’d come to a giant conference filled with people so fraught with professional jealousy that they can hardly enter a Barnes & Noble without a handful of Xanax (or, you know, will have professional jealousy in the near future if everything works according to plan) and they’d built a strange tent where they did their thing. It didn’t smell like fecal matter. No one seemed all that concerned about anything other than what they were reading. Not a bad place to hang out, really, with 10,000 of their closest friends. Image courtesy of the author.
In Person

A Frolic of My Own: Meeting William Gaddis

— Yes well there was just one more thing here I, that I think you might... — That? My God, haven't seen one in years. — No this isn't what I...what is it. — Russian Imperial Bond. — You mean it isn't worth any, worth very... — Mister Bast, anything is worth whatever some damn fool will pay for it, only reason somebody can make a market in Russian Imperials is because some damn, somebody like your associate will buy them. This is the hapless Edward Bast, early in William Gaddis’s J R, trying to interest a stockbroker in the eponymous JR Vansant’s penny-stock portfolio. These Russian imperial bonds, issued in 1916 and repudiated by the Bolsheviks the following year, were real. There was a real market for them, even if it consisted of “damn fools.” I should know; I was the law clerk who drafted the 1987 opinion that extinguished all claims on them. And that is why The Letters of William Gaddis contains five letters addressed to me. It’s a pity that Mr. Gaddis never met Charles L. Brieant, Chief Judge of the District Court for the Southern District of New York — a large, rotund man with a fluffy walrus mustache and a bow tie, who never dropped character and who loved nothing better than to be compared to Theodore Roosevelt. It’s a pity, too, that Bast never visited Carl Marks & Co. This brokerage had cornered the market on Russian Imperials and had sued the Soviet Union to collect. Judge Brieant, who had the case, was vexed; a Son of the American Revolution with the paperweight to prove it, he would gladly have written against the USSR at length but had been warned by the State Department that this would cause an international incident. He was inclined to issue a simple opinion flatly denying Carl Marks’s claims. But I had already decided that a case called Carl Marks v. USSR was too good to pass up. The clincher was my coming across the Russian Imperial Bonds passage in J R, which I was reading on my commute to the Judge’s White Plains courthouse. I worked surreptitiously, finally presenting the Judge with a 68-page fait accompli that used the Bast quote as a headnote. After he signed off on the opinion, I sent it to Mr. Gaddis. Why go to all that effort and not tell him? I never expected his response: the first letter reproduced in the book (January 10, 1988), inviting me to lunch and telling me of his “novel in the form of a network of lawsuits of every variety” — the book that would become A Frolic of His Own. I don’t remember much from that visit, apart from Mr. Gaddis’s graciousness and his indignation at what he considered the vulgar display of a Francis Bacon triptych by “the evil Saul Steinberg” (the corporate raider, not Mr. Gaddis’s friend the cartoonist). But he had a request for me. Would I be so kind as to review a mock judicial opinion meant to form part of that “network of lawsuits”? You bet I would! I took home a draft of the opinion that appears in A Frolic of His Own, pages 399-416. The draft made essential use of an opinion entitled Murray v. National Broadcasting Corporation, in which the plaintiff claimed that NBC had plagiarized his idea when it created The Bill Cosby Show. I found that Mr. Gaddis had misunderstood the case and that this vitiated the whole fictional opinion, literary tour de force though it otherwise was. I pointed this out, among other things, as tactfully as I could. Mr. Gaddis’s January 5, 1990 reply, beginning “Dear Jim: Do not panic!” accompanied an outline of the maze of lawsuits as revised in response to my letter. After reading my “meticulous informed & delightful dissection,” he wrote, “I went into a blue funk, from which my struggles to emerge have now got me as far as the brown study down the hall.” I don’t have any record of a written reply to the four-and-a-half-page outline, so we may have discussed it in person as he suggests in the letter — mortified as I was by the thought that I might have had something to do with making the writing even more difficult. Other letters in the collection confirm that Mr. Gaddis was having serious problems with the book and his life, but the one he wrote me on September 22, 1990 remains almost unbearably moving: “Unproductive months, a bleak and grey winter spent out here [in Wainscott, Long Island] alone largely, each day starting Now I shall get to it, ending Perhaps tomorrow, then.” Mr. Gaddis always professed not to appreciate or even understand Beckett, but this little passage sounds Beckett’s register. In November, Mr. Gaddis was back at work, sending me the opinion that appeared in A Frolic, pages 285-293. There was then a long gap in our correspondence. The loss of my Wall Street law firm job and attendant personal disasters plunged me into depression; as other letters reveal, Mr. Gaddis also had to struggle with wrenching emotional issues while he continued to work on the book. It’s a relief to turn to his last letter to me, from May 21, 1993, announcing that A Frolic of His Own was finished. (He got me the set of galleys he promised, though it is the hardcover, inscribed “you will recognize your own contributions for which I am eternally grateful,” that I treasure). “What is it they want from a man that they didn’t get from his work?” Mr. Gaddis would ask, quoting his character Wyatt Gwyon from The Recognitions. I wanted Mr. Gaddis to know how grateful I was for the work. Thanks to him, I have a (very) small place in legal and literary history. Only later did I fully understand what an extraordinary privilege he had offered me. I can but hope that I proved worthy of it in his eyes.
