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Postcards to Georgia

November 16, 2020

Thank you for volunteering to write postcards to Georgia voters in this all-important run-off Senate election! Here are some tips for successful interactions with potential voters:

1. Address your recipient by their full name—for instance, “Dear Jane Doe.” Do not say “Ms. Doe.” Do not say “Miss Doe.” Especially do not say “Dear Peaches.”

2. Choose a generic postcard image that will appeal to all sorts of people. Pictures of kittens, American flags, or the Statue of Liberty are all good. Kittens waving American flags at the Statue of Liberty are even better. Pictures of Gone With The Wind, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, or that great Architectural Digest cover photo of your weekend home on Turks and Caicos will not work as well.

3. Include a sentence about why this election is important to YOU. Write from the heart. We repeat, write from the heart. Do NOT write from the spleen. Or the gut, the fist, the kishkes, the middle finger, or the naughty bits. Do not write, “It’s time for Mitch McConnell’s turtle face to suffer unbearable humiliation and burn in the eviscerating, pustulant, everlasting fires of Hell.”

4. No need to mention how you lost your virginity to REM in your boyfriend’s parents’ minivan.

5. Likewise, don’t reference Midnight Train to GeorgiaGeorgia on My Mind, or Sweet Georgia Brown. Georgians are sick of that sh-t.

6. Do not take sides on Nene Leakes versus Sheree Whitfield. You are not writing to them about important stuff like Real Housewives of Atlanta, just about the future of the U.S. Senate.

7. Keep in mind that not all Atlantans work for the CDC. Please do not ask for behind-the-rope-line VIP access to the Covid vaccine.

8. No threats and no bribes. No marriage proposals, Harry & David fruit boxes, bitcoin, or offers to give them a kidney. 

9. Do not ask if they know anyone with an AirB&B who could lodge you, switch their utility bills to your name, and register you to vote by December 7th.

10. Don’t try to sound southern. Your idea of southern dialect probably sounds like the misbegotten love child of William Faulkner and The Beverly Hillbillies. Y’all hear me, sugar?

11. Keep focused. When writing hundreds of postcards, it’s easy to zone out and slip into automatic pilot. You are NOT asking them to vote for Sara Gideon! Repeat to yourself: Not Sara Gideon. Not Sara Gideon.

12. Maintain an upbeat tone. Sound like a friend. That doesn’t mean you need to share how you were on anti-depressants from November 8, 2016 through November 7, 2020, even your emotional support dog was on anti-depressants, and your therapist moving to Canada didn’t help.

13. Remind them that an important holy day is coming in December. Not Christmas, not Chanukah, not Kwanzaa—December 14th, the start of early voting! The rest of the country—heck, the rest of the world—is deeply envious of Georgia and its local political consultants, TV stations, printers, and mail houses who will have a busy and happy holiday season. Don’t let us down. Voting is a muscle. Exercise it! Drop and give us twenty! Pump that ballot! Five laps around the county courthouse! 

14. End on a friendly note by signing the postcard with your first name. But not Sherman. Come to think of it, not even Herman.

Y’all hear me now, sugar? Write those postcards!

A 2020 Bedtime Story

October 10, 2020

Once upon a time, there was a land threatened by a new and unknown plague.

Informed of this threat, the president convened a team of expert medical advisors. Then he called a meeting with the leaders of the two main political parties, all of whom went on TV together calling on the nation to unite and fight this threat, the way they fought fascism in WW2 and terrorism after 9/11.

The leaders wore masks—mostly red-white-and-blue masks, although one spunky left-wing politician wore a mask saying “Medicare for All” and am equally fervent right-wing politician wore one saying “Protect Life.” Together they warned that we would all face sacrifices, but inconvenient steps like wearing masks and sheltering at home were better than losing neighbors and loved ones to this illness.

The president pressured factories to shift production quickly to protective equipment, and directed that equipment to frontline workers. Pop-up clinics with free testing and free groceries were set up in low-income neighborhoods. The Department of Education rushed big grants to school districts to ensure that all children had computers, Internet, and tutoring help while classes were temporarily moved online.

Masks became the hot collectible of the year, with the First Lady sporting masks by Versace and Gucci, the NRA selling Second Amendment masks, and pop stars promoting masks with the cover of their latest album.

Public sentiment was so unified and clear that even libertarians grudgingly wore masks. Viral rates remained low enough that it was possible to re-open schools safely in the fall. The winter was challenging, with everyone sick of sheltering in place, but the president and his counterparts from the other party returned to TV to praise Americans’ commitment and urge everyone to stay the course. Pharmaceutical companies worked steadily to develop vaccines under supervision of non-partisan FDA regulators, and leaders of both parties stepped forward together—again on TV—to take the first doses and encourage others to be vaccinated.

Decades later, seniors who were children at the time would recall the Plague Year as a time of family togetherness and neighbors helping each other. Those who drove cross-country on family camping vacations would remember their parents exchanging elbow-bumps with other grown-ups, their eyes conveying smiles of greeting over AOC and Ted Cruz masks.

Fewer than 10,000 people in a population of 300 million died. Reporters from around the world flocked to this land to see how they did it. Proud of its success, the country shared its knowledge and worked with drug companies to provide vaccine at minimal cost to less wealthy parts of the world.

