Friday, December 26, 2014

Michael Rockefeller, Cannibals, and a Christmas Surprise

Tibor Sekelj in Brazil.
On Christmas morning, my husband asked me—in all innocence—what I was reading. An article, I told him, about a new documentary that sheds light on the mysterious disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in Papua New Guinea in 1961. The son of governor Nelson Rockefeller was 23, I explained, and on an art-collecting expedition when he jumped over the side of a broken-down boat, began swimming to shore to get help, and was never seen again.
    "He was eaten by cannibals," Patrick replied. Thus began one of the more surprising conversations of our married life.
    "How do you know?" I asked.
    "A friend of my parents who had been in Papua New Guinea said he thought that was probably what happened."
    Here, some sixth sense told me to continue this line of questioning. "What friend?"
   "A guy from Yugoslavia. He used to come to dinner once in a while."
   "What was his name?"
   "His name was Tibor Sekelj."
   Here is what Wikipedia says Tibor Sekelj—an ethnologist, linguist, anthropologist, mountaineer, and explorer with a long and fascinating resume—was doing nine years after Rockefeller's disappearance:
"In 1970, Yugoslav television sent Sekelj to Australia, New Zealand and New Guinea. During his six-month stay he climbed Mount Kosciuszko. In New Guinea he met with natives whose lack of previous contact with the civilized world led to tense situations. But among Sekelj's many skills—and perhaps luck was just another one—was an uncanny ability to escape imminent danger time and again. Certainly he adapted easily to odd customs (including bizarre food), but if there was a single thing in particular that helped in this regard, it was his communication skills, which transcended even his facility with language."
Now, bear in mind that I have spent countless hours trying to figure out what my husband was thinking when he, as a young man, improvised a solo trek through the Brazilian rain forest (where Sekelj and his wife, Mary Reznik, first encountered cannibalism) and in short acted very much like his parents' Yugoslav dinner guest—one of the great travelers of the twentieth century. I tried to write about this trek in some detail in Our House in Arusha. The episode included a mutiny, several murders, and a number of very lucky encounters with rain-forest people who, despite certain meat-eating tendencies, saw to it that this particular white visitor survived his Brazilian jungle experience.
    "Do you suppose this guy Sekelj might have influenced you in one way or another?" I asked.
    "Oh, definitely."
    "So . . . how come you never mentioned him before?"
    "I forgot."
     Maybe the Brazil trek will make it into a book someday. When I set it aside, I thought, "No one is going to believe this." Just like nobody believed that the son of one of America's most influential families might have been killed and eaten by forest people when he ran into misfortune on an art expedition.
   My husband's Christmas revelation ended with this tidbit: "Indira Ghandi came to dinner once."
   "I found her very cute."

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Christmas Letter

Idora's bench (rear view) by John Parker and Jasper Tomkins.
As 2014 draws to an end, I have much to brag about be grateful for. I made enough money to pay my bills, and I didn't get fired from any jobs. Plus, although I myself accomplished little, I was a bit player in a number of success stories starring talented friends. For example:

Ava Chin published a memoir about urban foraging that got tons of great reviews and was picked as a Library Journal "best book." But if I hadn't liberated Ava's broken-down Honda in 2001, she might never have made it to UCLA and gotten her PhD. Not that you need a PhD to write a book about urban foraging, but I'm sure it helps.

One of the best new travel websites of 2014 would not exist if Wendy Perrin had not quit her job at Condé Nast Traveler in pursuit of greater things—following my own trend-setting exit seven years earlier. As TripAdvisor's first ever Travel Advocate, Wendy also advises 280 million travelers PER MONTH. I, too, advise travelers, albeit in smaller numbers. Mostly I advise them not to drive after two or more beers.

The judge "let him go because he had to gut his deer" is just one of the observations that made a certain Rumblestrip interview with my friend and neighbor Kelly Green so memorable. Kelly is a defense lawyer in Vermont. Someday I will base a fictional heroine on this girl and make us both rich. Meanwhile, I would like to point out that I am the one responsible for the giant sheet cake that mostly ended up in Kelly's freezer after a Bennington Battle Day picnic and was later distributed to her friends and neighbors—and that without these friends and neighbors, who love her so dearly, Kelly might have decided long ago to move to someplace warm and sunny. (It's a tenuous thread, I admit.)

