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Jamie made a fire in a sheltered spot, and sat down next to it. The rain had eased to a faint drizzle that misted the air and spangled my eyelashes with rainbows when I looked at the flames.

He sat staring into the fire for a long time. Finally he looked up at me, hands clasped around his knees.

"I said before that I'd not ask ye things ye had no wish to tell me. And I'd not ask ye now; but I must know, for your safety as well as mine." He paused, hesitating.

"Claire, if you've never been honest wi' me, be so now, for I must know the truth. Claire, are ye a witch?"

I gaped at him. "A witch? You — you can really ask that?" I thought he must be joking. He wasn't.

He took me by the shoulders and gripped me hard, staring into my eyes as though willing me to answer him.

"I must ask it, Claire! And you must tell me!"

"And if I were?" I asked through dry lips. "If you had thought I were a witch? Would you still have fought for me?"

"I would have gone to the stake with you!" he said violently. "And to hell beyond, if I must. But may the Lord Jesus have mercy on my soul and on yours, tell me the truth!"

The strain of it all caught up with me. I tore myself out of his grasp and ran across the clearing. Not far, only to the edge of the trees; I could not bear the exposure of the open space. I clutched a tree; put my arms around it and dug my fingers hard into the bark, pressed my face to it and shrieked with hysterical laughter.

Jamie's face, white and shocked, loomed up on the other side of the tree. With the dim realization that what I was doing must sound unnervingly like cackling, I made a terrific effort and stopped. Panting, I stared at him for a moment.

"Yes," I said, backing away, still heaving with gasps of unhinged laughter. "Yes, I am a witch! To you, I must be. I've never had smallpox, but I can walk through a room full of dying men and never catch it. I can nurse the sick and breathe their air and touch their bodies, and the sickness can't touch me. I can't catch cholera, either, or lockjaw, or the morbid sore throat. And you must think it's an enchantment, because you've never heard of vaccine, and there's no other way you can explain it."

"The things I know — " I stopped backing away and stood still, breathing heavily, trying to control myself. "I know about Jonathan Randall because I was told about him. I know when he was born and when he'll die, I know about what he's done and what he'll do, I know about Sandringham because ... because Frank told me. He knew about Randall because he ... he ... oh, God!" I felt as though I might be sick, and closed my eyes to shut out the spinning stars overhead.

"And Colum ... he thinks I'm a witch, because I know Hamish isn't his own son. I know ... he can't sire children. But he thought I knew who Hamish's father is ... I thought maybe it was you, but then I knew it couldn't be, and..." I was talking faster and faster, trying to keep the vertigo at bay with the sound of my own voice.

"Everything I've ever told you about myself was true," I said, nodding madly as though to reassure myself. "Everything. I haven't any people, I haven't any history, because I haven't happened yet.

"Do you know when I was born?" I asked, looking up. I knew my hair was wild and my eyes staring, and I didn't care. "On the twentieth of October, in the Year of Our Lord nineteen hundred and eighteen. Do you hear me?" I demanded, for he was blinking at me unmoving, as though paying no attention to a word I said. "I said nineteen eighteen! Nearly two hundred years from now! Do you hear?"

I was shouting now, and he nodded slowly.

"I hear," he said softly.

"Yes, you hear!" I blazed. "And you think I'm raving mad. Don't you? Admit it! That's what you think. You have to think so, there isn't any other way you can explain me to yourself. You can't believe me, you can't dare to. Oh, Jamie..." I felt my face start to crumple. All this time spent hiding the truth, realizing that I could never tell anyone, and now I realized that I could tell Jamie, my beloved husband, the man I trusted beyond all others, and he wouldn't — he couldn't believe me either.

"It was the rocks — the fairy hill. The standing stones. Merlin's stones. That's where I came through." I was gasping, half-sobbing, becoming less coherent by the second. "Once upon a time, but it's really two hundred years. It's always two hundred years, in the stories. ... But in the stories, the people always get back. I couldn't get back." I turned away, staggering, grasping for support. I sank down on a rock, shoulders slumped, and put my head in my hands. There was a long silence in the wood. It went on long enough for the small night birds to recover their courage and start their noises once again, calling to each other with a thin, high zeek! as they hawked for the last insects of the summer.

I looked up at last, thinking that perhaps he had simply risen and left me, overcome by my revelations. He was still there, though, still sitting, hands braced on his knees, head bowed as though in thought.

The hairs on his arms shone stiff as copper wires in the firelight, though, and I realized that they stood erect, like the bristles on a dog. He was afraid of me.

"Jamie," I said, feeling my heart break with absolute loneliness. "Oh, Jamie."

I sat down and curled myself into a ball, trying to roll myself around the core of my pain. Nothing mattered any longer, and I sobbed my heart out.

His hands on my shoulders raised me, enough to see his face. Through the haze of tears, I saw the look he wore in battle, of struggle that had passed the point of strain and become calm certainty.

"I believe you," he said firmly. "I dinna understand it a bit — not yet — but I believe you. Claire, I believe you! Listen to me! There's the truth between us, you and I, and whatever ye tell me, I shall believe it." He gave me a gentle shake.

"It doesna matter what it is. You've told me. That's enough for now. Be still, mo duinne. Lay your head and rest. You'll tell me the rest of it later. And I'll believe you."

I was still sobbing, unable to grasp what he was telling me. I struggled, trying to pull away, but he gathered me up and held me tightly against himself, pushing my head into the folds of his plaid, and repeating over and over again, "I believe you."

At last, from sheer exhaustion, I grew calm enough to look up and say, "But you can't believe me."

He smiled down at me. His mouth trembled slightly, but he smiled.

"Ye'll no tell me what I canna do, Sassenach." He paused a moment. ... A long time later, he spoke.

"All right. Tell me now."

I told him. Told him everything, haltingly but coherently. I felt numb from exhaustion, but content, like a rabbit that has outrun a fox, and found temporary shelter under a log. It isn't sanctuary, but at least it is respite. And I told him about Frank.

"Frank," he said softly. "Then he isna dead, after all."

"He isn't born." I felt another small wave of hysteria break against my ribs, but managed to keep myself under control. "Neither am I."

He stroked and patted me back into silence, making his small murmuring Gaelic sounds.

"When I took ye from Randall at Fort William," he said suddenly, "you were trying to get back. Back to the stones. And ... Frank. That's why ye left the grove."


"And I beat you for it." His voice was soft with regret.

"You couldn't know. I couldn't tell you." I was beginning to feel very drowsy indeed.

"No, I dinna suppose ye could." He pulled the plaid closer around me, tucking it gently around my shoulders. "Do ye sleep now, mo duinne. No one shall harm ye; I'm here."

I burrowed into the warm curve of his shoulder, letting my tired mind fall through the layers of oblivion. I forced myself to the surface long enough to ask, "Do you really believe me, Jamie?"

He sighed, and smiled ruefully down at me.

"Aye, I believe ye, Sassenach. But it would ha' been a good deal easier if you'd only been a witch."

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Don Cherry's Hockey Stories, Part 2

It’s June 2010—the Stanley Cup finals between the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers. Ron MacLean and I have been goin’ since April 8, every other night for two months.
It’s not bad. The first two series we do out of the CBC studio in Toronto. For the semifinals and finals, we are on the road.
Our first night on the road, we’re in Philadelphia. Ron and I have a few too many pops, kind of deliberately. The playoffs remind me of when I played: you come to camp in good shape, but you all get together the first night and have a session. You’d be good all summer, and then just before camp, you ruin it.
So about ten the next morning, Ron and I are in this cab and we’re bakin’, it’s so hot. We’re in our shirts and ties because we always travel that way in the States. (People at airports think we’re detectives, as there’s usually an older cop and a young cop.) I always think my shirts look good, but they’re murder in the summer. The cab, as usual, is so small my legs are jammed up against the front seat. Why is every American cab dirty and small, with no air-conditioning and windows that don’t roll down? And, of course, I’m on the side where the sun shines through.
And the extra pops don’t help. When will we ever learn?
Folks, this is not the glamorous life everybody thinks it is. There are ticket lines at the airport. And security lines. The customs guys always seem to be ticked off about something. You get to the hotel and the rooms aren’t ready. Eventually, you unpack (I’ve got tons to unpack and Ron seems to have nothing).
So here I am, sittin’ in this hot cab, thinkin’ all these things and feelin’ sorry for myself. I look at Ron and he says, “Never mind. Just think of the twelve cold ones we’ll have on ice for after the game tonight.”
I do. Everything is right with the world.
* * *
Still in the finals. Now we’re into Chicago, and we land. We’re walking through the tunnel between O’Hare Airport and the airport hotel. As we walk along the tunnel—and we’re the only ones in it—we come to a guy with a little organ, and he’s singin’. He really sounds great.
Ron says, “Isn’t that guy a wonderful singer?” and before I can say anything, he has dropped a fiver into the guy’s hat.
I say, “You jerk. That guy’s not singing. It’s a record. That’s Sam Cooke singing. The guy is only lip-synching.”
Ron says, “You know, you’re too cynical. You should wake up to the world. There aren’t people like that. You couldn’t be more wrong.”
So about four days later, we’re on our way back. Same tunnel. Same guy. Now the guy is letting on he’s playing a violin. He sounds like Stratovarigus, or whatever his name is. I drop a fiver into his hat as a reward for being such a good con artist.
Ron gets taken every time. He never passes a guy who needs a handout, no matter what. But he definitely does get taken a lot.
For instance, we’re in Anaheim one night, and after a few pops in the bar, we’re walkin’ back to the hotel. This guy comes up to us and gives us this song and dance.
“Can you guys help me out? I’ve spent all my money on the bar, and now don’t have any money for a taxi to get home. I was wondering if you guys could help me because now I’m over the limit, and I don’t want to drive my car.”
Believe it or not, Ron bites on this one and gives the guy twenty-five bucks to get home.
I say, “Are you nuts?”
He answers, “Yes, I know. He could be lying. But what if it was true? I would never forgive myself, and I’d feel so guilty if he drove and hurt somebody.”
Hoo boy.
* * *
It’s in Philly, right between the fifth and sixth games. We go out to a bar.
Now, usually, we stay in Ron’s room at night and have a twelvepack on ice and watch TV and have a few munchies and cheese and we have a grand time. But we figured this series is going to wind up pretty soon, so the night before the sixth game, we go out to a bar for a little celebration. Believe it or not, the bartender knows all about my Bruins back when I was coachin’ them against Philly’s Broad Street Bullies. He knows everything.
I know he’s not a phony because he remembers the one game—the second game of the semifinals—that we were up 3–0 and we blew a three-goal lead, with Bobby Clarke tyin’ it up with two minutes to go. He has it all down, and he remembers how Terry O’Reilly got the winner for us in the second overtime.
Ron, who not only gives money to guys who drink too much, tips bartenders—and waitresses—like he’s paying off the national debt. This time, he tips the guy fifty bucks.
I say, “Hey, fifty bucks? What are you doing?”
He says, “Everybody’s gotta live.”
So on the way back to our hotel, we’re strollin’ along, feelin’ no pain, and we see a young guy who is really down on his luck, and he has a little dog on a piece of rope with him.
Ron says to me as we cross an intersection, “Doesn’t it break your heart to see a young fellow like that? And isn’t it wonderful how that dog loves him and sticks with him?”
So we’re halfway across the intersection by now, and I say, “Well, if you feel that way, why don’t you go back and help him out?”
I was just kiddin’. It was just a joke. He says, “I’ll do that,” and he goes back and says to the young fella. “Don’t take this the wrong way. I just want to help you out a little. I want to give you a little something to help you out, you and your dog.” And he slips him a fifty as well. What a guy! He falls for everything.