“It’s just the neighborly way to live,” said an Ohio machinist interviewed by a reporter for The Guardian. “Big city or small town, black or white, red or blue state, we’re all in this together.”

Okay, kids, that’s all for now! Time to sleep. I’ll tell you another fairy tale tomorrow night, after I finish writing my latest batch of Vote-for-Joe-Biden postcards.

Phone Banking: The Musical

September 9, 2020

There is the romance of political change, as broadcast in the sweeping, inspiring soundtracks of Hamilton and Les Miz:

Raise a glass to freedom, something they can never take away… Raise a glass to the four of us, tomorrow there’ll be more of us!

Red, the world about to dawn! Black, the night that’s gone at last!

Les Miz

And then there is sitting on the phone for hours leaving messages on people’s voicemails.

A year ago, I promised myself I would take the months of September and October and move to a swing state and walk door-to-door for whomever the Democratic presidential candidate would be. Instead the Covid pandemic arrived, door-to-door canvassing was cancelled by the party that listens to science, and we’re left with phone calling, texting, and writing postcards.

So I’m writing postcards. I’m phone banking. I don’t need to explain why: The New Yorker and The Atlantic and the New York Times document with eloquence and detail how our country is being goaded into hatred and division; racism is being legitimized; longstanding democratic institutions are being hollowed out; our environment is being wrecked; we have ceded the world stage to strongmen and bullies; self-interest and “winning” are lauded above all other values.

But get-out-the-vote (GOTV) volunteering is no fun, at least for me. None of it uses my skills or creativity. Phone calling combines the introvert’s anxiety at speaking to strangers with the frustration of getting mostly voicemails and disconnected numbers. Postcard writing takes advantage of my lovely elementary school penmanship (thank you, Mrs. Brodman and the Miss Tighes!) but makes me want to jump out of my skin. Sweep the patio, clean the kitchen sink, bother the cat—after neatly copying the same script ten or twelve times, I want to do anything other than write another postcard.

Perhaps I could cultivate a Zen-type meditative practice around it: Empty your mind, be here now, write the postcard. Perhaps.

Writing postcards to voters. Photo:Ilana DeBare


No matter, though. I need to do this. The stakes are so high: A few dozen hours of tedium now versus four more years of disaster—or 40+ years with the impact of judicial appointments—and all the regret and “could I have done more” that I’ll feel if Trump wins.

Those of us in the college-educated professional class are raised to feel that we are important, we are uniquely talented, we have skills honed over decades, we should be using those skills to make an Individual Mark. Yet national elections are an arena in which very few people can make an Individual Mark. Out of a nation of 328 million, maybe 1,000 people make a visible individual difference in a presidential race—candidates, campaign managers, leaders of broad grassroots movements, journalists at the biggest media, huge donors, or the rare CEO or celebrity.

The rest of us are foot soldiers, making phone calls and giving small amounts and writing postcards. The 60 phone calls I made on Monday evening are meaningless, except when they are combined with the 20 other people making calls in that particular Zoom event, and the hundreds of other local groups holding phone banks that same day, and then all the phone banks on other days of the week…

 Flip the West, which is doing GOTV for key Senate races, says its volunteers have done 2 million postcards, 1.5 million texts, and 400,000 phone calls in 2020. The Environmental Voter Project says it has spoken with one million non-voting environmentalists—many of them young, low-income, or people of color. And there are so many other organizations doing Democratic GOTV too, such as Indivisible, Swing Left, Black Voters Matter, Mi Familia Vota, Reclaim Our Vote, and more.

(I am fortunate enough to be able to use my writing/social media skills for one of them—Auk the Vote, which several of my birding friends recently set up to mobilize birdwatchers to get out the environmental vote. :-) )



None of these GOTV efforts offers rousing music like Hamilton or Les Miz. You’ll have to supply your own inspirational soundtrack. But the cast is a lot larger. The stage is immense. And this is a show that, for better or worse, won’t end after three hours.

Please get involved. Add your five or ten or fifty hours of volunteer GOTV to the rest of ours: You can find opportunities through any of the groups linked in this post. Even when the big picture seems out of my control, I feel a surge of optimism at how many of my friends are also doing this. I invite you to join us!

“Tomorrow” is now today. Get involved!

Jesus in Novels

October 1, 2018

Last month I realized my novel needed a chapter from the point of view of Jesus. My initial reaction was terror: I can’t do that! 

After a suitable period of angst and paralysis, I turned to a reassuring comfort activity, something that I know how to do and that gives at least the illusion of productivity – research. I figured, See how other writers have handled this. And did a web search for novels about Jesus.

I found one that I’d expected — the classic The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, which was made into a movie by Martin Scorsese. But I also found three unexpected works by unlikely authors – D.H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer, and Phillip Pullman.

Lawrence? Mailer? Pullman? Writing from the point of view of Jesus?

I had to read these! Here’s my thumbnail summary:

D.H. Lawrence: The Man Who Died (1929)

This short novella, just 43 pages, opens with a lengthy description of a young rooster, resplendant and virile, who is tied up by his peasant owner. His body is restrained by the cord. But inside he remains unbroken. Finally the rooster breaks his cord – at the same moment that an unnamed man wakes up from death inside a stone crypt.

Lawrence

The unnamed man is of course Jesus, who remains nameless throughout the book. The rooster  — another “of course,” if you are familiar with Lawrence — also symbolizes Jesus. (He initially titled the novella The Escaped Cock.)

