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Get Real

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

A loud and unfamiliar ring from the bedside table jolted me awake. Fumbling for the cheap plastic phone in the darkness, I struggled to remember where I was. Then a blast of wind shook the house with the force of a small earthquake and I remembered: Unalaska, Dutch Harbor. The end of the Earth.

On the other end of the line, my new boss, Alex, spoke in a hurried tide of words.

“The Polar Sea broke loose from its mooring,” she said. “Ripped off part of the dock and hit Roger’s boat. You know, Roger, the city councilor. I don’t have a recorder. Come down to the harbor.”

Click.

Still half asleep, I bumbled my way out the door, recorder in hand. Though it was the middle of the night, fluorescent floodlights from the neighboring fish processing plant were bright enough to cut through the horizontal rain and light my way to the car.

I made my way down to the harbor, but I didn’t see a boat in distress, and I didn’t see Alex.

What I did see were whitecaps sloshing over the floating dock, and 40-foot boats bobbing like bath toys in a stormy sea.When I had arrived in Unalaska on a 30-seat propeller plane a few weeks earlier, I found the weather to be horrendous; this was worse.

Not sure what I was to be looking for, I called Alex back.

“Keep driving,” she said. “Past the small boat harbor.”

Dodging meter-wide potholes on the dark, dirt road, I thought back to what had convinced me to take a job as a radio reporter in Unalaska, Alaska. “You’ll be doing real reporting,” Alex had said. “Not just cutting and pasting HTML.” As I flailed for post-college purpose, “real” sounded like something I wanted.

Ahead of me, illuminated by a bright spotlight, the Polar Sea emerged from the storm. Stacks of king crab pots 30 feet high weighed down the aft deck as it bobbed in the heavy swell. This was definitely the antithesis of modern-day Google reporting. But suddenly, real didn’t seem like such an alluring prospect.

Real meant getting wet talking to people who would probably rather my recorder and I occupy ourselves elsewhere. Real meant engaging the world and its problems, not just reading about them over coffee in the morning.

I parked in the mud behind a line of pickup trucks and took a deep breath before charging into the rain.

Alex waved at me from the bottom of a long dock ramp. Behind her, Roger’s boat was like a school bus pinned to the dock by a 737. Eighty-mile-per-hour winds had ripped the crabber from its mooring and spun it around 180 degrees, right onto the councilor’s boat. Remarkably, it didn’t look like it had done much damage.

We climbed onboard the Commitment, taking care not to slip into the blackness between the dock and the deck. A crowd of men stood on the bow, observing the collision point. One of them commented that the winds seemed to be dying down and maybe they could move the Polar Sea soon. Another man clung to the outside of the Commitment’s deck rail, peering down at the hull until a massive gust of wind threatened to squish him between the two boats.
I hung back, letting Alex ask the questions. But as they talked, I could hear the sounds becoming a story: a sharp cry of warning, the men yelling at each other from their respective boats, the chatter of a walkie-talkie, the thunk of hull against hull, and then the empty howl of a fierce wind.

Stephanie May Joyce ’11 is a news reporter at KUCB in Unalaska, Alaska. A portfolio of her work can be found at www.stephjoyce.com.


Knowing Oscar

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Each August, all first-year students receive the same book by mail. They’re asked to read and reflect on it before they arrive in September. Once here, they get together in groups or 15 or so—all from the same residential Commons—to discuss some of the issues the book raised.

This year’s “common reading” was The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by award-winning author Junot Díaz, a native of the Dominican Republic who was raised in New Jersey. As Dean of the College Shirley M. Collado said, “The book is a particularly rich exploration of identity from more than one lens, and illustrates the challenges and rewards inherent in building community with others who may or may not see the world similarly. These are key issues for first-years, and they are central to many of the themes we covered throughout orientation. And we were so fortunate to have Junot coming in person to speak with the students.”

Díaz visited the campus on September 27 to meet with first-year students and also to give a public reading that evening in Mead Chapel. Middlebury Magazine spoke with Díaz about having his book become a conversational catalyst for young people beginning a new chapter of their lives.

“Books, like any act of art, do not work for everyone. But when a book does work, when it engages them, when it reaches into them, it can be a source of great learning, both about the world and about the readers themselves. A book cannot prepare you for the stupendousness of the world—for meeting 600 people from 70 countries—but it can accompany you on that journey; it can provide insight and solace and discomfort; it can start debates and arguments; it can unsettle and give peace; it can be ‘a friend of your mind,’ to quote Toni Morrison, and a friend of the mind is not a bad thing to have at the start of any great journey. Hopefully my book was that friend for a few of the students.