In Person

The League of Ordinary Gentlemen: A Conversation with Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes accepted an invitation to the Hay Festival in Cartagena last month, but said no interviews. There’s no point trying, said the press person. So of course I felt compelled to. That evening, I hustled him at the opening party on the Spanish ramparts of the Old City. There was salsa on the speakers and everywhere men and women in white linen were drinking dark rum. Barnes was strolling around, alone, with his hands in the pockets of his dark trousers, as if determined to let the Caribbean breeze have its way with his silver hair. “No interviews,” he said promptly, smiling broadly down at me. And then, with a weary politeness: “Oh, all right then, just one question.” I promptly chose the most random question in my head. “Do you like Ted Hughes?” I asked. “You mention him in The Sense of an Ending.” I was referring to an early scene in the novel where a young English teacher puts his head “at a donnish slant” and says to the class, “Of course, we’re all wondering what will happen when he [Hughes] runs out of animals.” I had thought it very funny, and was rather irritated when the narrator’s superior girlfriend Veronica Mary Elizabeth Ford, didn’t. I knew from Barnes’ Paris Review interview that this was a joke his own schoolteacher had liked to make. Evidently, it had played in his head for years, before finally finding release here, in a novel about memory and nostalgia, written in his sixties. Clearly amused at the question, Barnes replied, “I like the early Ted Hughes. You know, before he got all oracular.” And he made big Botero curves with his pale fingers to show what he meant. “Hughes is taught quite a lot in India,” I chattered on to buy time. “As are Auden and Larkin.” And, miraculously, with the mention of Larkin, the one-question guillotine was stayed. Barnes is a great admirer of this bitter English poet, whom he knew, and who is everywhere in his new novel, but anonymously, in the form of what Barnes calls “hidden quotes” that are attributed to “the poet.” Indeed, if Flaubert’s Parrot offers up a full-throated tribute to Barnes’s literary hero Gustave Flaubert, The Sense of an Ending does the opposite for Philip Larkin. But, said Barnes ruefully, the hidden quotes have all been spotted and laid out by Colm Toibin in the New York Review of Books – “making me wonder if I’d put too many in.” Of the quotes, the most pivotal to the plot is the one that says, “Damage a long way back.” It’s repeated several times in different contexts, and by the end of the story, each word in that short line is transfigured with remorse. “I really liked the book,” I said. “But it left me very disturbed.” “I’m so glad to hear that,” said Barnes, and wished me goodnight. The next morning, to my delight, he sent word through a photographer that if I wanted a quarter of an hour, he’d be willing to chat. We met at the Santa Clara Hotel, one of the venues of the Hay Festival. The hotel is housed in what was once the spectral Santa Clara Convent, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez set Of Love and Other Demons, his novel on love and exorcism during the Spanish Inquisition. There is a thin chill in the hotel’s cavernous halls that has nothing to do with the aggressive air-conditioning. Happily, then, the conversation took place on a sunlit balcony overlooking a palm-lashed courtyard. The courtyard had an enormous black Botero nude that would have terrified the nuns. When The Sense of an Ending won the Booker Prize in 2011, Salman Rushdie tweeted: “Congratulations to #JulianBarnes on winning the #Booker. Long overdue, my friend, Bravo.” Barnes has been a Booker bridesmaid three times, so Rushdie’s sentiment was amply shared by all those who have enjoyed Barnes’s cool and erudite prose and been unsettled by it. Over the last three decades he has written steadily, producing twenty books of novels, non-fiction, essays, short stories, and translation. The forms may have varied but the themes have remained constant: sex, death, and memory. These are potentially wild themes, but Barnes embeds them in bourgeois settings and allows the “great unrest” that sparks to vitalize his stories. He has the very English ability to dramatize the bland with understatement. Bland on bland action, but always on a bed of irony. He also enjoys being funny. Flaubert’s Parrot has a line that says if Emma Bovary had violet eyes she would belong “in a Raymond Chandler novel.” “Funny is good,” said Barnes, laughing a little. “I like funny. But I was always called wry, or witty, or sometimes ironic. And clever.” Clever is spat out with slow, twinkling contempt. “Clever is not very nice. Not if you’re in England. And then I went on Desert Island Discs and the introduction went, ‘Julian Barnes was a clever schoolboy...’ There’s no getting away from it. So I kept saying to my publicist, when are they going to call me wise. I want to be called wise. And I’m only clever.” “Wise” is word that could be applied to The Sense of an Ending, but devious or cunning is perhaps more apt. At first, the 163-page novella seems like an easy read with an inbuilt mystery that keeps you turning the pages. But once you finish it, it continues to eat away at you, forcing you to re-read it. And then, to uneasily re-examine your own past. What difficult parts have been slyly edited out? What careless deed has led to what terrible consequence? Has any of us, no matter how protected, escaped damage? It’s hard to discuss the novel completely without revealing the secret on which it turns. But here’s a no-spoiler summary: The narrator is typically Barnesian. A retired Englishman whose life can be summed up in one word: average. Tony Webster says, “Average, that’s what I’ve been, ever since I left school. Average at the university and work; average in friendship, loyalty, love; average, no doubt at sex.” Tony loves control and hates risk. And then, one day, he gets a letter from a lawyer telling him that the diary of an old school friend who had slit his wrists forty years ago has been left to him. This friend, Adrian, a brilliant Cambridge student, was someone Tony had hero-worshipped – until Adrian decided to take up with Veronica Ford, by then Tony’s ex-girlfriend. A furious Tony had written to Adrian advising him to be careful because “Veronica had suffered some kind of damage a long way back” – even though this was pure conjecture on his part. The allegedly damaged Veronica, with her “quick but withholding smile” and rigid views on culture, is the most interesting character in the novel. She bristles with integrity and rage, mostly directed at Tony, whom she repeatedly says “just doesn’t get it.” But what is it that he “just doesn’t get?” And why has Adrian’s diary been left to him? Suddenly, Average Tony is obsessed with these questions and begins to dig up his past. The only tool he has – his memory – is a defective one, but it will have to do. In the last brutal pages, he finally gets it. “The argument in both the beginning and end of the book,” said Barnes, “is about where responsibility lies. And to what extent something like a suicide is entirely the responsibility of the person who has done it, or is there a whole chain of responsibility. And there usually is.” Barnes dramatizes this chain of responsibility against a backdrop of class difference. One of the best chapters has Tony describing a miserable weekend spent at Veronica’s family home in Kent. “I was so ill at ease that I spent the entire weekend constipated: that is my principal factual memory.” He accuses Veronica of being as detached as her red brick house. Barnes has a good ear for the snobbery of country homes – the posh putdown in heartily addressing the guest as “young feller-me-lad,” the careless wink thrown across the dinner table, the morning walk from which the guest is excluded. He also makes Tony constantly question his own paranoia and complexes. When Tony goes home, he gets a coarse satisfaction from having a “bloody good long shit” – and telling us about it. Surprisingly, however, Barnes claimed “not to consciously write about class.” “I think I write about Englishness,” he said. “On the whole, I write about a certain sort of middleclass English person who has those habits of indirection and irony and under-expressiveness of emotion. A friend of mine once said to me, why are so many of the characters in your novels so sort of wimpy and passive? And I said, I can’t really explain it except that I get more fictional traction with an inexpressive, rather passive male. It sort of brings the action onto him. And I suppose it’s also that I’m less interested in the typical hero who goes out and does things. My heroes don’t do things. Sometimes things are done to them. Also, a passive male character brings on female rage...Which of course means you can then ask the question, what about damage to him? Is there some sort of damage to Tony that makes him not want to engage with the world? Not want to risk damage with the world.” Damage-phobic Tony Webster, I said, reminded me of “super-ordinary Swede,” the tragic protagonist in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Swede Levov desperately wants to live the perfect, tidy American life but learns in a horrific way that he can’t protect himself or his family from damage – or from inflicting it. In the end, Levov’s perfect life turns out to be “reprehensible.” “That’s an interesting connection but I haven’t read American Pastoral,” said Barnes. “The Roth I like is the early to middle Roth. What is supposedly the great late period of Roth I find less interesting. Sabbath’s Theatre I couldn’t finish. But I like the early and middle ones. The Counterlife is a wonderful novel. I think that’s his best novel.” However, he continued, damage reminded him of the book he was currently reading – Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. “I’m a third of the way in,” he said. “Isabel Archer has been proposed to by an English lord and the rich American businessman, the cotton chap, and the arguments that are put to her are that it’s really much safer if you get married, and she says, no, I want to rub up against life, something like that. I don’t know if ‘rub up’ is James (‘affront my destiny,’ is what Isabel Archer wants to do), but that’s what she means. And they say to her, you must be careful you don’t get damaged. And I was struck, since we were talking about my book, about the Jamesian analogy. And don’t tell me what happens because I’ve never read it before. She’s just got to Florence and she’s just met the man whom Madame Merle has picked out for her, so I expect something bad is going to happen, but I’m not sure what.” The conversation veered off into Henry James. By some coincidence I had only just read The Portrait myself and so it was fresh in my head. I asked if he agreed with the literary critic James Wood about Henry James’s superb use of narrative framing in the novel’s opening scene in which three bored men are taking tea on the lawns of a country house by the Thames, minutes before Isabel makes her entrance – and changes everything.  “It’s good,” said Barnes, meditatively. “It’s a good opening scene.” But the mention of Wood is a distraction. The hugely influential Wood, who writes for The New Yorker, has not exactly savaged Barnes with praise. He has called his stories “wan” and “cozily fenced” and “addicted to fact,” making him sound like a writerly Tony Webster.  Barnes, on his part, is known for his acidic views on the quality of criticism in general. “I know of James Wood,” he said, emphasizing the of. “He’s been on my case for a very long time. I’m almost weary of displeasing James Wood...But I don’t really keep up with my reviews anymore. I stopped dead about the time of England, England because I always found that the good ones, when you re-read them, weren’t as good as you thought they were first time round, and the bad ones were just as bad as you thought they were. So I thought, why am I reading these reviews except for looking for praise about my books, and I felt that was sort of ignominious, you know, ignoble. And I thought, the book’s written and the review’s written, why bother to get into an emotional state about it. But then there was a wonderful review of England, England in The Sunday Times by John Carey – and I thought to myself, he completely understands the book. So you do want those nice adjectives but you also want the book to be accurately described in terms of its texture, its feeling, its weight, its tone. So much reviewing is just about inadequate description and that’s depressing. So I stopped completely in 1998...I read the French reviews because they are completely different from any other reviews.” “And the French love you,” I interjected. “I know. They do love me. But it’s nice to read reviews of your book in a different language. And the French are very imaginative. They often pretend to interview you when they haven’t. And no, I don’t mind at all.” (Later that evening, during his session with Mario Vargas Llosa on Flaubert and modernism, Barnes would reply sharply to a provocative comment about France being ”a nation without ideas.“ “I think that’s a gross libel on my favorite country,” he said. “The idea that the French don’t create ideas is incredibly stupid, an absurdity. I come from the country that doesn't issue ideas. England is known as the country without music, as it should be.”) He returned once more to Henry James. “My favorite moment in the whole opening scene is that the father has a very large cup. Do you remember? He’s having his tea out of a very large cup. And then it’s mentioned again once or twice, and then you think it’s absolutely brilliant of James not to explain it. He just doesn’t. And you think, is it because he warms his hands with it? Is it because it’s easier for an old man to pick up a big cup rather than a little cup? Is it just an eccentricity? Is it a sign that he is a man who has held great power and who therefore has a large cup? Does he like a lot of tea? Is it an example of the fact that he's not English? It’s absolutely brilliant that we don’t know why that cup is so big.” As he walked me to the lift he said, “Thank you for not asking if The Sense of an Ending is autobiographical. I’m so tired of that question.” “It couldn’t have been,” I replied politely. “Tony Webster is bald.” “That settles it then,” he said, and the lift arrived. I’d enjoyed the meeting. And if I had to sum it up in one image, it would be that of the languid Barnes sitting forward in his chair with a sudden zest to obsess about the size of a teacup. You can’t get more English, English if you tried. Image credit: FNPI - Joaquin Sarmiento
Essays, In Person

Letters in the Wind: A Writer’s Evolution

The first time I learned what it means to be really good at something was in high school, on a golf course, with my hands cracked raw in the cold. I was on the 17th hole at Cape Arundel, a short, tricky course on the coast of Maine where the Bushes played in the summer. But as I stood there contemplating my tee shot in a hard wind off the Atlantic, all the glorious rounds I’d played on long August days felt very far away; I was who-knows-how-many strokes over par, my swing disintegrating in the elements. Not everyone’s game fell apart that day. When I finished my round I was surprised to learn that several of the state’s best players had managed to turn in good scores. The pudgy, towheaded Ben Daughan had been atop the leaderboard at junior golf events all summer and he was there again that day, just a few shots over par even in weather better suited to a snowball fight. Upon seeing his score, I remember thinking that real ability thrives regardless of conditions. I had that same thought in mind when, four years ago, I decided to make a career as a writer. My first assignment was a book review for The New York Observer -- Jon Meacham’s American Lion. I spent six anguished days working virtually nonstop to squeeze out barely 900 words. Most of that time I spent in a high pulse-rate