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Caledonia's Nightmare of Fear and Anarchy, and How the Law Failed All of Us
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Friday, June 9, 2006
By June 9, the worst of the occupation seemed to be over.
The mayor had just called an end to the state of emergency imposed after the riotous Victoria Day long weekend, when native occupiers destroyed a Hydro One transformer, plunging much of the county into darkness. The Argyle Street barricade, which for thirty-three days blocked traffic on Caledonia’s main drag, had been down for almost two weeks, the financial assistance office set up by the provincial government for businesses affected by the blockade was open, and a fragile calm appeared to have been restored. The situation wasn’t normal by any stretch, even by Caledonia’s deteriorating standards, but there was reason to hope.
In fact, on June 8, Michael Pullen, the Haldimand County tourism manager, sent out a giddy email announcing that the province had approved the final chunk of money for a $210,000 media campaign for the beleaguered town and burbling cheerfully about “some outstanding fishing photos” that had been taken for the print ads. “Caledonia: Close By, But A World Away” was the slogan of a publicity offensive designed to highlight the area’s bucolic charms and improve the town’s image. It was the classic government response to trouble: in the absence of actually fixing the problem, mount a public relations operation.
At the start of the season that Environment Canada was later to declare southern Ontario’s “Goldilocks summer” because of its just-right amounts of sun and rain, this day dawned cool and overcast. Before 1 p.m., three of the most alarming episodes of the entire occupation, each more violent than the last, occurred within two hours. All took place off the occupied site and well beyond any legitimacy arguably afforded the occupiers by the disputed land claim. These incidents happened instead on a public road, in a busy parking lot and in a pleasant subdivision, in front of citizens left disbelieving, enraged or weeping. In all three events, OPP officers were not only present, but also tantalizingly close to the action, well positioned to intervene.
Yet, with one exception, the police did nothing.
They failed to assist six of the eight victims, including one of their own, a fellow OPP constable. They made no arrests. They chased no perpetrator. They prevented no crime, and in one instance, either outright enabled (by handing over the keys) or allowed the theft of a car.
It all began when Kathe and Guenter Golke, then 68 and 66 respectively, decided to go for what Mr. Golke calls a fun drive. Both retired, they live in Simcoe, a country town spread low and thin, as though there isn’t enough of it to fill the space, about forty klicks southwest of Caledonia in the neighbouring county of Norfolk. The couple was heading towards Hamilton when, at the last minute, instead of hopping onto the Highway 6 bypass that skirts the town, they turned right onto Argyle Street, the main street through Caledonia.
“It occurred to me, after hearing so much about that Indian problem there, I wanted to see what it’s all about, what this property is all about,” Mr. Golke says.
He slowed their cream-coloured Ford Taurus as they pulled even with Douglas Creek Estates, and had a good, long gander at the site across the street. Suddenly, a motorcycle came flying up towards them. “Why are they driving so fast?” he thought to himself, as he pulled over to the shoulder and stopped to let the bike pass. But it drew up to his window, so he rolled it partway down. A furious woman in motorcycle leathers said, “Is there a problem?” and then let fly a torrent of verbal abuse, accusing them of coming to “look at the bad Indians.”
“This I don’t need,” Mr. Golke snapped, and floored it. “The minute I stepped on the gas, all hell broke loose,” he says. “From the ditches, a whole pile of First Nations came out, trying to stop us.” But the car was already moving—in fact, some of the natives were so close he was afraid he’d hit somebody—and he high-tailed it into Caledonia.
At the Canadian Tire parking lot just up the road, he spotted an OPP cruiser, drove right to it and was trying to explain to the officer inside what was going on when two pickup trucks and some cars materialized beside them. From these vehicles, more than a dozen people, some in camouflage-patterned gear, came running, surrounded the car and began jumping on the hood, whooping. Quickly, the crowd around them grew to about twenty.
“They were trying to bang on the windows, open her [Kathe’s] door, but it was all locked, fortunately,” Mr. Golke says. Then one of the men made a move for the steering wheel through his half-open window. As he was trying to roll it up, he saw that the officer had grabbed the man’s arm and was holding him back.
The officer somehow got them out of the Taurus and into his cruiser. By about noon, they were taken to the police substation a few blocks away. Minutes after arriving there, the police called for an ambulance for Mr. Golke. A diabetic who’d already had two heart attacks, his heart was now pounding and he was grey. He spent about twelve hours in hospital, diagnosed with heart fibrillation, an abnormal rhythm that, untreated, can lead to heart failure or stroke. The couple remain grateful to the officer who rescued them—as Mrs. Golke says, “I win the lottery, I send him off to a nice vacation”—and completely untheatrical about the entire incident. They were just happy to get their car back—damaged to the tune of three thousand dollars, but their insurance covered it—a couple of days later.
The Golkes had no idea that their attackers had merrily driven away in their beloved Taurus, having either been actually handed the keys by a member of the OPP’s Aboriginal Relations Team (known as the ART), as some officers believe, or having hot-wired and stolen it in front of a gaggle of cops. Certainly, although seven occupiers were later charged with a variety of offences in relation to the two events that day in the parking lot, no one was ever charged with theft of a motor vehicle.
Self-sufficient German immigrants (Mr. Golke arrived in Canada in 1961 with twenty-four dollars to his name and, when the customs official remarked upon his lack of funds, he smartly replied, “I came here not to bring it; I came to make it”), the couple claim no lasting ill effects but for the way Mrs. Golke starts at the sound of a motorcycle. Still, Mr. Golke says, “You picture this happening in Third World countries, but you don’t think Canada can be like that.” Canada is still “No. 1 for Germans,” he says, and their friends back in the old country “couldn’t believe it happened in Canada.”
The Golkes didn’t know the half of it.
About the time they were being surrounded by what can only be described as a mob, Ken MacKay and Nick Garbutt were at CHCH-TV in Hamilton, about fifteen minutes from Caledonia, when someone on the news desk heard over the police scanner that something was happening there.
Something was always going on in Caledonia—CH crews had been there almost daily and knew the atmosphere was highly charged—so when MacKay drew the short straw, he decided, “I’m only going if someone else comes with me.” Mostly, he wanted the comfort of knowing someone had his back—holding the camera means the operator can’t see much on his right side. Earlier that week, a couple of cameramen had been confronted by hostile occupiers, “and we just felt it wasn’t safe to go up there by ourselves anymore,” MacKay says.
Nick Garbutt was the next guy up in the rotation, so in two separate trucks, they headed for the Canadian Tire lot. They pulled into the north end and could see something was going on at the south, but not what exactly it was. As the Golkes never saw the CH crew, so Garbutt never clamped eyes on the Golkes’ car, let alone on the couple themselves. But MacKay, the shooter, says he could tell the crowd was around a car and that police were in there with them, talking to them.
“My story was to show here’s natives around the vehicle, here’s the police standing, over here . . . and nothing’s being done.”
MacKay grabbed his camera, Garbutt following, and as they got closer, an OPP officer—whom Garbutt assumed was in charge and refers to as the sergeant—raised his hands for them to stop.
“Ken and I realized we’re sort of a distance away from the scene,” Garbutt says, “so I said I’d go back and get the tripod.” They set up by a white tradesman’s van, and MacKay started shooting. What they could see was the crowd milling about and a group of uniformed OPP officers standing, spread out in a makeshift line.
The natives spotted them. “Three or four of them start approaching us,” Garbutt says. The natives walked right past the officer who had waved to the news crew to stop. “They walk quickly past the sergeant,” he says. “The sergeant’s eyeballing me. I sense trouble and I put my hands up to the sergeant to go, meaning ‘What’s going on here?’ My thoughts are, ‘A little help here?’ Because I sense trouble.”
“Here they come,” he told MacKay.
“I see them,” MacKay replied, taking the camera off the tripod and sort of backing up.
“They were telling us, ‘Stop taping, put the camera away!’” Garbutt says. “So Ken says yeah.”
Garbutt stood his ground, but the natives were running now, and the first guy shouldered past him, spinning him around, and began wrestling with MacKay, trying to get the camera.
“Give me the fucking tape, give me the camera,” the man told MacKay. “I said, ‘I’m not doing that, not doing that.’ So I’m stalling, hoping that these guys—the cops—are going to come and help us.”
By this time, there were six natives around MacKay, who was trying to protect the camera and using the tripod as a guard. When someone managed to grab his arm, it was Garbutt’s cue to step in and help. He hooked onto the lead assailant by the elbow, trying to spin him away from MacKay.
“They grab Nick,” MacKay says, “and they put their arm across his throat and throw him up against the van and put him in a headlock, and they punch him.” MacKay saw “there’s cops right there, three of them . . . and I turn around and I yelled, ‘Do something! Do something!’ And they just looked at me.”
Garbutt was briefly released, or so he thinks now, and saw that MacKay was still in a struggle over the camera, while other officers stood right there.
“How can that happen?” Garbutt asks. “It should have ended there. So I go into the melee and I start trying to help Ken out. Again. Then I’m surrounded by three or four natives, who jostle me and start . . . I’m getting jostled and surrounded, and that’s when the actual assault on me takes place.”
Garbutt was getting hit from behind on the top of his head; he remembers taking between four and six blows. “And I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this won’t last long.’ All the OPP officers are on scene, this was the first actual physical violence that has happened. This won’t last long, because obviously the officers will step in now because they’ve seen this. They were so close to me.” All of a sudden, Garbutt “felt two hands on my shoulders and someone’s telling me, ‘It’s okay, it’s over, just start walking backwards,’ and I look up, expecting to see an OPP officer in uniform. And it wasn’t an officer in uniform. It was somebody in plain clothes, and I thought, ‘Ah, it’s an officer in plain clothes who’s come to rescue me.’”
MacKay was thinking much the same thing. “My whole tactic was to keep stalling,” he says, “because eventually more cops are going to show up and get these guys off of us, because Nick’s actually being hit, and I’m having a forty-thousand-dollar camera taken out of my hands.”
Only a few minutes later, as Garbutt profusely thanked the “officer” and asked for his name, did he discover that his rescuer was not a provincial policeman, but a Caledonia civilian named Ken Sullivan. He led Garbutt and MacKay back to their news trucks.
“I was still itching to get back in [the fight],” Garbutt says. But now he felt the blood dripping down his face, and allowed himself to be persuaded.
MacKay, an ex-CBC employee who was enrolled in teachers’ college at the time and working for CH only for the summer, is now an elementary school teacher not far from his home in Port Dover, on Lake Erie. But the then 46-year-old journalist-turned-teacher had had a third career: he is also a former soldier, a member of the 1st Battalion of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
“I was in the regular forces way back when, ’78 to ’81,” he says. “There was nothing happening back then. But it teaches pride for the uniform, and that’s what I said to these guys [the police]: ‘How can you guys wear that uniform?’ My buddy’s over there bleeding. And they wouldn’t look. Nick was over to their right, he was on a car, civilians were cleaning him up with towels, and they’re standing there, and they’re covering up their [badge] numbers, so I can’t get names or numbers, and I asked, ‘Who’s the sergeant in charge?’
“And they said, ‘We don’t know.’
“I said, ‘Give me a break. There has to be a sergeant in charge, with this number of people, there has to be a sergeant in charge; I want to know his name.’ Nobody would answer me.”
Finally, MacKay says, an officer wearing gloves took a look at Garbutt, called for an ambulance, and “the cops just disappeared—vapourized.”
One officer, furious and embarrassed, climbed into the ambulance to whisper to Garbutt, “You should sue the OPP!” He went to hospital in Hagersville, where he got a tetanus shot and four stitches to the biggest of the cuts on the head. And MacKay, with only a few bruises, quickly got the camera back, minus the videotape inside (the natives refused to give police any of the pictures, as they also refused to be interviewed later).
Garbutt and MacKay decided to file formal complaints. They did this on June 27 with the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services, which sent the complaints right back to the OPP for investigation, as per the governing legislation. OCCPS may advertise itself to be, and may be perceived to be, an independent agency that investigates citizen complaints against police, but as its spokesman Cathy Boxer succinctly puts it, in practice the agency acts “as a post office” and just forwards the beef to the police force that is the subject of the complaint.
The OPP asked the Ottawa Police Service to conduct the actual probe, two sergeants were assigned, and after extensive interviews with thirty OPP officers and about the same number of citizens who had witnessed all or part of the events in the Canadian Tire lot, they reported back to Garbutt and MacKay one month shy of a year after their attack. I have both reports, and while no one could argue that the investigation wasn’t complete, it was also weirdly nitpicking, with an odd passive-aggressive tone, almost as though the investigators set out to minimize what had happened. Where the cameramen complained that they had begged the police for help to no avail, for instance, the report offers detailed breakdowns of where various groups of officers were, and goes to extraordinary lengths to explain why their views may have been blocked or limited, or why they failed to act. In an especially galling illustration, the reports note that officers from one “vehicle were immediately confronted by Six Nations people and were stopped from going any further by these Six Nations people,” and make no further comment, as though it were the norm that police are routinely stopped from doing their job by civilians who say, in effect, please cease and desist.
As MacKay, paraphrasing, says: “‘The natives were in our way?’ Go around them! Arrest them for obstructing justice!”
And while two intelligence officers who arrived at the parking lot early on—one of whom went into the Canadian Tire store while the other stayed in his car—took a total of 157 pictures, neither managed to get any of the first part of the initial struggle-cum-assault, when Garbutt was thrown up against a white van and MacKay was fighting to hang onto his camera. The first officer, the reports say, was changing memory cards and it took him two minutes, by which time “the incident beside the white van had already occurred.” To this, MacKay snorts, “I teach photography; it does not take two minutes to change a memory card.”
The second intelligence officer “wasn’t interested in the cameraman,” the reports say, because he was trying to photograph as many of the Six Nations people as he could. As MacKay scrawled furiously in the margin of his copy of the reports, “Both police intel photogs stopped taking pictures at the same time . . . How convenient.”
In the end, the Ottawa officers acknowledged that the assault and robbery took place and that the police made no attempt to arrest a single, solitary soul. But they also said the perception that the OPP hadn’t intervened was refuted by pictures showing officers involved at various points in the melee (which is not the same thing as going to the aid of the cameramen).
The conclusion? There was “insufficient evidence” to support the allegations.
Only Garbutt appealed the decision to OCCPS, which again sent it straight back to the OPP, which decided there had been a splendid investigation and no further action need be taken. Garbutt appealed to OCCPS again, and in April of 2008 the agency wrote him to say a review panel had examined the file and was satisfied. Twenty-two months later, it was over.
Garbutt, who was then 53, went back to work in the business he’d been in for almost three decades; CHCH gave him the choice of staying away from Caledonia if he wanted, but he returned frequently.
For a time, the station hired a private security firm to accompany crews, but the firm was based in London, Ontario, and the arrangement was sometimes awkward and time-consuming, so the cameramen sometimes still ended up going on their own. Garbutt became very aware of his surroundings, but never again felt threatened.
“In the grand scheme of things,” he says, “what happened to me is reflective of probably the big picture, but I don’t put much stock in what happened to me. That was my fifteen minutes of fame, that I didn’t want, and it was probably one of the more visible hooks that was a tipping point—a journalist got mugged up. So what happened to me, my suffering, is minimal compared to what all the people of Caledonia were being put through, the businesses, the homeowners who live near the property lines who suffer the intimidation at night . . .”
Ken MacKay never went back. “That was it,” he says. “I asked not to go.” He figured with all the publicity there had been, he was too easy and recognizable a target. To this day, he still drives around the town in order to get home to Port Dover. He finished off that summer with CH, went back to teachers’ college, and began working in a school in the fall of 2007.
Buried in the reports, however, were fleeting glimpses of the new Caledonia reality. Officers were clearly confused by their marching orders, with some, including at least one sergeant, believing that the OPP were not to “use any use-of-force options on the Six Nations people” and that, in general, “they were to stand down when dealing with the Six Nations.” These officers couldn’t, or wouldn’t, point to anyone who had said those specific words, but it was clear that the occupiers were already well recognized as being in the do-not-disturb category, untouchable. And at least one officer said that when he saw the camera being stolen, “he questioned one of the sergeants why the person was not being arrested, but there was no answer.”
Police officers have the individual discretion to make arrests, to act; they don’t need a superior’s permission, and neither do they usually ask for it. The hard truth of the OPP’s new way of doing business was perhaps better measured that day by Inspector Brian Haggith. Haggith is a Caledonia resident and veteran OPP officer who, from the very start of the occupation, was delegated by his force to act as the OPP liaison with townspeople, precisely because he is so well liked and trusted. Faithfully, he had for more than three months toed the company line: officers were to keep the peace; negotiations were underway and looked promising; residents should be patient.
By June, he was in his third week of working out of the OPP’s Western Region Headquarters in London—his superiors were concerned the steady diet of sixteen-hour days and endless meetings with frustrated residents was wearing him down and thought he could use a change of scenery. But he still lived in Caledonia, and June 9 was a day off for him. In shorts and a shirt, he headed to the Canadian Tire store purely by chance. He arrived at the tail end of the confrontations, but saw enough to sicken him—the blood on Garbutt’s face, for one thing. As he testified on December 9, 2008, during examination for discovery at the civil lawsuit of Caledonia couple Dave Brown and Dana Chatwell, he overheard numerous citizens complaining that the OPP had stood by and done nothing as the Golkes were swarmed and the cameramen attacked.
Haggith was, he testified, particularly shaken by the sight of a woman on a cell phone, obviously talking to a 911 dispatcher and oblivious to the fact that the man in shorts beside her was also a cop. “The police won’t do anything,” Haggith heard her say. “Who is going to help us?”
Haggith testified that the dispatcher asked for the woman’s name, and she replied, “I will not give you my name because I don’t want my name to get out because you will not protect me.” “Basically,” Haggith explained, the woman was saying “I don’t want the natives to find out that I called you because you won’t protect me.” As she spoke, he said, she was weeping. And as she shut the cell phone and gave it to another woman, she started crying again, got into a car and drove away.
Haggith headed to the Unity Road command post and found Superintendent Ron Gentle, the incident commander that day. “I asked, ‘Are we going to be arresting these people?’” Haggith testified. “I also told him that this violence, that this has gone on too far: citizens are concerned for their safety, and that was what was relayed to me on the site. There were ladies crying, saying the police will not protect us, the police, you know, allowed the CH man to be beaten up or assaulted. So I expressed those comments to the superintendent . . . . I told him it’s time to make arrests.”
What Haggith also said, according to OPP sources, was this: “We can’t cower anymore.” He testified that, more generally, “we were dealing with this incident [the occupation] differently because it was a land claim situation, and we were trying through peaceful negotiations to get a peaceful resolution, and we tried and we tried and we tried.” And compared to the way the OPP normally did business, Haggith said, he “would have to agree” with the widespread view in town that the police weren’t doing their job. He agreed that there were earlier incidents “where the law was broken and officers were in sight to observe it, yes.”
But the distinguishing factor common to the June 9 events, what made them unusually alarming, was that they all occurred off the DCE site, off the site of the protests surrounding the land claim.
“Yes, that was an act of aggression,” he testified, “and it was lawlessness . . . that had nothing to do with the land claim. It was strictly lawlessness and they should have been arrested, and that was my opinion.”
While at the command post, Haggith also learned from other officers of the third incident, the one before which the others paled. What he found out was that one of his friends, Detective Constable Norm Ormerod, an intelligence officer, had been seriously hurt. Ormerod never returned to work. He spent some time in hospital, some time on disability, and then put in his papers, as cops call it, and retired.
Dave Hartless had just got out of the shower and was on his way to work—he’s a detective constable with the Hamilton Police—when he walked out into the middle of chaos at the end of his street, Braemar Avenue.
In this part of the newish development of single-family homes, Braemar hits Thistlemoor Drive and ends abruptly in a little cul-de-sac. Thistlemoor backs directly onto the western edge of the Douglas Creek site; Braemar backs onto the railway tracks and hydro right-of-way, areas that, while not part of DCE, nonetheless had also been taken over by the occupiers.
By this stage, Braemar was one of eight or nine hot spots in town that the OPP had designated as checkpoints, and to which it had assigned cruisers 24-7 and given military-style code names. Braemar was Hotel checkpoint; the cul-de-sac where Braemar hits Thistlemoor was Golf; Quebec was the corner of Thistlemoor and Kinross Street, and so on.
What Hartless saw was this: a native man got out from behind the wheel of a vehicle and stood right in front of the two officers in the cruiser permanently stationed at Golf. The man spread his arms wide and shouted, “Arrest me! Arrest me!”
“They [the two officers] do nothing,” Hartless says. “‘Come on! Arrest me!’ They do nothing. So he turns back and he says, ‘See? Your fucking cops can’t touch us! You’re all next!’ He gets in the truck and fucks off and drives it across Graeme’s [a neighbour’s] lawn, down onto the DCE and across the tracks.”
What Hartless was seeing—as were other residents of Thistlemoor who had gathered, drawn by the noise—was the end of perhaps the most egregious example of brazen lawlessness of the entire occupation.
In Caledonia that day, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Buffalo, New York, were Mike Powell and Thomas O’Brien, two agents with the U.S. Border Patrol, an agency of Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—the largest arm of the Department of Homeland Security and the one responsible for keeping terrorists and other bad guys out of the States—and Steven Dickey, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (still known by its old abbreviation of ATF), another U.S. law enforcement organization, which tracks criminals involved in the trafficking of firearms, explosives and illegal tobacco.
With Detective Constable Ormerod, the three were in a blue Chevy Tahoe parked in the little Thistlemoor cul-de-sac, conducting surveillance and sharing intelligence on DCE because, as Hartless notes wryly, some of “their badasses have come up to join the fight against injustice with Six Nations.” At about 2:15 p.m., the lawmen, unarmed and in plain clothes, were about to call it quits for the day when two vehicles suddenly appeared and blocked off one exit. A pickup truck arrived within seconds, shutting off the only other route out: Graeme Fisher’s unfenced back lawn. About fifteen men emerged and surrounded the Tahoe, and two of them, later identified as Trevor Dean Miller and Albert Kirk Douglas, both then 31, both from Six Nations and both dressed in green camouflage, began banging on the hood, arguing aloud about whether the men inside were cops and whether to run them off—or worse.
The four officers saw the large knife Miller had attached to the front of the military-style web gear he wore, and that he had his hand on it. Miller began shouting at the four to get out, making “lunging movements” with the knife.
According to the affidavit sworn on July 7, 2007, by Philip Knapp, the lead border agent for the Buffalo office, Detective Constable Ormerod “instructed the American law enforcement agents to comply with the attackers’ demands to exit the government Tahoe.” Powell and Dickey, the driver and front-seat passenger, got out. Dickey was wearing his ATF badge on a chain around his neck. One of the attackers, “wearing a mask,” grabbed for the badge, but Dickey pushed him away.
At that point, Miller began advancing towards Dickey “in an intimidating manner and began to pull the knife out of the sheath.” (Hartless, ever the trained observer, later spotted this knife in its sheath during the denouement he witnessed.) Dickey, now essentially engaged in hand-to-hand combat, delivered two karate chops to Miller’s collarbone and neck, causing his arm to go numb and stopping the attack. Powell, meanwhile, was confronted by Douglas, who looked into the car, spotted the U.S. government radio in the console and began shrieking, “What the fuck is this?” and “They’re spies! They’re spies!” He pushed Powell aside and got into the driver’s seat.
Because the Tahoe was a police vehicle, the rear doors—as a safety feature—had to be opened from the outside. Just as Douglas began to drive off, Powell got the driver’s-side rear door open and O’Brien leaped out. But Ormerod was still frantically trying to exit the Tahoe, which was now accelerating. Dickey working the handle from the outside, Ormerod kicking against the door from the inside in the rear seat, the door finally opened—and Ormerod jumped out, landing violently on the pavement. He was knocked unconscious.
Douglas then put the Tahoe in reverse and tried to run Ormerod over, “narrowly missing” him only because the other three officers and some of the residents who had been watching managed to drag him out of the vehicle’s path. As they took cover behind one of those big community mailboxes that are a feature of the modern subdivision, Douglas got out of the car and approached the OPP cruiser—and at that point, made the threats Hartless saw and heard, before taking off in the Tahoe.
The officers in the cruiser called for backup, and within minutes, Hartless says, the area was flooded with cops, which meant that within another minute or so, “we’ve got a big fucking crew of natives coming up because the OPP are here.” By now, this was absolutely standard procedure. To paraphrase the New Testament, Matthew 18:20, wherever two or three OPP gathered within sight of DCE, the occupiers would swarm the area. Among them was Clyde (Bullet) Powless, a high-steel worker and Six Nations member who by now was the head of security on the DCE site.
Hartless says one of the residents approached Powless “and says they stole the fucking truck, so Powless has a few words back and forth with some of his guys and off they go on the quads [all-terrain vehicles], and the next thing you know the truck [the Tahoe], about half an hour later, comes back out.”
According to the U.S. documents, it was about two hours later that the Tahoe was returned. Powless parked it next to Graeme Fisher’s place and walked away, back to Douglas Creek Estates. “And they’re all sort of stood off in the field and they’re giving the finger and waving the flags and yelling and squawking off,” Hartless says.
It appears that a portable toilet—several of which were on the site—had been emptied into the Tahoe. The truck’s contents, including various top-security lists of informants and undercover operatives, body armour, handcuffs and binoculars, were gone. Eventually, some of the stolen items were retrieved, if only, as the U.S. court documents note, “after negotiations” with the occupiers. The body armour was rendered useless; the trauma plate had been stabbed several times. The Tahoe was deemed unsafe and was removed from service.
Eight people were eventually arrested—weeks, months, and in one case more than a year later—and charged with a variety of offences in the three searing events of that long day. Only Miller and Douglas did any significant jail time. Of the eight, one was from Victoria, British Columbia, two from Akwesasne, near the convergence of the borders of Ontario, Quebec and New York State, and five from Six Nations. Miller was arrested in August that year. Douglas was only arrested in September of 2007, reportedly on a routine traffic stop. Both spent about six months in pre-trial custody.
Because of that, though Miller pleaded guilty to two offences, including the theft of the Tahoe, he was sentenced to time served and a year’s probation. Similarly, though Douglas at one point faced five charges, including attempted murder, it appears from documents at Cayuga court that he was convicted only in the theft of the Tahoe.
Though the Canadian documents are neither clear about the final disposition of Douglas’s charges nor complete, they do show that at least one count was withdrawn against Douglas at the request of the prosecutor.
The Hamilton Spectator reported in April of 2008—on the occasion of Miller’s arrest in the United States as he entered Minnesota—that Douglas had earlier been sentenced to time served in the theft of the Tahoe. He still faces several felony charges in New York and is considered a fugitive. Most charges against the others involved that day were also withdrawn by prosecutors. In February of 2010, one man pleaded guilty in the theft of the CHCH camera and was sentenced to the time he’d already served—fifty-six days—and fined fifty dollars.
As Hartless watched the Tahoe being towed away that day, he was incensed.
“The police call for the flatbed and it’s towed off and off they go,” he says. “They do nothing else. Are you kidding me? The two officers, at the end of the street, they actually congratulate them for having restraint. That was outright cowardice. They stood there and watched [four] people get carjacked right in front of them; they say, ‘We didn’t have time to react.’ You don’t have time to react in that short a space, you’re in the wrong fucking job.”
The day was by no means over. At 3 p.m., officers at the Unity Road command post were briefed and told that, in anticipation of a reaction from townspeople to all that had happened, the public order units of the Hamilton and Toronto police had been notified. The briefing sergeant also said he’d received word from command staff: “Enough is enough. Anyone committing a criminal act is to be arrested.”
This was what Inspector Haggith had been told too, after his impassioned plea for his cops to be able to act like cops.
In a second briefing three hours later, officers were formally told what most of them already knew, and what some had seen evidence of with their own eyes: the brass was finally “satisfied there are long guns and handguns on Douglas Creek.” An OPP superintendent in attendance further admitted that things were “now out of control.” Yet members of the Emergency Response Team (ERT) were ordered again to wear what might be called “Caledonia hardtack” that night, meaning they could sling, but not wear, the protective helmets that are standard fare for riot squads being sent into volatile situations, and have close by, but not actually carry, their protective shields. Ever since the occupation had begun, more than three months earlier, not once were ERT members allowed to wear their gear as they routinely trained to do.
By 9 p.m., as many as a thousand angry townspeople were gathering not at the usual spot, the Argyle Street barricades, but in the Thistlemoor subdivision, behind Notre Dame School—the area where the four officers had been surrounded and attacked. Pat Woolley, a land surveyor who was to have done considerable work on DCE, wandered over, and was there when the ERT came marching down. Like many, he’d watched and heard reports of the awful day on the news. “They were all carrying their helmets,” Woolley says, but, bringing up the rear, he could see four officers carrying sub-machineguns. He heard what the sergeant said: “Okay, suit up! We’re going in and getting them out of there!”
Woolley’s heart soared in his chest. He thought, “This is it, they’ve had enough and they’re going in!” But in an instant, he realized the police weren’t heading for DCE, where a large crowd of occupiers were gathered, but for the townspeople.
“And they did a clearing manoeuvre,” Woolley says, “and cleared these people out.”
At long last, the police made a contemporaneous arrest. They arrested a Caledonia resident, one of the throng in the road, and loaded him into a paddy wagon. The townspeople stayed on the road, blocking the vehicle.
“I had kind of gone from being a spectator and I had kind of got involved as well,” Woolley says. “You judge these situations, and I judged they [the residents] were standing there, nobody was touching the police or anything, but they’d arrested some guy and [people] said, ‘We’re going to stop them.’ And so they [the paddy wagon] inched forward.”
Woolley was moving in and out of the crowd when he had “my road to Damascus moment, not that I hadn’t had it before, but I came out and sort of stepped out of the crowd.”
People were shouting at the officers, “Do your job! Do your job!”
Woolley approached the police line. “Guys, do you hear this?” he said. “Do you hear what’s going on? You’re just a disgrace, everybody’s just ashamed and appalled at your behaviour.”
“I was just really animated,” he says. “My grandfather fought against the Germans in Germany for this, for law and order. If these guys came back, they wouldn’t have put down their arms, they would have just marched on.”
He began furiously pointing at an officer as he spoke, the moment captured in a photograph that is now famous locally. Woolley told the man he’d been talking to his mother, and she too was ashamed of the OPP, and wanted her son to quit and go to work for a real force, like Toronto’s. He said, “You guys should be upholding the law.”
“They just stood there stone-faced. I was trying to provoke a reaction. It’s not in my nature to say ‘you piece of shit.’ And the other thing I said, I said, ‘How can you allow one of your own to be attacked like that? Who are you?’”
Woolley calls the incident “a reverse riot, probably the only one in the world,” because instead of police trying to calm an unruly mob by urging them to shape up and obey the law, here was the citizenry, at its wits’ end, “yelling at the police to behave, to uphold the law, to act responsibly.”
Shortly after, the crowd decided they simply were not going to let the paddy wagon proceed.
“So we all sat down in the road,” Woolley says. “Yeah, we all sat down right in the middle. There were probably about two to three hundred of us who sat down.”
There, in the middle of the night, this perfectly respectable professional surveyor, graduate of Trinity College at the University of Toronto, well-married father of three, joined his equally respectable neighbours in a sit-in. He was wearing a Hamilton Tiger-Cat shirt. It read, WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE.

