May 052012

Bruce Hiscock is an intrepid artist, outdoorsman, and children’s book author, also house-builder, tree-lopper (I have photos of the two of us with chainsaws among the trees), and an old friend, part of the Greenfield Crowd, friends, writers and cross-country skiers who live more or less in Greenfield, New York (see also NC contributions by Nate Leslie, Marilyn McCabe, Mary Shartle and Elaine Handle). Bruce lives in a house he built and is still building himself in the side of a hill in the woods in Porter Corners on Ballou Road. We often call it the Hobbit House — bare log beams, the old sleeping loft where the kids gather at the annual Christmas party, the gorgeous windows looking out onto the trees. Bruce is an amazing writer and illustrator. My boys got regular doses of Bruce Hiscock during our bedtime reading sessions, books like The Big Tree, The Big Rock,  Coyote and Badger, and When Will It Snow? In part, I love these books because I would see them grow in Bruce’s drawing and painting studio. And his notebooks and travel journals are works of art in their own right. Here we have a taste of Bruce, an awesome little essay on the un-awesomeness of awesome and a little self-healing lesson for those of us who are awesomely challenged.



This past year I attended three weddings. The happy couples were all in their twenties, and there were many young people in attendance, along with elders, and a sprinkling of children. I love weddings, and I was pleased to see that the participants had written their own vows.  In the most recent nuptials, the wedding of my nephew on the snow near Lake Tahoe, I especially liked the phrase “in sickness, real or imagined” inserted into the bride’s pledge of devotion. Such language gives me hope that English is still alive and well amongst the younger crowd.

Weddings provide a perfect opportunity to observe how the “texting generation” communicates when they actually meet in person. Although I have never heard a groom say, “OMG, Baby. That was a BFD.” after the service, I am alert to the possibility. As a person of age, I try to note the catch words of the day, having seen: cool, right on, far out, rad, and similar expressions come and go. Currently a single word comes up with unparalleled frequency. Whole flocks of people rely on it as the only adjective for positive feelings. And that word is awesome.

Awesome is a perfectly good word. In the OED (Oxford English Dictionary, a voluminous research tool that pre-dates Wikipedia, oh best beloved) awesome is defined, in its original context, as full of awe, profoundly reverential. The earliest appearance in print, according to the OED, was in 1598 by Richard Bernard, an English clergyman and religious writer. Translating the Latin poet, Terence, he wrote, ”Wise and wittie, in due place awsome, ….” Bernard was somewhat of a non-conformist, advocating a joyful approach to life which seems to have put him at odds with church doctrines of the day. Perhaps that is why he chose to use the word awsome (the early spelling), moving him light years ahead of his time. Incidentally, his daughter, Mary, married Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island. I wonder if awsome was used liberally at their celebrations.

Change is natural to language. Words are a fluid device of communication and often adapt to the era, taking on different levels of meaning as the years go by. The OED tells us that awesome is now used in a trivial sense as an adjective meaning marvelous, excellent, etc., as in a New Yorker cartoon caption. “Third grade? Third grade is awesome.”

Whether one approves of these changes or not is inconsequential. Language rolls on regardless of personal preference. And so I bear no more resentment to the change than I do to the person who backed into the door of my Subaru. These things happen.  What I do object to is the excessive use of the word. When describing a bridal gown, a toast by the best man, or even the wedding night, must they all be awesome?

And so, like the campaign to combat obesity, I am proposing a method to slim down the use of awesome. I feel this is important for the health and sanity of America. It could go global, but right now I’m not concerned with that. Of course, an individual could just vow to use the word less often. But such resolutions, while made with the best intentions, like tax reform or home exercise programs, usually fail. That is why I have devised the following pro-active approach.

The Proposal—

If you catch yourself using awesome in, say, every other sentence, you are in need of serious help. The first thing you must do is admit your language deficiency. This is best carried out in a group or family setting where you rise and say, “Hi, my name is ____________, and I am an awesome addict.” Oops, let’s rephrase that to, “I am addicted to awesome.”  You work it out.

Next, take a sheet of paper and write Alternatives to Awesome at the top. Now begin thinking. This is an important part of the cure. Go easy on yourself at first; remember the adjectival part of your brain has probably atrophied from disuse. Start with a few simple words, like terrific or nice. Later, as your ability to utilize language becomes more facile, try to think in shades of meaning. Arrange words in categories like Truly Wonderful or Pretty Good. This will help you differentiate an actual range of values in your vocabulary. I could suggest more adjectives to you, but that would defeat the process. Really, you must do the work yourself.

Even after you have developed a satisfactory list of new words you may find yourself unable to recall them when engaged conversation. This is normal, like forgetting the name of favorite movie or your mother-in-law. To remedy this, try taping a mini version of your list to the face of your wrist watch. Then, you can appear to be nonchalantly checking the time while you review the possibilities. If you do not wear a wrist watch, and are so inclined, tattooing on the forearm is an acceptable substitute.

Remember, healing takes time. Setting up a five year plan is not unreasonable. If you can decrease your use of the A word by 20 percent each year, you will be in fine fettle as you enter middle age and new words come along. It was a never a goal to completely eliminate this word from the general vocabulary, but like a person who has a problem with alcohol, it is probably best that you abstain completely. Good luck, and may the great Thesaurus be with you.

—Bruce Hiscock


Bruce Hiscock is the author/illustrator of many natural history books for children. His stories, like The Big Rock and The Big Tree, are based on real subjects and contain enough information to enlighten grade school kids as well as adults, at least some adults. These books, among others, have been designated as Outstanding Science Trade Books by the Children’s Book Council. Journeys in the Arctic form the basis of several works, including most recently, Ookpik- the Travels of a Snowy Owl, a finalist for the Charlotte Award of New York State. Over the course of his life, he has worked as a research chemist, toy maker, college professor, and drug tester of race horses. He graduated from the University of Michigan, B.S. 1962, and Cornell University, Ph.D. 1966. Bruce lives in Porter Corners, NY, at the edge of the wild, in a house he built by hand using the native rocks and trees.