pace around my apartment, waiting for conditions to clear just enough to let out a sentence. I realized that my writing at age 28 was a lot like my golf game as a teenager: a single gust of wind and it went to Hell. Around that same time I met Seth Mnookin, then a contributing editor at Vanity Fair with a best-selling book to his name. I emailed him, cold, looking for advice about starting a freelance career. He replied with a friendly admonition (Journalism is dying! Run away!) and a few weeks after we first talked, asked me if I wanted to help him write his next book, the contract for which had just been finalized with Simon & Schuster. Over the next 20 months, I spent more time talking with Seth than I did with my wife. His book was about the spurious but dogged idea that vaccines cause autism. He lived in New York, I lived in Philadelphia, and during our first year together I transcribed interviews, summarized journal articles, and tracked down contact information while he flew around the country to autism conferences, tried to wrangle a conversation with actress-turned-anti-vaccine-crusader Jenny McCarthy, and put together a rough outline for the book. I kept waiting for the day when Seth would start to actually write the book. It came, finally, in October, five months before the manuscript was due. I’d always imagined writing a book as a meditation, but what followed was more of an ecstatic experience. Seth kept long hours at his rented desk in a freelancers’ office in Manhattan. Often he’d send me a rough draft of a chapter in the early evening and tell me he was going out for air and some Chinese food. I’d work on the trouble spots he’d called to my attention -- usually transition sentences, or synonyms for words like “increasingly” that we’d already used a dozen times, or working on the order of a few knotty paragraphs. I’d send the text back to him before I went to bed and wince at the thought of the long night that awaited him. But when I woke up the next morning and checked on the chapter, I’d always find that Seth had managed to knock things straight. He did this day after day, for months on end, with deadlines close, his professional reputation on the line, his first child born in the middle of it all. And from watching this I learned that a real writer shouldn’t need a cup of tea at his side or a cabin with a view of the ocean or things just so in his own mind in order to get his work done. My work with Seth on The Panic Virus, as it came to be called, ended in the middle of 2010 and I went on trying to make it as a writer. Most of my assignments were short pieces for college alumni magazines or book reviews for The Christian Science Monitor.  Over time I found that my palms weren’t sweating as much when I sat down at my computer, and that I’d learned to do just enough of the writing process automatically to give me room to think as I wrote. Around that same time I remember watching tennis's U.S. Open. It was a windy day in Flushing and all the players were complaining about how it had been impossible to serve given the conditions. Then Roger Federer entered Arthur Ashe Stadium and aced out his opponent. Afterwards he was asked how he’d been able to serve so well in such bad weather. I remember Federer looking amused, like the question made no sense. “I've practiced my serve a whole lot my whole career,” he replied. “If I can't serve in the wind I've got a problem. You can wake me up at two or four in the morning I can still hit serves." I’ve tried writing in the middle of the night and the results usually aren’t good. But four years in as a writer, I’m less sensitive to my surroundings than I used to be. Just before Christmas, I was hired by The Boston Globe to write the paper’s “Brainiac” ideas blog. I’m writing 10 pieces a week, often about unfamiliar topics; four years ago I would have had a heart attack contemplating this kind of job, but now I feel practiced enough to do it well. I still can’t write like Seth, or like Federer can serve, or that kid Ben could golf, but I find that at least I can apply consistently the talent I have. Image Credit: Wikipedia
In Person

The Old Corner Bookstore Is Now A Chipotle

1. Summertime, and I spend my days working in a museum located in downtown Boston. Over the months, I learn how to count a cash drawer, teach Italians the meaning of a state sales tax, and struggle with how exactly to break the news that the Old Corner Bookstore is no more. “Well?” The older couple across the counter brandish their map and press on, looking expectantly at first me and then my manager, to whom I have turned for help. My manager grimaces. “You’re not going to like the answer.” 