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Growing Up Jung

Growing Up Jung

Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks
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The Marginalized
(A Terrorist in the Family)
“Well, if you’re just going to stare at the ceiling instead of making eye contact with me and won’t tell me how you’re feeling, why don’t you describe what you see? Perhaps you see a figure or a story in the shapes of the plaster that will help us to know what’s happening with you?”
My father said this in the fluffy-edged psychologist voice that he would have used with all his clients that week. It’s marked by a soothing sound that begins far back in the throat and is followed by a series of slow, encouraging nods. I always knew that when he spoke like that to my sister things were not going well.
“I see a ceiling,” Andreya said. “And I don’t feel like talking about it.”
I later dubbed this event, which occurred in the downstairs family room of our house, the Toub Family Peace Conference of 1986. I was ten years old; my sister, fourteen. We lived in a tract housing suburb of Denver, Colorado, so our family room was identical to the thousands of other family rooms in the thousands of other houses that expanded outward from ours in a seemingly never-ending and symmetrical grid. I can’t help feeling, though, that what was happening that day, in our family room, was unique.
I viewed the proceedings from the kitchen, half a floor up, where I engaged my G.I. Joes in quiet battle on the linoleum floor. My father sat on one side of the long, red, velour couch and my sister leaned against the arm on the opposite side. My father wasn’t a huge man, but he always maintained an athletic physique due to his weekly racquetball matches. Compared to Andreya, he was the physically dominant one, but he always undercut his muscular stockiness with a gentle demeanor that seemed, in its affect, to equalize the two of them. Andreya, with her half-black skin and curly brown hair—hair that she spent hours straightening every day to look more like the girls on television and in her school—didn’t much resemble our father. Well, actually not at all. She is a child from our mother’s first marriage; my father adopted her when she was three. Leaning toward her chin-first, my father was attempting to make eye contact with Andreya through his square-framed glasses. She refused to capitulate, shielding herself with her scowling dark eyebrows and arms across her chest. My mother, an ally to both parties, sat on the rocking chair on the other side of the room, her small frame swallowed by its plaid pattern. She had been a tireless mediator over the years, but now she was letting the negotiations take place without her involvement, trying to say nothing. There was very little light coming into the room since it was halfway underground, lending the event an ominous air.
My father let out a great sigh and shook his head slowly, sadly. I eyed the ceiling above their heads. The white mass of ridged plaster was a scorched and hopeless landscape of dunes. A prisoner, ankles tied, was being marched across the desert to his execution while, alongside, his captors rode a camel. An unidentified flying object hovered above the scene, observing. I wished that my sister would see these things too, but she wasn’t even trying.
“Every family has a culture,” my mother told me a few years ago, “and as in all cultures, whether it’s a country or a company, there’s a mainstream way of doing things—the way most people do them—and then there’s a smaller group that doesn’t do things that way. That group is the marginalized faction.”
I nodded. We were discussing—and not for the first time—what had happened so that my father and sister were hardly speaking anymore and had had almost no relationship for fifteen years. We were analyzing the history of the struggle, trying to tease out the root causes and I could tell my mother was coming to a conclusion.
“We call that marginalized role in the group the terrorist. And Andreya,” my mother said very gravely, “was the terrorist of our family.”
The theory, she went on to explain, was something she learned from one of her first mentors, post-Jungian Arnold Mindell. At the time, she wasn’t in contact with him much, but when I was growing up, she and my father were members of his inner circle and his psychological theories and practices had been a constant presence in our house. Back then, he was always just referred to as “Arny,” but nowadays I like to refer to him as my parents’ “former guru.”
In my head, I created the movie: a family sitting around the dinner table—a Thanksgiving spread with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, the works. They’re all wearing knit sweaters and smiles. But if you peer beyond the table, into the darkness of the family room below, you can just make out a trench dug in the carpet, a teenager peeking above, her face smudged with dirt so as to be camouflaged with the brown shag. Her arm is cocked back, ready to pitch a grenade and take out the whole placid lot of them.
It sounds like an exaggerated illustration, but my mother would say that my scene is exactly what she’s talking about. In fact, my mother never exaggerates, though she is prone to the use of metaphors. The scene, she would say, represents what is really happening.
The terrorist, she explained to me, acts in opposition to a family’s prescribed way of being. The terrorist is the one who refuses to be involved in family rituals and doesn’t laugh at the family jokes.
He is the black sheep, the one people are referring to when they say, “They’re such a nice family, but that Joey, well, he’s different, isn’t he?”
In a wealthy, social-climbing family, this person might sell all his belongings and head off to Africa. If one’s parents are artists, instead of being creative, eccentric, and persistently broke, the terrorist might become a clock-punching accountant with a spouse, two kids, and a dog. Like a family’s signature odor, a family’s culture may not always be something that’s considered positive by the world outside the boundaries of that family’s walls: “C’mon, Jimmy, have another beer. It’s not going to kill you. Since when did my son become such a wuss?”
Sometimes, the marginalized member of the family actually appears to be in the mainstream by most people’s standards. Alex P. Keaton, the Ronald Reagan–loving, money-grubbing son of two bleeding-heart liberals in Family Ties, was the terrorist of his television sitcom family.
However, even if the grenade-wielding daughter at Thanksgiving is an accurate picture of what’s really happening emotionally, I figured that when Arny used the same term given to suicide bombers for a member of one’s family, he meant only to hammer home his point. But, as I found out after stealing some of his books off my parents’ shelves, this is not exactly the case.
As it turns out, Arny has worked not just with groups of hippies, but has also been a mediator in international conflicts that involved the kind of disputes and violence we normally associate with the term terrorism. In his book Sitting in the Fire, Arny suggests that alienation and anger, whether on the world scale, in companies, or in families and relationships, are in some ways parallel in their dynamics. The book is mostly written about working with political groups, but Arny writes that like these bigger groups, small groups like families also include members who are marginalized as a result of possessing qualities or attitudes that the mainstream system has shut out. In fact, he says the very existence of the terrorist comes about because certain qualities are repressed from the mainstream. The main thrust of Arny’s book is that conflict arises in groups—between the terrorist and the mainstream, for example—from a need to shift the culture in a direction that is more inclusive and whole. Both the country and the family need to figure out how to integrate the terrorist’s qualities and attitudes into the mainstream culture to make the terrorist role unnecessary. Therefore, one could consider his wayward sister akin to a suicide bomber and, at the same time, a suicide bomber could be viewed as a sister—a sister in a family in which she doesn’t quite fit in, and who has taken up an unwelcome viewpoint simply because no one else did.
Our family culture was a particularly calm and encouraging one. “That’s good that I died in your dream, Micah,” my father once told me. “That means you’re integrating your inner father and becoming more independent.”
We talked about our problems, and we understood that our issues with each other were often just issues within ourselves. “I am angry with you right now because the part of me represented by you is not being allowed to emerge into consciousness,” we might say. “It’s not you, it’s me.”
Self-reflection—or taking the metaview—was a highly valued trait and, even now, the fact that I’m writing this, stepping back to consider the concept of a family culture and applying it to my own family, is a direct result of that. And the fact that I just wrote that sentence raises me to an even higher plane—the meta-metaview. Reflecting on life in double-meta land is perhaps a bit, I don’t know, self-indulgent, but in my family, it is a great achievement. Little practicalities like trimming the weeds in the backyard or buying a new kitchen table when the old one is falling apart are lower functions, and if you have time to get around to them, fine.
I often secretly visited my father’s office when I was growing up, because it was usually located in the house. As a boy, I’d sit in the client’s chair, which was unusually cushy and made of a dark red fabric as soft as velvet. I’d imagine my father sitting there across from me, the two of us talking about some very serious things. A box of Kleenex sat on a small wooden table to the side, one tissue straining to escape.
The walls were covered with magical and frightening pictures that represented past layers of my father’s unconscious. He’d had an important dream about Robin Hood and so, for a while, drawings and paintings of Robin Hood colonized the office. Newer obsessions would come along and take over, but certain favorite pieces from each stage remained.
Old, tattered hardback books lined his shelves, including a whole row of those mysterious black ones by Jung with strange titles like The Psychogenesis of Mental Disease and Mysterium Coniunctionis.
On the small table next to my father’s chair was a lined yellow notepad and one of the refillable pens that he always used. The notepad was blank, ready to be scribbled on with dream symbols, interpretations, reflections. I imagined him sitting there across from me, taking notes about what I was saying. I was sure that he would double underline certain things I said, because my psyche was that interesting. I wondered what he would write about me: “Micah is shy, has trouble making friends, but seems to possess an above-average intelligence. He occasionally suffers from delusions of grandeur (imagines that his life is a movie in which he is the hero). Appears to find gratification in being analyzed by his parents. Self-centered?”
Obviously, my sister didn’t romanticize their profession as much as I did. She was the terrorist, after all. “Getting upset and holding a grudge was not allowed,” my mother said, summarizing my family’s culture. “So Andreya was marginalized.”
The inciting incident that led to the Toub Family Peace Conference had occurred the previous week. For the amusement of her best friend who lived across the street, Andreya had made me walk through a pile of dog shit.
“Hey, Micah, do you want to see something really cool?” she had asked me. Cindy was standing next to her smiling like an angel. I, being gullible and desperate for attention from my sister, didn’t question their motives.
“Yes,” I said. “What is it?”
“We can’t tell you, you just have to see it. Close your eyes,” Andreya said and held out her hand to me. My sister never wanted to hold my hand. I gave it to her and grasped tightly.
I heard the screen door groan open. Then as I was being led forward, the sun hit my face. I was walking on the soft grass of our front yard, then onto the concrete of the sidewalk.
“Turn right,” my sister said, so I did, quietly expectant.
Then she let go of my hand and the two of them burst into laughter. I kept my eyes closed because I had not yet been told to open them.
“You just stepped in dog poop!” her friend squealed. I opened my eyes and saw the flattened piece of poo behind me. I lifted my bare foot to see a yellowy smear on my skin. My sister turned her head down, shyly ashamed, but her friend was doubled over, cracking up. Tears flooded my eyes and I ran inside.
“You better not tell Mom and Dad!” my sister called after me. But I did, of course. I told on her.
Normally, my parents’ solution to something like this would have been to have a “talk.” The purpose of the talk would be to get to the root of the problem, to find out what was going on with Andreya. Things were never just what they were. No, something was happening and my parents would get to the bottom of it. Or not, as was the case with Andreya.
The questions: Was Andreya’s disobedience a symptom of her unhappiness with the family dynamic? Was she acting out because she wasn’t able to consciously communicate an emotion?
Her answer was: “I don’t want to talk about it and you can’t make me.”
Andreya had always put up a wall whenever pressured to dialogue in this way and as she made her way into adolescence, the wall wasn’t coming back down. She’d been hardly communicating with my parents at all, shunning my father in particular.
The dog poop incident had followed another, perhaps more serious, infraction. Andreya was caught coming home after sneaking out her window one night with a bottle of our parents’ vodka under her arm.
In our family culture, like most, sneaking out of the house on a school night or walking your innocent, sweet and loving younger sibling through dog shit was grounds for punishment. But even worse than those acts of teen delinquency was refusing to talk about it. Not wanting to figure out what unconscious anger was behind such acts was a serious transgression.
Andreya was grounded for two weeks, which was the first time my parents had ever resorted to such a conventional punishment.
Dinner the day after was tense.
“How was school today?” my father asked Andreya.
Andreya acted as if nothing had been said, because to her my father didn’t exist. I stabbed at my peas, silently praying that she would just say something.
“Come on. Just tell us one thing,” he said.
My mother attempted to intervene. “Maybe she doesn’t—”
“I’m just asking her a question. She doesn’t have to talk if she really doesn’t want to.”
“School was fine,” my sister said.
“Were you able to get help from your math teacher?”
“No? Andreya, you have to ask for help or you’re never going to get your grade up.”
“I know.
“So . . . are you going to do it tomorrow?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe she doesn’t know what questions to ask,” I interrupted.
I often acted as my sister’s dinner-table defense attorney. Like my father, I couldn’t understand why Andreya wouldn’t want to do better in school, but I hated fights between them and it seemed like she needed help. She could express raw emotion better than any of us, but matching my father on logical grounds was not her strength.
“Micah, it’s true that even asking the right questions takes some idea of what’s going on, but you can always get a teacher to repeat something until you understand. Andreya should be talking to the teacher after class one-on-one.”
Andreya’s eyes darkened. I braced myself.
“Can we please talk about something else?” she said.
“No. I think we need to resolve this issue. Don’t you?”
Andreya . . .”
My father took in a deep breath, then said something that was probably not from any of his psychology textbooks. “Well, I guess it’s up to you. But if you don’t start being more assertive with your education, you’re going to end up stupid with no job!”
“Don’t say that!” my mother shouted.
Andreya slammed down her fork and left the table.
Those two weeks passed slowly. No matter how much the rest of the family tried to pretend everything was okay, when Andreya was in a bad mood, it cast a darkness throughout the whole house. You could hear her silence emanating from her bedroom, and you could feel every word you spoke being hated by her.
But finally, the date of her release came, and the Toub Family Peace Conference was arranged. Being only a junior member of intrafamily affairs, I was not informed of the exact agenda, but it seemed to me that this was not simply a discussion of what to do about Andreya playing a prank on me or sneaking out of the house. It was more of a State of the Family deal and, specifically, was meant to examine the deterioration of the relationship between my father and my sister. Yes, this monumental occasion was going to take the whole, huge, ugly issue of the father-daughter conflict head on.
So there they were, my father asking—begging—my sister to look up at the ceiling and tell him what she saw, and my sister refusing to do it.
“Well,” my father said, after the long silence, “if you won’t talk to me, and you won’t even tell me what you see in the ceiling, I’m going to just say what I’m thinking.” Arny had always preached extreme in-the-moment honesty, even if it meant just taking a guess or saying the wrong thing, a directive my father had been trying to follow. “Or . . . really it’s a feeling. Andreya, when you won’t share with me the problems in your life, and enter into a discussion of how to solve them, I feel like you don’t love me anymore.”
My G.I. Joes on the yellow-tiled linoleum field of battle abruptly halted their combat. There was a brief moment of silence as Andreya’s face reddened, and then came the explosion. “Maybe I don’t!” she screamed, the words ricocheting off the wood paneling, followed by my sister dramatically storming to her bedroom, stomping her feet as hard as possible on the way. The splintering bang of her faux-oak door slamming shut was the loudest sound that was ever heard in that house.
It seems to me now that the problem between my sister and my father might have been my fault. Or rather, it might have been because I was born, which is not technically my fault, but the condom’s. (I’ve been assured by my parents that they were “happy” when they found out I was on the way.)
To gain a greater understanding of how my parents might have learned to view sibling rivalry during their training, I went looking into Jung’s books. I got quickly distracted, however, by a case study Jung shares in The Development of Personality, which details a three-year-old girl’s reaction to the birth of her brother.
Besides inspiring the girl to coax the truth about sex and conception from her parents, the new baby also inspired in her a darker motive.
“On the evening before the birth,” wrote Jung, “when labor pains were just beginning, the child found herself in her father’s room. He took her on his knee and said, ‘Tell me, what would you say if you got a little brother tonight?’ ‘I would kill him,’ was the prompt answer.”
Andreya did not try to kill me—not right away. Initially, she tried to breast feed me. I was told this story when I was very young and during the dark ages of her adolescence I used to think back on it to remind myself that she loved me and, in fact, had once loved me so much she wanted me to be her baby.
“But you wouldn’t do it!” she reminds me to this day.
“I’m sorry!” I always reply.
“It’s okay. I feel bad, though, because when you wouldn’t do it I dropped you and hit you on the head.”
“I know, and I forgive you.”
“I got in major trouble from Mom and Dad for that. They wouldn’t let me touch you for weeks.”
My mother has told me that my father and Andreya were close before I was born. I’ve seen the faded photographs that prove it: my father, sporting a ponytail and a handlebar mustache, holding toddler Andreya; my father in the backyard watching as Andreya played with mud.
I never thought of her as my half-sister—she had been there since I was born. And while her half status became more apparent after I arrived and must have had something to do with her becoming the black sheep of the family, the fact is, her personality simply stood out in contrast to the rest of us.
In addition to being largely uninterested in academics within a family that based a large part of its identity around getting straight A’s, Andreya was a material girl in a family that didn’t believe in such superficiality. Our house was furnished almost exclusively by other people’s junk we’d found at garage sales, while Andreya had a lust for new things, the best things, and lots of things. And in a family devoted to conflict resolution, she wanted to stay angry and wasn’t going to let my parents take that away from her.
The funny thing is, in the suburbs where we lived, Andreya’s personality didn’t stand out so much. The fact that she liked to own nice, new things was not exactly odd in late twentieth-century America. The fact that she wasn’t crazy about New Age ideas in the early 1980s was certainly in sync with the way most people were feeling at the end of the “free love” decades.
Of all the inhabitants in the rows of houses of our suburb, where the backyards all lined up in one long, green stretch with wooden fences dividing them into equal plots, my mother was, I believe, the only adult who ever sunbathed nude. She did this despite the fact that the balconies of the houses on either side of us had clear sightlines into our backyard. And we were probably the only family on the block with Bob Marley blasting out of the stereo and whose family room on occasion took on the sweet scent of marijuana. In my second grade class, I was the only kid whose parents supported Mondale over Reagan, which I discovered when my construction paper cutout of a blue donkey was crushed beneath a pile of red elephants in our mock election. I can guarantee that my father was the only man in the area who practiced regular meditation. Of course, none of this was visible from the outside (save the nudism). My father owned a normal enough Jeep Cherokee, and headed off to work every morning. On his way to help clients use dream signs to navigate their true life paths, he looked just like any other dad heading off in his button-down shirt and slacks. Eventually, though, neighbors would ask what he did for a living and, sticking to his code of honesty, he would be forced to tell them. He once told me that after he’d reveal that he was a psychologist, they were always on guard about what they said to him, fearing that he would analyze them.
So if you take the metaview—as I like to do—my sister was the terrorist of our family, but our family was the terrorist of our neighborhood. Andreya was embedded, so to speak.
Throughout my childhood, I was sheltered from the cynic’s opinion of Jung. Nobody ever said anything overly negative about him to my face. Not until just a few years ago, in fact.
“Jungian therapy is just a way for privileged, middle-class people to feel better about themselves. It’s utterly useless to help people who have real problems,” Helen felt compelled to tell me an hour after I’d arrived from out of town for a visit and had announced excitedly that I was going to write a book about growing up with Jungian parents. It takes a special friend to feel comfortable enough with you to challenge your parents’ whole raison d’être.
Silence, I believe, was my response.
I didn’t have a defense straight off because I hadn’t ever really given it any thought. I’d always assumed that what my parents did for a living was useful, that it was worthwhile for people and even that they were performing an important service to all of humanity. My father had been a Jungian analyst since I was a baby and though my mother had followed him on the Jungian path a bit later in my childhood, that was still before I even understood what their jobs entailed, other than talking to people about their dreams.
Helen was earning her PhD in clinical psychology and had done some of her training at a hospital where people with “real problems”—schizophrenia and other serious mental disorders—came to get healed enough to function in a very basic way. She told me that no one studied Jung anymore in school.
“But Jung helps people uncover the mysteries of their unconscious,” I said. She raised an eyebrow. I laughed sheepishly.
It struck me then that, in contrast to Helen’s job, the Jungian technique of talking to relatively normal people about the mythological content of their dreams did seem kind of soft-focus. Helen deals with the people who don’t choose to go into therapy and most of them couldn’t afford to, regardless. A lot of them would be unable to function on a daily basis without the aid of medication and therapeutic support. Their problems are perhaps more pressing than those of a whining executive who needs help dealing with guilty feelings caused by having two mistresses.
“Your parents just make rich people feel okay about their lives,” Helen repeated. And, presumably, I thought, okay about being rich.
Apparently, Jung had this very concern himself. According to Deirdre Bair’s definitive biography of Jung, when his practice was taking off in the 1920s, his clients mainly consisted of middle-aged women, most of whom were rumored to be in love with him. Jung made wads of cash helping these women with their bourgeois anxieties. Collectively, they were sometimes referred to as the “Jungfrauen,” which was a play on German words. Frauen means “women” but since Jung also meant “young” the whole word carries the meaning “virgin.” So these women were Jung’s virgins. Bair shares the words of a former patient of Jung’s, who wrote in her diary that he’d complained later in life about the situation: “I never seemed to have an interesting patient, some scientific mind, some man of quality who had achieved something at least. Just the eternal line of spinsters. They arrived in droves; it never seemed to end. I used to ask myself ‘why am I cursed?’ But I plodded along, looking after them the best I could, doing my research work on the side.”
Before becoming a student of psychology, Jung was just another cynic about his future profession. At university, Jung was equally interested in hard science as he was in religion and philosophy and agonized over which path to follow (in his memoir he describes at length possessing two personalities—he calls them No. 1 and No. 2—which went to battle over the decision). In the end, he studied medicine because he figured it would give him the best shot at a viable career.
It was while studying medicine that he first picked up a textbook on psychiatry, at the time a loathed profession. “I began with the preface, intending to find out how a psychiatrist introduced his subject or, indeed, justified his reason for existing at all,” Jung wrote. He explains that his early disparaging attitude toward the field was due to the fact that both psychiatric patients and their doctors were locked away in isolation. Nobody heard much from them and the rumor was that the psychiatrist was sometimes as crazy as his patients. Meanwhile, mental disorders were largely unexplainable, so were generally avoided by those in medical school who wanted to have an easy, successful career. But, while reading, Jung came across the phrase “diseases of the personality,” and something clicked in him. His heart started racing, and he realized “that for me the only possible goal was psychiatry.” He’d still harbored an interest in philosophy and metaphysical matters, and psychiatry, he wrote, “at last was the place where the collision of nature and spirit became a reality.”
After graduating, and suffering from ribbings from his medical school buddies, Jung obtained his formative position at the Burghölzli Mental Hospital in Zurich in 1900. It was the same year that Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, though the friendship and professional alliance between the two wouldn’t begin until six years later. At the hospital, Jung was charged to make the rounds to hundreds of patients, taking detailed notes by hand on the status of each one. He often felt frustrated that he did not have more time with them, but he started to do something that was unheard of up until then: he talked to patients as if they were “normal” people, asking them about their personal stories. Through these dialogues and running association tests, Jung came to be able to work with patients who had schizophrenia, known then as dementia praecox.
It was at this time that Jung and Freud first read each others’ work and realized they shared a belief in the unconscious, and had similar methods for discovering the unconscious motives behind psychosis and neurosis. They bonded quickly—at one point Freud even referred to Jung as the “crown prince” of psychoanalysis—but their cooperation was destined to last for only about six years when, finally, Jung became interested in mythology and metaphysics, a direction Freud scorned.
It seemed, from what Helen was saying, academia agreed in the end with Freud’s judgment.
“Helen, you’re on the front lines. Somebody needs to be on the front lines. But Jungian therapy helps people more on a spiritual level.” This was Helen’s husband, William, also an old friend of mine, coming to my defense.
Helen rolled her eyes. “Maybe,” she said, “but I’m just saying, there isn’t even any proof that Jungian therapy works.”
“Everybody needs a different kind of therapist,” I countered. “And it’s more about the bond with the therapist that is important.”
“But nobody has ever tried to collect data to prove it even helps people,” she said finally.
I kept debating, trying different angles to defend Jungian analysis, but in the back of my head I did wonder: Were my parents just the psychological oil of the bourgeois?
The first time I met Arny was in the early 1980s at a large cabin in the Rocky Mountains, a few hours away from where we lived. It was a weekend retreat seminar he ran, which was attended by around twenty people, including my parents.
I remember Arny as a shape shifter, in one minute a mischievous clown capable of a thousand facial expressions and then, in the next, a stern sergeant in command of any room he occupied. He’d carry himself with the ethereal detachment of the Buddha, and then suddenly would peer hawklike into your eyes and say hello to your naked soul. As a young boy I was equal parts intrigued and frightened. Also, Arny seemed rarely to be wearing a shirt.
My sister and I were the only kids at the seminar, but nobody minded us being there. In fact, I once caught some of the adults huddled around a window, watching me as I ran around, pretending to chase down Russian spies in the forests of Siberia. I waved awkwardly when I saw them and then retreated deeper into the woods. (My father later told me that observing me had helped them all contact their inner children.)
When I was tired I’d go inside and sit down next to my parents, who were gathered with everyone else in a big circle in the main room. The scenes I saw in that circle are a blur of participants dancing in slow motion accompanied by high-pitched wails, gripping each other’s forearms like Sumo wrestlers, barking out random swear words and nonsensical insults at each other. It was all a part of Process Work, Arny’s very own splinter sect of Jungian psychology.
Arny started off as a student of physics at MIT, where he was drawn especially to the then-newly-discovered and unexplained world of quantum physics. It was an interest that led him to Zurich, Switzerland, where, as an exchange student, he says he was  “trying to follow the path of Albert Einstein” who had also studied in that city. Arny arrived in 1961, coincidentally a week after Jung’s death.
In Zurich, Arny started to have some wild dreams. When he told a friend about them, the friend suggested that Arny go into Jungian analysis. He did, and shortly thereafter, Arny had a dream where Jung told Arny what his life’s purpose was.
“Well, Arny, don’t you know what your job in life is?” Jung said to him in the dream. “Well, the job that you have in your life is to find the connections between psychology and physics.” Not knowing much about psychology, Arny was skeptical of the idea. At the time, Arny says he didn’t think dreams were very important and was more interested in what could be observed in what he later called “consensus reality.” But the dream and Jung’s words stayed with him, he stayed in analysis, and enrolled at the Jungian Institute in Zurich in addition to continuing his studies in physics. After receiving a diploma from the Institute, he completed his PhD in psychology back in the United States, and, soon after, Jung’s prophesy in Arny’s dream became a reality. Arny developed a new therapeutic practice called Process Work, which asks that you examine everything that occurs in your life—especially what occurs in the physicality of your body or in the surrounding environment—as a manifestation of the unconscious. Jung looked at dreams for this, but Arny felt that you should also look at that pain in your ear, persistent headaches, or the energy that seems to be coming from the broom standing in the corner of the room as guiding messages.
Arny, influenced by Eastern philosophy, views everything as essentially connected, so that everything that surrounds us holds a possibility for finding meaning and direction. My father urging my sister to look at the ceiling and describe what she sees was inspired by this philosophy. Of course, this kind of practice is reminiscent of age-old psychological tests like Dr. Rorschach’s inkblots. Process Work takes it a step further, though. Instead of simply describing the inkblots, Arny would ask you to become the inkblot. How would the inkblot move? What would the inkblot say?
And so the political conflict in my family was solidified. On the one side were my parents, wielding their psychological techniques. On the other side was my sister, who didn’t want to have anything to do with those techniques or, increasingly, anything to do with my parents at all. Of course, my parents’ idea of working out the schism with Andreya was to use those same psychological techniques that my sister wanted nothing to do with. And the big surprise is—finally—it didn’t work so well.
Recently, I wondered if there was a solution to the problem of the terrorist. Rather than ask my mother, whom I figured would be biased to some extent by her own role in the family, I decided to go above her head and use Arny—as best as I could conjure him from his books—to figure it out. And, at the same time, put my family on the therapy couch.
A common reaction to the black sheep member of the family is to simply talk about him behind his back and tolerate his presence at gatherings. Or, in extreme cases, exile him. The gay brother would probably be happier on his own anyway, away from his fundamentalist Christian family. And if Susie wants to be a musician, she’s going to have to get used to sleeping on the street. If you kick the loser out of the family, the family becomes a group of winners again, right? Not according to Arny.
Arny explains that the terrorist in a group is not an individual. The terrorist will usually present itself as a person—your little sister with the attitude problem—but that person is simply acting as a receptacle for a role that can be filled by anyone. In his book Sitting in the Fire, Arny put it this way: “Just as no one person or group is the mainstream, so no one person or group is the terrorist. We all find ourselves sometimes in the place of power and other times trying to gain vengeance against the abuses of power.”
In a group, a contrasting figure will often emerge, an enactor  of its “unacceptable” behavior. If you remove the terrorist, all you do is leave the role open for someone else to fill. “Roles in groupsare not fixed, but fluid,” writes Arny. “They are filled by different individuals and parties over time, keeping the roles in a constant state of flux.” If you kick the “bad” person out of the family, that role becomes vacant, and, who knows, you might be the next to fill it.
That’s why Arny’s solution to the terrorist problem, unlike that of most powerful governments for most of the last century, is to listen to the terrorist faction and try to understand how its point of view is a necessary one for the mainstream culture to embrace.
If my mother were here helping me to explain this concept, she might ask me, how can we in the mainstream be more like terrorists? I’d respond, Mom, are you crazy, we can’t all strap bombs to our chests and blow up the world. Then she’d ask me, why not? Her eyes would be really wide open when she asked that, which is the sign that she’s speaking metaphorically again. She wants to blow up the world—in theory. She wants us to be willing to shake apart the structures that exist to see what’s really happening.
In a modern-day secular society that contains within it a marginalized fundamentalist group, the initial question might be, how can the mainstream bring more “belief” into its core values? Perhaps if the mainstream examined itself to see what it believed on a fundamental level, it would discover that extreme secularity had erased some important things, which if identified and revived, might create a more whole society and solve some of the conflicts with the marginalized. But this is all just hypothesis. The process would have to be done with both groups in the room so that a real dialogue could begin. Obviously, the larger scale the group and the problem, the more difficult and multifaceted the dialogue will become.
My father’s initial attempt to “fix” things with Andreya—before the infamous Peace Conference—came in the form of two pairs of bright-red inflatable boxing gloves, a picture of Rocky Balboa emblazoned on each one. The gloves, which he brought home with him one evening after work, were made of that same smelly plastic that beach balls are made of. You blew them up with your own breath and then, as quickly as possible, shoved the plug in before too much air had escaped. Once you’d squeezed your fists inside them, the idea was to start whaling at the member of the family you were having a problem with. Looking back, I realize this was my father’s way of incorporating a more raw, nonanalytical form of expression into a family culture where unrestrained expressions of emotion were marginalized.
Of course, my sister refused to ever put them on. There’s not much satisfaction in punching someone who is telling you to do it.
The rejection of unmediated anger is something that Arny has often observed from mainstream groups. “Hidden ‘mainstream’ power,” he writes, “lies behind the generally unexpressed assumption that oppressed people must dialogue politely to work out their problems, even though someone who feels oppressed usually does not want to speak gently.
“Today, conflict-resolution schools often deal with social issues in an academic fashion and avoid working with the experience of rage. The mainstream in every country tends to skirt the anger of the oppressed classes. Politics and psychology pressure outsiders to assimilate and integrate. Western thought is biased toward peace and harmony. That’s why many non-mainstream groups consider the very idea of ‘conflict resolution’ a mainstream fabrication.
Ironically, procedures that implicitly or explicitly forbid anger ultimately provoke conflict, because they favor people who are privileged enough to live in areas where social struggles can be avoided.”
I used the gloves, of course, but not really in the way my father intended. My friend Charlie and I spent hours reenacting Mike Tyson boxing matches and once we got our hands into those gloves, they were quickly filled with too many holes for tape to patch up.
In a way, it’s all academic at this point. The political dynamics of my family didn’t get a chance to be fully played out because, in the middle of these negotiations and interventions, a more serious revolution was about to take place.
In my memory it’s a weekend, but I’m not sure that’s accurate. It could have been any afternoon. The structure of my twelve-year-old routine had been dismantled to the point of causing a disorientation of time. The day before, my parents had filed divorce papers. The reasons behind this could fill up a year’s worth of analysis, but the salient fact of it at that time was that my mother was leaving my father for another man.
Andreya, my father, and I were out in the front yard talking. The grass hadn’t been cut for a few weeks, but we weren’t sitting on the grass. We were sitting on our old family room carpet, because the real estate agent who was selling our house said she wouldn’t put our house on the market until we replaced the brown shag with something new. I kind of felt like we were all stuck to that carpet, like if we stepped off it we would drown.
Up until that point, I’d just assumed everything was going to continue on as it had, but now I saw that routine was only the stand-in for what really lies beneath. What’s really happening, as Arny, or my mother, might say. And in this case, my mother was saying it.
My father was angry. He was sad. And right then, there was nobody that was going to take that away from him. I don’t remember the exact words that he spoke to us out there on the front lawn, but his pain drew me to him. I remember wondering why, in the previous weeks, my mother hadn’t simply looked up at the ceiling and described what she saw.
It was weird—the three of us being out there on that island without my mother. My father, my sister, and I had rarely formed any kind of cohesive unit. What was weirder was that not only was I sympathizing with my father, but my sister was as well. She couldn’t believe that my mother had gone off with this other guy. She was touching my father’s arm sweetly and, I think, mourning the oncoming end of a family in which she had always been the outsider.
It seemed that, momentarily, my sister was no longer the terrorist in our family.
This wouldn’t last very long. Only weeks after that afternoon on the lawn, my sister would be headed off to live with my mother in a different city and I’d be off to live with my father. Tensions between my sister and my father would once again rise and result in the near silence that exists between them today. But that time on the island still exists, as a possibility.
I sat there that day silently and witnessed my father and my sister speaking to each other as if they’d always been close.

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Call Me Russell

Call Me Russell

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I'm never just a comic. No matter how people describe me, there's always something before my name or my profession. There's always that hyphen: South-Asian comic, Indo-Canadian comic, South-Asian-Canadian comic, Canadian-born-Indian comic, Brampton-raised stand-up comic. Obviously, I'm not the first stand-up comic in the world, but I know that I'm the first stand-up who looks like me, and the first to have done some of the things I've done. I guess that's what happens when you're the first at something… people think it needs to be qualified by something else. To my friends and family, though, there's no hyphen. They just call me Russell.

To me, I'm just a comedian who happens to be Indian… or wait, Canadian… or Indo-Canadian… Anglo-Indian, South-Asian, South-Asian-Canadian? Jeez, even I'm confused.

Both of my parents are Anglo-Indian. Both of their parents were Anglo-Indian, and before that one of their greatgrandfathers or great-great-grandfathers was British, Welsh, Scottish or Irish - one of those ishes. That's what it is to be an Anglo-Indian. Somewhere in your genes is a British father and an Indian mother. Anglo-Indians, or AI's, mixed with the British when they occupied India. That's why my name is Russell Peters instead of something you'd be more likely to expect for a guy who looks like me, both of whose parents were born in India. Anglo-Indians come in all shades - from blond-haired and blue-eyed to dark-skinned with very traditional "Indian" features.

Anglo-Indians are a very small, unique community as well as a dying one, a remnant from the Raj. My cousins have surnames like Brown, Paige, Waike and Matthias and first names like Mikey, Gordon, Bruce, Andrew, Patty, Tina, Ann, Claire, Stephen, Tanya, Marissa, Darren, Charlene… I still get some flak from older Anglo-Indians because I usually just say I'm Indian instead of specifying that I'm Anglo-Indian. That's a bit of a thing for AI's - you've got to be specific about saying that you're one of them. They don't necessarily see themselves as Indian, nor do they see themselves as English, just as the Indians don't see them as Indian and the English don't see them as English. The way I see it, once you cross the ocean, nobody cares what subset or group you come from. Once you're here, you're just another Indian - whether you like it or not. It's kind of like when Indians go on about being from a specific caste. Really, who gives a shit? Is an AI really going to get treated any better in Canada, the States or England because he's a Brahmin? That's the beauty of these countries: Canadians don't care about that kind of caste crap - we're all just brown to them.

Back in the mid-eighteenth century, the British realized that it was going to be impossible to rule more than 120 million Indians with just forty thousand or so Brits, so they came up with a program to intermarry with the locals to strengthen their hold on the country. It was always a British male with an Indian female - anything else would have been scandalous. And, as my dad always liked to point out, the children of an Indian male and British female were called Eurasian and not Anglo-Indian. Ben Kingsley is Eurasian, since his father's Indian and his mom is English. See? Anglo-Indian, Eurasian - they're not the same thing.

English is the first language for Anglo-Indians, even in India. Hindi was only spoken to the servants or co-workers - or when my parents didn't want me to know what they were saying. My grandmother's Hindi was so bad that her boss asked her to please not speak it. AI's are Christian by religion - either Anglican or Catholic, for the most part. We don't consider ourselves converts. Obviously, at some point we were converted, but that was generations ago through intermarriage, and it will be through intermarriage that the very small community of AI's will eventually become extinct. I don't say this in a negative way. It's not as if I'm asking for a telethon to save the Anglo-Indians, it's just a statement of fact.