Lawrence’s Jesus doesn’t want to revive. His description of Jesus’s reluctance to return is wonderful.

“A deep, deep nausea stirred in him at the premonition of movement…. He had wanted to stay outside, in the place where even memory is stone dead. But now, something had returned to him, like a returned letter, and in that return he lay overcome with a sense of nausea.”

The drive to live overcomes Jesus’s reluctance. Here comes that rooster again:

“As he came out, the young cock crowed. It was a diminished, pinched cry, but there was that in the voice of the bird stronger than chagrin. It was the necessity to live, and even to cry out the triumph of life…. the everlasting resoluteness of life.”

Jesus encounters Mary Magdalene and his mother at the tomb. He realizes they want him to continue in the role of savior and prophet. But he wants something different now – he wants to live a normal human life.

“For me that life is over,” he tells Magdalene. “I have outlived my mission and know no more of it. The teacher and the saviour are dead in me; now I can go about my business, into my own single life…. Now I can live without striving to sway others any more. For my reach ends in my fingertips, and my stride is no longer than the ends of my toes.”

Magdalene is of course crushed by what he says: “The Messiah had not risen. The enthusiasm and the burning purity were done, and the rapt youth.” So she reworks the encounter in her mind into something more: “She conjured up rapture and wonder… He was risen, but not as man; as pure God, who should not be touched by flesh, and who should be rapt away into Heaven.”

Jesus, meanwhile, flees all who knew him and wanders alone. He seeks physical communion – not mere sex, but the kind of spiritualized sex that is at the center of Lawrence’s other writings.

“Now he knew that he had risen for the woman, or women, who knew the greater life of the body, not greedy to give, not greedy to take, and with whom he could mingle his body… Perhaps one evening I shall meet a woman who can lure my risen body, yet leave me my aloneness.”

Ultimately he meets a woman who is an acolyte of the Egyptian goddess Isis. (Yes, this gets more and more sacrilegious. Just wait.)

The woman worships an “Isis in Search” figure who is seeking “fragments of the dead Osiris” that she can gather and revive and that will “fecundate her womb.”

The two connect with Lawrence’s characteristic sexual transcendance. This is the stuff that left me perplexed when I read him in college: the sex I was having was never like this.

“He was absorbed and enmeshed in new sensations. The woman of Isis was lovely to him, not so much in form as in the wonderful womanly glow of her. Suns beyond suns had dipped her in mysterious fire, the mysterious fire of a potent woman… She would never know or understand what he was. Especially she would never know the death that was gone before in him. But what did it matter? She was different. She was woman: her life and her death were different from him. Only she was good to him.”

Now are you ready for more sacrilege?

“And his death and his passion of sacrifice were all as nothing to him now, he knew only the crouching fullness of the woman, there the soft white rock of life. ‘On this rock I build my life.’ The deep-folded penetrable rock of the living woman!… The woman, hiding her face. Himself bending over, powerful and new like dawn.

“He crouched to her, and he felt the blaze of his manhood and his power rise up in his loins, magnificent.

“ ‘I am risen!’ ”

Oy.

The novella ends shortly after this. The woman’s family is conspiring to kill Jesus. She has become pregnant. He flees to wander the world but promises to return. “I have sowed the seed of my life and my resurrection, and put my touch forever upon the choice woman of this day, and I carry her perfume in my flesh like the essence of roses.”

Setting aside the groan-inducing bits about “the blaze of his manhood” and his “rising,” what is remarkable is how Lawrence kidnaps the Gospels’ resurrection story to preach his own doctrine of the holiness of physical love. With language and cadence similar to his other novels, he promotes a view of men and women as fundamentally different from each other and fundamentally alone, yet able at times to bridge that aloneness with sexual connection that neither demands nor possesses.

Here is how he described the novella, in a letter to a friend:

I wrote a story of the Resurrection, where Jesus gets up and feels very sick about everything, and can’t stand the old crowd any more – so cuts out – and as he heals up, he begins to find what an astonishing place the phenomenal world is, far more marvellous than any salvation or heaven – and thanks his stars he needn’t have a ‘mission’ any more.

Norman Mailer: The Gospel According to the Son (1997)

Of course Norman Mailer, who thought he could do anything better than anyone, would have to try his hand at writing Jesus.

You’d think that with Mailer’s interest in sex and power, his personal combativeness, and his liberal-to-left political views (he co-founded the Village Voice), this would be a shocking or at least iconoclastic book.

Mailer

In fact, I found it pedestrian. Basically a very modest gloss on Jesus’s life that could have been written by a somewhat-literary theology student trying to mimic the style of the Gospels.

Jesus narrates the book, which he says is an effort to set straight the misstatements about his life in the Bible. “While I would not say that Mark’s gospel is false, it has much exaggeration,” he says on the first page.

But the ways he diverges from the Gospels are practically invisible when compared with D.H. Lawrence’s wholesale reinterpretation.

For instance, instead of a literal multiplication of loaves and fishes, Mailer portrays it as a psychological multiplication. Mailer’s Jesus takes two fishes and five loaves and cuts them up into 500 teeny-tiny pieces.

“I would lay one flake of fish and one bit of bread upon each tongue. Yet when each person had tasted these fragments, so do I believe that each morsel became enlarged within his thoughts… and so I knew that few among these hundred would say that they had not been given sufficient fish and bread. And this was a triumph of the Spirit rather than an enlargement of matter.”