Jessamyn West, might never have written her wonderful essay "Buy Nothing Day" if I had not said something on Facebook which I now can't remember saying but which Jessamyn claims inspired her, whatever it was.

Dian Parker published "Sustaining Ecstasy," a passionate love story written in gorgeous language—minus the typos that I found and eliminated while reading her final draft.

Artist Laurie Sverdlove showed her work at Big Town gallery and a whole bunch of other swanky places—immediately following her art tour of Paris with me as her guide. Coincidence? I think not.

And the beautiful bench that graces Kimball Library's children's section? The one made by Vermont woodworker John Parker and artist Jasper Tomkins? I was the one who arm-twisted them into making it. It is dedicated to Idora Cooley Tucker and she would love it.

Perhaps you, too, have accomplished something in 2014 for which you would like to give me credit?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Aunt Ruth and Aunt Lois

Northfield Falls Store
Aunt Lois at the general store in Northfield, Vermont, in September 2014. My mother crocheted her poncho.

My last good visit with my aunt, Lois Cooley, was in September 2014, a few days after her birthday, when I took her on a foliage drive that began in Northfield, Vermont, where she lived. On the way, we stopped for lunch at the Northfield Falls General Store. What follows is an excerpt from my book An Irruption of Owls, which chronicles my return to Vermont after 30-plus years as a nomad. It records a scene that took place in the fall of 2012, a couple of months after my mother died:

I am with my two aunts. Aunt Ruth and I have just been to the audiologist to have her hearing aids turned up. This is the third trip in a month. On our way home, we stop in Northfield for a cup of coffee with my aunt Lois. This is the routine. I am eager and not eager to have the hearing aids properly tuned—once that happens, I’m afraid we’ll let the visits lapse.
   Aunt Lois’s kitchen smells of cinnamon, coffee, and the cigarettes that she smokes when nobody’s looking. “Coffee, tea, or ginger ale?” she asks. She pours two cups, one for Aunt Ruth and one for me, and joins us at the table. “I forgot my ginger ale,” she says, and rises, goes to the fridge.
   The phone rings. Aunt Lois squints at the handset, then hands it to Aunt Ruth. “What does that say?” Aunt Ruth takes the handset and squints. “I can’t see,” she says over the ringing of the phone. She adjusts her glasses. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Ruth!” The phone stops ringing.
   “Who was it?” says Ruth.
   “How do I know? That’s what you were supposed to tell me.”
   “They’ll call back,” says Ruth.
   Aunt Lois hands me a can of ginger ale. “Here,” she says, “can you open this?”
   The tab is up and twisted, mangled, about to break off. “This is a goner,” I say.
   “Wait, I’ll get a screwdriver.”
   I pull on the tab. The tab breaks off in my hand. “See, I told you. Aunt Lois, don’t you have a church key?”
   “A what?”
   “A church key; what you open beer cans with.”
   Aunt Lois rummages in a drawer for a long time. “Where’s that screwdriver?” she says at last. She stabs at the can. “There.”
   We discuss somebody named Alice (not her real name), who married a drunk seventy years ago.   “But he sobered up ten years before he died,” says Aunt Ruth.
   The two aunts try to figure out how long Alice’s husband was drunk before the ten years of sobriety. This involves a very complicated equation that factors in the birthdays of several children, including my cousin Charles. Aunt Lois jots down figures on an envelope. “I’m not sure where this is leading,” she says.
   I have spent many hours like this with my mother and her sisters and friends during the past five years. One on one, I carry my end of the conversation, but when I’m outnumbered, as I am today, I often lapse into studied amusement. Either way, I am filled with a sense of well-being, a sense that they will always be there, just like this, funny and wise, taking care of me by whatever means necessary. Today, it is by entertaining me. They are playing a role, I know this. They do it for me and for each other. Laugh therapy.
   Aunt Lois stands in the driveway and motions as I back the car around, careful not to run over her flowerpots. I wave to her in the rear-view mirror. “I just love Lois,” says Ruth.
   “I do, too.”
   I turn left onto Main Street and point the Subaru south.
   “What do you suppose Idora would think of my wearing her hearing aids?” This is Aunt Ruth’s way of making sure I’m okay with it.
   “I think she’d be happy.”
   “I think she would, too.”

