Mar 042011

What it’s like living here

by John Proctor

Every Monday and Thursday during the school year, I get up at 4:30 and commute via subway from Park Slope, Brooklyn to Grand Central Terminal, the Metro North commuter train from Grand Central to White Plains, and the Bee-Line bus from White Plains to Purchase, New York, where I teach at Manhattanville College. Having a wife and child while  trying to maintain my pre-offspring reading and writing schedule can be difficult, and the train gives me a chunk of mostly unaccosted reading and writing time. Also, I’ve found that I’m rarely so aware – of my thoughts, of my surroundings – as I am at 5:00 in the morning in a moving vehicle that I don’t have to steer.

For the first time since I moved to New York City in 2000, I live in a neighborhood – Park Slope – that rarely makes me feel physically unsafe. It’s a popular site for movie shoots that want an “old Brooklyn” feel, but the only hint of crime that I’ve experienced are break-ins of my car if I leave it unlocked.

Park Slope, in the springtime

No matter the time of year, whether the waning days of summer at the start of the school year or the dark heart of winter when the second semester is just getting underway, I exit our three-story brick apartment building into a near-total darkness, broken up every 50 feet or so with the dim yellow arcs of streetlamps. Our block is mostly old three-story linoleum-sided buildings, with a sprinkling of ultra-modern condos that sit half-empty, waiting for the housing market to recover. We hope the market stays bad forever, so we’ll always have streetside parking. Some blocks near ours have actual gaslight lamps. These lamps seem to be in keeping with the “historic district” designation that Park Slope shares with Beacon Hill in Boston and New Orleans’ French Quarter.

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Feb 182011

Here’s a lovely, southern “What it’s like living here” piece from poet and Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate Cheryl Wilder (who graduated, got married and moved, all in the same year). Cheryl and dg both have an affection for tobacco, though they speak two different languages—what she calls “tobacco barns,” in the North Carolinian manner, dg calls “kilns” (dg grew up on a tobacco farm in Canada; Cheryl used to work for a wonderful North Carolina architect and visionary who published an amazing book of photos of, yes, tobacco barns).


What It’s Like Living Here

by Cheryl Wilder in Raleigh, North Carolina



A New Home

You relocated last summer and for the first time in seventeen years you feel at home.

Let’s clarify.

Your son was born thirteen years ago and you never felt more at home than when you went to see him after his birth. He was born at 4:56 a.m. and you’d been awake for twenty hours. After a nap you walked down the hospital hall with three bands cuffing your wrist, a nightgown brushing your calves, and a thin blue sweater around your shoulders. A nurse wheeled your son away from the other newborns and matched one of your bands with his. In the dimly lit nursery you caressed his arm and cheek, watched his chest rise and fall, felt as if you knew him well. The quiet hush of machines lulled you as the rest of the world dripped away. The nurse asked if he was your second child.


No, your first.

“You’re a natural then,” she said.

The best compliment you’d ever received.

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Feb 162011

Ocean Beach Pier


And if California slides into the ocean, like the mystics and statistics say it will…

-Warren Zevon


No Bad Days

A popular bumper sticker here reads “No Bad Days.” These words, scribbled in white, tiki-style letters with an accompanying copse of swaying palm trees, seem to capture a pervasive San Diego ethos. Bathed in incessant sunshine and aquamarine skies, it’s easy to believe in such a concept: that there could, conceivably, be no bad days.

But No Bad Days demands a fulltime attitude adjustment to keep up with its endless-summer cheeriness. No Bad Days implies lithe bodies, salt-spray hair and a fountain-of-youth refusal to grow old. It demands that you smile at strangers, sport flip-flops year round,  and stuff board shorts and towels in the trunk, just in case. It constructs a dream landscape built on breakfast burritos, noontime margaritas and PCH kisses against a backdrop of spinnakers and sunsets. No Bad Days proffers paradise as if it was a tangible thing, a widely available commodity cast in bright ceramic tiles forever walling-off real life. A place where complexity reduces itself to surf reports and the nearest tamale stand.

But nothing is that simple, not even here. The false front of No Bad Days crumbles upon even the most elementary examination. Still, it’s an easy first-glance impression of life in San Diego.


The glorious contradiction of San Diego is the weather. Carbon-copy perfect days roll off with such an unerring consistency, such a dress-parade precision of seventy-two and sunny, that you soon begin to take them for granted. You stop noticing Christmas Eve rounds of golf, shorts in January, the last time you made your children wear jackets to school. You begin to believe that a daytime high of 61 degrees constitutes a cold front or that three hours of light drizzle equals a storm. You become so spoiled by the spectacle of beautiful weather that it stops being spectacular. I don’t know how this happens, but it does.

San Diego sunrise from my bedroom.

I grew up in central Massachusetts—a geeky, weather-obsessed kid fascinated by clouds. In summer I studied cumulonimbus giants towering above a northwestern horizon of sugar maples. I learned to read the clouds and the silver-backs of maple leaves, able (I told myself) to predict the likelihood of electrical storms as well as any meteorologist. I listened for the subtle sounds of winter storms, how icy stratus clouds acted like an echo chamber in the night sky, creating a certain pitched whirl from Beechcraft turboprops droning overhead, a haunting sound that seemed to forecast coming snow. Risking the wrath of the winter-weary reader, I hesitantly say that, at times, I wish for something other than relentless paradise. I long for dramatic weather here, for lightning, sleet, or a good old-fashioned Alberta Clipper to numb my finger tips.

The closest I get to that old feeling is when scorching Santa Ana winds howl down from the mountains. Sometimes, when the windows rattle at night, it feels a bit more like home.

There is an underside to our empyrean climate, a manic assuredness that sets in among the inhabitants, as if we San Diegans have forgotten how to endure nature, like we’ve crossed into some middle-zone paralysis of comfort and leisure. We think our weather, like our television set, operates on remote control and that we can simply pay extra for premium days. Perhaps we’ve lost some primal skill-set that folks in places like Worcester retain.

It’s also possible that the contradiction is only within me, some curmudgeonly itch that can’t be scratched by seventy-two and sunny. Perhaps my longing for occluded fronts and Nor’easters holds me back from partaking in No Bad Days—there’s always someone who wants to rain on the parade. But even after living here, off and on, for ten years, most days I feel like a polar bear swimming laps in a frosty pool at the San Diego Zoo, wondering when I’ll return to my real home, some place with gray skies, snow and rain, where a beautiful day still feels like a gift, like an unexpected moment of grace. It’s hard to notice grace when it constantly surrounds you.

I realize that this logic smacks of survivor’s guilt, the paroled New Englander unable to forget incessant winters, or hazy, hot and humid days, or the rich canvases of turbulent clouds. That young boy believed he was standing guard against rough weather like a sentry. In San Diego, the sentry sleeps.

But then I look out the window and see golden sunshine, off-shore breezes rippling through palm fronds, and I recognize the absurdity of my longing.


Point LomaPoint Loma


We live on Point Loma, a four-mile hilly peninsula that juts into the Pacific like a vestigial tail from the body of the contiguous United States. Four-hundred foot sandstone cliffs tumble toward the sea on one side and the bay on the other. Hiking trails along the aptly named Sunset Cliffs fill with gawkers waiting to spy the green flash or sea lions frolicking in the surf. On the bay side, warships glide past the Cabrillo Lighthouse at the end of the point, heading out for extended deployments, or coming back from the same.

The small community of Ocean Beach where we rent a house is an eclectic blend of families, retirees, surfers, homeless and medicinal marijuana devotees, all coexisting in a weird, welcoming balance. OB stands in stark contrast to the cookie-cutter San Diego suburbs where we used to live; it still feels like “Old California,” whatever the hell that means. I suppose it means that you can be a full-time surf bum here, a student, a homeless vet with a cardboard sign along the road, or a bio-tech engineer with a No Bad Days sticker on your S-class Mercedes. OB, like many beach towns, fights a losing battle with gentrification, as multi-million dollar homes crowd out surf-shacks.

Ocean Beach SunsetOcean Beach Sunset

Greasy spoons abound in OB’s small commercial district: Hodad’s sells thick, meaty burgers for less than ten bucks in an open air café; South Beach is legendary for its fish tacos. Newbreak Coffee is my weekend hideout, a beachfront shop where they don’t yet enforce the ‘no shoes, no shirts, no service’ policy in spite of a sign in the window. Try rolling into Starbucks with sandy feet.


It seems impossible not to obsess on real estate living in San Diego. You scrap for every over-priced square foot. Neighbors’ walls are so close that with a good stretch from your bedroom window, it’s possible to flush their toilets. You learn to live with less here, and to pay a lot more for it. What you give up in back yards and privacy you recoup in sunshine.

We rent a small house less than a mile from the beach. Neither of my kids enjoys the year-round chilly surf yet. My daughter Maggie prefers to gather lemons and oranges from trees in our backyard in order to sell fifty-cent cupfuls of freshly-squeezed on the sidewalk. Maureen, my wife, makes killer guacamole from our two avocado trees. Five year-old Tom cares for none of it; he wants only endless games of tackle football with me in the front yard. He will have no memory of diving into snow banks for Nerf touchdowns, but I have no memories of citrus trees, so perhaps it’s a wash.  Snow is exotic to my children; they shiver in a stiff breeze. They’ve only lived in California and Andalucía. Sunshine and waves seem their birthright. Maureen grew up in Michigan but can’t imagine living in the cold anymore. Apparently only I worry about the limitations of paradise.


The San Diego River forms the northern limit of OB and Pt. Loma. Homeless people shelter beneath the many bridges which cross the river into Mission Bay and Mission Beach. I imagine San Diego a good place to live if you’re homeless, but this logic falls into a No Bad Days way of thinking. It’s simplistic and naïve. The complexity of their problems eludes me, but I admit to being more likely to part with a buck or two on a rare rainy day. Ocean Beach has always been considered ‘homeless-friendly.’  This is a good thing. Not every community out here is.

The San Diego River, though reduced to a mere shadow of its former self, still cuts through the heart of the eighth largest city in America. It offers an urban sanctuary to thousands of birds and a colony of wild cats. Scores of the birds feed in a tidal estuary: osprey, pelicans, egrets, terns and the majestic Great Blue Heron nibble in sandy bottoms of tide-pushed sloughs. The river, so woefully damaged by a century’s worth of human diversion and manipulation, steadfastly refuses to die, and in a final, defiant act, it feeds and protects the marginalized: cats, fowl, and humans without homes.


Before moving here, I’d heard that California was a car culture. I used to think this meant that Californians were more ‘into’ their cars than other places—bikinied blondes soaping up low riders, GTO’s and little deuce coups. What it means, in practical terms, is that we spend more time in our cars than we should. San Diego lacks effective rail systems, and the county sprawls. Our communities are scattered like distant organs and connected by a vascular system of freeways—massive ten lane arteries that wreak havoc on the greater body and soul when they clog. I’ve learned to stash books in my car, in case all progress stops. Three hour traffic jams are rare, but have happened here.

If our freeways are the vascular system, then San Diego’s skeleton is the military. Within a ten-mile radius of my house, there are seven separate commands. Navy-trained dolphins practice detecting explosives on the bottom of ships. SEALs train on the golden beaches of Coronado Island. Fighter jets rumble in the sky, launched from the airfields of Miramar and North Island. Nuclear powered aircraft carriers, massive cities unto themselves, moor quietly along the harbor when not deployed. Guided missile cruisers, destroyers, frigates, submarines and shallow draft amphibious assault ships sail in and out of the bay. Distant booms from howitzers at Camp Pendleton, some forty miles north of the city, sometimes rumble the earth.

Maureen has been on active duty for almost fourteen years, though so far she’s managed to avoid deploying to a combat zone. We are hoping to keep that streak going.

Marine Corps Recruit DepotMarine Corps Recruit Depot

The closest base to me is the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. There, young recruits endure thirteen weeks of dehumanizing boot-camp designed to press the men for the horror of war. (Female recruits train only in South Carolina.) At the end of their training, I see these newly minted PFC’s, red and gold chevrons blazing on their olive sleeves, proudly linked arm-in-arm with mothers and girlfriends. Their ramrod straight postures and starched uniforms betray no weaknesses as they enjoy a lull between the hell of training and the much greater hell of combat.

Sometimes, I see these Marines again, at the military hospital where my wife works as a physician. Many of these young men come home battered, dismembered, limbs gone, bodies scarred and burned. One of the great crimes of these recent wars was the decision to shield the public from the casualties. An unspeakable horror hits me each time I see these “Wounded Warriors,” often waiting in line with my daughter at the base McDonald’s, trying to explain to her why some young kid has high-tech prosthetic devices in place of legs, his hair still shaved high and tight.

Desperados Under the Eaves

I do wonder what life would be like without bad days? That bumper sticker ineloquently fumbles toward a utopia, but it also masks a sunshine-induced, willful ignorance. No Bad Days epitomizes a beach culture of paradise and boat drinks, but hides a switching-off of the heart, a refusal to empathize with people who might, in fact, be having bad days. It turns a dream into a blind-eyed arrogance and makes paradise seem possible, but only for the elect.

San Diego is a beautiful place. My wife and I want to raise our children here, but I don’t want them to be fooled into mistaking the dream for reality. What will ultimately make San Diego home for me? I don’t know for sure, but it will certainly include good days and bad ones.

It rained last night and has been showering this morning. San Diego is beautiful when it rains, as rare as those days are. The beaches clear out. You can find yourself almost entirely alone on Sunset Cliffs or down along the San Diego River. The city seems to slow a little when the sun takes a break, and I prefer it that way.

—Richard Farrell

Rich Farrell and family

Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, New Plains Review, upstreet, Descant, and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.


Feb 022011

photo by Eliza Grace Johnson

Here’s a gorgeous “What it’s like living here” essay from NC contributor Anna Maria Johnson and her husband, the photographer Steven David Johnson. Anna Maria Johnson is a writer, Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA student, and a lovely artist in her own right. She was a co-winner of  the NC Rondeau Writing Contest last year, and who can ever forget her amazing Novel-in-a-Box Contest entry? This essay is Anna Maria’s first post on Numéro Cinq as an official Contributor—we hope for many more like it. And it’s also the first time we’ve had a husband and wife team work together. It’s a wonderful addition to the growing Numéro Cinq “What it’s like living here” series.


What It’s Like Living Here–Cootes Store, Virginia

Text by Anna Maria Johnson, photos by Steven David Johnson

(Author’s Note: The locals pronounce this place “Cootes’s Store,” though the green road sign omits the possessive.)

At home on the Shenandoah River, North Fork

Home.  What’s it mean?   By age twenty-one, I’d lived in twenty-one places and thought home was a place I’d never find.

John Denver’s song “Country Roads” refers to western Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River.  This northwest corner of Virginia is where I now live, along the river’s North Fork, which runs parallel to Route 259, my road.  When I travel alone, I sing the old folksong, “O Shenandoah,” and ache to be home.

Home, for me, is family: a husband and two daughters.  But increasingly, “home” is becoming a specific 2.3-acre plot of land with dilapidated sheds, gardens, woods, meadow, and a white farmhouse with a front porch.

Our farmhouse. Its wood plank bedroom ceilings, steep stairs, foot-thick walls, and hand-made plank doors with old-fashioned latches hint at the log cabin our house used to be—and still is, beneath its vinyl-sided exterior and dry-walled interior.  The bathroom, an aging plumber told us, was installed only in the late 1960s or 70s; he remembers doing it.  The back kitchen was probably added then.

My husband, Steven, wanders down to the river nearly every day to photograph his friends—mink, herons, deer, cattle, water snakes, starlings, swallows, kingfisher, and once, three otters.

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Jan 272011

Sarah Seltzer is a New Yorker, a Vermont College of Fine Arts student (and a dg Workshop Survivor) and a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to numerous online news sites including Huffington Post and Daily Beast. She’s also a member of the growing NC community—see her entry, “A Short Craft Lecture,”  in the first ever NC Erasure Contest.