Not very different, I suspect, from how many modern liberal theologians might understand that story.

Mailer provides little psychological insight and practically no detailed, sensory descriptions of landscape, people etc. In that sense it’s not much different from the Gospels themselves.

There’s some marginally interesting stuff about how Jesus views his power to do miracles, and the motivations of Judas. But none of this was developed in a consistent or compelling way.

In short, it was a slog to get through this book. I didn’t see its reason to exist. If it had been anyone else but the already-famous Mailer writing it, I doubt it would have seen the light of day.

Philip Pullman: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010)

Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass fantasy trilogy, is an outspoken atheist and critic of organized religion. So it surprised me that he had written a novel about the life of Jesus.

(Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised: I already owned an edition of Paradise Lost with his introduction and commentary.  “Christianity formed my mind,” Pullman writes in the afterword to The Good Man Jesus.)

PullmanI’ll say up front that this was by far my favorite of the three novels. Pullman builds it on a truly out-of-the-box premise – that Jesus had a twin brother, who recorded his life story and edited it in a way that created Christianity as a religion.

Pullman raises thought-provoking questions not just about Jesus’s life and the Church, but about what writers do and the distinction between factual accuracy and  “truth.” (A theme that is too relevant in today’s political universe.)

Quick synopsis: Mary bears twins, named Jesus and Christ. Jesus becomes a wandering preacher. Christ watches – supportive, but with different ideas of how to proceed.

Jesus adopts a low-key approach of delivering a message that “God loves us like a father, and his Kingdom is close at hand.” Christ tells his brother that he can  accomplish more good through miracles.

“Fine words convince the mind, but miracles speak directly to the heart and then to the soul,” Christ tells his brother. “If a simple person sees stones changed into bread, or sees sick people healed, this makes an impression on him that could change his life. He’ll believe every word you say from then on.”

Christ also argues that his preacher brother should build an organization to help make the Kingdom of God a reality – effectively, create the Church.  But Jesus rejects miracles as “conjuring tricks” and also rejects the idea of a powerful, wealthy Church.

“What you describe sounds like the work of Satan,” Jesus tells his brother. “God will bring about his Kingdom in his own way, and when he chooses. Do you think your mighty organization would even recognize the Kingdom if it arrived?”

Encouraged by a stranger who may be angel or devil, Christ goes on to record Jesus’s teachings and actions – while editing them to be more dramatic and inspirational.

“Christ wrote down every word, but he resolved to improve the story later,” Pullman writes.

Ultimately the stranger encourages Christ to betray Jesus to his death as a way to foster the spread of God’s word.

“Jesus could not be with people for ever, but the Holy Spirit can,” the angel/devil tells Christ. “What the living Jesus could not do, the dead and risen Jesus will bring about… Men and women need a sign that is outward and visible and then they will believe.”

After his death, Jesus’s life becomes more and more fictionalized, both by his disciples and by his brother. Christ believes he is spreading God’s Word but he also feels the seductive allure of telling a good story.

“I want to knot the details together to make patterns and show correspondences,” Christ says after Jesus’s death. “And if they weren’t there in life, I want to put them there in the story, for no other reason than to make a better story. The stranger would have called it letting in truth. Jesus would have called it lying.”

I love this!

The Good Man Jesus may be the most provocative literary challenge to institutional Christianity since the story of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov.

Novelizing the Bible

All three of these works function more as re-interpreted myths than as real novels. Kazantzakis is a better choice if you’re looking for a psychologically nuanced, fully drawn, naturalistic depiction of Jesus and his world.

Reading them, though, I thought about the powerful draw of novelizing the Bible – both the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew and Christian scriptures are filled with dramatic events and characters who take world-changing actions. But they say nothing about the characters’ inner thoughts, how they grow as individuals, or what happens in-between the dramatic moments. The novelist gets to fill all this in – whether Abel suspects Cain might kill him, how Isaac feels about Abraham after his near-sacrifice, the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. What fun!

This is what has driven some recent novels based on the Tanach, such as The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (1997, about the rape of Dina) and The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (2016, about King David).

As Philip Pullman said through his character Christ: I want to put those details in the story, for no other reason than to make a better story.

Meanwhile, what about my story?

I ordered these three novels, but even before they arrived in the mail, I went ahead and wrote my chapter with the Jesus point of view. It was reassuring simply to know that other people had done this and hadn’t been struck down by lightning.

“Just go ahead and write some stuff; don’t worry whether it’s any good; you can toss it in the trash if you hate it,” I told myself, which is always good advice when feeling intimidated or stuck.

Vacationing alone in the Lake District

August 11, 2018

I spent the past week by myself on vacation – or “on holiday,” as they’d say in England’s Lake District, which is where I was.

This was the first time I’d ever taken a full-on vacation by myself. I’ve traveled alone for reporting assignments and book promotion, moved to new cities alone (a long time ago), and spent two days alone in Puerto Vallarta last year when Sam had to return earlier than I did from a trip. But this was my first full week in a foreign place with no reason to be there other than enjoying myself.

I was a little nervous beforehand. But it was great!

England was an easy place to be a solo American traveler. We share a language (despite the occasionally confounding accents). It’s got reliable train schedules, comfortable hotels etc., and unlike some other parts of the world, a woman alone is not viewed as a target.