While the British were in India, the Anglo-Indians were sort of middle managers. They spoke like the British and looked like the Indians. They could communicate with the locals and behave like the foreigners. They enjoyed good jobs in the railways, customs, post and telegraph, and as teachers. Some even ended up as entertainers - as bandleaders, singers and actors. Engelbert Humperdinck, Cliff Richard and Merle Oberon ('30s movie star) are noted AI's, although I don't think they publicize it that much.

When the British left India in 1947, Anglo-Indians were at loose ends. Job opportunities, especially for the men, were difficult to get and the Anglo-Indians began leaving India - coming to Australia, England, Canada and even some to the States.

One of the most commonly asked questions I get is "What's your real name?" Thing is, I usually get this question from Indians, not from white people. What can I say? If you don't get my name, you'll need to check in with my brother, Clayton, or my mom and dad, Maureen and Eric.

Speaking of Mom and Dad, I guess that's where my story really starts. My dad, Eric Peters, was born in Bombay in 1925. Dad's mom died a few months after he was born, from complications connected to his birth. His father, James Peters, had moved to Bombay from Madras and worked as a telegraph operator for the railways. My grandfather hated the big city; he found it too dirty and crowded. In 1935, he packed up my dad, Dad's older brother, Arthur, and their ten-day-old baby sister, Eileen, as well as my grandfather's new wife, Blossom, and moved to the small village of Burhanpur in the middle of India. (Burhanpur is where Mumtaz Mahal, the third and most beloved wife of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan I, died and remained until Shah Jahan had completed the Taj Mahal as her mausoleum.) Since my grandfather worked for the railways, he could basically transfer wherever he wanted - as long as it was on a rail route.

My grandfather bought twenty acres of land in the countryside, about a kilometre from the train station and outside of the village of Burhanpur. He built a large, open bungalow surrounded by lemon and mango trees. He became a gentleman farmer who grew peanuts, cotton and wheat. He acquired two horses, a couple of bulls, goats and buffaloes. He also kept a number of greyhounds, whippets and German shepherds. The dogs came in handy for the family's frequent hunting excursions in the neighbouring hills.

To hear my dad tell it, his childhood in Burhanpur was the absolute best of times - hunting, camping, fishing, sleeping outdoors, surrounded by his boarding-school friends, cousins, siblings, and of course his dad, whom my father idolized. My grandfather was almost six feet tall, compared to my dad's five-foot-six or so. I guess that's where I get my height from - not that I'm that tall, but I am the tallest guy in my relatively short family.

After serving as a radio operator during the war, Dad eventually moved to Calcutta, but continued to go back and forth to his beloved Burhanpur. It was in Calcutta, at the age of thirty-nine, that Dad met Mom. Mom was a fair-skinned, ninety-three-pound beauty with thick black hair and a taste for the latest "western" dresses, most of them handmade by her seamstress grandmother. For Dad, it was love at first sight. He used to see my mom around town and decided that she was the one. Dad was a womanizer, sixteen years her senior. Dad would see Mom on a rickshaw and would follow right behind on his scooter, honking the horn to make the rickshaw man run faster. Mom would get fuming mad and was convinced that Dad was an ass.

One night, at their mutual friend Rene's flat, Dad decided that it was time to make his move. Rene made the introduction. Mom was unimpressed; however, they both lingered at the party long enough that it started to get dark, and too late for Mom to get back to her family's flat. Dad swooped in and offered her a ride home on the back of his scooter, and Mom accepted… reluctantly. What would her mother say when she arrived home riding on the back of a scooter with a much older man, a man who was only a year younger than her own mother?

It didn't take long for Mom to see that Dad was a bit of a show-off but not a complete jerk, and when he started regularly taking her on the back of his scooter, the poor rickshaw man was out of a job. After a few more rides home, Mom eventually said to Dad, "I think you'd better come in and meet my mother." He had his foot in the door.

Dad walked into the one-bedroom flat on Ganesh-Chandra Avenue that housed my mom; her older brother Maurice and younger brother Roger; my grandmother's second husband, the very cool KK (more on him in a minute); my great-grandmother Jessie; and my striking grandmother Sheila. My grandmother sized him up, and when he left, she declared she was unimpressed by this scooter-man courting her daughter. First, he was too old, and second, he was Protestant. "It's not a good match," she warned Mom, adding, "He's a Freemason. They're devil worshippers." I'm not sure what happened next, but somehow, between Dad being a jerk and now a devil worshipper, Mom was smitten.

Let me tell you about my mom's stepfather, KK, whose real name was Kewal Kohli. He was a Punjabi Hindu who married my grandmother after she divorced my grandfather, Christopher Waike. We called him Dadda, but to everyone else he was just KK.

My grandfather Christopher had taken up with another woman when my mom was in her early teens, and my grandmother filed for divorce. KK took Christopher's place. He adored my grandmother and she adored him. He was the coolest guy I have ever met. Even as a small child, I could see that this guy was an operator. He knew how to work a room and could get things done. Running late for a flight? KK could get you right through the usual customs formalities and straight to the gate without any hassles. He was charismatic and charming. Being a Hindu never seemed to be any issue. I remember visiting him as a kid in 1975 and seeing this huge portrait of Sai Baba (a Hindu holy man) in their flat on Elliot Road. There was also this small altar with a statue of Jesus, Mary and other Catholic icons. I remember being a little creeped out by the altar. I don't know why, but there was just something scary about it.

But back when Dad was courting Mom, he was not KK's first choice of marriage partners for her. KK had hoped to make a match of his own for "his" daughter. Eventually, though, he too was won over by Dad and accepted him into the family.

So back to Mom being smitten… Once Dad realized he was making progress with this woman, he immediately went back to his father and told him, "Dad, I've met her, the girl of my dreams."

"You mean you've met the right girl again?"

Dad was a bit of a player, which explains why he wasn't married at the age of thirty-nine. Before he met Mom, he was having a great time in Calcutta and had developed something of a reputation as a playboy - like father, like son? Anyhow, this wasn't the first time he'd told his dad he'd met the woman of his dreams.

"This one is different. She's the one," Dad said.

Granddad asked, "How old is she?"

"Sixteen years younger than me."

"Good choice, son!"

Mom and Dad were married on December 28, 1963. One hundred and fifty people attended the wedding at St. Francis Xavier Church in the Bowbazar section of Calcutta. Mom kept Dad waiting half an hour at the church, while his friends took bets on whether she would show up. After the wedding, they took bets as to how long the marriage would last. According to Mom, people said it wouldn't last because of the age difference. According to Dad, people said it wouldn't last because he was Protestant and Mom was Catholic. The church sanctioned the marriage only on the basis that any children be raised Catholic. When Dad died in 2004, they had been married forty years.

Mom and Dad got a small one-bedroom flat on Theatre Road, which they shared with Dad's pal, Trevor Lewis. Work opportunities were slim, and Dad knew that they and their still-unborn children would have better opportunities overseas. Dad wanted to go to England, where a lot of his pals had already moved and were doing well. Mom had no intention of setting foot on British soil and warned Dad that if he went to England, he'd be going alone. She hated grey and gloomy weather and had heard stories of how badly the Tommies - British soldiers in India - had once treated her beloved Grandmother Jessie when she had worked for the Women's Army Corps during the war. Every day, the WAC would be picked up by truck and taken to various locations around Calcutta. On one particular day, a Tommy thought he'd be smart and told the driver to accelerate just as Jessie was getting on. The truck lurched forward, and Jessie landed on her face, chipping a tooth and scraping her skin. She pulled the laughing Tommy down from the truck and slapped him. My very tough great-grandmother made sure that she wouldn't be disrespected by the Tommies ever again. Mom had also seen the 1935 version of the film David Copperfield several times, and this too had put her off of England.

Now that England was off the table, my parents began to explore other options. Some Anglo-Indians were leaving for Australia, but it never occurred to Mom and Dad to move there. Of course, the United States was also an option; but my father, who was always very aware of social and political climates, felt that a darker, brownskinned man stepping into that country in the mid-'60s would be asking for trouble. He knew what street riots looked like - having seen the Hindu-Muslim riots in India in 1947 - and he was well aware of what was happening with the civil rights movement in the U.S. He knew what Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were doing. Having seen India go through its growing pains after independence, and self-conscious about his own skin colour, it didn't make a lot of sense to him to try to raise a family in the States.

Word began to spread among Anglo-Indians about another country that had opened its doors: Canada. It was a young country that needed an educated workforce to grow, and while many immigrants arriving there couldn't speak English, Mom and Dad were fluent. They should get in, no problem - right?

When my father was alive, he'd occasionally tell me stories of those early years, and I have to say that even though decades had passed since his arrival in Canada, his memories of those days never lost their edge. Even before Dad arrived in this country, he had to face the hard truth about what it would be like as a new immigrant in Canada. In his first encounter with a Canadian consular representative working in Calcutta, whose job it was to screen immigration candidates, my dad was told, matter-of-factly, "You'll never get a job in Canada, Mr. Peters. You're just too old." My father was thirty-nine, going on forty.

"That's okay, I'll be fine," my father replied.

Mr. Walker, the immigration officer, continued: "What Canada needs and wants is young people. They want people who speak English."

My dad stared dumbfounded and said, "And what the bloody hell am I speaking to you in? I'm speaking to you in English, aren't I?"

Mr. Walker didn't have a comeback. My father railed. "Now tell me, you have immigrants already in Canada who don't speak English, do you not? How come they're allowed in?"

"They're cheap labour. They're the construction workers, and they clean the streets." My dad shrugged his shoulders and asked, "So you're discriminating against me because I speak English?"

That was my dad's first encounter with a government official. Amazingly, my mom and dad were accepted into the country, under the condition that my mother, who was pregnant with my brother at the time, give birth to the child in India. My father's sister, Eileen, had also applied to emigrate and was accepted.

In 1965, less than a year after my big brother, Clayton, was born, my parents picked up and left, choosing Canada as the country in which they would raise my brother and later have me.

Eric and Maureen Peters landed in Toronto's west end in August 30, 1965. They had with them their savings - a grand total of $100 - and two steamer trunks that contained all of their wedding gifts, Mom's best linen… and a tiger skin from Dad's last big hunt in India. For the first ten days in Canada, they stayed with friends, Uncle Mervin and Auntie Edna, while Dad worked odd jobs to put together enough money for a deposit on their first apartment in Canada, a one-bedroom on Rockcliffe Boulevard in Toronto.

Once that was taken care of, the next hurdle became furniture. They had nothing at all, so they went to Caplan's on Weston Road, a furniture store still there to this day. They had no money and decided to level with the salesman.

They said, "We're new immigrants. We have no money and we need to get some furniture."

The salesman asked, "Well, how's your credit rating?"

My mom and dad looked at each other in total confusion, then asked, "What's a credit rating?"

You see, India didn't have anything like that; a system where you could actually borrow against future earnings was beyond their wildest imaginings. To their "credit," the Caplan family who owned the store proved to be good and trusting people who enabled my parents to get credit until they got on their feet. My mom and dad brought furniture home soon after, and although it was nothing extravagant, it was a start.

My dad got a job soon after arriving. He went from working in Calcutta as a white-collar, trilingual (Dad spoke English, Hindi and German) public-relations person for a German engineering company called Koppers India Ltd. to a paint mixer for CIL in Rexdale. The transition crushed my dad - to the point where he hated the smell of paint until the day he died. There were days when he thought he'd thrown away everything he'd ever accomplished, only to start at the bottom. It was hell.

He hated his work and he hated Canada. He also became aware of the open racism towards him at the time. Here's the thing: my mom is very light-skinned, and when she arrived in Toronto, no one could tell where she was from. But my dad was dark, and even in India, within the Anglo-Indian community, he was very much aware of his colour. When walking down the street with Mom in Toronto, he noticed that people would look at them funny. In Dad's mind, they were asking themselves why a girl like that would marry a darkie like him. He was very sensitive to what he viewed as open racism in Canada.

And there were other questions, too, like "Where are you from?"

"I'm from India," Dad would say to whoever was asking.

"But if you're from India, then why do you speak such good English? Where did you learn?"

"On the plane ride over," Dad would answer sharply. He'd often use sarcasm, wit and his command of the English language to disarm the ignorant. Most strangers never saw him coming. They were expecting him to come at them with something lame, in a thick Indian accent and without any humour - but he was quick-witted and didn't suffer fools gladly. He'd never hesitate to throw out a quick barb or observation at someone - in the checkout line or just in passing - and was always amused by their blank expressions he got in return. He called it a "dah look" (not "duh" but "dah") and would imitate the person - mouth hanging open and a blank stare on his face. I should also point out that in my act, as much as I make my dad sound like he had an Indian accent, in fact he sounded more like a British army officer. Think Higgins from Magnum P.I. or Sir John Gielgud's Hobson, the butler in the movie Arthur. That was closer to Dad's voice and delivery in real life.

At home, in Mom and Dad's new, sparsely furnished Canadian apartment, Christmas was getting closer and closer. When Christmas Eve finally arrived, it consisted of Mom and Dad and my brother. No tree, no decorations, no turkey, no presents. Nothing. My dad walked home that night from his job at CIL, and on his way he stopped at the Kresge's department store on Dundas Street in the Junction, where in the bright window he saw a beautifully decorated little Christmas tree. It was ten minutes before closing time. He quickly entered the store, spotted an employee and politely asked to speak to the manager. When the manager arrived, Dad asked, "Can you sell me that tree in the window?"

"We can't, sir. We have to keep it there for Christmas." It was then that my father decided to tell the man his story, to explain that he was a new immigrant and he was going to his empty home and to his family on Christmas Eve with not a thing to bring them. I guess the guy felt sorry for him, because he gave my dad the tree - with all the ornaments, too. So a few minutes later, my dad was on the sidewalk outside of Kresge's, walking home, grinning, with a fully decorated Christmas tree under his arm. Once he brought the tree inside the house, he plugged in the lights, and the little family of three began their first Christmas in Canada.

Although both my parents were Anglo-Indian and Catholic, my mother had no idea what the traditional Canadian Christmas meal was supposed to be, so she made some rice and daal. Truth be told, this was actually all she could cook. She had never learned to cook back home because her family had a cook. Now, I know this may sound strange considering that she grew up in a small flat with six people, but having a cook or other servants wasn't something that was exclusive to the very wealthy in India at that time. With millions living below the poverty line, there was always someone you could hire to get things done, and it didn't cost much. Mom says that Dad never complained about rice and daal for dinner, or her still-undeveloped cooking skills. Soon she mastered mince curry, a dish that we'd all come to love, especially my dad.

On Christmas Day, Mom went out into the hallway to wish her neighbours a happy holiday.

"Merry Christmas to you, Maureen!" they said. "And where were you yesterday?"

"Where were we? We were home."

Her neighbours scolded her, saying, "Oh, you should have come over!"

My mom, a little shocked, replied, "How could we come over? You didn't invite us. Am I supposed to just knock on somebody's door and say here I am?" To which they replied, "Yes. That's how it's done here." One woman even said that her husband had won a huge turkey in a contest and they hadn't even gotten around to cooking it.

"Would you like it?" the woman said, dumping the turkey she didn't want on my mom. I wasn't even born yet, but somehow I can see this image of my bewildered mom, standing in the hallway of the apartment block on Christmas Day, holding a massive raw turkey in her arms.

"What do you want me to do with this?" Mom asked, as the woman turned on her heel and went back to her apartment.

"Cook it," was the response.

There was a Canadian lady across the street that my mother had started babysitting for, and she knocked on her door.

"Could you please tell me how to cook this turkey?" my mom pleaded. Eventually, the bird was cooked, and eaten, and my family's first Canadian Christmas was, if not successful, then at least over.

There were a lot of moments like this among my family's first experiences in Canada, and over the years my parents have recounted these stories to me and my brother many times. There's no anger, no resentment; they were just new immigrants adjusting to a strange and very, very different land.

My mom had a good sense of humour about some of these misadventures, but my dad was miserable in Canada at the beginning. He missed his father a lot, and his father was not well. He cried when he thought of home, and it really disturbed him to think of his dad in ailing health and being so far away. We have a thing about dads in my family. I've got it, Brother's got it, and Dad had it, too. We all idolize our fathers. We romanticize them and remember them as larger-than-life characters who had great adventures drinking, hunting, travelling. As much as we remember the mundane details of our day-to-day lives with Dad - seeing him leave for work at six in the morning, doing groceries, and always being somewhat angry because he had to get up at five-thirty in the morning - we focus more on who he was as a man, his sense of humour, his style and who he was before we were born.

In 1967, Dad followed his heart and went back home. He didn't have enough to pay for the flight, so he bought a fly-now-pay-later ticket on Air India. It was planned as only a ten-day trip, but my mom didn't believe that was really the extent of it. I think she believed he might never return. Dad begged Mom to go with him, but she refused.

"You brought us here to this new place," she said. "I've given every thing up in India, and now I'm staying here, no matter what." That's my mom, strong-willed and determined, and one of the few people I have ever met with the power to shut my dad up instantly. My mother, always hopeful and encouraging, kept pressing him to stick it out. She kept reinforcing her belief in him, telling him to give himself a chance, a little more time at least to forge his way in this new place.

But Dad went to India on his own. Despite my mother's fears, he returned exactly ten days later. "I had to come back" was all he said. After living in Toronto for over a year, it had been a real shock for him to see India through new eyes. Despite the despair regarding his quality of life in Canada, he'd gotten used to the clean streets and orderly society that Canada offered. He could never go back and there was no looking back. Like it or not, Canada was home now.

Despite all the early difficulties my mom and dad encountered, I have never once caught my parents looking back on their lives and wishing they had never left India. With time, they became truly happy in Canada.

They moved from Rockcliffe Boulevard to sharing a two-story flat above a store on Bloor Street, near Christie. They shared the flat with Aunty Elsie and Uncle Jimmy and their four children, their grandmother, two older sisters and one of their husbands.

Mom got a job at the Garfield magazine kiosk at the Eglinton subway station - working for a dollar an hour. Dad left the various blue-collar jobs - working at CIL, as a night security guard at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, as a police dispatcher at Toronto's 51 Division - and eventually landed a clerical job at William Mercer in downtown Toronto. Mom and Dad got another flat of their own on Avenue Road, and Mom started working in the cash office at Holt Renfrew.

My parents laid the groundwork for our success. They gave me and my brother all the things that they had never had themselves back home. And when it comes down to it, I think that's what so many immigrant parents hope for: not necessarily a great life for themselves - a better life, perhaps - but at least the promise of an easier one for their kids. I know my parents are thankful that they ended up in this country. They couldn't imagine living anywhere else. I firmly believe that I wouldn't be Russell Peters if they had emigrated to Australia, England or the States. I've become who I am not just because of who my parents were but because I was able to grow up in Canada - and not just in Canada, but in Toronto, and, of course, Brampton.

As I write this, I'm on the cusp of turning forty, the same age my dad was when he arrived in this country. It's humbling to think of him landing here with only a hundred dollars in his pocket versus where I am at the same age. All my stuff - and it is just stuff - the houses, the cars, the money… it all started with that hundred dollars in his pocket forty-five years ago.