May 032012

Isabella Rossellini’s “Noah’s Ark” begins with her asking “How did Noah do it? How did he manage to organize all animals into couples?” The Bible then appears like a children’s pop up book, heralding a campy scientific quest to understand this conflict between the multifaceted forms of copulation in nature and the limiting way Noah – and we perhaps by human extension – might see it through our blinding goggles.

“Seduce Me” continues the work Rossellini did with “Green Porno,” her three season web series produced with The Sundance Channel. Each of the original under-two-minute shorts explores the sexual or mating habits of various creatures. Rossellini spends development time researching the scientific basis of the work and in the later Green Porno films even collaborated with Argentinian scientist Claudio Campagna.

“Noah’s Ark” takes this exploration of creature sexuality a step further by focusing on the tension between the biblical narrative of Noah’s attempt to collect animals two by two and the biological reality of several animals in the world that do not submit to the one-male-one-female logic of Noah’s collection.

This conflict first illustrates how our ideas of sexuality anthropomorphize other creatures, assuming they must pair male and female for procreation the way humans do, a narcissistic turn where we look to the world of animals expecting to find our more heteronormative selves or to differentiate ourselves from animals. Here we dream up what we think is “natural” or what is “civilized.” Even those of us who might find in nature the reassuring example of black swans are playing the same narcissistic game. What does it mean that we seek ourselves in nature? What does it mean when we don’t find ourselves?

In the case of Rossellini’s work, what we have is a rupture, a representation of all we might choose not to see because it doesn’t reflect us back. How can we fathom sexual identity, as it is with the snails, as something decided by where you are in the pile of creatures reproducing? Or maybe our imagination is just limited for lack of effort or experimentation?

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Rossellini is candid about her reasons for telling these stories this way: “I think that if you know how incredibly mysterious and varied and eccentric and strange and fascinating nature is, you hopefully will take care of it. I mean, I hope. I don’t know how to dictate that. But I try to convey my emotion when I see animals, which is that somehow animals strike me as funny. And then also infinitely mysterious and scandalous at times.”

All of the “Green Porno” and “Seduce Me” films use a cartoony, campy paper aesthetic for the creatures, the costumes and the sets. This aesthetic and Rossellini’s willingness to cross dress as various creatures in copulation playfully moves us past our limited perspective on sexuality and into what is hidden or unknown about the animal kingdom’s sexual habits. She de-naturalizes human sexuality. In the face of the many varied ways creatures copulate, the heteronormative missionary position looks boring, a tad unimaginative, and maybe even unnatural. Through Rossellini’s imagination we are invited to laugh at these limitations. A laughter, perhaps, tinged with regret that we don’t have the dating options of the hermaphroditic earthworm, especially one as fetching as Isabella Rossellini.

– R. W. Gray

May 032012

Here’s a terse, compelling little fictional tour de force by one of my current Vermont College of Fine Arts students, Martha Petersen. It starts and ends, with practically no context or backfill, in the super-heated Arizona desert at night in July and stays tightly focused on a man and a woman in the cab of a truck, both runaways, both strangers to one another — the man has a gun. Repressed violence, desperation and an aura of intense (but not explicit) eroticism explode off the page. The dialogue is immaculate — obsessive, repetitive, dramatic and full of implication. Wonderful to read. Wonderful to have students like this. This is Martha’s first published story.



Jonathan raked his fingers in the sand, and pushed air out from his chest as hard as he could. He found his t-shirt and wiped his hands off. He stood. The ankle was tender, but he could put a little weight on it. A sprain probably, but there would be no more running tonight.

A pickup shot by him and up the road a little way. The brake lights came on, it screeched to the side off the asphalt, then circled around and came back toward him. Someone inside put on the blinker, crossed the center line and turned back around. The truck skidded to a stop just ahead of him.

Jonathan felt inside his pocket and found his gun. He pulled it out and wrapped his t-shirt around it. He limped toward the pickup, fingers on the gun, ready for anything. The passenger window was down. Accordion music was playing.

“Are you getting in or what?”

Jonathan stopped still. If it had been any other kind of person, he would have climbed right in. But it was a girl’s voice.

He leaned in the window. “Just a phone. You got a phone? I need to make a call.”

“A dead one, that’s it,” she said.

He thought about things for a minute, but there was no other choice. There was no other way to get where he was going. “I’m going to Henderson,” he said. He opened the door and pulled himself into the truck. The ceiling light was dim, but Jonathan could tell that this girl belonged anywhere else but out here in the cactus and dust, at night and in the middle of the Nevada desert. She had light hair pasted to her cheeks, a delicate curve to her jaw and chin, a thin neck. The cap she wore shadowed her eyes and most of her face.

Jonathan placed his t-shirt, with the pistol inside, on the floor between his feet. He was suddenly aware of what he must look like, filthy, smelly, shirtless. He sucked in his stomach. His legs stuck against the vinyl seat. “Too damn hot,” he said.

“It’s July,” the girl said. She let off the clutch and the pickup lurched and then caught, and jerked out onto the highway. Jonathan watched in the rearview mirror at the road behind them. It looked the same as the road ahead. The desert was like that, letting you think you were getting somewhere, when really you were always staying in the same place.

The girl flipped the station from the accordion music, to pop music that had been popular when Jonathan was young, to someone talking in Spanish. She stopped it there. “Nothing on out here,” she said.

“When we get to Henderson, just drop me anywhere,” Jonathan said, over the wind and the radio.

“I’m not going to Henderson,” she said back. “I’m driving by.” She sipped on a Coke through a straw. “Want a drink? You look thirsty.”

Jonathan picked up the cup and pinched the lid to take it off.

“Don’t worry about that,” the girl said. “Drink from the straw. It’s all right. Go ahead.”

He did what she said. He sucked it down. The soda was warm and watery, and it burned his throat, and there was nothing in the world Jonathan wanted more. He pulled off the lid and gulped, spilling some of it on his chest. He emptied it all the way to the bottom, then placed the cup back in the holder.