And the Lake District – the mountainous area in the northwest of England made famous by Wordsworth – was particularly welcoming. The region basically lives off of tourism. It has well-marked hiking paths that are easy to navigate. It has a great bus system that allows you to reach almost any trailhead or cultural site without a car. And its beautiful walks draw a variety of visitors – studly young rock climbers, multi-generational families, older couples who have been walking the fells (hills) together for decades, and a surprising number of single hikers like me.

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View of Derwentwater from top of Cat Bells footpath. Photo by Ilana DeBare

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Steady stream of hikers climbing up Cat Bells. Note view of two lakes. Photo by Ilana DeBare

My home base was the Lairbeck Hotel, a small family-run inn in a spacious 19th century home on the outskirts of Keswick in the northern Lake District. Keswick swarms with tourists in the summer months, but it’s outdoor-oriented tourists, not the “file-out-of-the-tour-bus-and-take-a-selfie” packaged-tour crowds. It feels like Truckee or Banff: Everyone is wearing hiking boots, and there are more stores selling outdoor gear than you can count. No one dresses for dinner. People ask each other where they hiked that day. I felt very much at home.

Sam was backpacking in the Sierra while I was gone – hauling thirty pounds in his pack, sleeping under the stars, totally away from civilization for five days. The Lake District is a different kind of outdoor experience. I’m not sure there’s anywhere you could hike and camp for five full days without running into roads or towns. Instead, you do day hikes – between picturesque stone villages, or loops up and down the fells. You can easily get away from people by choosing the right path, but England is too small and has been settled for too long to have the vast amounts of wilderness we enjoy in the western United States.

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View of farmland from a ridge. Photo by Ilana DeBare

What England does have is an amazing network of public footpaths. Many of these paths have existed for centuries or even millennia, and private landowners are required to maintain the public right of way. (As opposed to the U.S., where landowners will shoot or sue anyone who sets foot on their property.) My hikes took me through sheep pastures, across wheat fields, down farm driveways, along a “coffin path” formerly used to carry the deceased to the nearby churchyard, and through countless wooden gates with an equally countless variety of latching devices.

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England’s public footpaths are usually well marked.  Photo by Ilana DeBare

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Footpath up the Latrigg fell that, like many others, goes through sheep pastures. Photo by Ilana DeBare

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Derwentwater in the morning fog. Photo by Ilana DeBare

The paths offer stunning views from the tops of the fells – of lakes, farmland, villages, and clouds sweeping over the surrounding peaks.

And then at the end of your hike, you return to your comfy hotel or bed-and-breakfast or rental cottage. With a tall pint of ale in the nearby pub! With all due love and respect for my husband, I’ll take this kind of hiking vacation over a backpack trip any day.

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Pub near my inn.  Photo by Ilana DeBare

Before my solo week in the Lake District, I’d spent a similar week walking in the Cotswolds to the south with my friend Sue. By the time I reached Keswick, I’d realized that my “sweet spot” for hiking is six to eight miles, or about three to four hours of actual walking.

My time on the trails was longer than those three to four hours, though, because I stopped a lot. And that was one unexpected benefit of spending this vacation alone – I got to set my own pace, not just for the walking, but for everything.

Traveling with even one very compatible partner entails a constant calibration. Are they bored at a viewpoint and ready to get moving? Do they want to spend more time in the antiques shop? Like a good marriage, they accommodate you and you accommodate them, and it all works well.

But traveling alone, you’re only responsible to yourself — which forces you to pay more attention to your desires. So I spent a full hour sitting on top of the Cat Bells trail, just looking down at the dueling vistas of a farm valley and Derwentwater lake, while other hikers stopped to picnic and moved on. So I noodled around the edges of the Castlerigg stone circle in the drizzle, thinking about the 5,000-year history of those stones, for much longer than I would have with a companion.

I stopped to look at birds. I stopped to look at really nondescript birds!

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Visitors photograph a “druid” at Castlerigg stone circle. Photo by Ilana DeBare

This was “slow travel.” And I realized I wanted to get even slower. Next time, I would bring a small notebook or sketch pad with me. I wanted to interact with the landscapes in a more active way than taking a cellphone photo. Often we arrive at a beautiful or fascinating place, glance at it, click the camera to capture it, and move on. We lazily count on that photo to be the memory rather than trying to remember it ourselves. I wanted to feel the contours, remember the lines, articulate the feelings and thoughts evoked by the scene.

Two mornings, I stayed at the inn and worked on my novel on my laptop before going out to hike in the afternoon. The Lairbeck Hotel has a lovely, quiet garden, and one of those late afternoons after hiking I sat in the garden with a glass of wine.

I realized that was my ideal travel day – half the day writing, the other half out actively exploring. With a garden and a glass of wine at the end!

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The garden and house at Lairbeck Hotel. Photo by Ilana DeBare

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View of Skiddaw fell from my room at the Lairbeck Hotel. Photo by Ilana DeBare

It’s hard to achieve that kind of balance without a deliberate effort. When visiting a new place, there’s always so much to see. The temptation is to run from sight to sight, and then collapse at dinnertime. It’s even harder to carve out quiet time for writing, sketching, or reflecting when you’re traveling with a companion.