What it’s like living here

By Sarah Seltzer in New York City



You sit in a brick-oven pizza place on that brief spit of Broadway where the subway roars up onto a rickety rail, then back beneath the earth. It’s November, and damp. For three years, you have been living a happy, cramped existence in an apartment around the corner. You and your husband have heard the 1 train roll by at intervals each day like receding and advancing ocean waves.

But, with help from friends, you have spent the day moving books from this apartment in Morningside Heights to an airier one below it in Harlem, and you’re dirty and exhausted, ready for the ordeal to end. You yawn over your food, spinning dreams about your new home and speaking of nothing., Halfway through the meal, you notice, four tables ahead, forgotten family friends who have known you since you were two months old and their daughter a month further into the world. Their presence makes you think of the things that have faded from your life.

This happens often in the city.  Now you smile and stop at their table, and launch into a game whose parameters you know: grad school plans and publications, marriages and quips about law firms. Inevitably, you will report on the encounter to your friends in the bodega where they’ve been huddled, waiting. You will muse about friendship and why it is lost, when it can be salvaged. You’ll recall the vivid aliveness of a relationship that has become a ghost: lying on a carpet listening to the Beatles or before that, playing pirates in that gnarled tree in Central Park, or after that, smoking a joint in a playground near Stuyvesant town.

Small town


Your world feels cramped, the past everywhere, woven into a thick web. You are living in the titular town in a 19th-century British novel. He went to high school with her; his summer job was at her dad’s company; her best friend from Hebrew school was his roommate.

You realize at these moments that you have settled less than two miles from where you grew up, that you haven’t even made it across the bridge to another borough, that you are tightly bound to this span of Upper Manhattan by more than geography–by culture, by comfort, by family, by inertia. You see time change the face of avenues with which you are as intimate as a country girl is with ridges and rivers. You bore people by telling them what used to be here; crack vials in the playgrounds, delis and pizza places as nondescript as they were delicious, blight and character.

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Jan 242011

Lynne Quarmby is a gene biologist who  runs a research lab at Simon Fraser University and lives in West Vancouver; she’s also a painter (see five water colours earlier posted on NC), a musician and a big-time outdoorswoman. DG briefly attended Simon Fraser in the summer of 1969 as a graduate student in philosophy. That summer he won the British Columbia 5,000m track championship, climbed the Lions (the twin snowy peaks you can see in the distance from downtown Vancouver), and went to San Francisco and hung out on Haight and Ashberry (where nothing much happened). Lynne’s “What it’s like living here” essay reminds him of the past (although it was summer and it didn’t rain much, and he lived on campus on top of Burnaby Mountain and didn’t have to commute). Vancouver really is one of the most gorgeous cities in the world, with English Bay out in front and the beaches and the ships and the great bridges and the snowy mountains just behind.



The one thing everyone seems to know about Vancouver is that it rains. It’s true. It is raining now, as I look from my 4th floor apartment in West Vancouver across English Bay to Kitsilano. The glow of streetlights at 11 am this January 7 morning emphasizes the daytime darkness and feeds the sense that the soft rain will continue unrelenting for weeks to come, socked-in, drizzling, misty, foggy, dark and wet. When days are this dark melancholy seeps in – you’ve been forgetting to dose with vitamin D to compensate for the lack of sunlight (and thinking too much about the lack of research funding). But Vancouver is a coy place. It relents, the clouds thin and lift and you thrill to the spectrum of grays – oyster, pearly, mousy, leaden, silver. It’s 3 pm and the continuously changing light makes it difficult to stay focused on the lecture that needs to be written.  I relent and head out for a walk, knowing that I will be up late working.


Balcony in the sun

The Sun

2 PM Saturday, January 8. I sit outside, soaking up sunshine. The surprise arrival of this sunny day demands attention. The sun shines directly onto my building, and because the heat is absorbed by and radiates from the concrete building, my balcony is warm. I’ve eaten lunch outside in my shirtsleeves, absorbing the warmth, absorbed by the view of sky & sea. I watch the freighters at anchor as they swing with the flow of the tide. One steams into port for its turn at the docks. The seagulls cry. A lone kayaker paddles up the coast. I am watching through a curtain of rain. At this moment I am the pot of gold at the end of someone’s rainbow. I look across the bay to the city – whose rainbow?  I close my eyes and focus on the warmth of the winter sun. I breathe deeply and slowly, savoring the air – cleaner than we deserve, refreshed daily by the mountains and the sea breezes. It is all too much, and soon it will be gone again. How long can I sit here absorbing paradise? About 30 minutes. If you were here perhaps we’d sit for a while longer.

The Lions from Sky Train

The Forests and the Mountains and the Sea

It’s Sunday afternoon and I’ve driven the 15 minutes up the mountain directly behind my apartment. The open area around the parking lot is a zoo. Families with sleds, tubes, dogs, and kids running wild  – everyone is manic with the sunshine. We all act as though the sun never shines in the winter, that this is remarkable, spectacular, something to write home about. And it is, even though it isn’t really all that unusual. It is my first ski of the winter and I feel awkward as I set out cross-country into the forest. Within 500 meters I find a deep quiet and feel the peace.  I try to ski high enough for a view across the ocean as we roll away from the sun, but I am too slow.


Cypress Mountain

The Commute

West Vancouver is a small town; a city distinct from Vancouver. Here I walk the seawall to wherever I need to go – yesterday 0.5 Km west to the village of Dundarave where I picked up a roll of quarters for the laundry. Frequently I see seals, but on this walk I saw a sea otter. Later I took my backpack and walked east 1 Km to the village of Ambleside to buy groceries from Mitra’s, a Persian market. There was a heron fishing in the intertidal. There are usually bright scooters, occasionally bald eagles, and always seagulls. Last week I watched a seagull swallow a starfish. Perhaps next weekend I will walk a little further to the sailing club to ask about kayak rentals. During the week I leave this idyllic community and commute to Simon Fraser University where I am a professor of Cell Biology.

Although it takes twice as long as driving, I commute by public transit. I take a bus over the Lion’s Gate Bridge, through Stanley Park into the city (by which we mean downtown Vancouver) where I disembark to a chorus of “thank you” “thanks” “have a good day” – riders here acknowledge the driver as they exit the bus. Buses that pass you by because they are out of service or full announce “Sorry” on their destination screens.   From downtown I take the sky train out of the city. Twenty-five years after Expo ’86, riding the sky train still feels futuristic.  It is a clear day and Mt Baker, a large (inactive?) volcano about 100 Km southeast in Washington State, hangs in the sky like a rock & ice metaphor for our big brother to the south – always there even when we don’t see it. Out the north window, although small & distant the snow capped coastal range captures my attention. The people-watching is fabulous, but the listening isn’t. It helps to have a great set of headphones – every commute is a movie and I get to choose the sound track.

Bookclub Dessert

Lemon meringue pie
Bus with standing room only
Serve “transit rider parfait”

Lion’s Gate Bridge and Stanley Park from the seawall in front of my apartment

The University on Top of Burnaby Mountain

Tuesday January 11. This morning I delivered a 2-hour lecture to ~70 Molecular Biology & Biochemistry majors on how cilia – those tiny rod-like structures that protrude from the surface of almost every cell in your body – function as cellular antennae. In particular, I was reviewing for the students some recently published data that (almost) reveals how urine flow through the collecting ducts of the kidney causes cilia to bend and send signals to keep the cells small. When this flow-induced signalling pathway is defective, as it is in patients with Polycystic Kidney Disease, the control of cell size and division is disrupted and ducts bellow into cysts. We work through the evidence to decide whether there is causality behind an intriguing correlation.

After lecture I stop by my lab. We are feeling a little lowly these days because last week we learned that my application for the renewal of the federal grant that funds our research was not successful. The application scored in the “excellent” category but research dollars are short.  The reviewers raved about the proposal, but they want more preliminary data to demonstrate that our ideas are on the right track. I’ve had to give notice to three people. Today I have only 30 minutes to spend in the lab because I am on the examining committee for a thesis defense this afternoon. When I get to the lab I find everyone waiting expectantly. There is excitement because Laura has obtained a new result.

Laura loading gel

Laura is a self-confident third year graduate student who isn’t yet sure whether a life in science is worth the sacrifices. She prepares a slide for me and we go to the microscope. She doesn’t tell me which sample is the control but the result is so clear that it is obvious. All through the thesis defense I jot notes. This new data is a big boost for the renewal application and I am trying to decide how it affects where to put our efforts over the next six weeks. It is important to only do experiments that can give us informative results before the application is due; it is also important to do the key experiments. Which key experiments are most likely to work and to work quickly?

Wednesday, January 12. SFU gets a snow day while the rest of the city goes to work. More commonly we go to work like everyone else and then get stranded on the mountain when the roads close. I make sure I have snow boots with me so I can walk the 45 min down the trail into the rainy lowlands and catch a bus home.

The Future

Friday, January 14 the rain is back in spades. In the evening I decide to go for a swim – in the summer that would mean the ocean, but tonight I pull up the hood on my raincoat and head across the road to the Aquatic Centre.  It feels good to be in the bright light, listening to families splashing in the play area next to where I swim lengths. As I leave the Aquatic Centre, Brenda is arriving. A fellow resident of Surfside Towers, Brenda is in her 50’s, or maybe 40’s – it’s difficult to tell. She is about 5’2” and has puffy features with small squinty eyes. Brenda speaks in a mumbling nasal voice, but her manner is caring and gentle. I learn that she swims every Friday night. She tells me about the sauna and the steam room – I’d missed those. After running home through the rain, I arrive at our building at the same time as Steve who is returning from an event at the Legion. He is a tall man in his 70’s with a dignified carriage and a gracious manner. Tonight he is in uniform with medals on his chest. At first Steve doesn’t recognize me (we’d met at the Christmas party). Then he sees that I’ve been swimming. He tells me that Brenda swims every Friday night. On our way up in the elevator he pushes “G.” It is nice, he explains, for people coming home in the evening to have the elevator waiting.

Shades of gray from my balcony

Tomorrow I will take the ferry to visit friends on Bowen Island. I’ll break my mostly vegetarian routine to share a meal of wild venison.  We’ll talk of recent shows we’ve seen in the city – whenever Bela Fleck or Chick Corea comes to town we’ll all be there. We may try out the new Sauna they’ve built of driftwood.

—Lynne Quarmby

Jan 172011

Here’s Gwen Mullins writing about life in Chattanooga (where once I spent a dramatic couple of hours wandering along Missionary Ridge and imagining the amazing battle that took place there–I’d just driven up from Americus and the Andersonville prison camp: part of my Civil War pilgrimage). Gwen is a former student of mine, just graduated at the winter residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s a fiction writer, but with this graceful essay and her recent contribution to NC on story plot, you can see she as dab hand at nonfiction as well, a woman of letters.


Your whole life

You have lived your whole life here. Your life entire spent within thirty (fewer, really) miles of country along the kissing corners of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama. The Tri-State, they call it here. Or Tri-County, for the hospital.

You have traveled a little, but only a little. Some places stand out as bright, clear spots outlined in black in your place memories: San Francisco, Miami, Venice, New York City, New Orleans, Anchorage. Places that seemed exotic but are not. You long to visit other places: Nantucket, Kyrgyzstan, Milan, Edmonton, Indianapolis, Cupertino. You tell yourself you can read about them and in reading, you will be there.

Scenic City

This place, the Tennessee Valley, is overwhelmingly green. Neither bright nor dark, but only green. Green for long stretches of spring, summer, and into autumn. Until recently, even the winters were green. And the rivers run brownly green through the green hills you call mountains.
See Rock City! You’ve seen the signs. This advertising genius of Garnet Carter and Clark Byers resulted in 900 painted barn roofs by the 1950s. You‘ve seen Rock City. Better sights come from the bridges, from Raccoon Mountain (the mountain with TVA generators jammed deep in its belly), from all the forest parks. They call Chattanooga the Scenic City because it is. You avoid Ruby Falls, the Incline Railway, Rock City, the Delta Queen riverboat, Point Park – anything that charges admission. You love Chickamauga Battlefield, Cloudland Canyon, Missionary Ridge, your own backyard and front lawn.You can buy See Rock City!-barn-shaped birdhouses painted in red and black in the souvenir shops across from the Choo-Choo. Yes, there really is a Choo-Choo, only now it’s a Holiday Inn. You remember how in Italy they all seemed to know the Glenn Miller song, how they would begin, “Track Twenty Ni-ine” in their lovely accented English. You wonder at the power of song, of words that transport, that tie the world together.

The old freight depot houses your husband’s office. It is LEED certified, green in the new sense. Yesterday he turned in his notice, so you suppose it’s not his office anymore. You are proud that your city has the first LEED-certified movie theatre, The Majestic. This is part of the downtown revitalization, the focus on the new green. You agree when some people call it gentrification, but you love the new restaurants.
You avoid eye contact with the Jamaican man with the dreadlocks and tangled gray beard who sometimes sleeps in the engine building where the electric buses now spend the night. He sells perfumes and bent metal figurines, and if you ask, other things.

You tell visitors that the Walnut Street Bridge is the longest pedestrian-only bridge in the United States. You are pretty sure this is true. On this bridge families stroll, cyclists bike, athletes run, photographers frame shots, but no vagrants dwell. From here you can see the other bridges, the Tennessee River, the aquarium, the art museum. You love the way the wind whips your hair on this bridge, how it’s always a little cooler here than the rest of the town.

You know, as does everyone, the best fried chicken is on MLK across from the university at a joint called “Champy’s.” You love that the city schools and churches hold fish fries under canopies in parking lots every Saturday in summer to raise money for choir trips and cheerleaders’ uniforms. Down the street a ways from Champy’s is a bleak building with a red-lettered sign that says, “Memo’s” and underneath that, “Chopped Wieners, Pit Bar-B-Q.” This sign has always amused you, but this is not a part of town where you stop.


You flinch and are quick to defend when others who do not wish to lay claim to this land call it backward, or racist, or ignorant, or poor. And then a waitress asks you who your infant daughter’s father is even while she sits between you and your husband. She asks because your daughter’s skin is more mocha than cream.

And then you stop at the gas station in Marion County next to Big Daddy’s Fireworks Warehouse, and you note the Confederate flags for sale, the barefoot two-year-old wearing a heavy diaper and chugging steadily from a clear bottle of greenish soda while his young mother buys four dollars in lottery tickets and three dollars of gas.

You walk among the azaleas on the Cumberland Trail on Signal Mountain (which is not really a mountain, but a big hill and a town who whose inhabitants named it Mountain) and remember how your small, bent grandmother, the one you called “Nanny,” put her thumbprint in the middle of each biscuit so it would rise. You try not to remember the words she used to describe her new neighbors when they moved in across the street. You think instead of how she would hold your hand and point at the hang gliders drifting on the currents and you cried out for the joy of flight. You did not know the story of Icarus then, and your grandmother never did.

You smirk that school children (except perhaps those from Sand Mountain just across the Alabama state line) are no longer required to go to the moving diorama called the “Confederama” as a “history” field trip. They have re-named the attraction but are fooling no one. You hear they are shutting down due to tax issues and you are glad.

And sometimes you walk through the cemetery next to the university. Half of the cemetery is Jewish, the other half Confederate. Both are peaceful, both are green.

This is just what you do

You surround yourself with funny, smart people who eat sushi (because that’s a sign of progressiveness here) and start to think that this world used to be divided by color but now it is all just green, and beautiful, and it is a world where you are happy to bring up your children.

You smile, greet, and nod at strangers, and they smile back. You make gravy with the pan drippings from pork sausage blended with flour, salt, and milk. And just a little black pepper. You press your thumb in the center of biscuits so they will rise properly. You pull to the side of the road for funeral processions and wait until they pass. This is just what you do here.