“Poor Oscar is bullied endlessly. Ours is a society of hierarchies and competition, and in a world like that there are always going to be losers. There have to be. Oscar is the kind of kid that, no matter what the regime, seems to always end up at the bottom. It’s less about Oscar, I would argue, and more about how little we like to be reminded of difference, vulnerability, strangeness.

“Even in the face of death, though, Oscar could never be anyone but himself. He never wore any masks; even at the point of his destruction he was true to himself, and given the damage that masks do to people in this book, I would argue that’s a good thing. But hey, that’s just me.

“Oscar’s family curse, the fuku, is about the role that history has in shaping our lives, even when we don’t know the history that has its hands around our neck. It’s also a way to address that most American of all preoccupations: whether one is blessed by the universe (which Americans seem to believe is the condition of our country) or whether one is cursed by the universe (which is something that Americans fear our country might in fact be).

“In the end, this is a novel. There are no single take-away messages. A novel attempts to duplicate the complexity of the world. Politicians and religions have messages. Corporations have messages. Novels seek to confront readers with the world and with their own humanity and in that confrontation hopefully raise the kind of questions that you can spend your whole life answering.”


Einstein on the Porch

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

I wanted to leave as soon as I got there. Maybe it was the darkness in every room, where shellacked pine comprised floor, walls, and ceiling. Maybe it was the balding stuffed deer and muskrat. Or maybe it was because this wasn’t part of the plan, and I had really liked the plan.

It was a simple one: drive to Lower Saranac Lake in New York, get a friend’s motorboat from its slip, and settle in to an island campsite in time to enjoy sunset and a rib eye steak.

But we didn’t have a reservation, and the warden was deaf to our sweet-talking. One in our group knew a family staying over in Shingle Bay, so we motored over. Twenty minutes later, we were official (albeit accidental) houseguests in Cottage 4 at the Knollwood Camp, friends of a friend of a son who wasn’t even there.

Knollwood is one of the Adirondack Great Camps, built at the turn of the century by wealthy New York Jews who were excluded from the resort communities springing up in Saratoga Springs and Lake Placid. The architect William L. Coulter conceived of the compound in 1899 for a group of six friends and their families, among them Louis Marshall and Daniel Guggenheim. He put a massive, two-story boathouse on the water and set six Victorian-gone-rustic homes into the wooded slope overlooking the bay. The cottages are identical except for the design of their twig-work facades; the one on Cottage 4 is made of concentric diamonds.

We entered at the back of the house, into a small kitchen that had once been the domain of a few live-in servants. There we met our hosts and fellow guests—doctors, their wives, a lone physicist—all friends from way back.

During hors d’oeuvres on the porch, someone mentioned that Albert Einstein had been a frequent guest here at Knollwood. A great sailor, apparently, but he couldn’t swim. In the summer of ’41, the scientist capsized his boat and was saved from drowning by a 10-year-old who had been putzing around in a boat of his own.

Einstein was here, in fact, on August 6, 1945, the day that the U.S. dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. I realized that it was August 7, 2010. Sixty-five years ago yesterday, Einstein might have been sitting on this porch, smoking his pipe, trying to comprehend the magnitude of the event and weigh his own complicity in it. He had not been directly involved with the Manhattan Project, but he had spurred its creation when, in 1939, he helped persuade President Roosevelt to enter into an arms race with Germany. And he had given the world that beautiful and terrible equation, E = mc2.

The great physicist gave his first interview following Hiroshima here at Knollwood. “Atomic power is no more unnatural,” he told Richard Lewis from the Albany Times Union,  “than when I sail my boat on Saranac Lake.” By the time the article ran on August 12, the second bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki.

Much later that night, as I was trying to fall asleep in the old servants’ quarters on the top floor, the door swung open and banged against the wall. No one was there. A buzzing sound crackled out of the outlets in the room, and in the bathroom down the hall something creaked, or fell over.  Terrified, I took my sleeping bag down to the second-floor porch.

There, beneath a luminous Milky Way, I thought about Einstein again. Years after the end of the war, he would say that convincing FDR to develop the Bomb was the “one great mistake” in his life. Perhaps he decided this right away. Or maybe he just lay on the second-floor porch, looking up at the stars, knowing that something had happened that wasn’t part of the plan.