One of the benefits of this solo trip was I’m now more aware of what I want from my travel experiences. If I don’t get to every highlight listed in the guidebook, that’s okay: I’ll see fewer but spend more time at each, and more time on reflection.

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Sheep, sheep, and more sheep / Photo by Ilana DeBare

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Oops, not sheep! / Photo by Ilana DeBare

I hate thinking

July 23, 2015

There! Doesn’t that headline sound like the beginning of a condescending rant about Republicans?

(Republican friends: Please don’t take offense. Just substitute the word “Democrats” and keep reading.)

But I’m not talking about politics. I’m talking about the writing process.

I love days when I can sit down and write. I sit at my computer, I start writing, hours pass, and I have a bunch of new pages. Then I feel like I’ve accomplished something. i can blow the factory whistle, stop work, head home (even if “home” just means leaving my study for the living room), and do something completely unrelated with a light heart.

Happy-Writer

But then there are days — weeks — where instead I have to think.

Maybe I’ve written a character into a corner and have no idea how to get her out. Maybe I have to re-conceptualize an entire character. Research the religion or medical condition or historical background of a character. Figure out a new sub-plot. Figure out the entire main plot!

This is different from what people talk about as “writer’s block.”  When I think of writer’s block, I picture sitting down and having no ideas, nothing to say. Or paralyzing oneself with fear. It’s a mind-numbing fog.

What I’m talking about is not a fog. It’s having some very specific problems with a manuscript that need to be thought through or, occasionally, researched. But the thinking does not happen in a controlled, manageable, linear fashion. I wish it were like writing a news story or a fundraising letter, where I could say, “Okay, I’m going to sit down at 2 p.m. and have this done by 5 p.m.” But it’s not.

Instead, my mind wanders. I play Facebook Scrabble. I move the laundry. I write out page after page of notes and outlines that look organized but basically just re-state the problem. Even if I focus on trying to find the answer, it doesn’t come.

And I want to write! I don’t want to sit around thinking. I want motion, action, progress. I want to look at my computer and see “1,269 words” at the bottom of that Microsoft Word window. I feel like someone in the driver’s seat, bags are packed and loaded in the trunk, key in the ignition, the open road stretching ahead, and the damn car isn’t moving.

car

I want to have everything figured out so I can blast forward putting it on paper.  After all, this process is all about the writing, right? We call ourselves “writers.” We go to “writers’ retreats” and “writers” conferences.” We buy books on writing and join writing groups.

Nobody says “I’m joining a thinking group.”

But maybe we should.

My rational self — the self that is not tearing its hair out and wanting to blast forward — knows that thinking is an essential part of this process. That’s especially true at the stage I’m at with this current novel — first draft just finished, ready to start revising and improving.

I need to think about what works and what doesn’t work, what I want to add, and where I want to take this manuscript. That’s just as important as getting all those pages of the first draft down on paper. And it doesn’t happen on command or on schedule. Maybe for some people it does, but not me.

I need to calm down and give it time.

That’s my rational self talking. But what I really want is: motion, action, progress.

Pages.

In praise of fava beans

July 12, 2015

When I was growing up in the 1960s, I could have counted all the vegetables I knew on two hands. Carrots, peas, broccoli, string beans, celery, lettuce…. My mom was probably on the adventurous side because she made fresh artichokes for us even though we lived 3,000 miles from any artichoke fields.

Now of course the American palate has expanded. Kale is so trendy that it is just about passé! Safeway sells baby arugula. People have learned to roast brussel sprouts in olive oil rather than boiling them to odoriferous pulp.

Still, we all get stuck in food ruts, cooking the same familiar things over and over. I was bumped out of my rut last year when we joined a CSA food box program. That stands for Community Supported Agriculture, where people support nearby organic farmers by ordering a box of produce each week, a kind of vegetable version of the Book-of-the-Month Club.

You don’t get to choose what comes in your box. You get whatever is seasonal. So in the past few months, I’ve learned to cook and like watermelon radishes and kohlrabi. Now I even buy watermelon radishes at the store!  (Note: They are large beet-sized radishes with very pretty circles of pink, white, and light green. I dice them and roast them with beets, cauliflower, and butternut squash.)

I got another bump this week when our neighbors went on vacation and ordered us to eat whatever was ripe in their garden. This gave a whole new meaning to the phrase farm-to-table, since their garden is about six feet from my kitchen table.

Among other things, they were growing fava beans. Now, fava beans were something I’ve never had interest in buying or growing. I’d eaten them in paella, where they were big and brown and tasteless and mushy. You get three or four beans to a pod, and not too many pods on a plant, and they seemed like a whole lot of work for… just beans.

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Fava bean plant — look for the protruding bean pods / Photo by Ilana DeBare

But God forbid anything should go to waste. So I picked a bunch of our neighbor’s beans and perused various web sites to figure out what to do with them. I decided to blanche them and serve them with olive oil and salt, like tapas.

They were awesome!

Preparing them was half the fun. It takes more time than throwing a head of broccoli in a pot, but it’s much more interesting and sensual.

First you shell the beans. I was amazed to open up a fava pod and find the beans cocooned in a kind of fleece lining, a soft, wispy white fuzz covering the inside of the pod. It was like a sleeping bag for beans. This is a plant that knows how to take care of its babies! (Hint: score the seam of the pod with a knife to shell them more easily.)