Your spouse who grew up in Newark tells you other places are not so green or so welcoming. You stop thinking how much you want to leave this place, so you buy a bigger house and its associated mortgage. You plan to travel, you even take some of the trips you have planned. You think about going to one of the eleven Protestant churches within two miles of your home. You admire the view from your veranda.

And the cost of living is low. You know this because your New York and Miami relatives (your husband’s relatives, actually, since your family all lives here) have told you how much their tiny condominiums cost and marvel at your square footage. You are pleased and embarrassed, as if you chose to live here for the expense savings.

Your whole life, so far

You remember the progressiveness is a veneer, and you accept that the men (except for your husband, whom you always remember is not from around here) wait for you to exit the elevator first because you have a uterus. You are, after all, the boss of many of these men, and that is, for here, progressive enough.

You encourage your daughter to consider universities in Chicago or Ithaca. You try not to analyze the feeling that settles on you when she applies to schools in Nashville. Are you disappointed? Are you relieved? You remind yourself that your life is not hers, that her life will not be yours. She will leave this place, or maybe you will.

You reprimand your son for talking like a redneck, or, when the mood strikes him, like a gangster. You do not examine what you mean by terms like “redneck” and “gangster.”

You try not to flinch when your short stories are compared to Flannery O’Connor’s not because they are good, but rather because they are occasionally southern and you are female. You do not point out the irreverence inherent in them. Flannery was, above all, a godly woman.

You finally admit your deep weakness for sad, old country ballads, and you think of writing one before realizing you already are. You see the hills you call mountains everywhere you go, hemming you in, holding you up. You cannot escape the sound of the train’s whistle. You are bathed in green.

— Gwen Mullins

Jan 152011

I’ve known Michelle Berry for years, in a way. I’ve only actually met her once in person. But I put an hilarious Michelle Berry story in Best Canadian Stories in the days when I still edited that annual anthology, and I have been a fan of her work since. She’s energetic, comic and prolific, with a list of books as long as your arm. A new novel This Book Will Not Save Your Life and a new story collection I Still Don’t Even Know You were both just published last year. Michelle lives in Peterborough, Ontario, where I spent a couple of years in the Triassic (eons ago). I worked on the local newspaper, the Examiner, first as a general reporter, then as sports editor (this is, of course, why I am indisputably qualified to edit Numéro Cinq). I had my first short story published in the venerable Canadian literary magazine The Tamarack Review while I was working in Peterborough. A murder I covered as a reporter (and many of the settings) made it into my first novel Precious (the character Blythe Aschroft is very, very loosely based on moi). So it’s a special pleasure in all ways to offer Michelle’s “What it’s like living here” piece. I remember this place fondly. I can’t count the number of times I’d be working late in the newsroom, and a group of us would head out to watch the lift lock (okay, maybe the town wasn’t that exciting in those days) in the moonlight with a couple of beers and a burger.



What’s it like living here….

Good question.

Where is here?

In Canada? Specifically in Peterborough, in Ontario? In my squished, laughably-compact home office? Or in my head? I live in all of these places. The inside of my head is often stormier than Peterborough — although not so much in the summer. And, although my mind should be as vast, if not vaster, than Canada, it often feels as full of things-needing-completion as my cork-board, calendar-strewn office. My mother says that keeping up with my schedule (two really active kids, writing-in-process) is like trying to catch a train. From my perspective, it sometimes feels more like getting hit by a train.

Outside my second-floor office window there is a tree. A gorgeous, immense, old tree. I’m not sure what kind it is—oak? yes, an oak—and it doesn’t really matter because it’s a magical thing. Over 200 years old, this tree takes four adults to wrap our arms around its trunk. Because it has insignificant leaves, this tree isn’t as beautiful in summer as it is in the winter when it’s bare and stark against a cold sky. It sometimes looks like the tree from Poltergeist, the tree that sucked the little boy into the gory insides, the one that bashed through his window in the storm. It’s an incredibly inspiring and dramatic tree. A perfect view across from which to write.

Peterborough is a town about 2 hours North East of Toronto. Population 78,000 or so (probably more since we got a Costco. A chicken or egg thing—Costco brings people or people bring Costco? I don’t know. I’m not a member. They won’t even let me in the front door.). So, let’s say population 80,000. A sleepy town? Perhaps. But you should see our new Mall, Lansdowne Place. It’s a sight. Now we only have to drive forty minutes down highway 115 to Oshawa for The Bay. We’ve got every other store you’d want right here.

Peterborough is not only about the shopping. It’s about the lift locks. And the summer. Peterborough County is cottage country. All the rich Toronto folk drive through on the way to cottages that are so big they need cleaning staff. Boats going through the locks are even bigger than the cottages.

I’m not jealous or anything. Honestly.

Who needs to clean two houses?

I live near the downtown. Near enough so I can walk when I go out for dinner. Which I rarely do. I’m not sure why. Laziness, I guess. And lack of money. And the wine is cheaper in my kitchen. I live in an area called The Old West End which is made up of mostly young families in big, beautiful, old houses. I have two porches in the front of my house — one off my second floor office, one off the living room. I sit on these porches in three seasons as much as I can. I watch the kids play on the street, or the people walking their dogs. I read. Or just stare. At the tree, mostly. Sometimes I feel as if I’m in a 1950’s sitcom – Leave it To Beaver – the neighbours all calling back and forth across the street, coming over clutching snacks and wine, or coffee, joining me on my porch. It’s idyllic. Small townish. And makes me nervous. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. How is it possible that my eleven year old can play flashlight tag in the hot summer evenings until way past dark, running back and forth between people’s back yards (with their permission even!), or my 14 year old can hop the back fence to her friend’s house still wearing her pj’s late on a Saturday morning. Isn’t this 2011? It feels a lot like my late 1970’s childhood in Victoria, B.C.. My mother sits on my front porch and comments through the laughter of a street full of hockey players or basketball players, that it feels like her childhood too.

We live a forty minute drive from the lot where we park our car, get into our Boston Whaler, and boat five minutes to our small cottage on an island on Upper Stoney Lake. If we’ve gone up for the weekend and it starts to rain, we head home. No need to be slaves to the weather. We watch the sun set from our bedroom window, hear the deer snorting in the bushes, listen (of course – this is Canada) to the loons’ cry, the sound of speed boats drifts on the wind on the lower side of the lake.

In the winter we build an ice rink in our back yard. Kids come over to skate, impromptu hockey games start up and end and start up again. Twinkle lights dot the fence, a spot-light for night skating, a few Christmas lights on the clothesline. My seventy-year young parents skated on Christmas morning this year, my mom used a hockey stick as support to propel her along. I can watch the rink from my kitchen, stirring a sauce, boiling noodles, sipping wine. I can see the dog jumping onto the ice, sliding, the kids shouting at him to get off, laughing when he skids into the boards.

This city is full of paths. Old railway tracks turned into walking trails. Jackson Park and the Rotary Trail, paths that take you great distances through forests and beside rivers and lakes and canals, up past the Trent University. I’ve seen huge snapping turtles on the paths. There are bear warnings every so often. Mostly there are a motley series of dogs – big ones, little ones, ones wearing coats or boots. Once I saw a dog in sunglasses. And another time I saw someone walking a ferret on a leash. You can X-country ski on these paths. You can bike all the way to Lakefield where you can fill up on ice cream at Hamblin’s and then turn around and bike back.

Peterborough’s downtown core is typical of southern Ontario towns – two one-way streets, George and Water. Rows of stores, some out of business, boarded up, others thriving. We have a clock tower, a movie theatre, an amazing jewelry store and a few really great coffee places. Among other things, of course. Like restaurants: Japanese, Cajun, Belgian, Korean, Mexican.

A Santa Claus parade winds its way down George Street every year and you can show up right when it starts and still get a good spot to see everything. There are floats and dogs and clowns and the occasional truck which, for no reason at all, is part of the parade. A local motorcycle shop has a wild float that blasts music and lets off huge bursts of smoke and noise. One year a group of men danced down the street wearing purple and we still don’t know who or what they represented.

The thing about this city is the people. We aren’t stuck in traffic all the time, our houses are fairly inexpensive, there are spaces in the local sports leagues and the piano teacher has free days in her schedule. So we’re generally a happy folk. People have parties and get-togethers and go for walks and travel together. One family rents the local arena for a holiday skate every year and the whole neighbourhood shows up. Stress is here, of course, but it is comparably less than, say, Toronto where I lived for seventeen years. I haven’t had a conversation about directions, about how to easily avoid traffic and get from one place to the other, since I’ve moved to Peterborough. That’s not saying it isn’t a bitch to get around in the summer. The cottagers move their traffic jams here along with their swimsuits. But my husband likes to tell his Toronto-family that his commute to work takes only four minutes every day, no matter what.

I know what is going to happen, though. This happened to my parents. My kids will move. No sane high school graduate would want to stay in Peterborough. My children will move to Toronto or Ottawa or Montreal. They will go off to school, maybe start families, elsewhere. I’ll probably follow them. My parents followed me. It took them twenty years and I had to move away from Toronto before they would do it, but eventually they came. What’s interesting about this place, however, is that these kids seem to come back after they’ve started their own families. We have many friends who grew up in Peterborough, who moved away, but then came back to raise their children the way they were raised. To spend winter weekends at Devil’s Elbow ski hill, racing, or summers at the cottage. To spend Fall and Spring biking the paths.

Every time I sit on my front porch it’s inevitable that cars will drive by the big tree and then stop, back up. People will get out of their cars to stare at it. They walk up to it. Touch it. Wrap their arms around it. They take pictures. My neighbour jokes about putting a little money-bin on a post by the tree with a sign that says, “Save the Tree.” He wants to see how much money he can collect. But it makes us all proud to watch the cars slow down, to watch these people stare in awe at this tree. Because it’s so old. Because it’s steady and strong. Because it weathers all weather. And no matter how busy my mind is, this tree always reminds me to stop for a minute to admire it.

I’ve been told that this tree will last another hundred years.

Which is good. Because when it falls, it’ll hit our house.

—Michelle Berry


Jan 132011

Jeanie Chung is a Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate and one of dg’s former students. She was a dream of a student and a dog lover, so she and dg had things to talk about besides writing (see current dog in group photo at bottom of essay). Jeanie’s stories have been published or are forthcoming in upstreet, Madison Review, Stymie and elsewhere. Her author interviews have been published in Writer’s Chronicle and Rain Taxi online; her interview with Aleksandar Hemon will be out in Writer’s Chronicle this spring. She used to be a sportswriter for the Chicago Sun-Times. Now she is working on a novel-in-stories based on her experiences covering high school and college basketball. See also her essay in Drunken Boat.

What It’s Like Living Here

from Jeanie Chung in Chicago

Part 1: The second city

Welcome to Chicago. We’re so happy you’ll be staying for a while. You see, so many people view us as nothing more than an airport, a place to change planes between coasts. We used to have the nation’s busiest airport, though now it’s No. 2.

Yes, it seems we’re always No. 2. It’s even our nickname: the Second City. We don’t mind. Second is just fine for us, thank you. In fact, we prefer it. We wear our runner-up status like a sensible winter coat. Sure, it’s puffy and ugly, but screw you: we’re warm. You can see our second-city pride in our malapropism-spouting mayor, our crystalline lake — filtered by invasive zebra mussels! —  that coastal visitors take pains to point out is lovely, but does not smell like the ocean or have tides like the ocean, but they guess that’s OK because, my goodness, who would have thought that such an interesting, vibrant city could exist in the Midwest, of all places? Our embrace — well, the embrace of some us — of a baseball team whose unofficial motto is a cheerful, “Wait ’til next year!” We could be the capitol of Flyover Country, but really, that title should go to a city in Iowa or Nebraska. We’re too big to be properly insignificant.

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Dec 292010

Here’s a lovely, exotic What it’s like living here essay from Renee Giovarelli who graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts last summer. Renee travels the world for an NGO involved in reforming land and property rights. But she also writes urgent, passionate essays about the places she visits. Her essay “The Bad Malaria Shot,” which she presented at her graduate reading in the summer, was a finalist for the Wasafiri 2010 New Writing Prize.


The Apartment

I don’t notice what it’s like living here when I’m here.  I sit down to write about place, and I only recall conversations.

I’m at a small wooden blue built-in table in someone else’s apartment kitchen.  The kitchen is small but bright, full of the high-desert sun.  Sitting here, writing, with no kids, no husband, no groceries to buy, bills to pay, dogs to feed and walk, bird cages to clean, I am a different person.  I will only live in this apartment for three weeks.  But while I’m here, I will work, I will write, and I will spend time with friends.  I will not juggle anything else—only those three things.

When I come to Bishkek to work, I live in someone else’s apartment—never the same apartment, it depends on who, in the network of friends and relatives of my co-workers, needs the money.  This time I’m on the fifth floor of a Soviet-style building, which could be any building in the city—no elevators, uneven stairs, the smell of cooking mutton in the stairwell.

For these three weeks, the owner and her family have moved in with a relative in the same complex–one building over.  There are three buildings, all five stories high, all facing a common yard.  The yard is dirt with a swing-set and a few benches.

“It’s not going to be that clean,” Zina says.  “They’re Kyrgyz.”

Zina’s Kyrgyz but she calls herself a marginal.  She blames the uncleanliness on the Kyrgyz’ nomadic ways.  Zina is my interpreter and friend.  She found this apartment for me.  The apartment belongs to someone she knows, but the connection is never made clear.  I will pay forty dollars a night to stay here, and after three weeks, the owner will have enough money to take care of her large extended family for months.  The owner will owe Zina a favor—the Kyrgyz accounting system Zina calls it.

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Dec 162010

Here’s a lovely “What it’s like living here” piece from Robin Oliveira, former dg student, Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA graduate, winner of the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and author of the novel My Name is Mary Sutter

For a complete list of “What it’s like living here” texts, click here.


What it’s like living here

By Robin Oliveira on Cougar Mountain, just outside Seattle

You live on Cougar Mountain, the first mountain on the right as you leave Seattle. The children—your reason for moving to the mountain—have moved out, and yet you cling to the house in which you raised them, unable to let go of the memories. Cougar Mountain hovers between wilderness and civilization. Sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night to yapping coyotes surrounding and terrifying some poor mammal they then eat. Before they die, the animals cry, a sound so human you leap from your bed and peer out the window. Black bears sprawl on the hillside behind your house, watching passing cars. Startled deer wander in the former meadows houses now occupy. They seem puzzled, these animals, incapable of altering their patterns in the face of encroachment. One day, on a bike ride, you gut out the steep climb from Puget Sound to the top of Magnolia, a hill long ago urbanized. A cougar has been spotted in the park, where for days, the fields of tawny grass camouflage him. You wonder what ancient memory has led him back into the city. You are sad when the park rangers capture the animal. Where do they take it? You don’t know. Maybe to your mountain, where the historical society exhibits pictures of the old days, when men hunted cougar for sport, then hung them upside down and posed beside them. Another day, flames shoot above the red cedar and Douglas fir behind your house. You turn on all the hoses and water the roof while your husband and neighbor attempt to douse the advancing fire. The flames lick thirty feet high; you breathe smoke; embers fall onto your shoulders and into your hair. Then the fire trucks arrive and unleash a spray of white foam that in two minutes extinguishes the blaze.

Now that the children are gone, you have all day every day to work. In your office, you turn on a sun light to ward off S.A.D., seasonal affective disorder, which struck you down about the middle of the nineties, fifteen years into your interment under the drizzly menace that is the Pacific Northwest sky. With the fake sunlight bathing your retinas, you write. Ten thousand luxes a day are the prescription for your well-being—about thirty minutes worth—but you indulge and keep the light on all day. When the real sun breaks from behind the clouds, you play hooky. Microsoft money has littered the mountain with mansions of ridiculous dimension, but you climb on the paths above them, through preserved corridors of wilderness, where it is still possible to meet a cougar or a lone coyote, so you carry a stick. You climb until you see the fingerling glacial lakes that strike northward and the snow-topped Cascade Mountains, coolly indigo against the eastern sky. To the west, the Olympic Mountains shimmer jagged against the western horizon. If you had a pair of binoculars, you could see the Space Needle floating beneath them.