“Sorry, it’s gone,” he said. “I spilled it.”

The girl had a package of candy worms on the seat next to her. She picked one up and put it between her lips and sucked on it. It slipped into her mouth. “What’s your name anyway?” she said through pieces of gummy worm.

Jonathan shifted in his seat, pushed on his ankle, which made him wince. “I’m Jake. My name’s Jake. Where is it you said you’re going?”

“I’m running away, Jake.” The girl slurped down another worm. She drifted off to the right, then pulled the wheel over and bumped along the center line. When she’d straightened out, she said, “You won’t tell anyone, right?”

Jonathan grabbed onto a handle above his window. “How about letting me drive?”

“It’s all right, Jake. Where I’m from it’s hotter than here. In Wellton it’s more than a hundred degrees at night.”

“I’ve never heard of the place.” Jonathan felt his ankle swelling. He needed ice and a stretchy bandage. His needed to wash his hands, to get the dirt out of the cuts. “You like it there?”

“I guess it’s nice if you like dirt and sweat. That’s about all there is there, that and lettuce farms in the winter. That’s why I’m running away. I don’t like lettuce.”

They were flying by sand hills. The black land spread all around them and the glow off the road looked like slick oil. Both the windows were open, and a hot, dirty breeze blew in. Jonathan wondered what Laurie was doing now, whether she was sleeping or had called the police. She imagined them finding his car on the side of the road, calling it in, coming after him. He had to get to Henderson.

Jonathan twitched the foot that didn’t hurt. “You can drop me at the next gas station. There’s a few coming up soon I think. They’re everywhere. I’m sure there’s one coming up.” Jonathan scanned the road ahead, but there was nothing. The only lights that blinked through the dust were the moon and the stars.

The last sign he’d seen said Henderson 210. That was before his car broke down. By his best guess, they had another 130 miles or so left to go. Less than that for a gas station. The girl kept speeding up, then slowing down, like she hadn’t figured out how to keep her foot steady on the gas pedal. “It’s 55 here,” Jonathan said. “It’s not the interstate here. Over there it’s 75, but not here. Pull over and I’ll drive.”

“That’s all right, Jake. I’ve got it. I’ve got my boyfriend in Reno, and after I get him we’re going to California, all the way down the Pacific Highway.”

The blared Spanish. Three people on there now, and sounds in the background like gongs. “Do you understand this stuff?” Jonathan pointed at the radio.

“What stuff?”


“Do I look like I speak Spanish?” One of the girl’s straps slipped down her small and white shoulder. The lights from the dash outlined the curve of her collarbone.

The girl drove to the side, across the line. She braked to a hard stop. “I got to pee,” she said. “Don’t look.” She took the keys with her.

He opened his door and pulled himself out. In the distance he saw, just barely, an orange glow. Henderson. His friend. A place to rest.

“Don’t look!” the girl called from behind a cactus.

Jonathan put a little weight on his ankle. The pain exploded up his leg. He couldn’t drive, even if he got the keys. This stick shift took two feet, which he didn’t have.

She was done, and she walked back to the truck, zipping her shorts.

Jonathan pulled himself back in. “I’ll drive,” he said.

“Aww, Jake, that’s all right. I’m not allowed to let other people drive the truck.” She rattled the keys in her hand. They both sat there, not moving.

Jonathan felt very thirsty. His leg throbbed.

“Did you look?” she asked.

“Let’s go. Please. I’ve got people in Henderson to help me. I need to get to a phone. See, I hurt myself.”

“You wanted to look, didn’t you?” The girl flipped her cap onto the dashboard. The keys were still in her hand.

“What’s your name again?” he asked.

“I can’t tell you, Jake, because then you might tell someone that I’m running away. Back in Wellton, there’s things going on that shouldn’t be. So this morning, I took these keys here, and now I’ve left that place forever.” She brought out some lip balm that smelled like bubble gum. “After I get my boyfriend in Reno, me and him are going to go down the Pacific Highway. Did I say that Jake?  We’ll go down it, then we’ll stop in Chula Vista. Or maybe Tijuana. Want some?” She held out the lip balm.

Jonathan said no thanks.

“You ever been to Tijuana? Where I’m from is pretty close to there, so you’d think I would’ve been. But nope. This is the first time. We’re going to live on the beach. What do you think about that, Jake?”

The girl scooted toward him, turned her face up. The moon was at the top of the sky, and he could see her full face. She was younger than he’d thought. She might have been fourteen years old. She was not attractive. Her eyes were outlined in black, and her face was hawkish, in the way skinny girls’ faces are of that age. The straps of her shirt had slid down both her shoulders. If Jonathan looked, he could’ve seen straight down her chest. She was small and lost, and Jonathan could do whatever he chose with her.

He thought about his wife and what he’d done. His ankle was most likely broken, he was sure of that now, out in the middle of this desert, and he didn’t know what to do. His eyes watered.

“Please,” he said. “Just drive. See up there? That’s where I need to go. And when you drop me off, you need to turn right around and go home.”

She started the truck and they jerked forward, back onto the road. The lights ahead burned the atmosphere. It was because they were getting close that Jonathan decided to put his shirt on. He grabbed his t-shirt from the floor, and the pistol, which he’d nearly forgotten about, dropped in his lap. He snatched it up quickly.

The girl was driving fast, and when she saw the gun, she jerked the wheel and threw both her hands up. She screamed out Jesus’ name. The back of the pickup yanked to the side, pushed itself out in front, and then they were hurtling toward cholla with those needles, which shone like silver hypodermics. He wondered if the police would put it all together once they found the pickup with him inside. They’d tell his wife he was just another one of those guys who’d found a girl to run away with. Just before they rolled the first time, Jonathan watched the lights of Henderson pass across the windshield and thought how beautiful they were, a halo of orange against the blue night.

— Martha Petersen


Martha Petersen lives in Tucson with her husband and four children. She graduated from the University of Arizona, Summa Cum Laude, in creative writing and is currently attending Vermont College of Fine Arts as a graduate student in fiction. She plays classical piano and, over the years, has had a series of jobs including graphic artist and accountant and many others. “The Lights of Henderson” is her first publication.

