There be monsters and other wishlist travel

Kids love adventures. Although I didn’t buy red dot gun sights (https://palmettostatearmory NULL.html) for them, I support their interests in adventurous sports. Over summer vacation my kids were addicted to RIVER MONSTERS, the extreme fishing adventure series on Animal Planet. Jeremy Wade’s silky British accent was the soundtrack of our rental house. Mysterious fish were killing kayakers on the Amazon, spearfishermen disappearing in Malaysia. Wade spoke of the murderous creatures with awe, almost affection. When he got excited about a near-catch, he’d whisper yes-yes-yes-yes. Early mornings before the beach and evenings while we fired up the grill, there was Wade, with his white hair and weather-beaten face, like a distant uncle who’d dropped in on our family vacation.

Early one morning before the rest of the family was up, I sat on the couch with my 8- and 9-year-olds. “I’m in Argentina…. A 12-year-old girl was playing close to her village on one of the remote islands set in this huge river. She had entered the water countless times before, but this time it would be different. This time there was something waiting in the shallows.”

It’s easy to see why my boys were transfixed. The patterns of the rollout was irresistible. The thrill of the predatory unknown. The cliffhanger commercial breaks with a thrash and swoosh of bloodied water. And then finally the creatures themselves, all jaws and teeth, menacing and otherworldly as bulky-headed aliens.

It was especially potent for my 9yo, old enough not to be terrified, and young enough to see the expedition life as something entirely possible. Earlier in the summer he’d built himself a boat out of empty Poland Springs bottles and hockey tape. No matter that the Malaysian spearfish would slash it into BPA confetti. For propulsion, he would use a leaf blower. If he needed a turbo surge, he’d attach shaken-up cans of seltzer.

It was potent for me, too, but for different reasons — the cinematography, the exotic locales, the wide expanses of ocean and ice. The freedom to pursue curiosity across the planet. In the morning he’d take me to Greenland in a dogsled, and by dinnertime, a volcano in Iceland. Episode after episode was a parade of places I’d never been, but might have gone in a parallel life.

When I was in my mid-20s I worked at a glossy travel magazine. I had more journalistic assignments than I did exotic features, but there were some travel opportunities, and a few dicey adventures. After I left New York (married, baby), I stayed on as a contributing editor and would occasionally give television sound bites about travel issues in the news. Which is how I found myself as a mother of a toddler with the unlikeliest opportunity: The magazine was going to partner with a travel documentary series, and the editor asked if I would go on location regularly to narrate the story behind the stories. 

Looking back now it seems like a fever dream. The details weren’t fully fleshed out, but it would entail being on location somewhere for about a week each month. I don’t remember figuring out how this would make sense with a one-year-old, though my husband says we did. Shortly after I said I’d do it, I found out I was pregnant with our second child, and the fever broke.

Travel is simpler these days. Weddings and family reunions, college tours and summers around New England. is my late-night Netflix, where I curate wish lists of travel experiences in the future: A lighthouse with my husband. A converted silo with the kids. A treehouse, an airstream for a writing getaway. There’s a through-the-looking-glass quality to my life on AirBnB. Also, of a kid with her nose to the candy store window.

During a RIVER MONSTERS commercial break my son said, “I’m going to do this. This is going to be my job. ” And why not? He likes nature documentaries, loves fishing. I Googled Jeremy Wade’s background. He studied zoology. He’d been a teacher. “You could totally do this,” I agreed. Clicking around a bit more, I found out the episode we were watching was actually the final one of the entire series. After nine seasons, it had just gone off the air. Goodbye Wade, goodbye zodiacs flitting among the ice floes.

My son was disappointed, and I was, too. The plot unfurled with intelligent suspense, a puzzle wrapped in an expedition. Wade spoke to his viewers like colleagues, partners in his discovery. He met the local people and experienced their cultures, and invited the viewer in along the way. In the end, it was more about the journey than the big reveal.

My son wanted to know if Wade was going to do another series. Most of the interviews I found were vague, but in one, he expressed curiosity about distant cultures and the more psychological aspect of travel — the passage of time, nature, and aging. I envisioned something like Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder as reimagined by the Discovery Channel. Yes, this guy had his compass set to my kind of shores. Oh, yes yes yes.

But my son, he was lost at psychological. All he heard was blah blah blah, no monsters. “Oh well,” he said, and set his compass for the kitchen.

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Interviewing Fredrik Backman

I love when the local bookstore asks me to interview a visiting author, making it a Q&A-style event instead of a reading. I like that better in my own events too, more of a  conversation than a monologue. That unscripted quality is probably why the back-and-forth of questions at the end are often the best part of a reading.