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Dec 142010


 Blue has no dimensions, it is beyond dimensions, whereas other colors are not.  They are psychological spaces; red, for example, presupposing a hearth releasing heat.  All colors bring forth specific associative ideas, tangible or psychological, while blue suggests, at most, the sea and sky, and they, after all, are in actual nature what is most abstract. — Yves Klein



You meet a girl.  A local girl.  They all seem to be local girls.  You trudge through the snow between her apartment and yours in the middle of the street, because the sidewalks are unreliable—some already cleared by ambitious homeowners with powerful snowblowers, many still buried in the drifts.  You don’t think it strange anymore when the first snowfall of the year happens in October.  The public radio station devotes a whole hour to discussing the impending event, and listeners call in to ask when the earliest measurable snowfall occurred or what was the most snow the city ever got in October.  You learn that talk about the weather isn’t just small talk here; it is a well-researched discussion, full of personal opinion, documented theses, and bold predictions.  You surprise yourself by enjoying that October snowfall, the way it hangs in the trees still spangled with the yellow and orange of autumn, the way it lays on pumpkin patches like a blanket on a bed of marbles, the way the people immediately commandeer it for their own fun: the making of six-foot snowmen, the strapping on of actual skis to replace the versions with wheels that the die-hards have been training on for weeks, the dangerous racing on sleds down the park hills toward the not-yet-frozen creek.  You marry the girl. You snowshoe with her under the gnarled bur oaks in the park near the house you bought together.  She pauses, smiles, her winter coat bulging at the middle with your first-born. You drive past the lake near your house on the way to pick up the new storm windows you ordered, and you are struck by the blackness of the water—a bottomless void in the white world.


This is called the City of Lakes.  Minneapolis.  The Lakota word for water; the Greek word for city.  There is hardly any private waterfront here.  Cedar Lake, Lake of the Isles, Calhoun, Nokomis, Harriet, Hiawatha, Minnehaha Creek, the Mississippi River: The big houses stare at these waters across public swaths of green through which meander slow parkways, bicycle trails, walking paths, and lush plantings of trees and shrubs, lovingly maintained by the parks department.  You move here for a job.  You are a young landscape architect and there is a deep legacy here.  In 1890 H.W.S. Cleveland laid out these 40 miles of waterside parkways.  In 1930 came Theodore Wirth, the parks-builder, who made the nation’s northernmost public rose garden, wild bird sanctuaries, sledding hills, swimming beaches.  His son Conrad, who grew up in a house in a park near Lake Calhoun, became director of the National Park Service in the 1960s and went on a building spree himself: visitor centers, trails, scenic overlooks: all you expect from National Parks today.  Conrad’s son Ted, who visited his grandfather often in Minneapolis, built his own firm in Montana and designed park systems for the world: Riyadh, Kuwait, Nigeria.  You are new here, and an anomaly.  Everyone is from here and few leave.  You walk the trails around Lake Harriet in 45 degrees in shorts and a tee-shirt.


You fall for a girl.  A blue-eyed Norwegian redhead.  A girl with a family who have lived here all their lives and have a cabin up north.  The natives all have cabins and have left the urban lakes for other lakes.  Minnesota.  Land of 10,000 Lakes.  10,000 shards of summer sky reflected on the ground.  Lakota for sky-tinted waters.  The lakes become grass-tinted as the temperature rises, choked with algae feeding on the phosphorous you pour on your cabin’s lawn.  You mow to the shoreline and dump sand for your beach on the reeds and arrowheads growing out in the water.  You break the silence once broken only by loon calls with the scream of Jet-Skis.  You campaign for a Constitutional amendment to forever protect your right to hunt, fish, and trap.  You sue the government to let you shoot wolves.  You marry the girl.  And the family.  You sit in traffic on Sunday afternoon on Highway 169 heading back to the city from Brainerd, your little boy, facing backward, unhappy, his lake-blue eyes squinched tight and soaking wet.  Then you sit in traffic on Monday morning and make plans for another weekend at the cabin in just five workdays.


The summer construction season is ending and you attend grand openings.  The Walker Art Center, lightning rod for anti-NEA conservatives, is featuring Eiko and Koma: a Japanese couple lying naked in a gallery in a bed of feathers – for a month.  You sit politely and watch them move at glacial pace, then file out without a word.  You wander the halls of this giant steel cube, designed by Swiss architects Herzog and deMeuron to resemble a folded bit of paper cut through paper-snowflake style.  You watch the videos of how Yves Klein made his artworks: naked women bathing in International Klein Blue paint, then pressing themselves on canvases leaving the blue outlines of hips, breasts.  You stare into his untitled blue squares and are pulled inward.  Across town is the Guthrie Theatre, another grand opening, designed by Klein’s countryman Jean Nouvel.  It sits above the river, a cobalt hulk at the scale of the hundred-year old General Mills and Pillsbury grain silos that stored the flour that built this city.  You walk out on the skybridge, a cantilever stretching out toward the Mississippi River.  You think it an unnecessary extravagance but that it offers an incredible view.  The river rushes hundreds of feet below you, hemmed in by locks-and-dams and the ruins of original sawmill and flourmill races.  To your left the water slides down St. Anthony Falls, once the most quickly eroding waterfall in the world, now a concrete flume.  To your right the river curves from view through the gorge, the only place it is limited so tightly.  Mississippi.  Ojibwe for Great River.  The leaves are changing.  You are pretty far north, exactly half-way from the equator to the pole, and the summer light at 10 PM will soon give way to winter darkness at 4:30.  You flee the city one last time to take the dock out of the water, pick Honeycrisp apples, navigate a corn maze.


You marry a girl.  A girl with eyelashes long enough to catch snowflakes.  A girl who stays fashionable in winter: sweater, scarf, long coat, tights, chunky Sorel snowboots. You buy a 1200 square foot bungalow near a lake in the city and you don’t meet your neighbors until spring.  You move your car from one side of the street to the other and back, over three successive days, every time it snows, to let the plows clear the streets.  Every storm is compared to the “Great Halloween Blizzard of 1991.”  Your two-and-a-half year old son thinks a big lizard came to town last night.  The city around you is dark but alive, grumbling about the slush, the chill, but reveling in the new possibilities of skiing on the creeks, cuddling up near the heat of coffee shop hearths.  White Christmases are guaranteed.  Your father-in-law takes you ice fishing, something you always thought pointless and boring, and you find there’s a certain Zen-like peace to it.  The augur drills down into the lake to reveal a cylinder of blue, into which you drop your hooked minnow, weights, bobber, and you wait.  After hours interspersed by sips of whisky, handfuls of canned mixed nuts, bites of sandwich warmed in foil on the propane heater, your bobber plunges downward.  Your rod spins and you raise a crappie, speckled like a lake full of augur holes, cold and firm.  You kill it with a blow to its head and hold it in bare hands like a chunk of ice, then toss it out of the shack to freeze.  You learn that crappies taste better through the ice.  You notice that the heavens and earth have reversed.  The blue lakes of spring have iced and gone white.  The hazy hot cloudy sky of summer has gone crystalline blue.  Even married into this place, ice-caught crappie in hand, you will never be from here.  But you will find it hard to leave.

—Adam Regn Arvidson



Dec 102010


Merge Right (or Left)

I’m on my way to see the play Studies in Motion, the true story of Eadweard Muybridge, the man who more than a century ago tried to stop time through experimental photography, but couldn’t stop the tragic entropy of his own marriage.  As I sit in my car, alone again, waiting to merge in a construction zone, I remember the essence of an old joke. An Edmontonian stuck in traffic comments to his friend that it’s a nice place to live, and will be even nicer when it’s finished.  This frustrating and seemingly endless road construction hints at a deeper truth.  The city is always building, always inventing itself, but it’s never clear what it’s trying to become.  There is always progress, but what is the goal?

The city is confused, juggling multiple and conflicting personalities.  Edmonton is isolated and extreme.  It is the northernmost, major city on the continent, and on a map, it sits apart from the other Canadian cities that huddle around the American border.  My life has been filled with long, contemplative hours behind the wheel, the endless patchwork of farmland and prairie mesmerizing me as I try to get somewhere, maybe to see her, maybe someone else.  This sense of isolation is fed by the severe climate: temperatures typically range between -40C and +30C.  People here have a sense of grim survival, gladly spreading their blankets on the flattened grass in Hawrelak Park in July, battling mosquito mobs, just to absorb a little of the solar radiation that will be such a rare commodity later in the year.  In deep winter, the sun is a weak orange orb, low in the sky, limping across the horizon for barely seven hours a day.  In my days as a cubicle drone, sunlight was only a vague dream.  Now it’s a little better: my office has a window that provides me a thin hope that I might survive the coming darkness.

Work Will Save You

People here like to think they are friendly and helpful, but sometimes, harder sensibilities prevail. Edmonton is an industrial city, a centre for the oil industry.  Not the oil executives, though: the pressed-white shirts, the money, reside in Calgary, a fact that only helps feed the city’s inferiority complex.  No, Edmonton is the service centre for the real work, a place where looming, skeletal refineries greet visitors from the east; where a gravel pit and fogged windows once provided the necessary seclusion for my young, urgent flesh to press against hers, only to be illuminated by a policeman’s light, a memory that was once a hot ember but is now a cold stone; where endless industrial parks of cinder block and corrugated steel circle the perimeter; where, from the clearly inferior position in my Honda, I must peer around pick-up trucks driven by real men.  Work matters here; idleness is a sin.  The first thing anyone you meet will ask you is “What do you do?”

Culture Frenzy

In a city of immigrants, one’s roots are celebrated:  the annual Heritage Day festival attracts hundreds of thousands of people, all eager to sample spicy ethnic food and over-amplified traditional music.  Every year, I navigate the mass of humanity that swarms Hawrelak Park, melting inside the red plastic tents as I search for the perfect curry.  Where you come from seems more important than where you are.  Similar numbers of people are attracted to a variety of summer arts festivals.  In August, the Fringe Festival transforms Whyte Avenue into a seething, chaotic display of alternative theatre and street performers.  This year, while munching on some unidentifiable, deep-fried morsel, I gave $20 to a New Zealander who was juggling basketballs while riding a ridiculously tall unicycle.  This guy deserved some reward for traveling so far to such a remote place just to entertain me on another empty afternoon.  An artistic feeding-frenzy consumes the city between June and August, an expression of the urgent need to pack as much culture and activity as possible into the few available warm months.

Too Much History Coming Down

History here waits like a prisoner on death row. Buildings more than fifty or sixty years old are often viewed as liabilities, more likely to be torn down than preserved.  New buildings imply progress and wealth; old buildings suggest inefficiency and poverty.  Architecture is functional and anonymous – best not to stand out too much.  There are exceptions, of course.  The new Art Gallery of Alberta stamps a striking presence on an otherwise humdrum downtown.  I love spending a few hours with the works of Picasso, Escher, the Group of Seven, or even Warner Brothers’ animators, then relaxing on the on the roof-top patio with a dark and bitter coffee, watching the traffic below. A lazy afternoon at the gallery was something that we once shared, when time mattered, when our hands would find each other’s even if our eyes were locked on the canvases.

Who Am I?

Edmonton may wear a blue collar, but it wears it on a lab coat: the city has been trying to reinvent itself as a centre of knowledge and research.  The University of Alberta, home to dizzying variety of programs, is still a place I will gravitate to on a Sunday afternoon, wandering empty corridors seeking out hidden passages, then later, sitting and reading a book while sipping my Java Jive special.  I spent four years as an undergraduate here, and I am always pulled back, like a marble spinning down a funnel.  The campus, a sprawling jumble of architectural styles, seems aloof as it overlooks the broad river valley, the largest continuous urban green space in North America.  The North Saskatchewan River, sometimes a slow moving, dirty green serpent, sometimes a haphazard, geometric collision of ice chunks, was once the boundary between two cities that became one.  As the largely undeveloped valley sprawls across the entire city, it pushes away at the edges, seeming to reject any identity that is imposed on it.  It is easy to get lost here if you leave the trail, and I have been entangled many times in the dense and unforgiving growth.

Weather Approaches

The play will be starting soon, but I am still waiting to merge.  The light has faded now, and the sky is beginning to threaten, to tease with a few snowflakes, a hint of the long chill that will soon arrive.  As I stare at the road signs, cells raw from the recent implosion of a twenty-year marriage, heart cracked, self-confidence shattered, immobile but unable to stop time, I consider my uncertain future and think that, yes, this city with no true identity, no definite goals, no sense of history, belongs to me.

It’s going to be a long winter.

—Glenn Arnold



Glenn Arnold lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where it goes to -40 in the winter and there’s more oil than in Texas. Glenn took the photos of himself and the art gallery. His son Craig Arnold shot the street view, the refinery and the gorgeous cityscape down the valley.


Dec 032010

This is Natalia  Sarkissian’s second “What it’s like living here” piece. The first brought us the shocking news of her son’s illness. This one delivers the aftermath, hope and dogs and gorgeous cityscapes from Milan.


What it’s like living here

By Natalia Sarkissian in Milan

December, 2010

Dear DG:

You ask about Nick, his heart, the operation. He’s pretty much himself again; kids are resilient that way (their mothers and fathers less so). We’re picking up where we left off before we put everything on hold. Not easy these days with life everywhere often a challenge:

“Camera da Letto” means refuge

The alarm rings in the pearly gray of morning.

White sheets—from a transatlantic trip to Macy’s in Boston—slide like silk as you stir, your dreams of sand and sun on the Sound dispersing with the squeal.

You reach out an arm. You fiddle with a button. Silence ensues.

You blink in the shadowy room. Then you light the alabaster lamp from Volterra, the one you bought on sale years ago when Rinascente department store revamped and unloaded merchandise—60% off. Now a milky glow shines encouragement on your side of the bed.

Don’t move quite yet. Study instead the India-ink drawings of cocktail parties and frivolity facing you—the ones you sketched when you were twenty and going to be a painter. Then contemplate the alcove where your desk sits piled with papers, the old dresser loaded with a tower of books. You’re a mother, a part-time translator, part-time English teacher and when time permits—writer—now. A translation project (small) awaits. A lesson plan (a doctor wants to converse in English for an hour) awaits too. Not much money, but at least it’s some. In the afternoon you’ll do homework with Chris. And then there’s that novel you’re writing.

Sigh, and say, “first things first.”

Kick the sheets back.

Slip into your jeans, your t-shirt, your sweater.

Turn off the light: a mound still snores gently under the white sheets from Macy’s.

Tiptoe: the mound, in the old days (how many months of joblessness is it now?) used to be up first, shaving and showering before a day directing strategic sales in a large multinational. Now, if roused, the mound remonstrates.


“Cucina” means good morning

An old-fashioned door from the twenties (two panels, with glass, bolted across the middle with a brassy lock) bars entrance to the kitchen. On the far side, a six-month-old beast whimpers and jumps and the doors rattle and shake.

“Come girl,” you say, releasing your as-of-yet-un-housebroken pup from her nightly exile to the tiled floor and newspaper inside. Tail wagging, she hops and jolts, somersaulting with joy.

“I love you too,” you say, patting, but rushing. Bladders are small, muscles are weak, minutes are precious.

Seize the leash, grab a parka, open the front door. Step out onto the marble, lock up, press the button. But then wait for the old-iron-bird-cage elevator to crank up to four.

Say, ‘accidenti—goodness,when you note a spreading yellow stain beneath your wriggling puppy. And then louder, ‘cazzo—fuck.’