May 012012

I first heard Jordan Smith read poetry at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1980 (or thereabouts) when we were both students in the MFA program. He was one of the poetry stars, at that time writing a series of poems on historical themes — yes, they were that striking, I still remember them (when I don’t remember much else). He went on to teach at Union College in Schenectady, win fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and publish six books of poetry including An Apology for Loving the Old Hymns (Princeton University Press) and Lucky Seven (Wesleyan University Press). His newest book, just out, is The Light in the Film  (University of Tampa Press).  It’s an immense pleasure to publish on these pages five new poems by Jordan Smith — beautiful dense poems that jam words and thoughts and quotations together, halt and reverse the vectors of meaning, and exude a light autumnal air of loss and fatality wrapped now and then in a sly bit of humor.

……The cemetery deed from the Twenties
Was filed neatly with my father’s will, signed
By his father’s father. I go to prepare a place,
The pastor read. Her black coat swirled. Dirt
In a wedge on my thumb. No frost on the flowers yet,
The caretaker said, though it’s so late. I shook
His hand. Come back, he said, now that you’ve been.

The photo of Jordan and Malie Smith above was taken by Evan Smith.



A Poster of Steve Earle in Lerwick
— for Hugh Jenkins

In a grocery store window. The rain drives straight down
The glass, and no one’s on the glazed stone streets.  I buy
A couple of sweaters I couldn’t get anywhere else,
And a meal I could, and in the Shetland Times Bookstore
A Penguin edition of a saga about the earls of places like this.
It was brutal for years, the croft families scraping potatoes
Or barley from a little storm-raked soil, the men gone for months
In the sixareens for the offshore fishing, then salting
The catch to pay the laird his tax on a house that wasn’t theirs
In perpetuity and by divine right a bailiff enforced, so of course
It’s beautiful, this place people fled so as not to wreck themselves
In labor, and to sing of it you’d need a voice that calls
Us home, all of us, and not like sheep at shearing time, and not
To dwell on a cliff edge that was a mountain once, an earth
That was an earth, before history’s mantra of theft took another
Turn, and left us well enough alone, a tuft of wool on a stone fence.



Reading Another Swedish Mystery
One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun…
                        — Tomas Transtromer, After a Death

We can go on skis. The body is always a little further
Than the snow, wandering a little further than sight. The snow
Is a cliff’s edge, the sound of skis a stalking. The detective
Drives a fine car, a necessary car though the suburbs,
Through the security of the state. He knows what we were promised,
How little we understand, how we undervalue it. He knows
Too little, too little for now. And somewhere, don’t ask yet,
The killer watches a dvd, or perhaps records one, a kind
Of documentarian. Is it cause or effect; is it ritual or enactment?
A grouse drums. The detective drums on his steering wheel.
In the intervals, consciousness seeks its level. Plumb and centered,
The man with the knife clicks Record.



Mr. Berryman in Ireland

The pictures in that Time-Life photo shoot,
Serious, kindly listening in the pub, the wild
Love of it, gestures rendering reason moot,
Embraces, his daughter helped through the stile
In the sheep fence and over wood and stone,
Such self-approving joy. For which, atone,

Atone. In the ruined chapel on Inish More
I built a little cairn upon the altar
As others had, as if I’d no more quarrels
With god or stone or self, as if I’d faltered
Happily into repentance, caught in the cant
Of going in fear of getting what I want.

The worst, he said, is the best gift.
On the Galway train, I want this calm of post-
Post-confessional, post-sabbatical thrift
Of heart, a solitary pint, a toast
To no one much. He interrupts. His songs,
Unquiet, grave brief lives. Art’s long.



On the Suicides at the NY/Canada Border

Yes, they step in the same river twice.
They present their bad passports, their reasons, their distracted evasions.
No, they will not be staying long, they tell the customs agents.
There are a thousand islands where they might reconsider,
Some with ruined castles, some with cabins that might have cramped Thoreau.
They stumble at the questions about age and destination. They swear allegiance
Too easily to our anger and our pity; they profess to honor
The deserters from the unjust war. They’ve had enough of fighting.
They imagine a city of bistros, accordions, tables on the sidewalks,
But it is under snow. They are safe. No tourist will mistake them for a compatriot.
In the bar, the old violinist plays a song that’s not sad enough,
And they share his panic as the notes fall off pitch. His fingers are stiff;
They share his suffering. They forgive his dissonance.
They forgive the fog, the geese that pass so loudly overhead.
They are in a position to forgive all imperfection, all transience, to forgive even us,
Burdened with our snapshots and souvenirs, who will not join them,
Not yet, at the café of good intentions and unmeant consequences
Where they have fallen—is it sleep?—into and despite of our sorrow.



The Burial of the Dead

The caretaker said there were five places left
In the family plot. My wife and I traded glances:
That’s one problem solved for our heirs and assignees.
A few minutes later I was kneeling, dirt caught
On my jacket sleeve and watchband as I placed
The urns, my mother’s, my father’s, in one grave.
It was windy now; October. The pastor read
Her sure and certain. What more could there be?
What solemn music? In high school band I played
William Byrd’s The Burial of the Dead. Sonorous,
And sad, and simple and tricky to make it so, not
Just the usual baroque complications.  The drive
From the interstate was all uphill on smaller
And smaller roads. My youngest son put a flower
On the grave; no one told him to. He knew.
The strife is o’er, the battle won. On every side,
Millers, Launts, Chamberlains, St. Johns. Kin.
No one told me to feel at home or offered a hand.
Not yet. The cemetery deed from the Twenties
Was filed neatly with my father’s will, signed
By his father’s father. I go to prepare a place,
The pastor read. Her black coat swirled. Dirt
In a wedge on my thumb. No frost on the flowers yet,
The caretaker said, though it’s so late. I shook
His hand. Come back, he said, now that you’ve been.