2. “Think libraries are boring? Proper Bostonians would beg to differ. Once renowned as a hotbed of writers, the city remains a haven for readers. The continuing popularity of these institutions is a case in point.” The Fodor’s travel guide has nothing else to say about the city’s literary past. Boston. Once this was the Athens of America, the Hub of the Universe; no longer. Anne Bradstreet, America’s first poet, walked these streets, as did Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Most of Infinite Jest is set in Boston. The Atlantic was founded in this city. e. e. cummings is buried here. But for all these names, all these movements, all this history, Boston has, like other American cities in the new millennium, faded from literary prominence. On its face, this seems an exaggeration; there are journals, there are bookstores, there are eager young writers spilling forth from all the schools that litter the city. This is the digital age, after all; weren’t these kinds of physical borders supposed to dissolve -- wasn’t the Internet supposed to create connections previously impossible in the days of pen, ink, and paper? But I am a child of the digital, and let me tell you this: sometimes it feels as though every young writer I know is in the process of moving down to Brooklyn. And this bothers me. -- Why? 3. On certain fall days in Boston the air veers sharp, humming like a too-charged cell phone, and I understand why they hung witches here. The cliché of New England and the absolute rule of New England is its weather, and this is the season in which our ears prick, our senses grow fearful; soon, the trees will wither. The literature of Massachusetts seems to reflect this fear. It is a literature of insanity, of extreme emotion; “Boston!” the teenage lunatics of Susannah Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted cry, in between bouts of failed suicide attempts, “Boston! You could jump out at a red light and split.” In the old Ritz-Carlton, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath used to meet after poetry workshops to down martinis and discuss their respective death wishes. And the Old Corner Bookstore? -- Built in 1712, the building itself was erected to replace the ruins of Anne Hutchinson’s home, that Puritan woman cast out of Boston for talking to God. Today, the Old Corner Bookstore sits, as its name implies, on the corner of Washington and School Streets, five minutes from Downtown Crossing and perhaps another 10 from the Common. It is a squat building, many windowed, and on its left side hangs a brief green sign. “Timothy Crease built this structure as his apothecary and residence shortly after the great fire of 1711 destroyed Anne Hutchinson’s house on this site,” reads the sign. “Timothy Carter opened the Old Corner Bookstore here in 1829. Between 1845 and 1865, the booksellers Ticknor and Fields established the building’s lasting literary significance as the publishers of Hawthorne, Longfellow, Stowe, Emerson, Thoreau, and other prominent American and British authors, who often gathered here...In 1960, civic leaders raised money and established Historical Boston Incorporated to acquire and preserve this site.” Now, this sign is the last vestige of the bookstore’s past. Though tourist maps still mark it as a landmark, today the Old Corner Bookstore is no more. Today, the Old Corner Bookstore has been replaced by a Chipotle. October. Witch season in New England. I visit the Chipotle out of curiosity. At 11:30 in the morning it is empty, save for its workers, and inside it is all red walls, steel counters, and the kind of eco-platitudes now necessary to convince office employees to buy fast food. Vats of lettuce sit next to vats of salsa stand next to vats of sour cream. I speak with Jessica, the store’s assistant manager, who has worked at Chipotle for over two years. I ask her if people come in asking for the Old Corner Bookstore. “All the time,” she says, nodding. “At least a couple times a month. There are a lot of pamphlets on it. Some people are disappointed but most move on.” On the wall behind her, a sign informs me that this is “food with integrity.” A dozen meat strips sizzle on the open stove; Chipotle’s chicken, boasts another sign, “is raised without antibiotics and fed a diet free of animal by-products.” But I cannot tell what animal is being cooked. “Personally, I think it’s slightly sad how easy it was to get,” Jessica says, referring to the building. She brightens. “But everyone at Chipotle was really excited to get this spot because of the history, the chance to be a part of Boston’s history. This is the oldest retail location in Boston.” Lunchtime approaches. Soon the restaurant will be filled, Jessica assures me, and I leave, not wanting to get in the way. Outside the air is brisk. The sun is bright. I wouldn’t say no to one of Plath’s martinis. 4. The oldest retail location in Boston. Technically, this is true. In the weeks that follow my Chipotle visit I work, intern, and read the dozen or so New York-based but not New York-centric blogs, journals, and papers that stand alongside more local offerings in my RSS feed. I try to write this essay. I tell myself that it is no mistake that I am writing this on the heels of the announced Penguin-Random House merger; I consult the books that crowd my shelves and feel a small, withered sense of triumph whenever the copyright page points to a New York publishing house. I attempt to draw parallels between U.S. politics and to argue against monopolies and to say something pat about the digital. The results are unconvincing. November comes, and so too does that famous New England cold. When I exit the warmth of the red line I brace myself against Central Square’s wind, and the sidewalk’s bricks are red and the buildings are brick-laced and even when I close my eyes the lids remain red, always red: inescapable. I open them. I do not want to be a cliché. I think of this on the walk home, dreading my return to this essay, and immediately feel annoyed with myself. But to be 22 and a writer and a liberal