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A Man in Uniform

A Man in Uniform

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tagged : historical
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Maître Dubon lifted his gaze from Madeleine’s right breast, which was peeking out tantalizingly from under a crisp white sheet, and let it travel slowly down the bed, admiring as he did so how the draped cotton clung to her body in some places and obscured it in others. He glanced across the room and let his eye come to rest, ever so casually, on the ornate gilt clock that sat atop the dresser. It was twenty minutes before the hour.
“Well, perhaps it’s time we get dressed.” Still leaning back against the pillows, he waited a long moment before he made up his mind to move, and then took the plunge, pulling the sheet off his own body, swinging his feet to the floor and standing.
Beside him, Madeleine stirred and stretched an arm languidly across the bed towards an armchair. Dubon crossed over to it, picked up the peignoir that was lying there and held it open for her. As she rose to her feet, she slipped her arms into it, drawing the fluttering layers of its wide lace collar over her shoulders and around her neck. He moved to his clothes, pulling on his vest, shirt, pants and waistcoat, buttoning buttons as he did so, methodically but with no apparent haste. He turned to a full-length mirror that stood in one corner of the room and straightened his tie approvingly. Though only of average height, he had a big head, and a finely shaped nose, straight but for the sharp break that formed a little shelf at the bridge, and his features gave him presence. His hair was still good and thick, he always noted with pleasure, and the occasional strand of silver that now appeared at the temples added an air of distinction.
He picked up his jacket. “See you tomorrow, my dear.”
“Until tomorrow,” she replied. He kissed her affectionately on one cheek, gently patted the other and left her padding about her small apartment in her peignoir and little satin slippers as he stepped calmly into the street. It was fifteen minutes to the hour.
Maître Dubon’s day was a well-ordered thing. Its final goal, which the lawyer achieved without fail, was a seven-thirty dinner hour during which he shared a light meal with his wife, Geneviève, and his son, André. He also breakfasted with them at seven, and most days joined them for a large lunch at eleven, for he thought of himself as a family man, and considered it his duty to eat three meals a day in the company of his wife and son, a duty he executed with affection.
From the breakfast table, he proceeded to the office, a pleasant walk, if the weather was fine, along the river and across the place de la Concorde to the rue Saint-Honoré, and so to his clients, who would visit him before lunch. They were prosperous burghers and people of society, and he drafted their wills and their contracts with diligence if no particular enthusiasm. The practice he had inherited from his father represented a limited set of legal permutations that he had long since mastered. The thrusts and parries of the courtroom, on the other hand, he left to others, simply passing on to a colleague the occasional unfortunate case that was headed in that direction. Returning home for lunch, he tried not to dally at the table and allowed himself only a single glass of wine, because after a few more hours in the office preparing documents and reviewing files, he would proceed to an engagement rather different from the dinner hour but to which he was equally faithful.
Between five and seven, Maître Dubon visited Mademoiselle Madeleine Marteau in her apartment off the boulevard des Italiens. He had been visiting her there five days a week for the past eleven years, ever since he had rented the apartment for her in the seventh year of his marriage, when André had just turned three. He had met Mademoiselle Marteau, or Mazou as he called her, a few years previously, had been introduced to her by a legal colleague with bohemian connections. In those days, she worked as a seamstress with a leading fashion house and had received many different visitors in a second-floor studio in Montparnasse. His attendance at her little gatherings and the occasional tête-à-tête had ceased briefly when Geneviève presented him with the joyous news of her pregnancy, but he had resumed the acquaintance soon after André’s birth. Labour had strained Geneviève and two things had become clear to him then. One was that his relations with his wife, while always cordial, were unlikely to become physical again anytime soon; the other was that if he wished to enjoy Madeleine’s company, he needed to regularize their situation. And so, he rented the apartment off the boulevard des Italiens and attended her there faithfully Monday through Friday, arriving with the occasional box of chocolates or new handbag to augment the cheque he paid into her bank account every month.
His relationship with Geneviève, meanwhile, remained happy enough. She was thirty-nine now; he was forty-three, and friends and relations had stopped dropping hints about the joys of big families. It was sad, but there it was: André would never have, could never have, a brother or sister. While Dubon slept beside his wife each night, their sexual relations were less than infrequent.
If it was important that he arrive home by seven, it was no less important that he present himself at Madeleine’s door by five, for he considered himself, both at home and abroad, to be a gentleman and here too there were delicate social negotiations to be entered into before they could move to Madeleine’s bedroom. Perhaps there was a new dress to admire or a recent concert to discuss over a cup of tea or a glass of wine. Maître Dubon may have visited Madeleine’s bed more than two thousand times, but their relations remained enjoyably fresh thanks not only to Madeleine’s sense of invention but also to his lack of presumption—or at least his pretense of a lack of presumption.
Yes, it was important to arrive no later than five, but  Maître Dubon often liked to be there earlier or even make Madeleine a surprise visit on a Saturday morning after he had spent an hour or two in his office. His mistress was a highly attractive woman almost ten years his junior and it would be unwise to take her for granted.
So he was particularly annoyed when, on the following afternoon shortly before five on a day that was already running late, a sharp whistle sounded. As he lifted the speaking tube off the edge of his desk and put it to his ear, the clerk Roberge could be heard mumbling something about a visitor to see him. Roberge had never mastered the gadget, always blowing the warning whistle too loudly but then speaking too softly into the tube to be heard.
Dubon blamed the interruption on Lebrun’s mother’s cat. Lebrun was his regular clerk and knew that afternoon visitors were rare and certainly not permitted after 4 p.m. but his aged mother had fallen over her cat the week before and broken some bone, the location of which, being a delicate man, Lebrun would not name. He had craved Dubon’s understanding—and a few days’ credit from his annual holiday to attend to his relative. He had called in, as his temporary replacement, Roberge, a downtrodden character who floated around the quartier picking up work in various law offices when his weak health would permit. And so, on that day, it was the less-than-satisfactory Roberge who ushered a lady into the lawyer’s office at an inconvenient hour.
The woman, a widow, entered the room with a firm but quiet step. Dubon guessed her husband must be six months’ gone now: she was dressed head to toe in black, but not veiled. Instead, she wore a tidy little hat. Her hair was carefully pinned up out of sight, and the little that showed around her forehead was dark but not quite black, hinting that the unseen mane was a luxurious brown or perhaps a rich chestnut colour. She wore no ornament of any kind, not even a mourning brooch, except for a gold wedding ring on her left hand. She wasn’t old—perhaps thirty or thirty-five, certainly not yet forty, he estimated—and, if it were not for the sad contradiction between her youth and her bereavement, a man passing her in the street might not give her quiet figure a second glance.
Unless, of course, he had the gall to look her straight in the eyes. And what remarkable eyes they were, Dubon noted as he rose to greet her: a deep, deep blue, sparkling with an intensity that suggested widowhood had not dampened some quick spirit alive beneath her sorrows. Dubon was visited by a sudden image of her quite naked, her skin . . . He checked himself. Perhaps he had been staring.
“Madame, my apologies. I so seldom receive visits after four o’clock; you have startled me, I’m afraid.” He paused and reached for her hand, then held it in his as though he might kiss it before letting it drop. “To whom do I owe the honour?”
“My name is Madame Duhamel. I apologize, Monsieur, for waiting until the very end of the day to call upon you—”
“Oh, not at all, Madame. You are most welcome. Please, do come in.”
He adjusted the chair reserved for clients and swept a hand across it to invite her to sit down. Then, instead of going around and settling himself behind the large expanse of the desktop, he stayed in front of it, drew a second, smaller chair out from against one wall and sat down directly facing her. She made no move to take off her hat but sat there, clutching her gloves in one hand.
“The weather is still so cold, don’t you find?” Dubon asked. “Almost unseasonably so. I always enjoy the spring, but here we are in mid-April and we are still bundled up in our winter clothes. If I may be honest, Madame, I would myself not say no to a ray or two of sunlight.”
“Oh yes, a ray of sunlight . . .”
Her voice trailed off and she appeared puzzled, as though unsure why they were discussing the weather. She held his gaze now and again her eyes arrested him. They darted and glittered. This time he was not imagining it: there was some humour there behind her evident grief. Indeed, she almost laughed, emitting a little sound that ended in a gulp.
“Oh, Monsieur, I suppose you want me to state my business.”
“Whenever you wish, Madame. I am in no hurry.”
And indeed, Dubon, who but moments before had felt annoyed at the interruption keeping him from Madeleine, was now happy to linger. She seemed hesitant, as though sensing there was specific etiquette to be employed when visiting a lawyer’s office but ignorant of what it might be. Dubon found the effect charming.
She drew a long breath and shifted in the chair. “Maître. They do call you Maître, I suppose . . .”
“Oh yes, indeed. Lebrun, my clerk, always insists on introducing me that way to clients. That wasn’t him who let you in. That was Roberge; he’s just temporary. He calls me Maître too. My friends, on the other hand—”
She interrupted him here. “That’s fine. I will call you Maître. And,” she added, her tone serious now, “I will tell you my business.”
“By all means, do go ahead.”
“I come to you on behalf of a friend of mine . . .” Some skepticism must have shown in his face for she repeated it. “Yes, a dear friend of mine. She is in serious trouble, but can not risk coming to see you herself. Indeed, she does not know that I am here, only that I said I would try to make some inquiries as to what might be done to save her husband.”
“Save her husband? What ails him, Madame?”
“Nothing that true justice could not cure, Monsieur.”
“Well, Madame Duhamel. I am not sure you have come to the right place. A lawyer will get you the best justice he can, but as to whether that constitutes true justice . . .”
“Maître, please. Your reputation precedes you. Your work on the—”
“No, no, Madame, please, that is not necessary.” Dubon did not want to hear her fabricate some tribute to his supposed credentials by dragging up his minor role in events now long past. He could only suppose someone had told her that his services came cheap by the standards of the rue Saint-Honoré. God only knew what a client might be asked to pay the society lawyer de Marigny, whose offices were across the street, or the much-praised Socialist, Déon, who was just one floor up and always willing to take on a high-profile cause.
“Please, do continue. Tell me about your friend’s husband.”
“He is an army officer, Maître, a captain in the artillery.” Dubon began to guess the real reason she had come to his office; she must have learned of his family connections and judged they would be useful if her case involved the military.
“I will come to the point. There is no way to put it gently and you have perhaps read about the case in the papers. It caused some furor at the time: about two years ago, my friend’s hus band was accused of spying for the Germans. He was court-martialled, convicted and deported to serve his sentence in cruel exile. Even now, he languishes on Devil’s Island.”
“But, Madame, his trial is then long past. Why seek legal advice now?”
“Because he is innocent, Monsieur.”
“Madame, I am sure your friend is a charming person and a loyal wife—”
“Do not patronize me, Maître,” she interrupted.
Dubon, unaccustomed to such directness in any lady other than his wife, drew himself up and began again. “No, I would not dream of it, Madame. So naturally, your friend believes completely in her husband’s innocence.”
“It is not a matter of belief; it is a matter of fact. The man is innocent. I have known him, well, many years. It is unthinkable that the Captain is a spy.”
“That may be, Madame. However, if the army has convicted him at a court martial, I don’t see what possible help a lawyer could be now.” Most especially, Dubon thought to himself, a lawyer with no current experience in criminal law and whose only knowledge of the workings of the military was limited to Sunday lunches with his wife’s relations, however much the lady’s informants may have billed him as the highly placed son-in-law of the late General de Ronchaud Valcourt. “I can only assume your friend’s husband had the benefit of good legal advice at the time of the court martial?”
“Yes. I believe a Maître Demange undertook his defence. But clearly he did not succeed in forestalling a conviction.”
She paused and looked down at her lap before raising her face to him. He found it was all he could do to stare straight back.
“Monsieur, I am . . . we are . . . increasingly desperate. It has been more than two years, two and a half, and the Captain is seemingly forgotten. His brother is responsible for the family’s attempts to exonerate him and win him a new trial, but makes no progress. No progress at all. I do not wish to undercut his efforts, or divide the family, but I despair that his approach will ever bear fruit. No one knows I am here today. I do not wish my friend to be associated in any way with my demarche. I believe the family has made a mistake in simply proclaiming the Captain’s innocence, as though justice will ultimately triumph just because he is innocent. I have concluded that the secret to his release is to find the reason for his conviction. The army had evidence that someone was selling secrets to the Germans; the generals’ mistake was to convict the wrong man. And you, Maître, you can find the real spy so as to exonerate the Captain.”
If it weren’t for those unrelenting blue eyes, Dubon would have dismissed the widow then and there. Who was this lady with such inflated notions of what a lowly barrister could achieve? He answered rather feebly, “But I am a lawyer, not a detective.”
“Maître, you are both. Your very name is synonymous with justice. And you know the right people.”
Dubon knew the former was pure flattery and the latter much nearer the mark. Still, it was gratifying that after all this time people still remembered his work for the Communards. He had been only a junior lawyer in those years after the Franco-Prussian War. Maître Gaillard had taken the lead on the file, defending the many Parisians who had seized control of their own city after the Germans had lifted the siege. When the new national government at Versailles finally decided to march on the capital and wrench control of Paris away from its citizens, the suppression of the Commune was swift and brutal. Dubon was little more than a boy and had never seen such bloodshed before or since. The army had shot the Commune’s leaders on the spot and court-martialled thousands of others, executing anyone who had wielded a rifle or bayonet against the new government’s troops, and jailing everyone else unfortunate enough to be caught on the streets, whatever their sympathies might have been. In the long years that followed, it was Maître Gaillard who had fought hardest to get new civil trials for these bit players and bystanders, and Dubon had been his young assistant.
But Dubon had given up criminal law long ago.
“My friend . . .” she continued, “is deprived of her husband and does not trust that his brother’s attempts to free him will ever succeed. We must help her.”
“I see,” said Dubon. He took a long look at her before he asked, “And your husband?”
“My husband?” She seemed startled by the question, as though momentarily she had forgotten she had a husband. “My husband is gone. He has nothing to do with this.”
“My condolences, Madame. He is recently deceased?”
“Oh, no, six, seven months now.”
“So sad, very sad. Could he possibly have been as young as yourself?”
 “Five years older.”
“Too young, too young. An accident perhaps?”
“An accident?”
“His death, I mean . . .”
“Oh yes, of course. An accident. But really, we need not speak of him.”
Dubon noted with interest that she did not seem to have been a particularly fond wife. The thought gladdened him a little, although he did not stop to examine why.
“Well, Madame.” He paused, knowing full well he should send her about her business but wanting now to prolong the acquaintance. “I will think on it and make some inquiries of colleagues. Perhaps I can find an advocate who would be more appropriate to your needs.”
“No, Maître, really, it must be you.”
“You flatter me. At any rate I will make my inquiries and contact you in a few days.”
“Can I come again the day after tomorrow at this time, if it is not too inconvenient?”
It was not in the least convenient. He glanced at the wall clock behind her. It was twenty past the hour, almost too late to bother visiting Madeleine. He would have to ask Roberge to send his mistress a message telling her he could not come tonight. And the following day he would again be pressed to see her because he and Madame Dubon were to attend a ball at General Fiteau’s. His wife was insistent that he be home early on such occasions so that she could discuss her costume with him and review the probable guest list. So, if his visitor came again in two days’ time, on a Friday, he might be forced to make do without Madeleine until the following week. None of this was what he would have wished.
“Perfectly convenient, Madame. I am at leisure Friday afternoon.”
“I will try to be here by four.”
“I look forward to Friday, then.”
“Thank you, Monsieur.”
She stood and offered him her black-gloved hand. He took it, and bent over it without touching it to his lips before slowly straightening himself and then letting it go.
“Until Friday,” he said.
She smiled in response and walked out the door.
He waited until he heard her speak to Roberge on her way out and close the door of the outer room before he picked up the speaking tube and called the clerk into his office.
“You will have to send a message for me. The post office is at the corner,” Dubon said as he opened a drawer and pulled out a blue sheet of paper. He sighed as he filled in the form. If Lebrun had been there, he would have taken a look at the time, readied the form himself and been poised, without Dubon having to ask, to send the petit bleu. Paris’s system of local telegrams was known affectionately by the blue paper on which the messages were written before being stuffed into glass containers, ready to hurtle across the city along a network of pneumatic tubes that connected all the post offices and then be delivered by hand from the nearest outlet. There was a post office down the street from Dubon’s office and, but a few streets away on the other side of the avenue de l’Opéra, one next door to Madeleine’s apartment. Lebrun actually could have walked the distance in less time than it took the messengers to pick up the telegram and deliver it, but Dubon would never have submitted him to the embarrassment of appearing on his mistress’s doorstep.
He composed a brief message of regret and folded it over, addressed it and handed it to Roberge.
“You can take it now and send it on your way home. I will lock up behind you.”
“Yes, Maître. See you tomorrow.”
Dubon tidied his papers and left the office ten minutes later. He walked down to the rue de Rivoli at a leisurely pace and entered the place de la Concorde at the northern corner, passing the statues representing the cities of Lille and Strasbourg, the latter draped in black ever since the province of Alsace had been lost to the Germans during the war. Since André was a boy, Dubon had joked to him that his father crossed all France to get home in time for dinner, for he then walked down the eastern side of the square and across the bottom, passing the statues of Bordeaux and Nantes as he reached the Seine. Today, however, he barely noticed the geography and walked by the work site where the new exhibition halls were being built at the bottom of the Champs Élysée without even checking on their progress. Absent-mindedly, he traced his habitual route along the river and up the rue Bayard, still thinking over his conversation with the widow. There was some question about her story that he had meant to ask, a little inconsistency or discrepancy that was floating just out of reach. Whatever it was, it quickly evaporated as he pushed open the door of his home and walked into the salon.
“You’re early.” Geneviève greeted him in slightly accusatory tone. She was standing on the far side of the room, in front of its two heavily curtained windows. André was with her, his growing body jammed up against the delicate writing desk his mother had squeezed between the windows and the back of a long sofa. His school books were spread over the desk’s impracticably small surface and Geneviève stood at his shoulder, shepherding some piece of homework. André turned his head and, without comment, glanced back to where his father stood before returning his attention to his books.
“I had a client show up at the last minute but . . .” Dubon paused, remembering that he was early not late. Geneviève eyed him quizzically. “But I . . . well, I tried the tramway again. Really very quick.” One of the new electric trams had been installed along the quay and on cold days the previous winter, Dubon had come to prefer it to the crowded horsedrawn omnibus that served the rue de Rivoli. Geneviève herself had even tried it on a few occasions.
“Oh, the lovely new tram. It’s a godsend, isn’t it?” she replied. “I’ll just see if Agathe can get dinner on the table at seven. It would be nice to eat early for a change.” She smoothed her skirts and made her way towards the door Dubon had just entered.
“André, tidy up your books, dear, and take them to your room. Your father doesn’t want your schoolwork cluttering up the salon.” She glanced at Dubon as she passed him, and walked out.
“You don’t need to tidy up on my account,” Dubon said, smiling at his son.
André, however, was already bundling his books into his arms. He mumbled, “Doesn’t matter,” as he brushed by his father and was gone.
Dubon was left standing by the door, staring at an empty room. He crossed to a small table at his left, poured himself a short glass of red wine from a decanter and sat down in the one comfortable armchair Geneviève’s decor permitted. She favoured Louis XV, although the apartment itself was of a much more recent style. He removed an embroidered cushion from behind his back and tossed it over to the sofa, settled himself and took a sip from his glass. It was the Château Cheval Blanc from the year before last, probably better cellared than drunk this young, but Geneviève, who ordered all their wine, permitted older vintages only when they had guests. He swallowed—the wine had not improved since the previous evening—and sighed lightly.
Yes, he was home in plenty of time for dinner.

