Interview Focus VOLUME 30 |
FALL 2013 |
Deriving from the German weben—to weave—weber translates into the literal and figurative “weaver” of textiles and texts. Weber (the word is the same in singular and plural) are the artisans of textures and discourse, the artists of the beautiful fabricating the warp and weft of language into ever-changing pattterns. Weber, the journal, understands itself as a tapestry of verbal and visual texts, a weave made from the threads of words and images.
NCUR, NULC, OUR, OSF and WSU To the uninitiated, the acronyms listed above might read like cryptograms encoding secret messages. All of our purple-bleeding readers will of course be familiar with WSU as the shortened form of their alma mater, and some dyed-in-the-wool wildcats might have heard of NULC, the National Undergraduate Literature Conference that has been one of the institutional hallmarks of Weber State for close to 30 years—and put the university on the map for its commitment to undergraduate education and the literary and creative arts. OUR, NCUR, and OSF, on the other hand, might not be in the working vocabulary of most of our readers, even though the activities concealed behind these acronyms have had a formative impact on the educational environment of Utah. Over the past 10 years, WSU’s commitment to the undergraduate part of its mission has been reinforced through one of the campus’ more recent academic entities, the OUR, or Office of Undergraduate Research. The Office has broadened the university’s focus on high-quality undergraduate research initiatives to include the natural, technical, and social sciences, allowing students to work under the tutelage of faculty to develop their own research agendas. WSU has been so successful in enabling “Learning Through Research” that CUR, the Council on Undergraduate Research, decided to bring NCUR, the National Conference on Undergraduate Research, to campus in spring of 2012. With more than 3,000 participants representing 291 institutions, the campus became a veritable hive of creative and scholarly activity, and the conference added to WSU’s emerging profile as a national leader in undergraduate education. On a more local high-school level, OSF, the Ogden School Foundation, has been successful in exposing students to a correspondingly wide range of educational opportunities in literacy, math and science, the arts, and technology through strategic fund-raising efforts and the responsible stewardship of foundation money. In the aggregate, these initiatives have greatly enhanced the climate of culture and education in northern Utah and beyond. Weber—The Contemporary West has also been the beneficiary of these initiatives. NULC, NUCR, and OSF all have a long history of inviting distinguished authors, scientists, and public intellectuals to serve as plenary speakers for their conference openings and fundraising opportunities. In-depth interviews with a number of these speakers are at the center of this issue. They include conversations with a Nobel Prize winner, a Pulitzer Prize winner, a winner of the National Book Award, New York Times bestsellers, and the Utah Book Prize, among others. In their thematic spread, they range from medicine and Mormonism and genetics and genocide to species and sustainability. Enjoy!
Front Cover: Trent Alvey, Green Tara, oil on canvas, 36” x 72”, 2010
VOLUME 30 | NUMBER 1 | FALL 2013 | $10.00
GLOBAL SPOTLIGHT/INTERVIEW FOCUS 2 Becky Jo Gesteland, On Education, Historical Gaps, and Imaginative Empathy—A Conversation with Geraldine Brooks
Michael Wutz ASSOCIATE EDITORS
Kathryn L. MacKay Brad Roghaar Russell Burrows Victoria Ramirez MANAGING EDITOR
Kristin Jackson EDITORIAL BOARD
Susan Clark, Eastern Sierra Institute Katharine Coles, U of Utah Gary Gildner, independent author Duncan Harris, U of Wyoming Diana Joseph, Minnesota State U Nancy Kline, independent author & translator James A. MacMahon, Utah State U Fred Marchant, Suffolk U Madonne Miner, Weber State U Felicia Mitchell, Emory & Henry College Julie Nichols, Utah Valley State College Tara Powell, U of South Carolina Bill Ransom, Evergreen State College Walter L. Reed, Emory U Scott P. Sanders, U of New Mexico Daniel R. Schwarz, Cornell U Andreas Ströhl, Goethe-Institut Munich James Thomas, editor and writer Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, author Melora Wolff, Skidmore College Delia Konzett, U of New Hampshire Kerstin Schmidt, Universität Eichstätt Jericho Brown, Emory University EDITORIAL PLANNING BOARD
Bradley W. Carroll John R. Sillito Brenda M. Kowalewski Michael B. Vaughan Angelika Pagel ADVISORY COMMITTEE
Meri DeCaria Elaine Englehardt Shelley L. Felt G. Don Gale Mikel Vause
Barry Gomberg John E. Lowe Aden Ross Robert B. Smith
Brad L. Roghaar Sherwin W. Howard Neila Seshachari
LaVon Carroll Nikki Hansen
EDITORIAL MATTER CONTINUED IN BACK
16 Russell Burrows, On Place, The Novel, and the Serious Comedy of Fiction—A Conversation with Thomas McGuane 35 Luke Fernandez, Sanctuaries of the Mind in a Digital Age—A Conversation with William Powers
50 Hal Crimmel, Nature, Conservation, and the Unseen— A Conversation with W.S. Merwin 61 Joel Hancock, Zackary Goff, and Barbara Trask, From Ignoble Beginnings to the Nobel Prize— A Conversation with Mario Capecchi 80 Kathleen Herndon, On War, Africa, and the Writing Self—A Conversation with Alexandra Fuller 99 Mikel Vause, Utah and the Fiction of Difficulty—A Conversation with Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner W.S. Merwin..........................50
ART 109 Trent Alvey, Sacred Geometry ESSAY 130 Simon Ortiz and Gabriele M. Schwab, Playing War FICTION 89 Robert HodgsonVan Wagoner, Happy or Sad, It’s Up to Me—An Excerpt from Cautionary Tales 121 Adam James Jones, Politicking
143 Michael Onofrey, Easter POETRY 30 Joseph Powell, Raymond Carver in Tucson and other poems 125 Michael Johnson, The Salmon Word for Home and other poems 127 Simon Perchik,
* and other poems
141 Dixon Hearne, Wagons West and other poems 151 READING THE WEST
C O N V E R S A T I O N
Becky Jo Gesteland
PRELUDE Geraldine Brooks is an award-winning author and journalist who was born in Australia. Raised in Sydney and educated at Bethlehem College Ashfield and the University of Sydney, she worked for three years as a reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald. While there, she won the prestigious Greg Shackleton Australian News Correspondents Scholarship to attend the master’s program in journalism at Columbia University. Brooks earned her graduate degree in 1983 and began working as a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Reporting from the Middle East, among other places of conflict, she—together with her husband, journalist Tony Horwitz—won the Overseas Press Club’s Hal Boyle Award for “Best Newspaper or Wire Service Reporting from Abroad” for their coverage of the Gulf War in 1990. Brooks’ experience as a journalist led to her first book, Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, which was published in 1994. The book became an international bestseller and was translated into seventeen languages. Brooks’ second book, Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal’s Journey From Down Under to All Over (1997), describes her upbringing in Australia and her development as a journalist through a series of international pen pal relationships. This book won the Nita Kibble Literary Award for women’s writing. Brooks then embarked on a new form of writing: historical fiction. Published in 2001, her first novel, Year of Wonders, became an international bestseller. The novel tells the story of a 1666 plague village—based on the actual village of Eyam in Derbyshire—that quarantined itself in an attempt to control the contagion. We hear the story through a maid-turnedhealer, Anna Frith, who strives to save as
On Education, Historical Gaps, and Imaginative Empathy A Conversation with Geraldine Brooks
“I HOPE I am the gateway drug to HISTORY”
many people as possible. Over two-thirds of the villagers died during the plague year. In 2006, Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for her second novel, March, which was inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. The book tells the untold story of Mr. March, the girls’ father, who is absent in Alcott’s account. In Brooks’ book March leaves home (Concord, MA) to join the Union cause and serve as army chaplain in the Civil War. Through his account we experience the horrors of war, suffer his disillusionment with the northern army, and come to the realization that abolition will not happen quickly—if at all. Another bestseller, People of the Book, followed in 2008 and was translated into twenty languages. Here Brooks traces the fictionalized history of a sacred text, the Sarajevo Haggadah, from its present-day location back through five centuries to its creation in Muslim-ruled Spain. The novel won two awards: the Australian Book of the Year Award and the Australian Literary Fiction Award. Most recently, Brooks published Caleb’s Crossing (2011), which follows the story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk—the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. Told by his AngloAmerican friend, Bethia Mayfield, we enjoy lush descriptions of the island landscape and experience the disturbing effects of early American assimilation attempts. Since Caleb’s graduation in 1665, only one other member of the Wampanoag tribe has received an undergraduate degree from Harvard: Tiffany Smalley, in May of 2011. Today, Geraldine Brooks lives on Martha’s Vineyard with her husband and their two sons. I met with her on November 10, 2011, at Ogden High School. Brooks was in town as the invited speaker for The Ogden School Foundation’s annual fall author event.
CONVERSATION My sense is that you really enjoy working with students. I heard some great things about your experience with them this morning. But when you were talking to the high school students today, I was intrigued because you mentioned being shy.
That’s my impression. So I wondered, do these more intense interactions with students energize you and stimulate you?
Yes, the book tour is one thing, because that’s day after day. But just to come out of my hobbit hole and be with a community, particularly a community like this one—very Used to be. Got over it. Now I am impossible. inspiring people—is a privilege. I had dinner (Laughter) with the foundation board members and I’ve had similar experiences. I tend to volunteers last night, and it’s just really reaswant to hole up and read a book. How do suring because so many people just want to you enjoy this whole book tour thing? I be “us” and “them.” And you know, “my kids understand you have are okay, so I don’t recently finished, or care what’s happenare still on a book ing to somebody English speakers are the laziest tour to promote Caelse’s kids.” It’s just people on earth because we can get leb’s Crossing? fantastic to be in a away with it. You go over to Europe community where you I finished in the spring get the sense that and it was very intense and they just switch from one everybody is invested because now with language to another to another. Also in these schools and e-books, it’s not a in the Arab world, the elite, the kids in making them great. leisurely schedule. It It’s encouraging and are growing up completely fluent used to be that they really is a model; it’d would stagger the in two or three languages. They’re be great to figure publication of the going to eat our lunch. out a way to sort of books in the various spread it. (Laughter) markets. I could do a And the schools are tour and then go home just so beautiful; and put my feet up to walk into a school and see the pride that for a week and then go to Australia and then people have in it. And the students are all the same thing and then go to England later. so well put together and there’s obviously But now because of e-books being accessible just a real sense of pride and purpose here. globally, the books have to be published simultaneously and you really just reel from Yeah, it’s a good place. My kids are in the one book tour to another. I’m not complainsystem, so I’m very pleased. ing; I’m very pleased that people want me to come and talk about my work. It’s a fantastic My kids go to public school too. We’re honor and a relief that anybody cares, but lucky; we live in one of these outliers where it’s really tiring, and the older I get, the more everybody pulls together. Last town meetI feel it. Also, travel is not what it used to be. ing, the finance committee for the town had You start your day being either irradiated or recommended a modest reduction in the groped by the TSA every day for months, and school budget, and they just got howled off it kind of wears you out. At the end of it, you the stage. The community was not having are so sick of the sound of your own voice it, you know. “What are you saying? We that you just want to go on a silent retreat. have to go without music? We have to go
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without Spanish? No! We’ll pay our taxes.” And you know it’s very childish thinking to say you can have a worthwhile society but nobody has to pay taxes to support it.
Right. I was glad to hear your response to the first question from the student—about language—that that was your one regret, not learning more languages or doing more with language. Because that’s something we’re struggling with over at the University—language programs getting cut— and certainly on the high school level. English speakers are the laziest people on earth because we can get away with it. You go over to Europe and they just switch from one language to another to another. Also in the Arab world, the elite, the kids are growing up completely fluent in two or three languages. They’re going to eat our lunch. (Laughter)
I’ve been lobbying within our department. We actually have an option for students to do 6 hours of foreign language or 6 hours of language arts (which can be pretty much anything), and I’ve been arguing for more foreign language because that really isn’t much. I started reading your historical fiction and have kind of been working back through
your work. I just finished Foreign Correspondence (1997), which explores your life through a series of pen pals, and then you moved to Year of Wonders (2001), which was more historical fiction. So my question is: how did you get inspired to write that, and what made you switch forms of writing? It’s just the necessity of wanting to be a mother who could be around for her kids as my mother was. I loved my childhood even though materially it was pretty meager, it was rich in other ways, and a lot of that had to do with parental attention and the fact that my mother was there when I got home from school. And I knew that that wouldn’t be the case if I stuck with the kind of journalism I had been doing—or even non-fiction book writing—because you have to be prepared to go whole-hog and just follow those stories as far as they go. You can’t say I am going to go for a week to “X” and I’ll get what I need. You have to be in it, and you have to go wherever the stories take you to do it well. I know that because my husband is a non-fiction writer, and when he is on the hunt with his books, it’s not predictable. I wanted a different kind of life, so it was just lucky for me that the transition worked out.
I have been telling my friends and colleagues that you have really hit your stride with historical fiction—it’s just brilliant.
C O N V E R S A T I O N Well, I love doing it, and I want to get better and better at it.
I know you are interested in voids, and today you talked about how there are gaps in our historical knowledge. How do you know when you have found a good one? Do you start doing research, and then do you sometimes have to get rid of the idea?
person, and her Alexander trilogy just sent me over. I think that a happy byproduct of historical fiction is if you can get people to go back and say, “I want to know more.”
Right. It’s been a pleasure to get to the end of your books and think, “I need to find out more.” So, when you’re doing your research, how do you know when you’re done? When you can’t find anymore?
Yeah, if there’s too much. It’s kind of a paradox, but if the historical record is too rich, You find out what there is, but I don’t then then it’s not for me; then it’s for a narrative keep researching. I research until I can hear historian. They can write a voice that’s going to a factual account. So, be the narrator of the for example, if Caleb novel and then she will It’s kind of a paradox, but if the had written a journal tell me what I need to historical record is too rich, then and it had come down know. I do the writing to us, then it wouldn’t and the research like it’s not for me; then it’s for a have been for me. But this. You know one narrative historian. They can because we don’t know fits into the other, so write a factual account. So, for anything about him, I let the story tell me the only way to sort of what it is that I need example, if Caleb had written a interrogate the questo go and find out. journal and it had come down to tion of what his life was Because otherwise I us, then it wouldn’t have been for think you can just get like is to use imaginative empathy to do it. lost in the research. me. But because we don’t know anything about him, the only way And also then you can And yet it’s so ironic start manipulating because I think most of to sort of interrogate the question the story to fit what us finish one of your you know, rather than of what his life was like is to use novels and say, “oh, I letting the story do the imaginative empathy to do it. need go find out more telling and letting the about this person.” It’s plot drive the train. I the first thing we do. really believe in plot. I’m not really a convinced modernist, you Yes, that’s what I hope. I hope I am the know. I know a lot of writers think plot is gateway drug to history. (Laughter) the least important thing. Not to me. I really like a good story, and I love reading to my You have to look up the plague. You have sons, because children’s and young adult to find out “who’s this Caleb.” You have to literature really understand the necessity see his picture. of one thing inexorably leading to the next and you know, if X is interesting, it must lead Well, it worked that way for me. One of the to Y and Y must be X+ more interesting. historical fiction writers that I loved as a young woman was Mary Renault who wrote Yes, I am very satisfied with plots too. I about ancient Greece. I had never done need plot. When you were 9, you had this any ancient history, I was a modern history
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moment when you figured out that you had this lust for books, and I remembered my own early experiences with books. And still to this day, I smell a book when I get it—there’s something about the smell. Are we changing this sensory experience with material books for our children and the next generation with e-books? I think we are. I see it with my own son, who’s grown up where books are like wallpaper. They are just part of our life and the fabric of our house and thinking about where the shelves go and where can we find room for more shelves. That’s the world he grew up in, but he keeps none of his books. He’s not sentimentally attached to the book as object. And he can’t wait to have a Nook or a Kindle or whatever. He likes the austerity of it, of not having the clutter of it. I think they are different—this generation that’s coming up. And you know, I hope that there will be a place for both. I can see the virtues of e-books, for books that are of more transient interest, particularly contemporary non-fiction or political investigations. I have a huge shelf of books devoted to the Middle East, and of them there’s probably only three that are real classics. The rest of them were useful at the time, but now events have moved on. So they could have easily been e-books and the planet would have been the better for it. Environmentally, provided we dispose of our electronics responsibly, I think it’s probably better than cutting down trees and driving heavy things across the country. I worry about towns without bookstores.
There is something pretty amazing about being able to get an e-book right away. My students recently finished reading Moby Dick, which I thought was a crazy book to have them read, but this was a big chore for them. They’re not used to reading books of that size. I’m glad because J.K. Rowling, bless her heart, took away the fear of the big fat book.
And for a while, my elder son evaluated books by heft. If it was short, he thought it can’t be any good. So I don’t think they’re afraid of the big book. I think they’re afraid of the huge digressions in Moby Dick, like “get on with it!” (Laughter)
Yeah, we did talk quite a bit about whether they’re actually digressions or not. I’m passionate about the book. But what was interesting was that they came up with a neat solution to what was obviously a problem for them: getting through a lot of material. They downloaded the audio book, and so they listened to it while they read it. And I just wondered what you thought about some of the more exciting innovations for digital technology? I feel like I am the monk in the medieval monastery doing my beautiful illuminated manuscript, and somebody comes riding up on the mule to the monastery gates, and they’ve got the first broadside off the Gutenberg press. And it’s horrible—it’s all smeary and full of misprints—and I look at it and go, “this will never catch on.” (Laughter) And now we’re seeing the sophistication in these devices, and the way it’s opening up other possibilities, like you’re talking about. I think it’s too early to say; we’re in a period of creative destruction. I feel optimistic because we’re always going to need stories—for somebody who is at heart a storyteller. Again, it goes back to the bookstore, so we’re going to have to figure out another paradigm, because I think we’ll miss that. I don’t think any of us know how we are going to find the books that we want to read. But I think publishers have reason to be quaking in their boots. In the end, it will be a much more direct relationship between the reader and the writer.
Yes, because of all of the self-publishing. And in the end, you know, I don’t think it will be too bad.
C O N V E R S A T I O N And you know, as a teacher of writing— technical writing is what I teach mainly, but also literature—I am encouraged by various electronic forms of writing, because to me, students are writing more than ever, in some ways, if you count texting, if you count blogs. I think that’s true. I think about the teenager of my day, who was getting on that telephone and just saying nothing for hours on end. (Laughter) And now they say nothing by text— but at least they have to read and write. And I do think that they’re more comfortable with that epistolary relationship. What worries me is when I hear them talking. Their talk is like haiku; it’s so sparse. And when you think about how people used to express themselves in these beautiful complete sentences— that’s gone.
I’ve heard critiques of PowerPoint sort of corrupting people the same way, forcing your thoughts into bullet points instead of complete thoughts and paragraphs and things like that.
It reminds me of rock climbers who’ve come and talked to us at the foundation in the past. It’s that same issue: how do they justify the risk they’re taking by leaving their family and pursuing an extreme sport, which in a way your reporting was? Mikel Vause
As I’ve gotten older, I certainly don’t miss the crazy days of my youth, but do you ever miss being a foreign correspondent? That long, open-ended assignment you were talking about… You know, it’s not so much that I miss it; it’s just that I am absolutely grateful for every minute of it. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do now without it. It was just so exciting and testing. It was an incredible privilege to have had those experiences and incredible good luck to have got out of it in one piece. Would I
do it again? There are occasions: the story in Iran intrigues me. I love the Iranian people; I don’t think we have a proper understanding of that country as Americans. I think we’re on the precipice of doing something really dangerous and misguided there, because it’s just this thin crust of government and the people underneath that. We can’t go to war with the Iranians because 90% of the Iranians are not in support of what’s going on and that would just be brutal and unfair. But the minute we do that, they are great nationalists and will rally to their country, so it would be so counter-productive. So yeah, when you have a deep feeling for a place, and you see that it is not being well reported, it drives you to think about it. But then I think, I’ve chosen another life now, and I have people who depend on me, and I just don’t want to put them through that now.
You’ve really got to have foreign correspondents. And about the climbing thing; I totally understand how satisfying that is to the individual. But it’s not a benefit to society, it’s not a necessity. Whereas it is a necessity, if we are going to have foreign adventures, that somebody is there to say what really is going on.
Right, I agree. I heard an interview you did with Diane Rehm a while back, and you
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talked to her about the woman graduate, the Wampanoag, who was due to graduate from Harvard in the spring. Have you followed up with her? Yeah, yeah! Tiffany. I’m in touch with her and her family. She is working in Washington, in Native American political affairs, which is fantastic. I think she’s going to be a great leader.
I am in a book group, and we read March awhile back and then recently, people picked up whatever they wanted of your other works. They wanted me to ask you, of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite? Oh, I can’t do that. “Of your children, which is your favorite…?” (Laughter)
Everybody is so surprised to hear that she I know, okay. Which one did you have the is just the second Wampanoag to graduate most fun researching? from Harvard. When you talk to her, from They are all very speyour own expericial to me because ence, do you have they’re a big part a sense of why it’s I think about the teenager of my day, of my life. It takes taken so long—300 years, and somewho was getting on that telephone years?
thing was going and just saying nothing for hours on on in my life at the I think Harvard has end. (laughter) And now they say time. So they’re a lot to answer for in kind of enmeshed in that regard. I don’t nothing by text—but at least they memories. I would think their outhave to read and write. And I do say, if you wedged reach has been very think that they’re more comfortable me in the door and good until recently, pulled out my eyeand now they’ve with that epistolary relationship. lashes, that People completely flipped What worries me is when I hear of the Book was the the script on that. them talking. Their talk is like haiku; most fun to research. They are making a Because I was able thoroughgoing effort it’s so sparse. And when you think to go behind the to reach out and tell about how people used to express scenes in museums people, “Harvard is themselves in these beautiful complete and see what conthe place for you.” servators did, and And that is what hap- sentences—that’s gone. adventure around pened to Tiffany: she Sarajevo, and be in went there as a high the room with the school senior and was Sarajevo Haggadah, and go to Venice and find encouraged to apply. And it was their open a little tiny bit of fact to add to the historical door and their re-embrace of their original record about what actually happened during mission. It says in the founding document, WWII. So yeah, I would say that that was “for the education of English and Indian youth probably the most fun to research. But they’ve of this country and knowledge and godliall had something—I loved writing Caleb’s ness,” so it was there from the beginning Crossing, because it was at home, and I could and then buried under 20 tons of white male just go out and walk in the woods, and I would WASPy super privilege for a couple of centuget an idea, and I could see what Bethia might ries. I’m a huge fan of the new president of have seen and describe it in real time. I could Harvard. I think she is doing a remarkable job.
C O N V E R S A T I O N run home and write about that light falling on that particular plant that only grows there and at that time of year, and that was fun. With March, it was great fun to discover Bronson Alcott and what a fantastic guy he was. I am embarrassed that I didn’t know who he was, but I know I am not alone. He is an under-appreciated figure and his thinking was so progressive for that time, so that was great fun too.
(Laughter) Isn’t it interesting, but they know the story at least. At least they have that kind of relationship. What do you read for fun? I’m a big environmentalist, so I read a lot of books that relate to our predicament on our poor little beleaguered planet. I’ve just read Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth, which is by turns fascinating and enraging. And a book like Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us—remarkable, incredibly well written. I love contemporary fiction. Also, I read a lot of things that I have to read because I just got done editing Best American Short Stories.
I was really struck by, in Caleb’s Crossing, your sense of landscape, and I think it is because you were actually living there. I love it; it’s a place I absolutely love.
Do you escape into mysteries or anything like that?
As we follow Caleb and the narrator Bethia across, I think it would be heart breaking to leave the island, because as a reader, you really empathize with their relationship to the landscape. So I think of all your pieces, that really comes across, that love of the land. And when you were talking about March, it seems to resonate well with high school— and college—students because they have the relationship with Little Women, those of us who have read Little Women. Well, with the female half of the population—I haven’t met a guy who has read Little Women.
In my fiction reading, I tend to like books that have a strong voice and an un-expected one. The book I loved this summer was called The Call by Yannick Murphy. It’s in the form of a large animal vet’s call-out diary, but it’s really a story about family. It’s brilliantly done—it’s funny, it’s suspenseful, and it’s moving. It’s everything a novel needs to be. Another one I loved this summer was Room by Emma Donoghue, which is told in the voice of a young child. I think when writers can captivate you with a voice like that, that’s impressive. I thought Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad was incredibly interesting and kind of a radical departure, to do a fractured narrative in that
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way. A lot of times books that are tricksy like that end up being less satisfying to me, but that one was absolutely satisfying because the plot and the character elucidates itself within this unconventional structure.
When you were talking I was thinking of your early interest in Star Trek. Do you read science fiction?
ing of culture, and it’s science fiction—that’s the beauty of the genre, it doesn’t have to just be spaceships.
I would like to go back to your own immigrant experience. Earlier you were talking about how you are American, you think of yourself as an American.
And Australian, I think of myself as Australian more. I think my instincts are very Australian. Science fiction I love. It’s one of those things I have a sensibility that is so totally created where, if you get out of that groove, it’s hard by a political dialogue that starts so much to know what’s good within it. I can’t think further to the left, of the last good one so that our most I’ve read. Some of the conservative politigreatest short stories, I think my instincts are very cian would be a particularly, come Australian. I have a sensibility that moderate Repubfrom science fiction. lican. And they’re is so totally created by a political Yes, I really like dialogue that starts so much further to considered way out Ursula LeGuin, but there on the right the left, so that our most conservative that’s a long time wing. So I am very ago. much that person politician would be a moderate still in my politiRepublican. And they’re considered Yeah, I know it’s cal philosophy. out there. I’m just way out there on the right wing. So I trying to think. As So that sense of am very much that person still in my Billy Collins says, “It’s duality… political philosophy. not on the tip of my tongue, it’s not even It’s a funny imburied somewhere migrant experiin my liver.” (Laughter) But I know I did ence, because my dad before me was an read something in that genre that I did love immigrant to Australia. And then I found out recently. I think very interesting in that genre that I am a first generation immigrant. But was Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. I am also eligible for the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution), on my father’s I read that; it was powerful. side. Our family got to Massachusetts in 1630, in the great migration, so my AmeriAnd the companion book that went with can roots are very deep, and I have totally it. It flips everything that you thought embraced that side of my life as well. you knew—very impressive. I tried to get Tony, my husband, to read it, and So, do you think that’s maybe why Caleb’s he doesn’t like science fiction. Crossing and March appealed to you so
To me she didn’t fit that traditional science fiction genre. I think that’s the beauty of it. Ray Bradbury can write a profound meditation on the mean-
I found out in the process of researching that book that my great-grandfather 6 back almost certainly knew Caleb. When I started that book, I thought, I am on a moral holiday with
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Mikel Vause Geraldine Brooks at The Ogden School Foundation’s annual fall author event banquet, 2011.
this one because I am not responsible for the dispossession of the Native Americans. I have to take responsibility for the aboriginal Australians. And then I found out that my severalgreats-grandfather was the brother-in-law of Elijah Corlett, who prepared Caleb for Harvard. So it would have been a remarkable thing if living in the same town, he didn’t drop in and say, “How are those two Indians doing?”
What an amazing connection to discover. That is a period of American literature that I have studied, and I know there is a lot of concern with the White American treatment of Native Americans. When students encounter this, in their readings, they come up against this sense of guilt—the white man’s guilt. Is that phrase at all connected to the phrase you are using in Foreign Correspondence—about this “cultural cringe” that Australians feel. Felt…
Felt—no longer. You think it’s over, which is a good thing. Yeah, I think it’s over.
Is that a similar kind of feeling?
No, that’s completely different. That was kind of a postcolonial, Stockholmsyndrome-ish thing where we were encouraged to feel that England was everything, and that we were an inferior backwater and everything that was important had come from there. One writer, and I can’t remember whose idea this was but I love it, said we exported proper nouns like “copper” and “iron ore” and “wool” and “wheat.” And we imported abstract nouns…. (Laughter)
That makes sense, so things like “music” and… Right, and “art” and “literature.” I didn’t read, you know, any Australian children’s books, and there were hardly any. I wasn’t required to read a serious piece of Australian literature until I was in senior high, and by then I was completely enthralled to books from elsewhere. And that’s not a bad thing; I mean, being turned out to the world is very helpful. I think, in a way, if I had to choose between the two evils, one is total introspection (which is often the illness in the United States—we don’t raise our head to look at the world enough), or being so turned out to the world that you fail to appreciate your indigenous culture. I think that’s totally changed because literature and the arts and the movies and music have had a complete renaissance in Australia. And not even renaissance, but just emergence. And that’s what people can turn to first—you don’t have to turn to those imported ideas first, but that hasn’t stopped Australians from being incredibly outward looking and adventurous and well traveled, which is great.
I’m reminded of early American literature that was so indebted to England and
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Europe and led to Whitman striving for an American voice. Right, I didn’t even know that Louisa May Alcott was American; I thought she was an English writer.
Right, and so much of the literature of that time period really feels British. It does, yes, it feels very Victorian.
I kind of had that feeling with Year of Wonders too. There were times that I thought, “wait, am I in England or America?”—because in some ways it could have been either. Well, that’s because everybody here at that period was essentially English. (Laughter) You know, the people on Martha’s Vineyard who went there in 1640 didn’t think of themselves as anything but English, and they thought of themselves even more specifically as Wiltshiremen. It was a long time before any American identity could emerge.
is Martha’s Vineyard really developed? I haven’t been there for many years. Are they good about preserving space? You know, it’s better than most places. What the situation is now is, a third of the land is developed, a third of the land is in preservation, and the remaining third is up for grabs. The decisions that are made in the next ten or so years will be very important to how the character of the island will change or stay the same. There was a period in the 80s where there was a brief Hamptonization: people came and built McMansions—I mean beyond—real castles. I mean horrible, obtrusive, and out of character with the way the island always had been, and if you were wealthy, you did not flaunt it there. You lived in the same drafty, little, clabbered salt-boxes as everybody else on the island. Then in the 80s, that changed, but I think the pendulum has swung back. There are a couple of egregiously flashy homes that are used maybe for three weeks a year: conspicuous
Through the course of your research for Caleb’s Crossing, and then living there now, it must be such a contrast. Because I think of Martha’s Vineyard, and the map in your book, I think of Teddy Kennedy and the Kennedy compound. I think everyone does. The famous Kennedy family compound is actually in Hyannis, which is not on the island at all. Jackie Kennedy did buy a beautiful, large piece of land on the wilder end of the island, surrounded by the Wampanoag lands, and her daughter Caroline has it now. They’re an example of the older island style we were talking about earlier. Modest scale house, inconspicuosly sited, so that it is about the beauty of the amazing natural setting.
I know you are concerned about the environment and what is happening, so
C O N V E R S A T I O N and wasteful and, environmentally, heavy impact. But in general, that’s not the case. It’s a dichotomous place: it’s full of extreme wealth in the summer, and then in the winter it’s one of the poorest counties, if not the poorest county in Massachusetts. So, you know, it’s very misunderstood when people characterize it as this luxury resort. That’s a very tiny part of the true identity of the island.
What are you working on these days?
A new project, because you have been fairly prolific. It doesn’t feel that way. (Laughter)
It feels that way to me, because these novels take a lot of time, I imagine. Well, I am lucky because I get to write, I wouldn’t say full time, because I am a kind of full-time mom as well, but I get the whole school day to write—I don’t have to have another job. So, in a way I have no excuse.
Yeah, that seems to work. If you can keep the backside glued to the chair for that amount of time, it’s the necessary if not the sufficient condition. (Laughter)
I did, yes. I used to be able to spend a good part of each year there, but when it became impossible to do that, she moved over here. She lived with us for three and a half years, and now she lives right next door. We’re lucky that we can do that. I don’t know how, honestly, families manage to care for their loved ones with Alzheimer’s—it’s going to be a growing reality for so many people, and I don’t think we’ve really come to grips with that.
distressing. They will not understand it, they will try to tear it out, they will fall victim to infections, and we don’t recommend it. So if you decide not to go that way, it’s not one of those “oh my god, I am failing my mother, I could do this.” You’ve got this institutional backing saying, in our experience, this isn’t a good idea. And that’s very helpful.
That’s very helpful. Even though it can seem harsh, it’s realistic. I’ve seen my mother with a naso-gastric tube pulling it out until she had to be restrained. And then, when four nurses have to re-insert it, and she’s kicking, she’s got bruises on her arm. I mean, it’s excruciating because they can’t understand.
In our quest for humane-ness, in the U.S., I feel that we often take things too far. We’re so concerned about saving lives. Frankly, I feel that it’s a malpractice issue. “If you can do it, you must do it.” And that’s not always the best way. I have a friend who
works in the E.R. in an area that’s very heavily Native American. They never see anybody over the age of 85 in the E.R. because the families don’t do it. If it’s an end game, it’s an end game—they accept death. You’re going to die, why keep somebody alive to die from something worse two months later? So they don’t take people, they just nurse them and let them peacefully move on to the next stage.
I’ve got lots of family members who are in the medical field and have read Abraham Verghese and Atul Gawande. I’m so encouraged by these folks in medicine who are tackling these issues. Have you read them? Yes, I have. They’re real philosophers, and brilliant guys, and we need more of them. And we need them to be listened to. We need to take the politics out of it. We need to stop pretending that these aren’t really hard and gut-wrenching questions.
Well, thank you so much. This has been wonderful.
My grandmother had pretty severe Alzheimer’s and, fortunately, she didn’t live very long in that state because she was really in a bad place.
I am trying to start a memoir and am wondering: how important is it to have a routine, a ritual? Do you have a routine or ritual, and what is it?
I have found once the kids are home, it’s pretty hard to get any work done anyway. And that is enough time for you?
So you moved your mother over from Australia?
I just completed a series of lectures for the Australian National Broadcaster. And I am going next to Australia to deliver the first in that series. That’s been really consuming, but I hope after that I will be able to get back to thinking about the new novel.
It’s called the yellow school bus. The kids go off to school and I go to work. Except on Thursdays, which I spend with my mother. She has a senior program that she goes to, but she’s 92 and, bless her heart, she has fairly advanced Alzheimer’s. So four days a week, my writing time is defined by the school day, and I find that works really well for me. I’m ready to get up and do other things, and it’s not like my kids
need me to hover over them every minute, but I like to be around and accessible.
People don’t want to have end-of-life decisions discussed and call it death panels. But “Hello!,” it’s the reality. We have a finite amount of resources, and we have to decide how best to allocate them. When my mom was diagnosed in Australia, we were handed a packet of what Australian medical professionals have come to the scientific conclusion as best practice. And it’s not that that means that you have to go that way—you can make a different decision for your loved one—but you’ve got this scientific backing handed to you. And one of the things they say is that a feeding tube is not indicated for people with Alzheimer’s because it will be
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Becky Jo Gesteland (Ph.D., University of Utah) is professor and assistant chair of English at Weber State University, where she teaches classes in American literature and technical writing. Previous publications include an interview with Alice Sebold (also for Weber); a cultural analysis of anthropologist Gladys Reichard’s fieldwork with the Navajo; and articles on content management, program assessment, and XML. Becky’s latest project is a literary memoir about her summers working for the National Park Service. In her spare time, she plays in the Wasatch Mountains with her children, Jake and Maggie, and her two dogs, Bubba and Henry.
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On Place, The Novel, and the Serious Comedy of Fiction A Conversation with Thomas McGuane
© Thomas McGuane, 2012
PRELUDE Crowding Tom McGuane’s many works and lives into this introduction will not be easy: Mr. McGuane has published ten novels, two collections of short stories, and three collections of essays. In recognition of those, the American Academy of Arts and Letters has recently elected him to membership. The Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation (of the American Academy) has also awarded him its prize for fiction. A National Book Award committee has once
made him a nominee. The Western Literature Association has given him its Lifetime Achievement Award. The Center for the American West has given him its Wallace Stegner Award. Not least, three editors have showcased his shorter works in three prominent re-print series: Best American Stories, Best American Essays, and Best American Sporting Essays. Does he ever get away from his desk? Yes, as it happens. He lives a good-sized outdoor
life, running his own ranch in Montana. There, too, he has earned recognition. He likes cutting horses, and once the National Cutting Horse Hall of Fame singled him out for an award. He likes to wet a line, and the Fly Rod and Reel Anglers have given him their annual commendation. On this same front, Trout Unlimited and American Rivers Conservation have both awarded him certificates of appreciation. And Montana has given him its Governor’s Award. On all his sides, Tom McGuane has proven to be an anachronistic man of parts, if not a renaissance man—then the next thing to it. The occasion for this interview was the release of his latest novel, Driving on the Rim (2010). It’s a comedy whose complications are primarily about growing up with as many strikes against a kid as McGuane may have been able to dream up. Suggest whatever incongruity you should want to see in a rollicking novel, and there’s a fair chance that McGuane will have beaten you to your punch. I mean, how many aunts will initiate their nephews into sex? And, of those gems, how many will let the boy’s parents catch her at it? And then, how many will jump up from that bed— brazenly defiant—wearing nothing but a revolver in her hand? McGuane has here cribbed a very unexpected turn of phrase: the “‘truth universally acknowledged’ (not Jane Austen’s, exactly) is “a single woman in possession of a trailer has a gun” (23). I’m not giving away the best scene, I don’t believe. It’s a specimen, merely, one
that I can re-tell in four lines. Others of you will likely do your chuckling elsewhere in this story. There’s just lots to laugh at, lots to enjoy. There is also quite a satisfying note of affirmation, finally. The gawky kid makes something of himself. After a lot of trouble at work, he settles into service as a smallclinic physician. With cool hands and commiseration, he heals his patients as much on their terms as on his. He manages to marry pretty well. He gets a couple of kids. At his sign-off, he has just ended his tumbleweed existence and gotten a patch of ground. A couple of saddle broncs will bring order to his days—as surely will a wife and kids. I am tuning this summary to the same note that Guy Garcia struck some 23 years ago. In a Time magazine profile, Garcia could have been the first to mark a shift in McGuane’s output. He had just published Keep the Change (1989) and succeeded, by Garcia’s lights, in producing more than his “pyrotechnic[s]” of hard phrasing, which had been the hallmarks of the Bushwacked Piano (1971) and of Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973). With Keep the Change, McGuane did better, first, by “measure[ing] his tones,” also, by resolving his action clearly on an “upbeat” (70). Those restraints raised McGuane’s work to a higher plane, and Driving on the Rim may take him higher yet. We may hope so. I will be remiss if I do not end with a thank you to the 13th Annual Utah Humanities Book Festival and to the Salt Lake City Library, both of whom made this interview possible.