arts graduate, on top of it, seems in this day and age to bring with it a certain stigma, a whiff of that dreaded scarlet letter: hipster. Lena Dunham and Thought Catalog and that New York Times article on irony: to distance myself from this epithet, this implicit accusation of frivolity, I latched onto a city that once surpassed New York: Boston, where “history sticks / like a fishbone in the city’s throat,” to misquote Robert Lowell. “You do of course realise that your entire blog sounds like you are a hipster desperately trying to be so cool as to not to appear to be one, right?” an anonymous commenter once wrote on my blog. I tried to shake it off; I tried to laugh. Why get upset over something on the Internet, right? But in the game of authenticity that has consumed my particular subset of 20-somethings, even the act of writing turns self-conscious, a method of avoiding vulnerability. What Was the Hipster? asked n + 1 two years ago; the hipster was me. The Old Corner Bookstore is no more. Sometimes I read old writing of mine and wonder what I was trying to hide. At the same time, I do, in fact, find myself agreeing with The New York Times, as late in the game as that article appeared. There is a glibness to so much of the writing of my generation; an artificial exposure of the self. No matter how many confessional blog posts or top 10 lists concerning what it’s like to be a Millennial I read, I still feel no closer to the writer. Between us, there is always a screen. “God is in your typewriter,” a priest once begged a despondent Anne Sexton. Perhaps it is time to listen. Image courtesy of the author.
In Person, Quick Hits

Goodwill in Brooklyn: On Donating Books to Unexpected Readers

The man wanted the box I was carrying. I’d almost made it to the front door of a Goodwill in Brooklyn, and I had no idea how he’d guessed the box was full of books. There were no labels and the top flaps were closed. I was staggering a bit under its weight, but I could have been donating kitchen supplies, clothes, or old toys. Anything! He came toward me, a man probably in his 30s, ragged, living on the edge. His face opened into a smile and he closed the distance between us fast, holding out his arms. “Books?” he asked. “Are those books?” “Yes,” I said. Then I realized I was in the wrong place. A sign on the door of the Goodwill said we needed to use another entrance around the corner. “Can I have them?” he asked. “I love books. I love reading.” I looked at my husband. He was holding two boxes of books and staggering more than I. I looked at my children, who were looking up at me, waiting. I am uncomfortable shedding books. The three boxes my husband and I were holding, plus three more in the trunk of the car, were the result of a careful purge executed after living abroad for a year. We’d been home only a few weeks and it was clear our bookcases were too crowded to hold all the books we’d bought in Germany. In the days I’d spent weeding the shelves, I’d very nearly given up my college edition of Ulysses before confessing on Twitter and being saved by a bookseller friend who suspected I was making a mistake while still addled by jetlag. But I did a few unthinkable things, such as keeping only my favorite McEwan novels. I told myself only collectors keep complete sets and I am fundamentally not a collector, especially in a Manhattan apartment. “You like to read?” I asked weakly, stalling. “Yeah!” he said. His enthusiasm seemed genuine, but given his general condition, I couldn’t convince myself he wasn’t going to go around the corner and sell the books on the sidewalk. Did I want the sale of the books to benefit Goodwill more than him? That didn’t seem right. But I was committed to the idea that the books would sit, dry and cared for, until someone came along and chose them. My husband’s grandmother, an amazing reader, bought all her books at the Goodwill in Norfolk, Va., I guess I was picturing someone like her. “Mom?” my nine-year-old daughter said. She looked worried and a bit confused. She loves books, too, and this is what she was taking in: My reluctance to give a box of books to someone who had just told us he loved to read. I didn’t know what to do. “You really want them?” I said. “You want to read them?” “Yes!” I gave him the box and smiled at my daughter, but I was aware of making a choice that had more to do with how I wanted to teach her to treat people than how I actually wanted to treat the books I was holding. And then, unable to shake the feeling that I was abandoning some part of myself to an uncertain fate, I followed him and my daughter followed me. My husband and son headed to the correct Goodwill entrance; the man with my books crossed the street, put the box down, and opened it. He sorted through the books, picked up a few for closer inspection, and ultimately put several in a bag he was wearing over his shoulder. I wanted to know which books he was taking, books I’d lived with for nearly 20 years, but his back was to me and I couldn’t see. “What’s he doing?” my daughter asked. We were standing behind a parked car across the street. “Well, I think he’s picking out the ones he wants,” I said. “He’s not taking them all?” she asked. “Maybe not. The box is heavy.” The man closed the box, picked it up, and started walking again. Half-a-block along, and now directly across the street from the Goodwill entrance