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Half Empty

The Bleak Shall Inherit
We were so happy. It was miserable.
Although it was briefly marvelous and strange to see a car parked outside an office, the wide hallway used like a street, many stories above the city.
The millennium had turned. The planes had not fallen from the sky, the trains had not careened off the tracks. Neither had the heart monitors, prenatal incubators, nor the iron lungs reset themselves to some suicidal zero hour to self-destruct in a lethal kablooey of Y2K shrapnel, as feared. And most important, the ATMs continued to dispense money, and what money it was.
I was off to see some of it. Like Edith Wharton’s Gilded Age Buccaneers, when titled but cash-poor Europeans joined in wedlock with wealthy American girls in the market for pedigree, there were mutually abusive marriages popping up all over the city between un-moneyed creatives with ethereal Web-based schemes and the financiers who, desperate to get in on the action, bankrolled them. The Internet at that point was still newish and completely uncharted territory, to me, at least. I had walked away from a job at what would undoubtedly have been the wildly lucrative ground floor (1986, Tokyo) because it had seemed so boring, given my aggressive lack of interest in technology or machines, unless they make food. Almost fifteen years later, I was no more curious nor convinced, but now found myself at numerous parties for start-ups, my comprehension of which extended no further than the free snacks and drinks, and the perfume of money-scented elation in the air. The workings of “new media” remained entirely murky, and I a baffled hypocrite, scarfing down another beggar’s purse with crème fraîche (flecked with just enough beads of caviar to get credit), pausing in my chewing only long enough to mutter “It’ll never last.” It was becoming increasingly difficult to fancy myself the guilelessly astute child at the procession who points out the emperor’s nakedness as acquaintances were suddenly becoming millionaires on paper and legions of twenty-one-year-olds were securing lucrative and rewarding positions as “content providers” instead of answering phones for a living, as I had at that age. Brilliant success was all around.
So, so happy.
The surly Russian janitor (seemingly the only other New Yorker in a bad mood) rode me up in his dusty elevator in the vast deco building in the West Twenties, which was now home to cyber and design concerns that gravitated to its raw spaces and industrial cachet. The kind of place where the freight car and the corridors are both wide enough that you’d never have to get out of your Lexus until you’d parked it on the fourteenth floor.
Book publishing is always portrayed as teddibly genteel and literary: hunter-green walls, morocco-bound volumes, and some old codger in a waistcoat going on about dear Max Perkins. Worlds away from the reality of dropped-ceiling offices with seas of cubicles and mail-cart-scarred walls. But the Internet companies were coevolving with the fictionalized idealization of themselves. The way they looked in the movies was also how they looked in real life, much like real-life mobsters who now behave like the characters in the Godfather films.
The large industrial casement windows were masculine with grime, looking out over the rail yards on the open sky of West Side Manhattan. The content providers sat side by side at long metal trestle tables—the kind they use in morgues—providing content, the transparent turquoise bubbles of their iMacs shining like insect eyes. It was a painfully hip dystopia, some Orwellian Ministry of Malign Intent whose sheer stylishness made it a pleasure to be a chic and soulless drone; one’s personal freedoms happily abrogated for a Hugo Boss jumpsuit.
I was there to interview the founders of a site that was to be the one stop where members of the media might log on to ead about themselves and the latest magazine-world gossip, schadenfreude-laden items about hefty book advances and who was seen lunching at Michael’s, etc. I will stipulate to a certain degree of prejudicial thinking before I even walked in. I expected a bunch of aphoristic, McLuhan-lite bushwa, something to justify the house-of-cards business model. But as a reporter, I was their target audience as well as a colleague. I was unprepared to be spoken to like an investor, as if I, too, were some venture capitalist who goes goggled-eyed and compliant at the mere mention of anything nonnumerical. I was being lubed up with snake oil, listening to a bunch of pronouncements that sounded definitive and guru-like on the surface but which upon examination seemed just plain old wrong.
“What makes a story really good and Webby,” said one, “is, say, we post an item on David Geffen on a Monday, and then one of Geffen’s people calls us to correct it, we can have a whole new version up by Tuesday.” This was typical Dawn of the New Millennium denigration of print, which always seemed to lead to the faulty logic that it was not just the delivery system that was outmoded but such underlying practices as authoritative voice and credibility, fact-checking, editing, and impartiality that needed throwing out, too. It was a stance they both seemed a little old for, frankly, like watching a couple of forty-five-year-olds in backward baseball caps on skateboards. In the future, it seems, we would all take our editorial marching orders from the powerful subjects of our stories and it would be good (Right you are, Mr. Geffen! ). It was a challenge to sit there and be told that caring about such things as journalistic independence or the desire to keep money’s influence at even a show of remove meant one was clinging to old beliefs, a fossil in the making. Now that everything and everyone was palliated by the never-ending flow of revenue, there was no need to get exercised about such things, or about anything, really.
“We basically take John Seabrook’s view that what you have is more important than what you believe. Whether you drive a Cadillac says more about you than if you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” said one, invoking a (print) journalist from The New Yorker.
Added the other: “That you watched The Sopranos last night is more important than who you voted for.”
They weren’t saying anything terribly incendiary. It’s not like they were proposing tattooing people who have HIV the way odious William F. Buckley did (I’m sorry, I mean brilliant and courtly, such manners, and what a vocabulary! Nazi . . .). But we had just been through an electoral experience that had been bruising, to say the least. Who one voted for had almost never seemed more important, and they were saying it all so blithely. I felt like a wife who has caught her tobacco-and-gin-scented husband smeared in lipstick, a pair of silk panties sticking out of his jacket pocket, home after an unexplained three-day absence, listening to his giggling, sloppily improbable, and casually delivered alibi and being expected to swallow it while chuckling along.
We were silent for a moment, the only sound the keyboard tappings of the hipster minions. I finally managed to say, “I’ve just experienced the death of hope.”
We all three laughed: me, in despair; them, all the way to the bank. Said one of them, “No, David. We are the very opposite. This is the birth of hope!”
Down in the rattling freight elevator. I couldn’t face going home just then, where I would have to immediately relive this conversation by transcribing my tape. I turned right out of the building, crossed Eleventh Avenue, and sat on a concrete barrier facing the river. The cynicism of the interview, the lack of belief coupled with the enthusiastic tone in which the bullshit was being slung, the raiding-the-granaries greed dressed up in the cheap drag of some hollow dream of a Bright New Day of it all. The Hudson bleared and wobbled before my eyes, which were swimming with furious tears. I wasn’t angry to the point of almost crying because they were wrong but because they were right.
It might seem a bit much to pin the woes of the age on the fairly modest landgrab of the two men I had just interviewed, but they were symptomatic of something. In blithe defiance of some very real evidence out there that we still had reason for some very real concern, rampant optimism, fueled by money and a maddening fingers-in-the-ears-can’ t-hear-you-lalala denial, was now carrying the day. There seemed no longer to be any room in the discourse for anything but the sunniest outlook.
Contrarianism needed restoring to its rightful stature as loyal opposition and so I found myself, some four months later, on my way to Wellesley College to interview a psychologist named Julie Norem.
Norem’s book, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, was about to come out and the same magazine, for whom I had shed my Hudson River tears, was now sending me to document this emotional market correction. It was one I welcomed, and judging from the title, one my editors were hoping—as editors must—would present as a forceful linchpin theory, a reductive cudgel of a book that would advocate wholesale crankiness, a call to arms that we all rain on each other’s parades, piss in one another’s cereal, kick puppies, and smack babies.
As the schoolgirl said to the vicar, it was a lot less meaty up close. The book was terrifically smart and well-wrought, but Norem had emphatically not written a book against happiness. Her research dealt with a specific kind of anxiety-management technique known as “defensive pessimism.” Defensive pessimism is related to dispositional pessimism—that clinical, Eeyore-like negativity—but it is, at most, a first cousin. One who is kickier and more fun to be around; played by the same actress but with her glasses off, a different hairstyle, and a “visiting for the summer from swinging London” accent.
Both dispositional and defensive pessimists face life with that same negative prediction: “This [insert impending experience, encounter, endeavor here] will be a disaster.” But where the dispositional pessimist sees that gloomy picture as a verdict and pretext to return to or simply remain in bed, the defensive pessimist uses it as the first of a three-part process: 1) the a priori lowered expectations (the previously mentioned presentiment of disaster) are followed by 2) a detailed breakdown of the situation (the “this will suck because . . .” stage), wherein one envisions the specific ways in which the calamity will take shape. A worst-case scenario painted in as much detail as possible. The process culminates in 3) coming up with the various responses and remedies to each possible misstep along the way (“I will arrive early and make sure the microphone cord is taped down,” “I’ll have my bear spray in my hand before I leave the cabin,” “I’ll put the Xanax under my tongue forty minutes before the party and pretend not to remember his name when I see him,” etc.). A sea of troubles, opposed and ended, one nigglesome wave at a time. Defensive pessimism is about sweating the small stuff, being prepared for contingencies like some neurotic Jewish Boy Scout, and in so doing, not letting oneself be crippled by fear. Where a strategic optimist might approach a gathering rainstorm with a smile as his umbrella, the defensive pessimist, all too acquainted with this world of pitfall and precipitation, is far more likely to use, well, an umbrella.
This mental preparation is just an alternate means of coping with a world where—in the pessimist’s view of reality—there is often little difference between “worst possible outcome” and “outcome.” A world seen as worse than it actually is. Through such eyes, the optimist looks hopelessly naïve. As Prohibition-era newspaperman Don Marquis put it in 1927, another age when unwarranted exuberance and eye-off-the-ball hubris led to its own inevitable disaster, “an optimist is a guy that has never had much experience.” But Norem explains that optimists, too, have their own mental strategies of navigating a world that seems far better than it is in reality. They need to sustain a cognitive conundrum known as “ironic processing,” a willful “whatever you do, don’t think about it” ignorance, blind to even the possibility of negative outcome. In a study where subjects were made to play darts, defensive pessimists who were robbed of their time for mental rehearsal and instead made to relax, free of thought, were thrown off their game. Conversely, optimists also found their anxieties increase and their performances suffer by being made to contemplate strategy and contingency before taking aim.
It might seem that the twain shall never meet and at best one might achieve some grudging mutual understanding, but cognition and its styles exist on a continuum. Pessimists are born, true, but they also can be made. Two social psychologists out of Cornell named Justin Kruger and David Dunning bore this out to a degree in a study where they asked subjects to assess their skill levels in a number of areas, on which they would be tested. What they found was that those who scored lowest had rated themselves highest. The same held true in reverse: high-scoring subjects had underestimated their skills and how well they compared with others. When the over-raters received instruction, namely, when they became intrinsically more skilled than before, their sense of their own competence diminished. Experience had shown them how much more there was to learn, how far they still had to go, and their self-assessments reflected this.
Given all of this—that one need but point out the ways in which we were royally screwed to have the scales fall from people’s eyes—how was it possible for Norem’s book not to be the antidote to all the unchecked and unearned exuberance of the age? This volume would finally wake folks up, I thought. The bleak would inherit the earth!
(I had chosen that moment, it seems, to forget yet again my unique incapacity for identifying trends. If I think something is going to happen, it invariably results in the very opposite nonevent. Conversely, if I smell doom, there will be nothing but brilliant success. My finger is securely off the pulse. Walking away from the Internet in 1986 is just one instance in an illustrious résumé of bad calls.
In 1982, as a freshman in college, during a brief and ultimately fruitless attempt at inhabiting my own skin, I went one evening to Danceteria, a club in downtown Manhattan. I didn’t drink at the time, so there was nothing to buffer the noise, the dark, the crowded stairwells, the too-long wait for both the coat check and the urinals, and especially that evening’s entertainment: a whiny, nasal girl in torn lace and rubber-gasket bracelets who bopped around to an over-synthesized and generic backbeat.
“Well, she’s lousy,” I thought to myself, happily envisioning my departure from this throbbing club, my subway ride uptown to my dorm room and bed, and this girl’s return to the obscurity whence she sprung. The world, however, had different plans for Madonna. “Hey David, have you seen that fellow in the marketplace inveighing against the Pharisees and the money-changers? You know, the one who calls himself the Son of God?” “That idiot? He’ll burn off like so much morning fog, mark my words . . .
Bet against me, and I will make you rich. I am the un-canary in the mine shaft. (Gas? I don’t smell no gas! )
Norem herself was less absolute about the book’s chances at effecting any wholesale paradigm shift in the public psyche. She was advocating negative thinking only to the extent that if that was the way your mind already worked, then you ought not to be seen as counterproductive or in need of an immediate attitude adjustment. She was not calling for a glorious new epoch of sad-sack sobriety. All Norem was saying was that there should be room enough at the table for a greater spectrum of feeling. That one’s cognitive style was ultimately as value neutral as the color of one’s hair, even though pessimism might very well feel less pleasurable than optimism (although try telling that to the adolescent girl voluptuously bathing in that exquisite sea of heartbreak as she is locked in her bedroom listening to music and sketching portraits of limpid-eyed, tear-shedding soulful girls with lank hair and guitars, all while hating her parents). Pointing out that negative emotions are in no way lesser than their citrus-colored counterparts, just different, might seem incredibly basic, but it was an absolutely revolutionary statement.
That said, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking had a very narrow focus, one almost completely free of bombast or polemic. What it most definitely was not, for example, was a takedown of the reigning school of the prevailing culture, the positive psychology movement. This deeply funded but loosely organized group of clinicians and researchers was dedicated to returning the field of psychology to its original three missions of curing mental illness, making the lives of all people more fulfilling, and fostering human talent. According to the group’s founder, Dr. Martin Seligman, the author of such books as Learned Optimism and The Optimistic Child, we had lost sight of all but the first objective since World War II, concentrating too much on the sick and unhappy and leaving the relatively well and potentially excellent among us to fend for themselves.
“We became a victimology . . . Psychology is not just the study of weakness and damage, it is also the study of strength and virtue,” Seligman wrote in his monthly column for the APA Monitor in 1989, the year he served as president of the American Psychological Association. We have managed to help people go from negative five to zero, he says, but if you’re looking to get up into the positive integers, mental health–wise, you’re on your own. The happy and gifted among us were essentially taking their marching orders from the vast, gray masses of the unhappy bottom and middle. The movement was an attempt to address this imbalance.
Seligman refers to that which is solely concerned with disease and disorder as “remedial psychology.” “How has it happened that the social sciences view the human strengths and virtues—altruism, courage, honesty, duty, joy, health, responsibility, and good cheer—as derivative, defensive, or downright illusions, while weakness and negative motivations—anxiety, lust, selfishness, paranoia, anger, disorder, and sadness—are viewed as authentic?” he asks.
While Norem had no quarrel with the movement’s desire to study all human emotion and not just the troubled end of the spectrum, she did have issues with its premise. “Any movement should only have the status of a scientific movement if the outcomes of research, what is going to be proclaimed to be adaptive or healthy, are not preordained.” It’s far easier to swallow a mouthful of honey than one of curry powder, but one doesn’t then judge the former an elixir and the latter poison.  Positive feelings may redound to positive outcomes, but it isn’t a given, despite what we are told, and we are told, all the time and in countless ways. “The consequences are not inherent in the emotion itself. It is a sloppy assumption that hedonically positive emotion is related to positive outcomes. Positive emotions may, of course, relate to good things, but there is no necessary relationship. Pride, for example, is positive in that it feels good. It may lead people to work hard or behave well, but it may also lead them to treat others shabbily. Embarrassment is negative because nobody likes how it feels, and it can have negative consequences, but it can also be a powerfully pro-social emotion [hello, Canada!]. The consequences are not inherent in the emotion itself.”
Norem is absolutely right. It is the false equation of what feels good with what is good that rankles. Self-esteem might seem an unimpeachably positive state, but you don’t have to sit through an endless children’s talent show (is there any other kind?) to know that it has reached unhealthy and epidemic proportions in this country.
More than the shaky corollaries, though, it was the prickling, Ayn Rand– ish sensation that troubled me. Seligman wrote of a Manhattan Project of sorts being set up to explore how to foster personal strength and civic virtue, returning our society to the greatness of ages past: the democracy of Athens; the honor, discipline, and duty of Victorian England; the pursuit of beauty that was classical Florence. “My vision,” he writes, “is that social science will finally see beyond the remedial and escape from the muckraking that has claimed it, that social science will become a positive force for understanding and promoting the highest qualities of civic and personal life.”
I’ll leave the glories of ancient Athens’s slave class, Victorian England’s debtors’ prisons (and the rampant syphilis among the child prostitutes resulting from just such parental incarcerations), and the grinding poverty of those Florentines not fortunate enough to be Medicis up to the historians. A return to notions of discipline and civic virtue would be welcome, God knows, but I’m not convinced that social scientists are muckrakers conducting more studies about widespread income disparity, infant mortality, or suicide rates than they are about more positive human endeavors (if, in fact, they are) simply because they find them more “authentic,” or because of some kind of if-it-bleeds-it-leads sensationalism, or worse yet—in classic blaming the thermometer for the temperature—that scrutinizing such problems somehow exacerbates their power and unpleasant effect on the rest of us. It must be a vestigial race memory of the maple-scented egalitarianism of my Canadian upbringing that makes me find it unattractively greedy for the essentially satisfied to demand still greater satisfaction.
But more than any abstemious impulse to ration out help to those who barely need it, it’s the false division that so repels me. The vision of these warring constituencies—the gloomy hordes, sucking up all available time and resources from the shiny, happy, excellent few. I keep flashing back to what it says in the Inferno: “There is no greater pain than to remember happiness in the midst of one’s misery.” There will be peaks of great joy from which to crow and vales of tears out of which to climb. When and why they will happen, no one can say, but they will happen. To all of us. We will all go back and forth from one to the other countless times during a lifetime. This is not some call to bipartisanship between inimical sides. The Happy and the Sad are the same population.
There is a question that frequently runs through the reporter’s mind when he is sent on assignment and the story as initially envisioned is failing to bear fruit, and that question is this: “Am I fucked?” It was ricocheting through my brain as I, tape recorder in hand, walked the leafy quads of Wellesley with Julie Norem, and the answer that was pinging back was a qualified yes. Norem’s conclusions were too measured, her argument too subtle for an easily digestible and zeitgeisty magazine piece.
But it was not the subtlety of Norem’s argument that was in the way as much as I myself. A therapy junkie I know is fond of parroting the adage: “All research is Me-search.” Even though I had read The Positive Power of Negative Thinking very carefully before arriving, I had come up to Massachusetts thinking, hoping, that Norem had actually written a book not about anxiety but about sadness. Specifically, my sadness—highly unlikely as we had only just met that very day.
Anxiety and sadness often occur at the same time. Psychological assessments for sadness often look for an anxiety component, but they are absolutely separate. One can be anxious and happy, for example (an incomprehensible combination to my mind, like Jewish Republicans). I couldn’t for the life of me tease the anxious and sad strands apart, so I spent a good portion of the day asking poor Julie Norem to once more explain the difference to me. She was doubtless very glad to drop me off at the Amtrak station six hours later.
My confusion was making me stupid in other ways, too. On the train back, I realized that I had allowed the cassette to auto-reverse on itself over and over, all day long, like a weaver’s shuttle. I had lost many of the hours and hours of questions and answers in a magnetic pentimento. Even as I sat there in the Quiet Car, my hand covering my mouth in wonder at my “yes I am indeed fucked . . . so very, very fucked” stupidity, I was not hugely surprised at this small act of self-sabotage: I didn’t want to write this piece.
So I didn’t.
In the three weeks leading up to the due date, I did no writing at all, aside from my self-pitying, stultifying diary, whose entries all began “T minus X days,” referring to the twentieth, when I would have to call my editor and tell her that I had failed, without even the necessary pages of twaddle I’d need to qualify for a kill fee. I was Penelope at her loom, filling my time with busywork. I woke each day at the crack and, when it seemed appropriate, I would pick up the phone and begin that day’s interviews with other psychologists, all purportedly in the name of re(me)search.
I spoke to James Pennebaker, the chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, who worked with survivors of traumatic experiences. He found that if patients wrote, talked about, or articulately confronted what they had gone through, as opposed to suppressing the feelings, they showed marked improvements in physical health, immune function, and other markers. In another study he conducted in 1989 with David Watson, they found that even the kvetchiest patients, those with the least-positive attitudes, who complained most about their symptoms, turned out to be no objectively sicker than those with low negative affect. It was nice to find out, then, that if one is characterologically incapable of not being a total fuckface, science has not shown you will die any sooner. People might just be gladder when you eventually do.
David Lykken conducted the Minnesota Study of Twins (not the baseball team; think Doublemint, or Romulus and Remus), collecting data from hundreds of pairs of identical and fraternal twins for years, measuring their subjective well-being (SWB)—their self-reported happiness—and found that “the effects on current SWB of both positive and negative life events are largely gone after just three months and undetectable after six . . . Most people will have adapted back to their genetically determined set-point.” Lykken found this to be the case across the board among his subjects, regardless of economic, racial, ethnic, gender, or other circumstantial factors. So if you win the lottery or have your limbs lopped off by an oncoming train, within 180 days, you’ll be back to your old self, which is very good—or bad—to know.
Many scientists have challenged Lykken’s results, and the media has misinterpreted his findings, often conflating the malleable and potential notion of heritability with the genetic verdict of heredity. Even Lykken himself contends that one mustn’t use one’s set-point as a pretext for resigning oneself to one’s DNA.
“After we published that study, I said something like ‘trying to be happier is like trying to be taller,’ and I regretted that as soon as I saw it in print,” said Lykken on the phone. “It was a smart-aleck comment and in fact I wrote a book to contradict it . . . one can manage to bounce along above one’s set-point, if you play your cards right and if you realize that the striving for winning the lottery or the big goals is not the solution unless working to get there is in itself gratifying . . . the important thing is that nature has equipped us, has arranged for us to do her bidding by marshaling us with pain and pleasure. It’s extremely important that we not feel so happy all the time that we don’t get the work done or feel so sad all the time that we don’t get the work done.”
(The following is off point but amusing, and so I include it: reading further in Lykken’s article “The Heritability of Happiness” in the Harvard Mental Health Letter, I was diverted by—and have no memory as to the pertinence of—an absolutely charming and unintentionally hilarious paragraph about homosexuals, starting with a mention of his wife’s cousin, a man who “brought joy and new life into any room he entered. He was funny . . . a delightful and imaginative host, an ideal guest . . .” He goes on to mention that these qualities were wonderfully embodied by William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman as well as Harvey Fierstein. “Only the intractably homophobic would fail to get a lift when he enters the room. What I am suggesting is that gay men, at least those with more feminine natures, seem to make an art of daily living, they enliven the tedious, decorate the drab, make the mundane more amusing . . . Perhaps the euphemism ‘gay’ is more apt than I had previously thought.”
Clearly Dr. Lykken has neither had his path blocked by twenty feet of retractable dog leash unreeled across the sidewalk, just so that some narcissistic, over-muscled invert’s pug—imaginatively named Will or Grace or Liza—might walk unimpeded by tax-paying humans, nor, I’m guessing, has Dr. Lykken been the opposite of helped by one of the evil queens on staff at Barneys, but on behalf of my fellow deviants, I would like to say—as I sit here in my own sodomitically bedizened surroundings [the silks, the brocades, the stuffed cockatoo in the golden cage! ]—thank you, sir.)
I wasn’t getting any work done. At T minus nine days, I startled out of sleep an hour before the alarm, at 5:00 am, hissing, “Who the hell do you think you are?”—the words out of my mouth before I was fully conscious. I often resort to precisely this little pep talk to myself to get it together and stop fucking around—a cautionary admonition against sloth, usually uttered when I feel I’ve either eaten too much or am lying in bed too long. I sat down and began transcribing my notes. Some time before 9:00, I picked up the phone to call Martin Seligman himself. He had been very nice when setting up the interview, which made me feel like a shitheel. I tried to clear my mind of prejudicial thoughts, reminding myself who was the learned professional with numerous advanced degrees and who was the smart-ass faux journalist.
The phone was out. Motherfucker. I put on my sneakers and walked out to the corner to the pay phone to call repair. It was street-wide as there were already three people waiting on line. My mood briefly brightened to see that one of them was my next-door neighbor, a handsome Frenchman with a comically perfect V-shaped torso. As I crossed the street, one of the women pointed downtown and there, already in progress at the top of the horizon, a worst-case scenario even the most detail-obsessed defensive pessimist could not have foreseen. The first tower was on fire.
I never wrote the piece.
On the day I spent with Norem, both of us having no idea what would be transpiring mere weeks later, I had asked her if she thought it was all going to change, citing the Kruger and Dunning study where optimists got a ticket back to earth when faced with the truth. Would the culture finally come up against reality and temper folks’ rampant enthusiasm in the absence of facts, I wondered? “It had better change,” she answered. “What’s been celebrated in the media for the last ten years were all these twenty-two-year-old dot-com zillionaires, and they were all really optimistic and a lot of people were really optimistic about them in a pretty unnuanced and stupid way. And things have gone well for them, and they made money during the boom years and are perfectly willing to take credit for all their financial astuteness, even though you had to be an idiot if you didn’t make money during those years, apparently. I didn’t,” she added.
Julie Norem is my kind of girl, I thought at that moment, not knowing that by “my kind of girl” I meant oblivious to the point of consigning Madonna to the dustbin of history. We were both so very wrong. Not wrong in the way everyone not privy to a daily intelligence briefing about bin Laden being determined to strike in the United States was wrong, but because we both grievously misread the tenacity of American glee and its extreme resistance to sharing the emotional spotlight with doubt. Rather than blasting open the doors to allow negative thinking into the public consciousness, the September 11 attacks only seemed to galvanize the optimists to new, adamantine heights of impenetrable positivity. Optimism didn’t just not go away; it became belligerent, aggressive. There was now officially no room for valenced emotions.
As Norem pointed out, “arguing for negative thinking, under certain circumstances, is very different from arguing against positive thinking.” But the line had been drawn. One could no longer point out that doubts, when voiced, can give dimension to reasoning, improve performance, or stave off disaster. Just like the fallacious separation of the Happy from the Sad, it was both a false division and an intrinsic judgment. Contingency thinking, and contingency thinkers, became saddled with such ancillary traits as being counterproductive, not team players, killjoys, Cassandras, or worse: people whose allegiances were seriously in question, appeasers. In reality, it was no more traitorous than a parent looking out for the best interests of his child. Say you came to me, for example, contemplating a preemptive invasion of a sovereign nation (an incursion predicated on cooked intelligence, misinformation, and outright lies, but never mind), and you tried to convince me that said incursion would spread the honeyed sunshine of democracy and freedom upon a formerly dark corner of the world and occasion from the inhabitants of that sovereign nation nothing but full-throated greetings to you and your troops as liberators and the heaping upon you of grateful garlands. I might say, “Well, that’s terrific, and best of luck on your dubiously noble and messianic project.” But if I in turn add, “Before you go, have you checked that you have enough soldiers, adequately outfitted with sufficient gear? We don’t want them scavenging the Baghdad rubbish heaps for scrap metal to fashion hillbilly armor, now, do we?” If that’s all I said, just that little bit of small-voiced advocacy for some contingency planning. If I never once asked after the authenticity of those aerial photographs presented to the U.N. by Colin Powell (merely acting according to the tenets of the loyal soldier he was. Truly, if he’s so bound by the ancient codes of honor, so haunted by the ghosts of the thousands of lives he is partially responsible for snuffing out, then let’s go all ancient Sparta on his loyal soldier ass. Let him fall upon his sword or offer up his tender throat to the blade. Isn’t that what they did back then? All that wrestling with himself on the Sunday morning news shows, the repellent too-little-too-late ex post facto tortured regret, his conscience-ridden resignation . . . well, all I can say is Yiddishists everywhere should bow down before this apotheosis of chutzpah. But let me be clear about this: Bush and Co. didn’t lie because they are optimists. They lied because they are liars. Okay, back to the matter at hand . . .), supposing I didn’t mention any of that, nor even the complicit looking the other way as soldiers were sold shitty, inadequate, extortionate insurance policies. If all I said was, “Hey buddy, looks like you’ll need more soldiers, if only to protect all those vases,” it does not necessarily follow that my contingency thinking nullifies your positive agenda, or that my advancing some more detailed cognition means that I lack patriotism.
See how that works?
Except that it almost never works. It is an almost unwinnable battle. American self-assurance and individuality lionize the can-do positivity of the optimist. It’s what settled the prairies and built the railroads, I suppose, although I like to think it was the pessimists who had the anxious foresight to circle the wagons. Given the greater comforts of our lives off the frontier today, optimism seems even more like the natural choice. (It’s presumptuous of me to assess your level of luxury, I know, but if you’re reading this, chances are you’re bobbing along in the same lavishly appointed boat as I am: an inhabitant of the developed world, at least, which in and of itself makes us very lucky indeed, and which makes those among us who still report feelings of dissatisfaction and anxiety seem very ungrateful.) That very privilege imbues all of us with a sense of power over cause and effect, a feeling that our actions can and do affect outcomes—which they sometimes do—but it remains among the prettiest of delusions, one that is ground down and out of most people elsewhere on this earth.
A 1999 article from The New York Times told the story of the villagers of the Cambodian hamlet of Bet Trang. Coming upon three thousand tons of cement-like material in a nearby field, they could not believe their good fortune. The white plastic of the sacks proved to have manifold uses, as ground sheets, tents, waterproofing, emptied out for grain storage, you name it. What a boon, until, of course the villagers developed headaches, diarrhea, and weight loss. Eventually it was found that the powder, compressed ash from an industrial incinerator, contained insane amounts of mercury and other hazardous metals. It was dumped there by the Formosa Plastics Corporation of Taiwan. And why was the waste dumped in Cambodia and not the country formerly known as Formosa? Because the comparatively wealthy citizenry of Taiwan had a first-world sense of liberty and entitlement, and an opinion about the poisoning of their habitat, and they understandably protested. But the Cambodian villagers did not complain, even as they got sicker and sicker. This calamity seemed not materially different from everything else they had endured over centuries of colonization and fratricidal civil war. They had been taught to expect nothing from this life. Certainly nothing good.
Buddhist detachment might have it all over Western notions of jealousy, guilt, covetousness, and general engagement in its deep understanding of the essentially amoral random anarchy of the universe. Asian cultures score more pessimistically on diagnostic measures, tending to value the self-effacing aspects of self-doubt. With less value placed upon positive emotion, there is less impetus for gratuitous optimism. But just like those anxious, sad-sack Westerners, there are, of course, exceptions everywhere. My friend Jim went to see Amma, the Indian mystic whose hugs, it is said, are a dose of extra-strength sympathy and benevolence (she dispenses these hugs to audiences around the world, including America, so her fans must be Western in some healthy percentage). Amma is said to be a conduit of all the love of the universe channeled through one pair of arms, a single warm body plugging into the great celestial wellspring of lovingkindness. Jim, a man of perhaps the sweetest disposition I have ever known and an avowed optimist—he wrote a beautiful chapbook of poems devoted to it—waited for something like four hours in Madison Square Garden and was incredibly glad he did.
The best I can manage is a tepid, “If you say so.” I love a hug as much as the next guy, but I need a context of familiarity, some reason to believe that said hug is meant for me specifically. Being touched can be lovely, transcendent even, but a hug is almost deeper than eye contact, as meaningful as a kiss. A hug that one waits in line for from a woman who wouldn’t know me if I stood up in her soup would be like reading a piece of direct mail and being warmed by its repeated use of my name (“and if you act now, DAVID RAKOFF, we’ll also send you . . .”). I would feel duped and even lonelier than before, like stuffing the other side of the bed with clothes and making like it’s a boyfriend.
The embrace of another clearly has some salubrious effect. Babies definitely need them, we all do. But a hug bestowed so freely to a stadium full of people, without prejudice or favor—while lovely and humbling in its benevolence—might also be seen by someone who cannot help but transfuse everything with his negativity as debauching the very nature of what it means to connect with another person, which requires hours and hours, not of waiting in line but of putting in the time getting to know someone. That harboring of initial illusions and hopes, the eventual downgrading of same, the word-filled, prone-to-recrimination-and-betrayal nuisance of it all, and the still continuing to rely upon, be relied upon in turn, be dismayed by, argue with, and withal love another human being. It’s the difference between sugar and complex carbohydrates. It might be more fun to eat in the short run, but it’s markedly less sustaining in the long.
But to tap still more deeply into the churlish vein, it is the belief in the extra-soothing power of the universe that gets me since, as best as I can determine, the universe cares not one jot for you or me. It really doesn’t. As the writer Melissa Bank points out, the only proper response to a tearful “Why me?” is, sadly, “Why not you?” The sunniest, most positive child in Malaysia laboring in a fucking sneaker factory can visualize all the good fortune he wants, but without concrete changes in international models of global trade, finance, and educational opportunities along with some very temporal man-made policies, just for starters, guess where he’s going tomorrow morning? (A hint: it rhymes with schmucking sneaker factory.)
That can be a cold and lonely reality with which to contend, and one to which every one of us, even the most vinegar-soaked pessimist, is naturally resistant. We all spend our lives rejecting this truth and, consciously or not, entreating the universe—with its vast stretches of deep space, dark matter, and uncharted, immeasurable distances—to somehow align itself in sheer admiration of our fervor and gumption, to rain down precisely that which it is we wish for.
And the universe will say nothing.
Even the most charmed life is a veritable travelogue of disappointment. There will always be an inevitable gulf between hope and reality. It is how we traverse these Deserts of Letdown that shows us what we are made of (perhaps almost as much as does choosing to characterize them as Deserts of Letdown).
“Such sand this is!” some of us will moan, fretting our way along, grain by melancholy grain. (Is that a Yiddish inflection you hear? I leave you to draw your own conclusions.) “Sand?” others will answer, briefly bewildered and barreling across, unmindful of their burning feet.
But look: There we all are (and in the following everyone seems to be in agreement); moving forward, like it or not.

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The Guardians

The Guardians

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tagged : thrillers
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[ I ]
The call comes in the middle of the night, as the worst sort do.
The phone so close I can read the numbers on its green-glowing face, see the swirled fingerprint I’d left on its message window. A simple matter of reaching and grabbing. Yet I lie still. It is my motor-facility impairment (as one of my fussily unhelpful physicians calls it) that pins me for eighteen rings before I manage to hook the receiver onto my chest.
“I don’t even know what time it is. But it’s late, isn’t it?”
A familiar voice, faintly slurred, helium-pitched between laughter and sobs. Randy Toller. A friend since high school—a time that even Randy, on the phone, calls “a million years ago.” And though it was only twenty-four years, his estimate feels more accurate.
As Randy apologizes for waking me, and blathers on about how strange he feels “doing this,” I am trying to think of an understanding but firm way of saying no when he finally gets around to asking for money. He has done it before, following the unfairly lost auditions, the furniture-stealing girlfriends, the vodka-smoothed rough patches of his past tough-luck decade. But in the end Randy surprises me when he takes a rattling, effortful breath and says, “Ben’s dead, Trev.”
This is my first, not-quite-awake thought. Nobody’s called me that since high school, including Randy.
“A rope,” Randy says.
“Hanging. I mean, he hung himself. In his mom’s house.”
“He never went outside. Where else could he have done it?”
“I’m saying he did it in his room. Up in the attic where he’d sit by the window, you know, watching.”
“Did his mom find him?”
“It was a kid walking by on the street. Looked up to see if that weird McAuliffe guy was in the window as usual, and saw him swinging there.”
I’m quiet for a while after this. We both are. But there is our breath being traded back and forth down the line. Reminders that we aren’t alone in recalling the details of Ben’s room, a place we’d spent a quarter of our youth wasting our time in. Of how it would have looked with the grown-up Ben in it, attached to the oak beam that ran the length of the ceiling.
“Maybe it’s for the best,” Randy says finally.
“Take that back.”
“I didn’t—it’s just—”
“Take that stupid bullshit back.”
“Fine. Sorry.”
Randy has led the kind of life that has made him used to apologizing for saying the wrong thing, and the contrite tone he uses now is one I’ve heard after dozens of defaulted IOUs and nights spent sleeping on my sofa between stints in rented rooms. But then, in little more than a whisper, he says something else.
“You know it’s sort of true, Trev.”
He’s right. It is sort of true that with the news of Ben McAuliffe’s suicide there came, among a hundred other reactions, a shameful twinge of relief.
Ben was a friend of mine. Of ours. A best friend, though I hadn’t seen him in years, and spoke to him only slightly more often. It’s because he stayed behind, I suppose. In Grimshaw, our hometown, from which all of us but Ben had escaped the first chance we had. Or maybe it’s because he was sick. Mentally ill, as even he called himself, though sarcastically, as if his mind was the last thing wrong with him. This would be over the phone, on the rare occasions I called. (Each time I did his mother would answer, and when I told her it was me calling her voice would rise an octave in the false hope that a good chat with an old friend might lift the dark spell that had been cast on her son.) When we spoke, neither Ben nor I pretended we would ever see each other again. We might as well have been separated by an ocean, or an even greater barrier, as impossible to cross as the chasm between planets, as death. I had made a promise to never go back to Grimshaw, and Ben could never leave it. A pair of traps we had set for ourselves.
Despite this, we were still close. There was a love between us too. A sexless, stillborn love, yet just as fierce as the other kinds. The common but largely undocumented love between men who forged their friendship in late childhood.
But this wasn’t the thing that bridged the long absence that lay between our adult lives. What connected Ben and me was a secret. A whole inbred family of secrets. Some of them so wilfully forgotten they were unknown even to ourselves.
Only after I’ve hung up do I notice that, for the entire time I was on the phone with Randy, my hands were still. I didn’t even have to concentrate on it, play the increasingly unwinnable game of Mind Over Muscles.
Don’t move.
It’s like hypnosis. And like hypnosis, it usually doesn’t work.
Everything’s okay. Just stay where you are. Relax. Be still.
Now, in the orange dust of city light that sneaks through the blinds, I watch as the tremor returns to my limbs. Delicate flutterings at first. Nervous and quick as a sparrow dunking its head in a puddle. An index finger that abruptly stiffens, points with alarm at the chair in the corner—and then collapses, asleep. A thumb standing in a Fonzie salute before turtling back inside a fist.
You know what I need? A week in Bermuda.
These were the sort of thoughts I had when the twitches showed up.
I need to eat more whole grains.
I need a drink.
The hand-jerks and finger-flicks were just the normal flaws, the software glitches the body has to work through when first booting up after a certain age. I had just turned forty, after all. There was a price to be paid—a small, concealable impediment to be endured for all the fun I’d had up until now. But it was nothing to worry about. It wasn’t a real problem of the kind suffered by the wheelchaired souls you wish away from your line of sight in restaurants, your appetite spoiled.
But then, a few months ago, the acceptable irregularities of the body inched into something less acceptable. Something wrong.
I went to the doctor. Who sent me to another doctor. Who confirmed her diagnosis after a conversation with a third doctor. And then, once the doctors had that straightened out, all of them said there was next to nothing they could do, wished me well and buggered off.
What I have, after all, is one of those inoperable, medically unsexy conditions. It has all the worst qualities of the non-fatal disease: chronic, progressive, cruelly erosive of one’s “quality of life.” It can go fast or slow. What’s certain is that it will get worse. I could name it now but I’m not in the mood. I hate its falsely personal surnamed quality, the possessive aspect of the capital P. And I hate the way it doesn’t kill you. Until it does.
I spoke to a therapist about it. Once.
She was nice—seemed nice, though this may have been only performance, an obligation included in her lawyer-like hourly fee—and was ready to see me “all the way through what’s coming.” But I couldn’t go back. I just sat in her pleasant, fern-filled room and caught a whiff of the coconut exfoliant she’d used that morning to scrub at the liver spots on her arms and knew I would never return. She was the sort of woman in the sort of office giving off the sort of scent designed to provoke confessions. I could have trusted her. And trusting a stranger is against the rules.
(There was something else I didn’t like. I didn’t like how, when she asked if I had entertained any suicidal thoughts since the diagnosis and I, after a blubbery moment, admitted that I had, she offered nothing more than a businesslike smile and a tidy check mark in her notepad.)
One useful suggestion came out of our meeting, nevertheless. For the purposes of recording my thoughts so that they might be figured out later, she recommended I keep a diary chronicling the progress of my disease. Not that she used that word. Instead, she referred to the unstoppable damage being done to me as an “experience,” as if it were a trip to Paraguay or sex with twins. And it wasn’t a journal of sickness I was to keep, but a “Life Diary,” her affirmative nods meant to show that I wasn’t dying. Yet. That was there too. Remember, Trevor: You’re not quite dead yet.
“Your Life Diary is more than a document of events,” she explained. “It can, for some of my clients, turn out to be your best friend.”
But I already have best friends. And they don’t live in my present life so much as in the past. So that’s what I’ve ended up writing down. A recollection of the winter everything changed for us. A pocket-sized journal containing horrors that surprised even me as I returned to them. And then, after the pen refused to stand still in my hand, it has become a story I tell into a Dictaphone. My voice. Sounding weaker than it does in my own ears, someone else’s voice altogether.
I call it my “Memory Diary.”
Randy offered to call Carl, but we both knew I would do it. Informing a friend that someone they’ve known all their life has died was more naturally a Trevor kind of task. Randy would be the one to score dope for a bachelor party, or scratch his key along the side of a Porsche because he took it personally, and hard, that his own odds of ever owning one were fading fast. But I was definitely better suited to be the bearer of bad tidings.
I try Carl at the last number I have for him, but the cracked voice that answers tells me he hasn’t lived there for a while. When I ask to have Carl call if he stops by, there is a pause of what might be silent acceptance before the line goes dead. Randy has a couple of earlier numbers, and I try those too, though Carl’s former roommates don’t seem to know where he is now either (and refuse to give me their own names when I ask).
“Not much more we can do,” Randy says when I call him back. “The guy is gone, Trev.”
There it is again: Trev. A name not addressed to me in over twenty years, and then I get it twice within the last half-hour.
I had an idea, as soon as Randy told me Ben had died, that the past was about to spend an unwelcome visit in my present. Going from Trevor to Trev is something I don’t like, but a nostalgic name change is going to be the least of it. Because if I’m getting on a train for Grimshaw in the morning, it’s all coming back.
The coach.
The boy.
The house.
The last of these most of all because it alone is waiting for us. Ready to see us stand on the presumed safety of weed-cracked sidewalk as we had as schoolchildren, daring each other to see who could look longest through its windows without blinking or running away.
For twenty-four years this had been Ben’s job. Now it would be ours.