— Jordan Smith

Jordan Smith‘s sixth full-length collection, The Light in the Film, recently appeared from the University of Tampa Press. His story, “A Morning,” will be in the forthcoming issue of Big Fiction. He lives in eastern New York and teaches at Union College.

May 012012


I live halfway between the Road of the Kings and the Avenue of the Fleas in San Mateo, California.  Situated on a peninsula seventeen miles south of San Francisco, San Mateo isn’t a young town at all—it was settled by the Spanish long before many other places in America.  In 1776 Captain Juan Bautista de Anza came from Spain searching for the inlet to the San Francisco Bay; for nearly 200 years it had remained hidden to European explorers sailing up and down the Pacific coast in summer fog.  Anza and his scouting party camped here along a river, naming it San Mateo (after Saint Matthew, the Jewish tax collector-turned-apostle who later spread the word of God in far-flung nations). Anza befriended the native Ohlone Indians living here.

“I found in our camp nearly all the men of the village, very friendly, content, and joyful, putting themselves out to serve us in every way, a circumstance which I have noted in all the natives seen [in California] up to now.” —Captain Juan Bautista de Anza’s Journal, March 29, 1776.

California State Registered Historical Landmark No. 47, DeAnza Camp. Photo Credit: Wendy Voorsanger

My neighborhood, just two blocks from that original Anza camp, would no longer be recognizable to those early Spanish settlers or Ohlone Indians.  What was once a hilly serpentine grassland dappled with stately oak and bay laurel trees, is now organized into wide streets named after Spanish locales (Castillian, Sevilla, Avila, Aragon) and prestigious eastern colleges (Harvard, Cornell, Fordham).  The grizzly bear, elk, and pronghorn antelope no longer roam, the wide-open space covered with rows of Spanish and Mexican revival houses.  The oaks and their meaty acorns, once prized by the Ohlone, now feed only the black squirrels skittering between the yards.  The San Mateo Creek where Anza made camp is no longer wide and flowing with salmon and trout, but slowed and stunted by a large dam three miles upstream.  The dam holds back the water from the Crystal Springs Reservoir filled with Yosemite snowmelt delivered via a sophisticated system of pipes originating 176 miles to the east.

Crystal Springs Reservoir at low level. Photo Credit: Wendy Voorsanger

The front yards in my neighborhood aren’t fussy or fancy but welcoming. Small green lawns are edged symmetrically and blown neat.  Plenty of perfectly placed native grasses sit alongside drought-tolerant plants such as yucca palm, flowering sage, rosemary, and fruit trees (lemon, orange, fig) designed to look as casual and natural as California itself.

Spanish and Mexican influences in San Mateo. Photo Credit: Wendy Voorsanger

I find the people here in San Mateo friendly and open, much like Anza found the Ohlone back in 1776.  Perhaps it’s because of the mild climate, warm sunshine and blue sky.  Or maybe it’s the boundless ocean nearby, 12 miles west over the ridge.  Or the delicious evening fog that rolls in at night; nobody has air conditioning—we just open our windows.  Whatever the reason, the town exudes a convivial energy.  Neighbors smile and wave and take in my trashcan without asking.  They put my paper on our porch and ask about my day.  I often find myself on the sidewalk long after the sun goes down chatting with neighbors while the kids kick balls in the middle of the street.  San Mateo has a trusting sort of warmth that doesn’t require years to earn.

I like to think the Ohlone spirits inhabit us, teach us how to live, appreciate our land and each other.  I imagine their bones scattered deep beneath my home. I imagine them wandering the hills in the midnight fog wraithlike, their pacific whisperings coming through my window as a sea breeze as I sleep.  But then I also imagine the ghosts of the Spanish buried alongside the Ohlone and figure they have something to say, too.  And I wonder how much of our culture is simply a lingering imprint of those who came before.

“Indian Maidens” at the San Mateo post office. Relief sculpture carved in wood by Zygmund Sazevitch, 1935 Treasury Relief Art Project. Photo credit: Wendy Voorsanger

To outsiders, San Mateo might seem like an irritatingly superficial, “laid back” place.  I’ll admit, I enjoy my superficial pleasantries, not always taking the time to dig beyond surface connections with people.  And I do often hang out in nature; our Bay Ridge and Peninsula open space district encompasses over 60,000 acres in 26 wilderness preserves.  But most people in San Mateo don’t really fit into that familiar “laid back” Californian caricature.  Being relaxed is just an image we carefully cultivated, consciously or subconsciously.  In fact, on the contrary, San Mateo is a diverse mix of locals and transplants from around the country (and the world), mixed together into an insanely intense stew of over-achievers and perfectionists.

 A Reconstitution

I grew up in Sacramento and came to the Bay Area twenty-five years ago looking for opportunity among the numerous Silicon Valley start-ups.  I clung to the culture of achievement here because of my deep-seated need to repair the fabric fraying around me growing up amidst the crazy 1970’s California counter-culture of dissolving structures (family and society), mind-altering substances, and latch-key responsibilities.  My plan was to do better than my parents, harness all that freedom and possibility, not squander it.  Perhaps others came here to escape the confining strictures and suffocating class-based impediments in the places they left. In San Mateo we all seem to be trying to build and rebuild our lives into something more meaningful through intense work, innovation, over-achievement.

Here in San Mateo, it doesn’t matter where you come from.  What matters here are your ideas.  Your intelligence.  Your work ethic. What do you bring to the table?  What is your value add?  Did you start a company?  Launch an IPO? Get your PHD?  Fund a mind-blowing technology? Volunteer with an indigenous tribe in a remote location?  Invent a life-saving drug?  Run a marathon?  Start a non-profit?  Living in San Mateo offers an extraordinary geographical opportunity for innovation—it’s equidistant between San Francisco and the Silicon Valley.  We’re ideally situated to work in any one of the high-tech companies nearby (Google, Facebook, eBay, Twitter, Yelp, Pixar, Yahoo, Genentech, Apple, etc.) or in other industries that serve the technology industry like venture capital and merger and acquisition law.