CONVERSATION C O N V E R S A T I O N Mr. McGuane, thank you for this interview, and congratulations on your latest novel. I would like to begin with a reminder of how infernally difficult it can be to write a novel. Many a manuscript has taken years, and some have chewed through decades. That said, how much did Driving on the Rim cost you? How long did it take? In a dilatory way, I worked on Driving for about four years. I didn’t really try to hurry with it. I was also writing stories for The New Yorker (which I have been able to bring out as a separate collection). So you might say that Driving took a long while. But you should also factor in my ranch work. We live on a ranch in Montana. And that takes When it comes up quite a bit of my time.
running on a flat tire. (Laughter) I must say I do like that ambiguity. But it means running on a flat tire. (Laughter) During our winters in Montana, we like to speak of “the Moon of Schnapps and Jumper Cables.” (Laughter) Boy, we’ll run on our rims then. It’s cold enough, and with a flat, we just say: “That’s tough. We’re gonna roll.” So I took that as my figurative expression. It’s a kind of signature statement for my whole story. That willingness to drive on a rim, to keep pushing ahead, fascinates me as a theme—both for life and for literature.
I have heard that you may have based Driving on “Tango,” a short story that you once gave to The New Yorker.
to revising, let me add that I love it—I love What about revising this rewriting. I’ll work up a draft, novel? What was that I suppose, just so I can revise like? it. I give myself a tremendous Oh, I must have put degree of freedom to take risks Driving through four or five drafts. And, when it when I’ve resolved to work comes to revising, let me hard on my revisions. add that I love it—I love rewriting. I’ll work up a draft, I suppose, just so I can revise it. I give myself a tremendous degree of freedom to take risks when I’ve resolved to work hard on my revisions. So, moving pretty recklessly, I’d say that less than half of my material finally survives. But this is a ticket to my creativity.
What prompted your title Driving on the Rim? Well, James Selder, another novelist, asked about my title’s possible meanings. He wondered if Driving on the Rim refers to risky “choices,” like running along the edges of things, say, along a cliff rim. Of course, Selder next asked if Driving on the Rim simply means
Hmm, did the novel come from that short story? Or did the novel take a different turn? No, more often than not, I’m thinking, novels tend to go their own ways. So the answer is, no. There’s no connection between the story and the novel. You know, at its best, writing is an improvisatory business. It’s a lot like jazz. And, often enough, we do it almost in a trance. I remember an anecdote on this point. It’s about Chekhov. He had been working on a story, and a thunderstorm blew in through the window—scattered his pages all over the garden. The rain then pretty well ruined them. So, naturally, his guests wanted to know why he didn’t go back to his story while it was still fresh in his mind. Chekhov answered that he couldn’t remember a thing of what he had just written. (Laughter) I think that’s a very true story about writing. I can make the same point with Shelby Foote’s great three-volume history of the Civil War. Foote worked on that trilogy for
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thirty-eight years, and after he had finished the very last of it, he admitted that he didn’t know much of anything about the war. After all that effort, he said that he’d merely been a war buff—and not a particularly wellinformed one. I think that both Foote and Chekhov were confessing to the same thing, and the more you know about writing, or know about the creative process, the more you will recognize it. I have gotten into those trance-like states myself. The state in which I can talk about having created a story is not the same state in which I created the story. Why do I think this? For one thing, whenever I go on these book tours I have to look back and check on my characters. I’ve learned that you good people (looking high into the audience) will ask me about my characters, and I don’t want to stand still, with my mouth hanging open, drawing nothing but blanks. (Laughter) It’s too disconcerting for those who might want to try one of my books.
Ah, what you say about your creative memory—or lack of memory—makes me doubt this next question. Oh, good.
I want to take you back—oh, thirty-eight years, is all—to when you brought out your Bushwacked Piano. Your protagonist Nicholas Payne is an adolescent who’s both hurt and lost. After creating Payne, however, you’ve made virtually all of your
central characters into fully-formed adults. But here you are back with Driving and another bewildered adolescent in Irving Berlin Pickett—I. B. Pickett, for short. Am I right in thinking that Pickett could be your most sustained treatment of a young man slowly and painfully coming into his own? Let me think about that. I did write this book as a kind of mock biography. And a lot of it takes place during Pickett’s boyhood. But the theory I cling to is that he emerges, at least to a degree. There is simply something about his kind of incompletely or improperly developed character that appeals to my sense of comedy. Those kinds of clueless souls who find themselves in conflict with the world will almost always generate interesting episodes. I remember in the beginning of this book I used a line from Robert Walser, which is roughly: Everybody leads a double life. Why brag about it? One of the fascinating things about us is that so many seem to lead double lives. Public lives play themselves out against private lives, often with tremendous disparities. And then, certain kinds of activities will force unexpected disclosures. This happens mostly to those who don’t have themselves very well in hand. If you look through the history of comedy, which is really also the history of the novel, you will see characters, one right after another, who are nearly out of control. Start with Don Quixote as an example, then go to Squire Chichikov in Gogol’s Dead Souls,
C O N V E R S A T I O N and then mix in Sebastian Dangerfield in J. P. You never know what those little devils are Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. All have somegonna do. (Laughter) I mean, you know—I did thing wrong with them, and all are perfect for set out to write a comedy that would have a the novel because there is always something lot of fairly somber elements. I even let 9/11 wrong with the novel. Randall Jarrell, one of into the story. But throughout I kept thinking the most distinguished critics of the 20th cenabout how humanizing, even how energizing, tury, said the only definition he recognized a good comedy can be. for the novel is that it’s “a prose narrative of a I try to live according to comedy. My certain length that has something wrong with family does, too. After all these years, we’re it.” (Laughter) But that’s also what’s right still ducking under the table with matches about the novel. It’s a very imperfect form— and giving one another hot feet. Still, we’ve very adaptable because of its imperfection. had a good number of bad things happen to Incidentally, I think one us, sometimes tragic of the things that has led things. Yet we have us astray, certainly since always been able to put I think one of the things that the modernists—since them in a larger context James Joyce, in parbecause we saw their has led us astray, certainly ticular—is the dubious irony and humor. We since the modernists—since possibility that novels have been able to see James Joyce, in particular—is are somehow perfectirony and humor not ible. Not so. Whether only in life, but in death. the dubious possibility that Flaubert’s, or Joyce’s, or So, as I have gone on novels are somehow perfectible. whomever’s, novels are as a writer, I have taken Not so. Whether Flaubert’s, or always sloppy, like Tom the more optimistic Jones or Don Quixote. view of things. And they Joyce’s, or whomever’s, novels And that sloppiness must have emerged in are always sloppy, like Tom enables novels to contain this book. Jones or Don Quixote. And and to confront the conSo far I’ve had just tradictions of our lives. that sloppiness enables novels your publisher’s adIt’s what novels do best.
to contain and to confront the contradictions of our lives. It’s what novels do best.
I. B. Pickett sure enough conforms to that theory. Although I must say for myself, I had the uncomfortable sensation, more than twice, that Pickett’s screw-ups have been many of my own. In fact, I had myself braced for some catastrophe to overtake your intrepid anti-hero, and yet you gave your story quite a positive spin. Pickett meets up with a good wife, has a couple of good kids, has good work as a doctor, has riverfront property, and has a couple of saddle broncs. That’s not such a bad version of the American Dream, by my lights.
vance copy. It has the plainest of plain yellow covers, and I have gotten my first look at Knopf’s cover art only this morning, at the book display out in the hallway. Knopf’s artists have given your cover an illustration of a stethoscope. It’s a good signal for one of your central themes, the difficulties and the joys of practicing of medicine. Right!
I was surprised and pleased with the number of medical terms that you worked into your dialog. I’m often after my students
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to build up their vocabularies, and there in Driving I’ve myself had to crack the dictionary. It’s good for you. It can’t hurt.
You must have had a doctor friend who was willing to talk shop with you. You have been able to make that medical talk sound very authentic. I have a friend who came out of the Indian Health Service. He moved to Livingston (Montana) in the 1960s, when I did. So I know a lot of what’s going on in medicine. And I have always been interested in medicine, if for no better reason than in the West doctors enjoy a lot of privilege. They’re the only ones who don’t have to own any ground, but still they can hunt and fish anywhere they want to (laughter). People know that some time they’re going to get sick, or going to get hurt, and they’ll need attention. So nobody ever dares to close a gate on a doctor. And I have been one to hang around with doctors. But the other thing, the one that makes the theme of the stethoscope loom so large, is small-town doctors have to become very good simply at listening and at feeling for what’s gone wrong. If ever you come out of a big, famous clinic, and your internist hasn’t talked carefully with you and hasn’t put his
hands on you—well, you need another internist. Too many of our doctors have too much fancy equipment, and they end up hiding behind it, while the best of our small-town doctors have to become very intuitive about the care they’re giving. They probably practice a better brand of medicine. Now, I have been saying all of this, but I am inclined to get rid of that stethoscope. For the cover of the second edition, I’ll want a glossy illustration of a Porsche. I’ll want the symbol of a big-city physician. (Laughter)
What you say of health care recalls me to one of the most affecting scenes in your story. Pickett has long since come into his own as a doctor, and he’s attending to Gladys Bokmaw on her death bed. He’s doing this in her own home. He even spends the night there at her place, checking on her. He makes her comfortable but does not interfere with her death. And he is wise in that way. You have made him seem so. Should we read this part as a critique of the pseudo-heroic in our medicine? Some of it is. We see a lot of life-saving strategies, which really aren’t in the best interests of those who receive them. Gladys Bokmaw’s departure is out there on her ranch, and Pickett decides that he shouldn’t try for a
C O N V E R S A T I O N diving catch on the one-yard line. That would be his rushing her to a hospital and taking extreme measures that would just make her miserable. Her oxygen cycle is winding down. She’s had a great life. Pickett resolves to leave well enough alone. Indeed, he sends out for a pizza while he waits. (Laughter) But I don’t believe that I wrote a broad overview of modern medicine. I just put the physician back in a place where he ought to be.
I want to shift and to ask about your treatment of fathers. In Ninety-Two in the Shade, which came out in 1973, the father deserted from the fighting of the Second World War, hung out in Paris, and then returned to the army. And, here again in Driving, you have created a father who also walked away from the war. So I would like to know about this pattern of behavior in your fathers. When I wrote those two novels, I was thinking about the men who had dodged their responsibilities. In a way, my own father was one of those—a kind of monster, really. (Laughter) So, consequently, I’ve been something of an eavesdropper on the subject of being a parent. Now, on the war aspect of the question, I can remember the guys who had come back and how they would get together and tell their stories. It got so that telling war stories was
just boring. I would think: oh, my, god, they’re at it again—those stories. Now I feel differently. They were sharing urgently important information. Some of it vividly had to do with those who deserted. One fellow from our town—a doctor—had deserted, after a fashion. He had gotten married before he went over, and he didn’t come back. He met a beautiful Italian girl, and he just didn’t want to come back. Many pled with him to come back. His American father-in-law begged him. There were just such intense feelings about the war, and especially about coming back. Those vets didn’t have any encouragement to share their experiences. It’s was very different from the feelings we’ve had from more recent wars. Those Second World War guys were more inclined to shut up about what they had been through— that was, unless they were talking to one another. I started listening to them and put their feelings into those two stories.
I get the idea that you work your ranch in Montana for some of the same reasons that Robert Frost worked his New England farms. Frost ended up owning four farms, one after the other, and he took from them a lot of his material for his poetry. Farming kept him grounded in that sense of having a place and a purpose. What does your ranch do for you and for your work?
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to all of my kids. I’ve wanted them to figure I’m not sure that my ranching all that directly out what they really like doing. I don’t care so helps my writing. But my ranching is a great much what they choose, so long as it makes contrast to my writing. So, if I get the ranch them happy. I really believe that. work done, then I’m willing to go back to my But now I ought to tell this story on mydesk. Our ranch is a fairly modest operation. self, because I am also remembering a little But there’s enough to it that I have to deal visit with my son. It wasn’t too long ago, and with it, or the thing starts to backfire. I was grousing about having been under book Without something else to do, I can get contracts for something like forty-two years. obsessive about my writing. I’ll sit all day Well, I got around to declaring that I wasn’t trying to work on it. I won’t stay in shape. about to do any more of them. My son broke Likewise, Bill Kittredge, another Montana in—and here you must excuse my language: writer, has taken to golfing fanatically. That’s “He said, Dad, you are so full of shit.” (Laughhow he gets away from his writing. I have ter) “You have been saying that for as long as a son-in-law—actually, an ex-son-in-law—a I can remember.” And the truth is that here successful young writer in his own right, who I am, finishing with once said: “Thank God, Driving on the Rim, this no!” when I had asked third book in a threewhether or not he had a book contract, and my novel underway. Writers Writers generally understand that upcoming leisure is generally understand writing can be an imprisonment. starting to feel kind of that writing can be an We may all need things besides ominous. I know good imprisonment. We may our writing. I have found that my and well that pretty all need things besides soon I will have to run our writing. I have found ranch is something that I love. out, and fall on my that my ranch is someknees, and get another thing that I love. contract. So I won’t In Driving, you have treated work as an be in despair—so I won’t lay any more empty old-fashioned blessing. One of the best complaints on my children.
parts of the story is when Pickett has to stand against those accusations of having killed someone in surgery. He ends up losing his hospital privileges. But he fights back—that is, he puts himself back together by continuing to see his patients in his own home. While reading those pages, I two or three times had a line from William Dean Howells come back to me. Howells famously—or perhaps not famously enough—said: “The best thing that can fill a man’s mind is his work, for if his work does not fill it, his self will fill it, and it can have no worse tenant.” Wow, that’s wonderful. That’s a great quote. I have said much the same, in my own way. I’ve had a little speech that I have probably given
You’re now back in Stegner country. (The reference is to Wallace Stegner, almost incontestably the most successful writer to have come out of Utah). You won one of the prestigious Stegner Fellowships in the creative writing program that Wallace Stegner had set up and co-directed at Stanford. However, I think that Stegner had for the most part moved beyond Stanford’s program when you went through it. But I would like to hear your impressions of it. Oh, there is so much to say about it. And you’re right: I was there late in the program, when Richard Scowcroft (1916-2001), another writer from Utah, was doing most of the heavy teaching. Scowcroft was a wonderful teacher,
C O N V E R S A T I O N and I have always been sorry that he didn’t get the credit he deserved, because he had to work so much in Stegner’s shadow. I don’t deny, of course, that Stegner was a great man, and a great writer, and a great conservationist. But he did not like teaching. For that matter, he was a terrible teacher, (Laughter) and when he retired, he said that teaching was the one thing he wasn’t going to miss. He also said that Larry McMurtry was nothing but a phony historian, that Ken Kesey was uneducable, (Laughter) and that Tom McGuane was a word-witch, like John Updike. Well, I’ve always liked Updike, so that was okay with me. And I’m trying to remember who else made that list for having run afoul of Stegner. (Laughter) I have always had to think—boy, his resentment of teaching ran deep when he gave those kinds of marks to his most successful products. Once, one of your Salt Lake reporters uncovered this same hostility: he had interviewed Stegner on a visit up this way, and Stegner said not only had he been unhappy with teaching, he had been unhappy with all of his students. So I always have to make this case against Stegner, because he’s an icon throughout the West, not just here in Utah. I always have to make the case that I very much admire his work and actually had a good relationship with him. I was his house sitter, as well as the guy who drove him to and from the airport. I liked him. But his anger at having fought with everybody at Stanford was a lesson to me. It’s one of the reasons I’ve never really taught. I wanted to write, and I knew there’d be a conflict with teaching. The little bit of it that I did convinced me that teaching is very time consuming. I mean, who can do it all day and then go home and want to write? Stegner wrote but didn’t teach at all well. I have to say again that down on a personal level I feel this ambivalence for Stegner—because I still love his work and believe it will endure for a long time.
I wrote my dissertation on Stegner (sigh).
You asked for it.
Oh, no, your experiences square well enough with what I know about Stegner. I recall reading an interview in which he complained about all the “blabbermouth teaching” that he’d been doing. By his own admission, he had retired from Stanford early, under something of a cloud because of his teaching. I am pleased, however, to hear that Richard Scowcroft did such a good job. I met Scowcroft just once, but I have been interested in him ever since finding out about him—in part, I guess, because we happen to come from the same town of Ogden, Utah. Is that where Scowcroft. . . . Yeah, he was from Ogden. That’s right.
Yes, Scowcroft was one of ours who made good. And his novel The Ordeal of Dudley Dean is well worth looking into. It’s wise and gentle and funny in the way that it pokes at the local culture. Scowcroft was a good writer. He wasn’t a famous one, but he was a writer of great merit. And he was a meticulous teacher of writing and of literature. He loved that job, and he took great pains with it. All of us who are the beneficiaries of his care will be grateful to him forever.
Now, sir, are you a writer who feels that his characters somehow come to life and that they will begin to speak for themselves? Or do your characters say and do neither more nor less than you intend them to? You know, it’s a little of both. Peter Taylor has said that when his characters start to speak for themselves—well, it’s a sign to abandon the story. (Laughter) I suppose that characters are a little like bird dogs or like cutting horses; hopefully, they bring some energy to
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lot more value to it than he ever gave for it the job, but they need a little training. Writers at the retail counter. The circumstance is do have to know what should happen, but that Pickett’s helicopter ride doesn’t come one of the problems with recent fiction—let’s back for him. He has to walk out to the say, from the last twenty years—is that it’s too Canadian coast. I felt the loss of that gear, photo-realistic. It can be exceedingly faithful even though I’ve never had to abandon any to the contemporary scene. But tied so closely of mine. Pickett’s sentiment there may be to the here and now, it’s also immobilized. Sit a small one, but it’s very accurate, and it’s down with some who have lately won the Nawell-placed. tional Book Award and see how many of them you can finish. You’ll notice that they don’t go His helicopter doesn’t come for him, you’ll anywhere. They seem more like documentary recall, because 9/11 had grounded everyfilms. thing. I was able to base that episode on what Still, we may be turning a corner, because had actually happened. We were up north on I have begun to see a lot of new talent. There a river, and our helicopter didn’t come for us— are some wonderful young writers coming of course, because of 9/11. We had to walk along: Sam Lipsyte, and Tom Rachman, and out. We learned from a guy who had a satellite Nell Freudenberger. Yes, there are tons of new radio that terrorists had ones, who are turning attacked New York. away from that sour uniThis led to one of the verse of Raymond Carver. Characters are a little like bird most memorable scenes The new stuff is riskier in the novel. I didn’t dogs or like cutting horses; and funnier. Has anybody have to make it up, and I here read Jonathan Franhopefully, they bring some hate to give it away. But zen’s Freedom (addressenergy to the job, but they we had gotten back to ing this question to the Spokane, and we got on need a little training. audience)? a plane. I found myself beside a guy who had a You yourself are pretty big cooler. He was carrygood at turning a huing a heart to Salt Lake. Surgeons had already morous phrase. Can you recall one from off started on the transplant. the top of your head—perhaps something of But the flight attendants didn’t show up. a signature phrase? They were too scared to fly—still, because of There’s a line from a movie that I wrote, The 9/11. The pilots then invoked the FAA rules. Missouri Breaks. I do like it, and Harry Dean The pilots dug in: no flight attendants—no go. Stanton delivered it beautifully to Jack NicholSo we all bailed off the plane, but there was son. They’re traveling across the country, and that guy, sitting next to his cooler, with that Stanton says: “All I know is the farther north heart. Its ice was melting. He wasn’t going to you go, the more things there are that will eat make that delivery. your horse.” (Laughter) I didn’t have to change very much when I put it into the novel. And I remember thinking Well, you sent Pickett somewhere up north it was emblematic of something in our Amerion a solitary fishing trip, I remember. And can experience that was dying. you made him speak a little bit of truth—at least for most of us who camp and hunt and fish. Pickett has to abandon some of his gear, and he says that he’s attached a
One last question: what was the most difficult part of this novel?
C O N V E R S A T I O N there. And three weeks later I came back out Writing in the first person may have been the with the screenplay for Rancho Deluxe. Kasthardest. Because of the first person, I had a ner had meanwhile flown up from Hollywood, lot of trouble with the sequence of things. I and I boasted: “Here’s what I’ve been working may have had more trouble than I’ve had with on. It represents years of effort.” (Laughter) anything else I’ve written. This story just kept Kastner took those pages back into my boy’s going global on me. In candor, I’m not sure room, stayed there for about an hour, and anthat I’ve won the war. nounced that Rancho Deluxe looked great. He And yet, as I think about it, working in the would shoot it. first person may also have been the easy part. The job was that easy. And it was never I chose that point of view because I wanted that easy again. Moviemaking now has too its chronological freedom. In the first person, many layers of decision-making, to say nothwriters can just fly around. For my part, I ing of banking. All sorts wouldn’t have to color of stuff gets involved. within the lines. (LaughWriters can’t simply ter) I simply decided that One of the problems with pitch their ideas to one the book was worth a try recent fiction—let’s say, from or two or three proand that if Pickett’s voice the last twenty years—is that ducers and expect so were strong enough, my few to decide much of readers would stick with it’s too photo-realistic. It can anything. But the movie me. be exceedingly faithful to the business back in the Thank you very much. contemporary scene. But tied 1970s was a lot more Let’s go to the Q&A. personal. It was a lot so closely to the here and now, Would you speak more fun. it’s also immobilized. Sit down a little bit about the Rancho Deluxe screenplay for Rancho with some who have lately won was fun to write and to Deluxe and about who the National Book Award and make. I wanted to do you were as a person my own version of the see how many of them you can when you wrote it. West—not the Old West, finish. You’ll notice that they because I had gotten Rancho Deluxe is a comtired of the standard don’t go anywhere. They seem edy, a western comedy, approach. So I took a that came out in 1975. It more like documentary films. couple of smart asses, starred Jeff Bridges and who otherwise would Sam Waterston. Making have been rustlers this movie was a little of cows, but I turned them into rustlers of bit twisted: United Artists had already bought marijuana and motorcycle parts. (Laughter) the film rights to Ninety-Two in the Shade, There was really that kind of giddiness to but Elliott Kastner, a producer, said the story the project. I saw Jeff Bridges only about two was too strange, and he wondered if I had any months ago, and he said Rancho Deluxe had other screenplays. I said: “Oh, sure—I have been the last time that he’d had a lot of fun lots.” But I didn’t have any. It was the kind of making a movie. I have always thought that claim that young and desperate writers will it was worth doing. And it must have been, sometimes make. So Kastner wanted to check because it’s never been out of circulation. out what I claimed. Well, there I was. (Laughter) I shot into Talk about the movies some more. Did you my son’s bedroom, where he had a desk. I sat direct Ninety-Two in the Shade?
Yes, I did.
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Have you any desire to direct again? You’re good at it. But it could be that movies have gotten just too complicated, as you were saying. No, I am done with movies. Actually, I did Ninety-Two in the Shade under some duress. I needed the job. And then, of all things, Barbara Streisand asked me to direct A Star Is Born. But I escaped that. The poor guy who did direct it ended up in the rubber room. (Laughter) Moviemaking would have required a life change that I didn’t want to make. I wanted to live as I had been living, on my ranch. I feel incredibly fortunate to have done that. And, really, my first love isn’t the movies. It’s literature. I grew up in a town without a movie theater, and I don’t very often go to movies. Making movies was just fun while it lasted.
I have always been fascinated with that era of the 1970s, when you and a number of other writers moved to that area south of Livingston (Montana). To what extent did you ever cross paths with one of those writers, Richard Brautigan, who may have been a predecessor of yours? Were you at all friendly with him? And what do you think of his work? I spent a lot of time with Richard. And, traveling around on this book tour, I am already
impressed at how often Richard’s name has come up. And I know that Richard’s Trout Fishing in America is still one of the most requested books from our libraries. It’s among the top ten, or something like that. Trout Fishing may be just a slot or two behind Huck Finn. But our East Coast establishment has entirely dismissed the book—beginning, middle, and end. And that bothered Richard. He had the hardest life I’ve ever heard of: brutal stepfather, alcoholic mother. The two of them were even bent on keeping Richard from getting a library card. And then, after he had started writing, that mother took his stories to a psychiatrist and somehow got Richard locked up in an institution. Still, he went with that early writing, and he did get some of it published. Richard was haunted and extremely alcoholic himself—yet with a tremendous gift. He could make imaginative leaps of the sort we rarely see. Some of his work will always be around. I must say again: everything the East Coast has done to exterminate Richard Brautigan has failed. Yes, sir!
Would you expand on your comments that appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune. You were talking about the ways that setting and plot and characterization operate in novels. You said that a good way to kill a novel is to start with a long passage about
C O N V E R S A T I O N a place. But just now you have touched on the importance of place.
But we don’t have much common sense. It’s like every western story has to be set on a ranch. In Montana, I happen to know, only Obviously, I think that place is important. But three percent of us work at ranching. So where one of my arguments with our regional writers are the stories of small-business secretaries, is that they make a bigger issue of the West and of UPS drivers, and of pizza-delivery kids? than it deserves. Novels are primarily about The Fed-Ex guy on the route by my place is people and their interactions with one anthe great-grandson of Mitch Bouyer. He was other. From the little bit of teaching that I’ve Custer’s chief scout. He was also a mixeddone at western colleges, I have found this: blood Santee Sioux. But his great-grandson students will often have the crazy idea that is none other than my Fed-Ex guy. That kind they’re supposed to go of compressed hison and on describing tory fascinates me. It’s mountains and prairies. what I try to put into Our best novelists have also been Those westerners will my storytelling. suppose that they have our best nature writers. Faulkner Oh, I probably have a leg-up over the other expressed myself kind and Hemingway were magnificent idiots in the class. And of defensively—bewith their landscapes, but they I just don’t think that’s cause the West as a the case. always used land as a stage for subject is one of the Our best novelists things that I have to our human conflicts, because have also been our best argue about. nature writers. Faulkner that’s what novels are supposed and Hemingway were You have a new to do. I remember making this magnificent with their neighbor, Tom claim and getting crossways to a landscapes, but they Brokaw. I know that number of people up in Montana. always used land as a you’ve spent a lot stage for our human of time with him. They would have preferred the conflicts, because that’s Has he given you heroics of pioneering or the what novels are supany ideas for your posed to do. I remember heroics of a cavalry charging the writing? Or have making this claim and you been able to base Indians—that celebratory sort of getting crossways to a anything of yours on western mythology. number of people up in his experiences? Montana. They would Tom Brokaw and I have preferred the herofish together quite a ics of pioneering or the heroics of a cavalry bit, and we have a competitive friendship. charging the Indians—that celebratory sort of For instance, I might say that I bought a hat. western mythology. They might just as well And Tom will have to say: I bought a big hat. have let their Chamber of Commerce stock (Laughter) So then, I’ll want to say: well, the their book stores. I mean, merely because hat I bought weighs fifty-thousand pounds, John Updike moved to Massachusetts, nobody and it would take you a week to drive all the would have told him to take up the subject of way around it. (Laughter) He’s that kind of whaling. Likewise, I am much more interested fishing buddy. in the lives that folks actually have here in the But as far as writing goes, I may have West. benefited most from Tom’s being so well-
informed about the world. Every kind of thing—he just reads, and reads, and reads. He may even be the best read person I know. And he has put a lot of that into his book The Greatest Generation, which could be the most successful book in history. It was on The New York Times best-seller list for three or four years. But Tom’s definitely a non-fiction man, who has sometimes pressed me to think about doing more non-fiction. He’s interested in writing, and he just can’t figure out why anybody would want to screw around with telling a story. Yes, Tom’s more grounded in the world than I am. I just had dinner with him the night before last, and he gave a real disquisition about what’s going on in our politics. I’ve had a hard time understanding, among other things, the rise of the Tea Party. But Tom said the real battle this time around will be for
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the heart and soul of the Republican Party. Everything else is going to be a sideshow. Some may benefit from the chaos, while others won’t, of course. And I hadn’t ever had it spelled out quite so lucidly before. Besides, Tom’s a classic South Dakota guy. He’s not at all revved-up, even though he’s had a lot of pressure on him, having worked so long in television. And he’s so renowned. I got to go to Honduras with him, and the Indians would always come out and say: It’s Tom Brokaw (delivered with an accent). One last story about him, about his sensitivity: his dog died a while back, and he fell completely apart. I drove over to his place, and I kind of had to load him into the car. I ended up taking him to a Dairy Queen. He needed about two hours before he started talking again. (Laughter) That’s a part of who Tom Brokaw is, and I really like him.
Russell Burrows is a professor of English at Weber State, specializing in American literature. He is also a contributor to The Festschriften and Other Analyzed Collections Section of the Modern Language Association’s International Bibliography, a position he has held since surviving his mandatory Research and Bibliography course in graduate school. He divides his free time between writing personal essays and woodworking. On weekends, he escapes to the hills, where he works as a National Ski Patrolman.
P O E T R Y
Raymond Carver in Tucson
Courtesy of Florida Center for Instructional Technology
In graduate school, I wanted to claim some regional kinship—fishing for whitefish in the Yakima, hunting geese in wheatfields, the ache of bad jobs, alcoholic fights, but it seemed one more dream, Percy’s Moviegoer thrilling to William Holden on the street. One night Robert Hass came to read from Praise, three-hundred people in the audience, his voice so urgently beautiful like a butterfly with one dustless wing, one bright brocade, trying to fly, trying to fly, and finally flying. At the end, you walked down the side aisle sloped like a movie theatre and waited your turn to shake his hand but ended in a hug, a long, rocking man-hug. I thought of those lonely fatboy days at Davis High School, your father as you knelt on the neck of a deer, the knife bloody, the grin for the photographer, the sexist or homo jokes in the goose blind, the whiskey, the whiskey like some grim apology, the sorrow you felt for everyone like us tethered to an improbable past feeling remote, clumsy, thwarted. As you hugged the man whose words had a whittled ease, a lofty urbane ambivalence, consciously “grave luminous meditative,” words at a sweetly deep remove, not at all like yours, not even remotely like them, in fact, I felt something about this art, this sweetness and light, I’d never felt before—how much it allows us, to move on, to praise geese in the wheatfields, the failed efforts of our fathers, to embrace what delivers us, and to not want to let it go.
Inside the pages, it’s not your life you look for exactly, but the things that were yours or you might have done once. You never had a birch tree and tire swing yet you embrace these thin paper ones and the reasons the child is alone. In the leaf-piled yard, his white breath against the dark lines and seams of the tree mingles with yours. He is outside the angers of the house, money spent, the sex-muffled air. A black strap hangs on the wall. A restless patience gathers and releases inside and outside the house, the story, a kind of rhythm like rain pausing between rain. The white birch and swing in the backyard can be generous to the child’s inventions; its peeling paper is scraps of maps to lost civilizations— Egyptian papyrus, Chinese prayer sheets— and you imagine as he imagines. You know at the swing’s center is a zero, a plumb-bob stillness, yet the birch still holds its smell, and the grass its windows of light. You know the child even if what he wants is mysterious, is held back by that black strap on the wall, words like the serrated edges of leaves, crosses in the boxes of light in the yard. As the dark creeps into the tree, the child swings to the thought of supper, a fire. You wait for him to step into the kitchen, its circle of light, a place at the table, knowing full well the strap could come off the wall, or the book close. He sits past twilight in the cold freshness of night, a moon on the horizon, waiting for you to take him inside. FALL 2013
P O E T R Y With the right hand goes scissors, zippers, buttons, spoons, toothbrushes, the iPhone, music, scratching itches, rolling over, makeup and lotions, the hairbrush, all the blandishments that work to make a face.
The Slow Subtraction Strict pedant, the body teaches the loveliness of its inventions through theft. Its math is extreme. First, the cool, sexy operator’s voice fissures and falters: the s’s slurp, the p’s freeze, the z’s dissolve. . . sound after sound dies on the dying tongue, as you learn the power of the song’s silence, how it canoes the measure down the stream of sound.
Niggling pedant, the body teaches its crash course in dying with example after tedious example, until everything, even fear of death’s uncertainty, summer’s green and flowering face at the window, love notes and visits, movies and kindled books, eyetexted blogs, seems multiplied by zero. . . What the body teaches is there’s always more to give, that pain’s an imaginary number, until the shadow and its object are one, until all the fractions find their integers, and you walk again, through the language of the living.
See what a beautiful thing a finger is, see how much you ignored it till now. Little digits who found music, sculpted, drew in the dirt, held the oblong wonder of an egg, paid the bills, the heart’s taxes, achieved the opulence in the skin’s sweet torment, prayed, found the thousand graspable things. They are the brain’s ambassador, now viceroys of this new country.
What a dancer the wrist is, the arm’s waist, part labor, part juju, connoisseur of castanets, it guided love into its cool embrace; it unlocked doors, from churches to footlockers, it believed in hope, how things turn and turn on themselves until that almost soundless click and release; it was always among the first to say goodbye. When the left leg loses its grip on the earth, on all it was born to bear, the world itself slows to a crawl; it used to believe in leaving, in the distances it crossed, so this slowness is like the solidity of belief, a settling into. Even time now walks on its hands. When the right leg goes, and the feet twist to a soleless print, muscles screwed tight as canning lids, there is an exodus of shoes. The walker, the canes, too, depart, and all you stood for or could stand. When the left hand goes, so goes olive lids and gin caps, all slicing and dicing. . .
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We stood at the windows and watched because there was so much else to do and the water’s rising was almost Biblical. Eavesdropping on profligate power, our lives seemed to twist up like windless smoke not knowing how they’d scatter, dissolve. The flood islanded us, a ten foot stream on one side, five feet on the other. The water seethed through the trees, swallowing panels, beams, tires, clots of wire and blue twine, odd as aging, like the time-lapsed subtractions of senility, things and places floating away or the way A.L.S. is taking your speech, consonants and compounds of sound disappearing like fenceposts or bridge timbers. We stood marooned by this plague, heaven-sent, helpless in so much sudden change. It’s the fascination of watching a snake devour a squirrel, its unhinged jaws stretching around it, and pulse on pulse the head, the shoulders, the chest,
P O E T R Y disappear until the bushy tail wags from its mouth and we know it’s paralyzed inside, inside this incredible pulsing pressure, and we see ourselves inside the jaws of all that water all that’s washing away. Immensity has no government except its own motion, forward, or back in eddies, its lawlessness a kind of reversal in logic, trees bow down to strap on a harness of debris, logs spin like the idea of them in our minds, and all that hurry, and wildness, exploded ambition, aiming to spread into rest, into a lake where their burdens of silt would sift away. Afterwards, everything still standing wore a grass skirt. Tires leaned against fences like juvenile smokers outside a tavern. Barbedwire fences had popped and lay across the brow of the creek bank like stitches. Even the tatters seemed scrubbed clean, the field shiny and raked like a lawn. Fear’s baptism in foundering chaos made power so clear horse turds hung in bare cottonwood branches, a deer’s body was a boa around a telephone pole. When you tried to speak, the beautiful words had changed utterly, faltering and thick. Our windows could never look out on the same world again.
Joseph Powell has published four collections of poetry, most recently Hard Earth from March Street Press. He has also published a book of short stories, Fish Grooming & Other Stories, and co-authored the textbook Accent on Meter (NCTE, 2004). He has won a National Endowment for the Arts Award and teaches in the English Department at Central Washington University.
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C O N V E R S A T I O N
Sanctuaries for the Mind in a Digital Age A Conversation with William Powers
C O N V E R S A T I O N PRELUDE William Powers is the author of The New York Times bestseller Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life In the Digital Age. Part practical philosophy, and part history, Powers delves into the age-old instinct for connection, the technologies that facilitate this connection, and how to manage that connectivity more mindfully. The struggle to balance our individual selves and our more connected social selves is not particular to our own age but was anticipated by famous thinkers from our past including Plato, Seneca and Thoreau. After examining how these thinkers confronted the problem of connectivity, Powers uses them to lend insight into our own very real connectivity problems in the 21st century. Prior to writing Hamlet’s BlackBerry, Powers worked at the Washington Post and was also a columnist for National Journal and The New Republic. His
writings have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and many other publications. Powers was invited to campus because faculty and students have been worried about the connectivity question at Weber State as well. Contemporaneous with Powers’ visit, Weber State offered an interdisciplinary class titled “Concentration in the Humanities,” sponsored by an NEH Digital Humanities grant. That class explored similar questions: How can we concentrate and learn effectively when we seem to be more and more distracted by our digital devices? Might it be appropriate to construct so‑called Walden zones (a term that Powers himself had coined) as a respite from the ever‑accelerating deluge of information that comes in over our ever more ubiquitous digital networks? The following interview examined some of these shared concerns.