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Thank You, Charles M. Blow

Charles Blow, 2014. Photo by Chad Batka for the New York Times.
Writer Charles M. Blow has done what I was not able to do. His new memoir, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, deals with two subjects also addressed in Patrick Husted's memoir Excavating Pieces: An American Childhood, which came out almost exactly a year ago. As the editor of Excavating Pieces and as Patrick's ex-wife, I had high hopes for the book. I still do, but I am not a prominent columnist for the New York Times and I do not have Mr. Blow's following, so I am delighted to see this new book make its debut. The subjects I refer to are the sexual abuse of boys, a much more common occurrence than most of us realize (1 in 6 per U.S. health statistics), and its lingering effects, particularly as they pertain to men who are somewhere in the middle of the gay-straight continuum. Mr. Blow's essay in today's New York Times, adapted from his book, covers ground that is very familiar to me—the rage, the guilt, the confusion and self-loathing on the long road to healing and forgiveness. Its resemblance to my ex-husband's story is eery. In fact, I have heard versions of this story many times, not only from male survivors but also from wives and mothers. The men don't always make it. Depression and suicide run high in this population. We desperately need courageous men like Charles Blow and Patrick Husted to come forward and tell their stories. And when they do, we need to pay attention.

Monday, September 15, 2014

My New Gig: READ THIS Before You Leave the Country

Wendy and her two boys atop the Eiffel Tower.
Travel savant Wendy Perrin launched her new website today and it is so good it's almost scary. I played an itty-bitty role in the launch, reading through approximately a gazillion words of insider advice from travel experts all over the world, sorted by destination—priceless advice gathered and vetted by Wendy and her team in a superhuman effort to save you and everyone you know from mediocre travel experiences. (Do not—do not—come to visit me in Paris without checking out the Paris for Food Lovers Insider's Guide.) Wendy was a superstar at Condé Nast Traveler, and I'm ecstatic to be part of her new venture (truth in travel lives!). The "About Us" page includes some of my favorite people from Traveler days, people like Debi Dunn, who once sent me to Moscow in the dead of winter (for which I utterly forgive her). As some of you know, I was in a funk about the direction the "new" CNTraveler was taking, but I am done with all that. Magazines, pleh. I am Miss New Media now. (I just wish I could remember my Twitter password.) Linking, linking, linking . . .

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Happy Endings

Amanda Stern

The Happy Ending Reading and Music Series, hosted by Amanda Stern, requires authors to take one public risk (do something they've never done before) on stage. This is where I'll be tonight. Here's what people have done in the past:
Jessica Anthony sang “What a Feelin’” in sign language
Lucy Corin gave a science lecture without understanding her lecture topic
Michael Cunningham gave a five minute lecture on the entire history of English literature. 
Julie Orringer played “2 second animal,” with the audience, a game she made up on an airplane
Ryan Harty breathed fire
Kevin Wilson read obituaries he wrote for himself in high school. Each one cast him as a man of great importance in fields as varied as football and movie star

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Dear Peter: My Inner Teen Is in Love With Your Inner Teen

Two thirds of the way through Always a Catch, Peter Richmond's first YA novel, budding prep-school football star Jack Lefferts finally gets up the balls to bare his soul to Caroline Callahan, a brainy eleventh-grader with more literary references at her fingertips than the Library of Congress. So what does the kid do? He suddenly busts out—no more Mr. Shy Guy—and barges into her dorm (strictly off-limits), bounds up the stairs, looks both ways and, seeing the coast is clear, rushes to her door and knocks. The door opens:
She was wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants, her hair pulled into a ponytail. "What are you doing here?" she said. "This is stupid, Jack. Booth's a bitch. If she catches you . . . " She pulled me in by my sweatshirt and closed the door. "So whatever you have to say couldn't have waited?"
What did I have to say? Wait, that was easy. "I just wanted to know if . . . if we, you know, are . . . I don't know . . . "
"You're going to have to learn how to finish a sentence, Lefferts, if Jarvis is going to give you an A."
We stood there, stupidly. Then she reached out both her hands, with her palms up. So I put my hands in hers. And maybe then there was some sort of current. It was definitely electric. For me, anyway. She was just totally cool and relaxed.
"We're something," she said. "Why do you have to label it? Now, get out of here. All we need is Booth busting me. Or you."