Play Ball

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

I turned 60 not long ago. It was hard to believe. Sixty is old. Or it was when I was 19, and 29, and 49. I’ve been hearing recently that 60 is the new 40. Nice try. No, 60 is 60. I just have to redefine it because I’m not old yet.

I was 20 years old in 1967. I was young with a vengeance. I inhaled. At Middlebury. I was dead center of the youth culture, and as editor in chief of Crawdaddy—“the first magazine to take rock & roll seriously”—I was professionally young well into my 30s.

I’ve played softball pretty much all my life. I was a hot shortstop, one of those thin, quick boys with soft hands and a strong arm who covered a lot of ground. (I’m no longer any of those.) As I grew older, I simply refused to stop playing. Teammates would ask me, “So how old are you, anyway?” I’d tell them, and they’d go “Nawwww!  Fifty-seven? Me and the guy in right field together are 57!” I lived for that. And then the legs went.

Arthritis. No more cartilage. Bone on bone. This was distressing. At first I shuffled from chair to couch; then, when I could no longer stand, I just took to throwing myself from place to place. Pain would strike without warning. I popped OxyContin like it was Pez. I was on my way to a wheelchair. I shopped for surgeons, and they all told me the same thing: I had to have both knees replaced. The most important question I asked was, “Will I still be able to play ball?” What I feared most was not the pain or the effort it would take to recuperate. What I truly feared was that I would never be the same, that I would go from being a young 57 to an old 58. Softball was my connection to my youth, to my entire sense of myself as, improbably, a young man. If I lost softball I would jump start the hearse.

Double total knee replacement. I didn’t have a leg to stand on. The surgery went well; I was attentive and serious about my rehabilitation. Eight months later I was back on the ball field. My team, the Wolfpack, won the league championship that year.
What is really wonderful is that at my age—and how I hate that phrase—a guy expects to be in worse shape this year than he was a year earlier, and in worse shape next year than he is this. No one likes the downhill slide. Doesn’t apply to me. I’m getting better!

It’s a paradox: have major surgery, reverse the aging process.

So there I was, 60 years old, standing at second base in a New York City playground on artificial turf, which is essentially a sheet of plastic glued onto a slab of asphalt. The 25-year-old batter swung and hit a line drive behind me into center field. I took off. (As much as I can still motor, which tops out at around second gear.) I was three steps from home plate when I heard my teammates yelling, “Down! Down!” It’s what you tell a ballplayer when he and the throw are going to arrive at the same instant. I didn’t have time to think. I slid.

I didn’t go in headfirst; I’m not crazy. I threw a straight-ahead, feet-first, figure-four slide, just like I’d been taught in Little League. The umpire was right on top of the play.

Safe!

When I pulled myself off the ground and trotted back to the bench, the guys were hysterical. I heard about it the rest of the night and expect my run to glory to go down in the annals of Wolfpack lore. For my part, it was one of the great moments of my life. I ran, I slid in under the tag, I scored…and I survived. Not bad for an old man.

Author Peter Knobler is currently collaborating with David N. Dinkins on the former New York City mayor’s autobiography.


In Memory of a Son

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

I put off reading Mary Westra’s After the Murder of My Son for as long as I could, and I did so for entirely selfish reasons: as a parent, I couldn’t bear to read about the loss of a child. It was not so much the senseless and brutally violent death of Peter Westra ’99 that kept the book unopened on my desk for one, two, three months, as it was the abject fear of a mother’s grief in all its rawness, its horror, its anger; but not just the grief itself as it lay on the page, but its power of transference. I feared that the virtually unspeakable terror that all parents keep hidden in the deepest recesses of their minds would leach to the surface, would pervade my thoughts, haunt my dreams. And I was not two paragraphs into the book’s preface before coming face-to-face with my cowardice: it does not take an ounce of courage to read this book, not when compared to writing it, to living it. And so on I read, and now here I write, encouraging, urging, pleading, really, with you not to make the same mistake I nearly did. Find this book and read it, for it will teach you more about love and hope and the human condition (and, yes, agony and gut-wrenching grief, too) than anything else you might ever read.

If, as a reader, approaching this book is based on confrontation (as my approach was), then know that this memoir is predicated on confrontation—from the crime that was committed outside an Atlantic City strip club in the early morning hours of July 8, 2001, to Mary Westra’s (and her family’s) continuous confrontation with the tragedy, its aftermath, and her own complex and ever-changing feelings.