CONVERSATION Was there a specific event in your personal life that opened your eyes to what technology is doing to society? I think you mention a few of these in the opening chapters of your book Hamlet’s BlackBerry? There were a number of different events. I chose three signal moments to talk about in the book and they still are very powerful for me. One was falling out of my boat and having my cell phone fall into the water and realizing
that I was completely disconnected for the first time. At that moment it dawned on me, a) that that was a very special place to be, the disconnected state, and it had value; and b) that I hadn’t been there in a long time and I didn’t know why. That happened when I was working on the essay I wrote as a fellow at Harvard, also called “Hamlet’s BlackBerry,” which preceded the book. Number two was what I call “the vanishing family trick.” This refers to a ritual my family
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a metaphor for the puzzle I was hoping had of gathering in the living room after dinto solve in the book. It’s not as simple as ner, for conversation and just simple time todigital devices are good or bad. They’re full of gether. The more connected we got digitally, potential, good potential, but it can turn into the harder it was for us to stay in that room. bad potential if you use them unwisely and We would each (there are three of us, my start eliminating the gaps. And so I wanted wife, my son and me) slip off to our separate to thread that needle. How can we live wisely corners of the house to commune with our and happily with these gadgets? How can we screens. As this happened more and more, preserve those all-important gaps? I found myself shaking my head at bedtime, All of these moments together kind of wondering where did the evening go? We shaped my thinking as I embarked on the haven’t even talked to each other. So that was book. number two, more of a family-life thing. Number three was Your claim to be also personal, but in an optimist about a different way. It was The real connectedness happened, technology is the phone call with interesting. In a weirdly enough, after I got off my mother, which I recent article in talk about in one of the phone. I recount this kind of the New Yorker, the early chapters mental journey I went on, into Adam Gopnik sugcalled “Hello, Mother.” gested that technolmy relationship with my Mom, That also happened ogy pundits fall when I was at Harvard as I drove along. It was about my into three groups: working on the essay. memories and associations and all Never-betters who One day, while driving are technology optikinds of rich thoughts about that down the highway, I mists; better-nevers called my mother. We relationship. Now, the funny thing who highlight ways chatted briefly about about that moment was that it had in which emerga few things and hung ing technology is been enabled by a digital device, but up. And the real condegrading humanity; nectedness happened, the real depth and beauty of it came and ever-wasers who weirdly enough, after when I put the device away and argue that our curI got off the phone. I rent hopes and fears allowed my thoughts to float free. recount this kind of about technology are mental journey I went nothing new—that on, into my relationnever-betters and ship with my Mom, as I drove along. It was better-nevers have been battling since as far about my memories and associations and all back as ancient Greece. Gopnik put you in kinds of rich thoughts about that relationship. the better-never group. But your position is Now, the funny thing about that moment was more nuanced than that perhaps? that it had been enabled by a digital device, but the real depth and beauty of it came Absolutely. First of all, Gopnik definitely when I put the device away and allowed my did put me in the wrong category. I suspect thoughts to float free. Rather than moving on that he didn’t read the whole book because to another phone-centric task, as we tend to I am a ever-waser to the core and that’s do, I allowed a gap to open up between me really the message of Hamlet’s BlackBerry. and my digital life. These gaps have become But if you only read the first few chapters, quite rare, and so that experience became
C O N V E R S A T I O N a movie critic still likes movies. Isn’t there you wouldn’t know that. Still, I was happy a way to be a technology critic while still that the New Yorker ran a piece about these professing that one likes technology or that questions and highlighted several books one is an optimist? including mine. For a long time now, there’s been an unspoken assumption that there A distinction that’s more helpful and acare two teams, technophile and technocurate is between technology optimists and phobe, and you have to sign up for one or pessimists. I find that much more interestthe other. To me, that’s a very boring way ing because it doesn’t assume you’re going to think about any new invention—you must whole hog for one team. It acknowledges either embrace it wholeheartedly and bethat we actually don’t know whether we are lieve it’s the answer to everything, or reject going to go to a better it out of hand and run place thanks to this away from it. The realnew kind of connectity, as history shows, edness, and you can This idea that every technology is so much more lean one way or anothinteresting than that. that came before digital is now er. I do think that the In fact, some of the obsolete and meaningless—that difference is in some thinkers I write about hardcopy books are the new buggy ways temperamental. have been erroneSome of us are born ously classified in one whip, for instance—is completely as glass-half-empty category or the other— ridiculous and proven wrong by people and some are Ben Franklin as a pure glass-half-full. I am technophile and Henry history. My favorite case is the fundamentally an opDavid Thoreau as radio. You know the radio was timist and so I came at technophobe. Both are supposed to be completely extinct this question with that crude simplifications outlook and it shaped 50 years ago, and yet we are still that eliminate importhe book. But this is tant twists and turns listening to it every day. In some also what makes the in their thinking. All ways, the radio is more useful than book easy to mischarthe most interesting ever now because it only taxes one acterize. Superficially media writers, includit can come off as ing Marshall McLuhan, of our senses. pessimistic simply recognize that the because I am asking truth is somewhere in questions. We are at a the middle. It’s about point in the technoloshaping our response to technologies so gy conversation, in these early days, where that we are getting the best out of them there isn’t a lot of room for nuance. I was without becoming hostage to them. trying to open up a space for more nuance I really felt that no one had said that, and complexity in our thinking. though we’re 15 years into the digital revoluFor instance, this idea that every technoltion. Somebody needed to say it. ogy that came before digital is now obsolete and meaningless—that hardcopy books It seems like a perennial challenge. Often are the new buggy whip, for instance—is when we hear the term “technology critic,” completely ridiculous and proven wrong by we conflate that with “technophobe.” And history. My favorite case is the radio. You yet we don’t do the same thing when we’re know the radio was supposed to be comtalking about a movie critic. We know that
pletely extinct 50 years ago, and yet we are still listening to it every day. In some ways, the radio is more useful than ever now because it only taxes one of our senses. I love to cook dinner with the radio on. To me, that is one of life’s great pleasures, and it wouldn’t work with a screen projecting visual images. That would be overload. The key question for me, if I can extend this slightly, is: can I start that nuanced conversation in a book that will speak to the everyday person? I really wanted the so-called common reader to plug into this book. I didn’t want to write it for specialists or academics or literary people. I wanted it to be really accessible. But nuance, we are often told, is not for the masses. As a writer, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that there’s no point in trying. I actually did a whole first draft of the book striving for what I had always imagined platonically my first book should be: a lot of literary illusions, very wispy references, really subtle stuff. After I handed it in, I realized it was a complete mess and no one was going to want to read it, and I threw it out. I started over, aiming for something more direct and less pretentious, but with the nuances intact. So I actually wrote the book twice. The only things that survived from the first draft were the fictional parable at the opening and the “Hello, Mother” chapter. And it was only in the second draft that I added the seven philosophers whose ideas became the heart of the book: Plato, Seneca, Franklin and the others. But it’s not just their ideas. I realized that telling their life stories was a way to make this book relatable to all kinds of people. The reader could go back in time and feel what it was like to live in 400 B.C. when Socrates was wrestling with some of the same questions we’re wrestling with now. What are these new tools really doing for us? Will they make our lives better or worse?
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Could we circle back to that moment on the boat when you fell overboard and your phone was lost and you felt anxious about it? That may have been the first time you mentioned the term “nomophobia,” which means the fear of losing one’s cell phone. That anxiety that you felt personally, do you think it is indicative of larger anxieties that people have about their world, and digital technologies? I think people have a natural anxiety about their place in the world and they seek confirmation that they matter. Over time, the ways we seek that kind of confirmation have changed. There was a time not so long ago when letter writing was still a big factor in staying in touch with people. Now the world is designed in a different way. We’re living in this grid that is electronic and seeking confirmation that way, instantaneously through electronic means. And as with letters, these messages help us feel better, so we keep going back to our smartphones the way that Thoreau says people in his time kept going back to the post office—checking, checking, is there any more mail for me?—for the very same reasons. It’s poignant, it’s a part of who we are, and it’s not something we are going to eradicate. But the question is: what if it begins to take over your life? Thoreau himself wondered that. What if your whole day revolves around going back to the post office to check on your mail? Is that an intelligent way to use your time, the brief time that you have on this earth? His answer was no, and mine is the same. Our version of this actually began in his era with the telegraph—instantaneous communication—and we are still in the midst of that shift. How do you live simultaneously with all these people, now 7 billion, and negotiate that relationship and get from it what you need to build the kind of life you want? How do you make sure you have some distance
C O N V E R S A T I O N Which is why, when I fell out of the boat, I was initially anxious and worried and mad at myself. It was only after a while that this other sensation came over me and I felt, I am just wondering if the nomophobia wait a minute, this is a state I remember, anxiety says anything about our relative a state that was important in my developallegiance to an individualistic sense of self ment as a person. Autonomy and self-relior a communitarian sense of self. On the ance are the path to wholeness and fulfillone hand, in America we idealize the vision ment. But as the Stoics recognized, they’re of the cowboy going off into the sunset, of acquired skills, and society always throws pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, of up obstacles to our learning them. Walking relying on one’s own around all day worryinitiatives without ing about what others having to rely too are saying and thinkThis was one of Chuang Tsu’s much on others. On ing about you—Are the other hand, nomo- great themes, the notion that we there any comments phobia suggests that on my comments? Do are constantly worrying about we’re actually quite I have enough Twitwhere we stand in the social and ter followers?—these dependent on others and want close ties questions are very political pecking order. Some with other people. Is ancient. Lately, I have nomophobia revealing people yield completely to that been reading the pressure and it ruins them. an anxiety about how Chinese philosopher we see ourselves, that Chuang Tsu who is one This is exactly what we are sense of selfhood? of the progenitors of facing with the new imperative Zen Buddhism. This Well, it’s a tricky ques- so many feel to stay connected was one of his great tion because it cuts themes, the notion all the time, to own the latest two ways. The digital that we are constantly revolution lays bare in gadget and be on the hottest worrying about where a new way the essensocial network. The best tool for we stand in the social tial tension between combating these forces is a deep and political pecking these two drives. order. Some people sense of self-sufficiency. Yes, we are trying to yield completely to get closer to other that pressure and it people and in many ruins them. This is ways becoming more exactly what we are facing with the new dependent on them for that basic self-conimperative so many feel to stay connected firmation. But the screen is also a tool of inall the time, to own the latest gadget and dividual expression. We have a voice in the be on the hottest social network. The best world, a reach that we didn’t have twenty tool for combating these forces is a deep years ago. So the individualistic ideal and sense of self-sufficiency. But to get there, the communitarian/global village vision you have to take a philosophical journey. are both at play. For some years now, I You can’t do it with an app or by taking a think we have been leaning strongly toward pill. You really have to awaken to your own dependency and the need to feel that you selfhood and its potential. We in America are in touch with your crowd all the time. fortunately have a great tradition of phi-
losophers who were very articulate on this theme—Emerson, William James, many others. I’m amazed that more people aren’t reading these thinkers today, when we need them most.
from the crowd, the distance that’s crucial, in my view, if you’re going to make a unique contribution to the world?
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Are being an individual and being a member of a crowd mutually exclusive experiences? You know Emerson at one point in his life was invited to live at Brook Farm, a utopian community that was being put together just outside Boston in pursuit of the pure communitarian ideal. And he said no. His decision was based on his belief that the strongest communities are by definition collections of individuals. And the more that you come into any group as a true individual, with your own individually formed take on things, rather than drawing your take from the group, the stronger that group will be. He felt that the way this new community was being set up, he was going to have to give too much of himself away. In its earnest idealism, Brook Farm was a very American experiment, but in another way, Emerson’s response was even more American. “Wait a minute; I’m not going to surrender that much of my individuality to any community,” he was saying. It’s an argument we are still having—it’s actually a theme in the 2012 presidential campaign, with the debate over “individual mandates” in health care and other questions. Who’s striking the balance in a smarter way? The Democrats have one answer, the Republicans have another, and digital technology is very much in the mix, though we don’t often discuss it in these terms.
Isn’t that interesting. We are able to note it certainly in overt political discourse, but the same issues are being played out in digital realms as well? Yes, I think so. Essentially we are all deciding—should I move to the Brook Farm that is being offered to me by whatever technology company has launched its new device or platform? And you can’t predict what any one person is going to decide. You can’t predict by age or by demographics. People’s circumstances in life, I find, don’t predict where they are going to come down in terms of digital habits and preferences. Lately I meet young people who are fleeing Facebook, just at a moment when we are being told Facebook is the future They are not fleeing digital life, but some just aren’t as into this one tool as they used to be. Yet I have an aunt in her 90s who is online all the time, especially Facebook, and loves it. Multiplicity rules, and that’s a good thing. It’s not just one flavor for everyone
When you use the phrase “being hostage to our tools,” it reminds me of Thoreau’s worry that we may be “tools of our tools.” Do you think that we are losing control over our technologies or is it something to worry about? Does the challenge of building a good life in the digital age depend on not being hostage to one’s tools? Is it partly about regaining some control over where technology may be leading us? Yes, that should be one of our primary goals. First, we don’t want society at large to become a hostage to technology. The extreme version of that would be gadgets taking over the world, which so far has occurred only in science-fiction. And then
C O N V E R S A T I O N on the individual level, we don’t want our own particular lives to be usurped by the tools, either. I see some people on the train to Boston spending the entire ride staring into their smartphones. In a way, they seem to be serving the device’s needs, rather than it serving theirs. This is backwards, of course. Not only should we be in charge of our tools, we should be demanding more of them. They’re not meeting all of our needs now, and the hold they have on our attention is one of their biggest flaws. There are many frustrated families, frustrated school systems, frustrated individuals, who want their tools to be less of a slave driver and more of a helper. Fortunately, we live in a market economy, and the consumer is ultimately in charge. So we can drive the change with our wallets. Over time I believe we will.
In the book The Filter Bubble Eli Pariser says that while Google’s mantra may be “Don’t Do Evil,” the company has accumulated so much power that it has the potential to do a lot of evil. But you are saying that the marketplace may help to mitigate that threat? There are certainly aspects of the marketplace life that are discouraging to me. For example, the way in which some people now view digital technology as a tool of consumerism and nothing more. That plays into this fear that digital is just a way to mine our lives for profits or “monetize” us. Is that really all modern society is about, selling mouthwash and deodorant? Or are we on a larger journey? When you meet some of the technologists, as I have since the book came out, you quickly discover they are not ogres. They are normal, well educated people who mostly are in it for the right reasons. They want to do well by doing good. But there is also the need to meet the bottom line and, if you are a public company, to have the share price continue to go up. That is nothing new. For centuries,
publishers have been walking a line between serving the lowest common denominator of consumer tastes and shooting for something higher, trying to take civilization to a better place. Similarly, there are all kinds of people within the digital industry who are shooting for a higher place.
Certainly we can find lots of people in corporations who are good folk with honorable intentions. But are those intentions adequate to mitigate the vectors, which you talk about, of digital maximalism or the vectors of the marketplace that are encouraging us in many ways to connect more and more. I think from former comments, it seems you are fairly optimistic about that. When I look back at the historical record, which is the best data we have on how these transitions work out, I do see cause for optimism. In the late 19th early 20th centuries, there was a lot of concern that we were dehumanizing ourselves, that people were becoming simply cogs in the industrial machine. Dickens, Dostoevsky and many others were concerned about this and wrote very powerfully about it. The same questions are still in the air today, but if history is any guide, there’s no reason to assume the story will end badly. If you look at what became of those soot-spewing smoke stacks that Dickens wrote about in Hard Times, or the technologies that Henry Adams worried could destroy our humanity, the nightmare didn’t happen. Or it did happen and people realized it and did something about it. Civilization is not circling the drain, in my opinion. What we have built digitally in the last twenty years is kind of miraculous when you think about the industry and the ingenuity required to produce
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such tools, and the enthusiasm with which people have not just embraced them, but figured out new ways to use them. Despite the downsides, there is an awful lot of ferment and good stuff happening. So, yes, I am an optimist. Despite the stumbles that we make and the periods of foolishness that we go through, it eventually does settle out in a wiser place, a better place. The book’s epigraph is from Emerson: “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.” I can’t say it any better than that. In all honesty, though, I really wondered when I first set down to write the book—this was in early 2007—“am I the only one who feels this way?” Sometimes I felt like a fool, writing this book. I worried it was going to be ignored or laughed at. And what happened? I have been talking about it non-stop for a year-and-a-half solid and it’s now part of a much larger conversation. I think we sometimes don’t give ourselves credit for the multiple levels on which we are collectively working on the big questions, even as we are going through what appears to be an infatuation with a new technology.
Are you suggesting that we shouldn’t worry about our technological fate overmuch? The historical record indicates that we’ve worried about the effects of technology since very early on. Our anxieties are not new and yet we continue to endure. If our worries aren’t new, is there any real urgency to these questions now? Or is history going to take care of itself? I think there is a certain urgency. In every period of change, it is very important for people to stand up and raise these questions. I was born in 1961 in the age of television and I don’t remember, because I was too young, but there were all these questions then about the downsides, the “vast waste-
land” that TV supposedly was producing. To me, looking back, that seems kind of silly because television seems fairly harmless to me now and my family, and I enjoy it and we don’t feel addicted to it or diminished by it at all. But the fact that those questions were raised may have helped improve popular thinking about television, and even the content. Sure, there’s a lot of junk on TV, but there’s quite a lot of good stuff, too. Perhaps we wouldn’t have shows like The Wire today if people hadn’t raised those concerns long ago. Simply by questioning the assumptions of the moment and having this conversation that many people are now having, I believe we are moving the tools down a better path and helping to ensure that we don’t become “the tools of our tools” (to use Thoreau’s phrase). You can see it in small changes, like Google’s social network, which was in many ways a response to the complaints about Facebook, the ways in which Facebook wasn’t meeting everyone’s needs. Is Google Plus the answer? Probably not, but there will be new efforts of this sort. The critical view is essential to the technoevolutionary process. Otherwise the tools themselves would just run rampant and that is definitely not what we want.
Interesting. When we think of innovation we often think of it as technological invention. But maybe we should think of it also as the wise adoption of technology. Perhaps your book is zeroing in on this dimension of innovation? Ben Franklin said it very well. I use this line of his at the start of my Franklin chapter: “All new tools require some practice before we can become expert in the use of them.” Now that doesn’t fully cover the idea of innovation through wise adoption, but he does hint at it there. He is kind of saying that we need to make sure our practices evolve in the smart-
C O N V E R S A T I O N pening to me in my own consciousness as a result of screen addiction. And I think if colleges and universities are seeking to take a lot of learning mobile, teaching that Since this conversation is taking place on a Senecan skill should be a part of it. Ideally university campus, I was wondering how in higher education, you’re training people these concepts might shed light on one of to be their own thinkers and philosophers. the hotter technology issues that is chalThe only way they can do that effectively lenging universities is to know how to right now: namely, nurture their own how to most wisely creative focus. Right Ideally in higher education, take advantage of across the way from you’re training people to recent improvements where we’re speaking in mobile technology. right now, I noticed be their own thinkers and In your book you talk there is a designated philosophers. The only way about Walden zones: quiet space for study they can do that effectively is to and reading. Could these are areas where we can escape from know how to nurture their own there be a mobile the distractions that creativity of focus. Right across version of that? A tool are presented by our that helps people the way from where we’re digital devices. Many disconnect when, say, of these Walden zones riding the subway? speaking right now, I noticed seem to be placePrinted books have bound. But in a mobile there is a designated quiet space always offered a for study and reading. Could world does a Walden version of that—a zone always have to be there be a mobile version of way of connecting place-bound? I have that simultaneously that? A tool that helps people a student who said he focuses and settles was able to write most disconnect when, say, riding the mind. Someday productively in the there will be colthe subway? Printed books din of a subway. Is it lege courses in how possible to have mobile have always offered a version to navigate a digital of that—a way of connecting Walden zones? world effectively. One of the best courses I that simultaneously focuses and Yeah, I think we abtook in college was a settles the mind. solutely could. That Spanish course called is one of the great Oral Survival. It was lessons I took from about exactly that, Seneca, in a letter he learning to speak Spanish off the cuff, in wrote that I talk about in the book. You can any place and any situation, and survive quiet your mind anywhere, he contends, if the experience. Today we need digital you have the right mental discipline and survival skills, so that we’re able to throw creativity and desire. You can be in the ourselves into this maelstrom and thrive, middle of busy Rome with all kinds of street using techniques that we have practiced noise and clamor and find your focus. You and can easily put to use. Colleges are the can get past the traffic jam in your mind, best place for such teaching to happen. Do which is my metaphor for what was hapyou know if it is?
I like to think that it is happening in college courses that study how technology and society reshape each other. Certainly we have stress management courses; maybe there need to be courses in information overload.
est way possible. So, yes, absolutely, the tools arrive and then we work on how to use and improve them.
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The first is: “Do you think our current age poses particular problems that technology in the past has not?”
In every age there is kind of a recapitulation of the old questions, but there are also I wouldn’t give it a negative name. I would call new ones added. So in our time, the one it something constructive and positive. It’s thing that is the really dramatic, epochal not a rejection of the technology. It’s about change is connectedness going mobile and not buying into the assumptions of one parubiquitous, so that we are always reachable ticular approach, the one and others can always I call digital maximalism, reach us. That is somei.e. the more connected thing humanity has We all try to be very hip and you are 24/7, the better. never known before, a casual about the smartphone Maybe if we use a differshift we are still getting ent set of values, it will our arms around. We life as if we’re experts at actually take us to a better all try to be very hip it. But we’re still learning place as students and and casual about the and there are parallels from we will achieve more and smartphone life as if prepare ourselves more we’re experts at it. But previous times that can be effectively for whatever quite instructive. That’s not to we’re still learning and career we are aiming for. there are parallels from say our world is just like the previous times that can So the answer to digital world of 150 years ago. Henry be quite instructive. maximalism isn’t digital That’s not to say our David Thoreau never woke minimalism, is it? world is just like the up with 50 messages waiting world of 150 years ago. No, I don’t think there is Henry David Thoreau for him in his inbox on the one answer. Most people never woke up with 50 nightstand. But we can still have jobs that require a messages waiting for lot of digital activity— learn from him and apply his him in his inbox on the that is a reality. But in nightstand. But we can insights to our own situation. a larger sense we live a still learn from him and lot of our personal lives apply his insights to our online now, and that’s own situation. where we have more leeway. In that zone, there will be people who want a more miniThis next student is posing a question malist approach to technology and would about class: “Digital trends tend to move prefer to be in the so-called real world more from the privileged class downward. What often. That should be an option that is honis your feeling? Are the problems you ored, as should all the other shades in betackle the problems of a privileged class?” tween as well as the maximalist approach. I just don’t accept the proposition that we That is a very interesting question. The basic all have to adopt one approach or that one idea of living philosophically, according size fits all. Here’s to digital pluralism! to your own particular worldview, tends to come from education, time spent reading and By way of wrapping up I wanted to pose a contemplating what life is about. In much of few questions from students who read your the world, and for a significant percentage
book in a class I’m teaching this semester.
C O N V E R S A T I O N of Americans, that sort of education is still a luxury. So in that sense, it is a class issue. But on another level, I would never claim that the need for space and quiet time is something that is only the province of the rich and successful. In all societies and all spiritual traditions, there is some version of the ascetic, a person who chooses poverty as a route to higher enlightenment. Sometimes those people come from wealthy families, as the Buddha did. But often they are humble people who through their own resourcefulness found the road to enlightenment. Interestingly, a lot of the less appealing aspects of digital culture are actually coming from the top. You know, this notion that Facebook came from Harvard, and I am not saying that Facebook is not appealing, but Facebook and many of these tools are partly about showing the world how many connections you have. It’s sort of a peacock-like display, which is very traditional elitist behavior. At the same time, if elites are highly immersed in digital culture, as most now are, they are also well-positioned to question it, and that’s also happening. Meanwhile, in another way digital life is also very populist. You know, there is a whole world on Twitter that is basically urban young people having their own conversation about the things that they care about. That is a fascinating alternate universe, if you will, to the elite conversation. And it’s based in the very same tool that is delivering celebrity tweets. Does that make sense?
Yes. It resonates with the shift from 20th century broadcast technologies, which were basically top down, to the much flatter 21st century media technologies, which enable
many more people to participate in the conversation. Today it’s easier for everyone to have a voice. Whether you choose to use it is a different question, but it is relatively easy and cheap to get into the digital zone without having to get past any gatekeepers. You can even do it from a public library. To me it is fascinating that the silicon gazillonaires are having to think more than businesspeople of the past ever had to about the voices and concerns of regular people everywhere, from the streets of Cairo to the highrises of Detroit. There is some promise in that.
Does that mean that these digital technologies are inherently democratic? Well, I don’t know about that. I think they bring great democratic possibilities, but it remains to be seen if those will in fact flourish.
A few months ago, Kathy Davidson published a book titled Now You See It. Davidson begins her book by going over the famous Invisible Gorilla Experiment. In the experiment an audience is asked to count the number of ball passes that a group of performers are making in a hallway. While the audience is counting, a man in a gorilla suit makes his way across the hall. In focusing so intently on the ball pass count, some of the audience miss seeing the gorilla. Davidson uses that experiment to argue that when we mono-task we’re subject to attention blindness. But she goes further in arguing that the celebration of mono-tasking is an ideology particular to 20th century modes of assembly line production. Davidson argues that we’ve moved into a new world where mono-tasking is no longer the virtue
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it once was. If we’re going to educate students responsibly, we have to be more receptive to multi-tasking and the possibility that the current workplace demands that skill set. How would you position Hamlet’s BlackBerry vis-à-vis Now You See It?
put, when you shift your attention from task A to task B and then back to A—which we do on the screen all time—there is a process you have to go through called recovery time, which is simply the re-immersion of the brain in the first task. It’s basically the “Where was I now?” moment.” The longer you’re away from a task, the longer the recovery time. And nobody has figured out how to speed that up. In fact, there is at least one study suggesting that the more today’s students multi-task, the worse they do on various kinds of tests.
It would very nice to think that we could become expert multi-taskers. I’d love to be one. But all the scientific evidence is stacked against that ever being possible. People have been trying to be good multitaskers for centuries, with very limited success. I have a little passage in the At the Leonardo Museum in Salt Lake book that’s based on City, on the secan interview I did with ond floor, there is Christopher Chabris, one a clinic where they of the co-authors of The take a sample of your It would very nice to think Invisible Gorilla. He was saliva and have you that we could become expert my best source on how do a thirty-minute multi-taskers. I’d love to be our attention resources multi-tasking test. really work. “It’s posThe hypothesis of one. But all the scientific sible that our brains will their study is that evidence is stacked against eventually adapt to a there actually is a that ever being possible. People multi-tasking gene, digital world and learn to better manage all of but that only a very have been trying to be good these pulls on our attensmall percentage of multi-taskers for centuries, tion. The organ’s plasticthe population has with very limited success. ity, or ability to change inherited it. by re-wiring itself, is Yes, there is a pretty well known. However, well known study neuro-plasticity is not about this, which found that only about 2% the panacea it is sometimes made out to of human beings are born “super-taskers,” be. There are fundamental limits to our meaning they have a genetic ability to attentional capacity based on the amount multi-task more effectively than the rest of brain space we have for what is called of us. It’s apparently a mutation of some ‘working memory.’ For that to grow would kind. Now it could turn out that in the longrequire a structural change far more signifirange of human evolution, those people cant than the re-wiring of neural pathways. will thrive and multiply and become more So, despite the touted benefits of the broadly present in the population. If superbrain-training gadgets being marketed as tasking becomes a crucial part of survival solutions to attention problems, it isn’t that in the digital world, I suppose that theoretieasy.” No question we’ll continue trying to cally could happen. I am currently reading become better at multi-tasking, but there Edward O. Wilson on his latest theories is an obstacle called “recovery time” that about the genetic future. But evolution is a so far seems to be insurmountable. Simply very slow process that can’t be compressed
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This is another student question: “I find it interesting that self-control and motivation are not really touched on as solutions to the technological overload we as people are experiencing. Do you think that such control is out of reach? Are we too far gone to choose for ourselves if we check our screens or not?”
Technique for focus and productivity, which I think comes from Italy, is well-known in Australia. It is all about self-control and applying it to digital life and striking a healthy balance. Australians seem to be more familiar with this whole question—but then I’ve been told that Australia has the highest per capita usage of social networks so maybe they need to be more on top of it. Anyway, I do think that the cutting edge of happiness in the digital age involves the role of the individual. That’s where it all begins and ends.
tary about how we lived today. And they were all sitting in a kind of nightclub in these silver space suits laughing uproariously about the idea that we walked around with a gadget in our hand that we used to access digital information. Because by then digital information had become truly ubiquitous, embedded in the environment, and no screens were required. I think, inevitably, people are going to look back at the
My book is largely about self-control and discipline and the role Only about 2% of human of individual initiative in solving this problem. beings are born “superSo we have the ability I’m proposing that anyand responsibility to taskers,” meaning they have one can take the reins take control of our of his or her own life by a genetic ability to multi-task online lives. And your developing new habits. more effectively than the rest of book is urging us to I like what the phitake up that task. At us. It’s apparently a mutation losopher William James the same time, does of some kind. Now it could said about the power that mean that we of habits, and where turn out that in the long-range shouldn’t also be looknew habits come from. ing at the way these of human evolution, those He said, if you’re living technologies may be people will thrive and multiply pushing us in particufor a higher purpose beyond yourself, you lar directions? and become more broadly can kick any bad habit present in the population. and replace it with a Right, in addition to If super-tasking becomes a good one. His work individually shapwas the inspiration for ing our own lives, we crucial part of survival in the Alcoholics Anonymous, should be questioning digital world, I suppose that and the same basic the larger assumptions theoretically could happen. thinking applies to that are driving these digital life. We don’t tools. Are there ways have to be creatures of in which the tools the conventional wisdom about technology. themselves are flawed and have to change? We can make our own rules, shape our own When we are still essentially talking about daily journeys, online and off. I went on a organizing your life around the tools. But speaking tour of Australia last summer and we made these tools, and as consumers, we found they’re having a very lively debate have supported them and given them a life about this topic— livelier than we’re having in the marketplace and so we should have a in this country. I went on a national radio role in making them better. There was a skit show and the host asked me, “Well, have on Saturday Night Live that got at this in a you heard about the Pomodoro method?” hilarious way. It was the world 3,000 years and I had not. Turns out, the Pomodoro from now with people watching a documen-
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year 2012 and say, “Oh, isn’t it amazing that they thought you had to do it that way? They thought the iPad (or fill in the blank with some other tool) was the ultimate answer.” Of course the tools are going to get better and, as I noted earlier, we can drive that as consumers. By speaking up and asking tough questions and being a critical user of technology, you are helping the process move forward.
Luke Fernandez is Manager of Program and Technology Development as well as a half-time instructor in computer science at Weber State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Cornell University and is a recipient of an NEH Digital Humanities Grant. He has published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Educause Quarterly, Campus Technology, AcademicCommons and AAC&U Peer Review Magazine.
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Nature, Conservation, and the Unseen A Conversation with W.S. Merwin
In 2010, when he was 82 years old, W.S. Merwin was named by the Library of Congress as the seventeenth United States Poet Laureate. A recipient of over twenty-five grants and awards, including prestigious Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, two Pulitzer Prizes, the Tanner Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and a National Book Award for his collection Migration: New and Selected Poems, W.S. Merwin is the author, editor, or translator of over sixty-five books of poetry, prose and drama, including translations of Pablo Neruda, Dante, El Cid, and The Song of Roland, among others. In addition to being a prolific author, Mr. Merwin is also a committed conservationist, who lives on a former pineapple plantation on the Hawaiian island of Maui. This property, which was once eighteen acres of agricultural wasteland, has been carefully restored by Mr. Merwin to the point where the soil has recovered and a once-lush tropical forest has begun to return. His interest in deep ecology, the notion that all life is inherently valuable and interconnected, is at the center of much of his poetry. His interest in place and in nature’s mysteries have deeply influenced his life and work, and it was a great pleasure to talk about these issues and others with Mr. Merwin at a hotel in downtown Ogden, where he was staying in preparation for a talk at Weber State’s 2012 National Undergraduate Literature Conference.
CONVERSATION This morning I spoke with my mother by phone and told her I was going to interview a United States Poet Laureate. An avid reader, she said, “Who?” and I said, “W.S. Merwin.” And she said, “Oh, I know him! What are you going to ask him?” And I said, “I’m not sure. He’s a poet laureate. He’s in the Norton Anthology.” You don’t want to take that too seriously.
Mark Hanauer, www.markhanauer.com
W.S. Merwin and his dog, Maui, HI, 6 cm x 6 cm, 1995.
It’s that spirit, wherever you find it, whether in a poet, in a writer, in a musician, or in a painter, you find it in the arts. You find it in people’s voices. Sometimes only a few words are enough to stick with you for the rest of your life.
(Laughter) Being in the Norton is like being in the Hall of Fame. How do you begin an interview with a Michael Jordan of literature? In that way mothers speak to sons, she said “Well, I’d like to know what his favorite book is.” I promised her I’d ask you that. So: Is there one book throughout the course of your life that you keep coming back to, for inspiration? Well, there are quite a few of those. I think Thoreau’s Walden is a wonderful book. Thoreau is one of our great prophets, I think. And
there’s a Chinese philosopher, Zhuang Zhou, from about the 5th century BC; there are some new translations of him—I love him—and he’s very remarkable. The more I think about it, the more books there will be. Of course, I always return to Shakespeare. Shakespeare only gets better as you get older. What a genius he was. He was barely over thirty when he wrote Hamlet. He wrote most of the great comedies in his twenties. Between the richness and the genius of it all, it’s a constant joy to read Shakespeare. But it’s that spirit, wherever you find it, whether in a poet, in a writer, in a musician, or in a painter, you find it in the arts. You find it in people’s voices. Sometimes only a few words are enough to stick with you for the rest of your life. It’s that sound, when you hear it, you get it for certain.
Walden is my favorite book, and I always come back to it. Each year familiar lines suggest new meanings. Speaking of Walden and the perspective on nature it
C O N V E R S A T I O N provides, last week we hosted Peter Kareiva, who’s the chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy. He gave a talk that he has been giving around the country—there was actually an op-ed piece today in the New York Times about it. The article said that Kareiva “criticized the environmental movement,” and based on his presentation here I would agree. He claimed the movement is built on a flawed foundation, meaning that our infatuation with Thoreau’s Walden has led us astray because Thoreau didn’t tell the whole story. One of Kareiva’s comments was that “Thoreau’s mother was out at his cabin every week doing his laundry”—as if that undercuts the message. Focusing on his laundry seems irrelevant and purposefully distracts from Thoreau’s message. I mean, so what? It didn’t matter. Some talk as though Thoreau’s whole life had been spent in the little cabin out at Walden Pond. Walden didn’t belong to Thoreau at all, it belonged to Emerson—Emerson let him stay there. Thoreau had built the little cabin, but he makes it very clear, it wasn’t a lifetime. He spent parts of one winter, parts of another year, and he wasn’t all the time out there, but it offered a way of looking at the world. And that’s what the whole thing’s about, that’s what Walden’s about. It’s not about how he moved away from society. He just shook off the dust of civilization. At the end of the book he says that he went about his life again. He was playing with the infinite possibilities of life. Walden was simply the core of a way of looking at, and imagining, a way of life which was independent and in tune with all of the kinds of life around him. He questioned all the assumptions. You live in a so-called “civilized” human place, and the things that everybody takes for granted simply aren’t so—the great self importance of the human species—as if the whole universe was centered on us. I have a friend on Maui who has a laboratory on the mountain, Holi Alcoa—the national park is on two different islands, also on the
Big Island—and they’re putting up a huge telescope there, and this is the last step toward placing radio telescopes on satellites. Those guys are working at the very edge of what’s known in astronomy. We visit all the time and see what they’re doing. We go right into their laboratories to get the latest discoveries. Nobody uses a telescope to look through space anymore. They’re all done on a computer. You’ll go into their laboratories, and while you are talking, they’ve found another star. So, when they found these 12,000 planets, I said, “Wasn’t this exciting?”And he said, “Oh, sure, it was exciting, but we already knew they were there. What nobody realizes is that the universe is unimaginably greater than we realize and we keep finding things all the time.” And I said to my friend, “what about the ‘known?’” because that is of huge importance to human beings. To me, that’s always been B.S. He said, “what we know is that it’s a speck of dust,” which is a great image, because it was one used by a great Chinese master years ago, to address the same thing, that the universe is a speck of dust, a hair floating in infinite space. The unknown is where it all comes from, the unprovable. I think this is the basis of the arts; it’s the basis of what’s remarkable about us, about every living thing. That’s the thing that I don’t share with most organized religion—I don’t believe that we are that important. I think that life itself is enormously important, but I don’t see a great difference between killing a man and killing an elk; you’re just taking a life, and life is unique. But that does not make ours or theirs more valuable. I think viewing the world that way is much more real than the way we go about it. I guess that’s the real basis of what you asked. It’s something that really troubled me when I realized that I felt that way, until I realized that I have felt that all my life. I don’t believe in losing your temper, I’ve done it very few times in my life. I have come very close when I see the abuse of the helpless—of children or animals. If I see it happening, I want to stop it, quickly if possible.
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I spend time thinking about the most effective perspective for considering our relationship with nature—and one of the main debates is between biocentrism, which is really the foundation of deep ecology, and this new idea that Peter Kareiva, the Nature Conservancy speaker, is advocating. He said it makes more sense for conservationists to look at nature purely anthropomorphically because this allows us to make a better case for preservation. The whole idea of a wilderness-based conservation ethic, he said, has alienated people from nature and so forth. So I’m not sure I am quite ready to accept the anthropomorphic argu- At the rate we’re ment, you know?
At the rate we’re going now, I think that we have embarked, without knowing it, on what I would call terminal acceleration. Everything is going faster, everything. Human population reached 1 billion in 1813, now it’s somewhere around 8 billion and climbing. It’s not a gradual incline, it’s a steep curve.
Seven billion thirty million. The world’s population crossed the seven billion mark in November 2011. Worldometers.info keeps a running total of births, deaths, and rainforest that’s being lost, soil lost to erosion, and so forth. This idea of massive loss appears in your poem “For Coming going now, I Extinction,” which was think that we have embarked, written a year after I without knowing it, on what I was born, in 1967, so would call terminal acceleration. you were clearly thinking about these issues a Everything is going faster, long time ago…
That’s still making humans the number one priority and goes back to the whole self-importance thing. I don’t think everything. Human population Actually, it was pubthat works in the long reached 1 billion in 1813, now lished in ‘67 and written run. One of the arguit’s somewhere around 8 billion in ‘63. Because I had ments for why we should and climbing. It’s not a gradual heard then that the preserve the rainforest Mexicans planned to is because there are all incline, it’s a steep curve. build a bridge from the these new medicines Baja Peninsula to be and things that come able to get salt to the out of the rainforest. mainland more cheaply. Clearly, there are many more things there that we haven’t begun to discover. But still, The Sea of Cortez that separates the two is the attitude behind that view remains one of a major breeding ground for whales. exploiting the rainforest: it’s there for our use and we are going to save it because it might That bridge would have kept the whales be useful to us. But the fact is, apart from the from getting to their breeding grounds. So fact that that is a very arrogant way of looking that’s what this was about, it didn’t happen at it, those healing medicines were there long then, but the threat is still there—Money, before there were humans who had those Money, Money. Once you do those things, diseases. They’re part of another balance that you can’t undo them. Whales are endanwe don’t know anything about, and we don’t gered all through the Pacific largely due to know what they are there to restore, what our efforts, but not entirely. Global warming they are balancing out. It shows how very is not entirely human. It is a cyclic thing, ignorant we are and how important it is to but we have excited and aggravated it and find out what that balance is. If we don’t help made it worse. What we are doing, from the regain that balance, we’re finished anyway. numbers you mentioned, is that the loss of
C O N V E R S A T I O N acreage of the wild is growing all the time, that is what is happening, but that’s what’s and even the semi-wild is disappearing and happening. It’s there, the earth has it. being turned into airports, shopping malls, What I mean by our human arrogance is and parking lots—just asphalted over. that we think the universe somehow owes us Our land, when I got the conservancy of eternal life right here on earth, and that’s not land, I got three acres back in the 70s, before so. The universe doesn’t owe us a damn thing; my wife and I were together, and then in ‘85 the universe doesn’t even notice us. This can these two older ladies sold us fifteen acres sound like a depressing viewpoint, but I think upstream. So we had the whole headwaters of it’s an exhilarating viewpoint. Accept your this small stream down to the sea, and it was place in this incredible, incomprehensible ruined land. It was, a friend said, wasteland, richness of life, but also accept the unknown agriculturally usein the universe. We’re less wasteland. It part of it and it’s had been deforested, miraculous. How did overgrazed, and burnt What I mean by our human it ever happen that over. They had tried to arrogance is that we think the we should be here? plant sugar-cane on universe somehow owes us eternal You feel part of that it, and that wouldn’t larger ebb and flow life right here on earth, and that’s work. Finally, they wanted to have a not so. The universe doesn’t owe us of all life. Students can find it depresspineapple plantation a damn thing; the universe doesn’t ing that the universe and so they dug both doesn’t care about even notice us. This can sound like sides of the valley; them. But I sugthey plowed vertically, a depressing viewpoint, but I think gest it is exhilaratso they lost all of the it’s an exhilarating viewpoint. ing. To accept that topsoil. It was like nature is ambivalent Accept your place in this incredible, trying to plant on a about your survival dirt road. Now, the soil incomprehensible richness of life, causes you to see the is back, the trees are but also accept the unknown in the world differently, as on it and the canopy part of that greater universe. We’re part of it and it’s is coming back. You can keep the sun off miraculous. How did it ever happen ecosystem. You can change how to live the soil and manage that we should be here? your life accordingly. the leaf litter so that Some students get after thirty years, that and some don’t. things will grow there. Maybe that is a function of experience in I try to plant trees every day. nature, and you have plenty of that. Given You can’t plant a forest, only a forest your connection to the land, do you think makes a forest, because a forest is not just your hands-on restoration of the Hawaii a few trees. It’s a huge ecosystem of many property has influenced or changed your related things that we can’t even begin to poetry? understand. It changes. Thoreau was writing about that on his deathbed. The life in the soil Well, I don’t know, I could never tell you that. and everything begins to come back. There’s But I know that restoration is part of the same a point where it begins to take over and do thing, it’s not part of something else. It’s nice it itself. That’s so moving when you begin to to have a garden; I wanted to do that since I see that. Most people don’t even recognize was a tiny child. I remember, I must have been
about three, when I saw blades of grass coming up through cracks in the pavement, and I said to my mother, “where’s it coming from?” And she said, “well, the earth is right under the stone,” and I remember feeling this great joy that the earth was under that stone. If you think of our species as alien—what a weird idea to think that we’re alien to the rest of life and to the whole of the unknown universe—if you go out and look at the night sky, are you depressed, or are you exhilarated? I think it’s natural to be exhilarated and to be consoled. I had a great friend who lost his wife after a long and happy marriage a few years ago, and he said “the only thing for the terrible, inconsolable grief” was to “go outside and lie down and look at the night sky.” Why? I mean, we think we have to explain everything. We don’t know why, but you’re part of this whole thing. The night sky is there like a parent looking at you. You win and lose some, but you’re still a part of it. Why can’t we accept it? That’s the depressing thing, we can’t accept it.