Our Statistics

According to the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, the area has:

    • The highest economic productivity in the nation—almost twice the U.S. average
    • The most highly educated workforce in the nation, with the highest percentage of residents with graduate and professional degrees
    • The nation’s largest concentration of national laboratories, corporate and independent research laboratories, and leading research universities
    • The largest number of top-ten ranked graduate programs in business, law, medicine and engineering in the nation
    • The highest density of venture capital firms in the world
    • The most technology Fortune 500 companies
    • The highest internet penetration of any U.S. region
    • The highest level of patent generation in the nation, with more patents generated per employee than any other major metropolitan area.

 Living In a Culture on Steroids

To me, living in San Mateo feels like living in an achievement culture on steroids.  There’s a drive for perfection, or a drive to get as close to it as possible.  It’s the common denominator among us—this drive for perfection—whether or not we admit it to ourselves.  Or to each other.

Our local schools offer parent education lectures entitled: “Inspiring Innovating Thinkers,” “Sports Parenting: Inspiring a Win-Win Attitude,” “Resilience and Optimism in Your Child,” and “The Art of Imperfect Parenting.”  Moms and Dads attend these lectures equally.  We read books like Making Marriage Meaningful and The Secrets to a Dynamic and Fulfilling Marriage to ensure that we don’t fall short like our parents.  We’re trying to become our better selves.  We’re striving for perfection, while juggling parenting, marriages, and careers.  When we blunder, we call it “a learning opportunity.”

San Mateo is a town catering to people who live healthy; there are six gyms and four yoga studios within a four-block radius from my house offering yoga, the Bar Method, Pilates, Zumba, Interval Cycling and Skinny Jeans classes.  There’s also Junior Gym to get the little ones started early.  Here in San Mateo, we hike, run, swim, road bike, mountain bike, kite board, paddleboard, and surf.  We complete marathons and 48-hour team relays for charity.  We drink SuperFood, do seasonal cleanses, cut out carbs, and eat organic goji berries, flax seed, and dried seaweed.  Most people I know don’t spend hours on the golf course each weekend talking business over scotch (too old-school exclusive and slow).  Instead, after hours networking is done while biking up Crystal Springs Road in tight pelotons on custom bikes wearing coordinated bibs and jerseys; cyclists then track and compare achievements (route, distance, speed, elevation, power, time) using a Strava iPhone APP and celebrating their King of the Mountain (KOM) wins with Racer 5 microbrews.

Craig Chinn and Conrad Voorsanger chat in the neighborhood before a ride. Photo Credit: Wendy Voorsanger

Our children are swept up into the achievement culture around them. They play soccer, lacrosse, basketball, and volleyball.  They fence, rock climb, dance, swim and dive.  They play the trumpet, harp, guitar, and drums. They sing and attend chess club, art class, and robotics clubs.  They learn Mandarin, Spanish, and French. They take extra classes outside of school in math and writing at places like Kumon, Sylvan, The Reading Clinic, Academic Springboard and The Tutoring Center.  They enter in math competitions, spelling bees, geography bees, and science fairs.  They’ve mastered all things computer science and gadget-related, and have moved on to App programming and hacking.  We keep them on task with family-coordinated online calendars updated from our Smartphones.

We’re obsessively concerned about the environment, driving hybrid cars and using canvas bags at the grocery store.  We walk, ride bikes, and use the carpool lane or public transit (CalTrain or Bart).  We conserve water, use compact fluorescent light bulbs; incandescents will be illegal in California by 2013.  We recycle and compost nearly everything with a sophisticated stream recycling system.  Everyone has three garbage cans: green for compost, blue for all recyclables, black for trash.  The black can is seldom full.

A Haunting Echo

It feels as if we’re all striving to create a New World utopia in San Mateo, much like the Spanish missionaries did two hundred years ago.  Perhaps that’s the long-dead Spanish influencing us from beyond; their zealous drive a haunting echo from the past.

Father Junipero Serra followed Anza, with the hopes of building a perfect utopian society.  He and his padres worked fervently (using Ohlone slave labor) to create a network of 21 missions exactly one-day walk apart along El Camino Real (the Road of the Kings).  Serra was an exacting and determined perfectionist, much like the people in San Mateo today. But, most people here aren’t looking for Serra’s pietistic existence. We’re on a fast-paced, never-ending quest for a particular type of utopia that takes our constitutional “pursuit of happiness” literally.  We’re pursuing that right with intense fervor, all the while portraying the cool substance of a calm demeanor.

Defining Diversity

San Mateo is a multi-cultural and socio-economically diverse town that’s walkable and welcoming.  People talk to each other the street.  Many languages are heard: Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, Japanese, Hindi.  Flower boxes with impatiens dangle from light posts.  Public benches with matching iron trashcans are evenly spaced along the sidewalks. Littering is a misdemeanor in San Mateo, punishable by a $1000 fine.

There’s an impressive collection of restaurants: Mexican cantinas, Korean noodle houses, Irish pubs, Italian eateries, and Brazilian Steakhouses.  There are countless Sushi and Chinese restaurants, Indian buffets, all-American diners, healthy cafes, coffee stores, and juice bars.  Draegers Grocery has organic fruits and vegetables, free-range meat, and sustainable fish.  There’s also a Japanese Grocery (Suruki Supermarket) and several Mexican Markets (Market Fiesta Latina, El Azteca Market, and El Faro’s Mexican).

There are more Mexican restaurants in San Mateo than any other; Spanish tapas or native Ohlone fare (acorn bread, deer, mussels, fish) aren’t found anywhere.  Perhaps this reflects the Mexican victory of independence from Spain in 1822, when Mexican Generals set about secularizing the California missions and distributing large land grants throughout California.

So what of the Mexican influence in San Mateo?  It extends beyond margaritas and enchiladas to the rich Mexican heritage of industrious land labor (cattle ranching, tanning, logging). In addition, historian Robert Glass Cleland said of the Mexican Californians (Californios) in 1833: “They are free from the pressure of economic competition, ignorant of the wretchedness and poverty indigenous to other lands, amply supplied with the means of satisfying their simple wants, devoted to the grand and primary business of the enjoyment of life, they enjoyed a pastoral, almost Arcadian existence.”