A fava bean pod / Photo by Ilana DeBare

A fava bean pod / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The white fleece inside of the pod, with beans removed / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The white fleece inside of the pod, with beans removed / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The beans themselves were smooth and flawless. I thought of bars of new soap. I thought of round stones that had been smoothed by a million years of running water. Apple could have stolen the clean lines and minimalist chic of its iPhone from a fava bean.

Next comes the hull protecting each bean. Some people peel the hulls and then eat the beans raw; others pop them into their mouth and eat them with the hull. I tried both ways and they were both good — would be a great TV snack. But for tapas, I wanted a large quantity of peeled beans.

Fava beans, shelled but not yet peeled / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Fava beans, shelled but not yet peeled / Photo by Ilana DeBare

I brought a pot of water to a boil, blanched the beans for three minutes, then spooned them into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Boiling loosened their hulls and it was easy to slide the skin off. There’s something sensual about the frictionless ease with which the beans slide out of their cases in your fingers.

Removing the bean from its hull / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Removing the bean from its hull / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Voila! Fava beans, ready for olive oil and salt. The taste is starchy but also sweet, with a hint of nut or chestnut. Simple yet fresh.

I would feel bad about eating all of our neighbors’ fava beans, but they’re in Italy.

I suspect they are eating even better over there.

Fava beans with olive oil and salt / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Fava beans with olive oil and salt / Photo by Ilana DeBare

A century since the last Passenger Pigeon

August 27, 2014

Note: I wrote this post for the Golden Gate Audubon blog.

This Monday September 1st will mark the 100th anniversary of the death in captivity of the last Passenger Pigeon.

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Taxidermied Passenger Pigeon in the Royal Ontario Museum

Several months ago, I read Richard Rhodes’ fascinating biography of John James Audubon and was struck by Audubon’s description of the arrival and slaughter of a massive Passenger Pigeon flock in the midwest around 1816:

“The noise which they made, though yet distant, reminded me of a hard gale at sea…. As the birds arrived and passed over me, I felt a current of air that surprised me. Thousands were soon knocked down by the pole-men. The birds continued to pour in…. The Pigeons, arriving by thousands, alighted everywhere, one above another, until solid masses as large as hogsheads were formed on the branches all around. Here and there the perches gave way under the weight with a crash, and, falling to the ground, destroyed hundreds of the birds beneath, forcing down the dense groups with which every stick was loaded. It was a scene of uproar and confusion. I found it quite useless to speak, or even to shout to those persons who were nearest to me. Even the reports of the guns were seldom heard, and I was made aware of the firing only by seeing the shooters reloading….

The Pigeons were constantly coming, and it was past midnight before I perceived a decrease in there number of those that arrived. The uproar continued the whole night…. Towards the approach of the day, the noise in some measure [having] subsided, long before objects were distinguishable, the Pigeons began to move off… and at sunrise all that were able to fly had disappeared. The howlings of the wolves now reached our ears, ands the foxes, lynxes, cougars, bears…

It was then that the authors of all this devastation began their entry amongst the dead, the dying and the mangled. The pigeons were picked up and piled in heaps, until each had as many as he could possibly dispose of, when the hogs were let loose to feed on the remainder….”

 

Such massive flocks were not unusual: The largest known nesting site was documented in 1871 in Wisconsin with 136 million birds covering 850 square miles.

Their large flocks and communal behavior made the pigeons easy prey for hunters. Faced with massive commercial hunting and loss of habitat, their numbers dwindled. Then, a century ago, they were gone.

Juvenile Passenger Pigeon (left), male (center), female (right), by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

Juvenile Passenger Pigeon (left), male (center), female (right), by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

A 19th century Passenger Pigeon shoot

A 19th century Passenger Pigeon shoot

The Passenger Pigeon’s story is particularly cautionary for us these days because, with climate change, we may be on the verge of witnessing a tidal wave of similar extinctions.

In September — by coincidence about a week after the sad anniversary of the Passenger Pigeon’s loss — National Audubon will release a very comprehensive scientific report on North American birds and climate change that has been years in preparation.

Which species will face significant habitat loss? Which ones are likely to adapt and survive? Which are at risk of extinction?

We’ll share the news here with you as soon as we get it, along with steps we can take to protect the Northern California species most at risk due to climate change.

Meanwhile, please consider doing one small thing on Monday to mark the death of Martha, that last lone pigeon in the Cincinnati Zoo.

Talk to one non-birder friend about why you care about preserving species…

Write a letter to one elected official in Washington…

Take a young person out to a park and help them spot an egret in the marsh…

Post a Passenger Pigeon image on your Facebook page, and ask your friends to share it…  

Replace the energy-hogging incandescent bulbs in your house with LEDs or compact fluorescents, and think of Martha while you do it….

In 2114, will our grandchildren or great-grandchildren be writing blog posts commemorating the anniversary of the death of the last Tricolored Blackbird? Ashy Storm-Petrel? Yellow-billed Cuckoo? Burrowing Owl? Snowy Plover?

Or might there be so many losses that they won’t even know where to start?

Why do we take vacation photos?

July 19, 2014

For twenty years I was the family vacation photographer. I bought the cameras, I packed the cameras in my luggage, I was the one who thought to stop in the middle of a museum or a park and say, “Hold on a sec! Let me get a photo!”

Then my husband Sam got an iPhone. He realized how easy it was to snap a photo and upload it to Facebook.