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One of my earliest memories, I grew up right on the Canadian border back in New York State, is of being out in a nearby swamp with my mother and falling through the ice—just enough to get my boots full of water. It was winter and it wasn’t a particularly dramatic landscape, but this image remains—similar to your story of the blades of grass poking up through the sidewalk. I have often thought this memory grounds my belief that a broader environmental consciousness emerges from a connection to a particular place. I read an essay about a teacher from Pennsylvania who loved Robert Frost, but moved to Hawaii for a teaching job. He used the same Pennsylvania syllabus, and when November rolled around he got out Frost, and he asked the Hawaiian students how the air smells when the first snow of the year falls. (Laughter) He said the students thought he was from another planet. If you were raised in the Northeast you might tend to think of Frost as a poet
who speaks universally about place-based experiences. Certainly for the two of us, since we are familiar with that climate, if I say to you, “April day, Pennsylvania,” there’s probably some image that quickly comes to mind, but how does a Hawaiian relate to Frost, who is so tied to a radically different place? Given the way place shapes so many writers, could you speak to the degree to which your writing emerges out of a particular place? I think that always varies, but it’s always true when you are trying to read the poetry of other places. They’re deeply rooted in place, but it’s true of time too. It’s very hard to bring back the circumstances. There’s a passage in Thoreau’s journal where he goes out and climbs down into the swamp and he spends an hour or so standing in the swamp with his head above the water, just watching the swamp. He ends the passage by saying, the trouble is, you forget all the important things that happen in a time like that. He was wonderful, there’s nobody like him. There’s a lovely book of long essays by John Fowles called The Tree. It is really about trees and places. The great thing about a tree—and I am not talking about rows of Christmas trees, planted as though they were corn—is that the moment a tree is in the ground, it makes a place, that’s its place. The tree and the place are two words for the same thing, and will be as long as it’s there. For the tree, the tree is the place, the place is the tree. I said to E.O. Wilson, when I met him at Harvard years ago—nice long conversation we had, we had a little bit of wine to drink and dinner—I said, “I’m going to say something very silly to you. It will seem very silly to a botanist, but I had a very repressed childhood, and I would go out in the backyard where there was a poplar tree, and I would sometimes think, as a very small child, that this tree was my best friend. I could stand by the tree, and I could trust the tree, and I wanted to try to listen to the tree. I thought
C O N V E R S A T I O N that the tree wanted to tell me something.” He said, “That’s not so strange at all. I think a lot of scientists have felt that way without daring to say it. The tree’s DNA is much older than yours and the tree’s not withholding anything from you. It’s you who has to try to find out how to listen to the tree.” The first time I lost my temper was when these guys came with a saw to start chopping boughs off of the tree to clear the way for their telephone lines, and I screamed and ran out of the house and started beating on the men, saying, “let that tree alone!” They just came back later when I wasn’t around. (Laughter)
think he’s as great as Eliot, but his poetry is as difficult to read as Finnegan’s Wake. The great voice of David Jones comes from the early Welch poetry. There is an incredible voice—little bits of the Aborigine left in it—but you know how great it was. His poem, “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,” is the greatest war poem I’ve ever read. It’s a refusal to mourn; it’s a refusal to take in war, too, without the ability to withdraw from it. That’s what we do; I think there’s a war going on all the time. I look at war and I think, it’s not just human depravity, it’s human stupidity. What can be more stupid than to put that amount of In the selections of your poetry that are in your life, and your attention, and your energy the Norton, that theme into killing each other? of loss is omnipresent. How dumb! Of course Whether it’s in “For there are too many of I look at war and I think, it’s Coming Extinction,” us, but it’s going to take not just human depravity, it’s “Losing a Language,” care of itself. (Laughter) or “Lament for the human stupidity. What can be The world will take care Makers,” something or of that. Wherever you more stupid than to put that someone is being taken look, there’s a war going amount of your life, and your away from us every on, we’re killing each day. Is the tone of “La- attention, and your energy into other. Of course, I think ment for the Makers” we are descended from killing each other? How dumb! melancholy or hopeful? the wrong ape. Chimps are not peace-loving. The original poem that mine is modeled on comes from William The book I am reading right now discusses Dunbar, a Scottish poet, who wrote a poem their war-like nature. called “Lament for the Makers”—the Makers were poets—and he goes through all the They invented war, we didn’t. They wage war; poets he’s known and valued in his lifetime, the really aggressive, war-like apes are the including Chaucer, and it’s a lament for baboons and the chimps. If we had descended them. It’s there in his last line, “Timor Mortis from the bonobos, or the gorillas, or the conturbat me”—the fear of death troubles me. orangutans, or the gibbons, it would have So, that’s my poem. It’s not exactly modeled, been a totally different story. I’ve known a but it’s very closely modeled on that Dunbar couple of chimps growing up; the problem is, poem. People assume that I knew all these they are very smart. They’re sweethearts until guys, but that wasn’t so. These were the poets puberty; after that, you never know. They are who were alive in my lifetime and who had not to be trusted. They are very violent—they meant something to me, including two who love violence—that’s the funny thing about nobody reads anymore, and it’s a real shame: us. The great canines don’t love violence; Edward Mueller, who’s a wonderful Scottish none of them do. And they are carnivores, so poet, and David Jones, who I think is one of they will kill to eat. I said to someone, “we the truly great poets of the 20th century. I
are the only cruel species,” and they said, “what do you mean? All animals cause pain.” And I said, “sure, they cause pain, but they don’t do it for their own pleasure—they do it to eat, or for some other reason. They don’t do it because they get a kick out of it.”
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up from Africa and Asia Minor, quite a few centuries later; they were our ancestors. Years ago, while my wife and I were in France, we lived very close to the Lascaux Caves, and I used to visit them often, because I wanted to be somewhere where people had a much deeper sense of animals than we do You mentioned E.O. Wilson before, and I currently. We visited all of the newly discovthink he wrote that our great brains might ered caves and I then began to think that the be an evolutionary mistake, and the very Cro-Magnon Man learned a great deal from thing that we have used to distinguish ourNeanderthal. It was a different kind of brain. selves from the rest of the nonhuman world It was not as school-book intelligent as Cromight be the very thing that results in our Magnon Man, but was intuitively far deeper. undoing. That’s disturbNeanderthal had a far ing and fascinating. deeper grasp of, and a far closer connection with, The genetic thing was There were two broththe rest of life and the ers named Wustall, who happening that allowed other dimensions of life, won the Nobel Prize for for dogs to happen. Dogs including the ones that we genetics, and they wrote now debate whether they made a great deal possible: a wonderful book about exist or not. There are very genetics and its evolution. new hunting techniques, ancient carvings a mile or Their theory—this is 1909migrations, pastoral culture so down these long dark 1910, something like tunnels. This was a vision with its flocks, and food that—focused on the idea quest for them. Today we that Homo sapiens are storage places with guard can take a little train and not the peak of evolution dogs. People couldn’t have get down there; it’s no as we like to think. They big deal, but not in those crossed the Bering Strait said, “it’s not an accident days. You went into the that the larger skull of the without dogs. We’ve always cave and it was cold, and Neanderthal—which we mistreated dogs, but dogs are you had nothing to eat and think of as unshapely—has nothing to drink. You had a greater brain capacity than our great link to everything. little lamp that would last its Homo sapiens descen45 minutes—you could try dants.” They believed to re-light it, but it really that the peak was always Neanderthal. I’ve didn’t work—then you were in the dark. These always thought that the old theory about drawings and paintings were done in the Neanderthal was completely wrong—that he dark. They were done in places where nobody was so inferior to Cro-Magnon Man, and that was expected to see them. It was an experiCro-Magnon Man simply wiped Neanderthal ence between the person who was there out. But that’s simply not true. They lived and this being that they found in the dark. together for 15,000 years, and had children The dark and the wall were still that person; together. Our ancestors were neither of the the person became one with the place. Paleolithic ones; they went across when the ice age came back, into Spain, where Like the tree. they both went extinct together. There was a new wave of only Cro-Magnon that came
C O N V E R S A T I O N Yes, and when the person came out, they were changed. They knew the other dimension was there, and they took it with them for the rest of their lives. I think that’s what it was. But it came from the animals. These were not the animals that they hunted, though they might have killed them occasionally. It wasn’t the cave bear which was already gone by this time. In a lot of the paintings, the animals have no feet; they’re the great elders, they’re the dimension of time. The Neanderthal realized that they are the new arrivals, and they don’t know anything. These animal elders are the ones who know the world. That’s my theory. I read all the books and I thought, nobody knows. This is all speculation. A poet’s speculation is as good as anyone else’s. I think they were learning from the elders, and learning is part of realizing your connection to these things and that we are not separate from these things. In embryology, there is a stage in which the human fetus, very early at the beginning of formation, goes through all of the different forms of animal life—fish, insect, bird—until it becomes a mammal and they lose a tail, and we go through all of this in a week, but we’ve done it, we’ve done it in our own lifetimes.
Utah has a lot of rock art (though some object to that term). I don’t know much about its age and connection, but the indigenous people were here very early. But they couldn’t travel, and so the great migrations were subsequent to the Paleolithic caves that came later. That was the time when the first wolves were becoming dogs—they were choosing us just as we were choosing them. The genetic thing was happening that allowed for dogs to happen. Dogs made a great deal possible: new hunting techniques, migrations, pastoral culture with its flocks, and food storage places with guard dogs. People couldn’t have crossed the Bering Strait without dogs. We’ve always mistreated dogs, but dogs are our great link to everything. People are lucky who have
that feeling about dogs. The connection with dogs, if we are open to it, offers a huge amount that we can learn. I feel very lucky to have had the dogs I have in my life.
Let me ask you a question on a different topic, namely, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. You knew both quite well. Students are fascinated by her short life. Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963 contains Plath’s correspondence with her mother. Historically critics claimed Plath’s depression was related to the relationship with her father, but this new collection suggests that it had to do with her mother. Was there any connection between the relationship with her mother and the reason why Ted Hughes destroyed Sylvia’s journals? She destroyed his.
So it was an act of revenge? She was jealous of Ted. Ted was angry at her, but he wasn’t jealous of her. They were very close friends. I just put together a collection for the University of Illinois archives, and there was one letter from Sylvia, written the last winter of her life before she killed herself. She was up in London and so was Ted, but they had broken up. She wrote this letter, the first in a whole series of letters. She started writing to me every day, sometimes two to three times a day. It was all about Ted and the breakup and this whole new emotional charge that she felt in herself. This of course led to all of the new poems. All of the Ariel poems in the book appear in their original format and also with the changes that she made. She told me that my former wife [Dido Milroy] and Ted were having an affair. I knew it wasn’t so, but I wouldn’t have cared if it did happen. Ted and I used to walk all over London every day. We took long walks and we were close friends. I had proposed the situation that caused the suspicion. I said, “Your mother just died;
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she left this big empty apartment on MonI can’t think it’s a good effect. I think the tague Square, and Ted hasn’t got anywhere current love for the microchip is one of these to live in London. Why don’t you let him miraculous things, but everything has a price. stay there for the time being?” So she did. I think it points to the real difference between Sylvia had spied on them coming and gopoetry and prose. What prose does can be ing from the apartment, so that was that. done in other ways. Prose is about something; Anyway, it was an extraordinary corprose is much more recent than poetry. Poetry respondence. When I left, I sent all of the is as ancient as language. Poetry is declining letters to my former wife in London and said, just as language is declining. We speak less. you should read these Look at Twitter. People are because of what Sylvia is going back to hieroglyphsaying. I never saw them ics. People are illiterate Poetry is there not to provide again. She gave them to and they don’t have any information, but to say what somebody else to take vocabulary. They can’t to France, to keep away can’t be said—to express love, express themselves. from me—there was anger Language began as a way grief, anger— these feelings and spite. I think they of expressing inexpressthat are inexpressible. We were destroyed because ible things—great grief, or the woman who had the great anger—just making are becoming more unable to letters broke up with her a roar or a whine wasn’t express things. This is simply enough. You tried to make husband and headed back going to become part of the to Spain. After she died, something more articuthe attic was cleaned out acceleration of violence. What late. Articulate is exactly and I think the letters what you did. That’s the happens when you can’t say were probably thrown beginning of language it at all or can’t find a way of away. They may turn up, and it’s also the beginbut I don’t think so. Awful. saying it? Words fail you and ning of poetry. Poetry They would have been is there not to provide you turn to violence. much more interesting information, but to say than the letters to her what can’t be said—to mother. Sylvia was a trouexpress love, grief, bling person. She was very destructive—she anger— these feelings that are inexpressible. was self-destructive, and she was jealous of We are becoming more unable to express Ted. I realized there was something about her things. This is simply going to become part that made me uneasy. I just didn’t trust her. of the acceleration of violence. What happens when you can’t say it at all or can’t find They were certainly celebrities in a way a way of saying it? Words fail you and you not many authors are today. I was reading turn to violence. That’s what we are doing.
The Hemingway Women and the book described Hemingway’s visit in the 1950s to London, where he was mobbed on the streets by fans. When my mother was a young woman in the 1940s, authors were celebrities. Everyday people read books and discussed them. That doesn’t happen so much anymore. How do you think this change has affected society?
I have greatly enjoyed our conversation and wish we had more time to talk, but I know you have a reading this evening. Yes. Somebody sent me a photograph of my poem that was in the New Yorker, called “The New Song,” which I am going to read tonight. Someone made a big copy of it and tacked
C O N V E R S A T I O N it to the telephone pole. Isn’t that nice?
Most people only share things online these days. That’s the funny thing. More people read poetry than one realizes. There was a piece about that in the Wall Street Journal not so long ago, and the topic is always treated as though poetry were marginal or disappearing. But there is far more of it than we believe, though it’s not mainstream media.
Somebody asked me to comment on the documentary film called Louder Than the Bomb, and how I feel about “rock poetry” and “rap poetry.” I said, “I think it’s just fine, poetry is about pleasure. There always has to be pleasure, and if there isn’t, there isn’t any poetry.” So, I think however you come into poetry is fine. I wouldn’t spend a whole evening listening to rap poetry, but I wouldn’t mind listening to ten minutes of it—it’s sometimes quite wonderful.
Hal Crimmel (Ph.D., State U of New York at Albany) is Brady Distinguished Professor of English at Weber State University and the Director of the Master of Arts in English program. He is the author of Dinosaur: Four Seasons on the Green and Yampa Rivers, coeditor of Teaching About Place: Learning from the Land, and editor of Teaching in the Field: Working with Students in the Outdoor Classroom. Hal lives in northern Utah and teaches fieldbased writing and literature courses in Montana, Colorado, and Utah.
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C O N V E R S A T I O N
Joel Hancock, Zackary Goff, and Barbara Trask
From Ignoble Beginnings to the Nobel Prize A Conversation with Mario Capecchi
Courtesy of Florida Center for Instructional Technology
PRELUDE University of Utah researcher Dr. Mario Capecchi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2007 for his contribution to the development of targeted gene modification in embryonic mouse stem cells. The scientific advances that were recognized by the Nobel Foundation that year are particularly remarkable when one considers the difficulties that Dr. Capecchi faced growing up in war-torn Italy in the 1930s and 40s. When his mother was arrested by German authorities, young Mario was forced to live independently for nearly five years. On his ninth birthday, he was reunited with his mother, who soon thereafter moved with him to Pennsylvania to live with her younger brother and his wife. Dr. Capecchi grew up there under his uncle’s Quaker influence. He earned his undergraduate degree from Antioch College and his Ph.D. from Harvard University, the latter while working with Dr.
James Watson (who was awarded the same Nobel Prize in 1962). To read more about Dr. Capecchi’s fascinating life, refer to the autobiography he authored at http://www. nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2007/capecchi.html Dr. Capecchi elaborated on his past experiences as he encouraged over 2,700 young research students in a plenary address given at the annual conference for the National Council for Undergraduate Research (NCUR) that was hosted by Weber State University in March, 2012. Following his presentation, students Zachary Goff and Joel Hancock had the unique opportunity to join their professor Dr. Barbara Trask in a personal conversation with Dr. Capecchi. Zack and Joel learned first-hand about the major influences on Dr. Capecchi’s life, his past accomplishments, and his thoughts on science in general and its future. They share their conversation below.
Courtesy of Florida Center for Instructional Technology
CONVERSATION On Early Influences Thank you very much for your time. Can we start by asking why you agreed to do the Plenary Talk at NCUR?
careers. I think that having the opportunity to not only talk to students at Weber, but a lot of students from everywhere—that’s terrific.
The main reason is, whenever I have the opportunity to talk to students, I don’t pass that up. The only invitations I now accept are ones essentially that are coming from students. Because I think they’re going to be the next generation. And I think one of the things I can do is simply share my experiences and hope that that will help their
I’m wondering if you can talk a little about your experiences, the road that you took to get where you’re at, starting way back when. When we were preparing for this conversation, we read what you had written your autobiography for the Nobel committee, and you mentioned your mother’s talent for poetry and your grandmother’s
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talent in art, and you seem to have a family that was creative and enjoyed the arts. So, I’m wondering what influence that creative exposure had on you and on the way you do science or approach science.
the obvious next questions. I mean, the paper comes out and you can see exactly where you should be going next. And then you go a little further out, and then that’s a little further afield. And finally, in the final circle, actually beyond that, is science fiction, and you want I look upon art and science, actually, as being to approach as close as you can to that but not not that far apart. I think they’re both very jump over that barrier because then you’re creative processes. We have slightly differwasting your time. The other thing is, you find ent ends, but I think it takes imagination. your level of being comfortable—what level Often people think about do you want to work at, things one day at a time, because the further out and they’re lucky if they you go, the higher the think two days ahead, I look at science as a series risk, but on the other whereas a scientist is alhand, also the higher of concentric circles and the ways looking ten, fifteen, the payoff. So, you ones immediately around it twenty years ahead. It’s always have to balance a very different job. What are the obvious next questions. essentially what you are you will try to do is see going to get back with I mean, the paper comes out essentially what doesn’t what doesn’t happen. and you can see exactly where exist and why doesn’t it An example our lab exist, and what does it you should be going next. And is famous for is develtake to bridge that gap. then you go a little further out, oping gene targeting. That’s, to me, the creative When I first submitted and then that’s a little further part—just looking at life. to do that project, what The nice thing about afield. And finally, in the final the reviewers said was biology is that it’s tresimply, “It isn’t going circle, actually beyond that, is mendously complex. And to work. It’s impossible, what we try to do is sort of science fiction, and you want and therefore, we’re simplify it. And someto approach as close as you can not going to give you times it’s a reductionist money to do that.” So, to that but not jump over that approach. But at the same they’re looking at it and barrier because then you’re time what we do is to their arguments weren’t make it workable because wasting your time. irrational. I think what the complexity is so enortheir arguments were mous, that if you simply simply saying was, “The try to do everything and genome is so complex, try to really comprehend and look at it holistiso huge, that if we put a little piece of cally, I think you wouldn’t get anywhere. And DNA in there, and we have to search that so we have to abstract, and we have to try to whole genome to find that, it’s going to make it simpler than it really is. And then once take years, and it would never happen.” you have gone that step, you layer on the next Now, until you do it, you have no way level of complexity. One of the tricks is actuof saying yes or no, but it’s not irrational ally to appreciate at whatever layer can you to think that it would not work. I think you be. I look at science as a series of concentric have to find what you’re comfortable doing, circles and the ones immediately around it are and if you’re going to jump far, you have to
C O N V E R S A T I O N ones that didn’t make sense of their observations didn’t make it. And most people didn’t make it, actually. So, I think that the power of observation and being patient is critical. The other thing is that you’re completely relying on yourself. Some people when they do science, they come to an area where they’re not competent, and so they do a collaboration with respect to that aspect of it. Our lab more or less tries to do everything so we would not need to uncle brought go to somebody else to do it for us. If we need me to this country and I lived to learn something new, with them and they took care then we learn it, and so of me, but they literally had we’re self-sufficient. If you’re going to be sucto convert me into a human cessful and survive on being. That was their task, your own, you have to be and I commend them for it. It self-sufficient. Nobody else is going to give it was a real struggle for them to you. So, I think those initially, I’m sure. So, I think are the things that I that you learn to survive. picked up. I don’t think risk-taking probably But those basic skills I don’t under those circumthink really move over into a stances is a good thing.
end of our time all of sudden we had results. Then we could show essentially that we had accomplished what we wanted to accomplish. One of the ironic things is that, at the end of our funding period, I sent our results back to the exact same committee. And you know, there’s a pink sheet that they send you that’s a critique of what you want to do. The first sentence says, “We’re glad you didn’t follow our advice.” So, they recognized that it was foolhardy to go in that My aunt and direction, but it worked.
Do you consider yourself a risk taker in general? I do. Yeah.
Would you jump out of a plane? Oh, sure. No problem—as long as I had a parachute! (Laughter) Taylor Norton
Taylor Norton, oil on canvas, 24"x30", 2012. Abstraction of Dr. Capecchi’s notion that science is a series of concentric circles with levels of complexity and a relationship to art.
have some way of guiding yourself to say, am I going in the right direction or not? Are there milestones in between? Then I can evaluate to say, “I’m probably going in the right direction,” rather than completely in the wrong direction. And so, you have to figure out how to set those milestones and see whether you’re actually accomplishing those or not. But I think that aspect is very creative and not unlike what an artist does.
You had shown that there was such a thing as “mitotic recombination” in cells undergoing mitosis, i.e., cell division—genes could enter at the appropriate place in the cell’s total DNA. Did you demonstrate that after someone wouldn’t give you money and you just went ahead with it? Or was that one of the milestones?
No, and I’m not sure I would give the same advice to somebody starting out. I mean, it’s risky to have very distant scientific goals, and the reason it’s risky is that grants are always in packages of five years. So, at the end of that period, you’d better have accomplished something. If you didn’t, that’s not going to get a second grant funded. So, a lot of it is timing. The other aspect of science is that you only hear about the successes. It’s a selective pool. Had we—four years later—essentially had no result, a) I wouldn’t be getting a grant to do anything, and b) you would have never heard of me. You never know about the things that didn’t work. So, there are lots of risk takers who maybe five years after the starting period did not get results. At the
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Were there circumstances in your childhood that you think formed you to be that kind of risk taker?
socialized life. So, there I had to unlearn most of what I’d learned on the streets in order to be functional.
It’s very hard to evaluate how your past influences you. But one of the things that you do learn when you’re in the streets is an enormous amount of patience. What you have to do is sit there and watch what is going on and see what the patterns are, what are people doing, and take that into cognizance, especially when you’re going to go and take their materials. So, I think you learn. You learn human patterns; you learn how to observe, and how to make sense out of that observation—to your end. And again, if you’re successful, then you make it, and the
Maybe some would consider, you know, taking somebody else’s materials risk-taking. Depends who it is, right?
Right. You have to be good and not get caught. If you get caught, what would happen is the police get called, and you’re put into an orphanage. And that situation was even worse than being on the streets. So, then you run away from that and start over again, but in a new town. Go where they don’t know you.
Have there been other specific examples that you remember from your childhood or your adolescence that happened to you
C O N V E R S A T I O N that you can ascribe positive attributes of yourself now to? No. I mean, I think you also learn to become streetwise—you learn how to beat up people, and you learn all of those things that are useful. But they’re not very useful later in life. My aunt and uncle brought me to this country and I lived with them and they took care of me, but they literally had to convert me into a human being. That was their task, and I commend them for it. It was a real struggle for them initially, I’m sure. So, I think that you learn to survive. But those basic skills I don’t think really move over into a socialized life. So, there I had to unlearn most of what I’d learned on the streets in order to be functional.
Where I work, I see a lot of people that come in with various troubles and trials in their lives, and they attribute it to a bad family or growing up in certain circumstances. Many people attribute their shortcomings to a truncated childhood or hard times early on. How did you make good of your experiences? First of all, I was a child and my mother actually didn’t recover. Her experiences were horrific, but she was an adult. And she had a sense of justice and so on. She could see clearly that that wasn’t a system that had any justice to it. A kid doesn’t question it. You’re put into circumstances, and that’s the world. So, you don’t question it. You simply operate in it and do as well as you can. I think I was actually much better off, in the sense that I didn’t question it. I didn’t feel sorry for myself. I simply said, “This is it. Do what you can to make sure you get a meal and have some place to stay that night.” I think that was the big difference. But the one thing you learn is, whatever you’re going to do, you’ve got to do it yourself. Nobody’s going to hand it to you. And I think that is an important lesson. Sometimes people feel that they’re entitled. “I’m just me,
and I’m entitled. Why isn’t the world giving me what I need?” I think that’s a wrong attitude because I think you have to deserve what you get and do what you can to get it. I think the biggest influence once I came over were the Quakers. Quakers are very ‘no frills’—plain clothing, plain food, plain everything. But education is enormously important, and that you live a life of service is enormously important. So those are the things that they really push and emphasize, and I think those are good lessons in life. Even though I’d had no schooling until up to that point, once I had an education I had the complete world in front of me. They would do anything to make sure I got a good education and take advantage of it. Once I got into college, I was actually completely on my own in terms of self-sufficiency—getting all the money for college, and so on. And I think that is also important. When you’re doing this work-study, you actually get paid for that work. So I could use that money to pay for college education.
Living in a Quaker commune, where everybody’s working together, do you feel that’s contributed to you leading this kind of ‘revolutionary’ movement of scientists working together, instead of in competition? Do you think you drew a lot of that from… In the commune, all the spare time you had was working at putting in roads, putting in electricity. Anything that the community needed, we did it and did it by hand. So, you work together. Nothing brings people together more than having to share a work experience and at the end seeing that they’ve accomplished something. I think that had an enormous influence on my life. I think most of the positive influences came after I entered the United States and lived in that community.
Do you think that’s a prototype that can spill over not just into science, but into other aspects of life that are beneficial?
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With respect to the success in developing gene targeting, we were fortunate that the three of us actually working on this thing were doing so for very different reasons, and we made different contributions. (Note: Mario Capecchi shared his Nobel Prize with investigators Sir Martin Evans and Dr. Oliver Smithies.) Martin Evans is the person who worked out stem cells, and I worked out more or less It’s an interesting juxtaposition in that the technology of how to activate or change a situation, because it was a communal indeparticular gene and so on. And we shared all pendence. You menour resources and so on. tioned earlier that you The other thing we now do for yourself, could do, if you’re going but in that instance, In the commune, all the spare to make an important it was we’ll do for contribution, it has to time you had was working ourselves. be user-friendly. Other at putting in roads, putting people have to be able You see the power of in electricity. Anything that to utilize it. If you’re the people working toonly guy that can do it, the community needed, we gether. I live way up on terrific. But so what? the top of the mountain, did it and did it by hand. So, But in this way (i.e., with and all we had for heatyou work together. Nothing three collaborators) ing was essentially a we could actually think brings people together more stove where we either about how to make it burn coal or wood. than having to share a work user-friendly. And we There’s a nearby family. experience and at the end seeing put a lot of thought into We can’t see each other, doing that so that other that they’ve accomplished but they’re my neighpeople could utilize bors. So, at one point, something. I think that had an the technology we we got an estimate enormous influence on my life. were developing. All of from the gas company those luxuries wouldn’t saying, “We’ll put in have happened if each the line if you dig the of us were working in trench.” So, this is going up a mountain and our own little corner trying to do the whole rock. There’s no way you can use any machinthing. Unfortunately, it’s not that common. ery, so it’s all essentially shovels and picks. Often competitiveness wins over workWhen you first start out, you’re saying, “This ing together. But synergy’s got to go much is impossible. No four people could possibly faster than being completely competitive. do it.” And yet the four of us in one summer essentially dug this hole, a trench at least 3 ½ feet deep and about 2 feet wide right up a mountain. Now we have gas, and we On Science and Scientists turn on a switch and the house warms up. I’m interested in how you got to where you A single person couldn’t do it, but together are: molecular biologist and geneticist. The we did it. I think that’s an important lesson uncle you had mentioned was a physicist, anytime. That’s the synergy aspect, I think. Yeah, and the kids in that community, now they’re all over the country. And they’re all doing fantastic things. We meet every once in a while and see what we are up to, and it’s a remarkable group of people in all disciplines. A very small group actually went into science. Most of them have gone into many other fields.
C O N V E R S A T I O N and in your early collegiate years you also studied physics. So I was wondering how you made that transition from physics to biology.
paper right now, I’m never 100% sure it’s all right. And so you’re always taking a risk in that aspect of it. But fortunately in science— that’s the great thing—if there’s something wrong, it’s not that the experiments are Well, my very first quarter—it was the quarter wrong; it’s simply how you’re interpreting system—was actually in political science. And those experiences, maybe rightly or wrongly, the reason for that was at the school I went to, then it flushes out. It always has a built-in they really emphasized problem solving on a corrective. It always has to be reproducible, worldwide scale. It’s clear that most problems and then eventually people will add more are political problems. information and see So, my first quarter, I was whether whatever you’ve starting political science, done is still consistent. Physics and math are taking classes, and I’m And if there are parts aesthetically beautiful, missing the science part. that are inconsistent, Where’s the science in particularly mathematics, then they drop out, and political science? So, I you weed out the things when you all of a sudden see switched to physics. I that don’t work. So, I studied physics and math, a solution or a particular think it’s that process. and I was a minor in math. theorem—it’s just So, then I was going Physics and math are into physics, and I was exhilarating. It has a lot aesthetically beautiful, pleased with the disciparticularly mathematics, of aesthetics to it because pline of physics. But I when you all of a sudden you’re simplifying life to its wasn’t pleased with how see a solution or a parit was operating, and minimal elements. And it’s ticular theorem—it’s just that is that it required exhilarating. It has a lot of also consistent in the sense bigger and bigger instruaesthetics to it because that you have a set of axioms ments and bigger and you’re simplifying life to bigger teams. What I and everything that builds its minimal elements. And enjoyed about science is on those axioms. And it’s the it’s also consistent in the the individual aspect of sense that you have a set only discipline where you can it. What can you do with of axioms and everything your own hands that will actually prove something. that builds on those contribute to that, rather Even in physics, you can’t axioms. And it’s the only than just building a huge discipline where you can prove something. machine that gathers actually prove something. lots of data, and then you Even in physics, you can’t do an experiment that prove something. You can takes 15 minutes and you spend three years disprove something, and that’s the way we trying to figure out what that data means. I often do science—we’ve set it up so that we wanted a hands-on kind of science. And just can eliminate this half, take this part, what’s at that point essentially molecular biology left, and try to eliminate that half and so on. was being born. And it was extremely sucYou can eliminate things, but you can never cessful because they approached problems ever prove something is really real. You simthat were old but from a new vantage point. ply, if you have enough correlations, become What it involved was an influx of people from comfortable. But even when I send out a
therefore an increase in infectious diseases. physics, chemistry, biology, and genetics all Essentially, infectious diseases are a funccoming together and trying to think about a tion of the density of people. Those problems problem from their different perspectives. are going to become even more furious and And that was new and exhilarating in the we’re going to have to be prepared for it. sense that we didn’t realize the complexity. We have to give solutions or else—there’s We thought we could answer any question nothing that says that human beings are and things would really pop out quickly. And going to exist forever. There’s lots of hiswhat you quickly learn is you’re seeing this tory that says species come and go. level of complexity when you dig down, and A question that often people ask me is, you dig further down and it’s an even bigger “Are you worried about what you’re developlevel of complexity. But at the same time, the ing?” We could do all sorts of funny things to approach works and it allows you to discover humans. We do very funny things to mice, and things and have explanations for things at the what are the consequences of that? And when chemical level essentially where it’s underyou’re working in biology, there’s no way to standable and predictable. And because of side-step ethical issues. They’re all there all the work-study program, I was going to MIT the time, over and taking math classes over and over again. and physics, but then But my own feelings all of a sudden encounWhat I enjoyed about science is the are that information is tered a lot of people individual aspect of it. What can never bad. What you who were just startdo with that informaing to do molecular you do with your own hands that tion can be good or biology, and that really will contribute to that, rather than bad. It’s the applicashifted my interest to tion of that informamolecular biology, and just building a huge machine that I kept going in that gathers lots of data, and then you do tion that gives rise to direction. And I had a an experiment that takes 15 minutes the ethical questions. But in the absence of pretty good mentor, and you spend three years trying to having the informaand that’s Watson. tion, you have no figure out what that data means. I In your talk and in choice. Then all of a wanted a hands-on kind of science. your autobiography, sudden, if you’re conAnd just at that point essentially you mentioned the fronted with someadvice you’d give thing that requires molecular biology was being born. to somebody that’s that knowledge, the looking for a caethics change. An reer—find something example is in vitro you’re passionate about and go with it. Do fertilization. A few years ago—this was the you feel you could have been as happy and 70s—the first test tube baby was all over the successful in physics or mathematics, or do press. There were people who were aghast, you feel you really found the niche that was giving rise to a child in a test tube—unthinkmeant for you in molecular biology? able! Now, about 5% of the world’s population is born as a result of in vitro. What people I think it’s the latter. Biology has an applicalook at as ethical issues changes with time. tion right away, and that’s human health. Another example would be AIDS. We know There’s no way to get away from it. A good how to prevent AIDS. But what would happen example is the population increase, and if a virus—like a flu virus—recombined with
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C O N V E R S A T I O N perhaps furthering it? What role do you an AIDS virus, where now we transmit it just think ethics is playing? by breathing? We’d be in deep trouble. And that’s not an impossible thing. It could hapThere always are ethical issues. But ethics pen. I’m not saying it will happen, but I think is one thing you can look at from different it’s possible. So, we have to be confronted perspectives. And always, is it ethical or not with knowing what to do with that. And we ethical to go after a solution for therapy for do know what to do with that. There’s 1% a particular disease? There are also living of people who are born essentially resistant people that we have to think about and those to AIDS simply because the virus can’t get kinds of things. It’s a debate that’s important, into the cells in order to but we can’t skirt the infect. And we know what ethical issues. They’re causes that. In theory, Biology has an application going to keep coming using our technology, we up, and the only way right away, and that’s human could make everybody to be able to handle resistant to AIDS. Then health. There’s no way to them is a discourse. I would say, “No, that’s get away from it. A good Here’s where I a very bad idea because draw the line: If society example is the population there’s a reason you have decides you shouldn’t that gene.” I could make increase, and therefore an do this work at all— you every person resistant increase in infectious diseases. shouldn’t even gather to AIDS, but by doing information—then I say Essentially, infectious diseases so I could potentially it’s hampering it. And create a bigger problem are a function of the density that happened with we know nothing about. of people. Those problems are stem cell biology. There We never have complete were many experiments going to become even more knowledge, and because that didn’t allow making of that, we have to use furious and we’re going to have human stem cells and wisdom as to how we to be prepared for it. We have to what you could do with apply things. And what’s them in this country. give solutions or else—there’s important there is the And then there were input from many, many nothing that says that human real reasons to disaldifferent people, not just beings are going to exist forever. low their use—to make scientists, but clergy, and stem cells required There’s lots of history that says lay people, you name it. essentially using an Everybody’s got to disspecies come and go. embryo. On the other cuss it and come up with hand, because of in vitro solutions to whatever fertilization, freezers full problem it is. By having of embryos were there. Once the freezer gets that massive input from very different walks full, they chuck everything out. So, it’s also of life, hopefully you gain wisdom. Those an ethical debate: “Why are you taking all of are the things you encounter as a scientist, this material, which could be very useful, and and the only thing I can do with the science just throwing it out? And you say that’s ok, is simply present it and be open about it. but you can’t make new stem cells?” And as a “These are the possibilities, and now you consequence, the experiments that were done guys decide what you want to do with that.” in Japan, which now allow you to take skin cells and make stem cells out of them, didn’t Society and ethics—do you think it’s ham-
cially with regard to scientific and ethical happen in this country because those experiquestions. It may be even getting worse… ments weren’t allowed here, and they were allowed there. (Note: Dr. Shinya Yamanaka I think that’s where education comes in. What was last year [October 8, 2012] awarded the we have to do is be patient and educate and Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his educate and educate. One thing that’s good in contribution to this work.) So, now you’ve our own society is that quite a few people get skirted this whole problem. We don’t need a college education. They’ll at least be able to embryos now to make stem cells. But you evaluate those issues. And there’s another aswould have never had that solution to that pect about scientists: often I’m most comfortethical problem by not having the research able in the lab. But one to get that information. of my jobs is to go to the When you restrict the public and explain what gathering of information, we’re doing and why And there’s another aspect in the long run that may actually be a bad thing. about scientists: often I’m most we’re doing it. Because they’re footing the bill You’re simply saying, “I comfortable in the lab. But they should make that don’t like this. But I don’t decision, and if I can’t one of my jobs is to go to the believe in cloning.” There justify it, who can justify are things, certainly, public and explain what we’re it? It’s incumbent on the where it’s reasonable doing and why we’re doing it. scientist to be able to to say you shouldn’t do educate so that other Because they’re footing the bill something, but it’s better to not throw it out at the they should make that decision, people can then make a rational decision as information-gathering and if I can’t justify it, who can to whether this is a point. It’s rather how you justify it? It’s incumbent on the good way to go or not. apply that information. We came very close scientist to be able to educate so Do you think scientists to not allowing what we that other people can then make have been failing in call “DNA recombinaa rational decision as to whether this regard? tion engineering”—being able to take two this is a good way to go or not. I think we can always pieces of DNA and put do better, and I think them together and so that’s always true. One on. All the stuff we do of the biggest supevery day. We came very close to saying we porters of stem cell research was Senator shouldn’t be doing that. And thousands and Orrin Hatch, who is the person who would thousands of experiments have been done, probably be the least likely to support it. He and nobody has ever gotten hurt by them. In came and asked many, many questions and retrospect—people initially thought combinso on, and then decided it’s unethical not to ing genes was ‘holy moly’—that decision use stem cells, and was able to justify how wasn’t a big issue. But we came very close they’re being used. These embryos are being to never allowing that. And many problems— needlessly destroyed anyway. He was able cancer, you name it—wouldn’t have ever to go through that process simply by talking been solved or be close to being solved. and being open to conversation, and be-
pering science, keeping it in check, or even
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You mentioned society making these decisions, but “society” is often naïve, espe-
ing able to weigh those ethical issues. And be able to then say, “I can live with this.”