my husband had gone to, he appeared to run into a friend who was unloading a truck. They talked for a minute, then he put the box down and his friend went through the books, also taking a few for himself. The exchange seemed spontaneous and magnanimous. I hugged my daughter. My husband passed by with the last two boxes. “How’s it going?” he asked. “He’s sharing some of the books with a friend!” I announced. While my husband was in the Goodwill, the man crossed the street, put the box on the sidewalk in front of the correct entrance, and walked away. In the car on the way home, my husband said that the workers inside the Goodwill had been truly grumpy about receiving five boxes of books. He’d found it disheartening, and on top of it all, we’d gotten a parking ticket, the fact that we were making a donation not impressive enough to save us. I turned around and looked at my tired children. “Isn’t it so lucky we bumped into a reader on the street?” “Do you really think he was?” my daughter asked. “I do,” I said. And I do. Image Credit: Flickr/Beaufort's TheDigitel
In Person

Electricity Junkies: On Life in the Blackout Zone

On Saturday, the night the lights came on, I turned mine off, rode the elevator to the ground floor of my building in Chelsea, and walked into the dark of the West Village. I had stayed in my apartment through Sandy and her aftermath, so for five days, downtown Manhattan’s standard storm week inconveniences were mine: no power, heat, or water. I counted myself lucky. My building didn’t flood. No children, old people, or dogs depended on my care. I had blankets, candles, flashlight; a bathtub full of water to keep the toilet working fine; money for cabs and food; and legs that didn’t mind the daily stairwell roundtrips to and from my 15th floor place. Having just finished a work project that consumed the previous weekends, I gave myself time off. I woke at dawn, ate supper when the sun set, and slept straight through the nights. My rest gorged on dark and quiet as if sleep were celebration, free from horns and big rigs, sirens, sidewalk screams and glare -- the gang that, most evenings, steals into my room and snaps my dreams in pieces. (From my windows, as far as I could see, the only Chelsea buildings where bulbs burned were Google headquarters and one floodlit chapel at the General Theological Seminary.) In daylight, I walked right up the middle of deserted streets, stopped to read plaques posted on historic buildings, my eyes slowly scanning back and forth from texts to bricks. I learned names of things -- corbels, lintels, eyebrow lintels -- that I had always, apparently, been too busy to see. Each day when I ventured uptown to shower at a gym, I saw life rush on as usual, and each day that experience raised an unsettling question in my mind. Which part of town was actually in the blackout? Electricity felt almost like a drug, every one of us a junkie. Jumpy people hurried in and out of brilliantly lit stores, buying things as if it were a birthright. All of us, it seemed, walked four feet off the ground, eyes focused on infinity, in the single-occupancy tunnels of perception that New Yorkers learn to build around ourselves, because we have to, so we can get where we want to go. I was as relieved as anyone when power was restored, but to my surprise, my bedside lamp triggered an immediate craving to go back down into the blackout zone, to see what powerless Manhattan looked like while it was still there to be seen. Near the top of the Village, on Greenwich Avenue, I walked southeast, drawn by a generator’s grinding buzz. A bar had set up a movie projector; Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown played on the broad side of the white semi-trailer parked across the street. Then I veered southwest into the warren of townhouse brownstones, where for whole blocks, every building looked empty, but what light there was, was warm. Here and there, two or three were gathered in front rooms of parlor floors, drinking wine, smoking, smiling. Further west, a tiny handful of restaurants stood open. Lit by candles, tables glowed with the soft surprise of Easter eggs. I tried taking pictures with my iPhone: black rectangle after black rectangle, specked with firefly flecks of light. Eventually, getting cold, I tacked back north. Cops directed traffic at 14th Street and Eighth Avenue, a makeshift gateway between have and have-not. At the edges of the crosswalk, red flares hissed on low tripods at foot level. Pausing there, I overheard a skinny young guy in sideways baseball cap and drop-crotch jeans talk on his cell phone -- “I don’t know where to go” -- and as I picked up my pace to pass him, a fat, limping woman, leaning on a stainless steel cane, stopped me to ask, “Where is Fourth Street?” She wore glasses, a purple flowered dress, and no coat. Even in the half-dark I could see she had bad teeth. I pointed back to where I’d come from and started to explain, when the young guy put his phone away and interrupted us. “I’m headed that way,” he told the woman. “I can show you.” Walking up Eighth Avenue, I turned for a moment to watch the skinny man take the fat lady where she needed to go. Then, with horn-blaring cars racing by, I built a tunnel around myself to get me home, and I wondered if this bright light on everything around me really always was so harsh. Photo courtesy of the author.