So now we both take photos. We returned last week from a vacation in Central Europe during which we often ended up taking photos of the exact same things.

We’d be standing in Budapest looking across the Danube to the old castle on the Buda side of the river. Sam would take a picture of the castle with his iPhone. Two feet away, I’d take a picture of the castle with my point-and-shoot.

And the kicker is: There were already about two zillion photos of that same castle, taken from the same angle, on the web.

Sam's photo of the Danube and castle

Sam’s photo of the Danube and castle

My photo of the Danube and castle

My photo of the Danube and castle

So why do we take those photos? Why capture an image that has already been captured countless times, often with higher resolution or better quality?

The simple answer is that we want mementos of our trip. We want to remember where we’ve been. But that desire could be satisfied by just one person taking photos, or even by buying old-fashioned picture postcards.

Another answer is that we love our gadgets. We feel compelled to use them constantly. But that doesn’t fully nail it either.

There are also less charitable possibilities. We are sheep: We take photos on vacation because we believe we are supposed to take photos on vacation. Or we are status-grubbers: We photograph ourselves in front of the Eiffel Tower or the Roman Colosseum or the Budapest castle  to show our neighbors and our Facebook friends how worldly and fantastically happy we are.

Blech. That may be true for some people, but I think it is still more complicated.

For me at least, taking vacation photos is an attempt to engage with the things I’m seeing. As tourists visiting places briefly, we are typically spectators. We are outsiders watching a world that other people have shaped and are living in. But we want more than that.

So we engage with the places we’re visiting by eating the food, meeting the people, or… taking photos.

Sam's photo of men playing chess in the Szechenyi thermal baths in Budapest

Sam’s photo of men playing chess in the Szechenyi thermal baths in Budapest

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My photo of men playing chess in the Szechenyi thermal baths in Budapest

Sam's photo of a communist-era status in Memento Park in Budapest

Sam’s photo of a communist-era statuse in Memento Park in Budapest

My photo (well, taken by a passerby with my camera) of the Memento Park status

My photo (well, taken by a passerby with my camera) of the Memento Park statue

Choices: I can stand by  the Danube, look briefly at the castle, and then walk on to the next site specified in my guidebook. Or I can pull out my camera and engage. Frame the picture. How much river, how much sky? Focus on the dome or the facade? Which part seems most interesting? It’s bringing a little bit of artistic judgment and creativity to bear. It gives me a sense of ownership and personal connection to a place. That’s not the same level of engagement as getting to know local residents, but it’s something.

“Taking photos forces you to look at what you’re seeing,” someone told me the other night.

ON THE OTHER HAND…

Taking photos can also be a substitute for truly looking at what we’re seeing.

Scenic vista point! Get out the camera. Frame the shot. Move on. 

I fall victim to this, no question about it. I don’t try to commit a scene to memory because I assume it will be preserved by my camera. Instead of paying attention to the details of this interesting place – the color of light on the roofs, a boat’s wake on the river, the funny zigzag path taken by a small child running near the water — I think about framing the photo. Once I’ve pressed the shutter, I feel like I’m done.

Now let’s ramp up this scenario to the Nth degree – Auschwitz.

Our recent trip included a tour of the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps, where over 1 million Jews were killed by the Nazis. I’ll write more about that in my next blog post. But what’s relevant here is that I took photos.

I took photos of the room filled with hair shorn from thousands of Jewish women en route to the gas chamber for use in German wigs. I took photos of the room filled with shoes from dead children. I took photos of the bombed ruins of the crematoria, of the gathering spot where people were unloaded from boxcars and directed to either barracks or gas chambers. Our guide described each section of the camp, and we looked, mostly silent, and took photos, and moved on.

In retrospect, I wish I had spent more time looking, thinking, and imagining. I would have liked to stay in the unloading spot for maybe an hour, to sit cross-legged on the summer grass and just think about what had happened there. Maybe try to sketch it or describe it in writing. But definitely do something slower and more mindful than pressing a shutter.

I find myself increasingly dissatisfied with photos as a way to engage with important places – places of particular historical meaning or natural beauty. I’m not a visual artist, but sketching or painting a scene seems to require so much more attention and involvement. Writing a description also forces you to engage more deeply and attentively.

I wonder what it would be like to take a sketch pad or pocket journal on our next trip instead of a camera. When we come to a point of particular interest, I could sit there for a half hour drawing or writing.

Of course that would slow things down – it’s harder to hit six different churches, museums and monuments in one afternoon if you keep stopping for long blocks of time!

But maybe it is useful to start thinking of “slow travel,” like we now think of “slow food.”

And tapping into ways of engagement that are deeper than snapping photos.

WTS Birding Trip – Postponed

February 8, 2014

If you were planning to come on the Women of Temple Sinai beginning birdwatching outing on Sunday Feb. 8th, it has been cancelled since the latest forecast is for 100% chance of rain.

We are rescheduling for Sunday February 23 (two weeks from now), 9:30 to 11:30 am. Hope you can make it!

I’d say I’m sorry for the cancellation… but we need the rain so badly that it’s hard to be sorry! :-)

Meanwhile, if you’re one of my blog readers and have no idea what I’m talking about… this was a bird walk I was co-leading for our temple. I hope to have a “real” post for you soon!

Anna's Hummingbird / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Anna’s Hummingbird / Photo by Ilana DeBare