Across the landing the neighbor lady—up early too—flings her door open.

“Not again!” she cries, her hands on her hips, her feet stuck in felt slippers, her white hair in scruffy clumps about her gray face. “Aren’t you going to scold her?”

“Yes,” you say, and you do, but your heart’s not in it, not when you’ve got a disapproving audience.  Apologize again. Say, “she’s just a puppy.”

Promise to clean up when you return.

When the neighbor lady says, “things were fine before you went and got that dog,” and then slams her door, you shrug and step into the elevator. You know things weren’t fine before you went and got that dog. You know you went and got that dog to help things be fine.

Decide you’ll walk her long and languid.

“Parco delle Basiliche e Le Colonne di San Lorenzo” mean survival

A green expanse stretches from the Basilica of San Lorenzo to the Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio where, according to legend, relics of the Three Magi once were conserved. At one time infested marshlands, the land was reclaimed and fashioned into a park in the twentieth century. Students eat their lunches here on sunny days. Children swing from monkey bars in the afternoon. Along the park’s fringes, fashionable establishments serve elegant food on iron tables in vine-draped niches at midday and in the evening.

You used to have aperitivi here at sunset when brick buildings glow red. You haven’t had an aperitivo here, or anywhere, in months. Nor have you watched bricks glow as the sun sinks.

Nearby stand sixteen Corinthian columns, Roman ruins of the 3rd century. They were moved here in the 4th century as part of the construction project of San Lorenzo. Survivors of Roman Mediolanum, Barbarian invasions, Austrian invasions, World Wars, and urban re-edification, the columns symbolize survival against all odds.

You like to walk Wendy here, in this piazza and park strewn with evidence of survival, of rejuvenation.

This morning, cars rush by at 7:30, their taillights fuzzy red globes in the early morning fog. The green 94 bus wheezes along, leaving a wake that tastes of petroleum. Thick and gray it clogs your throat. You cough, cross the street, enter the park, your dog pulling on her leash, a flock of pigeons in her sights.

“Area Cani” means leashlessness

In the midst of the park of the basilicas a fence encloses trees and grass and muddy patches: a dog run.

Open the gate, release Wendy.

Throw a ball, toss a stick.

Soon Signora Mastini and her beagle arrive.

“You’re here early,” you say to Signora Mastini. You watch the dogs roll together in muddy orange leaves and enjoy their nips and jumps and yips.
“Volunteer work at church today,” says Signora Mastini.
“Volunteer work?”
“The homeless. I feed them. I clothe them. So many these days. So many.”
“Oh,” you say, inhaling the damp smell of autumn rot.
“Single men. Divorced men. Family men. They lose their jobs, can’t pay the rent, then they’re out on the streets.”
“Oh,” you say, “oh.” You zip your zipper against the chill.
“Did you know they fight over clothes? Winter jackets are in short supply. But I’m never worried. ‘Basta!’ I say. ‘Cut it out, or I’ll throw you out.’ They always listen. They can’t afford not to.”

Yes. You nod.

Then whistle. You yank Wendy away from her frolicking friend.

“Come on, girl,” you say and shut the gate. You can’t afford to think about homelessness. It isn’t looming, is it?

Walk. Then walk some more so you won’t think.

“Via Torino” means thoroughfare

Cut around the perimeter of San Lorenzo, then through the Carrobbio, an old intersection where the Roman Ticino Gate once stood. Walk north, along via Torino, a shopping artery that connects San Lorenzo to the center of town. Admire a door spray-painted by a graffiti artist but ignore the attractive shop windows up and down on either side. Forget what you don’t need and can’t have.

Pause in front of S. Giorgio al Palazzo, an 8th century church, the name of which comes from a no-longer-extant Roman Imperial palace built by Diocletian. The church houses a cycle of paintings by Bernardo Luini and a late medieval relief of St. George and the Dragon.  

Decide to view St. George slaying his dragon. Consider it good for morale.

The doors are open for morning mass, but a frowning man in a cleric’s collar says you can’t enter with your dog. Even if you carry her. Even if you fit her in your bag.

Traipse north. Stop while a concierge washes the sidewalk in front of her apartment building. Enjoy the hiss of her hose on the pavement.  Approve of how,
with deft flicks, she sends debris sliding to the gutter.
Wait until she finishes spraying. Squelch past, listening to your rubber soles slapping against the wet. Then stop again.

Consult your phone. The battery’s low, but still, it’s enough. Scroll and find it. Piazza San Babila, 3.

Walk where your directory tells you.

“Piazza San Babila” means shelter

Piazza San Babila, with fountains and gardens, surrounded by porticoes filled with boutiques, long considered the ‘salotto buono,’ or the living room of the affluent, perches at the crossroads of the swankiest streets of Milan: Via Montepoleone, Corso Venezia, Corso Europa. Lined with neo-fascist buildings, it’s named after the venerable brick church that oversees the bustle at one far end.

Head here, to this piazza, at 9 am, your little dog following.

Quit Via Torino, cross Piazza Duomo, traverse the pedestrian walkway of Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, still silent, still empty of tourists and street vendors. Ignore Rinascente, Pollini, D&G as you go.

Forget what you don’t need and can’t have.

But as you near Diesel boutique, nod at a middle-aged man with a sleeping bag in a shopping cart. When he asks you for money, hand him a euro. Realize you think you’re buying distance, you think you’re buying time.
“Nice dog,” he says when Wendy sniffs his feet. “I had a dog once.”
You smile and nod again but he doesn’t.

A few steps further, a young couple, sitting on cardboard, plastic bags filled with old clothes strewn around them, eats breakfast from McDonalds. Wendy barks and the woman spills coffee on her dirty pink track suit.
“Shhh,” you say. Eyes averted, you hurry your dog past.

Still further, nearing the piazza, an old man with a grizzled beard and gray hair sprawls in the doorway. Think: when the shoppers disperse, the dispossessed find a night’s worth of relief.

“No, Wendy,” you say when she starts to growl, “Piazza San Babila has many faces. Right now it still means shelter.”

You know that soon, when the stores open, the men and the woman will be made to move. Maybe they’ll go to Signora Mastini for a hot lunch and to fight over shoes.

“Ufficio di Lavoro Interinale” means temp agency

Rounding the corner, you’ve made it. San Babila, 3. But although you search, you can’t find the shelter you seek.

The temp agency. Where your phone says it was. It used to be here. You’re sure it was here. Wasn’t it here? Hadn’t you been here, seeking a job once, not so many years ago?

A fashion house occupies the offices here now.

You perch on a granite bench facing a fountain to rest. You’d imagined a listing for which he was qualified. Something more substantial for you.

No matter.

“Let’s go home,” you say to your dog. “We’ll get on the computer. It was crazy to try legwork. Things have changed.”

But then, you think, maybe legwork wasn’t crazy, after all. You walked to escape when you first started out. Now you’re energized.

Wendy wags her tail. She likes legwork with you. You stick her in your bag, sneak her through the turnstile, carry her onto the metro, ride the red line home.

“Cucina” now means hope

The mound is out of the bed and no longer a mound. He’s in the kitchen, making espresso. He’s bright and cheery. And he’s wearing a red tie. Wendy hops and jumps when she sees him and he scratches her behind the ears, laughing when her pink tongue flicks against his hand.

The kitchen seems different now. Full of light, you think.

“I’ve got an interview,” he says, straightening, stirring sugar, his spoon clinking against the cup. “A second interview.” He smiles. His eyes are green and his teeth shine.

“A second interview?”

“That head of operations job in Cairo.”

“Oh my God,” is what you say. “Cairo? Cairo?”

You don’t want to hope too much. But still, for him—for all of you—you do.



—Post text and layout by Natalia Sarkissian

Dec 012010

Denton, Texas Brad Green

Brad Green writes from Denton, Texas, dry, empty land filling up with urban detritus no different from anywhere else. But it looks different, and Brad writes of it with a raw, desolate naturalism reminiscent of the young Larry McMurtry of, say, The Last Picture Show. Someone just wrote dg about these “What it’s like living here” pieces. She said, “I guess what I like best is that every essay, supposedly on place (and even when it seems to strictly adhere to details of a place’s terrain and citizens) is really, at the end, so nakedly about its author.” All dg can add is, “Yup. That’s the way it works.” Read this one.



What is Felt

Of course, the days are filled with sound. That sense comes to you well before touch, before sight or cognition even. It’s habit now to slap that numb walrus of a hand on the alarm to halt the return of the world, anything to stay away for a few moments more, but your feet find the floor in the dark and bear your morning wobble. They always do. The bedroom door squeaks open. Steam billows in the shower. You forget to flip on the exhaust fan and when you step past the fish-patterned curtain, the mirror reveals your face full of fog. Who you are sharpens as the morning evolves, though. A half-hour later, your fingers feel blood-carbonated and you’re able to grasp the toothbrush, the keys, the steering wheel. One can curse the carpal-tunnel or consider it some sort of earned pain the way a war hero carries an amputation, but really, you’ve done nothing heroic—ever. That numbness pillows each night because you hunch over the keyboard, filling your evenings with failure.


 What is Feared

The road is white in the morning air. It’s some new compacting gravel that men in mudblistered trucks put down. You live far enough out that you don’t warrant asphalt. Slow cattle bend their heads to the grass and oaks thick with dust blur through the window glass. At stop signs, the car engine sounds confused. The plugs need changing. Things are out of tune. A hard, black carbon clogs the chambers, the motor working harder than it needs in compressing the distance between you and where you must go. You stop where the gravel road ends and dust boils up around the car. The ground in North Texas is cracked most of the time, congested with bristleroot, trumpet vine, or the tortured gnarls of juniper, so dry it tatters up behind wherever you go. Before you turn onto the paved road leading to the highway, you face the sky, tightening your fists on the steering wheel. Contrary to what people say, wide horizons make us small.

Photo 2


What is Endured

There’s a vent you listen to all day in your office. It hisses air, flutters the leaves of the bamboo you bought for life and color. Faces float by the slim rectangle window in your office door. The email dings reverberate and follow you around, warble the phone in your pocket. One feels pursued, exposed, dedicated, hollow.


What is Lost

Where you work used to be barren field. It seems like that wasn’t so long ago, but the grass waved there long before the baseball of ache took up camp in your lower back, before the stiff gray began its sly fuming around your ears. Concrete and glass have sprouted in vast squares where once in high school you stood naked on the dirt with a girl till the morning sun found you. Now there’s a squatting Wal-Mart, a place impossible to be that human in again. There’s a Best Buy, a Target, the Bed Bath and Beyond, Fuddruckers, IHOP, and the lot, now smooth with concrete, where there was a house in which you got drunk mixing diet coke and beer (a bad night), and another two streets over where your finger found M—’s most precious nub and you watched her buck and shudder into an entirely new person, afraid that you’d committed some irreparable harm. There’s where your father grabbed you by the collar and slammed you against the car for running away, and there, just a short jog down the road, there’s where you lost God.


What is Found

Capture2What’s on the other side is remarkably similar to where you are now.

And that’s what you find moving through the day, the shape of the absences in your life, the holes where things once were. You encounter memory at every turn and each turn shades what you see now. In fact, the more the world glints, the more resonant the once-lived. So you drive around at lunch, finding moments, scribbling them down in your notebook. There’s Thrill Hill where you got that ponderous, brown Oldsmobile airborne before it thudded into the road, scraping the frame against the sun-hot spall. There’s the old barn where you fucked A— and came in her sock, laughing as she wore it crusty all the way home. There’s the pole where C— lost control of his truck and you found him whimpering on the seat, eyes bright with shattered glass. There’s the house where you cranked the big block engine in your 62 Chevy truck, heard something wrong, and had to unwedge a kitten from the fan blades. There’s where you held it soft as warm pudding in your palms, and there’s the field where you cried after hiding it under a rock.

Denton, Texas

Why these memories? Why not something else? Why not the way a chocolate ice cream cone melts? Why not your high score on Space Invaders? Why not those 45,000 words about a desert planet you wrote after reading Dune when you were eleven? Why not the white flesh of an apple bursting its juice in your mouth?


What is Heard

There are questions you can’t realistically answer, but are doomed to ask. Those questions arise from place. Place fuels our sense of the important and loss is the measure of everything we might become. It’s not the sex we remember as much as where it happened. Death is a thing that occurs in a geographic location and God, well God is absent from the largest space we can imagine. When that place becomes too onerous to bear, you turn to fog and rely on what you hear, because when our palms slip free of their tactile nature, we demand more of the ears and are left with the dings and alarm of a quotidian life: a hissing air vent, the metallic confusion of a car engine, the grey chatter of an office. The keys clatter late at night, those slim hours all that you have to plumb what matters, a narrowing time when the air is fraught with night-creaks and windows blacken the world until place loses it shape to the dark, moments you’ve lost swelling into their forgotten forms, drawing breath again in your mind unmoored by Rum until you finish your day alone with want and that catch in your throat, the numbness threading fat through your palms, the page holding you rapt in its wide, white jaw.

—Brad Green



Nov 262010

Kim Aubrey writes about Toronto, her adoptive home, soon to be left behind. Vet visits, bed bugs, in-laws—and the silence and melancholy of being uprooted and leaving loved ones and things behind.


What it’s like living here

from Kim Aubrey in Toronto

Bathurst Street

You drive the six miles home down Bathurst from your doctor’s office, where you’ve been weighed, measured and questioned about the year’s habits, good and bad. You pass the bagel shops and delis, the Bowlerama where you used to take your daughters for birthday parties, and a little further south, the square squat apartment buildings with their blond-brick facades. A young man in jeans and a light jacket dances up the sidewalk, hips fluid, hands pressed together, long arms flipping outward and upward, as if he’s a yogi praying. When someone approaches him from the opposite direction, the dancer lowers his arms, quiets his body to a walk. You wonder if he’s just being polite and will start up again once he has the sidewalk to himself.  Or if it’s simple Canadian diffidence, only surprising in one willing to dance at the edge of a busy street in the middle of morning.

Yonge Street

Your Jetta crawls in rainy rush-hour traffic up what used to be the longest street in the world. You and your husband were in Paris yesterday morning, eating croissants and jam in a sunny café, the Pantheon cutting its iconic shape into a blue sky. Now you’re both jetlagged, ready for bed at six in the evening.  Instead, you’ve agreed to pick up your daughter and her field spaniel, Iggy, from the vet, who has sliced away the puppy’s testicles and sewn him back up again.

Continue reading »

Nov 182010



ou remember once, when words were your only company, how it felt like treachery when writers wrote about their kids.  You swore you never would.  It was an easy vow, since you figured your books would be your babies.  Your boys would be in books.  Now you have babies, you have boys—but no books.  O crazy carnival ride life: turning you here, depositing you there.  Splitting open your heart, tying off your tongue.  Could anywhere be the same as anywhere else?

Strangling on Trees

There are so many big trees on this island.  Alder, Arbutus, Fir, Gary Oak, Pine,  Spruce, Hemlock, Cedar, Yew, Maple, Dogwood:  the light above your desk dims with each tree you type.  Because nearly everyone who lives on this island is an environmentalist of some sort, it is considered a crime (worthy of, at the very least, several angry but carefully-composed rants against you in the editorial pages of the local paper) if you cut down a tree.  Neighbors hear the chain-saw and come running in their gumboots.  Even at 3 a.m. they hear it.  Especially at 3 a.m. they hear it.   Seeing the panicked fury on their faces, you decide to pretend that they are owls, swooping down to alert you to their nests of downy-white owlets perched in the branches above.   Kindly apologize, while shivering in the shade that rotted tree casts.

You could argue that the giant slab of nature known as sky—the clouds the sun the stars the moon—are being neglected here, choked out by greenery.  You never would.  Somehow all this forested wilderness is inherent to being Canadian.  And because you hide your American origin carefully, you also hide your tree-induced claustrophobia.