C O N V E R S A T I O N On Accomplishments Shifting now to your actual Nobel winning research, you talked about the questions that we ask that lead us to our discoveries. At what point did you realize the grand nature and real potential of the work you were actually doing? Was it when you were asking the questions, was it when you were starting the research, or was it when you were finishing up?
When you have something that’s really risky, you never give it to a student. What you have to do is have staff that you’re paying for and can maintain irrespective of success. Then as soon as it starts looking like it’s beginning to work, you can start having students. A student’s there and they come for four or five years, and at the end of that, they have to have their thesis. You can’t just burn them out. So, the “we” usually is always a small group, and then it expands as the project starts to work.
In this particular case, it was way at the beginning. We knew where Is this what you’re we wanted to go. We most proud of—what simply didn’t know how you’re being recogto get there. Even to nized for? the point of knowing whether we wanted to No, I’m working on use the mouse, and be projects that I think are able to engineer mice even wilder. I suband so on, and the mitted a project just technology to do that recently. The process didn’t exist. So we had is that a committee the vision of knowing of reviewers gets what we wanted to do; together to evaluate we simply didn’t know a proposed project. how to get there. And There are three people we had to essentially that are “in charge” of have stepping stones that project, and they along the way. It took argue pro or con to a ten years actually to do committee of around the development. But 18. This last project Courtesy of Florida Center for Instructional Technology at the very beginning, was “triaged,” which we knew what the immeans that it was plications were as well as what we wanted deemed so bad it didn’t even deserve being to accomplish. It just is a matter of faith, evaluated for a score. I sent back a note essentially, that we could get there, and that said, “Déjà vu. It must be a pretty good get there at the appropriate time frame that idea.” The reviewers got the point, but would allow us to continue to be funded. they didn’t give me the money. (Smiling)
Who do you mean, “we”? Well, “we” changed. “We” at the beginning was just myself and a tech and my wife.
And then more people hopped on board as progress was made?
You’ve been very influential in molecular genetics. A lot of the processes that we read about in our biology textbooks, you were one of the pioneers. This is what you’re recognized for, and you won the Nobel,
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but was there another contribution that really sticks out at you? Maybe your first research….
ing much, much cheaper. As a consequence, I can now think about ideas today that I couldn’t think about even two years ago. Now they’re practical—not only practical, but demanded. If I send in a paper, and I could have solved it with deep sequencing, they’ll say, “Why did you do it this way?” This change becomes “demanded,” in essence, and you have to be very fluid. That’s good, but it’s also sometimes scary.
Science is funny. Yesterday doesn’t count. It’s today and tomorrow. So, anything you’ve done before, once you’ve done it, forget it. So, what’s always most important to a scientist is what they’re working on now, and what they’re looking at into the future. The past is history. There are good parts and bad parts to that. There isn’t stability, but on the other How much time do you spend? The work hand, it means that you’re never bored. It’s that the lab is involved in is very timealways changing. The consuming just to other aspect is—and stay up on. How do that’s one thing I teach you divide your time What you have to do is my students the most— between “here’s what completely adapt with all the don’t become myopic. I’m working on” versus incoming things. As a new People are comfortable, keeping your eye over they’ve been working on technology comes in, you have your shoulder looking a problem, then all of a to adapt and utilize it. You have for what’s passing you. sudden they get the soluI also share that respontion, they figure out how to take away the blinders and be sibility. If I have a stuto do that. And that’s the completely adaptable to change, dent, for example, that’s comfort zone. They’re rather than being comfortable working on a particular feeling really good, and in what you’re doing. What cancer and I send her out they want to continue to a meeting, I don’t send doing those kinds of I was asking five years ago is her to a cancer meeting. I experiments. But meancompletely different from what send her to a completely while science is going I’m asking now. It’s always unrelated, completely this way. (Points to the different field, and so on. right) And so if you’re re- rapidly changing. Simply to go there and ally tied in to what you’re see what are they doing doing, science will go that might be useful to flying past you. And then what you’re doing. You always have to keep you’re going to be left behind. abreast as to what other people are doing, So, what you have to do is completely and in completely unrelated fields because adapt with all the incoming things. As a new it’s often the juxtaposition, essentially. technology comes in, you have to adapt and That’s why molecular biology worked—beutilize it. You have to take away the blindcause physicists were in the same room with ers and be completely adaptable to change, geneticists and biologists. It’s that knuckling, rather than being comfortable in what you’re hitting each other on the head, that forces doing. What I was asking five years ago is you to think in new ways. The same thing is completely different from what I’m asking true from day-to-day in terms of what you’re now. It’s always rapidly changing. There’s doing. I do spend enormous amounts of time a technology now called deep sequencing, reading. But at the same time, I also ask my which essentially has just made sequenc-
C O N V E R S A T I O N easier to get grants; I still get “triaged.” And that’s healthy, that’s ok. And, again, it’s not unreasonable what they say. I don’t know if it’s going to work or not, but if it does work, it’s going to have an enormous impact. So, I say, well, at this point, why not risk it all?
students to do it, too. I force them to actually experience things that have nothing to do with what they’re doing from day-to-day. The way to break up myopia is simply to take away the blinders and look everywhere. You force different kinds of experiments. Similarly, when a graduate student now goes to a post doc, I tell them, “Don’t do a post doc in the same field that you did your graduate work. Do something completely different. And then be able to utilize those two experiences to do whatever you want to do.” (Note: After completion of a Ph.D., graduate students in molecular biology frequently acquire additional training as a ‘Post-doctoral fellow’ in a laboratory different from where they earned their degree prior to gaining employment. This is similar to the “residency training” that typically follows receipt of a medical degree.)
On the Future of Science In your lecture you were joking about the iPad, and now again you’ve mentioned technology. Technology is obviously advancing rapidly, and so science is following suit. What do you see as the next big scientific frontier?
Our interview would be incomplete, and we’d be doing everyone a disservice, if we didn’t ask you about winning the Nobel Prize. Linus Pauling, when he won his multiple prizes (the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954, and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962), was nothing short of boastful. But Richard Feynman received the Prize (for Physics in 1965) and described it as a burden because he couldn’t go to physics clubs and talk anymore. Has it changed you? How do you feel about the award?
It’s not an accident that we’re working on behavior and how the brain works because that’s what we know least about. So, that will be the new frontier. When we’re talking, we’re actually processing information in milliseconds. If I want to find out where in your brain you’re thinking about an apple, I stick you in an MRI machine and you sit there for fifteen minutes concentrating on that apple. And pretty soon, they can hone in probably on what area of your brain is actually thinking about that apple. That’s six orders of magnitude of separation—seven orders of separa-
I always look at it as an accolade for the people that have been working with me. One is, it’s a shared prize, and the other is that it’s about something in the past. It’s gratifying, but it doesn’t really change your life at all. What’s interesting is what you are doing now and what direction you’re going, and can you do what you want to do and have the resources to do it. To me, it is sort of a handicap in the sense that the expectations are higher. Turns out, it’s not
improving. We’re now trying to get a machine tion between what we want—because when that essentially allows us to visualize neurons we talk, we process information in millisecat a single-cell level right in your living head onds, whereas here it takes fifteen minutes just by penetrating. Now, we can go about a for me to figure out where in your brain you’re millimeter in, we can’t go too far—but that’s thinking about that apple. Obviously, we’re reasonable. There’s a lot of things happening going to have to break that down—way, in that space. So we can make better reportway down—many orders of magnitude. How ers, we can make better ways of being able quickly can we acquire information so that to capture that reporter and make it faster. we’re at the same speed, essentially, as And incrementally, six orders or seven orders what you’re thinking? But I have absolute of magnitude is going confidence it’s going to to be no problem, even happen. One is because though right now we we need it. The other is It’s always a discrimination, have no idea what’s that we know it’s going to essentially, of signal-to-noise, going to happen. be heavily influenced by What I always do essentially the capabilwhich is, again, a computer is ask, “What can’t I ity of computers. And we problem. So, even though now do? What do I want to know how quickly that’s accomplish?,” and then rising. You can plot it out. we really can’t figure out how try to figure out is there And it’s always a disthe brain works, I’m confident a way of getting from A crimination, essentially, that in ten, fifteen, twenty to B. I mentioned, for of signal-to-noise, which years, we’ll have that capability. example, that we can is, again, a computer change now 100,000 problem. So, even though And even though I don’t know base pairs at a time. now we really can’t figure exactly how that’s going to We’d like to be able to out how the brain works, happen, I can contribute to that. do millions. I don’t know I’m confident that in ten, fifteen, twenty years, I can make better “reporters” to how to do that. But we’re working directly we’ll have that capability. detect biological changes. on that problem because And even though I don’t if I can do millions, all of know exactly how that’s a sudden I can do things going to happen, I can I can’t conceive of right now doing and make contribute to that. I can make better “reportit economical. So those are the ways that I go ers” to detect biological changes. Right now, about seeing what’s needed and then what it we use fluorescence—we use poor jellyfish. would take to get there. And it’s pretty easy to (Note: Jellyfish produce proteins, such as see what you don’t know. We know about this the notorious “Green Fluorescent Protein” or much (holds his thumb and forefinger about “GFP,” that convey the ability to ‘glow’ fluoan inch apart), so what we don’t know is huge rescently when the genes for these proteins (holds his hands 2-3 feet apart). And what are transferred to other organisms.) They you have to do is be selective. And there, have multiple fluorescent colors—thousands it’s what’s your passion is. What informaof colors—so the spectrum is no problem. But tion are you interested in to guide you in this the problem is that if I’m sitting out here and direction—because the choices are infinite. something’s happening inside your brain, I can’t see it. It gets scattered and I can’t get it Having practiced science myself, I have out of your skull. But even that technology is
stumbled upon many road blocks in trying
Courtesy of Florida Center for Instructional Technology
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C O N V E R S A T I O N to answer questions. I was curious about some of the road blocks you have encountered. It seems as though you almost relish in those blocks. You’re sort of looking for them. Sure. Sure. That’s what I was brought up with from my aunt and uncle. They had a favorite saying: “The difficult we do right away. The impossible takes a little longer.” I’ve said that every day, and I don’t think it’s a bad motto.
You were talking about looking at very rapid reporters or ways to detect millisecond-scale changes. Your career is built on manipulating genes, and what you’re proposing probably isn’t going to involve manipulating genes because that’s a much— on a molecular level—slower process. So, any idea on how you’re going to… Some of it will be genes. Because when you have an experience, you have two systems, essentially: you have what’s called “shortterm memory,” where you put the memory of the experience in one place, and then, if your brain thinks it’s good enough, it takes the memory and puts it into “long-term memory.” That latter process is a molecular process, and then genes have to fire and do things to get the information stored in your brain. The initial part (i.e., the short-term memory part) probably isn’t genetic in nature. It’s too quick, and how we process information is much too quick to have molecular changes. But there’s a technology now that’s just getting into it. It’s called “optigenetics” and takes advantage of ocean creatures that utilize light to open and close channels. (Note: “Channels” are small, protein ‘pores’ in the outer surfaces of cells—cell membranes—that open and close when signaled in some manner, in this case with a beam of light.) They get a wave of light and utilize that energy to open up channels and start pumping, for example, sodium into the cells, to get these cells “fired up.” Now I can put the gene for the light-responsive channel in any cell in your body, including
particular neurons. So, now we can shine a light, and the mouse goes in a circle. Turn off the light and it stops. No matter what behavior, we can do that. So, now all of sudden we have triggers that work at the speed of light, which is about as fast as you can get. Through optigenetics, you now have a way of working in much less than a couple of seconds; the response time is extremely quick. And there are many, many different lightresponsive channels—you can excite, you can silence, you can do anything you want. On that time scale, it makes it feasible for us now to look at our behavioral aspects and put them under those controls and to actually break them down and figure out what a certain behavior is all about.
That’s a lot of data acquisition that, without computers and the technology to store and put all that together… Massive amounts of data. We knew the complexity, but we didn’t have the tools to handle the complexity. But now, all of a sudden, we do. We can handle enormous data sets. And the projects I’m thinking about, I’m going to be storing gigantic amounts of data sets. Way beyond comprehension.
When you came to the United States, American scientists were at the forefront of leading the scientific revolution, especially in molecular biology and molecular genetics. But now—I don’t know if it’s a feeling shared throughout the world—you get the sense that we’ve kind of fallen from grace. Do you share that view, and why or why not? It’s easy to see where it is. There’s a country called China. It has a very large GNP, and they’re putting a much larger fraction of their GNP into research than what we are, and doing it at an enormous rate. So you can see where the next competition’s going to be. Right now NIH’s (National Institutes of Health) budget is dropping precipitously. We want
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says, “Oh my God, this is a bad time to go to be more and more conservative at a time when we actually should be the opposite. into science,” and they’re reluctant to go in. Then all of a sudden they see it risWe should actually be spending more and ing, and then they want to get into it. And more because that’s the only way to get out. If you’re going down and you keep tightening they’re always a little bit out of phase. The other aspect of it is that we have one your belt, all you can do is keep going down enormous advantage, and that’s enormous because there’s nothing coming to replace diversity. Once we start closing the gap on it. So, I think it is a disastrous course we’re having immigration, that will start to limit on. I’m hoping that people will realize that. If diversity. Essentially, diversity is simply you look at the history of any country, what again looking at life from different perspecyou can see is the amount of money they put tives. That’s where new things come in. We into research is proportional to that country’s have to encourage that diversity. We have to gain in scientific advancement. As soon as a encourage supplying money for new ideas country gets complacent and says, “Oh boy, and thoughts. My role is to tell students, we’ve arrived,” then somebody else goes be“Don’t worry about this drop. It’ll go back up yond that. I think we are on that road. It’s new again. Just go for what technology which spurs you’re interested in. Go making new products after your passion. That and maintaining innovaThere’s a country called China. formula will eventution. But I think we’re It has a very large GNP, and ally help you out.” going to go through a they’re putting a much larger little bit of tumbles and What percentage of the some reality checks. fraction of their GNP into
It’s sad to say, but science has a lot to do with money. An enormous amount. That’s the engine essentially that drives economics.
research than what we are, and doing it at an enormous rate. So you can see where the next competition’s going to be.
What advice would you give a young, budding scientist to spur his interest in the sciences? What I want to try to get at is, nowadays, you see more and more kids staying indoors with technology which we’re so big on. We’ve talked about how technology is essential to the progress of science, and yet I think you can look at it just the other way. Because they’re staying indoors, watching TV, and playing video games, they’re not being exposed to a lot of other things. I’m always an optimist. In terms of the drop in funding, a student looks at it and
grants that are submitted are funded now? Right now it’s probably roughly 8%.
And it’s been hanging in there for quite some time, right? When I first got into science—I was one of those young idealists who got in when it was good—it was in the 20s. Yeah, 20%. And that’s where it should be. To have it at 50% or 60% would be a travesty. But I think it’s safe to say that 1/5 of those ideas are worth pursuing. No funding agency is going to be perfect in choosing what that 20% should be. It’s a human endeavor. The only safe thing I can say about human endeavors when it involves multiple people is: it’s unpredictable. And I’d much rather have peers deciding what I do than non-peers.
Than voters, right?
C O N V E R S A T I O N Right. So the process is pretty good. And the other thing that’s really unique to the U.S.—it’s just amazing, and everybody knows it’s good, but nobody else applies it—is giving a chance to young scientists. If you think you have a good idea and you’re an assistant professor in a lab, you submit a grant proposal, you get money, and you can do it. That’s unique to the United States. And England’s not too bad at that. They actually have one additional thing that they’ve worked out, which is much riskier. People like Kendrew, for example, who worked out the structure of hemoglobin, would have never survived in this country. Perutz would have never survived in this country, simply because they were working on a problem for 25 years as opposed to five years. And then they got the results and the Nobel Prize. (Note: John Kendrew and Max Perutz shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1962 for their studies of globular protein structure.) In this country, we’re always tied to that five year cycle. So, every five years you have to be productive. Gene targeting took ten years to develop.
That’s why you came to Utah, or at least from what I’ve read, because where you were they were expecting those quick turnarounds. (Note: Dr. Capecchi left Harvard University to join the Faculty at the University of Utah in 1973.) And you found that at least at Utah you would have some of that latitude to do longer-term projects. Are you saying now that, regardless, you can’t move anywhere in the U.S. where you would be allowed that? (Shaking his head affirmatively) To do really long-term. We were very lucky that four years into our grant cycle, we could go back and say, “Now we’re making headway and this is why. Here’s the evidence for it.” Had that not happened, I think we would have been in trouble. But I think really long-term things are still difficult. And the project I’m working on now that they triaged, I’ve been working on that
problem for about ten years already, and I still don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m faithful that it’s there. One criteria I always use is, if you look out in life and somehow “it” can do it, then I say, “at least it’s possible.” I may not know how it’s doing it, but I know it’s possible. Things like gene targeting, in a sense, were being done—bacteria could do it all the time. And so I knew they could do it, I just didn’t know how they did it. It took ten years to figure out how they do it. Life is pretty amazing, and it has a lot of tricks.
Harvard than it is at Utah. There’s no question about it. Some of that is simply that there are more committee members from Harvard. It’s simply that that’s who they know.
They’re not doing better science, they just have more connections. Right. More connections. Partly what’s considered important in science is sort of subjective. There are groups in certain areas that are saying, “This is important.” And if there’s more of them in positions of mak-
ing decisions, then that’s what’s going to be funded. We at the University of Utah are at a slight disadvantage, but on the other hand in genetics, we’ve now proven ourselves to be as good as anybody. And that reputation eventually does catch on. And so if you want to do genetics, Utah’s a fantastic place to come. We have resources that nobody else has—Stanford, or whatever it is.
Thank you so much for your time. It was a real pleasure.
So, you came to the University of Utah because they allowed for that latitude, and they harness that synergistic approach to science. Do you feel they’ve maintained that attitude? Have they gone away from it? Joel Hancock was born and raised in Ogden, Utah. He enjoys all things outdoors and played the quarterback position on Weber State University's football team under Coach McBride. Joel graduated from WSU with a degree in Zoology in 2011 and currently attends medical school at the University of Utah.
No, it’s still that attitude because, you know, in Boston you have 50 universities in a very small region. Here we don’t have that. So, each university has to be much more self-sustaining. And the only way to accomplish that is by working together. And the other aspect of it is, we hire people that enjoy working synergistically, people that enjoy talking about science together, and so on. If a person’s a great scientist and doesn’t want to talk to anybody, I’m happy that they’re out there, but why not have them at another institution? They’ll be just as effective there as they are in your own neighborhood. The whole time I’ve been here, the University of Utah has been in growth. We’ve been hiring people every year. And we always go after young people. You always have to look for your future. We’re eventually going to die, and if we haven’t put in the resources to allow that to continue, then we’re going to have the thing fall down.
Zackary Goff is a recent graduate from Weber State University's Zoology department, where he earned numerous recognitions for his work, including the Organic Chemistry Award, the Sudir Kumar scholarship, and the Zoology departmental Earl W. Smart scholarship. He has also presented his research on the influence of ultraviolet reflectance on seed disbursal by ants at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research. He has just started medical school, where his knowledge of physiology and molecular biology are already of great benefit to him.
Barbara Trask is an Associate Professor in the Department of Zoology and Associate Dean in the College of Science at Weber State University, where she has taught since 2003. Her Ph.D. in Molecular Cell Biology from Washington University in St. Louis has helped her to mentor dozens of undergraduate students as they research such varied topics as lung diseases, extracellular proteins in fish development, naturopathic treatments for cancer, and damage to DNA caused by electromagnetic radiation.
What do you look for in those young people that you’re hiring? One is enjoyment, synergy, being good teachers, and being confident. There are handicaps—it’s a lot easier to get a grant at
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C O N V E R S A T I O N
On War, Africa, and the Writing Self— A Conversation with Alexandra Fuller
PRELUDE Raised in Central Africa by ex-pat British parents, Alexandra Fuller has built a career around writing with unflinching honesty about her experiences growing up in the midst of the Rhodesian Bush War. Her debut book Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood earned her a New York Times Notable Book for 2002. Her 2004 narrative Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier expanded on that attempt at understanding a war-torn country and won her the Ulysses Prize for the Art of Reportage. As a child, Ms. Fuller, indeed, learned to load and fire a variety of guns in order to protect herself from the dangers of the war in Rhodesia. Her father was conscripted and her mother was a police reservist. Indeed, the young Ms. Fuller grew up to the sound of gun fire, and her war experiences have left a permanent impression on her thinking and writing. Fuller attended college at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada, where she earned a B.A. During breaks from school, Fuller would return to visit her family in Africa. It was then, in her early twenties, that she married an American river guide and moved to the United States. Her creative non-fiction book The Legend of Colton H. Bryant is centered in the American West and tells the story of Colton Bryant’s tragic death due to a fall from a Wyoming oil rig. It was published in 2008 and was a Toronto Globe and Mail Best
Non-Fiction Book of 2008. Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Fuller’s most recent book, speaks intimately about Fuller’s parents and her family’s fight to establish a life in a land they are possessed by. As an author, Ms. Fuller is committed to telling the truth, whether it’d be about her mother’s battle with mental illness, the effects of war on a white Rhodesian veteran, or the tragic death of a Wyoming oil rig worker. She doesn’t turn away from difficult subjects, but rather explores them by telling the stories of real people with all their positive and troublesome traits. Her purpose is not political, in the narrow sense, but to be truthful. I had the privilege of interviewing Ms. Fuller in April, 2012, when she was a featured author at the National Undergraduate Literature Conference at Weber State University, and want to thank her for her time and generosity. Ms Fuller was generous to our students as well. Prior to our conversation, she spoke to an audience made up primarily of students and passionately described her childhood, her experiences with war, and her commitment to social justice. She reiterated the importance of telling the truth regardless of the difficulty in doing so, and willingly signed copies of her books. She was patient, kind, and encouraging, and clearly as interested in student writers as she is in telling the stories of behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.
CONVERSATION When I read Scribbling the Cat, I remember your dad saying to you something about “going off this Rhodesian veteran is going to be something like scribbling a cat.” Why that particular title? Curiosity killed the cat. I used this particular title because scribbling is one of the euphemisms for killing.
Thank you for the clarification. I thought that Scribbling the Cat was really interesting but it was also difficult—I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that. I found it difficult because K was such a struggling character. My husband is a Vietnam War veteran and I’ve spent time with him talking to other pilots, and they talk about war experiences, and so I’m familiar with the talk. K seemed really damaged to me. Well, you know, the difference between going off and fighting in Vietnam and coming back, as far as I can tell, is you come back. These people lived in the theater of their war. Civil war is very different from fighting a war on someone else’s soil—you’re not constantly haunted by the landscape and the people. They’re right there—I wanted to explore that. K was the only person I could find who would talk in that detail about what had happened. And they went back and lived where they had fought their war, because that is where they had felt the most intensely at home. The war went on for so long. By the time my dad finished, he was fighting six months a year. It was very costly.
How long did your dad do that? Well, they kept upping it and upping it and upping it. He saw truly active service for six years, but the war really started in the 60s. At first the army dealt with it, then they had conscription, then it was
everyone. I remember men between the years of 18 and 60 were conscripted.
Oh my goodness. It’s not supposed to be a comfortable book. War’s not comfortable at all. Writing about it is not comfortable either. It was interesting to me how personally people took the book.
I don’t have any experience with war. I know my father did in WWII, but he would never talk to me about it. He never talked to my first sister either; he only talked to my youngest sister—when enough time had passed. She also lived at home longer than the rest of us did, so there were opportunities for him to talk. In the meantime, he’d gone back to Italy with my mother, on a tour to re-visit some of the hill towns. He found it both invigorating and emotionally draining. I don’t personally have any male friends who were in Vietnam. The only friends I have who were in Vietnam were those I met later as an adult and who were colleagues of my husband’s. They had a different perspective because of the years of separation. Growing up, everyone I knew, every male that I knew, over the age of 18, usually 17, was a soldier. My mother was a police reservist. I mean, everyone around me was conscripted, all of our fathers. There was no exemption. I didn’t know there was such a thing as peace. No one ever thought to tell us that war isn’t what happens; I didn’t know peace was an option. I never had a memory of peace. My earliest memories are of already being at war. Once my mind was old enough to hold onto a memory, war had started.
That’s very traumatizing. I wonder, and I’m not diminishing that at all, do you think because that’s what you first knew,
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you reacted differently to it than if you had been older and had been brought into it? There’s no way of knowing, is there?
while. I think the power of it is stronger in what you just said than in what I got from Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.
I don’t know. People said if you were a child, you weren’t involved; it wasn’t your fault—rubbish. It’s absolute rubbish—being given a machine gun at six and being told how to kill someone, or how to hurt them, that’s a serious amount of involvement.
Well, it also just was, you know. I think the thing I was really trying to steer away from was a book of therapy. I am completely allergic to that idea.
K was an interesting character. His life was terrible and he lost his son. His marI would say so. You were completely conriage failed, and he takes on a very austere sumed by it. religious practice. That is very extreme. But I also got the sense You are old enough to toward the end of the feel guilty. You have all book that he’d actually There are a thousand dirty those feelings of guilt developed a very strong and survivor’s guilt. From little wars. That ownership attachment to you. a very early age, I was He’d fallen in love with over women, that dominion, aware of the fact that, beyou.
that sense that you give a cause I was female, I was protected somewhat. The Definitely, but it was man a gun and say, “okay, boys were raised rough ownership. He wasn’t well, actually we remove the at boarding school; it was in love with me. These brutal, brutal, brutal. They commandment, ‘thou shall not poor men had this idea beat the living daylights that if they had a gun, kill,’” you know. “Thou shall out of them. Those rural they could wave it at rape” is a pretty close second boarding schools were anything they wanted commandment. Once you’ve like little military training and they owned it. They camps. You’ve got a seven removed that morality, your had no way to have a year old coming into relationship, and that is whole mind has switched. boarding school. In ten confusing in the book— years he’s going to be givyou don’t go on and on en a gun and fighting for and on about it in the you. All of our male teachers had been in the book— but in real life, I kept saying to him, war, had all come back from the front dam“you know, even if you were the last man aged. The women were all slightly scarred; on earth, I’d have absolutely nothing to do they were married to men who were off fightwith you. I’m not attracted to you. I find your ing. The school got mortared. It was a ridicureligion slightly repellent, and I find you actulous idea that, as a child, you’re not involved. ally slightly repellent.” We were very honest with one another. But he had decided that I I don’t think I understood quite the magwas a possession of his, which is a very, very nitude of that experience. What you just common way for soldiers to have relationsaid clarifies a lot. You do touch on that in ships. There was no de-mobbing at the end of the book, but a little bit differently. Your the war. No one ever went to them and said, mom goes into the police department and “we take it all back, you’re not all-powerful.” you go with her, or your dad’s off for a The extrapolation of that is, imagine be-
C O N V E R S A T I O N ing a Congolese woman—3,000 Congolese women were raped. This is going on all the time, and yet those men that are doing the raping are the Ks. I mean, there are a million Ks across Africa. There are a thousand dirty little wars. That ownership over women, that dominion, that sense that you give a man a gun and say, “okay, well, actually we remove the commandment, ‘thou shall not kill,’” you know. “Thou shall rape” is a pretty close second commandment. Once you’ve removed that kind of morality, your whole mind has switched. I found it amazing how much I had to explain this to people. People really morally judged me: “you knew he was in love with you, and yet you were still with him.”
If that’s possible.
Your last book Cocktail Hour seems softer in your portrayal of your parents. Was there some sort of a process you went through in analyzing and thinking about your life that led you to that softer voice?
Age is a wonderful softening. My children are growing up, and I’ve come to appreciate my mother. When I wrote Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, she had been in the lunatic asylum four years earlier, and she was barely coming out of herself. It took her awhile to get truly over that madness. She had been away from when I was about 11, or 14, somewhere in there. She began to lose Mental illness is a horrible, her mind. It’s really not What was the alternative something you go on and under the circumstances? horrible thing to live on on and on about, but as a the other end of. It’s not daughter it’s very difficult. Right, I needed to know like a disease you can touch Mental illness is a horthis about these people. or feel. It’s not like, “oh, rible, horrible thing to live This is a story, as far as I on the other end of. It’s know, about people that mom’s got cancer, or some not like a disease you can hasn’t been told. But there other thing.” It’s terrifying, touch or feel. It’s not like, is no clean sterile way to it’s unpredictable. “oh, mom’s got cancer, make war or peace. I don’t or some other thing.” It’s think there’s a clean sterile terrifying, it’s unpredictway to make art—where able. And so, by the time you don’t get involved. I wrote this book, she was able to be quite I know plenty of journalists who say coherent about her life and the way that she they’ve done it, but it shows in the sort hadn’t been there for me before that. I had of “deadness” of their work. And anyway, a very different perspective. She is there it’s not what I do, I’m not a journalist. for me as a mother now, in a way that she I understand that, I think you made that really wasn’t for most of my childhood—not very clear. The whole situation was brutal that she didn’t try. She made a great effort and there was no redemption. These solas a mother, but she had a lot going on.
diers, as well as the victims, are still paying for the damage. Yeah, people want redemption and a happy ending but not out of war.
Well, let’s leave war behind and talk about something else.
You experienced the highs and the lows, mania and depression. It’s possible to see these patterns as you look back on them, and think, “oh yeah, I see these patterns in your mother’s behavior.” In the last book though, I really like the fact that you went into your parents’ background. You went
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back and spent time with your aunt and her husband—you more fully fleshed out those characters. The first book isn’t about my mother at all, it’s about me. It was about a childhood, other people come and go. There are cameo people. But your mother is very important; school, in our case, was very important; the people around you are very important. As a child you assume that they’ve been plunked there by God. You don’t really realize that they go back, that they too have a story.
before.” That’s kind of the irony that you find sometimes when you’re talking across cultures—that sometimes the important information is what you don’t imagine is important, and you don’t provide it. I don’t think that I would say that, for my father, it’s cross culture anymore.
No, but that was an unexpected piece of information. If he had known that this would have sealed the deal, he would have said it sooner.
Yeah, but you never know. That particular When you’re at a certain age, you don’t chief is so eccentric. Dad is 72, and he’s know what else surrounds you; you just been out there, in Africa, since he was 27. know what you experience. That’s what It’s his identity. It will be you were showing. I 50 years next year that still like that additional he’s lived there. If you information you provide in see him, it does not look the last book, because you It’s very hard for people like he fits in the West. are looking from a broader to imagine that you can perspective. I love the talk be African and not black. I’ve spend a lot of time about your crazy relatives around ex-patriates and and the Aunt, and the high I’ve been one. There is a school reunion—a lengthdifference that comes from ier perspective—which I that experience. found very nice. It’s more grown up, and it should be, you know.
How long have your Mom and Dad been on this farm in Zambia? On the one that they’re on right now, which is the subject of the last book, Dad got that land in 2000. That year they moved out of a tent and into a hut. So the first time I stayed on there, in a reed hut with a thatch roof, was in 2000, but they got the land a little before that. It took forever to clear it; they did it by hand, with a donkey.
I thought it was ironic that it took him so long to get the land, and then when he said, “well, my wife’s a healer,” the local villagers said, “oh, well, if we had known that
But there is also this point where they aren’t ex-patriates anymore. I would not ever consider them ex-patriates. I think there’s a point when you’ve given birth on a continent and buried your children on a continent. It was mom’s grandfather that came out. They aren’t ex-patriates anymore than Americans coming here are ex-patriates. My parents are home. I mean, I don’t have a memory or idea of them living anywhere else. So my sister’s kids are the fifth generation. You’d never ask a fifth generation American, who had lost their house and their children, why didn’t you leave and go back to Bulgaria, or wherever. But it’s very hard for people to imagine that you can be African and not black.
I don’t know whether this is true of just Americans, or if it’s true of Canadians and
C O N V E R S A T I O N the British and Australians as well, but I think there is a kind of assumption that if you’re not here, you’re not in the right place. Well, it’s the opposite. When my parents were growing up, if you weren’t British, you were a failed attempt at being British. I think the Americans feel that—why wouldn’t you want to be over here? If you aren’t American, aren’t you just a failed attempt at being American?
but you talk about it enough, you look at enough, and you speak about it enough, or you defend it enough, or you explore other people’s ideas about it enough, that eventually it becomes clear to you why you did it. For me, writing is a kind of death, every book. Every book kills the person who wrote it.
By the time you get done, you’ve become someone different than the person that you were when you started.
Maybe that’s because it’s a silly question. I don’t think I even think I’ve become someEven here in Utah, I jokingly say, “well, I one different. I’ve just sloughed off that part, haven’t been in Utah long enough to be a and maybe I started out like that, and there’s Utahan.” This is my twentieth year here, this much of me left. By the end, how lovely, but according to some Utahans, I’m not a it will be very easy to die. I’ll just lie down and Utahan, I’m one of those that will be it, there’ll be people from Oregon. nothing left to kill off. But I don’t know that What you are really writI think it’s about exploring I would call myself a ing out of you is ego, is this idea of fighting for place Utahan. I think your your sense of self. Once identity of place is very and fighting for identity—and it’s on the paper, it stops important, but I think being yours, it stops bebecoming so connected to it it’s more important to ing so important in some some individuals than it that it becomes a war. You very fundamental way. I is to others. can only speak for what I can’t underestimate what that
do, which is non-fiction, does to a person, to yourself That’s not important to I don’t know if fiction is me at all, not like it is for at a very early age, that there different. I have a friend my mother; it just isn’t who does murder mysteris such violence over identity. for me in the same way. ies, and he doesn’t at all It’s made me very suspicious It’s not that it didn’t used have that experience. A to be, but over time, it of identity, and I’m not crazy book for him is an idea— has worn off. I think it’s he’s a writer in that about labels as a result. about exploring this idea particular way. He isn’t of fighting for place and exploring life through fighting for identity—and his own life and words, becoming so connected to it that it becomes which is what I do. I get to the end of a book, a war. You can’t underestimate what that and I don’t fit into the clothes I wore at the does to a person, to yourself at a very early beginning. They just don’t suit me anymore; age, that there is such violence over identity. I’m just really not that person. I have to go It’s made me very suspicious of identity, to the consignment store and start over. and I’m not crazy about labels as a result. It took me until The Legend of Colton H. BryI have never thought about it that way. ant before I realized that’s what it is, that It does change you; you’re different than is the way that writing is therapy. You don’t you were. Part of it is the discovery, part know at the time what you’re really seeing, of it might be whatever it is that you’re
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experiencing in your daily writing makes a difference in who you are now. Yeah, or how much less of you there is (Laughter), which is good. I don’t discriminate between what is so-called good or bad in me. It just is, it’s there. I’m really strongly un-attached to the idea of myself.
and said, “Oh my gosh, you have got to read this book, it’s wonderful!” And so, when I read it, I realized it was not what I thought it was.
I know the sorts of books you’re talking about, and I dislike them too. They’re very revisionist. In a way, this was my answer to all of that revisionist rubbish. “No, nothCould you share something about what you ing’s really going on, we didn’t know what are currently working on? the government was doing . . . rubbish!” You could not have been 100,000 closet liberals It’s such a fragile thing. It’s like someone living in Rhodesia without me noticing. I also saying, how far along in the gestation of the think that what Robert Mugabe has turned out fetus are you, and you don’t really know how to be is an absolute unmitigated master who’s pregnant you are. It is such a delicate process. a monster. But it’s not, therefore, that Ian And you never know if it’s Smith was okay, which going to be a miscarriage, is often the leap that’s as an awful lot of my work made. (Editor’s note: Ian is. There I am, trucking The most controversial thing Smith was Rhodesia’s along, thinking I’m doing premier from 1965 to in the book that I’ve just something, and it ends up 1979, who unilaterwritten about is the chemical doing nothing. I’ve been ally declared Rhodesia’s working on Cocktail Hour and biological warfare—it’s independence from since I finished Don’t Let’s the United Kingdom). not talked about, it’s the dirty Go to the Dogs Tonight. Okay for whom is what I So it’s been eleven years. little secret. It’s hard to get want to know? The most good evidence on it, which I controversial thing in I have something to the book that I’ve just found mostly because of the confess, and I wouldn’t written about is the say this to you if we Truth and Reconciliation chemical and biological hadn’t had this long Commission in South Africa. warfare—it’s not talked conversation. I had seen about, it’s the dirty little your first book, and I secret. It’s hard to get would pick it up and I good evidence on it, would put it down, and which I found mostly because of the Truth and I would pick it up and I would put it down. Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. A And someone said to me, “oh, have you lot of the operants who were doing the chemiread that book?” and I said, “I don’t think cal and biological warfare were coming out of I want to read about Brits in Rhodesia. I South Africa; it was sort of their Petri dish— don’t want to see that country through that they were using Rhodesia as an experiment. eye.” I emailed a friend of mine in New You ask someone like Peter Godwin, and he York City that I have had for years and we will say, “oh, no it wasn’t happening.” But it taught together in the Middle East. I said, was, of course it was, but it’s because he’s beI have this opportunity to do an interview come so virulently anti-Mugabe that it’s made with Alexandra Fuller, and I am going to it impossible for him to recognize that there read her books, but I haven’t read any of were faults in the other. Godwin co-wrote a them. She replied to me after two seconds
C O N V E R S A T I O N very good book with Ian Hancock called Rhodesians Never Die. It’s a very difficult book to get a hold of, it may even be out of print, but it was the most clear-eyed history of the Rhodesian wars that might still be in existence, as far as I know. In other words, I am not sure that there has been a better book about the Rhodesian war, but he really talks about how, after the war, there was so much unresolved anger, there was never a proper resolution. There was the Lancaster House Agreement, but there weren’t reparations. The whites lost, but no one ever said, “Alright, you lost, you need to give up half your land or a quarter of your land, or a certain percentage. You know we’ve got to re-distribute the wealth.” That never happened at the beginning of the peace, so I think it’s essential that at the end of a war there be reparations, there be some kind of reconciliation that acknowledges the injustice of the 1923 Land Appropriations Act. That never happened. And so, in a way, it happened on its own. Mugabe isn’t able to exist with absolutely no support. He’s a monster, but he has the support of the people in the rural areas who were living in the, what were called “Tribal Trust Lands” during the Rhodesian war. They were living miserable, awful lives. It’s in Cocktail Hour, and, by the way, if you are over the age of 16, you will be shot on sight if you leave your corral. You don’t re-
cover from that. Godwin was on the BBC after Ian Smith died, talking about what a good leader Ian Smith had been, and that he had had some sort of vision for the country. You can’t revise history in that way and expect . . .