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The Beauty of Humanity Movement

A Note of Grace
Old Man Hung makes the best ph? in the city and has done so for decades. Where he once had a shop, though, he no longer does, because the rents are exorbitant, both the hard rents and the soft—the bribes a proprietor must pay to the police in this new era of freedom.
Still, Hung has a mission, if not a licence. He pushes the firewood, braziers and giant pots balanced on his wooden cart through the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter in the middle of the night and sets up his stall in a sliver of alleyway, on an oily patch of factory ground, at the frayed edge of a park or in the hollow carcass of a building under construction. He’s a resourceful, roving man who, until very recently, could challenge those less than half his age to keep up.
When he is forced to move on, word will travel from the herb seller, or the noodle maker, or the man delivering newspapers, to the shopkeepers along Hàng Bông Road who make sure to pass the information on to his customers, particularly to Bình, the one who is like a son to him, out buying a newspaper or a couple of cigarettes in the earliest of morning hours, returning home to rouse his own son, Tu, slapping their bowls, spoons and chopsticks into his satchel, jerking the motorbike out of his kitchen and into the alleyway, and joining the riders of three million other motorbikes en route to breakfast, at least forty of them destined for Hung.
His customers, largely men known to him for a number of years, are loyal, some might say dependent. He is loyal and most certainly dependent. This is his livelihood, his being, his way in the world, and has been ever since he first came to apprentice in his Uncle Chien’s ph? shop at eleven years of age.
It was 1933 when his father sent him from the rice fields to the city, getting Hung well out of the way of a mother who cherished him least of all her ten children. She’d kept him at a distance ever since a fortune teller had confirmed her suspicions that the large black mole stretching from the outer corner of Hung’s left eye to the middle of his cheekbone was an inauspicious sign. Tattooed with the promise of future darkness, the fortune teller had decreed.
Hung had come to his Uncle Chien with no name other than “nine,” denoting his place in the birth order, becoming Hung only in Hanoi, under the guardianship of his uncle, a man who neither subscribed to village superstitions nor could afford to turn help away.
This morning, Hung has set up shop in the empty kidney of a future swimming pool attached to a hotel under construction near the Ngu Xá Temple. It has taken several attempts to get his fire started in the damp air, but as the dark grey of night yields to the lighter grey of clouded morning, the flames burn an orange as pure and vibrant as a monk’s robe.
Some of his customers have already begun to slip over the lip of the pool, running down its incline with their bowls, spoons and chopsticks, racing to be head of the queue.
Hung works like the expert he is, using his right hand to lay noodles into each bowl presented to him, covering these with slices of rare beef, their edges curling immediately with the heat of the broth he is simultaneously ladling into each bowl with his left.
“There you go, Nguy?n. There you go, Phúc, little Min,” and off his first customers shuffle with their bowls to squat on the concrete incline, using their spoons and chopsticks to greet the dawn of a new day.
Ah, and here is Bình, greeting him quietly as always, bowl in hands, never particularly animated until he’s had a few sips of broth. Although he is well into his fifties, Bình is a man still so like the boy who used to accompany his father, Ð?o, to Hung’s ph? shop back in the revolutionary days of the early 1950s. The world has changed much since then, but Bình remains the same mindful, meditative soul who used to pad about after Hung, helping him carry the empty bowls out to the dishwasher in the alleyway behind the shop.
“There you go, Bình,” Hung says, as he does every morning, dropping a handful of chopped green herbs into his bowl from shoulder height with exacting flourish.
“Hung, what happened to your glasses?” Bình asks of the crack that bisects the left lens.
Hung, loath to admit he inadvertently sat upon them last night, shrugs as if it is a mystery to him too.
“Come”—Bình gestures—“let me fix them for you.”
Hung dutifully unhooks his glasses from his ears and hands them to Bình’s son, Tu, who is waiting beside his father with his empty bowl. Tu tucks them into his father’s shirt pocket, and Bình shuffles left, making way for his son.
Tu, just twenty-two years old but so full of confidence, greets Hung with more words than Bình ever does and waves his chopsticks left and right as he tries to calculate the size of the pool. This is very much like him—Tu loves numbers in a way that seems to pain him. He used to teach math at a high school, but he has abandoned that recently in favour of entertaining tourists. Hung is not sure all that foreign interaction is good for the boy, but he trusts Bình is monitoring the situation.
Hung indulges Tu with a challenge this morning: “I’d like to see you calculate the pool’s volume in terms of the number of bowls of ph? that would be required to fill it.”
Tu grins as he manoeuvres his way carefully across the pool, holding his bowl right under his nose, the steam rising like incense smouldering in a temple to bathe his face.
Hung has taught Tu, Bình and Bình’s father, Ð?o, before him that you can tell a good broth by its aroma, the way it begs the body through the nose. And ph? b?c—the ph? of Hanoi—is the greatest seducer, because of the subtle dance of seasonings that animates the broth. It is not just the seasonings that make ph? b?c distinct, it is provenance, a lesson Hung would happily deliver to anyone interested in listening.
The history of Vietnam lies in this bowl, for it is in Hanoi, the Vietnamese heart, that ph? was born, a combination of the rice noodles that predominated after a thousand years of Chinese occupation and the taste for beef the Vietnamese acquired under the French, who turned their cows away from ploughs and into bifteck and pot-au-feu. The name of their national soup is pronounced like this French word for fire, as Hung’s Uncle Chien explained to him long ago.
“We’re a clever people,” his uncle had said. “We took the best the occupiers had to offer and made it our own. Fish sauce is the key—in matters of soup and well beyond. Even romance, some people say.”
It was only with the painful partitioning of the country in 1954 that ph? went south; the million who fled communism held the taste of home in their mouths, the recipe in their hearts, but their eyes grew big in the markets of Saigon and they began to adulterate the recipe with imported herbs and vegetables. The ph's of Saigon had flourished brash with freedom and abundance while the North ate a poor man’s broth, plain and watered down, with chicken in place of beef as the Party ordered the closure of independent businesses like Hung’s and a string of government-owned cafeterias opened in their place.
Terrible stuff it was, grey as stagnant rainwater in a gutter. Those who are old enough to remember it thank Hung for getting rid of the mouldy taste in their mouths. Kids of Tu’s generation probably can’t even imagine it. Tu was born just before the government’s desperately needed economic reforms of 1986, when the market was liberalized in order to alleviate starvation and independent ownership once again became a possibility. Only then could the true potential of ph? be realized.
The challenge for Hung now has less to do with the availability of ingredients than with the need for restraint. Hung sees himself as a guardian of purity, eschewing bean sprouts and excessive green garnish in accordance with northern tradition. They may well have opened their doors to the world, but that does not mean they must pollute their bowls. An b?c; m?c nam, they say—eating as in the North; clothing as in the South—something so fundamental must be respected through deference to tradition.
Hung is a man governed by such principles rather than any laws, particularly those ones keenly enforced by the police that are of greatest inconvenience to him and those he serves. When the officers come to ticket him for trespassing or operating without a licence after he has had the peace of setting up shop in the same location for a few consecutive days, his customers will be forced to run off clutching their bowls, sloshing broth against their freshly pressed shirts, losing noodles to the pavement, jumping aboard their motorbikes and lurching into the day.
Hung’s crime is the same every day, but sometimes the police are in more of a mood to arrest a man than fine him. “Where did you relieve yourself this morning?” an officer in such a mood had asked him a few months ago.
Hung had shaken his head. The question made no sense. “Where did you pee, old man?” The officer raised his voice, threatening to arrest Hung for resisting a police officer if he didn’t answer the question.
Hung reluctantly pointed toward a patch of grass and asked, “Has peeing now been declared a crime?”
No, but that very patch of grass, as he was no doubt well aware, was the consecrated site upon which the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs would soon be erecting a new monument to honour the revolution’s martyrs and devotees. And so Hung was promptly arrested for insulting the Communist Party, which is to say, the only party there is.
Hung considered that night behind bars, lying on concrete and pissing into a communal bucket, mild punishment compared to the previous time he’d been charged with insulting the Party. Then, they had disciplined his mouth by punching out most of his front teeth with the butt of a rifle.
“Why this waste of money on statues?” he shouted after Bình had paid the bribe to release him from prison the second time. “Why yet another monument for the revolution? It’s been fifty years of this. Oh, if they could read the insults in my mind . . .”
“They used to claim they could read minds,” Bình said, and off they wandered, mumbling together like two old men despite the almost thirty years between them, two old men who had indeed once believed in the Party’s telepathy.       
Hung serves the last man among today’s early shift of customers and looks over at Bình and Tu, the younger still making calculations in the air with his chopsticks, the elder concentrating on his bowl. He wonders whether it isn’t time for Tu to marry. He hopes Tu’s mother, Anh, is giving this matter some attention; if not, Tu may well be the last in this family line Hung will serve.
The comforting clatter of metal spoons against ceramic is suddenly interrupted by a booming voice that floods the bloodless kidney, bouncing from side to side. Noodles slap against chins and silence falls. “What the hell are you all doing here?” a man yells, stepping down in heavy workboots. “I’ve got a project to supervise. I’ll have you all arrested if you don’t pack up and leave immediately!” He smacks a crowbar repeatedly against his thick-skinned palm.
Bình rises to his feet and all eyes turn toward him. “Sir, you have to smell this,” he says, nodding at the bowl in his hands.
Hung feels a hot rush of pride fill his cheeks. Bình really is a son to him, if not by blood, then certainly through his devotion. What is blood without relationship, without life shared, in any case? Hung has come to believe it is little more than something red.
A hush vibrates around the pool as the foreman steps toward Bình and demands to know their business. This is private property; what are they all doing squatting here like it’s mealtime on some communal farm?
“This is Hanoi’s greatest secret,” Bình says, his eyes lowered in deference. “Seriously. You have to know. It will change you.”
Despite the threat of the rusty crowbar, despite his familiarity with the pain such an instrument can cause, Hung knows this is his moment. He shuffles forth across the concrete in his slippers. He holds his own bowl under the foreman’s nose, steam rising to envelop them both. His customers inhale as if sharing one set of lungs. No one makes a sound as the foreman licks his lips and takes the chopsticks Hung offers. The foreman thrusts those chopsticks to the bottom of the bowl and lifts the noodles into the air, creating a wave that plunges the herbs to the bottom before they float back to the surface, infusing the noodles in the broth, just as every mother teaches her child.
The foreman proves he is just like every mother’s son. He leans over the bowl and inhales as he lays the noodles back down to rest in the broth, then clutches a few strands between his chopsticks and raises them to his mouth. The construction workers stand around the rim of the pool, watching their boss in silence. The foreman slurps broth from the spoon, lifts up a few more noodles with his chopsticks, curls them into his spoon, picks up a thin slice of beef, lays it on the bed of noodles, tweezes a piece of basil from the broth and places it on top of the beef, then puts this perfectly balanced combination, this yin and yang, into his mouth.
And then he grunts.
“I see what you mean,” he finally says to Bình, handing the bowl back to Hung.
“Bring your bowl tomorrow. Tell your men, too,” Hung says quietly, squinting at the workers on the rim. His left eye is clouded over; his right discerns the outline of a row of men. “Half price for them,” he says, “free, of course, for you.”
“I’ll pay you full price,” says the foreman. “Just as long as you and your customers are out by seven.”
“Yes, sir,” says Hung, shuffling back to the fatter end of the kidney to extinguish his fire. He feels a tremor of nervous laughter rattle beneath his ribs. He dares not look over at Bình. He smiles into the fire, sharing the victory with its embers instead.
It is not yet half past six—still plenty of time left to serve the latecomers who have just arrived, which Hung does now with good humour and renewed concentration, laying noodles and beef into each bowl with his right hand, pouring ladlefuls of broth over top with his left, his rhythm as even and essential as a beating heart.
Hung recognizes each man by the state of his hands: the grease moons under the nails that mark a mechanic, the calluses of one who works a lathe, the chewed nails of a student writing exams.
But then whose lovely hands are these amidst this parade of manly paws? The delicate hands of a woman who has, improbably, never engaged in manual labour. And the bowl. Shining. Translucent. Porcelain.
He looks up. The young woman before him is a classic beauty with delicate, balanced features, and although she is not one of his regular customers there is something familiar about her face.
Perhaps Bình sees it too, for he coughs in that moment and pulls his son away by the shirtsleeve—no time for gawking, time to get to work.
“You’ve come to me for breakfast before?” Hung asks, turning his attention back to the young woman before him.
“No,” she says, revealing herself a foreigner with just one word. Her black suit and crisp white shirt also set her apart; she is dressed like a serious businesswoman, and those teeth—white as the snow that used to fall on Quyeˆ´t Mountain when he was a boy, straight as the pines that crowned it.
“Maybe I knew you when you were a child?”
“I don’t think it’s possible, sir. I grew up in the U.S. But perhaps you knew my father—Lý Van Hai.”
“Lý Van Hai,” Hung repeats. The name is not entirely unfamiliar to him, but it is a sound far away, a temple gong ringing in a distant valley.
“He was an artist here in the fifties.”
Hung stops the movement of his ladle. Wait. Who is this woman? And what does she want? Does the government now employ beautiful young women with foreign accents as spies? Has she been hired to trap him, all these years later, to have him admit some collusion with the men of the Beauty of Humanity Movement?
Hung straightens his back, ready to defend himself, when he suddenly sees all the colour drain away from her face.
This girl is no spy.
“I’m sorry,” she says quietly. “I know this must seem like it’s coming out of nowhere, but I heard you knew many of the artists back then, and I’ve spent a year searching and nobody knows anything and I just . . .” Her voice evaporates and her shoulders slump. “I just hoped that maybe you knew him.”
Hung clears his throat. He does not know what to say. The professional businesswoman has transformed into a girl defeated. A girl in search of her father. “A Hanoi man, was he?”
She glances up, turning Hung into a frozen portrait of a man holding a ladle in mid-air. She looks so vulnerable—her eyes shining like rare black pearls, a slight tremor to her chin—her face far too revealing.
“He grew up in H?i Phòng, but he moved here to train at the École des Beaux Arts in the late 1940s,” she says.
It has been decades since a beautiful young woman has looked at him in such a way. Not since Lan, the girl who used to raise her eyes to him for answers. It is almost unbearable. If only he could offer this young woman—and himself—some relief. But he cannot honestly say he remembers anything about Lý Van Hai, except perhaps that combination of short syllables.
“His name is vaguely familiar,” says Hung, leaning in closer.“What else can you tell me about him, dear?”
“He was sent to a re-education camp in 1956.”
“So many of them were,” Hung says quietly.
“He was in good company then.”
“Oh, he would have been, yes,” Hung says. “Some of the very best.” He feels the urge to tell her just how good, to boast about the poetry and the essays and the artwork the Beauty of Humanity Movement produced, the fearlessness the men he knew had displayed in the face of opposition, the reach and inspiration of their work.
“Come again,” he says to the young woman instead. “Perhaps I will remember him.”
She pulls a business card from her pocket and hands it to him.
Hung squints at the English letters and bows his head respectfully, not recognizing a single word.
Tu sits behind his father on the seat of the Honda Dream II as they head back toward the Old Quarter after breakfast, wending their way through the congestion of motorbikes, bicycles, cyclos, pedestrians, cars, wooden carts and back-bent widows peddling food in baskets hanging from bamboo poles, blazing a trail through air thick with diesel fumes and morning fog.
“You’ve never seen her before?” Tu shouts, as his father slows down to turn a corner.
“I told you—no,” Bình yells over his shoulder.
“But what do you think she was doing there?”
“No idea,” his father yells. “Strange morning.”
Strange indeed. Auspicious even. Tu’s father seems possessed with the strength of the new moon—look at his victory over the foreman this morning, after all. Although his father is a naturally reserved man, Tu has seen him overcome his inhibition when it counts. It is their job to protect Hung, particularly now that he is getting older. Hung’s eyesight has deteriorated recently, his movements have become stiff and slow; it pains Tu to realize that Hung is no longer the invincible street warrior, but a man showing the vulnerabilities of his age.
Tu squeezes his father’s shoulder affectionately before hopping off the back of the bike in front of the Metropole, Hanoi’s finest hotel, once the finest in all of Indochina. He skips up the steps and enters the lobby. The giant potted palms, chandeliers and ceiling fans keep the grand colonial air of the place alive. Phuong, Tu’s best friend and partner in capitalist adventure, stumbles in just after him, looking foul-tempered with the stink of late-night karaoke. He has neglected to shave and his lips appear glued together. Phuong has clearly not been fortified with the bowl of ph? that is vital for one’s daily performance.
“You missed some real drama this morning,” says Tu.
“I’ve had quite enough drama of my own already this morning,” says Phuong.
Phuong is the driver, and Tu, because of his better English, is the guide, but together they are the A-team employed by the New Dawn Tour Agency in their matching company T-shirts and knock-off Chinese Nike Shox Jungas with soles the colour of ripe mango. On the job, Phuong goes by the name Hanoi Poison, Hanoi P for short. He says it’s for the benefit of the tourists who can only seem to spit his real name, but the truth is it’s his rap name and he’s planning on becoming a famous rap artist. Phuong has solid musical training behind him, a growing reputation and many, many fans, but most of all, he’s got talent. He tries to mess with Tu’s name as well—Tu-Dangerous, TaTu—but Tu is not interested. “I’m old-fashioned that way,” he says, “leave it be.”
Tu met Phuong a couple of years ago when they were both teaching at the high school in Јo ´ng Ða district. Tu was twenty years old and had just made the depressing discovery that loving math was a very different thing from loving teaching it. He was dreading the thought of the next forty-five years until retirement, but when he thought of the drudgery his parents had endured in their early working lives he was overcome with guilt.
Bình and Anh had been employed at the Russian KAO factory for years, dutiful proletariat manufacturing Ping-Pong balls for a pittance. Tu’s father had worked with celluloid, his mother had tested for bounce and Tu had had a cardboard box full of misshapen white balls to play with as a child. But in the 1980s, the bones of the Soviet Union began to rattle. Soviet aid ran out and the factories began to close, leaving Vietnam friendless and hungry and in trouble. And so began Ð?i m?i—Vietnam’s very own perestroika—the economic reforms that allowed a free market to develop and have since changed all of their lives.
Tu’s father now has endless carpentry work. He employs two assistants, four skilled woodworkers and an apprentice, but still, with so much construction going on he must say no to jobs on occasion. Despite his enthusiasm for private enterprise, Bình is still more craftsman than businessman.
Tu’s mother, meanwhile, had knocked on the doors of every one of the new butcher shops that opened in the 1990s until she found one proprietor who was obliged to listen because he came from the same village as her mother. The story is now legendary in their family. “Tell me nine ways to prepare pork for Tet and I’ll consider hiring you,” the butcher said. And so Tu’s mother recalled the pork dishes they used to eat during the holidays at her grandmother’s house. She described the sensation of her teeth collapsing through fried rice paper into the soft ground pork middle of a spring roll, the crisp saltiness of pig skin fried with onions, the silk of the finest pork and cinnamon pâté coating her tongue, the soft chew of pork sausages, the buttery collapse of pig’s trotters stewed with bamboo shoots, the ticklish texture of pig intestines resting on vermicelli and the fill of sticky rice, pork and green beans boiled in banana leaves. Just when she was about to falter, she remembered how her father used to reminisce about the dishes his mother made for Tet during his boyhood in Hu?: pork bologna, fermented pork hash, pig’s brain pie . . .
The butcher raised his finger. “You’re hired. Stop there before I fire you.”
Tu did not have to do time in a factory: he grew up in a world where he was free to choose a career for himself. What right did he have to complain about his teaching job? But then he’d met Phuong, a part-time music teacher a few years older than he who taught classical dàn ba 'ˆu two days a week. Phuong, moping in the teachers’ lounge, had called theirs a thankless profession. This had unleashed a sympathetic torrent from Tu, marking the beginning of an illustrious friendship.
Phuong had the spirit and imagination of an artist and entrepreneur, enough to inflate the dreams for two. By the end of that school year, once Phuong had lobbied Tu’s father for consent, they had both submitted their resignations and registered for a diploma course at Hanoi Tourism College.
You are the Ð?i m?i generation, the instructors at the college told them, the children of the renovation, the future of Vietnam—a future that depends on opening even more doors to international trade and relations. Tu feels the elation of being poised at the vanguard of the future as a proud, fully fledged, nationally accredited tour guide shaking the hands of the world.
Tu’s English might be better than Phuong’s, but Tu knows that in many ways it was Phuong who taught him what foreigners really want. Tu prides himself on being an excellent memorizer, and initially relied on the vast and readily accessible number of facts stored in his brain. He has memorized, in particular, The Big Book of Inventions, so if a tourist comes from, say, Norway, he can impress him by asking, Do you know the invention for which Norway is most famous? The aerosol spray can.
The tourist will then turn his blue eyes to his companion and say, Really. I had no idea.
In 1926 by Mr. Erik Rotheim, chemical engineer, Tu might add.
He also attempts to wow with statistics—a communist education encourages such things—the land area of each administrative division in the country, for instance, the number of university graduates from various faculties, the lengths of the Mekong and Red rivers and the Great Wall of China.
It was Phuong who pulled him aside one day and said, “When they say really, it actually means that is very boring.”
“Really?” Tu asked.
Tu believes it is shared wisdom like this that has made them the A-team. But he is still learning, and perhaps that is what he likes best about his job. No pain, no gain, as the Americans say.
This morning, he and Phuong are escorting a middle-aged Canadian couple to some nearby villages. Tu likes the Canadians, even if their most exciting invention was only the garbage bag. (Really. In 1950 by Mr. Harry Wasylyk of Winnipeg, Manitoba.) They are generally kind, though it always amuses him how they introduce themselves with variations of: Hello, nice to meet you, we are from Canada, see the maple leaves sewn onto our knapsacks? Our country might be right next door, but it’s a world apart from its southern neighbour; in fact, we offered refuge to a great many draft dodgers who did not believe the Americans should be in Vietnam—horrible, horrible war, horrible, horrible U.S.A., horrible, horrible George Bush, and Iraq, now don’t get me started on Iraq . . .
Yes, yes, Tu will nod and smile, because he does not want to speak a truth they will find complicated or disagreeable. This is what is meant by saving face. The war was a long time ago, well before Tu was born, and besides, in his opinion, an opinion shared with most of his friends, everything great was invented in the U.S. Blue jeans, for example. And Nikes and Tommy Hilfiger. And MTV and Nintendo and the Internet. And furthermore, the Vietnamese beat the Americans; they don’t go around boasting about it, but it’s true. It wasn’t like the Chinese, crushing the Vietnamese for a thousand years, or the French who tortured and killed for decades, making the Vietnamese slaves in their own country and taking every decision out of their hands.
While such thoughts might fly around like a Ping-Pong ball inside Tu’s head, none of his clients would ever suspect it. Tu works hard to impress them with his good nature and exemplary customer service, and is ever-ready with his New Dawn smile.
Today’s Canadians are from Quebec, the first French Canadians Tu has ever met. “We too were colonized by the French, as I am sure you are aware,” he said when he met them in the lobby yesterday, attempting to establish some common bond.
Their reaction had caused Tu to spend most of last night in an Internet café. Today he hopes to redeem himself with sensitive insights into their unique history and culture. He will need to, because Phuong, green with hangover, does not look like he will be of any particular help.
Tu is indebted to his friend for changing his life, and he considers Phuong a brother. He envies him like a brother too. Phuong is taller and leaner, but it’s not Tu’s fault he inherited his father’s slightly bowed legs. The baggy jeans fortunately help disguise this. And at least both his eyes are real; there is no danger of inheriting his father’s glass eye. Tu doesn’t have nearly as white a smile as Phuong’s, his upper teeth having been stained from taking antibiotics when he was a kid, but again—not his fault. And his hands? A little small, but surely more than made up for by the size and enthusiasm of his penis, as his future wife will discover.
Currently there are no candidates for that job. An introduction through family is always best, and even if Phuong prefers random girls for himself, as Tu’s honorary older brother, he introduces him to girls from time to time.
Last Christmas there was this one girl Phuong kept chatting about, and while Tu was interested at first, the more stories about her charitable work that Phuong recounted, the less interested Tu became. By the time Phuong finally introduced them, Tu was expecting someone with a shaved head in a flowing saffron robe who had no interest in romance or other worldly (i.e., carnal) matters. Instead, he was introduced to a cute girl dressed as one of Santa’s helpers. She was wearing a short, fuzzy red-and-white miniskirt and her hair was tied into flirty Japanese-schoolgirl-style ponytails underneath her floppy Santa’s hat. Tu suddenly felt very shy. He felt other things too, but very shy was perhaps second on the list.
It was Christmas Eve and the three of them were standing among two thousand other Buddhists facing St. Joseph’s Cathedral with its blazing neon-blue manger. There were balloons and streamers and ribbons of fake snow floating through the air above, a rainbow of coloured lights beaming off the top of the church and music blaring over giant loudspeakers on the church steps, but all Tu felt was the fuzzy warmth of the girl’s skirt as she stood wedged between them, all he smelled was her perfume beyond the plastic scent of her clothes, all he felt, suddenly, was her hand on his hand, her head on his shoulder, all he heard was her whispering in his ear, “You can kiss me, you can touch me, if you’d like.”
Tu was shocked: there they were wedged together in the crowd when she turned toward him, barely an inch between their noses, and took his hand and placed it on her breast, which was like a perfect brioche from a French bakery, the nipple like a hard raisin. She then slipped her hand down between them and, although she had no room to manoeuvre, she managed to rub his penis through his jeans. In thirty seconds he erupted, making a sound like a small sneezing dog.
He never saw the girl again. He tried to call her the next day but her cellphone number didn’t even exist. It was only then that he asked Phuong, “That girl, she wasn’t . . . — Phuong, you didn’t . . . did you?”
“Merry Christmas, my friend.”
Tu had been extremely embarrassed about the whole thing and wondered if this is what Phuong had meant when he referred to her “charitable work.” Still, he does savour the memory of it and dream of the meal that will come when he marries, because if he ever does get that close to a real girl, he will certainly be marrying her, although he doesn’t want to marry that kind of girl, he wants a quiet and traditional girl, one he can introduce with pride to everyone in his family, one who will belong among them, for she will come to live with him and his parents as tradition dictates, because Tu is the first-born and only son.
Above all, his future wife must show great respect to Old Man Hung. The old man is patriarch of their family in a unique and complicated way, beyond blood. Tu’s father has known Old Man Hung since boyhood, since before he was Old Man and was just Hung. He is he one who kept Grandfather Ð?o’s flame burning, holding it close through decades of poverty and war, and waiting patiently for the day when he could share it and pass it on.
Old Man Hung has been present at every important occasion of Tu’s life. From his birth to every Tet holiday to his graduation. Given how much the old man seems to have aged over the past few months, Tu worries the remaining occasions are numbered. He means no disrespect to Grandfather Ð?o, but on such occasions, and even in the day-to-day, Tu feels Hung to be more of a real grandfather to him than the legendary poet whose image sits enshrined on an overturned crate inside Hung’s rickety old shack on the shore of a manky pond.
Introducing a girl to Old Man Hung would be the ultimate test of her moral character. Hung is poorer than poor, and the wrong girl would be put off by the association and might begin to worry about the security of her future. Even if Tu is ashamed by the old man’s poverty himself at times, the truth is, Tu is looking for someone who is a better person than he.
Mr. and Mrs. Henri Lévesque have just entered the lobby, putting an end to this introspection. “You’ve slept well?” Tu asks. “Had a satisfactory breakfast? You have enjoyed some of the amenities of the hotel such as the free Wi-Fi? You have your camera in your bag there? This is our driver, Phuong, and he will be taking us to the ethnic minority craft villages this morning. First in our journey, we will be crossing the Red River via one of the city’s three bridges. The Red River comes to us from China through the Honghe Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province and runs in a southeasterly direction for a total of 1,175 kilometres before emptying itself in the Gulf of Tonkin.”
Really,” mumbles Phuong, as he leads the couple down the steps toward the van.
Hung pats his shirt pocket. The young woman’s business card is nestled there alongside Tu’s, which the boy insists Hung keep on his person at all times. He indulges Tu with the solemn promise to do so, even if he does find the implication somewhat patronizing.
Hung uses all his strength to push his cart through the streets toward the Hàng Da Market, where he will visit Bình’s wife, Anh, at her butcher stall. She is very good company, always up for a bit of conversation over a calming cup of jasmine tea, but there is a particular urgency to his pace this morning: he hopes the business card might reveal a clue. His desire to remember something, anything about this girl’s father feels so acute it could lead a man to fanciful thoughts, if not outright fabrication. He needs to work with the few pieces of information he’s been given.
When Hung tires of pushing his wooden cart, he turns it around and pulls it, his arms stretched out behind him like the yoke that harnesses an ox. He can feel the road rough against the sole of his left foot; time once again to replace a slipper. Fortunately, being far from fashionable, these black vinyl slippers are cheap. He remembers a time in the not-too-distant past when everyone wore them and had no choice. For a few years they were the only shoes you could buy in the government shops. One was rarely lucky enough to find the right size or a matching pair, but since everyone faced the same predicament, people were always prepared to engage in a frantic yet good-natured exchange in the street.
Such communality is rare these days. Now Hung passes a new shoe shop every day, where shoes with prices marked in both dong and U.S. dollars hang like ripe fruit. The streets of the Old Quarter shine with imported merchandise, where not long ago they only gave off the fumes of disintegration, the smell of rot. At times the glare seems far too bright.
Hung grinds to a halt in front of the market. He has overexerted himself and needs a moment of rest. He lifts the biggest of his pots from his cart and inverts it, plunking it down with a hollow boom on the sidewalk. He plants his bottom firmly upon it, his legs spread wide apart, and waves to the sugar-cane seller, gesturing for a cup of juice. He rests his knees on his elbows and rubs his eyes with the heels of his hands. What a dramatic and emotional morning it has been.
Seeing Bình rise and approach the foreman had cast him right back to those heady days in the early 1950s when Ð?o and the circle of artists and intellectuals who gathered around him would congregate for breakfast in the shop Hung had by then inherited from Uncle Chien.
Bình, tiny then, would sit on a low wooden stool at his father’s side, looking terrified of splashing his white shirt as he bent his head over his bowl and tried to manipulate a pair of long chopsticks between his small fingers.
Ð?o and the other men completely failed to notice the boy’s travails, consumed as they were with news of the liberation struggle and engaged in heated debates about the future of Vietnam. After abandoning his bowl, little Bình would sit patiently beside his father, who was alternately scribbling in a leatherbound notebook or arguing a point by jabbing the air with the burning end of his cigarette.
Hung, alone, saw the boy. And Bình’s invisibility gnawed at his heart.
“Come,” Hung said at last, drawing Bình away from the table. “There is a bird nesting above the frame of the door.”
The boy padded through Hung’s backroom after him, where Hung pointed to the nest wedged under the eaves.
“Are there babies?” he remembers Bình asking.
Hung had crouched down and encouraged the boy to climb up and sit on his shoulders. Hung tottered upright, pinning the boy’s calves against his chest. “Can you see inside?”
“There’s a blue egg,” Bình said, his voice full of wonder. “When will it hatch?”
“I tell you what,” Hung said. “We’ll have a look every day until it does.”
One night, Hung took a pair of ivory chopsticks, sawed off their tips and sanded them until they were nicely tapered and polished. He pulled Bình out of the inferno the next morning to present these to him. The boy held them in one hand and clutched them against his chest as he walked back to the table unnoticed and resumed his seat. The glow in Bình’s eyes as he turned the chopsticks over in his hands and admired them from all angles had given Hung the sense, for the briefest of moments, of what it might feel like to be a father. He had felt it again this morning watching Bình rise to address the foreman: that same proud flicker of paternal love. Age is doing its inevitable though, and reversing their roles; the son is now defending the father.
How gentle and selfless Bình has always been. How bold and idealistic was his father. But perhaps the politics of a time determine the disposition of a man; perhaps a revolutionary is only a revolutionary in revolutionary times. Hung cannot say with any certainty what makes a man. But he certainly knows what breaks one.
Perhaps the poor girl who turned up unexpectedly this morning knows something of this too. If Lý Van Hai was among the men who used to frequent Hung’s shop, he is unlikely to have met a happy end.
Right, he says to himself, slapping his thighs. Time to tell Anh about the girl and the ghost who is her father. Hung presses his palms into his knees and pushes himself upright with a groan. He really is getting old. He has begun to wonder what Buddha has in store for him in the afterlife, whether it be reincarnation as a bull or a bug.
Hung offers the bird seller a thousand dong to watch his cart. The bird seller bargains for double. Hung passes over a greasy wad of small bills, then makes his way unburdened toward a pink pyramid of stacked pigs in the far corner of the market.
Anh waves a large blade in greeting. She puts the knife down and wipes her bloodied hands on her white smock before delicately taking the business card Hung holds out to her by the edges. She does not read English either. They need someone of Tu’s generation to translate. Anh calls over the fishmonger’s son, but he shakes his head: he was in a boat as a boy, not a classroom.
The district propaganda broadcast is reaching its peak as the business card is passed from bloodied hand to fish-scaled hand to muddied hand throughout the stalls of the market. A voice backfires like an exhaust pipe through the loudspeaker, spluttering the names and addresses of those who have neglected to pay their garbage collection fee or renew their motorbike licence or turned eighteen and failed to report for military duty.
Having heard his own name so many times, Hung is immune to this public shaming. He’s more attuned to the smaller sounds, the burps of nature. Frogs croaking their final days in pans of slimy water; birds twittering in their lacy cages. Despite all the years he has lived in Hanoi, Hung can still hear a canary sing above the propaganda broadcast, over the thrum and burr of engines and the orchestra of competing horns. He can still discern a note of nature’s grace.
The card is a stampede of fingerprints by the time it is returned to Hung, but someone has written a translation of the words on its reverse.
Miss Maggie Ly
Curator of Art
Hotel Sofitel Metropole
15 Ngô Quyeˆ´n Street
Luxury at the heart of Hanoi since 1901