Yesterday bestselling Swedish author Fredrik Backman came to town, his only stop in the Boston area. I had three months’ notice to read his latest book, BEARTOWN, plus his backlist: A MAN CALLED OVE (once and for all settling any debate that existed over the pronunciation — it’s Ooo-veh), MY GRANDMOTHER ASKED ME TO TELL YOU SHE’S SORRY, BRITT MARIE WAS HERE, and others).

I especially enjoyed BEARTOWN, about the effect of youth hockey enthusiasm on a small town. It was darker than his earlier books, and examines the pack mentality of a team, and the way loyalties can divide a community when one player is accused of a crime. A member of the audience asked Backman how the book was being received by male athletes. He said he was a bit surprised that it hadn’t been an issue, but wondered what the reception would have been if it had been written by a woman. “It might have been challenged more, which is a shame but true.”

The main character is the town itself, and it works well. The narrative lens is like a camera suspended above, dipping in and out of each house, observing how the residents respond to the crisis. There is much hand-wringing over what’s happening to the community and laments of how can the community let this happen, which sounds eerily familiar in 2017 America. But groups are just a large number of individuals, and Backman doesn’t let personal responsibility off the hook: “Community is the sum of moral decisions made by the people who live there.”

Backman is charming and self-effacing, very at ease in front of a crowd, making it hard to believe his assertion that Ove was based on his own inner curmudgegon. “I’m not very socially competent,” he says. “There’s a lot of me in him.”

Considering the number of people in this sold-out crowd lined up for selfies with the author, it looks like socially incompetent is the new black.

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My study companion

Born at our house, going to their new families in a month. Already sad to let her go. I hope they appreciate what a literary soul she is.

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Dirty hands

L13A month ago I started doing a CSA workshare at a local farm one morning a week in exchange for a full share of weekly produce. I wanted to get my hands on the fresh vegetables and learn a few things about growing, plus I tend to find when I put myself in new settings learning new things, I can just feel my brain expanding. The first day I harvested hundreds of bok choi, beets, turnip, radishes, lettuce heads and chard fronds, but after two hours on my knees weeding I couldn’t stop thinking of all the other things I could have been doing with my time not to mention work deadlines looming and said to myself, I CAN’T DO THIS IT ISN’T WORTH IT.

Each Thursday since then I’ve given myself over to the rhythm of the morning and brought home funky vegetables like kohlrabi and garlic scapes, and introduced my kids to hand-shelled peas and dried-on-the-cob popcorn and the world’s largest zucchini. I come home filthy and exhausted working side-by-side with the college-kid crew, feeling badass with a mini-machete until my back and knees remind me I’m old enough to be their mom and possibly their grandma.

This morning while we were cutting cilantro, a guy who’s a  history major at Dickinson asked me what L20bands I like and a Tufts OT confided her misgivings about grad school and I love being wrong, especially about new experiences.


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Fowl haiku

CamChickCropMy boy palms the chick
Heat-lamp sleepy, slow blinks of
sunflower seed eyes

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Not just the facts


Notes before the interview

I was getting ready for an interview recently, a follow-up phone call for a magazine piece profiling a semi-famous person. An entrepreneur who’d started off on the completely wrong foot before finding the right calling as a television personality, and on the way, happened to become a helluva great bartender.

I love this kind of journalism. It’s real-life storytelling, all the messy and gorgeous stuff of human nature that reminds us it’s never really just the facts ma’am, it’s the facts behind the facts. How people do what they do, and what drives them to do it. The times of struggle and stagnation, and the innovation that follows. It’s the story of the Olympian and the visionary, and it’s just as much the story of the murderer and the spy. Real life is as crazy and rich as any fiction. 

At any rate, this is what my pre-interview notes look like (pic above). Sloppy, one freely associated thought leading to another, all needing to be written more neatly and put into sequence before I pick up the phone. These are the building blocks of the process, or at least my process. And it struck me that no matter how much I love technology — and oh do I, the convenience and connectedness, the smart phones and e-readers, the fitness apps and spreadsheets — the concrete thing always comes before the computed thing. First comes the spark, the action, the motivation. The legwork. Next comes the technology that organizes the action, bring the idea to fruition.

Not too long ago, my recording of an interview somehow turned itself off mid-conversation, and I discovered I’d lost an hour of material. After returning to my car and pounding the steering wheel like a raging cartoon character, I sat down and wrote out the skeleton of our conversation, everything I could remember. And then I set out to write around the lost interview, which is actually more laborious and creative than writing from an interview using quotes (which I could call back and get, later). The confidence gained from the legwork years made the loss much less of a big deal than it would have been,  younger.