The Arbutus tree is your favorite.  Muscular and red as any horse’s leg, twisting against sky with little adornment.  When you go hiking your son likes to carry a piece of fragile red Arbutus bark in the pinch of his hand, which makes you think of love letters you left behind, in some other place you lived.   He can only carry  it a few steps this way before ripping it.

Because nobody cuts any trees or bushes back, when you pull up to an intersection you have to drive out into the road—into crashable territory, with your boys in the backseat—to determine whether it’s safe to pull out.  You cringe and fight urges to close your eyes as you step on the pedal.  You fantasize about coasting forward in a convertible, wielding a 30-foot -long bayonet.

You love the sun.  You always thought you would live in the desert, as a hermit.  You would take long walks on parched land in search of bones and flint, until your silhouette resembled barbed-wire.

When the wind blows wildly, limbs that normally nest snugly against the power-lines—because, again, it would be wrong to cut them—fall lightly, and everyone loses power.  Your first son remembers with delight the Christmas Eve you each wore all your coats at once and melted pots of snow on the wood-stove to make drinking water.   Admit it was very quiet, so quiet you could hear the snowflakes clicking as they landed.  Remember the fun your son had scooping snow, the wonder on his face when he mistook the flickering candle’s reflection on the black windowpane for a sleigh scooting across the sky.

Still, when you go to a birthday party for a two-year-old who has begged for a logging cake—and the artistic mother has complied with hacked Cadbury Flakes for tree carcasses, with jagged silver gum wrappers folded into chain-saws—you laugh with delight and eat two pieces.

Other Lives: Sponsored by Water

Oh how you love to look across the water.  The distance opens your mind.  It’s as if someone skipped your brain across the sun-lit surface and every near-thought expanded into many full and amazing thoughts.   Your island has, in addition to the ocean surrounding it, five large lakes.  You spend large amounts of time at the edge of these waters, holding a baby, staring out.  Once upon a time you were a long-distance swimmer.  Your body twitches, remembering.  You swallow.  It’s cruel that freezing water can be so clean and turquoise.  It’s cruel to feel land-locked on an island with so many empty boats and kayaks speckling the shores, begging (in little dips) for passengers.

During a limited stretch of hot summer days, you can bring the boys into the water with you.  The older one wears water-wings; the younger lets himself be glided, emperor-style, in an inflatable boat.   But you can’t go far.  Your boys are anchors.  You imagine one day they’ll take running leaps off the dock and stroke so fast away from you that you’ll have to stop and rest, treading water.  You’ll look back to shore and remember wistfully how for years you trapped first one and then the other there, breast-feeding them on a blanket.

People live on boats in the harbours.  From visiting 25-foot luxury yachts to old wooden planks with torn roofs, rotting into the ocean.  Kids from the outer islands take a boat called The Scholarship to and from your island’s high school.  No school bus for them.  No chipper morning kid bombarding you with chatter, nope, not over the boat engine.  Don’t forget your life jacket, honey!  Calls your mother at the door.  And at the dinner table you lift your fork and say: Today on the way to school?  We almost hit a seal.

Your favorite boat isn’t technically a boat.  You have to hike through hoards of trees to look out at it.   You bring binoculars, and peer at the deck for signs of life.  You never see any signs of life, which enables you to invent all sorts of stories about who lives there.  Usually who lives on it is an 8 year-old girl named Delany who is crazy about the color orange.  She is quite civilized for an orphan, and brushes her teeth three times a day.  She made her toothbrush herself, out of driftwood and dog hair.   People–all the people from all the places she might live but won’t—gather and they call out from the shore:  Dellannnyyy! Delllannnyyyy! Come on home now!  But she just keeps moving her eyes or her hand over the page and doesn’t hear.

Drop Me Right Here

Hitch-hikers on this island get rides.  And then you will read something in the paper like this:  To the hitch-hiker I picked up last Tuesday morning at Cranberry, headed to Fulford:  you left your green metallic travel mug in my car.  Call 653-8003 and I can return it to you.  Nice drivers.   Nice passengers, too.  One of your friends claims a hitch-hiker left her a whole bar of organic dark chocolate in the seat.  On purpose? You ask.  I pretend yes, she says.  She sighs and adds that ever  since then she always gives her car-seat a careful scrutiny when the hitch-hiker steps out.  Those damn hitch-hikers, she says.  They make me crave chocolate.

(She is a friend from the prairies.  You find the people from the prairies speak their mind more, with less polite wording, than the people from British Columbia.  Because they have fewer trees to hide behind?  Someday you will visit the prairies and see if it is like Texas, where you also lived.  You hope it will be like Texas, but with less litter and animal corpses.)

You pick up hitch-hikers, too, if you’re not running late and your baby isn’t wailing in the back-seat.  If Bob Dylan is playing on the car radio.  You don’t stop for the crazy looking ones, the ones who probably need rides most.  Usually you pick up females, who as the stats show are less likely to rape a driver or her babies.

Sometimes a hitch-hiker will shine with excitement, making you wistful for the days you were alone, travelling light and without an itinerary.  Sometimes a hitch-hiker will be fatigued and full of shadows.  When you drop her off your two boys, in the rear-view mirror, are coated with rings of light like in smultzy paintings of Jesus and you can barely breathe, hit smack in the throat with your huge luck.

Mama? Your son sang to you from the backseat, when he was Two, Do hitch-hikers have Mamas?

Animals That Aren’t That One

You had seen this landscape before you ever came to Canada, all swirling greens and greys and blues, peeping shards of sky, in the paintings by Emily Carr.  Even her sweeping curves prepared you, for Salt Spring Island is full of hills and steep winding roads and therefore when you and your sons try to re-create your island in the bathtub you can’t just splay a floating bath-book out flat and call it done.  You have to pile it up quite high with tipped plastic boats and cups and wash rags curled into hills.  If you run here you will get faster.  After eight months pushing your baby up and down hills in a stroller you will dash through a marathon in pouring rain to qualify for the Boston Marathon.  Boston, you will murmur dreamily—until you double-check the atlas and see it, across that deceivingly-flat page, all the way over there.   Unfathomable.

The first time you land in Canada and step out of the Vancouver airport you can’t believe the air.  So cool and clean: you keep huffing it until someone asks if you are  alright.  If this is air, then what was that you had thought was air, back in those other places you’d lived?  It must have been exhaust.

Geese dapple the fields, private and public.  They dapple until you are right upon them—then they loom.  Then they explode into the sky.  Chasing a field of geese is well worth the mess it collects on the bottom of your shoes.  When your first son is up and running, you waver between teaching him to ignite a whole field of geese with his wobbly body, and teaching him not to bother them.  You do a bit of both.

You love the geese, and the deer: the deer that lurk all day and night outside the gate of your fence, waiting for you to swing it open, as plotting and stubborn as any deer in Gary Larson cartoons.   They eat the apple-starts off the apple trees.  They stomp across your tomatoes to get to the lettuce.  When your son and husband rush out in their gum boots to corral the deer out the gate—the boy shrieking with delight, the man booming out the game plan, you stand at the back door laughing.  No matter what they are wearing, you see them streaking across the yard in overalls and Daniel Boone caps.  The sight is  worth accidentally leaving the gate open.  It is worth a ruined garden.

You love the geese and the deer for what they are not.  They are not the animals that used to prowl the place where you lived before this, way up north.  They are not bears, they are not mountain lions.  They are not the grizzly bear that you surprised, that surprised you: it rose up on its hind legs and swatted at you, roaring.  The roar echoed across the air; it would echo in your head for weeks.  The grizzly mock-charged, its claws narrowly missing your face.  But there is nothing mock about a charge.  You put up your hands in surrender.  I’m sorry, you half-spoke, half-whined: pathetic last words.  You found it was impossible not to look into the eyes of the thing that is going to kill you.  They were very dark, and flashing like the eyes of someone trying not to cry.  You got away.  One of you got away, and the other one of you will always be a mauled corpse on the side of a dirt road.

You’re told that sometimes a bear will swim across the ocean and land on this island.  On ferry boat rides you scan the water not for orcas or dolphins, but for a massive hump of slick brown fur, straining furiously toward you.

Lots of Space to Generalize

The people here.  To generalize, which of course any sentence must that begins, The people here.  The people here…are industrious.   Here are some of the things these islanders offer for sale, on the 15 minute drive to your son’s preschool:  pottery, flowers, jam, vegetables, organic beef, eggs, kindling, monster dolls, honey, portable sawmill (for hire), knit leggings, birdhouses, baked goods, venison.   You also pass two wineries, three (of many) art galleries, and the workshop of a shipwright.

You can sell whatever you make, too, right outside your house.  But first you have to be industrious enough to construct a little wooden farm-stand.

The people here.  They…..are polite and mild.  Formal.  Respectful of space.

In many ways this is a relief.  You are a secretive Scorpio spy who has always associated being seen with diminished seeing powers.  Also you have some social anxiety, otherwise known as:  can’t we just communicate on paper?  You’ve been known to slide into a closet when someone knocks on the door.  When the phone rings, you step away from it.  If you are returning from a run and see a visiting car in the driveway, even if you know the car and like its owners, your first impulse (and the one you usually take) is to keep running.  So it’s a relief being here, where people give you a lot of room to hide.

On the down side, you can feel brash and snoopy, when you are merely being direct.  When you feel brash and snoopy, you feel like a parody of an American.  You can feel lonely at a party.   Specifically, you can feel lonely for bars in places like Bandera, Texas, where heated discussions (possibly escalating into full-out pistol duels), made for wonderful entertainment and quick friendships.  You can feel lonely for insistent, engaging types.  Like the New Orleans musician on the corner of Iberville and Decatur who would call out to you on your way to work:  Those new shoes you sportin’, aren’t they?  Why you lookin’ so glum now, with this sun lovin’ on you?  You best hustle, girl, you late today!  You smiled at him, even when he drove you crazy–and now, when for long stretches polite islanders fail to call you out (too loud) or ask about you (too nosy), you are glad you smiled.  Some people just flipped him the bird.

A woman you meet briefly tells you about a friend from the United States who was visiting her in Vancouver.   He had recently been in a car accident, and his face had a fresh and gruesome scar right down one side of it.  She introduced her friend to all her friends.  They went to several dinner parties.  And no one!  She roars.   Not one person asked him about his face!
You giggle.  How rude, you say.

But.  The people here….are kind.  And smart.  Respectful.  And wanting to do good.   And industrious.  You feel lucky to be raising kids among people with these qualities.  The flamboyant brashness–that can be introduced easily enough in so many places.  By the television set, for instance.  This other, the quiet space people create here, is so much harder to come by.


Things you do to fit

When you hear the temperature, you double it in your head and add thirty.  You say pro-ject, not pra-ject.  You write labour and colour and metre.  You sing out “Zed” with your son during the alphabet song, even though it makes the verse not rhyme.

You say, Now where did I put my toque? without cracking a smile.

When you go to an outdoor festival in the heat of summer you don’t smirk at the little roped-off area you have to be inside of, to drink a beer.  And babies aren’t allowed: they might grow up to be drinkers.  You won’t smirk nor will you cry, thinking of those years you prowled the French Quarter with one hand curled around a go-cup.

In September, you add little tin wheels on the biggest zucchini from your garden so your son can enter the zucchini races at Fall Fair.  At Salt Spring Fall Fair, for 20 dollars, you can enter “Muffin Madness” by betting on a tiny plot of numbered field.  If the amply-fed-with-special-grain cow they release into the field decides to let his fresh poop drop on your number, you win the entire profit of the ticket sales.   It’s quite a lot.  People clench the fence nervously, willing an uncomfortable and oblivious animal to step right or left, to step forward or back.

In October, you take off your shoes and stomp with tons of other barefoot people–all various levels of clean—in a vat of grapes.  For a long while after this you refrain from buying local wine.  You make your Mom’s oyster dressing for Canadian Thanksgiving and wait for her or your sisters to call, so you can brag how you got to eat yours a month early.  But no one calls; none of your people in the U.S.A. ever remember the mid-October day that is Canadian Thanksgiving.

In November, you wear a poppy on your shirt and ignore the election disputes  that waif in vaguely from your computer.  But you always watch nervously as the results of the Giller Prize—Canada’s big literary award–are announced on T.V.  You rasp Shhhh!  to your boys as the finalists, each one in turn, approach the podium to read excerpts from their books.   You laugh a lot because of the amazing public fanfare made over books, and because writers make such lousy rock stars.  When the lights hit their made-up faces, they twitch like moles caught naked and quivering outside their holes.  The book you like best is seldom picked.  Each year you wish you’d planned a party around the prize, with big money bets and impromptu readings and literary drinking games at the commercial breaks.  But it is on in the morning, when all the writers you don’t know are writing.

In December, you watch as a large crowd of people huddled around a television set refuse to return to their vehicles and board the ferry headed for Swartz Bay.   It has come down to shoot-outs in the Olympic Canada versus U.S.A. hockey match.  Who you cheering for, Mama? Your son asks, over the excited commentary on the car radio.  Uh, you say, suddenly exhausted.  Does being an expatriate, straddling two homelands, automatically sap a person of the energy to cheer for either of them?  Or is it just you?  A disgruntled ferry worker begins waving cars forward and back, directing the intricate maneuvering required to drive around the abandoned vehicles.  It is the last ferry of the night, but the crowd in there—black figures postured tensely in the yellow windows—would rather be without their beds than leave the game.  Canadians, you finally say.   Your husband winces, so that you have to quickly tell him you don’t mean the Montreal Canadiens.   I mean those Canadians, you say, pointing to the empty cars as he rolls the truck forward.

In winter, it rains for weeks on end.  This is good.  If it snows, the very few plows your island has will focus on the main roads and neglect the hilly side streets.  It rains, or it snows—it rains and it snows, the snow turns to rain again.  The rain freezes.  One night over whiskey, while your husband talks dreamily about his time in Belize, you try to remember your own hot seaside places.  They are faded poloraids, buried under leaves and limbs.  You tilt your face up at the snow-buried skylight, straining to recall.  How can your body forget that kind of heat?  A heat so stark it instantaneously dried the ocean droplets on your skin to lines of lace.

In winter,  you take a hot bath with your boys.

But before that—twice, in fact—you decide it will be fine to give birth without drugs—since there is no anesthesiologist or surgeon on your island.  The first baby is born on a table at the local hospital with the crazy mid-wife telling you not to push and the Victoria helicopter team on hold on the telephone.  The second one is born with the calm and wise midwife, the one you wanted the first time.  The baby arrives on a Friday afternoon on the floor of your bedroom, right where your husband tends to pile his dirty clothes.  Because you spend most of your labour in the bathtub, you thereafter find taking a bath with his real live body in your arms, in the same tub, an extraordinary and humbling thing.  This, you think, is why people stop moving.  This is why they find a home and stay in it.

In winter, you grab a wash-cloth and get your whole face wet, so your older son doesn’t ask you why you’re crying.

–Carrie Cogan



Nov 132010

A deeply shocking and poignant “What it’s like living here” from Court Merrigan in Torrington, Wyoming. Neither a former student, nor a VCFA graduate (he doesn’t have an MFA), Court is just a writer and a human being who joined the conversation and became part of the NC community. DG wishes there were more like him, more nominal outsiders who join the blog just because they like writing and a supportive camaraderie. We’re not a closed shop. This text reminds dg of something Tomaso Landolfi once wrote: “…is not this a world in which incredible things take place and, I would say, only incredible things?”


by Court Merrigan


Four extra bedtime stories for your daughter, five.  She grows fidgety and irritated, wants to be left alone to sleep.  Once she would have stayed up all night with you.  Now she’s three and those days are gone.  You trudge upstairs.  Your wife is in bed.  She goes to bed early nowadays.  It’s too early for you.  Time to get yourself occupied.