Untitled glass tesserae mosaic on exterior Bank of America building in San Mateo; Louis Macouillard, designer and Alfonso Pardiñas mosaicist (Five mosaic panels 25 ft. high, approx. 90’ across).



The Mexican culture also introduced liberalized divorce, custody, and property laws for women in California long before the rest of America recognized gender equality.  In fact, in 1844 one of the largest ranchos on the Peninsula (4400 acres) was run by a Mexican woman named Juana Briones.  Juana fled her drunken husband in San Francisco with her eight children to buy her own ranch on the Peninsula, where she began raising cattle and farming. Historical accounts say she prospered, acquiring five other ranches over her lifetime and living a fulfilled existence with her large family around her.

As a native Californian, I can’t help but see Juana as some sort of standard-bearer I should emulate.  After all, she seemed to find opportunity and achieve happiness, all while juggling the pressures of a demanding career and raising children.  Living in San Mateo, I feel as if Juana’s endowment fills me like a deep, resonant well of possibility.  Perhaps her lasting legacy is stored inside me, simply because I live here.

At the Center

America took control of California upon winning the Mexican-American war in 1847 and broke up (“redistributing”) the large Mexican ranches.  This slice of history is seen in Central Park, 16-acres bordering the north part of San Mateo.  The oaks and bay trees have stood here since the Ohlone, but the pine, cedar, redwood, and fig trees were planted for the estate of Charles. B. Polhemus, director of the San Francisco-San Jose Railroad.  Polhemus grabbed the land from the Mexicans, and built a grand estate where Central Park now sits, with a 13-room Victorian mansion and lush landscaping.  He later sold the estate to a sea captain named William Kohl, who then passed the property on to the city of San Mateo in 1922.  The mansion was torn down long ago, replaced by a large circular grassy area in the center of the park.  It’s a vibrant public space where the whole town congregates: parents bring small children to romp in the playground and ride the miniature train for a dollar, older kids around on bicycles and skateboards, seniors practice Tai Chi under the shade of a pine tree. A drummer sits on a bench thumping out a mesmerizing, visceral beat.  There are also a baseball field, tennis courts, a community center, rose garden, and formal Japanese tea garden with a granite pagoda, koi pond and bamboo grove.

“Library Lane” mural depicting American expansion in San Mateo, by muralist, Norine Nicolson, 1989.

The black squirrels live here in Central Park too, fed by older folks who come for daily walks with nuts stuffed in their pockets. There are no more quail or great horned owls as in the days of the Ohlone.  They’ve diminished in numbers and headed up to the ridge with the falcons and condors, but there are still plenty of finches, doves, warblers, and jays to liven up the park with song.  Lining the park are several senior apartments, upscale and subsidized side by side.

Two blocks east of the park—across the train tracks—men eager for work gather on street corners hoping for day labor.  No one asks for documentation.  Sometimes the men congregate in the parking lot of the Worker’s Resource Center where a County Mobile Health Van offers free health assistance.

The Strong Current of History

Sometimes living amidst all this sunshine and happiness can be difficult, the pressure and pace crushing, the competition daunting.  Opportunity isn’t ubiquitous, and luck is often elusive.  Amongst the intense rush, the quiet contemplation and reflection that our forebears enjoyed is often fleeting.  When I catch a slow moment, not originating from evaluation and measurement or leading toward any admirable achievement and success, I think of those who came before and how deeply they influence what it’s like living here.  Walking along San Mateo Creek, I think of the Ohlone catching fish.  Sitting on the patio listening to my son playing a malaguena on his guitar, I think of the Spaniards.  Watching a hummingbird from my window suck on lemon blossoms, I think of the Mexicans who brought those trees here. I delight in these simple moments, circling around like an eddy in a river, slowing me into a reflection of swirls and ripples and the glassy texture of the water itself.  Then the strong history of my town grabs hold and pulls me along once again, throwing me like a pebble into the single fast moving cultural current that is San Mateo.

— Wendy Voorsanger


Wendy Voorsanger is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is a shadow contributor to NC, writing on the arts and creating art (see her gorgeous Burning Man novel skin) without actually appearing on the masthead. She lives in San Mateo with her husband and children and is at work on a historical novel about California.

See also our growing list of What It’s Like Living Here essays, a staple of the NC economy.

Apr 302012

Once there was an ogre who was like all other ogres except in one respect: he was reasonable. He could see more than one point of view, and he liked to argue and discuss. People seldom realized this, however, since he looked like any other ogre, huge and frightening, and he spent his time doing what every other ogre does: grabbing passersby and stuffing them in his mouth. He lived in a cave by a crossroads, where he slept away most of the day; but if he was awake and heard footsteps, he rushed out with a roar and planted himself in the roadway. No matter how loudly the person screamed (they always screamed), he snatched them up in his great hairy hand and ate them in two or three bites, cleaning his teeth afterward with branches he’d torn off trees. — Mike Barnes, The Reasonable Ogre, Tales for the Sick and Well

Mike Barnes is a prolific and startlingly innovative writer of stories, poems, essays, novellas and memoir. “The Jailed Wizards” is yet again a leap into the wild frontier of the imagination, a beautiful, odd, disturbing, bleak, slyly comical, modern fairy tale (that is also about storytelling), written by an author who has encountered all sorts of darkness in his own life — he has written a a stunning memoir of his own struggle with psychosis The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis. “The Jailed Wizards” is from Mike’s forthcoming book The Reasonable Ogre (Biblioasis, 2012), with amazing illustrations by the Toronto artist Segbingway.

A little background: I met Mike Barnes years ago at The New Quarterly WILD WRITERS WE HAVE KNOWN CONFERENCE (see the famous 400-page double issue Volume XXI, Numbers 2 & 3) in Stratford. He appeared twice in Best Canadian Stories during the decade I was editor (which tells you what I think of his fiction).  He has already contributed some excerpts from a novel in progress and a novella — Ideas of Reference — to Numéro Cinq.