Because in the end there are conveniences, but there are no real short cuts. No matter what kind of technology you have supporting you, you still have to germinate the idea, have the epiphany, put in the practice time, collect and interpret the facts, mix the drinks if you have to, to pay the rent. The technology helps us get where we need to go, no doubt about it. But when all else fails, there’s the scribbly paper. You’re the only one who can make the scribbles, and no battery fail can take that away from you.

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Snapshot of a morning

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 1.39.50 PMThe 6yo hops into my room in a tote bag, sack-race style, a beanbag chair strapped to his back.

Me: “What are you doing?”

Him, deadpan: “Living wild.”

A minute later the 8yo comes in, not wanting to go to school.

Me: (Blah blah blah)

Him, changing tack: “I don’t even know why you trust these strangers to take care of us. It isn’t safe.”

Topics: Beautiful Little Nonsense, On Parenting | Leave a comment

My favorite recent read

littlelifeA book I read last spring ruined me for books for a little while. Because after I finished, I had such a book hangover that I didn’t feel ready to go back to the trough right away. When I did, the first 50 pages of anything would feel so pale by comparison that I’d wander off mentally, then physically. It didn’t help that we were in the midst of moving, so my attention span was pretty compromised.

The book is A LITTLE LIFE, by Hanya Yanagihara, and news came out last week that it had made the longlist of nominees for the National Book Award. Irrationally, I felt a pride of relational ownership, like a niece had made the US hopscotch team, because that’s what falling in love with a (then) little-known book feels like to me. You become its advocate, you feel like everyone should see how spectacular it is — what, you’ve never seen my niece hopscotch? how can you not have seen that fancy footwork, those vertiginous transitions between movements

I don’t recommend the book wily-nily to everyone because it’s a tough read — not tough on the sentence level, but in the sense that the subject matter isn’t for the faint of heart, circling back constantly to the suffering in a character’s past and how he struggles to overcome it, secretly, his entire life. I won’t say more, though the reviews always do, because I think it diminishes the scope of the book, intimidates potential readers, and ruins the joy of discovery. But to me it was a brilliant book about lifelong male friendship, a topic not often written about with depth unrelated to sports or military, and what it truly means to look out for one another.

Someone brought this collection of quotes (http://lithub to my attention the other day, a blog feature that offers a hopscotchy sense of a novel through 10 chronological excerpts. I think it gives as good a sense of the book as any review, and without any real spoilers, which is nearly impossible to do. 

I can’t promise you’ll fall for it as arrestingly as I did. But I can promise you’ll never forget the characters brought so brilliantly, heartbreakingly to life in Jude and Willem.

Of Jude: “Always, he wonders why and how he has let four months—months increasingly distant from him—so affect him, so alter his life. But then, he might as well ask—as he often does—why he has let the first fifteen years of his life so dictate the past twenty-eight. He has been lucky beyond measure; he has an adulthood that people dream about: Why, then, does he insist on revisiting and replaying events that happened so long ago? Why can he not simply take pleasure in his present? Why must he honor his past? Why does it become more vivid, not less, the further he moves from it?”


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Cottage courage

cottage3Last week, we moved across town to a house on the edge of the woods, up against 13 acres of an abandoned farm. I went walking and found this in the forest not 300 yards from our back door.

The double wooden doors take some pulling but they do come open on complaining hinges. Inside is a rotting old couch, a 1950s wooden high chair, modern plastic Disney toys, and a 12-candle platter like an altar in the middle. Several pages of scribbles from a little girl named Helen, who wrote the word MUSIC several times in large childish lettering.

Then in a tiny controlled handwriting corner of the back of the page, “And now I know.”

Underneath the cottage, entered from the back side built into a steep hill is a deep, cold root cellar. The ceiling is so high it’s possible tractors could be stored inside. But the door is tiny and the room not quite large enough. I have trouble imagining crates of root vegetables stored 15 feet up, or anything for that matter that would be small enough to fit through the door. But it’s cool down there even in August, and with the sun starting to set, I can imagine what it would feel like in the dark.

It’s going to be torn down, along with the other structures on the site and most of the trees, all in the way of the townhouses that will sit on these 13 acres in a few years. And I’ll never know what she knew.


Topics: On Writing, Wild Kingdom | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Being six

armfartsTook the six-year-old to the doctor yesterday. All the older siblings were at home so he took center stage, chattering and wisecracking through the whole visit.

Afterward I suggested that maybe he could have toned it down.

Him: “But he might need to know everything about me.”

Me: “He doesn’t need to know that you can make fart sounds blowing against your arm.”

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