Two weeks it’s been.  Two weeks of closing your eyes to see Todd.

1.5 miles up Laramie Peak Trail

At first Todd looked like he was taking a nap, or had just leaned against the warm rock on that perfect seventy-degree day, looking across Friend Creek through a golden-leafed bough of aspens to the sheer mountain slabs across the rift valley.  I thought he was on the lookout for mountain goats.  He really wanted to see a mountain goat, kept on asking if we thought we’d spot one.

“Well, this is about where we expected to catch up with him,” my father said.

Irritated, I thought that he ought to be further along than this, that he was going to start talking about the goddamn mountain goats again – all he wanted out of Wyoming, it seemed – and at his trudging pace, it would be hours before we got back to the trailhead.  He was semi-retired and at his leisure, but I had a pregnant wife and a kid to get back to.

Then I noticed the odd angle of his neck, the wrist twisted behind his back, legs folded in an Asian posture he could not possibly have adopted at sixty years of age.  I began to run.  His face was slack jawed, sunglasses askew, lips a pale violet.  When I knelt and touched his face a skein of spit dribbled onto his new denim shirt, so new you could see the store creases, smell the store shelf.

Continue reading »

Nov 072010

cindy2 019_2_4

Cynthia Newberry Martin takes time from her writing and from her splendid writing blog Catching Days (one of Powell’s Books “Lit Blogs We Love”) to let NC know what it’s like living in Columbus, Georgia. Catching Days is a fascinating site with links to Cynthia’s own publications, reviews, and an ongoing series of posts in which noted authors describe a typical working day. See the latest, “A Day in the Life of Bruce Machart,” here. Cynthia has been commenting on NC from the very beginning, a generous, helpful presence.


What it’s like living here

From Cynthia Newberry Martin

in Columbus

Dear DG,

In Columbus, the seasons change, but they take their sweet time about it. First summer doesn’t want to let go, and then the leaves cling to the trees. Not until late October do the golds, oranges, and reds sprinkle this over-green world with color.



The river and Carson McCullers

The Chattahoochee River, the western border of Columbus, floods the city with the mood that gave rise to Carson McCullers:

I want – I want – I want – was all that she could think about – but just what this real want was she did not know.

And to Ma Rainey:

Thought I’d rest me, I couldn’t hear no news. I’ll soon be there ’cause I got the walking blues.

The words and the blues flow together and join the river. And these days, you gather your want and walk your blues for miles and miles on the Riverwalk, a narrow park that edges the banks of the river. You spend a lazy day beside the water, your thoughts swirling with the current. You see Alabama on the other side, and you imagine the rest of the world out there somewhere. You cross the bridge and look back at Columbus with perspective—not a lot but enough.

Red brick

Columbus wears its clay-red brick well. The old buildings, only two or three stories high, allow plenty of light to reach the sidewalks and plenty of air to breathe. Downtown streets are divided by a grass median the width of what could have been another lane. Statues hide benches inside. The place of art in the world is valued, as is a good place to rest and watch that world go by. And downtown, the train still chugs through the middle of the street, right in front of the modern eleven-storied Government Center. You hear the whistle and stop to watch. Each time, it’s hard to believe.

Row houses and the wash

Columbus used to be a mill town, but most of the factories now lie in empty disrepair. Living here you become fascinated by the beauty of abandoned buildings, the simplicity of row houses, and the openness of laundry hanging on lines to dry. These images stay with you and recur in your stories.

The people

Friends bring supper when you’re sick—pimento cheese and egg salad, country captain, fried chicken. The people who come to your door care about you too. Dale is your FedEx guy. He gives you a package and shows you a picture of his twin granddaughters, Layla and Dakota. He gives you his cell phone number so if you need to sign for a package, you can call and find out where he is. The UPS guy is a real person as well, knocking on the door to ask if you’re supposed to receive a new printer three days in a row. It’s a long story, you say. He smiles.

foxThe little fox

Sitting at your desk, you watch deer graze—whole families. The doe, the buck and the fawns. You take a picture, and their white tails flash through the woods. A hawk lands on top of the old wooden swing set where no one plays anymore. But it’s the little fox who wins your heart. He doesn’t know he’s not supposed to play for hours in the middle of the grass right in front of your window, distracting you from the words. You look up from your computer more often, hoping to see him. You watch him learn to sit like a fox is supposed to sit. And then, one day, he doesn’t come out. You miss him. Back to the words.


Your husband is the reason you’re here. Long ago he sweet-talked you into moving to the town where he grew up and where he plans to stay. Your children live in other places now—Texas, Scotland, California. Only one left at home. You’re hoping for the Northeast.

And in Columbus, the unhurried life is the perfect soil for words. Take your time, it says. You have plenty of it. Fall is your favorite season, the harsh heat of summer behind you and nothing but cold mornings and dark, early nights ahead. Bare branches. Fires inside and out.

—Cynthia Newberry Martin

Oct 292010


Another Numéro Cinq What-it’s-like-living-here piece, this time by Shelagh Shapiro, a Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate, short story writer, author of that lovely Novel-in-a-Box Contest entry Infinity Falling,  and producer/interviewer for her own amazing radio show Write the Book. Listen to her latest show, an interview with Richard Russo here.


What it’s like living here

From Shelagh Shapiro

The View From The Baby’s Room

You moved here – out to the country – nineteen years ago. One-year married and seven months pregnant, you slid the moving boxes around and directed other people where to carry the furniture. The mosquitoes got so bad with doors open all that day, you took to vacuuming them out of the air. When you first looked over the property, you woke up a raccoon in the barn. Groggy and comfortable, he didn’t bother you. That night, you and Jerry slept in the baby’s bedroom at the back of the house, because the water bed wasn’t filled yet in your room. (All the next day, the bed would fill, that sixty-foot hose snaking up through the bathroom window.) The baby’s room faced the pond—as it does still—and the peepers lulled you to sleep.

Continue reading »

Oct 192010


Steven Axelrod is a former student, a painter of houses on Nantucket, an inveterate blogger on Open He also won the 2010 Memoir-in-a-Box contest with a gorgeous piece on the demise of a marriage. Herewith another in an infinite series of Numéro Cinq “What it’s like living here” pieces, in this instance, Steve’s elegiac homage to his adoptive hometown.


What it’s like living here

By Steven Axelrod on Nantucket

Closed for the Season

You walk around your island, stunned by the sudden fair weather, the giant wheel shifting the wind from north east to south west, the air like silk against your face,  the town moving into full dress rehearsal mode for the coming summer: painters sprucing up the store fronts, renovations scrambling to completion, pot holes patched, grass cut, hedges trimmed, waiting for the first boats full of Memorial Day tourists, the first surge of Range Rovers and boat trailers as the summer people take their  seats and the curtain goes up.

Ack 2 Go, Whalers!

Your son Tom graduates from high school today, and you feel ambushed by your own emotions. For years it seems you’ve known every possible sentiment ahead of time, shrugging as they trundled towards you: this is going to make you angry, that will be fun; whatever. But this comes at you from too many directions at once. It’s strange and troubling to have a feeling you can’t identify.

You grasp just bits and pieces of it at first. You feel a tug of genuine suspense when your son was crosses the stage to pick up his diploma … as if something might happen to screw it up, as if the diploma itself might be blank. You know other people feel the same way: You make the joke with a few of the parents you know, and see the nervous smile of recognition on their faces. Then comes the relief.

You call your ex-wife and you talk for a while. Later, you say to your Mom, “No one else knows what this feels like.” And she says, “What about me? I’ve been through it, too.” You hug and you find that you’re crying. She says: “For twenty years you’ve been putting yourself last; now you can finally put yourself first. You can finally do what you want. But what is that?” And you really have no idea. But you feel like some huge changes could begin now; as if you had graduated, not your son.

But even that isn’t all. The graduation unplugs you from a whole community that you didn’t even know you cared about. You weren’t really part of it, in any big way: You didn’t volunteer, or chaperone or substitute teach. But you know these kids, and through them their parents and through those families the real life of the island you live on and the town that had somehow, almost against your will, become your home. Now that living connection is gone, too. The next bunch of kids will be strangers to you; the next crazy teacher won’t be your problem. So this rite of passage isolates you. It makes you feel your age. You finished my fiftieth year, your first real novel and your children’s high school careers, all in the same week. That’s a lot of endings.

Continue reading »

Oct 052010


October, 2010

Dear DG,

Thanks for your email. You ask about Milan. What it’s like living here. You ask for descriptions, for photos…. Enclosed please find my views :

“Duomo” means cathedral.

A Gothic version wrought with grimacing monsters presides in central Milan. Recently renovated, the marble shines a bright white in direct sunlight, blushes at dawn, or grows ruddy in the gloaming of nightfall.

Pickpockets roam the piazza spread out like a large, bumpy placemat beneath the Duomo. Their glittery black eyes home in on the naïve tourist. Hand to your pocket, or arm firmly over purse, please. You have treasures to lose.

Merchandisers sell Inter, Milan, Juve soccer scarves—blue&black, red&black, white&black—from small wooden kiosks; marketers ring the perimeter with fluorescent neon in pink and blue that exhorts purchases of Gucci, Prada, Sony. Close your eyes to (un)subliminal messaging. Times are tough. Save your dough.

Pigeons squat on the equestrian bronze of King Vittorio Emanuele. White streaks drip from his greened shoulders. Hurry past, head hunkered down.

Seven o’clock shadows lengthen and grow violet while the sun sinks. Cut across the cobblestones of the piazza, wind through pickpockets, tourists, merchandisers, marketers, and pigeons. Climb the steps, enter the Duomo through tall bronze doors, choose the side altar where the Renaissance panel of the Virgin and her Son hangs. Light a candle below the image. Kneel. Even if you’re not Catholic, even if you’re not religious.

The smoky sputter of burning wax. The golden light ringing bowed heads like glowing halos. The sting of incense wafting from the main altar—hundreds of yards away—where evening mass reaches a crescendo.
 The intonation of millions of prayers, seven hundred years’ worth, reverberates in the cavernous, vibrating enclave.

You listen, knees against the stool, fingers laced together on the rail.

Dive in, again today, as you have every day since disaster struck. Add to the swirling mix.

When you finish, fall back into your wooden pew.

You remember that John Ruskin hated the aesthetics of this place. That Oscar Wilde called it monstrous in taste. But that Mark Twain, like you, scoured the thousands of niches decorated with statues of saints, and bugs and birds, and all of nature, and knew here, in the Duomo, he wasn’t alone.

“Salsamenteria” means Sauce-eria.

A new one, near the recently-opened Abercrombie and Fitch, waylays the hungry in a narrow street not far from the Duomo. Salt-cured pig haunches hang from hooks on the walls and rafters in the ceiling. Brown paper mats plaster square oak tables. Kegs of cheaper wine sprawl on a hutch to the left of the bar, bottles of finer wine march across a shelf.

Study the menu taped to the window.

Coppa, it says. Prosciutto, Culatello di Zibello. Tortellini, Ravioli. Lambrusco. Bardolino. DOP–the best of the best. 5 Euros. 6 Euros. 10 Euros. 3.5 Euros. 2 Euros. 4 Euros. 3.9 Euros. Eat. You need to eat. Mangia. Mangia. Keep your strength up.

Take a break from your vigil. Enter. Choose a table for one near the door.

Black eyes, black hair, brown skin. The waitress from Kenya, poised to serve. Pencil on pad.

Order a sandwich. Select some wine.

Pink slabs fall from thick slices of peasant bread. Green sauce—made from parsley, capers, oil and anchovies—glistens in a finger bowl on the middle of your table. Unkegged Bardolino fizzes in the white ceramic bowl the graceful Kenyan girl serves it in.

Dip your sandwich into the oily green, slurp the slick red.

Forget while you eat and drink. Listen to the clinking in the kitchen, the tap of forks against ceramic plates. Watch the girl glide and whirl.


And when wine splats on your blouse like blood (drops of crimson on white gauze) blot and wipe in the room with the skirted stick figure on the door.


Hurry out to evening mass at the Duomo.

“Ca’Granda Policlinico” means Hospital.

Designed in the Renaissance by Filarete, the Florentine, with perfect courtyards, graceful loggias and brick fretwork, the first Ca’Granda is where the ill of the city was nursed back to health. Now university students occupy Filarete’s harmonic spaces, while the Ca’Granda has migrated across the street to become the Ca’Granda Policlinico and occupy dozens of buildings of eclectic styles and dubious periods.

Rush your teenage boy here one ill-fated Monday. See how he is classified code red.

Tell the doctors: He’s healthy. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

Tell the doctors: His heart’s fine. But then listen to it beat 200 times a minute.

Wait, sitting on linoleum lit by neon.

An orderly changes rumpled blue sheets on an abandoned gurney. An infant, red with fever, cries in its father’s arms. A small pink girl in a wheelchair, her broken wrist held to her chest, fusses at her gold-jewelry-laden-black-leather-jacketed mother. And a blond boy lies down the hall, behind closed doors, in intensive care, monitors hooked to his chest and fingers.

Wait, sitting on linoleum lit by neon.

Relatives of the injured arrive. One, with stiff gray hair and sturdy brown pumps, holds the infant so his father can go to the men’s room. The pink girl’s burly grandfather bellows into his cellphone. The mother in black and gold lights a cigarette beyond sliding glass. Soon, her exhaust curls up through the night.

Your husband calls. He’s home, caring for your youngest. How is our boy? He asks.

Ask a nurse, How is my boy?

Then wait, sitting on linoleum lit by neon.

“Parco” means park.

A nineteenth-century park—the parco Sempione—sprawls around the Castello Sforzesco, the imposing castle that was built in the early Renaissance where Leonardo da Vinci frescoed rooms for Ludovico il Moro. The parco encompasses the Triennale Art Museum too, and DeChirico’s beach house sculpture.

On sunny autumn afternoons boys bring their dogs to the happy corners of Parco Sempione and run. Disks of red plastic spin through the air, dogs fetch, their pink tongues curling and flapping.

Don’t worry about curbing your dog here—no one does. But check your shoes—wipe them on the graveled walkways—when you quit the grass.

On sunny autumn afternoons boys play soccer on the grassy knolls of Parco Sempione. Under the elm, off to the side. And here, one boy, a teenage boy with blue eyes and a chipped front tooth who plays soccer in autumn crumples one graying afternoon. His chest thumps at two hundred beats a minute—like a golden hummingbird’s—while the parco fades into black.

Call 118 when this happens. Climb into the wailing vehicle. Bump over old, winding streets, ancient alleys, circular passageways, through centuries of urban sprawl and nonexistent urban planning. At rush hour.

Say faster, please faster, as you watch your boy’s lips turn blue.

Hold his hand, whisper a prayer when you see his eyelids twitch.

Plan to light a candle at the Duomo every evening until he wakes.


—Natalia Sarkissian


Sep 172010
Trekking on top of the Perito Moreno glacier

An Estancia in Patagonia

Donigan Merritt

Porteños, the people of Buenos Aires, like to refer to their city as the Paris of Latin America. It is not. (Neither was Prague when calling itself the new Paris.) Depending on one’s level of chauvinism, this may or may not be seen as a compliment, but what Porteños can accurately claim is that their city is the most European and the least Latino city anywhere in the Americas.

Buenos Aires is thought to represent Argentina, but it does not. At least Porteños should hope it does not. People outside of Latin America usually know five things about Argentina: Eva Peron’s crying song, the “dirty war,” the economic meltdown and debt default in the early years of the 21st century, steak houses, and Patagonia. Wise Porteños should claim that Patagonia is representative of the real Argentina.

Somewhat similar to “dude ranches” in the States, an estancia is a working ranch that now takes in guests to make ends meet. Although the word estancia simply means ranch, and many, if not most, are working ranches, not bucolic B and B’s with a few decorative cattle and sheep, plus a couple of decked-out gauchos strolling about in picturesque berets. Many estancias are huge, thousands of acres, particularly in the West Texas flat of the Pampas, where gauchos still work much as they have for two centuries.