At the heart of this book is a violent assault—five men kicking and bludgeoning a 24-year-old until he is dead—and there are passages in After the Murder of My Son that are as raw and as blunt and as brutal as the repeated blows that landed on Peter’s body. Beginning with the darkest hours and days that immediately followed her son’s death and continuing through each milestone (month-by-month anniversaries of the date of the killing, holidays, a birthday) that inevitably arose, Mary Westra confronts her grief and anger and confusion with unsparing detail. We bear witness to the awful moment of notification (and the appalling degree of confusion that preceded it by way of a disrupted phone call), to the unanswered questions Mary has for Peter, and, eventually, to the questions she’s afraid to learn the answers to—those of his friends and Middlebury classmates who were with him that evening and morning.

The story reaches its climax with the trials of the accused, the bouncers and employees of the Atlantic City strip club. Again, Mary writes with gripping detail and searing honesty—we are voyeurs as she visits the scene of Peter’s death, we sit in the courtroom as she faces the man accused of taking her son’s life, and we are invited to join her in grappling with the confusion (and rage? more hurt?) that accompanies a denouement that one could reasonably argue was unjust. (Let’s just say that the title of the memoir has even more of an edge once you reach the end of the book.)

However, it is not the conclusion that has stayed with me but a sentence from earlier in the book, a sentiment, a fear that Mary espoused a few months after Peter was killed. She worried that she would forget him, that others would gradually forget who he was, that their memories of her son would fade with time. By writing this book, she has ensured that that will never be the case.


Cue McEwan

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Even the greatest writers aren’t always the best speakers—many prefer soundless solitude to adoring crowds—so it was a welcome surprise when Ian McEwan smoothly strode to the podium in Mead Chapel on a beautiful September evening and began his talk by thanking everyone for coming when they’d “surely rather be lounging outside in that delicious dusk.”

Wooing words.

From that moment, the filled-to-capacity crowd was cued up to relax and savor an ensuing hour of the award-winning Englishman’s graceful wit, rolling metaphors, and evocative turns of phrase.
McEwan is often referred to as one of the finest living writers, and he has indeed won nearly every prize an English author can win. Nearly half of his novels have been made into films—most recently the Oscar-nominated and critically acclaimed Atonement—and many remain on college and high school reading lists worldwide. He is well known for his fictional forays into the seamier side of human nature, with novels that reach uncomfortably into lost childhood, deviant sexuality, and disjointed family life. From orphans who hide their mother in a grave of concrete to the deeply perceptive horror of Nazi camps to innocent mishaps with malevolent consequences, McEwan’s characters look nothing yet everything like ourselves.

Speaking to a crowd of mostly students with a fair showing of faculty, staff, and community members, McEwan read from his latest novel, Solar. The scene he chose focused on the main character in a way that was both intensely humorous and sadly tragic. The audience laughed uproariously one minute and sat as still as stones the next. The younger faces, especially, were a mixture of awe, tension, relief, and hilarity. McEwan’s voice boomed with narrative force and then suddenly shrank to a whisper; he enlivened the space between his words on the page and true human nature unfolding, and no one wanted to miss a moment.

When finished, McEwan smiled and reached for his water, then quickly stepped down from the podium to take questions. After the typically slow start, with a few questions called out from the crowd, students soon hurried from their seats to line up behind the microphone halfway up the center aisle.
Questions ranged from the expected—“How did you first know you were a writer?”—to the more random—“Do you like salt and vinegar potato chips?”—to the technically fundamental—“How do you do your research?”—and McEwan answered each with sincerity. He discussed his diligent approach to detail, his broad experience writing for television and the stage as well as novels, and his obsession with research: he followed a neurosurgeon for an entire year before writing one word of Saturday. Overall he advised young writers to read anything and everything they could get their hands on to learn the art of using detail to make a story. Referring to the passage he had just read in Solar, he said, “You can write that he took a train home after a long day at work, or you can take 23 pages and describe every single important moment of that commute.”

Earlier in the evening, as students were filtering in from dining halls and late athletic practices—one young man rushed in still carrying a soccer ball—a brief poll revealed a range of familiarity with the author. Some had read a book or two for a class, nearly all had seen Atonement, and others didn’t have any idea at all who the speaker was. “I could tell he was someone important from the way people were talking about this,” said one wide-eyed first-year. “I knew I’d be crazy to miss it.” From behind, a prudent upperclassman chimed in to say, “We get some pretty interesting speakers here, but this is big, really big.”