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Two Actors Meet in an Alley

The actor and playwright Ethan Phillips (aka Johnnie) sent this email to several friends today and I asked him for permission to publish it here. If I remember correctly, Johnnie and I first met when we were both waiters for Brew & Burger back in the seventies. Soon after that he landed the role of Peewee on Benson. Much later he played Neelix, the chef aboard the Voyager on Star Trek. Neelix's biography describes him as “a Talaxian originally from Rinax, a moon of the planet Talax, in the Delta quadrant.”

Ethan Phillips getting prosthetic makeup applied for the character of Neelix.

By Ethan Phillips

Once many years ago when I was working on Star Trek I experienced the sweetness of Robin Williams. It was about 6 a.m. on the Paramount lot and I had just had my Neelix makeup applied. I left the makeup trailer and made my way to stage 16; to get there I had to go down a long alley between stages 8 and 9. As I turned the corner to start my way down the alley, I saw someone turn at the other end of the alley and walk towards me. It was dark, just before dawn, and as the two of us approached each other, I saw it was Robin Williams. When we were maybe ten feet apart Robin shouted, “Mr. Neelix!” He then went into a very funny totally off-the wall two-minute riff on being an alien chef. The jokes and puns and crazy sounds and accents were nonstop, and it was obvious he knew the show and my character very well. I was his only audience. I was beaming! After a few minutes, with the kindest smile, he bowed, and said, “I love your work,” and he walked on down the alley. I felt like the luckiest actor in the world that day.

Radish-Leaf Soup

While I'm in New York this summer, my husband is in France, and I was very downhearted to learn that he was making soupe aux fanes de radis for supper—without me! I asked him to send me the recipe so that I could share it with you. It's based on a soup that his grandmother used to make (she was from Alsace). It is written in French, and it is very sketchy, but I will attempt to loosely translate:

Get a bunch of radishes (about 40 to 50, he says, which sounds like a lot but who am I to say?), making sure the leaves are really fresh. Remove the leaves at the stem, throw them in the blender with a little water, and chop them on low. Put the mixture in a pot with some salted water, and cook over medium heat for as long as you like because he didn't specify. Meanwhile, boil two potatoes, mash them roughly, and add them to the pot. Season with 1/2 tsp (each) cumin, curry, and pepper and cook another 20 minutes or so on low. Add 1/4 liter of milk and 2 tsp creme fraiche, and a little more salt if necessary. 

And that's it. But just in case I've forgotten something, here it is in French, exactly as he sent it to me.

The Invisible Illness

William Styron's essay on depression, published in Vanity Fair in 1989, is the best description of the disease that I have ever read. Its symptoms do not always yield to treatment, leaving the victim in so much pain that the thought of another day is unbearable, and there is nothing a spouse can do to alter that perception (believe me, I know). In the past 24 hours, people have said a lot of things meant to give sufferers hope, but much of it is bogus. Until we know more about this lethal disease, we will continue to lose its victims at an alarming rate, and until we take steps to erase the stigma of mental illness, we will remain in darkness. A good way to start is by listening to its victims. There is none more eloquent than Styron, whose essay can be read by clicking here. (The link takes you to the Vanity Fair website. Styron later published a longer version of the essay as the 81-page memoir Darkness Visible.)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

