Thanks to the War in Vietnam, I became a high school teacher in Botswana, in southern Africa. It’s funny how some of the worst things in the world can lead to detours that turn out well. New York City was the only place in America that I ever heard of that deferred college students and teachers from the military draft. Bless their hearts. With over two million people, my hometown of Brooklyn may have been the largest Draft Board in the country. Several guys who went to college with me became public school teachers in the city. When I was burning out in graduate school, I almost joined the Peace Corps and went to India, but didn’t. Fortunately, the next year I learned of a volunteer teachers’ program in Africa. A guy I knew had taught at a high school in Botswana—Swaneng Hill School. It was started by a South African exile named Patrick van Rensburg who was prohibited from returning to his old country just across the border. His school had become a mecca for anti-apartheid activists, just my kind of place. I had learned of Apartheid, or racial separation in South Africa, as far back as when we read Cry, the Beloved Country in high school. I wrote a letter, got a job, sent the letter to my draft board and basically dared them to call me back from Botswana. Luckily, they didn’t.
Last Year, my town switched vendors to boost garbage collection to new heights of automation. Within a month, its new contractor had distributed two massive two-wheeled receptacles to every household: a black one for non-recyclables, capacity 64 gallons, and a bigger blue-and-green one—96 gallons, large enough to stuff a couple of non-dismembered bodies into — for recyclables. The town instructed residents to wheel out their bins and line them up at the curb on pickup day, front facing the street, with lids closed. As you can see, we dutifully obey, each creating his or her no-parking zone. Continue reading “Talking Trash”
The 2400 words that follow encapsulate three years of struggle to produce and publish a book into a somewhat coherent memoir. Should your interest start to flag as you skim through, don’t abandon ship; simply scroll to the end for a summation and a special offer. ~ Geoff Dutton
Once upon a time, when my life was in upheaval, in an urgent act of therapy I channeled my angst into a novel. It seemed necessary at the time, but as my situation improved my motivation ebbed and I abandoned it halfway through. Twenty years later, I began another one. It too was an act of therapy, but for society rather than myself. And because its topic—the threat of radical Islamic terrorism—was all over the news, I wanted it to be reality-driven, socially relevant, politically provocative, and an antidote to Islamophobia.
My unaccountable passion to tell that story and my determination to finish it drove me to write 120,000 words over 18 months and badger dozens of literary agents and publishers. After nine revisions, it weighed in at 105K words and just under 400 pages, a bit obese for a first novel as some literary types informed me. But it is what it is, I decided, and started peddling it again. Six months later—just a few days ago—it was published, but not as I had envisioned.
Watchbirds were those annoying little stick-figure birds who perched in some Munro Leaf children’s stories, always ready to instruct kids in proper protocols when they were misbehaving. Our current flock of watchbirds rarely have to instruct us because we mostly maintain civil decorum knowing they’re there. Talk about the nanny state.
Stories allow us to untangle experience, make sense of our lives, and find meaning. They are containers for wisdom and lifeboats for memory — helping us not to forget, and then later, not to be forgotten. ~ Jonathan Harris
Imagine you’re a 19th-century novelist whose supply of paper has just run out and more can’t be found anywhere. Well, something like that recently happened to more than 10,000 writers when their electrons ran out.
They all belonged to a community called Cowbird that flourished on the Net for about five years. Late last winter its founder pulled the plug, perhaps bored with the site’s upkeep but saying he wanted us all to make more of a mark on the real world. What he told the Cowbird community at the time was:
Over the past five years, we’ve told nearly 100,000 stories — stories about birth, youth, sex, love, work, war, faith, death, grief, grace, and countless other topics. Together, we created a public library of human experience, so our knowledge and wisdom could live on in the commons, as a resource for others to look to for guidance. We found beloved community here, forging deep and lasting connections.
He went on to explain what had changed his thinking about shepherding this community:
It being Mothers Day and all, here’s a shout to my two main moms. First, a salute to the wisdom and fortitude of the one who birthed me, Sophie Pincus Dutton (1910-2005). Below the fold, listen to her describe her first several jobs and how she met my father in 1940. Spoiler: She married that handsome tennis coach, Charles Dutton, after a two-year engagement and they stuck it out until he passed in 1982.
Both stories unabashedly ripped from the pages of cowbird.com.
Five minutes of Sophie’s voice talking about her early work and love life:
Closer now in time and place we meet Aygül Balcioglu, the mother of my daughter. Here we explain how a Muslim woman and a Jewish man happened to meet and click at a Christmas party, generating a disturbance in the Force that lasted over five years. Those kinks got worked out, mostly.
Sophie opened her home and heart to Aygül and Aygül returned the favor and often says she misses Sophie, who lived long enough to see her only grandchild turn five. (She should have had more time, way sooner. My fault. I’m an only child and was always a slow starter.)
This story takes the form of a letter to our daughter, written to help her appreciate what it took to get her here.
Aygül has taken the lead again and again in realizing our daughter’s potential to become the best person she can when I wasn’t clear on how to proceed. I treasure that, and someday, I hope, so will our kid.
I love you both deeply. You are bookends to my erratic, unlikely life who has saved me more than once from lapses of judgment and catastrophes of character. Happy Mothers Day to my two moms. You’re the best.
During the 70s my hobby was driving cross-country. I had four weeks of vacation and tried to use them all. Like most other years, in the summer of ’73 I got into my van and headed vaguely toward the Bay Area to intersect with America and various objects of desire, one of whom was Kathy, whom you first meet in Last Words. The whole ridiculous saga is reeled out here. (Six serialized Cowbird stories)