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The Spice Necklace

The Spice Necklace

A Food-Lover's Caribbean Adventure
also available: Paperback
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The Nutmeg Gatherers
. . . Grenada . . .
It’s a rampage, / The lands are savaged, / My Caribbean ruined,
Not a tree in sight, / That didn’t get hit outright;
It’s a rampage, / Ivan take we hostage . . .
See Barbados (stocking up) / Small Tobago (stocking up)
Poor Grenada, / Lord, what a plight;
After the storm, / All man in the same boat, / Yes, after the storm,
We ’ve got to help each other, / (After, after)
Because livestock (blow way) / Food crop (blow way)
Nutmeg (blow way) . . .
from “After the Storm,” composed by Christophe Grant, sung by Denyse Plummer
The village of Union sits about two inches south of the northern tip of Grenada on my big multi-fold government map— just above the spot where the capillary network of red roads thins out and then disappears. A few old cocoa and nutmeg estates are noted— Union Estate, Malagon Estate, Samaritan Estate— and a few lonely squares indicate buildings. But the map makes it clear this is the start of the island’s undeveloped, empty, mountainous middle.
So I shouldn’t be surprised by the road we’re walking (climbing, really), heading straight up from the village, but still it leaves me breathless, and not just from its steepness. Ahead of us, the road simply seems to end, swallowed up into lush mountains, painted thickly in a dozen shades of green. Around every bend, in every direction, is a postcard. “You see that one?” our old friend Dingis asks, puffing out the words as even she stops to rest. She points to the most imposing peak, where the white mist of a morning shower floats high up, encircling the green. “On deh other side was where all deh nutmeg trees were.”
Early in the morning, Dingis, her friend Gail, and Steve and I had set out from her house in Lower Woburn, on Grenada’s south coast, taking first one bus to St. George ’s, and then another, to travel up the leeward west coast— past Gouyave, known as the island’s fishing capital, though this makes it sound much grander than it is; past Victoria, an even smaller fishing village; to Industry, where the road curves inland. Dingis keeps up an excited commentary the whole way. Her highlights are not exactly the stuff of a standard tourist spiel. “Gail mother live here,” she exclaims at one point, knowing Gail is too shy to tell us herself. And a little farther along, at a spot where a cliff rises up on one side of the road and plunges into the Caribbean on the other: “Dis is where deh bus was hit by a falling boulder and everybody die.” This is not particularly what one wants to hear while shoehorned into the backseat of an overcrowded, overheated-by-the-squash-of-many-bodies minivan of a bus that careens aggressively around each curve. (A longtime resident once gave new-to-Grenada drivers this advice about the island’s bus drivers: “Give them a wide berth— if necessary, stop and let them pass. They are busy private entrepreneurs with an urgent appointment with death.”) By the time we reach Union and Dingis announces, “Dis is where we get off,” I am woozy, soggy with sweat and more than ready to continue on foot.
The bus deposits us across from a square wooden building that has seen better days. Its wide doors are pulled open, and a car sits out front, the driver hefting sacks out of the trunk. “My father used to bring our nutmegs here,” Dingis says. Sure enough, this building is labeled on my map—“Nutmeg Station”—one of a scant handful of government processing stations still operating around the island, where farmers come to sell their harvest. Dingis leads us inside. Near the door, a newly arrived sack of nutmegs has been dumped onto a sorting table, and a lone woman slowly picks through them. But the rest of the downstairs is quiet; and when Dingis takes us upstairs, where the nutmegs are left to dry naturally under the roof, in the hottest part of a hot building, the tiers of screened drying racks are mostly empty.
“Before Ivan, dey were fullll,” Dingis says, drawing out the word into a melancholy musical refrain. Grenadians refer to the hurricane that near-destroyed their island in September 2004 simply as “Ivan,” no need to include the “H” word. They have fully anthropomorphized the storm that eventually became a Category 5, top-of-the-charts hurricane. Though he was still a Category 3 when he crossed Grenada, Ivan killed at least forty-one of the island’s residents, damaged or destroyed 90 percent of its buildings and uprooted close to 90 percent of its nutmeg trees. “Ivan come lookin’ for his wife Janet,” Dingis had told us shortly afterward, describing the disaster. He had waited a long time: Janet, the previous hurricane to strike the island, had visited almost half a century earlier.
Back in Toronto after our first trip, we had kept in touch with Dingis, sharing from afar the milestones in her life and that of her teenage daughter, Gennel. Birthdays. Christmases. Illnesses. Funerals. And then the hurricane that “mash up” their house, and their island. “When you comin’ back?” Dingis had asked at the end of every long-distance conversation.
During that first stretch in Grenada, now almost a decade ago, she had always promised to take us to “deh country,” as she calls the part of the island we ’re now walking, where she grew up and where her father and two of her brothers still live. When we first met, her phrasing had made me laugh, since by my standards, Dingis herself lived solidly in “deh country.” Her Lower Woburn house was barely visible from the road behind a dense wall of tropical greenery— banana, breadfruit, mango and papaya trees; coconut palms; pigeon pea and pepper bushes. A few sheep and goats grazed on the steep hillside behind it, and a couple of clucking chickens pecked in the yard.
But now, up here, continuing on foot along the steep road from Union, I begin to understand. We pass only scattered houses, and are passed by only the very occasional car. This part of the island— more mountainous and with more rainfall than the south— has an all-pervasive greenness, a more intense lushness, and a coolness that is different from the other end. Thanks to the morning rain, the landscape seems freshly washed— glittering, even, where the sunlight splashes the still-wet foliage. “We would climb up and over deh mountain,” Dingis says, continuing her story as we walk, “to gather deh nutmegs, three hundred pounds in a day. My father had two donkeys— we would carry sacks of nutmegs partway down until we reach deh donkeys.”
A nutmeg tree yields two spices. Its plump, apricot-like, yellow-orange fruit bursts open when ripe to reveal a lacy, strawberryred corset wrapping a hard, glossy-brown shell. This delicate red lace is the spice mace; the polished shell underneath contains the nutmeg itself. When the donkeys reached their house, Dingis and her brothers would remove the mace from the nutmegs, slipping it off the shell with their fingers and sorting it into three grades, based on the size of the pieces: “deh pretty, deh not so pretty and deh broken bits”; three hundred to four hundred pounds of nutmegs are needed to yield a single pound of mace. (Even now, as we pass the occasional house along the road, we see various-sized pieces of mace drying on front porches, spread in wooden trays and on plastic tarps.) McDonald Ignatius Naryan, Dingis’s father— everyone but his family calls him “Mr. Mac”—would then deliver the nutmegs to the processing station in the village.
When Dingis had first talked about bringing us to the country, her mom was alive, but a few years ago the eighty-three-year-old suffered a fatal stroke. “She pass, from deh pressure,” Dingis told us in a long-distance phone call. But Mr. Mac still lives in the house where Dingis once helped with the spice harvest. Settled in a straight-backed chair, Pepsi ball cap pushed back on his head, smiling broadly at the arrival of his daughter and her friends, he looks easily a decade younger than his ninety years. Though we know Mr. Mac has had a stroke too, and has trouble getting around, it’s not obvious at first meeting. With his brown trousers rolled up at the bottom, his feet bare and his face stubbly, he still looks like the farmer he once was. He is hard to understand, but we chalk this up to our difficulty with Grenadian English— the accent and vocabulary of the island’s older generations, in particular, take some getting used to— rather than to infirmity.
“Why do you think he still so strong and still look so good?” his fifty-one-year-old daughter now asks us. “It’s deh mountains.” The bare-bones house— worn wooden floors, hot, galvanized metal roof exposed on the interior, curtains tacked across the door frames of the bedrooms, bare mattresses— has ropes strung throughout, so Mr. Mac can help himself maneuver through it. And one of Dingis’s brothers, Rovel (short for Roosevelt), lives here and helps. But otherwise, the two pieces of ragged foam that cushion one of Mr. Mac’s chairs are about the sum of his extra comforts.
Plastic chairs are pulled out for us, and Kimon, one of Mr. Mac’s great-grandsons, is sent to climb the guava tree behind the house to get us a snack. Curling, faded family photos are thumbtacked between the exposed joists of the stained aqua wall near one of the spots where Mr. Mac regularly sits, but the real art here is what’s framed by the unglazed windows: slices of tangled, jungly Rousseau-like landscape. The layered greens are punctuated with spatters of yellow, soft orange and wine red, the pods of the cocoa trees. Mr. Mac farmed cocoa in addition to nutmegs, and along the way today Dingis had picked one of the football-shaped pods. (Her eldest brother, whom we’d met briefly on our walk up the road, has taken over from their father and works the land.) Now, with the household cutlass, a wooden-handled machete with a 22-inch curving blade, she thwacks open the sunset-colored pod and offers us the beans. “Local M&M’s,” we’ve heard them called.
“Listen to me,” she says, as she always does when she wants us to pay attention to some piece of information she suspects we don’t know. “You don’t bite deh bean— just suck it and spit it out.”
I’d already learned the hard way: straight from the pod, cocoa beans are extremely bitter, lacking not only an appealing chocolate color but also any discernible chocolate taste. But they’re coated with a slippery, slimy white pulp that is sweet, vaguely fruity and very delicious. Once, on a hike in Trinidad that went hours longer than anyone expected, our guide found cocoa growing wild in the rain forest and kept the diabetic of the group going by having him suck the pulp from the beans; it did the trick.
Between the sugar hit from the cocoa and the one from the ripe guavas, eaten skin and all like apples, we’re ready for a hike ourselves, back into Dingis’s childhood. Young Kimon leads the way, in shorts, a new-looking basketball jersey with Michael Jordan’s number, and plastic thongs. Dingis has also donned a pair of flip-flops, changing out of the low-heeled “special occasion” sandals she wore (with the backs folded down under her heels) during the bus trip and walk up the road from the village. She’s dressed for the day in her usual attire: modest, below-the-knee print skirt and untucked, cap-sleeved, white blouse. Meanwhile, I’m in well-worn pants and hiking shoes, sure this is what a trip to “deh country” requires.
Our first stop is a spring that Dingis had told us about many times, where the water bubbles from a rock wall and is channeled within bucket reach via a scrap of plastic eavestrough laid across a bamboo pole. “Make us a cup,” Dingis instructs her grandnephew, and Kimon plucks an elephant ear–sized callaloo leaf that’s growing near the water. With a few deft folds of the leaf and a wrap of the stem, he turns it into a long-handled drinking cup from which we each sip cold spring water. He spots crayfish in a nearby stream— as Dingis had predicted—and captures one with his hands so we can get a closer look. (“One day we will have a crayfish cook-up,” she promises.) She then sends him a short distance into the forest to pick me a wild balisier, or heliconia, the giant red lobster claw of a flower that’s related to the banana and so brilliantly colored, so exotic, and so flawless it almost seems a fake.
The beauty of this land, overflowing with stuff growing, makes my heart catch— though Dingis keeps pointing out what isn’t here. “Before Ivan, we could have picked grapefruits and limes, but deh trees gone now.” She shakes her head, still aghast at the state of the nutmegs. To our eyes, however, there are so many nutmeg trees that it’s hard to imagine how many more there would have been before the hurricane. And the tourist board still trumpets that Grenada has more spices per square mile than any other place on the planet. Some of the trees are ready for harvesting, their ripe fruits (botanically, the pericarp) split open, revealing the glossy nutmeg with its lattice of mace (the aril) nestled inside: Deh lady in deh boat wit’ deh red petticoat, says an old Grenadian rhyme. The overwhelming smell here is of rich, fertile forest after a rain, overlaid with the barest hint of spice from the open fruits.
When Dingis was a girl, she and her brothers would beat the trees with long sticks to shake the fruits to the ground, then gather the nutmegs into large sacks. Nature has already done the work today, and the ground is littered with nutmegs tossed free of their boats but still dressed in scarlet lace. Dingis insists we scoop them up to replenish our onboard supply.
Mr. Mac has been growing nutmegs on this land for nearly half as long as nutmeg trees have existed on the island. “There are . . . some trees which I think bear nutmegs but at present no fruit,” wrote Dr. Diego Álvarez Chanca, physician to Christopher Columbus’s fleet during his second voyage to the West Indies (1493–96). “I say I think because the smell and taste of the bark is like that of nutmegs.” Whatever he smelled and tasted (he was on Hispaniola at the time), it was wishful thinking: nutmeg trees are only native to the Moluccas— the Spice Islands, in Indonesia— and didn’t arrive in the New World until the early years of the nineteenth century. The Dutch, who ruled the Spice Islands before that, were determined to keep their monopoly on nutmeg. To ensure the trees didn’t spread beyond lands they controlled, they washed the nutmegs in lime before shipping them so they couldn’t be propagated elsewhere. They also destroyed trees and even part of the nutmeg crop when necessary to control production and keep prices high. When the Spice Islands briefly came under British rule beginning in 1796, however, nutmeg seedlings were sent to other British colonies for planting, including St. Vincent in 1802. Grenada came later.
Around 1840, the long arm of the British Empire was further responsible for nutmeg’s spread, when successful sugar plantation managers in the British West Indies were sent to sugar plantations in the British East Indies to introduce their more efficient methods. When the Grenada-based sugarmen eventually returned home, they brought nutmegs with them. The island’s first nutmeg tree is said to have been grown from seed brought from the Banda Islands by Frank Gurney and planted, in 1843, at Belvidere Estate— less than 5 miles as the crow flies from where we’re walking.
Island lore doesn’t give a reason for Gurney’s desire for fresh nutmeg. But around the same time, Captain John Bell of the Royal Navy planted nutmeg seedlings on his Grenadian estate (which he called Penang, after his posting in Malaysia), apparently because he had become accustomed to having his rum punch with a sprinkling of the freshly grated spice on top. Steve and I can identify.
For the next two decades, nutmeg remained merely a curiosity in the Caribbean. But when a nocturnal worm took a huge bite out of the world supply of the spice in 1860, planters in Grenada jumped at the economic opportunity and started to grow nutmeg as a commercial crop. In the twentieth century, it surpassed sugar and cocoa as the island’s largest export, and Grenada became the world’s second-largest supplier (after Indonesia). Nutmeg remains so important to the Grenadian economy that “deh lady in deh boat wit’ deh red petticoat” is depicted on the national flag. Though the island has rebounded since Ivan, nutmeg farming will be one of the last sectors to recover fully: the shallow-rooted, easily toppled nutmeg trees were among the worst casualties of the hurricane-force winds—and new nutmeg seedlings take ten to fifteen years to bear fruit.
“When you comin’ back?” Rovel asks us repeatedly, as his sister Dingis used to. “You must come and spend deh night”—though the house, more than a little rustic, is unsuited to guests—“and deh next morning, I take you hiking in deh mountains.” Dingis conveniently sidesteps the invitation with a more immediate plan: a stop at Kimon’s house up the road to see his manicous—rough-haired, pointy-nosed, scaly-tailed, smallish, cat-sized things that are hunted (in season) for their meat.
Kimon scoops one out of a plastic barrel and sets it on the ground so we can get a good look. In the flash of an eye, one of the local mongrels lunges at it— these aren’t even “Riot-Wilder” pups, like the ones listed for sale in the Classified section of one of Grenada’s newspapers— and the next thing I know, the manicou is lying dead on the ground. I’m horrified—poor Kimon— and feel guilty that we ’re the cause of his pet being out where the dog could get it. But Kimon doesn’t seem upset and neither, for that matter, does anyone else. “A manicou is an opossum,” Steve whispers to me. “He ’s playing dead until the danger is over.”
When it’s time to leave, we catch a ride back to Union in a flatbed truck, Dingis and Gail sitting primly up front with the driver; Steve and I, sprawled in the back, clutching the sides and keeping low to avoid branches as we whip back down the mountain. I sleep most of the way on the two buses home, once again sandwiched into a rear seat. But this time, I’m surrounded on the first bus by the fumes of the local Rivers rum, thanks to the elderly Grenadian next to me, sleeping off his misspent afternoon.
“Listen to me,” Dingis says as we hug good night back in Lower Woburn and thank her for taking us to see where she grew up, “don’t forget to put deh nutmegs to dry. You know how to tell when they’re ready? You shake them, and you can hear deh nut rattle in deh shell.”
Sure enough, when I remember to check them a few weeks later, they click in my fingers like castanets. I put them in a jar carefully labeled Nutmegs from Dingis’s Family Land and tuck it into Receta’s spice cupboard.
By this point, we are already a year and a half into our second journey, and the spice cupboard is filled to overflowing with the herbs and spices we ’ve foraged, bought and been given along the way. Each time I open its door, some package, bottle, jar, box or bag inevitably spills out. Most are labeled with more than simply the name of a spice. Like the bag of nutmegs from Dingis’s family, each has a provenance, a link to the land, a connection to a place and its people. Each wafts a scent that tells an island story.

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