Made things better for them. Mugabe’s supporters are still starving, and they still have cholera, and whatever, and there’s still violence, but it’s very difficult to get in there and interview in the rural areas in that particular way. Their lives are difficult, and HIV/AIDS has taken over, and where there had been clinics there now are none. But there were never any clinics in the Tribal Trust Lands anyway. There were clinics and schools on the farms, and it was not difficult to find the interview, and people loved to do it, where you speak to some old guy who said it was much better in the Ian Smith years for us. But you’ve got to dig deeper than that. You can’t go find some old guy who was very well taken care of, on a farm in a very patriarchic society, and given a sack of maize every month and a sack of fish and a sack of oil. Yeah, people didn’t starve, and, yes, there were schools on farms—my mother had a clinic on a farm— but that didn’t make it right.
Thank you for your time.
Originally from Portland, Oregon, Kathleen Herndon has always been interested in new cultures and travel. After graduating from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, she taught in Salem, Port-au-Prince (Haiti), Isfahan (Iran), and Dubai (United Arab Emirates), before returning to the U.S. to complete an Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction at Vanderbilt University. She joined the Weber State University faculty in 1989. Her specialties are English Teaching, Film and Literature Studies, and Middle Eastern Women Writers. She is currently the Chair of the English Department.
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F I C T I O N
Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner
Happy or Sad, It's Up to Me An Excerpt from the Novel Cautionary Tales
Richard Van Wagoner, You've Got To Love It, Watercolor, 44" x 53"
Dan Craig—1:40 p.m.
he Christophers’ was your standard kitchen, not the newest appliances, though neither were they ancient. Seventies-era Formica and linoleum in blazing autumnal colors, cupboards that had seen better days. But it was clean and well-organized, and the kitchen table appeared fairly new, a solid oak piece with tasteful chairs. The fridge exterior was a magnetized gallery of Joshua’s artwork, standard Crayola fare, a clipped cartoon or two, a few printed scriptures from the Book of Mormon, the kind of thing handed out in Relief Society or Sunday School. Craig took particular notice of one quote, matted nicely behind a Plexiglas holder: “Happy or Sad, it’s up to me. I can make the right choice!” “Can I get you something to drink?” Melissa Christopher asked. “Coke, orange juice, water. I’m afraid we don’t drink coffee, but I have some herbal tea.”
F I C T I O N of chamomile from the box and dropped it in the mug. She put all the boxes back in the cupboard. “There are all sorts of things we’d do differently if we knew how they were going to turn out,” Craig said. She laughed tearfully. “Josh loves being a big boy. He turned five two weeks ago. He was so proud of himself. Finally old enough to start school in the fall. It used to make me nervous, sending him to Billy’s alone. I got used to it too soon, I guess.” She pressed her sleeve against her upper lip, under her nose, then put both hands flat on the counter top. “Isn’t that what parenthood’s all about, learning to live with all the dangers we know we can’t really protect our children from?” The warming kettle had begun to click and sigh. Craig waited, saying nothing. She turned around and faced him. “I’d do anything to bring him back. I will do anything. But I want you to know, except for sending Josh to Billy’s party alone, my husband and I had nothing to do with his disappearance.” Craig nodded. “I expect that’s true.” She studied the detective. The heat was still there, but Craig sensed no anger. She stepped to the refrigerator and removed a two-liter bottle of Coke. The thing hissed when she unscrewed the lid. “Do you think we’ll find him?”—as though this was not the only question that mattered. She proceeded to fill the glass and replace the lid. Finally, she looked up, waiting for his answer. “I don’t know, Mrs. Christopher. Usually we do. Sometimes when we find them, it’s too late.” “And then there are times you never find them.” “Once in a while. Yes.” She thought about this for a minute. Her questions, Craig suspected, were less about the information they generated than a test of how honestly he would answer. She already knew the answers. She seemed to be coming to some decision. “I’m sorry about my behavior in there with my husband.” She returned the bottle to the refrigerator, then offered a limp, defeated wave in the direction of the living room. “It must have seemed cruel to you.” Craig shrugged. “I’ve never had a child disappear. I can only imagine the stress you’re under.” The kettle began to sigh, the steam whispering through the tiny aperture. Melissa dialed off the flame and filled the mug with hot water. “Sugar or milk?” “No, thank you.” She took a spoon from a drawer, carried the mug and spoon to the table, retrieved a saucer from a cupboard and placed it over the mug. She found her Coke on the counter, then returned to the table and sat down across from Craig.
It was an effort, her politeness, a simple gesture of Herculean proportions, and Craig’s heart went out to her. It never ceased to amaze him, the gentle courage, the considerate graces, offered by suffering people. Pain did not always bring out the worst in a person. Sometime it distilled the very best. Mrs. Christopher was composed, entirely present. There was none of the distraction Craig had seen upon arriving, nothing of the fury he’d witnessed in the exchange with her husband only a few moments earlier. It was all gone, and Craig could not tell whether the resolve he saw in her now was artifice or the real thing. Either way, he admired it. “Tea would be nice, thank you.” He slipped his microcassette recorder from his jacket pocket, turned it on. Showing it to her, he put it on the table. “Do you mind?” She turned away, shaking her head. Craig took the moment to watch her work. She was an attractive woman, late twenties or early thirties, a bit Rubenesque. She wore a loose jumper, her feet bare and white, the nails painted fire-engine red, a welcome contrast to the aging, yellow-specked linoleum floor. From where Craig sat, he could see the better part of Melissa Christopher’s profile, and as she filled the teakettle, she fingered back her hair, lank and tangled now from her time outside searching in the rain for her son. Catching her fingers, she seemed for an instant aware of her disheveled condition, a ghost of recognition manifest in her labored return to a particular snarl. The corners of her eyes webbed with the effort, then she gave it up, her hair no less unruly than before. She shut off the tap and put the kettle on to boil. Turning, she anchored the heels of her hands on the counter behind her. Gravity weighted her pretty features, and her face seemed, for an instant, cast in wax, plied with a softening heat. Only her eyes were hard, their connection with Craig’s unwavering. “My husband and I, we’re suspects, I assume.” Tough, this one. Craig couldn’t help it—he liked her. “Yes, ma’am. The parents are almost always suspects at the beginning of an investigation like this.” She seemed strangely satisfied with the detective’s answer. Opening a cupboard, she removed a mug and a drinking glass. From another, she took down a few boxes of bagged teas. She set them on the counter and, without looking Craig’s direction, asked, “Chamomile, apple and cinnamon, orange spice?” “Chamomile, please.” Head canted away from him, she wiped beneath each eye with the pad of a thumb, a quick, surreptitious movement. She was not entirely able to suppress the moist hitch of her breath. She dried her thumb on the hip of her jumper. “It is our fault, of course,” she said, not looking at Craig. “Mine, anyway. I should have walked Joshua to the party.” She selected a bag
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F I C T I O N “Not at all,” Craig said. They sat in silence for a moment. “Your faith should be of comfort to you now, I would think. I’m sure there are many people praying for Joshua. And for you and your husband.” “We’re all praying,” Melissa said wearily, and Craig knew all discussion of prayer and religion was finished. Melissa turned in her chair and stood, then remembering, fished into the pocket of her jumper and withdrew a pair of loose pills, matching white tablets. There was a willing neurosis in the way she studied the two pills, counting them, it appeared, before briskly palming them into her mouth. She washed them down with a long drink of Coke. Distracted, she settled into her chair again. Craig clicked his pen and watched her. He’d dealt with his fair share of narcotics and, like most veteran cops, owned a working knowledge of prescription medications. There were those you saw often, like Melissa’s whites, 512 stamped clearly into the compressed powder. Oxycodone—generic Percocet. She noticed him watching. “Bad lower back and neck,” she said. “It’s worse when I’m under a lot of stress.” “I’m sorry to hear that.” He smiled sympathetically. “It must be pretty uncomfortable. Those didn’t look like Advil.” Smart woman, Melissa Christopher, too smart to harbor generous illusions about Craig’s thrust. “A strong analgesic. They’re prescribed, and I take them sparingly, if that’s what you’re wondering. I’m a nurse. I’m very careful.” “I’m sure you are.” She smiled at him—chilly, that smile. “My husband has a substance-abuse problem, detective, not me.” Craig nodded and turned to a fresh sheet of legal pad. “You’re a nurse, then. Where do you work?” “I work for my brother-in-law, Hans Nordling. He’s an internist, family practice. He’s a partner in a four-doctor clinic up near the hospital.” “I’ve heard of him. Do you like your work?” “Usually,” she nodded. “Since Josh came along, I’ve wanted to be home more, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Joe has his own business. He writes software but makes most of his money as a freelance web designer. Small-business stuff, primarily. He’s very good. He works out of the house, takes care of Josh during the day. Unfortunately, money’s too tight for me to quit, especially since the recession. Joe’s small, no employees, so we’re surviving it better than most. It’s not that bad. We get by.” Craig made notes. “I know you told everything to the uniformed officers, but I guess I need to hear about this morning.” She took another sip of her Coke. “Where do you want me to start?” “Wherever you’d like.” Bubbles rolled up the walls of her glass. “There was nothing unusual about this morning, really. We didn’t know about the party until last
“He’s drunk, you know. My husband. Well on his way there, anyway.” Elbows on the table, Melissa lowered her forehead into her hands. At that moment, her embarrassment was more palpable than her fear. Finally she lifted her head and sighed. “He has a drinking problem. He binge drinks. Not very often, just once in a while, especially when he gets overwhelmed. No one in my family knows except my sister, Karley, and her husband, Hans. We’re usually able to keep it under control. If he weren’t drunk now, he wouldn’t be such a useless mess. It makes me very angry. I lost my temper.” Craig said nothing for a five count, to see if she would offer more. “Was he already drinking by the time Josh left for the party this morning?” She shook her head. “He started after, when we came back to the house with that uniformed policeman. He always manages to find new places to hide his bottles.” Craig lifted the saucer, releasing a tiny cloud of steam. “Well. I can’t say I much blame him, all things considered.” “He’s weak,” Melissa snapped. But then, just as unpredictably, she shrugged, her eyes dark and resigned. “I won’t deny I saw it coming. And now you know. I doubt he’ll be much good for a while.” Craig nodded at the quotes on the refrigerator. “You’re obviously very active in the Mormon church. It must be difficult, to have a husband with a drinking problem.” “You sound like you’re Mormon, Mr. Craig. Or have you just lived here a long time?” “Dan. Please call me Dan. And, yes, I’m Mormon, though I haven’t attended church for many years.” Melissa considered his answer. In Craig’s experience, conscienceheavy Mormons found backsliders safe repositories for confession. “The church is very important to us,” she said. “Joe would probably be drunk all the time if it weren’t for his faith. We’re private about his drinking. We handle it together. He has his bad days, but he manages most of the time.” Craig took a tentative sip of tea. Hot and weak, the faintest tang just coming on. “How long have you and your husband been married?” “About seven years.” “Did he have a drinking problem when you married him?” Melissa ran her index finger around the rim of her glass. “I don’t know what that has to do with finding my son, Dan.” “I’m sorry,” he said. “Maybe nothing. You don’t have to answer if it makes you uncomfortable.” “It doesn’t make me uncomfortable, it just seems a waste of time. The answer, though, is yes, I knew he’d been a drinker. But he was dry and had been for a year by the time I met him. I knew I was supposed to marry him.” Melissa studied Craig closely as she spoke. “I prayed about it, and I knew. As an inactive Mormon, you must find that ridiculous.”
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F I C T I O N night. It was supposed to be next weekend, but Billy’s father learned last minute he has to be away then, so the MacMillans moved it up to today. I had to run to Wal-Mart for the gift, which put us behind, so I guess we were a little rushed, but beyond that it was a pretty standard Saturday morning.” “Did Josh go with you to pick out the present?” “No. I left him here with Joe.” “What did you get Billy?” “The last Harry Potter book. Nat, Billy’s mother, gave me the suggestion.” “I’d think Josh might have wanted to go with you, to pick up the present for his friend.” “He was still asleep when I left at around 8:45.” Melissa’s tone betrayed no discomfort with Craig’s question. “The Riverdale Wal-Mart’s closest, but with traffic, I figured it’d still be close time-wise. I asked Joe to have Josh up and ready when I returned. Josh didn’t even know he was going to a birthday party. Nat didn’t tell me the party was today until nearly nine last night. Josh was already asleep by then.” “What time did you get back from Wal-Mart?” “Late. Ten-fifteen or so. There was some problem on Riverdale Road, and I was stuck in traffic for twenty minutes. I finally managed to turn around and get on the freeway. I came into town across the viaduct. I had to hurry to get Josh ready. He needed a bath and Joe’d gotten involved in work. He’d completely forgotten. Josh was still asleep when I got home.” “At ten-fifteen?” “That’s right.” “Okay, so you came home, woke Josh up, gave him a bath, got him dressed and ready.” “I also called my youngest brother, Caleb, to cancel a movie date he had with Josh. Because of the party.” “When did you make that call?” “While Josh was in the tub. Ten-thirty or so. And I fed Josh a bowl of cereal. Fruity Pebbles. He gets sugared cereal on Saturday.” Craig nodded. He underlined each time—8:45 a.m., 9:15 p.m., 10:15 a.m., 10:30 a.m. He clicked his pen, looked up at Melissa. “I know you’ve already told the other officers what Josh was wearing, but I’d like to make a few notes of my own.” Melissa wrapped both hands around her glass. “Jeans, elastic waist. Kids’ Gap. A white T-shirt and a Harry Potter sweatshirt. It was supposed to be a Harry Potter theme party. Colored socks—I can’t remember which color, blue I think. A little pair of navy duck shoes.” “Duck shoes?” “You know, the rubber rain shoes with the veins running up the toes. When he left the house, he was wearing a green vinyl raincoat and a matching hat.”
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“What time did you send him?” “I called Nat MacMillan a little before 11:00.” “How much before?” “Ten minutes. I always call before sending Josh. So she can watch for him.” Melissa gazed out the kitchen window. “Then you sent him.” “Yes.” She nodded. “I told him to go straight there, just like I always do. ‘Don’t talk to strangers,’ I said. I watched him as far as the next-door-neighbor’s driveway, then I went downstairs and worked on the laundry.” Craig and Melissa sat for a full minute, neither of them speaking. Melissa had gone somewhere. Knowing what came next, Craig was loath to pull her back. “Then what happened?” “Ohhh,” she sighed. She removed her hands from the glass and dropped them both into her lap. “Nat called about twenty minutes later. She wanted to know if Josh had been delayed here at the house. He hadn’t arrived at the party. Even with his short legs, it’s only three or four minutes to Billy’s house.” Melissa’s eyes welled. “It didn’t really register, you know. I think I even asked Nat what she meant. And then I dropped the phone and yelled to Joe, and we both took off into the street screaming for Josh. I ran up and down the block, and of course, he wasn’t anywhere. I started banging on doors, asking where Joshua was. I panicked. Nat and Brian came out, and then Nat found the book. When I saw it lying there in the gutter, I thought I was going to die. It was worse than finding nothing.” Craig took a sip of tea and let the woman compose herself. “Does Josh have any birthmarks, scars, any physical traits we might include in our description?” Melissa wiped her forehead. Her hand shook. “He has a birthmark on his right shoulder. A brown spot about the size of a dime. Pronounced dimples when he smiles. Freckles, like my sister, Karley. He inherited his father’s brown eyes and my light hair. He lost his first tooth last week, his top-front tooth on the right. He was very excited.” “What about health problems?” “None. He’s very healthy. He’s a healthy, happy kid.” “We may want his medical records. Dental, too.” Craig watched for a reaction. She nodded. “There’s nothing there but the standard kid stuff. I’ll sign the HIPAA release, whatever you need.” Craig’s tea had cooled to room temperature. He hadn’t removed the bag, and though it was too late now, he spooned it out and put it on the saucer. “How long have you lived in this neighborhood?” “Since before Josh was born. Joe and I had been married just under two years. I was pregnant.”
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“You know your immediate neighbors pretty well?” “Yes. They’re mostly older couples, many of them retired or close to
“The last time Joe went on a binge, I took it off. I was a little more angry than usual. I thought I tossed it in my jewelry box, but now I can’t find it.” Melissa looked down at her ringless hand. “Joe hasn’t even noticed I’m not wearing it.” “When was that, Joe’s last binge?” “I don’t know. A week ago, maybe. I’m sure the ring’ll turn up. Josh plays in my jewelry box sometimes.” Craig drew a circle on his notepad, around the time, 11:00 a.m. “Married life sounds a little rough at the moment.” “Married life isn’t supposed to be easy,” Melissa said. “It’s hard to have a husband with a drinking problem. But we love each other. Joe’s a good man. I haven’t stopped kicking myself since I misplaced the ring.” “You must have turned the house inside-out, looking for it.” Melissa glared at the detective, the first real anger he’d seen since beginning the interview. “Of course I have.” “I’m sorry.” Craig put the pen on the pad. She looked away, through the window above the sink again. The sun had come out. “What about someone who isn’t a neighbor? Do you have any enemies? Any encounters lately that seemed strange, even with someone you didn’t know? Anything strange at all?” She glanced at the back door. “No. Nothing really comes to mind. I’ll think about it. Maybe I’ll remember something.” Craig was losing her, no thanks to whatever her husband was doing in the basement. “Melissa, when was the last time someone besides you and your husband saw Josh?” She met Craig’s eyes. “Last night. Nat came by. She must have told you.” Indeed, Nat MacMillan had. Craig had interviewed the neighbor before coming here. But he hadn’t mentioned that interview to Melissa. Exhausted, terrified, aggrieved, Melissa Christopher had still thought this thing through. “She mentioned it,” he said. Melissa eyed Craig a little longer. “Josh was asleep. We went into his room to find a game Billy left. She saw him.” “But no one besides you and your husband saw him this morning?” She shook her head, her attention drifting back to the door. “Besides us, Nat was the last one—” There was a large crash below, then a plaintive, grief-filled wail. “Josh? Josh…?” The muffled sound of it rose through the floor like a summons from the other side, and Melissa sprang to her feet, her chair pushed back, skidding. She yanked open the door and leaped down the stairs, taking them two at a time. She was fast and agile. Craig followed, his aging body unable to keep up. What he found when he arrived did not make him feel any younger.
“Problems with any of them? Disagreements, strange behaviors?” “No, nothing. Everyone’s always very nice. Folks try to get along. They’re all—” Melissa cast an uneasy glance at the stairwell door. A commotion had erupted in the basement directly beneath the kitchen—doors or cupboards opened, slammed closed, something heavy crashed to the floor, followed by an unrestrained yelp. “Your husband?” Melissa nodded. Craig was tempted to inquire further, but resisted, choosing instead to track the woman’s reaction. Finally, he said, “Any of your neighbors seem unusually interested in Josh? You know, maybe someone who goes out of his way to visit with Josh when he’s out playing. Someone who’s always giving him things, candy or toys or the such?” “Nothing out of the ordinary. Like I say, they’re older. Most of them seem to enjoy having a little one around. Every now and again, one of them might offer him a treat of some kind. They usually ask me if it’s okay first. In any case, unless Joe or I are outside, Josh plays in the backyard. It’s fenced.” “But nobody’s ever given you a problem? Nobody you’ve ever felt you needed to warn Josh to stay away from? No gut reactions against someone?” “No. I go to church with most of my neighbors. I think I know them pretty well. Maybe I’m just naïve, but I really don’t think any of them would ever do anything to hurt Josh.” The noise had relocated to a different part of the basement. It sounded to Craig like Joe was tearing the place apart. Melissa touched her neck just below the ear and watched the stairwell door. With the tip of her thumb, she absently stroked the pink band where her wedding ring had recently been. “Should we check on him?” Craig asked. “No. Please. Just ignore him. He’s probably looking for another bottle. He’ll calm down in a minute.” Thoughts of fouled evidence crossed Craig’s mind, followed by the notion that Joe Christopher might be a mean drunk. But beyond the boundaries of the detective’s own disease, and excepting a vague, perhaps unfair suspicion that Melissa Christopher might be omitting details, the interview itself had produced little that caused him to doubt her story. Best, for the moment, to defer to her wishes. “I notice you’re not wearing a wedding ring.” “You don’t miss much,” she said, placing both hands in her lap again. Craig waited. Joe made hay in the basement.
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F I C T I O N Cupboards and closets gaped open, their contents pulled haphazardly into the room. Upended storage bins, toppled toy boxes, furniture dragged into the center of the room. An aging sofa lay upside down, its cheesecloth all but ripped from its tacking. Joe sat sobbing beside the gutted entertainment center. Melissa crossed the room slowly. She stood above Joe, looking down, then sank to the floor beside him. She cradled his head against her breast and rocked. “Stop it now, Joe,” she said. “You really have to stop now.” “But where is he?” Joe Christopher wailed. “Where did he go? I can’t find him anywhere?”
Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner’s first novel, Dancing Naked, was awarded the Utah Center for the Book’s Utah Book Award and the Utah Arts Council’s Publication Prize. His short stories have appeared in literary periodicals, magazines, ezines and anthologies, and have been selected for various awards, including Carolina Quarterly’s Charles B. Wood Award for Distinguished Writing, Shenandoah’s Jeanne Charpiot Goodheart Award for Fiction, Sunstone’s Brookie and D.K. Brown Memorial Fiction Award, and Weber's Dr. O. Marvin Lewis Award for Best Fiction. Van Wagoner’s two current projects, both novels, are highly influenced by the traditions and landscapes unique to their settings: Cautionary Tales in Ogden, Utah, and East of the Sound Flows a River in the rural foothills of Washington’s North Cascades, on the banks of the Skagit River. He and his family live in Washington state.
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C O N V E R S A T I O N
Utah and the Fiction of Difficulty A Conversation with Robert Van Wagoner
PRELUDE For a number of years I taught the Rock Climbing courses at Weber State University (I was doing my best to adhere to Frost’s dictum from “Two Tramps in Mud Time”: “My object in living is to unite /My avocation and my vocation /As my two eyes make one in sight.”) During one spring term I became frustrated about a student who had never climbed a day in his life, yet would learn, within two weeks, how to climb far harder routes than I could after twentyfive years. With a bruised ego, I expressed my frustration to a colleague. He listened and, as I pontificated, I saw a smile creeping across his face. He said, “As a teacher, I have always felt that when a student
surpasses me, it is simply the result of my excellence as a teacher. After all, what is our job if not to help our students be better and stronger for the future.” I have taken that advice to heart and that’s why I was delighted when the opportunity presented itself to interview Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, who was one of the featured authors of the National Undergraduate Literature Conference at Weber State University in 2012. I had the privilege of having Robert in several classes during his undergraduate days and I’m thrilled that—in spite of what damage I did to him—he had the courage, upon gradua-
tion, to begin his life as a full-time writer. (I should state here that, along with his courage, he has the love and support of a very understanding partner in his wife, Cheri). For the interview, we sat in Rob’s parents’ home surrounded by many exquisite paintings by his father, Richard Van Wagoner, whom I have always respected as both a friend and colleague—not only for his art, but his courage to do right. It’s clear that in Rob’s case, “the apple did not fall far
from the tree.” Rob has been willing to take his own path, remaining true to both his heart and mind and his vision as a writer. As David Lee, philosopher and Utah’s first Poet Laureate, observed, “If I had to come up with one word that describes Rob Van Wagoner, it would be integrity. Rob holds to his vision of what literature is and should be and how it should be written. Even with a maelstrom of critical voices whirling about him, he holds his ground.”
CONVERSATION Rob, what attracted you to study in the liberal arts, and why did you choose to become a writer of fiction? Well, you know, I grew up in the home of an artist. I’d have to put that down as one of the more formative elements of my making as an artist myself. So, people in the arts, both liberal and the fine arts, surrounded me. I grew up in a home where reading was considered a primary form of entertainment and edification. I grew up in an LDS home, but we were encouraged to look at the world in a fairly broad way, partially because we were exposed to so many folks who were not LDS or from Utah, or formed in the church and in Utah culture. This allowed us to read about other cultures, other ideas, and we talked a great deal about these other ideas, about these folks who were not from the culture, or like us. I actually started out in music; I thought that was going to be my chosen profession. I started young playing the trumpet and went to Brigham Young University on a trumpet scholarship. Actually, I was a state Sterling Scholar in music the year I graduated. I got a scholarship, which helped of course speed me on my way, but I learned something in the process. Originally, it was less a liberal arts than a fine arts education I was going after. I discovered, as time went on, that I did not have what it took to perform at a professional level. I was less interested in
teaching music than in performing it at that point in my life. I discovered there were folks who were just better than I was. Equally important, they had the constitution for it. I became quite nervous when I performed. That had always been the case, I dreaded it. That was during the days before I knew about beta blockers, which many professional musicians use now. Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t discover those things because writing was really what I loved. I loved to read and I never imagined I’d be able to write. So I got out of music and pursued my other loves. I went into English and Psychology, both of which were of great interest to me. I discovered through that process that English and Psychology are really two sides of the same coin, especially the kind of literature I love. I guess family upbringing helped me to value the love of reading, which was instilled in me by both my parents (but especially my mother, who is the great reader in the family), and a love of art. I watched my father make art and endure rejection and success—really, they are both things that must be endured. I certainly didn’t know that success, like failure, is a double-edged sword. I didn’t know I was going to write fiction. I always thought I would do some writing in my profession, whatever it was; even in music, I thought, I would do some writing. But when I was a senior in college, I took my one-andonly fiction course from Professor Gordon
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Allred at Weber State University, and something happened while I was writing those stories. They were three very short narratives I wrote for Dr. Allred’s class, but that process lit me up. I just had that type of experience where you disappear, where you lose time and everything else stands still. I didn’t know it then, but that is the ideal state of mind for writing. It’s not one I have always been able to sustain, I don’t think any fiction writer is able to sustain it all the time, but it was enough; it was enough of a taste that I knew I had to try fiction. Of course my education, in English and in Psychology, had given me a foundation in literature and in the human condition, had given me material to work with as I structured character.
“audience” is really a commercial term. When we’re writing, we’re writing for a reader—our ideal reader—and it’s somebody who is not us, but an individual or small group of real or imagined people you’re thinking about when you’re writing. Sometimes that makes it more difficult in terms of courage to address issues that are meaningful to you; you’re worried about your readers’ response. Sometimes it helps—you muster courage—because you’re writing for a very small group of readers who ultimately, you hope, will not be your only readers, but who you’re writing for at that point. I have, in my own work, experienced what you’re talking about. For the first 15 or 18 years of my career, I wrote stories with When you took your Mormon characters They were three very short music scholarship because I grew up and were willing narratives I wrote for Dr. Allred’s LDS. And these to try to learn to characters, I never class, but that experience lit me up. perform, you did thought myself, in that as a challenge to I just had that type of experience any sense, to be yourself, to overcome where you disappear, where you lose anti-Mormon. I love a weakness. That is the culture, my famtime and everything else stands still. a pretty brave thing ily comes from the I didn’t know it then, but that is the culture, my family is to do. I think that when you’re writing ideal state of mind for writing. LDS, and my wife’s stories, sometimes the family is LDS. I am subject matter causes fundamentally made you to have to be of LDS stock. I see—in pretty courageous as well. terms of family, in terms of most things— through that lens. But my characters deal with That’s a great point. In terms of the music, very difficult real-life issues that none of us I guess it wasn’t the nerves that got me out can avoid. Their reactions, as real people, do of it. In the end, it was the realization, in not always conform to the ideal that the faith combination with the nerves, that I wasn’t hopes for in its membership. Especially when going to be able to do it at the level I would I was a young man writing about those issues, feel good about. In fiction, interestingly, I it frightened me. I remember sitting there still use my music. I write very sonically, to a many a time at a crossroads with characters, beat in my head, and I think in those terms wondering if I was brave enough to put this when I’m writing. Writing is really a differout there, what it would do, whether it would ent kind of performing. You’re performing hurt my family. Not because it was about my for a reader. I like what John Dufresne says family—I don’t write autobiographical work— in his book, The Lie That Tells the Truth, a but because it would threaten them. I’ve terrific book on creative writing, that the term had people get up in readings and walk out
C O N V E R S A T I O N because of things I’ve said or read that were how it might hurt my family, and also because troubling to them. I had one occasion where a I had never intended for my work to be perguy got up shouting and was in the middle of ceived in any way as anti-Mormon. I just write a fairly congested isle, and stumbled, tripping about real human beings using characters over people and chairs, trying to escape the who happen to be Mormon. If we intend to be reading because he was so troubled by what I serious about our work, then we go where our had written and read. characters take us. I was called in by my stake president. I I find what you’ve said interesting and a hadn’t attended church for a time, so I refused little humorous. I once wrote a chapter for to go, until my backdoor neighbor, who also a book on Mormonism and evolution in happened to be my bishop, said, “you know, which I reconciled I understand the my belief and why stake president I think church has asked to speak When I asked him where the complaints doctrine and sciwith you. It’s about ence don’t have your writing.” So had come from, and whether the central to be in conflict. I called and made church had instructed him to call me in, And when my an appointment. he said that he had received it under a daughter asked We talked for 45 minutes or an signature of a general authority that I was me if I was going to get in trouble, hour, and he told to be called in and asked to stop. That was my wife spoke up me, through some very painful for me. Not so much because and said, “No, prodding of my honey. He’s not own, that a number it threatened my membership with the going to get in of complaints had church in any way, but because of how it trouble. Nobody been filed with of any import the church against might hurt my family and also because reads anything me for my writing, I had never intended for my work to be he writes.” and that it was to perceived in any way as anti-Mormon. I (Laughter) So stop immediately just write about real human beings with I was on pretty or action would be safe ground. But taken against me. characters who happen to be Mormon. I had a number So, yeah, there of friends and are risks. I did acquaintances not stop, and I let at that particular time that were going him know I wasn’t going to stop, and that the through questioning by church leaders. church would have to take whatever action it felt necessary. But, interestingly, when I It wasn’t before or after September 7th or asked if he had read any of my work, he said September 6th, when there was a bit of he hadn’t. And when I asked him where the a purging, was it? I think there was some complaints had come from, and whether the thought at that point that the church could central church had instructed him to call me stem new thought and history that was a in, he said he had received instructions under little more true to events. It was primarily a signature of a general authority that I was historians who were getting pulled in and to be called in and told to stop. That was very asked to stop. Quite frankly, I was surprised painful for me. Not because it threatened my they would go after a fiction writer. What do membership in the church, but because of
we write? We don’t write anything “real,” you know—but we survived it, things are all right.
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evolve as human beings, we must not turn away from the most difficult things we do. I wish I could remember who said, “If we as humans can do it, we must not turn away from it. We must look closely.” And I believe that to be true. It’s why I write the things I write.
It is interesting that you bring up the way you write being somewhat musical. It would seem to me that if that tends to be your style, and the way your mind works with language, maybe you would have That’s particularly true in a society where been a poet rather than a fiction writer. I we pay people to do our unpleasant tasks. have often said that when you read Terry Whether it’s picking up garbage or standTempest Williams, or hear her read, it ing in on a firing squad. sounds like music rolling over river rocks. That’s correct. We see it, of course, in the All genres of literature can be pretty musientertainments that are most prevalent in our cal. I thought about Kris Kristofferson, who culture. We like a good wrote two songs about police procedural, which writers. One is “The can be dark in its own way, Pilgrim; Chapter 33” I write dark, very difficult or a movie that is dark. and the other is “Beat But these nonetheless the Devil.” In “The narratives, not because I Pilgrim,” he argues that think the world is necessarily are veneers, because the characters are usually flat the written word is of a bad place, but I am someone and the endings are algreat import and that a ways happy on some level. writer can end up being who believes that in order But as Elfriede Jelinek, pretty lonely—it’s a to understand, to make the the Nobel Prize winner lonely and sometimes a world better, to evolve as from Austria, said, “There painful profession. He are plenty of people who says, in the chorus to human beings, we must not write about redemption, that song, “He’s a poet, turn away from the most there are enough people he’s a picker, he’s a difficult things we do. writing about redempprophet, he’s a pusher, tion. I’m going to write he’s a pilgrim and a about non-redemption preacher, and a probbecause I believe we lem when he’s stoned. He’s a walkin’ can find redemption by understanding that contradiction, partly truth and partly other side.” I see a necessity for balance. fiction, takin’ ev’ry wrong direction on I was talking with some students yeshis lonely way back home.” So, when terday about seeing the world through the you consider that writing is sometimes lens of our perception and how we bring painful and lonely, do you feel that people our own baggage to the experience. I use should listen to you? Why should they pay a common example from a grocery store, a attention to your ideas? Well, I don’t know that they should. Frankly, I’m not sure my work is for everyone. I write dark, very difficult narratives, not because I think the world is necessarily a bad place, but I am someone who believes that in order to understand, to make the world better, to
mother berating a fairly young child. At any given moment, we interpret through this lens of our perception—and come to judgments fairly quickly—that this mother is not a good mother and that nobody should treat a child this way. Both of those things may be true, especially that nobody should treat a child that
C O N V E R S A T I O N I hope, help my readers see the world—the way, but the interpretation about whether good and the bad—in a more complete light. the woman is a good mother or not, in those snap judgments, we usually get it wrong. We don’t know whether the mother has just lost Your approach reminds me of Friedrich her husband, or whether she’s just lost her Hegel’s dialectic, a formula for arriving at job, whether she’s just been diagnosed with truth, where one has to look at the thesis cancer, whether this is just the straw that and then at the antithesis, and then once broke the camel’s back, whether this is an you have examined both carefully, you are unusual circumstance. prepared to arrive at So, what I am getting a synthesis. So, how at here is, we live in a would you compare world where bad things In most areas, I am afraid I am a the process of writing happen, but we are fiction to, say, the promoral relativist, because I don’t quick to make judgcess of writing poetry believe that what is true in one ments that make our or drama, or creating a situation is necessarily true in lives easier—that make visual or musical piece us feel better about who another—in most cases, maybe of art? Is there some we are—and the truth sort of correlation that all cases. . . . Which means to me comes as a result? of the matter is that it that I do not impose my own ideas takes a more in-depth Well, I don’t write those look, with a broader and beliefs, but strive to find out other things. I have view of the whole back what my characters believe, to talked to other writers story, in order to truly and of course every have them act in this narrative understand this world. writer comes from a So, I guess my ideal that is being constructed around different place in pursuit reader is someone who them, or this narrative that my of different goals. I wants to understand, believe the answer to characters are constructing, to not just the happy your question has to things, the redemptive have them always behave in ways do with authenticity. things in this world, but that are authentic. Any writer, in any form, someone who accepts who places a premium that redemption can on authenticity, will, I only truly be understood suspect, be searching for, you used the word, if its opposing force is understood, too. I truth. What is true to the situation they’re write about that opposing force. There are dealing with? I guess I’d have to say I prefer people who say Dancing Naked, my novel, the word “authentic” or “honest” to “truth.” is redemptive and other people who say it’s In most areas, I am afraid I am a moral relativnon-redemptive. I won’t voice an opinion on ist, because I don’t believe that what is true in that. The only thing I can say is, in that novel, one situation is necessarily true in another— as in my subsequent and previous works, in most cases, maybe all cases. But I believe whether redemptive or not, I’ve tried to make the great writers—and I certainly don’t claim my charaters understandable by showing to be one of them, but I aspire some day to do why they do the things they do. So, my ideal what great writers do—genuinely present the reader has to have the ability to grapple with relative truth with honesty and authenticity the difficult and the challenging, not just to whatever situation and idea they happen ideas but human behavior. My characters,
to be exploring in their work. Which means to me that I do not impose my own ideas and beliefs, but strive to find out what my characters believe, to have them act in this narrative that is being constructed around them, or rather, this narrative my characters are constructing, to have them always behave in ways that are authentic. If they diverge from the direction I thought they were going, I try to be honest and courageous enough to follow them down the path and see where it takes them. Because what I think, really, is far less interesting than what my characters think, especially as they act in accordance with, or in defiance to, what they believe at any given moment in time. So—authenticity, honesty— that’s really what I’m after in the work even if it takes me to uncomfortable and dangerous places. I believe fiction that isn’t dangerous, at least for my reading habits, really isn’t worth writing, and it isn’t worth reading.
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The Russian formalist critics argued that it’s a writer’s job to make their subjects appear strange, or to take something ordinary and make it extraordinary. There’s also a school of thought associated with Cleanth Brooks arguing that, in order for literature to have meaning, there has to be tension or paradox. Is that the sort of thing you try to work with? Yeah, ambiguity of course; you have to be able to deal with ambiguity if you are a writer who’s striving to be honest and authentic. There’s little combustibility in a story that doesn’t have your characters placed in great peril. I believe that that peril must be twofold: the danger, or the conflict, that the character faces must be an external representation of their greatest weakness, or their greatest weakness internally. What I mean is, their greatest personal weakness must be challenged through some sort of external conflict. From that, I believe the narrative must unfold naturally. My greatest task as a writer, at
least at the beginning of a story, is finding the correct trouble to put my character in. I write from a situation initially, and I write blind, so I don’t often know where I am going. I try to find a situation that brings these internal and external elements together, and then follow the characters as they struggle to fight their way out of that problem. Of course, that peril has to be sufficient that the reader (and writer) doubts the character can surmount it. It has to be life or death, and I don’t mean that literally, at least not always. It has to be of such force that there is the risk of great consequence to the character—whether the character resolves it in a way that saves her, or of course whether she succumbs to the problem. The character is changed, or changes, either way.
In 1906, William James wrote The Moral Equivalent of War, and he argued that humans are active and have an innate desire for adventure. It’s the old Victorian idea about the young man going out to make his way in the world, and part of that was going to war. You seem to be doing the same thing with your writing. He noted that the world would be better off if we climbed mountains, ran rivers, or explored dark jungles, rather than going off to war to satisfy that innate desire for facing danger. There’s some of that going on; we actively make choices that place us in danger. But of course, life has a way of bringing it to us as well. I find both elements interesting. I think that if I look back over my fiction, I find more about characters who find themselves thrust into a situation they must fight their way out of or be overcome. Many times they are ill equipped at the starting point because of the life they have, the genes they have; they’re ill equipped because of their personal history; they are ill equipped when the conflict arises to address those things.