The Jailed Wizards

A wizard caught a rival wizard and locked him in a dungeon beneath his castle. First he stripped the captive of all his magical powers. Then he left him in a small, bare room, cold and damp and almost completely dark except for a bit of grayish light that leaked through a tiny barred window high above the floor. The stone walls were so thick that the imprisoned wizards—who were numerous, for the powerful wizard made war on anyone whose magic he felt threatened his own—could not even hear each other’s screams.

“How long will you keep me here?” the prisoner asked before his captor shut the stone door.

“How long does a wizard live?”

“Forever,” said the prisoner.

“That is how long you will remain,” said the powerful wizard. And he closed the massive door with a crash, and sealed it with an unbreakable spell.

Years passed. Twice a day a slot beside the door clanked open. The first time, a dirty hand pushed through a lump of stale bread and a cup of water; later, another dirty hand took back the cup. Nothing else occurred. Until one day the massive door creaked open on its ancient hinges, and the powerful wizard stood before his former rival, now filthy and wretched and listless with despair. “I have decided forever is the wrong sentence for you,” he announced. “There is a crack in the wall that lengthens a little each year. I am sure you have studied it. When it reaches the floor, I will let you go.”

“I thank you,” mumbled the prisoner.

“Don’t,” said the wizard. “This is not mercy. I want you to suffer as much as possible. Those who lose all hope do not suffer like those who still believe their suffering may one day end. That is all. Goodbye.”

Years passed again, but now they passed with the constant measuring of a tiny crack. Many times a day, the jailed wizard reached up and ran his hand over the break in the stone, wondering if it had lengthened by a hair or if he was only imagining that. It did, in fact, grow longer, but it did so with horrible slowness. Once, he did not allow himself to measure the crack for a hundred days—two hundred openings and closings of the slot—and when he measured it again, he was sure it was a finger’s width closer to the floor. Ten years passed in this way. Then twenty years. Then thirty. Now the crack in the wall had reached the level of his eyes. Now, he thought, I know I will get out one day. But when? In five hundred years? A thousand? I mustn’t think of that. One day I’ll leave.

Many long years later, the jailed wizard was standing next to the wall where he spent his days, examining the crack with his eyes and fingers to see if it had changed, when he was startled by a tiny movement just above him. Something very small and dark was moving within the crack. As the wizard watched, an ant stuck its head out of the crack, its tiny antennae moving in the stale air. Tears filled the wizard’s eyes to find his absolute loneliness broken by a visit from another creature, even an ant. Tears of joy and misery ran down his wrinkled face and into his long, dirty beard. Despite his extreme hunger, in the coming days he put little pellets of bread in the crack, and soon he had a line of ants he could watch, coming to get his crumbs and carrying them along the crack and out the window back to their nest. The sight brought joy and endless interest, and it stirred guilty memories.

Long ago, in one of the endless wars that are a wizard’s life, he had defeated a very minor wizard. The defeated wizard had been a storyteller, which is one of the lowest and most common grades of magic. Cruelly, out of sheer contempt, the victorious wizard had taken the defeated wizard’s strength and long life, though he had left him, as a power not worth stealing, his storytelling art. Now the jailed wizard struggled to remember what he had once known of this lesser magic. A story was at least a way of reaching other ears. This, after freedom, was what he longed for most.

Tiny animals, he remembered, were often used to gather stories and return them to the storyteller. Since the animals couldn’t speak our language, people told them things they would tell no other person, secure in the knowledge they could not repeat it. He couldn’t remember exactly how it was done, but even without a wizard’s magic he still had a wizard’s cunning, and he invented a way. He placed a tiny pellet of bread inside his ear and stood with his ear against the crack. Soon he felt the tickle of an ant entering his ear. He turned from the wall and plugged his ear with his finger. He felt the ant touch his finger and then, finding no way out, turn the other way and explore the inner chambers of his ear, walking around the words of the story in his head. When he judged that enough time had passed, he unplugged his ear and stood with his ear against the crack and let the ant find its way out. He watched it carry the pellet of bread and his story away up the crack toward the window high above. Would it carry it to someone who could understand? Would it be crushed under a careless foot? Perhaps he would need to tell a thousand stories to a thousand ants before one would find a listening ear. He could do that. Before his imprisonment he had lived a long, eventful life, each day of which had teemed with stories. Sitting with his back against the stone wall, he began to prepare the next one.

Some weeks later, in the village near the powerful wizard’s castle, an old, sick storyteller was sitting, as he always did, by the window of his hut. A line of bread crumbs and sugar led from his window to a stone covered with black ink, and beyond that to a sheet of clean white paper. The storyteller no longer had the strength to make up stories on his own, and he lived in the shrinking hope that one would come to him by itself. Day by day, ants walked over his trail of sugar crumbs and over his ink and paper. But the marks they made with their tiny inky feet spelled chaos, spelled nonsense—spelled nothing. Still, he had always done all he could do, and all he could do now was wait.

On this day, an ant came in across the window sill, walked down over his ink stone, and across his paper. Around it went in a circle—O—and then down, and up, and across a short curve, and down again—n. O . . . n . . . c . . . e—“Once,” the storyteller murmured with excitement, “once . . . and then?” Gently he sprinkled more sugar crumbs on the page, and waited, while the ant waved its antennae, and continued tracing letters with its feet.

I knew, I knew, I knew, whispered the storyteller. I knew there was no better place to wait than near a castle filled with jailed wizards, souls with endless tales to tell and no one but the ants to tell them to.

—Mike Barnes


Mike Barnes is the author of Calm Jazz Sea, shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, Aquarium, winner of the 1999 Danuta Gleed Award for best first book of stories by a Canadian, The Syllabus, a novel, and the short fiction collection Contrary Angel. His stories have appeared twice in Best Canadian Stories, three times in The Journey Prize Anthology, and won the Silver Medal for Fiction at the National Magazine Awards. He lives in Toronto.
Segbingway is an artist who lives in Toronto.