My Mother's Dresser

I finally got up the courage to go through my mother's dresser. Two years have passed since she died, and in that time I've gone through the entire house, emptying and sorting. In June, my sister and I emptied the dresser. It was hard, but not as hard as it would have been last summer, when we were emptying out the attic. My mother's dresser was neat as a pin and smelled like lavender. I photographed almost every item, unwilling to let her personal things go without retaining a memento. Jewelry, scarves, my father's wartime ID bracelet (before dog tags), a necklace of gold beads that had belonged to her mother, dress gloves, a box full of discarded hearing-aid batteries with hundreds of notations in her handwriting, signifying the dates they had been changed. Her bedroom, her private sanctuary for 67 years, now bears no trace of her. But I have the photographs, and the handkerchiefs (my sister has the gold beads). I remember her giving one to me every Sunday when I was a kid (I would pick). That was so I would have something to carry in my purse besides the dime for the church offering. The lace and the embroidery was done by Grandma Tucker.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Postcard from New Zealand

So I haven't seen or heard from my kid in, like, a year and a half and then yesterday he sends me a picture of George Bush holding an ear of corn. And for some reason this makes me weirdly happy. (I should add that this postcard was delivered to me via Facebook, which preceded it with the message "Thomas Texier has tagged you in a photo." Yes!) If Facebook had existed when I was 25 and living in New York City (a million light-years from Randolph, Vermont, just as New Zealand is a million light-years from New York City) I like to think that I would have taken five seconds to send my mom a funny picture that I was sure would make her laugh. She would have loved this one—the top half of her refrigerator door was dedicated to making fun of George Bush. At 25, I was not nearly as together as Thomas, but I resembled him in at least one way: I did not write home very often. When I did, I hope my cards and letters made my mother as happy as this postcard from New Zealand made me.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The New Traveler

Christy Turlington's head has been on my coffee table for almost a month—ever since a friend handed me the March issue of Condé Nast Traveler as I was passing through New York. This is the magazine that sent me to Moscow in 2009, and Paris in 2012, and sustained me, body and soul, for twelve years. Losing my job there in 2013 during a changing of the guard was a stab in the heart. So, as you can imagine, I was not eager to see what had become of the spoils in the hands of the conquerors. This morning, however, with March about to pass into oblivion and the April issue already on the stands, I mustered the courage for a thorough inspection. Here's what I found.
The new magazine carries the old motto, "Truth in Travel"—ouch. That slogan, which goes back to the magazine's roots, is a promise by the founding editors to outlaw any behavior that would arouse accusations of bias—no free hotel stays, meals, airline upgrades, and so on. Under the new leadership, however, that policy has been terminated. The slogan should be retired, too.
            Otherwise, I like the cover. It's a lovely, moody image that says "travel," and the Ray-Ban logo on the lens of Christy's glasses is so tiny that I almost didn't notice it.
Inside, too, the new Traveler is beautiful—clean and crisp. Pilar Guzman, the new editor, used to edit Martha Stewart Living, which is also clean and crisp—unlike Martha's Forty-second Street offices, where I used to edit cookie recipes in a dark corridor outside the men's room.
            There isn't much text. That's because media gurus tell us that nobody reads anymore, and magazine people tend to believe this. We're all on life support.
            What there is—text, I mean—is mostly written not by journalists but by "real people." This is explained, in the editor's letter, as a nod to social media. Real people, in this case, include Jacques Pepin, who says, helpfully, that he never leaves home without his kitchen knives.
            There's lots more advice from Pilar and friends about what to pack (e.g., harem pants if you're going to India) and what to buy (Sanex deodorant if you're passing through Heathrow).
            The toothiest article in the feature well is a piece about Rio, a complex city on the verge of change as it prepares for two world sporting events. It reminds me, nostalgically, of the old Traveler. Tellingly, it is written not by a real person but by Simon Romero, the New York Times bureau chief in Brazil.
            My husband, who loves to travel, picked up the March issue and quickly put it down with the comment : "A lot more ads." Well, yes. That's the whole point, dear.
Christy, by the by, has been featured in Traveler before, as a 2012 recipient of the magazine's Global Citizens award (one of the many ways in which the old Traveler wore its conscience on its sleeve). The 2012 honorees were announced in the 25th-anniversary issue, which had Hillary Clinton on the cover. Not the wisest choice, perhaps, from an advertising standpoint. It's hard to argue with a raybanned supermodel. Certainly Christy looks better on the side of a bus.
            As for a slogan that befits the new magazine, I kind of like "Travel Lite."