C O N V E R S A T I O N And what I find fascinating is discovering whether a character is able to overcome self in order to overcome the external elements. It’s even more fascinating when they fail on some level and must find a new and unexpected way to pull themselves up.
listen, if you see, if you smell, if you touch, if you care about the people around you, about the places that surround you, if you pay close attention and you read and read and read and you write and write and write, you will have all the tools you need to create ideas and believable landscapes and believable people. You need not necessarily have vast experience so long as you pay attention and are empathetic.
We look at writers as being sophisticated intellectuals, who have experienced many things and lived many places. And yet, when we look back over the history of ficYou sound a little like Sherlock Holmes tion, you have Anne Radcliffe who very selwhen he explains things to Watson. Watdom left home and relied on paintings that son says, “I saw the same things you saw she saw in museums or in books to give her and couldn’t come to those conclusions.” the background to write very believable setAnd Holmes says, “Watson, it’s because tings in Italy and Spain. You have Thomas you see, but you fail to observe.” So, from Hardy, who focuses your perspective, nearly everything in being a writer that mythical coun- If you listen, if you see, if you smell, requires you to be ty of Wessex, which a careful observer if you touch, if you care about the is Devon. You have and to pay attenpeople around you, about the places William Faulkner tion to all the little and his mythical things around you. that surround you, if you pay close Yoknapatawpha I suppose that’s attention and you read and read and County. These writtrue of any good read and you write and write and ers don’t venture diagnostician or out very far from physician as they write, you will have all the tools you what they know. It look for the little need to create ideas and believable appears that you’re things, too. landscapes and believable people. following in that I’m really more same sort of pattern interested in going in that you rely on an inch wide and a your local landscape, the geography that mile deep than I am in going a mile wide and you grew up in. Is it necessary for a writer an inch deep in my work. You can do that in to have a world of experience behind them, any place you find yourself because there is or can they, like James suggested, rely on so much to be observed in any one place. Huobservation to create their art? One of the most important qualities a writer can have is curiosity. Most of my work for the first two-thirds or three-quarters of my career dealt with the Utah landscape—Ogden and Salt Lake. Now, I am writing rural fiction in the North Cascades of Washington state. I am neither terribly sophisticated nor cosmopolitan myself, but I am curious, and as a curious person, I pay attention. Look, if you
mans are more alike than they are different. I believe if you are surrounded by humans, you can find the universal themes in very specific and geographically limited places. We are all living the same drama on some level. Many writers have said that there are only a few stories out there to be told, really, but we keep trying to find new ways to tell them, and new insights to mine in the places we find ourselves. So, my very small plot of
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land—I am talking about my town now where I do my shopping and in which I live, in rural Skagit County, Washington—is a big enough place; there are all the dramas there that you can find by traveling the entire world. There’s poverty, terrible poverty. There’s life and death and the fight for honesty and truth, and so I will never run out of things to write about just in Skagit County if I decide to focus the fiction for the rest of my life just in that area.
A moment ago, you said you think a good writer needs to read and read and read and read. Who would you say are the writers who have most influenced your writing? I can name a handful of writers who at the moment are influencing my work. There are some obligatory greats who have influenced me—Faulkner and O’Connor for example. There are some more contemporary writers I have been reading, such as Larry Brown, for instance, another Southern writer. There’s one who’s teaching at Ole Miss, Tom Franklin, a terrific young writer. He wrote Hell at the Breech (a fine historical novel), Crooked Letter, and Poachers (a fabulous collection of short stories). Pete Dexter, who won the National Book Award for Paris Trout, has had a big influence on me. I have been lucky enough to have some association with Pete. He’s read some of my work and been generous in critiquing it—especially this last novel, East of the Sound Flows a River, which is near to being finished. I have loved Larry McMurtry’s work. Our good friend David Lee—he’s taught me a great deal about what you can do with character in narrative and with the way characters talk, and with his general humaneness. There is Richard Ford’s work, Tobias Wolff’s work, Ray Bradbury’s work, all of whom have come for the NULC. It’s going to sound really silly, but during my 6th grade year, I was placed in a class with many difficult students, and my teacher could not control them. I would arrive at school an hour early, and he would allow me to go to
his desk—he would have his lesson plans written on his desk calendar, and I would go through and do all the assignments for the day, and by about half an hour after roll call, I would be done with my whole day’s work, and I would read until it was time to go home. I fell in love with one of these ghostwritten series, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators. I could plow through a book a day, and I read the whole series, probably more than once. I read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that year, too. It’s during that period of time I really fell in love with mysteries, with suspense thrillers. I loved them so much I worked between my sixth grade and seventh grade years selling frozen seafood door-to-door until I’d earned enough to buy the library-bound set of the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators books, which I still own. They’re not very good, but they transported me. It was just the right stuff, at the right time in my life, and I think that as much as any books I have ever read, they influenced my desire to write; I loved them so much. I’ve read everything Hemingway wrote. His minimalism and his sonic qualities influence my work—even though I am quite verbose—particularly during the revision process. He said that the best books are those with the least in them, with the most cuts. I believe that and try to follow his example.
Doyle wrote a book called Through the Magic Door, where he sits in his study and walks the reader through his book shelf and which books influenced him and why. It sounds like you could probably do the same thing. I have one final question: if you could trade places with any writer, any writer, who would it be and why? Any writer, wow, that’s a question, Mike! I am not sure I want to be anyone else. I can tell you that I wish that I had the brilliance of a Faulkner, don’t we all? I wish I had his ability of human insight. I have a pretty good life, I am not sure I would want
C O N V E R S A T I O N to trade it. I am a kept man; my wife, who earns a living teaching secondary education, keeps me and allows me to write, despite my poor financial contribution to the cause. That would be a hard thing to give up to be anybody else. There are so many writers I wish I wrote as well as. I wish my work had the precision of Hemingway, I wish it had the insights of Faulkner, because Faulkner had the ability to work inside the mind and outside the mind both. But somebody like Larry Brown, or Pete Dexter, or Ken Haruf, who are also great influences of mine, tell
stories completely outside the minds of their characters, and yet you know their characters’ minds through what they do and say because of the precision of the language these authors employ and because of their characters’ reactions to the stimuli around them. That, too, is something I aspire to. The beauty of simple language in something like Ken Haruf’s Plainsong, National Book Award nominee— wow! He addresses very difficult issues, and yet there is a humaneness to his work that’s really quite astonishing. I have to say I aspire to write more like they do.
Mikel Vause (Ph.D., Bowling Green University) is a Professor of English at Weber State University and the Director of Environmental Studies. He is the author of numerous articles, short stories and books, and the co-director of Weber State University’s National Undergraduate Literature Conference. He is also the author of four collections of poems: I Knew It would Come to This, At the Edge of Things, Looking for the Old Crown, and The Scent of Juniper: Poems of the Himalayas.
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A R T
Medicine Buddha, acrylic and collage on panel, 10” x 10”, 2010
We evoke the sacred —by building a world of form merely from the geometry of ideas. Our minds conceive the square, the circle and the triangle, and can use those concepts to build the phenomenal world, the world of ten thousand things.
Observing and investigating
I called it the Firefly Doll Project.
I gave it that name because Uganda still has its fireflies
in spite of the genocide and decades of violence.
The kids’ art was breathtaking in its creativity.
Art of the essential nature is uncomplicated by self-observing,
it simply emerges, almost instantaneously—
THIS is how I describe my work.
Innovative and necessary. Perhaps by forgetting oneself
Willem de Kooning once said
All becomes lucid.
he occasionally caught a momentary Slipping Glimpse
I slipped into their world and caught a glimpse of the true nature of things.
of the real state of things,
I often use the language of science
using pattern, process, concept and
as a basis for dialogue in my art:
For many years I investigated through the language of quantum physics to help me understand and explain certain phenomena.
I record my own slipping glimpses of the world and its interconnected systems. . . using found objects, marks, sound, light and innovation.
I continue to see archetypal, collective patterns and frequencies that describe everything. Recently, I traveled to Northern Uganda where I worked with children on an art project. Avlocoatsavara, acrylic and collage on panel, 14” x 20”, 2010
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Medicine Buddha, acrylic and collage on panel, 24” x 12”, 2010
The series of work entitled Sacred Geometry brings traditional Tibetian deities into a contemporary accessibility. The Tara paintings demonstrate two distinct styles to contrast the concept of perfection with non-perfection. The faces of the deities Green Tara (on the cover of this issue), White Tara and Yeshy Tsogyal are painted toward perfection, while the head dress and background of each deity is drippy and imperfect. Though this dual representation, I am trying to render the Buddhist teaching of non-attachment to perfection. Buddhists believe that by evoking the image of gods and goddesses, we are becoming them, exploring our own capacity for enlightened understanding. I believe that by being in the company of these manifestations, we begin to feel our own history and destiny, not just as individual mortals, but as a collective of humanity carrying memories of the ancients and the idea that we are part of something greater than ourselves. We may call upon shared energy to awaken in us an incredible challenge. . . selflessness and compassion. How fragile we are as humans, but how powerful we can be when we realize our connectivity. Never underestimate the power of compassion to shape the world we want to live in. The intention of this work is to invite participants to delve into the energy of our own spiritual existence. We are part of an inclusive energy exchange that includes all matter and thought continually cycling through the planet. When we evoke the Gods and Goddesses with their sublime powers, we are principally endowing ourselves with those same abilities.
Reclining Buddha, acrylic on canvas, 60â€? x 36â€?, 2010
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Now, I’m intrigued by emergent phenomena: the process of observing self regulating patterns in non-linear systems such as the behavior of crowds, movement of water or flame, weather, swarms of bees, politics, collections of objects or just the collection of choices in one’s own life.
Archetypal patterns present themselves to me. Buddha Statue, acrylic and collage on panel, 8” x 10”, 2010
They are archetypal because they are sifted out of everyday lives and events. They are fractal in nature: personal events co-merge to become archetypal patterns, so in studying the small you discover the large or in noting the archetypal you reveal the personal. As individuals we have the luxury of seeing into our own lives by simply observing the larger systems: This juxtaposition of science and ancient philosophy
Vajrayogini, oil on Arches paper, 10” x 12”, 2010
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Crown Protrusion (Ushnisha), acrylic and collage on paper, 18” x 24”, 2010
allows us to be aware of the patterns that pulse through our physical bodies and
I find my inspiration in the simplest places:
through our emergent, collective consciousness.
while walking on the hillside behind my house,
Stephen Wolfram, a mathematician, says we are lateral perceivers
I see the infinite Walden—cloudy light, sunny light,
Since we only perceive our world by looking sideways
seasonal changes of vegetation, deer, coyote,
On our same time plane
rocks with changing lichens.
We don’t see into the future. Likewise in my studio: I like to say
And we don’t remember evolving
everything I need is right here. It is
Alongside other complex systems.
my practice of drawing inspiration
Life started from a simple algorithm
from nearby, even if I have to travel
Becoming complex over time
across the world to find it, it is always just at arm’s reach.
through endless repetitions Sheres35, oil on Arches paper, 14” x 16 “, 2010
Now, when we look sideways
Practicing standing on one foot I can see form as light
We see present time and space.
Continuous and bending around all
We see what physicist David Bohm
that is in my view
Calls the Implicate Order Observing the present moment
The dance of light and sound
Not remembering the simple algorithm
Is a continuum of frequency
From which all phenomena emerged.
Fulfilling my expectations
Possibly, it went like this…
Of happiness and sadness
Black is next to white except on prime
Fullness and emptiness.
Numbers when black is next to black
All we need to remember is this: the world is about ever-flowing change and the relationship between proportion and progression.
Yeshe Tsogyal (Bliss Queen), oil on canvas, 36” x 72”, 2010
Five Deities of the the Bardo, acrylic and collage on paper, 18” x 24”, 2010
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Wave, oil on panel, 48” x 28”, 2010
White Tara, oil on canvas, 36” x 72”, 2010
Repetition #41, acrylic and collage on canvas, 72” x 48”, 2010
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Untitled Circle, acrylic and wood stamp on paper, 4" x 8", 2010
Trent Alvey (BFA Fine Art, BFA Communications, Westminster College) is a mixed-media artist who uses painting, assemblage, sculpture, light and sound technique in the creation of her work. Alvey was recognized in 2011 with a Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award. She has exhibited in significant one-person and group shows including Out of the Land, which traveled to The National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. Toaster Worship, Alvey’s sculptural piece included in that exhibit, is now part of the permanent collection of the University of Utah Museum of Fine Art. Alvey was also a 337 Project artist, who contributed an installation in the subsequent Present Tense exhibit at the Salt Lake Art Center. Salt Lake County purchased the installation entitled Shelf Life: Preserving Artifacts and commissioned her for an 80-foot long wall mural in downtown Salt Lake City. Alvey’s work is also included in the Utah Artists Project, the J. Williard Marriott Library’s digitized collection of select Utah artists.
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F I C T I O N
Adam James Jones
Courtesy of Florida Center for Instructional Technology
he camp consisted of a dozen teepees connected by footpaths of frozen mud set on a sunken meadow within the forested hills outside Guadalupita, New Mexico. It was night and a large fire illuminated the center of the camp. Two bands of men formed two crescents around the fire separated only by a few feet of empty space where the last man of one band met the first of the other like the opposing ends of two horseshoe magnets. On one side were the Jicarilla Apaches, the men adorned in ratty pelts of coyote, bear, and elk, while behind them a huddle of women used chipped stones to shave clinging flecks of meat from the upturned ribcage of a deer. On the other side were the rogue soldiers, dressed not in uniform but soggy boots, knee-holed trousers, duster overcoats, bandanas, soiled cavalry hats rimmed with snakeskin. One man from each party stood, he of the soldiers being the storyteller and he of the Apaches his translator. The men quieted, the women stopped their work, and Garret Kellyâ€”twenty-four, tall, trim, toothy, golden-haired, green-eyed, Confederate, polyglot, and self-proclaimed swordsmith, professional gambler, whisky distiller, riverboat engineer, author, and one-time paramour to the First Lady of Kentuckyâ€”began his story: â€œThere was a man who lived not far from here and not long ago. He had a home in a village that he shared with no wife and no children.
F I C T I O N “The snake, the farmer solemnly informed him, was not dying and neither was it sick. It was instead, as members of their species do, hollowing its stomach and building up its appetite as it prepared for a ´ very large meal. And the reason it lay outstretched in bed close against the man’s side was to confirm the meal would fit.” When he finished, Garret surveyed the men around the fire. For a long moment no one spoke or moved. Then, finally, his face grave and understanding, the Apache chief nodded at Garret Kelly. Later that night while making up his bedroll, Garret was interrupted by the runt of the group, Connor Rutledge. Of all the men in their party Connor was the youngest, the smallest, and also, in Garret’s estimation, the dimmest, which was all vexing as Garret had never understood what it was that had qualified Connor for this mission except that he, like Garret, spoke Spanish. Otherwise the young man was clumsy and unconfident and, consequently, dangerous. Adding to all this, Garret had somehow found himself after two nights of poker forty dollars in Connor’s debt. Connor took a seat next to Garret’s bedroll. “Is that a true story?” “Hell yes it’s a true story,” Garret said. “Happened in the town of Pine Bluff. Feller’s name was J.B. Wooten. He had that thing where one eye is a different color than the other. I forget what it’s called.” “I never know when you’re lying.” “I ain’t asking you to.” Garret lay down on his roll with his hands folded under his head, allowing Connor in the silence of the stalled conversation to feel like a prick. “So you weren’t just yarn-spinning?” “You think we wasted an afternoon of riding and gave away half our food just so I could spin a yarn?” Connor was quiet. “You watch, when this thing heats up Indians are going to end up our best and perhaps only ally. Because way out here who else is going to take our side? Not the Mexicans, that’s for sure. Sibley and them are all Texan for God’s sake, and anymore Texans fighting Mexicans is almost a virtue. The Indians on the other hand, they hate the bluecoats. Granted, they hate us too, along with anyone else who’s ever shot a rabbit or drank from one of their creeks, but at least their hate is negotiable, gullible even. We’re not trying to get them to stop hating us, just to keep hating the other side more. Them burning wagons and attacking forts is the reason so many federals are being kept here instead of going east.” “I already know all that,” Connor said. “I’m asking about the story.” “You’re too stuck on the drama of the tale and not my reason for telling it. See, Indians like to have their arguments made allegorically. Legends and yarns and such. They’ll tell you a dozen stories about some god slaying another just to explain why the sun sets red. Tonight’s story wasn’t really about a man and a snake. It was about a people that allowed an inherently evil being into their home, an entity that over time grew so large it required not just the space of the home
Instead, the man lived with a profound collection of pets. They were not regular pets like cats and dogs but rather creatures of typically abhorrent species. Tarantulas, centipedes, scorpions, snakes, toads, lizards, mice, and rats crawled about sawdusted and soggy cages made of chicken wire or glass that cluttered and stunk the man’s home. Of this collection the man was boastful, proud the way such men are, as if their peculiarity was rather courage to live as others dared not to. Like boys who flip their eyelids and laugh at their friends’ repulsion. “But there was one pet among them the man was especially fond of. Obscenely so. It was a snake, one whose breed was not known but could only be speculated upon mythologically. It measured thirteen feet. The midsection was muscly and thick as a man’s thigh, its eyes large black beads—round and unslitted. The man claimed to have acquired the animal when it was young from a traveling Mexican out of the Yucatan. “The snake did not live like the other man’s pets, cooped in one of his many stacked cages. It was of course too big for that. Instead, the man allowed the creature free roam of his house. And so attached did he become to his prized animal that he openly admitted to sharing his bed with it, inviting the snake nightly to coil under the warmth of his sheets, to glean the heat off his own body. Behind the home the man raised rabbits and chickens, and from these pens both man and snake sufficed dietarily until, as inevitably the animal’s appetite paced its physical growth, the man was forced to begin raising goats. Of this stock the snake was fed one pre-killed goat every two weeks, each time unhinging its jaws to swallow and then slide the bulge deep into its length. Like this the two lived, contentedly sharing home, bed, and diet, for more than two years. “But then the man grew worried, for suddenly the snake stopped eating. When he set the bi-weekly goat before his pet’s nose, the snake simply darted its tongue and then turned its head, uninterested. A month passed and the man decided the snake had grown tired of goats, so he tried a freshly shot fawn, still to no success. And when two whole months passed with the snake not eating a single thing, the man’s concern turned to panic; anguish even at the fear of his most beloved companion being sick and dying. More than this, the animal’s sleeping behavior had changed. No longer did it rest peacefully tight in its coil by the man’s legs. Instead the man would wake in the night to find it stretched out stiff and lengthwise against his body, its head near his own and its tail draping off the bed and into the doorway. “Desperate now, the man sought out a farmer clever in the biologies of exotic things. The story of the snake, along with its symptoms, were related in great detail to the farmer, and as he spoke the man observed the face of the farmer become so disturbed by the time he finished he had already concluded the worst for his cherished pet. He asked if his snake was dying and was surprised when the farmer said no, the animal was not dying.
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F I C T I O N but also its food. And it continued to grow until even that which had come to trust it eventually and inevitably became yet another thing for it to swallow.” “You were instigating.” “And how.” “The snake was the Union.” “Really I could have made it stand for just about anyone, Mexicans too I’d bet.” Garret could almost hear Connor’s mind whirring as it replayed the story, little mechanical arms picking up and connecting metaphors. “Why did the chief call you aside afterward?” Connor asked. “What were you two talking about?” “He wanted to know the end of the story.” “That wasn’t the end?” “He wanted to know what became of the snake.” “What did?” “Well, there are two versions.” “You said the story was true!” “It is, save for one of the endings.” “So what are they?” “In one version the man returned to his home after meeting with the farmer, picked up an ax, and hacked the snake to pieces. But in the other, the man, so trusting of his pet and unbelieving of the farmer, did nothing until one night as he slept the snake wound its coils about his body and squeezed the life out of him. And when the man was dead it devoured him just like one of its goats.” “Lord. So what version did you tell the chief?” Still resting on his hands, Garret tilted his head backwards to look at where the young man sat behind him. “Since my mission was to instigate the chief, it doesn’t matter which version I told, does it?”
Adam James Jones has a BA from the University of Northern Colorado and an MA from Western New Mexico University. He has recently completed his first novel, a work of historical fiction from which Politicking is excerpted. He is the recipient of the 2012 Homestead Foundation Fellowship from the Western Writers of America. Adam lives in Albuquerque where he runs the history website www.rockymountainlegends.com.
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P O E T R Y
The Salmon Word for Home What stories would carry from these ruins if words could echo—our bygones unfurled from the dust of tattered towns where ruin spread its limbs and muscled roots, where once strangers played and swung? We know by their tools and relics splayed through strata what nations homed and played their summers here. There must be a word the salmon have for home, one the nations know can only be sung where glacierdust blues the waters of their cribs with what once was stone. Even cedarlimbs know the simplest communion: all those limbs bent, as if in blessing. Current played from the reeds of stones, a flume that once was ice, and remembers, secreting the words of wintersong croon from the craggy cornerdust of cirques across flowstones in a song we all know. By its voice we mark the river’s mood: has it known rain, highwatering the tributary limbs, or August lull when hayrakes christen the air with dust? From each its verse. Call it summer purl played in moonlight minor, or spring’s throated foreword to flood. Tales we’ve hung on in our onceupon-a-time ages: Rockaby once more. Will a voice in the dervish know prayers and pass, and afterward who will tend the little ones? Storms delimb saplings and storied patriarchs alike, ruin replayed in motley scapes, rot returning the dust its tithes. O boghymn bright, will-o-the-wisp, dost the fable die with us? Who will tale, once we’re gone, who trumpet our downplayed deeds? How moot. In absence, what is known of us is token. Rain is prelim to the river’s mood, but it is not afterword
P O E T R Y to the story played—it is the story. The salmon word for home is glacierdust and once-tall trees unlimbed, a taste, no matter where, they know.
Stargazing Wind frets and shuffles down its dark halls and starchoir huddles us on the porch. Everywhere the night feels like it’s falling. Millennia have not brought us yet the tales of their deaths, what light is gone, so distant are some. We are castaway, unmoored. The night has sown stars in my father’s eyes— a word might break us, might build of our relics kingdoms of air the grass pray in, our stories read in the gnarled skins of trees, the petals of our bones carrying us to the sea, where the moon might come and touch us with light.
Michael Johnson is from Bella Coola, British Columbia, and lives in Vancouver. His work has appeared in The Fiddlehead, Queen’s Quarterly, Weber, and The Southern Review, among others, and was selected for the Best American Poetry 2009 and Best Canadian Poetry 2009 and 2010. He’s been a Pushcart nominee and a finalist for the Bronwen Wallace Award and a Ruth Lilly Fellowship. Someday soon he will finish his first poetry manuscript, How to Be Eaten by a Lion. Kashka Johnson
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P O E T R Y
ÂŠ Indea Vanmerlin 2013
* Not from some savannah the sky took root half in ice, half in sorrow half where its warm fruit still falls against your cheeks the way rain would spread out before you learned to weep though the grass still covers you ripens as the mornings one arm still hears before the other â€”you take with nothing to give and sunlight too has hardened has forgotten how yet just the same you gather its mist and one by one from between these stones a little distance is lifted empties, clasped in the open weightless, lost among your fingers reaching for pieces and each other.
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* You sit along its rim, count the way this well returns wishes and seawater
You can’t hold back this knob already resistant to sunlight filling your lungs
and each sky scented by the damp breeze that suffocates its prey
the way all the firewood on Earth waits in these clouds as cries and ruin
—you don’t escape, let the warm sand take hold surround your arm over arm
and though the sky is aging you hurry through, each breath weak in the doorway
as a day still struggling thrashing in nets, tossing out balloons no one wants anymore
covers it with a lid half lit, half spreading out to open, close and you
or celebrates the catch where a small stone was asking for you.
are breathing for two, the air given some mist to find its way home.
Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. For more information, including his essay Magic, Illusion and Other Realities and a complete bibliography, please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com.
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E S S A Y
Simon Ortiz and Gabriele M. Schwab
hen Jo Jo and I played “war,” we weren’t cowboys and Indians. I mean, war didn’t mean fighting between cowboys who were whites and Indians who were Indians. We grew up as boys in the 1940s during World War II. So we knew something about war from what we heard adults talking about when they talked of Germans and Japanese. In the 1940s, that was what we heard: Germans and Japanese were the enemies, the bad guys. And Americans were the good guys because they were fighting the bad guys, the enemies. War was a violent fight between good and bad. And we knew war had to do with life and death. So dying, death, injury, loss, destruction, and so forth, had to do with war, and trying to prevent dying, death, injury, loss, and destruction had to do with war. That was the explanation for war and why the good guys, the Americans, were fighting the bad guys who were doing bad things. Obviously, it was a simplistic way of understanding and knowing about war. On the way home from McCarty Day School, Jo Jo and I would play war. As far as I can recall, we were always the Americans, the good guys. And the Germans (or the Japanese) were the bad guys. What the bad guys looked like we didn’t really know— at least I didn’t—because we didn’t have any visual examples to refer to
when we were young. As far as I recall, I had seen no movies and our families didn’t have television—in fact, this was in the time before household tv—and we hadn’t really seen news or magazine photos of German and Japanese bad guys, i.e., soldiers, in the war. So we had only an imagined rough visual image “of what bad guys looked like.” They were pretty awful though: long dirty and unkempt hair, mean and lean and ugly faces, heavily muscled arms with big bony hands, and they wore dirty, dark, and uncomfortable-looking clothing. And they carried big deadly guns, long knives, and bullets and bombs in bags strapped around their shoulders and waists. They were deadly and scary! They definitely looked like bad guys. Evil and dangerous, killers and thieves capable of wretched, indescribable, unthinkable deeds. They deserved to be seen as the enemy, nothing else but, and the only way Jo Jo and I could consider and know them was as the enemy. And we were
bound by a natural, innate creed to fight and kill them as the enemy! It didn’t matter where we were, what we were doing, like walking home from school, for instance. If we encountered the enemy, we would immediately act to keep the enemy from causing death and destruction; we were bound by our creed. Seven or eight year-old school boys, we may have been, yet we were ready! In play, yes, as children, but there was also something more I think. Years later, I think this: as Indigenous children, all our lives we’d heard stories of injury, loss, theft, destruction, death caused by others— like the Spaniards and Americans— more powerful than us as Indigenous people. We definitely had an obvious and apparent connection to our Indigenous community, land, and culture. Our families, consisting of siblings, parents, grandparents, and relatives, our land that included gardens, fields, pastures, and where we gathered firewood, and cultural beliefs that provided the knowledge of our lives as Aacqumeh hanoh—that was our world, and the creed we were guided by required us to be loyal and protective of that world. After school one day, we were crossing on foot a deep arroyo west of my grandpa’s home. Road construction crews with their heavy machinery had been working at that spot in the arroyo to put in an aqueduct for floodwaters flowing from upstream. Eventually, a large diameter pipe for a floodwater flow-way would be installed and cemented in place. At this point, temporarily, juniper boughs were placed alongside of the pipe to keep it in place, and dirt was packed on top to make a roadway. When we came upon the construction
site, Jo Jo, a boy with a big imagination, said, “Look at what the Germans are doing! They are building a road to cross this arroyo so they can attack our school, church, and the village.” He pointed at the construction site and gestured with his arm and hand in the westerly direction of the school, church, and village area. It was obvious! Of course, that was the plan! Tractor tracks on the ground were evident of the work going on. The enemy Germans were cagey; the arroyo crossing was supposedly being installed for the sake of the community but it was really for the purpose of destruction. “I know just what we’ll do,” Jo Jo said. “Tse schrow sabotage schee-sraanah-tyu.” He said the American word “sabotage.” I didn’t know what it really meant and I wondered what we would do to “sabotage” the construction. “I have some matches,” he said, taking some stick matches from his pocket. Then he turned to me and said, “Go up and take a look to see that no one’s around.” Jo Jo pointed at the steep bank out of the arroyo, and I climbed quickly up the bank. When he saw me reach the top, he hollered, “Is it all clear?” Taking a quick look all around, I didn’t see anyone. The only home nearby was my grandpa’s and nobody seemed to be at home, so I waved at Jo Jo and hollered back in a half-loud voice, “All clear.” And he signalled back with a raised arm and a finger and thumb formed into an O for okay. From my perch at the top of the bank, I watched Jo Jo strike a match into flame and put it to a dried brown juniper branch. Immediately a whiff of white smoke drifted upward toward me, and I smelled the pungent smoke. The juniper boughs were tinder dry,
E S S A Y and very quickly the fire spread since the wind had picked up. Orange-red flames fastly spread along the exposed edges and smoke billowed upward in white clouds. In the next instant, the flames grew wilder with the wind whipping it out of control! I glanced at Jo Jo, and immediately I saw fear and panic in his face! He hollered at me then, “Come down, come down! Help me put the fire out!” With our hands, we threw scoops of sand on the flames but it was mostly useless. The flames roared wildly out of control, and we couldn’t stop the roaring fire until the outer exposed dry juniper boughs were all burned. Now there was smoke billowing in clouds around us. Jo Jo and I were panicked and coughing, tears streaking down our faces grimy with smoke and ash, not knowing what to do now with a fire that immediately took off on its own. “Let’s get out of here!” Jo Jo yelled then, his voice almost a delirious scream. “Before the Germans come and take us prisoner!” So that’s what we did, running as fast as we could away from the fire, down the arroyo bed, not stopping until, out of breath, we reached a spot where we turned around. From a hundred and more yards away, we saw the smoke drifting into the sky over the construction site. “We’re safe now, my friend. We made it. We got away.” Jo Jo said grandly. But I didn’t feel so safe. To tell the truth, I was afraid the fire would spread beyond the dry juniper at the construction site. My grandpa’s house and his corrals and tool and work sheds were nearby. Playing war was a children’s pastime in the 1940s since WW II was such a central fact of cultural life in the U.S. One could not help
but include “war” into how a person was considering and coping with the reality of the world. Obviously, childhood requires simplicity, and the boys that Jo Jo and I were relied upon images and vocabulary that served to explain what war was. And we, therefore, could rely upon our own understanding and synthesis from impressions that were and were not provided from adults, such as our parents and others, around us. German postwar children grew up with Karl May, the popular author who made sure cowboys and Indians would forever have a prominent place in the German imagination. Even children who had never read his books learned second-hand about the stories of Winnetou, the noble Apache and Old Shatterhand, a white trapper who becomes his loyal blood brother. The ceremony in which Winnetou and Old Shatterhand mixed their blood to affirm their unshakable brotherhood had a powerful hold on us. Many of us cut our forearms to let our blood mingle with that of our best friend, affirming our mutual bond for life. We also went into the bushes behind our school house, smoking “peace pipes” carved of wood and filled with smokable twigs from plants we called Lianen. Girls dreamt of Ntscho-Tschi, Winnetou’s sister who falls in love with Old Shatterhand. We shed heartfelt tears about her tragic sacrificial death when she rushes to take the bullet meant for Old Shatterhand. Karl May wrote these stories while doing time in prison, managing to hijack the souls of generations of German children. His fame soon spread all over Europe as his books appeared in many translations. Talking with Europeans of my generation about our most influential childhood readings,
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Karl May almost inevitably comes up. His exploitation of the myth of the noble savage has become a legacy that colored the dreams and fantasies of the postwar generation. There is no way of escaping or trying to deny it. A few years ago when I was riding on a London double-decker bus with Simon, a man behind us asked him whether he was Indian. He was so eager to pour out reminiscences about his Karl May readings that he barely gave Simon a chance to answer. I always get so embarrassed when Karl May comes up while I am with Simon that I want to disappear into thin air. When I first met Simon’s son, Raho, he told me about his German landlord who, in his eighties, liked to call him up opening with the line: “Hi Raho, this is Winnetou, chief of the Apaches.…” They never seem to end, these stories of Germans and Indians! Opening the Berliner Zeitung today, I found another article on Karl May and Gojko Mitić, the most prominent GDR impersonator of Indians. Perhaps it is symptomatic that in Mitić’s career the boundary between history and fantasy remains fluid. He played his roles as Osceola and Tecumseh with the same romanticized heroism he displayed as Winnetou, the role that brought him to fame. Playing Winnetou, he is said to have used a blanket given to him along with an honorary membership by an unspecified tribe for his contributions to indigenous issues. Today Mitić tours Germany, lecturing about respect for Mother Earth because, the article states, “the Wild West remained his lifelong passion.” Even in 2010, German newspaper can seamlessly fold indigenous history into a romantic rhetoric of the Wild West. It is still part of the old German imaginary so powerful when I grew up.