The estancia at Nibepo Aike

Not all estancia guest ranches are alike. I have visited two. One just an hour and a half’s drive from the center of Buenos Aires, the other a long flight down the length of Argentina, to the bottom of Patagonia. The former is more hotel (two swimming pools, for example, one an infinity pool), with the only ranching activity being performed as a show for guests; their feature was horseback rides along the creek. The other was a working ranch with a large herd of range fed cattle, and even larger flocks of sheep. That one, Nibepo Aike, located a rough one hour slog on a ragged dirt road from the airport in the town of El Calafate, houses the few guests it can accommodate in a wing of the ranch house that used to bunk gauchos, and offers mainly one service: food and drink. Although they are helpful with directions and setting you up with excursions.

Joined by six friends from Europe, my wife and I spent a few days at Nibepo Aike this past January (mid-summer down here), using it mostly as a base from which to explore the nearby glaciers, in particular, the Perito Moreno glacier, one of the only glaciers in the world that is not receding rapidly; no one is quite sure why it is still expanding. The estancia is, convenient for explorations, on the far edge of the Glacier National Park, at the terminus of the dirt road from El Calafate – terminating because just past the estancia is the impassable Andes range and the border with Chile.

The view of the Andes and one of the small glacier lakes from the Estancia

The rooms are along each side of a narrow, creaking hallway leading away from the large main room, behind which is the kitchen, from where an amazing amount of food is delivered three times a day. Most of the décor remains from the days before guests were taken in, and the few additions fit nicely with what’s already there. My favorite piece was an ancient Underwood typewriter made into a lamp.

There is a large stone fireplace in the main room – a wonderful evening treat even in the middle of summer (it’s not much further down the road to the jump off to Antarctica, it’s worth remembering), to while away the late hours with a glass, or a bottle, of Argentina’s fine vino tinto – Malbec. When we were there, it was full, but that means only two other couples; with our eight people, that took all the rooms. One couple was Swiss, the other from Buenos Aires.

Gauchos bringing in the sheep in the afternoon

Awakening the first morning early, hoping to get in a long hike in the nearby hills, I encountered grazing cattle milling about on the lawn next to our room. The gauchos were already on their horses and at work. On the way in to have breakfast, two gauchos moved a group of fifty or sixty sheep along the road out front.

We spent that day hiking around one of the small lakes just a short walk from the estancia, and in the hills behind the estancia, that grow up to be the Andes on the other side. That night we were treated to a full Monty parilla (it means grill or BBQ), during which Malbec flowed through our glasses like water and burdened platters groaning under the heaping weight of cow and lamb parts, half of which I had never considered edible before. (I still hold that opinion about some of it.)

Only able to eat a bit of yogurt the next morning, we were picked up in a van and driven to the Glacier National Park, where we boarded a boat on Lake Argentina and wandered around among ethereally blue ice bergs and ice islands on our way to Perito Moreno.

Cooking up the lamb

There is no way to write about this that can come even close to what it looks like, up close and personal, and even less to be able to describe the sound of ice cracking within the glacier itself, and chunks the size of buses or houses exploding away from the glacier’s leading edge. The best I can do is say that ice cracking in a glacier sounds like a howitzer firing next door.

To come to Argentina and only see Buenos Aires, is like going to the United States and only visiting New York. What is best about this country, what is best about the United States, for that matter, is not to be found in its signature cities, but in the “out there,” and Patagonia is the most out there place I have ever seen.

—Donigan Merritt

Feb 152010


Cupertino is about process.

The process is about—

The process is—


The town, when I moved there, was a quiet, somewhat pleasant place at the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, with rather basic homes and cherry orchards here and there, half bedroom community, half unresolved. Most I ran into, like me, were starting out in life, on their way up and out. I largely knew Cupertino by the streets that led to the highways of my commute, 35 miles north to Hayward State on 280 and 30 miles south on 17 to UC Santa Cruz. I was a part-time college English instructor.

That was twenty-four years ago.

Marriage, a job in town at the community college, later a son—it was time to come to terms with what it was like where I lived. But also writing. Memories of other places had decayed, and those places had changed, perhaps beyond recognition. Writing, like life, is a matter of taking what you have before you and seeing what you can figure out. So I tried to discover the world I had bypassed.

I couldn’t find it.


Cupertino now, above. Of course it looks like a blowup of an integrated circuit. Cupertino is in the heart of Silicon Valley, which is more a concept than a precise physical area, extending roughly from Stanford University down to San Jose. During the boom years the tech firms screamed for more green cards, and programmers and would-be entrepreneurs and still others poured in. Ranch houses started going for a million or were leveled and replaced with huge, stucco palaces on small lots. It amazed me anyone had that kind of money. The orchards are gone, and there is housing all the way up into the hills.

Apple has its corporate headquarters here, and other firms have main offices, large complexes they call campuses, worlds unto themselves. Employees refer to themselves collectively as families, as communities, who work together long, long hours to make deadlines and beat the competition as they rush to bring out a new program, the next release, the next bump in processor speed. It is easy to get caught up in their tempo. You become aware of the time it takes your screen to refresh, for numbers to crunch. Fractions of seconds begin to matter, you think about your pulse.

But those worlds are closed off from me. You need a badge.

Also scattered throughout the town, an orchard of small buildings with Apple logos out front, some of them places for special projects, so I’ve heard, where small teams work together, away from the fold. Along with these, other small, faceless buildings of other tech concerns, whose names on their signs out front, many with an x or two, give no indication of what is being done inside.


Once, on the Apple main building, visible from 280, a huge picture of Einstein appeared, who exhorted us to Think Different.

It is unlikely you would ever see Steve Jobs on the street, but he makes iconic appearances in newspapers, online, elsewhere, everywhere it seems.


Saint Joseph of Cupertino, the Italian saint after whom the town was named, could spontaneously rise in miraculous levitation or fall into trancelike states.


So I started reading—overviews, basic guides, books on the industry, inside looks. I even learned a little programming, Pascal, C, and C++. Ethnogenesis is the process of creating a new culture, and in Cultures@Silicon Valley J. A. English-Lueck, an anthropologist at San Jose State, studies ours. Our dominant institutions, she tells us, are the corporations and networks; our heroes, the technological wizards; our chief values, efficiency, innovation, and entrepreneurship. She interviewed one former employee at Apple, who said:

Being in Silicon Valley, it’s part of a culture of people who put their heart and soul into their jobs. . . . [It] seems to be more socially conscious. . . . [Y]ou think about how the place you work affects the community or affects the world. . . . When I first [worked at] Apple, we felt we were changing the world. At Apple you definitely have the feeling that you impact people’s lives.


The bookstore is gone. The stationery store is gone. If I need envelopes to mail manuscripts, I have to drive five miles one way; Christmas cards, five miles another. I buy books online. The story of a Friday night often is that I decide to go to a small restaurant I once knew only to find it gone as well. My supermarket of some seven years has closed down, and last week I found my gas station being demolished. The WaMu branch bank around the corner, needless to say, is gone. All that is constant about Cupertino is the rate at which it disappears. I take my words from Joan Didion’s essay on what it was like where she once lived, Sacramento.

McDonald’s, Target, Home Depot, etc. don’t count..


The Apple headquarters at 1 Infinite Loop, just off De Anza Boulevard and before 280. I used to go to the Apple Store there to see the latest. It reminds me of the sparse, modern architecture you see in sci-fi movies where it appears the future has brought peace and order but something is not quite right.


During the dot-com boom, everyone seemed to have a plan for something, even those of us who weren’t in the trade, and throughout the Valley there was a lightness in the air—an uplifting, a looking up—that didn’t come entirely from the desire for cash. You could see someone with hopeful eyes walking down the street carrying a portable whiteboard. Other hopefuls met in empty offices and sat on folding chairs. The community college offered courses on how to program and manage stock options.

At one of my son’s Little League games, I started talking to a father who had a project in mind and was looking for someone to write the proposal. I met several times at his house, in his living room, which had been cleared to make space for a whiteboard and a large slab table where we sat. I read a few books and realized his project wouldn’t work. I’d like to tell you about it, but I signed a nondisclosure agreement. He was a nice guy, and I liked him. I don’t know what happened to him, though.

With the dot-com bust, startups went under and large firms grew larger, those that survived. Programmers started showing up in my classes, bright, optimistic guys looking to start new careers. I liked them, too, and got some ideas for my novel.

I don’t know what happened to them either.

Latinos gather early morning in front of the Home Depot looking for day work, the look on their faces menacing and expectant.


We have been through one major earthquake—our chimney snapped—and numerous others I don’t always feel. The state has gone through a series of tremors itself, budget crises of varying degrees. I’ve forgotten how many. As goes the state, so goes my school. For us, hiring freezes, course cancellations, pay freezes, program cancellations, benefits put on hold, even during the boom—the money didn’t reach us.

A classroom at my school.

But during downtimes, more students come to school and its energy rises. There is a renewal of purpose, at least for a while. A degree is their best shot at a better life, perhaps their only one.

I’m still a part-time instructor.


Within a ten minute walk from where I live, there are a half dozen title companies and just as many after-school enterprises—”Little Genius” comes to mind. The two are related. Our schools are good, everyone says, and our school district borders are known around the world and in every real estate office and apartment complex in town. So property values have held, the population keeps growing.

I once had an absentee neighbor whose parents rented the apartment for their daughter so she could have a Cupertino address. It amazed me anyone had that kind of money. But also small apartments are crowded with whole families so their kids can get a shot at our schools as well.

My son’s high school, where math and the sciences are pushed, boasts of its placement into Stanford, into Harvard, into the increasingly competitive UC’s, students on the way up and elsewhere.

In a survey taken there 80% of the students admitted to cheating.

A colleague of mine, now at Stanford, started a program called SOS—Stressed Out Students.

My dominant impression of my son’s years in the public schools is of paper—green sheets, assignments, worksheets, fill-in-the-blanks, study guides, outlines, exercises, packets, folders, schedules, and planners—an unending stream. Paper found its way all over our place. I did my best to help him but got headaches trying to keep track of all the procedures.



The town does have history. For example:




Monday, March 25. I said Mass. We set out from Arroyo de las Llagas at quarter to eight in the morning, and at four in the afternoon halted at the Arroyo of San Joseph Cupertino. . . . Along the way many Indians came out to us. On seeing us they shouted amongst the oaks and then came out naked like fawns, running and shouting and making many gestures, as if they wished to stop us, and signaling to us that we must not go forward.

From Petrus Font’s diary of Don Juan Bautista de Anza’s second expedition, March 1776.

But almost nowhere in Cupertino can you find a structure, a visible sign, that remains from its past.


The center of Cupertino is defined by the crossing of Stevens Creek and De Anza Boulevards. On opposite corners, two gas stations. Behind the Chevron, a shopping center where the stationery store once was, that space and others still unlet.

On another corner, East West Bank; across from it, Cupertino City Center. I had heard about Cupertino City Center before and certainly driven by, but knew nothing about it and had never walked around. But I did that recently one Saturday, walk around the center, trying once more to find out something about what it’s like where I live.

More sparse, modern architecture, a complex of more office space and apartments and a hotel and a few restaurants, maybe something else. I wanted to find out more, but the Center was deserted. The one guy I saw and stopped couldn’t answer much.

There is nothing to do in the center of Cupertino at night.

I do not know the name of our mayor.

I almost never run into anyone I know anywhere, especially students or colleagues. Not many of them can afford to live here. (After the divorce, my son and I moved through a series of apartments.)

My most frequent and most intimate connection with the town and its people still is on the major streets, Stevens Creek and De Anza, six lanes each, usually crowded, and with all the stoplights, stop and go. Quite crowded after work, and driving then is edgy, a little risky.

People are generally friendly, though, once you get out of the car.


There are neighborhoods in Cupertino, many, though they are always quiet when I bike around. You have to search to find life, and for me it was Cupertino Hoops, a basketball league for grade-school kids. That’s my son with the ball, left and right. Saturdays they would run two games in a high school gym side by side, all day, both courts filled with ten kids running up and down, shooting, missing, hitting, following imperfectly, with hesitation, with abandon the coaches’ plans, and there would be more kids on the benches, waiting, and parents in the stands, watching, everyone shouting, a daylong release for all of us from what the past week contained, a release for me into a rare joy. . . .


In my novel, the narrator, a programmer, lands a job at Summit, a large outfit in a fictional town that, not surprisingly, resembles Cupertino. He works all hours at breakneck speed on a botchy network system, also called Summit, coding quick fixes as Summit tries to steal the march on their rival. The campus, as I say, is charged with wonder and the tension from all that is left unsaid. Then he goes off campus with a dozen others to a small office on Bubb Road where they write a new system called Summix, which they build on Unix, this time getting it right.

I’d like to tell you more about his life there, but Summit went under a year later.


Steve Jobs on Kindle:

It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.

But then we got the iPad.


It is difficult to get my students to move to abstractions or talk about values and ideals. Their working definition of ideals, from what I can gather, is that they are notions that might be desirable but also are flakey, thus are suspect, at any rate are unattainable. Reality is whatever the world throws them at the present moment. There doesn’t appear to be any connection between the two.


This is a program I wrote in C language designed to create heavenly objects—stars (asterisks)—in a void. The program, in fact, contains an infinite loop, code that asks the program to repeat a process but doesn’t call for an end to that process, so it creates stars, theoretically, endlessly. When the output screen fills with stars, the screen refreshes and causes the stars to *blink*. I have received various interpretations as to what would happen if the program were allowed to run long enough, how long it would take the system to crash.


Cupertino does have parks, though they are lightly used, but almost no other open spaces. So it is surprising to still see a field at the corner of Stevens Creek and Tantau, with tall weeds and strewn trash, with No Trespassing signs and signs prohibiting dumping in four languages, that has been vacant all the years I have lived here. It is a toxic superfund site, whose soil was contaminated by leakage from two semiconductor plants, both long gone, of organic solvents includ­ing trichloroethylene, trichloroethane, tetrachloroethylene, trichloro­fluoro­ethane, and dichloroethylene.

It may prove to be our most enduring landmark.


Actually I live in San Jose now, about 50 feet away from Cupertino and not much further from Saratoga. It’s hard to know where you are in Silicon Valley by sight because the towns run together and there’s little visible difference. I moved to my current apartment because it was quieter and cheaper. I had to go to a special meeting at the school district office, however, and make an appeal to let Christopher finish at the same high school.

But I feel fortunate because a creek runs behind my place, and outside my windows I see mostly trees. The creek and land around it are owned by the city, thus the trees are protected. Not many have this view.

One spring, after a winter of especially heavy winter rains, there was an explosion in the frog population around the creek, tiny tree frogs, I think. At night the sound of their collective croaking—there must have been hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands—was loud, incessant. . . .

—Gary Garvin



Satellite photos from Google Maps.

“Think Different” picture from Noah Price,

Steve Jobs picture from Computer History Museum,

San Giuseppe da Copertino si eleva in volo alla vista della Basilica di Loreto from Wikipedia Commons.

J. A. English-Lueck, Cultures@Silicon Valley. Stanford University Press.

Joan Didion, “Notes from a Native Daughter,” Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Pictures of Lincoln School, the Kings Daughters Society, IOOF, and excerpt of Petrus Font’s diary from Cupertino Chronicle, published by the California History Center, De Anza College, 1975.

Steve Jobs on Kindle: from “The Passion of Steve Jobs,” The New York Times, January 15, 2008 (

All other photos by the author.


Gary Garvin lives in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English. He has written two novels, and his short stories have appeared in Numéro Cinqthe minnesota review, New Novel Review, Confrontation, The New Review, The Santa Clara Review, The South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and another novel.