Yes, Winnetou was my childhood hero too. Karl May’s chief of the Apaches incorporates every imaginable cliché of the noble Indian: dignified, strong and taciturn, he was a great warrior skilled in survival and endowed with infallible intuition. His loyalty was as deep to his white blood brother as it was to his sister. I expanded May’s stories in my own fantasies, picturing myself as Ntscho-Tschi’s friend who falls in love with Winnetou. I wrote entire exercise books full of my own Winnetou stories, stories that curiously enough had a strong matrilineal streak even though I had no knowledge whatsoever of matrilineal societies. I shared my passion for these Indian stories with my eight-year younger sister Steffy, who later wrote her own adaptations. By then the French Winnetou films with Pierre Brice in the lead role came out, turning almost over night into one of the biggest box office successes ever and fueling the new wave of Karl May frenzy that inspired Steffy’s Winnetou stories. Almost from the time she learned to write when she was six years old, Steffy had written stories. She made her own little books by cutting out squares from exercise books into which she wrote down her stories in her most careful handwriting, illustrating them with minute, colorful and detailed drawings. Most of her and my childhood writings got lost, almost all of them in my mother’s book burning craze during which she destroyed everything we had written she could lay her hands on. Some of the storybooks I had saved became casualties during one of my many moves. Almost miraculously, however, one of Steffy’s Winnetou books survived. She bound it in thick gold paper, dedicated it to me and designed a cover page with a photograph of Pierre Brice as Winnetou. It
E S S A Y is one among the few writings of her that survived when she died, barely seven years after she had written it. It was inevitable we, the hanoh of Aacqu, were to have an almost intimate knowledge of war because of the “Death March.” When anyone in the community said Death March or spoke of the Death March, we knew immediately what was being talked about. At the beginning of the WWII, after the U.S. declaration of war against Japan for its bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, in response to Japanese aggression, the U.S. sent military forces to the Philippines. General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the expeditionary forces, planned to secure the Philippines for an eventual invasion of Japan’s mainland. Among the U.S. forces sent to the Philippines was the New Mexico National Guard (Coast Guard Artillery) that included soldiers from Acoma Pueblo. Early on in the war, Japanese forces counterattacked, forcing the U.S. military to withdraw and evacuate the Philippines. General MacArthur had to move his command from the Philippines. A large number of his soldiers were forced to surrender to the Japanese army and they became prisoners of war. Among them were a number of Acoma soldiers who became POWs. So when people at home spoke about the war, they definitely meant WW II, especially when they talked about the Bataan Death March during which thousands of American POWs died. War is intimate, no shit. Ask the tribal memory of the genocidal threeday war against Acoma in January 1599 when commander Don Juan Onate ordered the destruction—the complete eradication—of Acoma
during the initial period of the Spanish colonization of “northern New Spain” that is now New Mexico. According to meticulous records kept by the Spanish, 800 hundred Indigenous people died in the ferocious battle atop the besieged Acoma mesa. The Spanish attacked with mounted infantry, war dogs, lances, swords, muskets, and cannon to overcome the people of Aacqu defending themselves with bows and arrows, wooden and stone clubs, spears, and other traditional weapons. Men and women warriors fought valiantly but eventually they were overcome by the Spanish and their advanced and modern weaponry. Seeing the savagery of the Spanish onslaught upon their people, Acoma mothers and grandmothers leaped off the 375-foot cliffs of Aacqu to their deaths with children held in their arms. In the chaos, confusion, conflict of catastrophic warfare in the three days of battle, untold instances of death took place until the Acoma casualties mounted by the hundreds. Except for the memory of mythic battle in the pre-history of Aacqu, never was there an experience like this. Mothers howled with screams of loss, grandmothers wept and wept, men and boys screeched with ferocity of effort to defend their land, culture, community, and children grew hoarse with terrified cries. Eventually, there was little that could be done against the overpowering and committed will of the Spanish conquistadores who had arrived only three months before in the Pueblo homeland. Onate and his men were determined to achieve complete submission by the Pueblo people whose homeland the region was. Soon, Indigenous means of warfare were inadequate and meager
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against the metal weapons and thunderous explosive might of the Spanish cannons. It was terrifying to face such horrendous machinery of war that was new and unknown to Indigenous people. Soon the Acoma people had no choice but to surrender and plead for mercy. Yes, the intimacy of war and its violence was no stranger to Acoma. The period of time between the devastating destruction of Aacqu in 1599 and the devastating WWII in the 1940s was 340 plus years. That is well over three centuries, but the stories brought home by soldiers from war in the South Pacific, Europe, and North Africa and about the brutal POW experiences resounded with intimate first hand knowledge. When I was a boy, our family did not live far from the railroad upon which military transport trains passed daily westward and eastward. I would see the faces of young men pressed to the passenger windows as they watched me waving to them. And I would see the olivegreen tanks, trucks, and long-barreled cannons carried on flatcars. Off to war, off to war, off to war, the freight train and railroads seemed to be singing. And at fiestas and traditional religious occasions, I would see young Aacqumeh men and women in uniform. San-dah-rrruu-titra, we would think and say. Soldiers, we would say because they were from our community, and they were our relatives. San-dah-rrruu-titra. Soldiers. Such an intimate word. In the 1970s and 1960s, two friends, Leslie Marmon Silko and N. Scott Momaday, wrote novels that were partly set in war zones and experiences. I related as much to the character of Tayo in Silko’s Ceremony as I did to the character of Abel in Moma-
day’s House Made of Dawn. Tayo and Abel were both of Pueblo ancestry and heritage. Not only did I identify with Tayo and Abel, but I also comprehended the characters’ stories through my personal acquaintance with both of the authors. Leslie comes to mind as a 19 or 20 year-old law student at the University of New Mexico who had looked forward to meeting me because I was a writer! And Scott comes poignantly to mind as a poet and scholar since he was practically the only Indigenous American poet who was being published in the mid-1960s! When I think of Tayo and Abel, I have to admit to knowing them in terms of my close acquaintance with Leslie Silko and Scott Momaday and their knowledge of the cultural histories that comprise their respective characterizations of Tayo and Abel, i.e., their personalities, histories, behaviors, experiences, and actions. The depictions of Tayo and Abel come from or arise in the knowledge of Silko and Momaday about their own Indigenous heritages, which is the source of Tayo’s and Abel’s personas within their Pueblo communities. The key is intimacy, i.e., not only human trial and tribulation in the intimate trauma of war and POW experience, but also in the personal historical dynamic of human beings in their personal presentations, and in being crucibles of human experience preceding their own. Ultimately, this intimacy informs credibility. While I experienced the Winnetou craze as a postwar phenomenon, stories about noble Indians have been passed down through generations. Even the fact that Hitler is said to have been a Karl May fan couldn’t break Karl May’s spell. When my son Manu was born
E S S A Y in the late seventies, children were as excited playing Winnetou as we once were. Like other German boys, Manu played Indian games and during the exuberant medieval carnival celebrations in Southern Germany he inevitably dressed up as Winnetou. I told him a lot of Indian stories, even though I made sure I taught him some real history as well. By that time, German TV also aired documentaries for children about the history and lives of indigenous children. Manu was particularly excited about the gripping story of a Navajo boy who lived in Monument Valley, only to be taken away from his family and sent to a boarding school. Years later, when we visited the Navajo reservation in Monument Valley, Manu was able to talk to the children and ask them questions informed by the books I had read to him and the films he had seen. So his German imaginary about Indians was already decidedly different, more informed and realistic than mine. At least Karl May no longer had the exclusive hold on German children’s minds when it came to indigenous Americans. In fact, after we moved to the U.S. when Manu was five years old, I realized how much better German TV programs and books for children about indigenous cultures were than anything I found in the States. Lame Deer was the one who somewhat eased my conscience about the guilty pleasures of playing Indians in my childhood. He came to lecture at the University of Constance the year before we left for the U.S. Lame Deer spoke in English with the help of a translator in front of a packed auditorium. Five-yearold Manu sat through the entire lecture, utterly transfixed by Lame Deer’s voice. He didn’t understand a word of
English then but waited patiently for the translation. How much he focused on Lame Deer’s words became clear, though, when he once suddenly turned to me exclaiming excitedly: “Lame Deer said Custer! Custer is evil!” When, toward the end of his talk, Lame Deer gave thanks for the contributions he received through tickets and donations, he good-humoredly pointed out a historical irony of his lecture tour in Germany: “I need to place thanks where thanks belong,” he said, “namely to one of your great German authors, a certain Karl May. I know that without him, many of you would not be here today. I’m aware that Karl May is one of the reasons why I find more support for indigenous issues in Germany than in my own country.” So today, when I feel embarrassed about Karl May’s hold on the German imaginary, Lame Deer’s words come back to mind. Perhaps I should also mention Lame Deer’s own power on my son’s mind. When the translator asked for questions, Manu’s little hand shot up like an arrow: “Was essen indianische Kinder?” he asked. “What do Indian children eat?” the translator asked Lame Deer, who then looked at Manu, slightly startled, before he broke into a broad smile and replied, not without a complicitous look at me: “Fruits and vegetables. Lots of fruits and vegetables!” For years, all Manu had wanted to eat was meat, pasta, pizza, and sweets, stubbornly refusing to touch vegetables. From that day on, however, he asked for fruits and vegetables, and all I needed was to invoke Lame Deer if I wanted him to get his vitamins. Philosophy was thinking and expression. To me, at age 16 or 17, that’s what I thought philosophy
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was. Thinking and saying what you thought. Simple as that. Philosophers thought and thought and then they spoke what they thought. A philosopher was a person of thought then. A deep thinker. And when he or she thought deep things, he or she spoke them out loud. And others listened to the philosopher. I thought of myself as a philosopher because I thought a lot. Even deep thoughts or what I thought were deep thoughts. Mainly, though, it was because I was young, immature, naive, inexperienced that I thought I was a philosopher. Imagination. Fantasy. Wishful thinking. I doubt that I knew the difference. I read a lot though. I loved reading. My world was books: literature, history, geography, some science. A world view that began with an Indigenous social-culture view and perspective of the Acoma people that crossed over to the non-Indigenous American belief system. A world view that began with the Acoma language— Aacqumeh sra-dzeh nih-she—and crossed into the American white language of English. What did a philosopher do when he has to deal with two world views? I didn’t know. But I knew certain things from the Acoma traditional view of things having to do with the world around me. Appreciate what you have. If I learned anything from my Acoma parents and elders right off, it was to appreciate what you have. You have your life: be thankful for the life you have. Respect your home, land, relatives. Realize very early on, it’s important to be helpful. As a rule, you cannot and must not do anything unless you are helpful. I was a pre-teen youngster, not really a child anymore, when I was “initiated” into
the traditional Pueblo kiva. Several others and me, all about the same age, were told that growing up was our responsibility; we were responsible for ourselves. Basically we were told to be helpful, to be respectful, to be appreciative. Yeah. Welcome to the real world. Yikes! To the philosopher, what is the resolution to that? In June 2010, I find myself in Berlin, and I remember I turned to German philosophy when I was 17 or 18 years old. Or I became aware of German intellectual thought that included philosophy. At that age I wanted to know the answers to life. Typically, I wanted to know right away! Why, what, and how seemed to be the burning questions that had to be asked and answered. Why was I alive? What is the purpose of life? How do I find the meaning of life? In 1959-60, in my last year of high school, I was just beginning to learn about the larger world outside of and beyond the Indigenous world of my home community of Acoma Pueblo. Like I said above, I had become aware of the world away from Acoma because of the WWII taking place when I was a school boy. In the 1940s when I was a boy, WWII was evident in our community because of the soldiers from home who had been to war in the Pacific and in Europe. And further evidence of war time were the trains loaded with war machinery passing through the Acoma reservation. And when I was in high school, I had developed a deeper awareness of the nations at war and the forces behind the war. And I had come to develop a larger view than I had when I was a boy who “played war” featuring America fighting Japan and
E S S A Y Germany. And now I was in Germany, a nation that was centrally involved in WWII. In fact, Germany and the Nazi regime that governed it in the 1930s and 1940s was the perpetrator and cause of the war. And the world, led by Britain, France, the United States of America, and others, in fact, was in war to defend itself against the imperialist goals of the Nazis! So what am I doing in Berlin, Germany, where the beginnings of Nazism and its conquistador-of-the-world ambitions were spawned? When I think about it seriously, I have to say the Acoma Pueblo community I come from in the USA is one of many communities-worlds on this planet Earth. In 1918, my uncle Frank Ortiz, as a young man, was with American military forces in WWI happening in Europe, a war that was also instigated by Germany. Whatever his reasons were for being in the American military, they resulted in him being in Germany. As a boy, my immediate consciousness of WWII was inspired by stories of the Bataan Death March in the Philippines and the fact that Acoma soldiers suffered in the turmoil of the March as prisoners of war. War, unfortunately, has made us citizens of the world! Several years ago, I wrote an essay that was a complaint: I am tired of war; I want this war to be over. Indigenous peoples in the Americas have been fighting a war of survival all of our lives. There has been no choice but to continue, so we go on fighting. So what’s a philosopher to do whether he is 17 or 69? When I think and think and think, I want and need to say something about what I’ve been thinking. For me, what it comes down to is that expression is necessary. Thinking is one thing and expression
is another. I am a writer and a poet. For me, philosophical thought is necessary, but as a writer and poet I am able to express myself. So that’s my resolution. Karl May also provided the foil for children’s war games. To think that we were six years old or so, children born to parents deranged by the war, now playing war as cowboys and Indians, innocent and oblivious of reality and history! I have such vivid memories of playing Indian war games with a friend named Horst whom I met on the first summer vacation I spent with my mother on Borkum, a small island in the North Sea. We lived in a fisherman’s house in the midst of beautiful white sand dunes. Horst lived next to us with his family and we spent most of our days together in the dunes or at the beach. The fisherman made us bows and arrows and built two tepees behind the house. Horst taught me how to make blowguns out of the branches of Holundertrees. We cut the branches, pushed the soft inside out with small sticks, and used hard unripe holunderberries as bullets. When we filled the entire stick up with green pellets and blew hard, we could shoot them an impressive distance. Horst was a year or two older than I and most likely the first boy I ever had a crush on. Never before had I had such excitement playing! Since none of us wanted to play a cowboy, we pretended to be enemies from warring Indian tribes. Usually I played an Indian brave, but I also remember a game in which I took the role of an “Indian Squaw” who had to fight in place of her wounded husband. Horst and I went all over the sand dunes, stalking each other, silently. I became good at hiding and then sneaking up on him, noiselessly.
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Catching him by surprise, I shot him with my bow and arrow whereupon he dropped dead, sometimes rolling all the way down one of the dunes. What a good sport Horst was! He always played along and seemed to have as much fun as I had, even when he lost. Sometimes we sneaked away from the house and played in the dunes, spying on couples making out in hiding. We pretended we were an Indian brave and his squaw ambushing white people. When we were pretty close, we prepared our blowguns, gave each other a silent signal and then blew our guns with as much force as we could master, hitting the couples with our green bullets. The most challenging part was getting away without being caught. We ran for our lives, either hiding behind another sand dune or arriving in our tepees out of breath but beaming with excitement. Then came the domestic part: I prepared food in our tepees. We got tiny little ocean shrimp on bread from the fisher’s wife, and fruit, chocolates and juice from our mothers. While I prepared the food, Horst would sit in front of the tepee, using an old wooden bucket as an Indian drum and singing war songs: “wee, wee, ha hoi, wee wee, ha hoi, lacome, ha hoi lacome!” A month later our bliss ended when we had to return to our different hometowns. How often have I thought back to these times, wishing that Horst would do the same! There is nothing like childhood romance, at least in our memories. It’s strange to think about German postwar children playing war as cowboys and Indians. Even though we grew up in the shadow of war, we never played war between Germans and their enemies; we played war between cowboys and Indians. For us, playing cowboy-Indian wars had
nothing to do with the stories we heard about real wars. In talking to Simon, I learned something even stranger: roughly at the time I played my war games with Horst, Simon and his friend at Acoma played war as Germans and Japanese against Americans rather than cowboys against Indians. So now, half a century later, Simon and I are sitting in my Berlin apartment, writing about children playing war: the Acoma boy on a reservation in the U.S. played war against the Germans, while back on the German island the German girl acted as an Indian at war with the cowboys! Years later I would play similar games with my sons, most of them based on survival stories in which we had to hide from civilization, find food and berries in the forest and look for animal tracks. With my older son Manu, we rented small boats on Lake Constance pretending we were canoeing. One day, Floyd Westerman came to town for a show organized by an alternative arts co-operative in Sommeri, a Swiss village near Constance. Floyd played in an old farmhouse with an organic restaurant, run by hippie owners. They had a stage upstairs where they featured some of the best and most political shows in the entire region. Floyd, barely known in Europe then, played guitar and sang his wonderful songs. After the show, Manu and I talked to him. Floyd showed Manu his guitar and the pictures on his record cover. Full of excitement, Manu kept urging me to translate questions and answers back and forth between them. Finally I bought Floyd’s record “Custer died for your Sins” for Manu. For months afterwards, Manu listened to this record every day over and over again. He began by dancing to the songs, but before the week was over he had learned to sing along. I will never
E S S A Y forget how one day he appeared in the kitchen singing loud and clearly: “Custer died for your sins!” I always liked the idea that these were Manu’s very first words in English. A few years ago when Floyd Westerman passed away, it was Manu who called me from New York and told me the news. We had followed his career, got his new records and saw his films
when he became a Hollywood actor. When Manu told me Floyd had died, I burned sage, put on “Custer died for your Sins” and played it over the phone, creating our own long-distance mourning ceremony. Simon knew Floyd well and I always wished I could have met him again to tell him the story of Manu’s first English words.
Simon J. Ortiz, Acoma Pueblo poet, writer, storyteller, essayist, and Regents Professor at Arizona State University, is author of Woven Stone, from Sand Creek, Beyond the Reach of Time and Change, After and Before the Lightning, The Good Rainbow Road, Speaking for the Generations, and other books. Focusing on Indigenous de-colonization and liberation, his work, writing, and teaching stresses the Indigenous struggle for land, culture, and community. Going for the Rain, his first major poetry collection published in 1976 in the U.S., is to be published soon in a bilingual edition in China. A former Interpreter and 1st Lt. Governor of Acoma Pueblo, he is the father of three children and the grandfather of nine beautiful grandchildren.
Gabriele M. Schwab is Chancellor’s Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Irvine, a faculty associate in the Department of Anthropology, and former director of the Critical Theory Institute. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Heisenberg Fellowship and was a Research Fellow in Residence at the Australian National University, the Free University of Berlin, and Arizona State University. Her books in English include Haunting Legacies: Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma; Derrida, Deleuze, Psychoanalysis; Accelerating Possessions: Global Futures of Property and Personhood (coedited with William Maurer); The Mirror and the Killer-Queen: Otherness in Literary Language; Subjects without Selves: Transitional Texts in Modern Fiction; and a special issue of Postcolonial Studies, coedited with John Cash, entitled “The Cultural Unconscious and the Postcolonizing Process.” Her work has been translated into eight languages.
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Wagons West Westward roll the moaning wheels, St. Joe to Santa Fe, Cutting ruts and ribbons of trail. Impelled by rumor the schooners push Across a sea of bear grass and purple sage And barren stretches of sun-bleached earth. Days and weeks between river streams To fill the barrels, cleanse the clothes, Scrub the body bare—and Sate one’s thirst without Guilt or shame. Nights so desert dark One might espy a Distant universe In the blackness of space. Onward roll the moaning wheels Wending canyons Haphazardly formed By the whims of wind And summer torrents— Ever chasing the setting sun They forge a trail beguiled With knife-etched epitaphs Of love and loss— As ever onward Sail the pilgrims Toward the Promised Land.
Courtesy of The Florida Center for Instructional Technology
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Skulls Sun-bleached skulls Stare from fence posts Along the road to Corona. Horned and hollow And whispering In the winds Churned up by Heat refracted From the sands of time, Left stranded by Some ocean’s ebb Millennia before, Skulls reminiscent Of a former scourge That raped the land To near extinction, Of buffalo hooves That thundered the Grassy valleys, The sacred hills As far as eyes could see, Free to move With nature’s whim To graze unfenced Their rightful realm. Do they whisper To the spirit of Tatanka? Pray for his return? Dixon Hearne (Ph.D., Claremont Graduate University) grew up in Louisiana. His work has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His poetry has been anthologized in University of Texas Press’s 50-state/volume set of best American poetry, and recently received an award from Midwest Literary Magazine. Other poetry appears in numerous magazines, journals and anthologies, including New Plains Review, Big Muddy, Poetica Magazine, Picayune Literary Magazine, Mythium Literary Journal, Tipton Poetry Journal, and others. He is currently at work on new poetry and short story collections.
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he walks by his place on the graded dirt road every day. Actually, twice a day. The first time at around ninethirty in the morning, which is when she walks toward the highway, and the second time an hour and a half later when she walks back from the direction of the highway. Not that Dale can see the highway from his trailer—he can’t. It’s too far away, and there are too many creosote bushes in the way, and a low knoll as well. Dale’s mailbox is at the side of the graded road, his singlewide set back from the road by about fifty yards. A dirt track runs from Dale’s mailbox to his trailer, the trailer on three acres of pebbled land, yet to be fenced, creosote blotting the property. From Dale’s breakfast nook, where he spends a lot of time, he can see her clearly from the window, vantage point above the creosote. No matter what the weather—hot, cold, rain, wind—there she is, walking on that leveled dirt road. She dresses accordingly, seasonally, but nevertheless the elements can be fierce. Dale’s been living in the singlewide for a little over a year and he’s been watching her since he moved in, her on the graded dirt road in front of his place, eastern fringes of Las Vegas where that illustrious municipality dissipates into desert. And now Dale’s coming out of his singlewide, down the wooden steps that lead to the ground, and he’s walking fast, or trying to, because he wants to get to her before she passes his mailbox. Today’s the day. He’s thought about it and he’s prepared for it, and now he’s on his way after spotting her coming from the direction of the highway. Dale’s already been out to the mailbox to put the tin red flag up. He did that after he saw her walking toward the highway an hour and a half earlier, upon which he returned to his trailer, returned to the breakfast nook to watch for her on her return trip. Going out for the mail—that’s the pretext he’s going to use. Dale has dressed for the occasion—sport shoes, clean khakis, shortsleeved plaid shirt, and a gray cap that doesn’t have any sort of logo.
F I C T I O N He settled on this outfit because it gives nothing away, a neutral look that will allow him to go in any direction if conversation ensues. Also, his neutral, noncommittal clothing will allow her that same privilege, any direction, non-confrontational. She can say what she wants, and so can Dale. Yesterday Dale got a haircut at one of those chop-chop places that’s part of a strip mall, fifteen dollars plus a tip, and this morning he shaved carefully so as not to nick his fleshy face, no aftershave, no cologne, no scent. As with his clothing, he doesn’t want to encourage assumption. Of course she might not be walking all the way to the highway. There are other three-acre lots with singlewides or doublewides between Dale’s place and the highway. She might be stopping at one of them. On two occasions Dale’s hopped into his pickup truck and driven down the graded road in the direction of the highway to see her still walking toward the highway, so he knows that she goes at least that far, a couple of healthy lots past Dale’s place. He didn’t stop to offer her a ride. He wasn’t prepared for that. He was wary and he was cautious. After all, she might be a nut case; that’s a strong possibility. Dale didn’t want that in the cab of his truck. So, playing it safe, he simply drove by while keeping her in the side mirror for as long as he could. He should have stopped. He knows that. It would have been the neighborly thing to do, but—one can’t be too careful these days. Instead of risking that, her in the cab of his truck, he’s settled on this. On his way to the mailbox Dale tries to assume a brisk step, but that’s a tricky deal because if he hurries too much he might trip over his own feet and fall, and falling could mean anything from embarrassment to hospitalization. Dale’s got a potbelly and brittle bones. He’s got to be careful. It’s a cloudless day and there’s no wind. Dale plans to say Howdy Doody, and if possible find out what this is all about. No one walks on the graded dirt road or anywhere else in the vicinity for that matter. Coyotes and pickup trucks can be seen on the graded road, crows too, and of course lizards and snakes, but no people, no people at all, except her. What the hell is she doing out there?
smell, the incense smoke. Today it was especially wonderful—the incense, the flowers, the sunshine, and everybody dressed up.” She smiles, but there’s hesitancy. Her teeth aren’t bright, but they are in good shape, lips thin, little or no cosmetics. Her voice is dry and scratchy, but that’s not uncommon in Southern Nevada, weather accounting for this, although in some cases alcohol and/or tobacco play a part. Her skin has a sun-brown look. Not surprising considering that she’s outdoors every day. From his breakfast nook, though, Dale hadn’t noticed her weathered complexion, nor had he noticed how her face runs vertically. But now, up close, he can see these things and he can hear her voice. An oat-colored canvas bag hangs from her hand. Dale has seen the bag, seen it every day, a functional bag, a bag that suggests utility. “Everyone dressed up?” “Yes, what with today being Easter Sunday and all.” Oh, no. Dale hadn’t stopped to think that it was Sunday, Easter Sunday no less—no mail on Sunday. He notices now how she is more dressed up than usual, not that she is super-duper dressed up. She is never really dressed up, but she is never sloppy either. Today there is a nice pastel brown dress with pleats and a sprig of something green, perhaps rosemary, pinned to her dress below her left shoulder. In her bag maybe there’s a small hat and a pair of black pumps, Dale thinks. Right now, Nikes are on her feet. Also in the canvas bag Dale suspects a plastic bottle containing water or sports drink. He’s seen her stop a couple of times to drink from a plastic bottle. “Easter?” “Yes.” She renews her hesitant smile. “But why walk? Don’t you have a car?” “Yes, I have a car. I have a pickup truck like everyone else around here.” It’s true. All the residents along the graded road have pickup trucks, not that anyone really needs one, for what Dale has seen are retirees, older people donning a western flair, cowboy hats and so forth. In the cabs of pickups he’s glimpsed wrinkled faces beneath broad-brimmed hats, and when there isn’t a hat there’s splayed hair, people looking like they just woke up. Some of the pickups have a camper shell. That’s the way Dale’s truck is, a low camper shell that’s no higher than the cab so that the wind won’t bother his vehicle out on the highway. But Dale, and everyone else, could get along just fine with a compact car, or any other kind of car, because the graded road possess no challenge even when there’s rain. As far as hauling things, the only hauling Dale does are a couple of plastic bags from the supermarket. It’s probably the same with his neighbors. Of course some people might use their pickups to go camping, but Dale doubts that, because frequent urination would make camping difficult unless there was a potty inside the camper, but camper shells don’t have toilet facilities.
“I’m coming from church.” “Church?” “Yes. At the end of the road, on the highway, to the left. Haven’t you seen it?” “No.” “A Catholic church, but that doesn’t matter so much, at least for me. A Protestant church would do just fine. Any house of worship would do, as long as I could walk to it from my trailer and go inside and sit down freely. But I’m kind of glad it’s a Catholic church because I like the smell. Even when there’s no Mass, the smell of the incense lingers. I think it’s part of the wood, part of the wooden pews, soaking up the
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F I C T I O N with the wind. On this Sunday, Easter Sunday, near the end of April, there is no wind whatsoever, temperature around eighty degrees, shadows sharp. It is this that brings people to the desert to live out the last years of their lives. “The silence allows me to see inside myself,” she says, “while, conversely, allowing me to see outside myself.” She pauses to moisten her lips with her tongue. “This flat, straight road,” she gestures, “lets me walk without thinking about where to put my feet. It allows me to look further than what’s directly in front of me, which isn’t the case when I walk in the desert, the natural desert, where you have to be careful about where you step. When I’m on this road, I can lift my head and look out. In a sense, this road is a convenience.” Dale is watching her mouth move, and what he notices is that there isn’t much movement. Her words seem to drift out. “Walking without concern lightens my head,” she says. “I can’t get this when I’m inside my trailer. I can only get it when I’m outside. So by the time I get to church, I’m ready to accept whatever it has to offer, and I’m willing to give whatever is necessary.” Again she moistens her lips with her tongue. Her lips are chapped. “What about people who drive to church?” Dale asks. “I can’t speak for other people. If you want to know about them, you have to ask them.” Dale nods. She is looking at him. “And the way back?” Dale asks. “What about that?” “Returning is not the same as going,” she says. “Even though it is upon the same ground, it is not the same, and this is a great lesson. When I am walking to church, I am opening up. My surroundings— the weather, the air, the bushes—come into my mind and body and this prepares me to sit in church, particularly on those days when there is no Mass, which, for me, is every day but Sunday. For the most part, I time my arrival after morning Mass on weekdays. I’m usually alone in church, and even on those occasions when someone else is there, there is never any talking or socializing.” Dale nods. “So on my way back, I have new eyes because of sitting in church. It’s the same route, but it’s different, and it’s different each and every day.” Dale listens to this even after its saying is finished. She is looking at his face and he feels that she is examining him. She isn’t heavy handed, but she possesses intensity. Dale glances to his right and sees a lizard skitter. “Why’s that?” Dale says, view returning to her lean face. “You mean, why that happens, why it’s new, even though it’s the same route?” “Yes.”
“Of course there’s the obvious,” she says. “Exercise.” The sun is causing her to squint her eyes, crow’s feet springing from the corners and interrupting the vertical configuration of her face. She isn’t young. Dale’s eyes aren’t straining so much, shade from of the bill of his cap affording him this luxury, which he calculated in advance. Dale’s light blue eyes are relatively at ease behind a pair of bifocals. Her eyes, on the other hand, are without glasses and are hazel. Below the hem of her dress there isn’t much leg showing, but what is showing is slim. Often, when Dale sees her walking, she is in pants, new-like jeans, but sometimes khakis. There are hats, baseball caps and straw hats, and when there is rain there is a black umbrella, which the wind tortures when there is rain and wind together. Dale has seen her struggling with the umbrella while a fast moving storm batters the desert. Her hair is short and brown, and now that Dale is looking at it up close, he sees runs of gray. On cold days she wears an overcoat, army green, a substantial garment. “And then,” she says, “there’s the not-so-obvious.” Dale waits, but there is no more. She only looks at him, so Dale says, “What’s the not-so-obvious?” “Preparation.” Again Dale waits, and again that’s all there is. Dale wonders about this. Perhaps she is trying to keep him involved in the conversation by requiring response; maybe she wants to make sure he’s focused, make sure his mind isn’t wandering. She doesn’t need to do this. She has his attention. “Preparation?” “Yes. Preparation for church.” “You prepare for church by walking a couple of miles down a dirt road?” “Yes, at least that’s what I think it is. I’ve given it some thought, and that’s what I think it is—preparation—at least partially.” She nods as if to confirm this to herself. Dale looks at her arms. Her arms are sinewy and sun-brown. Dale wonders about skin cancer, but this threat doesn’t seem to bother her. “The silence out here.” She gestures with her free hand at what surrounds them. “The wind can be noisy of course,” she says, “but that’s the wind. When there is no wind, like today, it’s so quiet.” Like everyone else in the desert, she notes the wind. In many ways it’s what determines pleasant from unpleasant, calm from disruptive, quiet from noisy, crystal-clear from hazed. The wind can put silt in people’s teeth and in their eyes and on their food. At night it doesn’t give up. Darkness does not blot it out. Quite the contrary. At times, late at night, it’s like the wind is trying to break into Dale’s trailer, trying to pry off the paneling. It seems possessed; it seems to have intent and conviction, malice in its makeup. It is ruthless. A ‘breeze,’ though, is a different matter entirely. No one in the desert ever confuses a breeze
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F I C T I O N “It is a relief to reach the end of that,” she says. “To reach the end of bad weather is a great relief. Either the church or my trailer is that end. Both offer sanctuary.” She stops speaking. In Dale’s periphery a lizard is moving. “There I am,” she resumes, “wet clothes peeled off, dry ones put on, a cup of coffee at the table. I’m looking out the window, heater on— what bliss. But without that horrid weather, there wouldn’t be that. It’s an odd thing.” She pauses and then adds, “When it’s hot, it’s similar. Coming in from the heat is a relief.” “Yes,” says Dale. “That weather, when it’s bad, is all over me, all through me. It’s all there is. It is me.” Dale looks at her. “But isn’t it uncomfortable?” She laughs. “Of course it’s uncomfortable. I hate it. I get mad at it. I get angry, as if it had singled me out. How absurd, though, to think that I am so important, as if the weather has singled me out. Giving it intent is a full-blown creation. In some disciplines this is called illusion.” Dale shifts his weight. “But isn’t that experience as well?” Dale says. “Of course. And that’s another reason why the church and my trailer are sanctuaries. They allow me to step back, to step away from it, and in this way I can see what I’ve created.” She pauses. “It’s made up.” “But why go out and make it up? Why not skip the days when there’s bad weather?” “For a couple of reasons. The most important is that I’ve tried it. Three times I tried it. And there I was, in my trailer feeling bad, feeling that I missed something, feeling that my rhythm was off, feeling that my entire day was off, feeling cooped up. Repetition is what constitutes everyday life, and it isn’t such a bad thing. It offers comfort. My walking to and from church, and everything it encompasses, has become routine. It is part of my life, and when it’s not there, I am left with this ‘missing’ feeling, this void. The third time I tried it, not going out in bad weather, I started weeping at my kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a muffin, the same coffee and the same muffin that would have given me joy had I walked to church and back.” Dale looks down to his right, where his view pauses before returning to her face. “What about if the weather is too bad, like a tornado or something?” She laughs. “I’ve thought about that, gone over that scenario. I’ve been out here for four years, walking to and from church for three, and I haven’t seen a single tornado.” She chuckles. “Why construe what hasn’t happened? Why set down rules and regulations for "—she lifts
“I don’t know why—but it’s my experience.” She pauses as if something has struck her. And then: “Experience, at least for me, is belief. Experience is real, and it’s all I have. This is what I’ve learned, and it is the key that allows me to let go of my intellect and its tangle.” Dale looks at her, and she looks back at him. Dale nods. “I came across this by accident,” she says. “Came across it in the wrath of depression. I was desperate, absolutely desperate, sitting in my trailer with nothing to do, except to watch TV and look out the window. It was like I had made myself too comfortable. I was going crazy. I had to do something, so I started walking. And then when I got to the end of the road, I saw the church off to the left. I hadn’t seen it before, you know, from my pickup. Walking made me see it. Walking makes me see things I wouldn’t see otherwise.” “Yes.” “Walking makes me feel and hear things.” She smiles in a small way. Dale nods. “Until I saw the church, there was no destination. I was just walking, a desperate move, something I had to do, something to get me out of the trailer and away from myself, and then there it was. So I crossed the highway and went inside. At first I didn’t know what to do, but then it became obvious. I sat in a pew, and after a while I came forward and kneeled.” Dale shifts his weight and brings a hand up and adjusts his glasses. “Of course it was coincidence—where I wound up. But it worked, worked for me, and it’s kept working. But how it works, or why it works, I don’t know. It’s my experience, and that’s what counts. Intellectually, I can’t hash it out; but why should I?” She has stopped talking in that peculiar way of hers, and it takes Dale a moment to realize that her question isn’t rhetorical. In response, he says, “I don’t know. Why should you?” “Yeah,” she says, “why should I?” and laughs, but unlike her smile there is no hesitancy. Her laughter goes through her face, through the vertical runs of her face and out the sides of her eyes into the crow’s feet. In return, Dale laughs. A crow caws and they both looked up at it, black wings laboring on a blue sky. Their laughter fades at about the same time and their eyes leave the bird. “And when the weather’s bad?” Dale asks. “When the weather’s bad, it is a challenge. But there are degrees to the challenge. It depends on how bad the weather is. Sometimes a bit of an edge can put something special on the experience. It can serve to sharpen my perceptions, like it compels me to focus more. There are times when the weather is on the horizon, when it’s gathering, and when the little birds are flitting and chirping and fanning out over the scrub.” She indicates with her hand. “But what about really bad weather?”
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F I C T I O N a hand—“for nothing. Why try to vest control over all circumstance, including the unknown?” The hand comes down. “I take it a day at a time. I’m not going to go out in a hurricane. I know that. So why should I worry about it?” She looks around, looks at the sky, looks at the horizon. “Do you see any hurricanes?” Dale laughs. “But where do you draw the line?” Dale persists. “I mean, I know there are no hurricanes around here. But, you know—” “I know; I know what you’re talking about, and here’s the answer: The line will be drawn for me. I don’t have to worry about that. Old age, disabling illness, change of circumstance, impossible weather, death.” She shrugs. “I could spend forever worrying about all that. Actually, that’s what I was doing before I started walking.” Dale is silent and so is the desert. “You’re the first person to come out and talk to me,” she says. Dale looks at her and sees her moistening her lips with her tongue. Over the bridge of her nose and onto her upper cheeks there are brown freckles.
Michael Onofrey was born and raised in southern California. Currently, he lives in Japan, where he carries distinct memories of the American West. His stories have appeared in Arroyo, Cottonwood, The Evansville Review, Natural Bridge, Oyez Review, and Two Hawks Quarterly, as well as in other literary journals. He is a graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz.
THE CONTEMPORARY WEST
T S E W E H DING T
read-ing [from ME reden, to explain, hence to read] – vt. 1 to get the meaning of; 2 to understand the nature, significance, or thinking of; 3 to interpret or understand; 4 to apply oneself to; study.
GEOTHERMAL ENERGY Geothermal energy is heat from within the earth. The heat can be recovered as steam or hot water and used to heat buildings or generate electricity. Geothermal energy is generally considered a renewable energy source because the heat is continuously produced inside the earth. Most of the geothermal resources in the United States are found in the West:
NEEDS MORE ATTENTION Exploration and development of geothermal energy are costly. Many potential geothermal sources are located in environmentally sensitive areas. These factors are barriers to substantial development for power production. However, according to a recent editorial in Oil & Energy Insider, a publication of OilPrice.com, geothermal energy is the most sustainable form of longterm renewable energy production. The Earth is always generating heat, and there won’t be any “peak heat,” nor could we ever extract this energy at the same pace with which the Earth generates it. The process has a carbon footprint that is negligible compared to other fossil fuel and renewable energy processes. Yet geothermal power gets decidedly little press. The idea of geothermal power has been around for ages: Italy built the world’s first power plant that generated electricity from the Earth’s heat over a hundred years ago. Source: “Geothermal Energy: More Exciting than Media Thinks,” Oil & Energy Insider, 17 May 2013, 19:44; http://oilprice.com/Alternative-Energy/Geothermal-Energy/Geothermal-Energy-More-Exciting-than-Media-Thinks.html
R E A D I N G
T H E
W E S T
UNDERGROUND RESOURCES Most geothermal reservoirs are deep underground with no visible clues showing on the surface. But geothermal energy sometimes finds its way to the surface in the form of volcanoes, hot springs, and geysers. Model showing the origin of geothermal energy:
The U.S. boasts the largest geothermal power capacity in the world. The first geothermal power plant was the Geysers Field in northern California. In 1922, it produced 20 kilowatts for the local resort and tourist trade that had sprung up around the hot springs. At its peak in 1987, the field produced almost 2,000 megawatts, enough electricity to supply power to nearly 2 million homes and businesses. California is the top producer of electricity from geothermal energy in the nation, generating 7% of its total electricity needs in 2012. (It gets 8% of its electricity from coal and 36% from natural gas.) The Geothermal Energy Association, which represents the geothermal industry, recently issued a report: The savings in avoided pollution from using geothermal energy to generate electricity in California and Nevada comes to $117 million per year…. The savings from generating electricity with geothermal power was calculated to be $0.01 per kilowatt-hour over natural gas and $0.035 per kilowatt-hour over coal…The reduction of pollutants leads to cost savings external to market price considerations. Economists call such considerations externalities. Source: Herman K. Rabish, “Geothermal Saves $117 Million per Year for California and Nevada,” greentechmedia, 26 April 2013; http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/geothermal-saves-117-million-per-year-for-california-andnevada
Unlike conventional coal-fired plants, geothermal plants emit very little sulfur dioxide and no nitrogen oxides, which are the precursors of acid rain. And unlike wind or solar power installations, geothermal power doesn’t fluctuate with the weather. [In 2009], the United States’ 77 geothermal power plants produced 15.2 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, or about 0.4 percent of the U.S. total—more than any other nation in the world. (Wind machines generated 70.8 billion kWh of electricity, and solar 0.8 billion kWh.)
Source: Geothermal Energy, Serial No. 87 (July 1999), http://www.mhi-global.com/discover/earth/technology/geothermal.html
Source: Nina Rastogi, “Could Yellowstone Power my Home? The Pros and Cons of Geothermal Energy,” Slate, 26 October 2010; http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/the_green_lantern/2010/10/could_yellowstone_ power_my_home.html
L.A. KICKING THE OIL HABIT
President Obama’s fiscal year (FY) 2014 budget request for the U.S. Geological Survey is $1.167 billion, an increase of $98.8 million above the 2012 enacted level….To ensure a robust and secure energy future for the nation, the President emphasizes an “all-of-the-above” strategy, and the USGS has an important contribution in each component of that strategy. Proposed funding increases totaling $4.0 million will support the exploration of geothermal resources on federal lands.
This renewable energy first is slated to occur before the end of the year, when Ormat Technologies fires up its Wild Rose geothermal power plant in Mineral County, Nevada. The company announced this week that the energy produced at Wild Rose—expected to average about 16 megawatts—would be sold to Southern California Public Power Authority under a 20-year agreement.
Source: U.S. Geological Survey, “President’s 2014 USGS Budget Proposal Strengthens Science,” released 10 April 2013; http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=3556&from=rss_home
THE CONTEMPORARY WEST
Peter Danko recently posted for EarthTechling the announcement that geothermal energy produced in Nevada will be sent to California:
Source: Peter Danko, “Nevada Geothermal Energy Will Help Power LA” Earthtechling, 30 April 2013; http://www. earthtechling.com/2013/04/nevada-geothermal-energy-will-help-power-la/
GEOTHERMAL = VOLCANOES POTENTIALLY ACTIVE VOLCANOES OF THE WESTERN UNITED STATES
tively affect features inside the park. In reporting on the 2011 data from Landsat satellites, scientists reported that expected development by energy companies right outside Yellowstone’s borders have raised concerns that Old Faithful could be cheated out of its energy. “If that geothermal development outside of the park begins, we need to know whether that’s going to cause Old Faithful to suddenly stop spewing,” says Rick Lawrence of Montana State University. Geothermal energy development is here to stay, says Yellowstone Park geologist Cheryl Jaworowski, but it has also raised some big questions for the National Park Service, which is tasked by Congress to monitor and protect Yellowstone’s unique landscape. Source: “Underground Heat: Landsat Satellites Track Yellowstone’s Geothermal Activity,” Science Daily, 10 December 2011; http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/12/111207175738.htm and NASA, Landsat Data Continuity Mission, http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/landsat/main/index.html
Geothermal Area 1. Upper Geyser Basin 2. Midway Geyser Basin 3. Lower Geyser Basin 4. Norris Geyser Basin 5. Mammoth Hot Springs 6. West Thumb Geyser Basin 7. Lone Star Geyser Basin 8. Shoshone Geyser Basin 9. Heart Lake Geyser Basin 10. Gibbon Geyser Basin 11. Mud Volcano/ Sulfur Caldron Area
Faust, Lisa, USGS CVO, 2013 Modified from: Topinka, 1999 and Brantley, 1994, Volcanoes of the United States: USGS General Interest Publications
GEOTHERMAL = NATIONAL PARKS Many geothermal features in the West are associated with national parks, such as Lassen Volcanic National Park and Death Valley National Park. However, the Geothermal Steam Act of 1970 puts national park lands off-limits to geothermal energy developers. Yellowstone Park is the most famous of these with more than 10,000 geothermal features. The NASA Landsat Data Continuity Mission launched in 2013 has a new thermal instrument that will add to the Yellowstone geothermal record in the coming decade. The hope is that new information will help scientists understand how geothermal features are interconnected and how geothermal development outside the park boundaries might nega-
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ANNOUNCING the 2013 Dr. Neila C. Seshachari Fiction Award
to Stephanie Dickinson for “Jade Dragon,”
in the Fall 2012 issue The Dr. Neila C. Seshachari Award of $500 is presented annually to the author of the best fiction published in Weber during the previous year. Funding for this award is generously provided by the Seshachari family.
Dr. Neila C. Seshachari (1934-2002) was a much respected advocate for the arts and humanities. Professor of English at Weber State University for 29 years, committed teacher, accomplished scholar, critic, and fiction writer, Neila was editor of Weber Studies for 12 years.
ANNOUNCING the 2012 Dr. Sherwin W. Howard Poetry Award
©Hains, Ogden, UT
to Nancy Takacs
for “How to Survive,” and other poems in the Fall 2012 issue The Dr. Sherwin W. Howard Award of $500 is presented annually to the author of the “best” poetry published in Weber during the previous year. Funding for this award is generously provided by the Howard family.
Dr. Howard (1936-2001) was former president of Deep Springs College, dean of the College of Arts & Humanities at Weber State University, editor of Weber Studies, and an accomplished playwright and poet.
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Published on Apr 4, 2014