Search Results for: scent,memory

Smell, Memory

Chanel N°5. Illustrations by Tamara Shopsin

By Rachel Syme

Racquet and Longreads | January 2018 | 11 minutes (2,800 words)

Our latest feature is a new story by Rachel Syme and produced in partnership with Racquet magazine.

Tennis, to me, smells like chlorine and white sage and tuna fish. I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the courts always wheeze dust when you walk on them and the dry heat shimmers off the net in the middle of summer. Our family belonged to a tennis club, but not the kind with rolling hills and security gates—instead, our courts were somewhat dumpy and gray, down near the university area filled with tattoo parlors and ratty cafés that seemed progressive in the ’90s for their hummus-forward menus. The club was made mostly of cement and gravel and funnel cakes, and its pro shop featured six-packs of tube socks and fresh cylinders of key-lime-colored balls and not much else. It may very well be fancier now, but my family stopped paying dues two decades ago.

We moved to the base of the mountains when I was 13, and my father now plays tennis every day at High Point, a gym filled primarily with active seniors and women doing Zumba. When he does go downtown to play, he meets my brother at one of the college courts near the hospital, where my brother spends most nights sewing throats back together as a resident in facial surgery. My father, who also cuts people open for a living, started playing a lot more tennis when my brother became a doctor; it is how they communicate wordlessly about what bloody traumas they’ve seen during the day. I imagine hitting something really hard back and forth is useful in this regard. Read more…

How Mary Karr Teaches Her Students About Memory: A Short Excerpt from ‘The Art of Memoir’

Memoirist, essayist and poet Mary Karr is often recognized as being the author with perhaps the single greatest responsibility for the resurgence of memoir in bookstores and on nightstands in recent decades. In her new collection of essays The Art of Memoir, Karr presents readers with a book-length craft talk which, true to her style, ranges from allusive to acerbic to profound, all in the span of a page. In the following excerpt, from the opening of her first chapter, Karr uses a little deception and a judicious ‘fuck’ to make a point. Read more…

Silence is a Lonely Country: A Prayer in Twelve Parts

Niilo Isotalo/Unsplash

Sadia Hassan | Longreads | July 2018 | 18 minutes (4,468 words)


On the night of the election, I call my father from the group home I am working in as a residential advisor. Things are eerily silent. No one playing the dozens or making a milkshake way past their bedtime; no one singing at the top of their lungs or crouched behind a fridge ready to jump out and scare the ever-living mess out of me; nobody asking questions about tomorrow, because, of course, nobody believes it will arrive.

At dinner, one of my students wants to know if I voted. I remain aloof.

I watch another student’s hands clench and unclench on the kitchen table.

“Man, if I could vote …

The truth was I could, and I had not. It did not feel like a choice to me. It was a question of degrees and integrity. It was a question of belonging or estrangement; between one drone strike and another genocide. I understood this country could never belong to me, so I did not vote and that night, overcome with the sinking weight of an accumulated shame, I could not catch my breath.

The thoughts ran through my mind: the Muslim ID cards, the internment camps, the CIA black sites, the border, the drones, the undocumented. We will all be [       ].

My father’s voice on the other side of the phone steadies me. I am a river rushing around a single, steady boulder, my father’s voice a buoy. “Aabe macaan,” I begin. “Are you watching the elections?”

“Aabe,” he sighs, the phone shifting awkwardly in his hand. He was clearly in bed.  “We have our children. What can they take from us?”

Even the children, I want to say. Instead, I say nothing.

Baba returns me to my body. When we were kids, he would hold his hands before our faces, slowly folding down each finger until we held his limp-wristed fists faceup in our tiny little hands. We were each of us as vital and necessary to the body of his love as each limb was to his person. Instead of “I love you,” he would say, “You are my two front teeth.” Instead of telling us to shut up, he would ask, “Take a breath.” Perhaps, my father was a poet. For him, the body is the only language that remains after everything falls away.

I put the phone down to get a drink of water. Really, I step away so my father does not hear me cry. I want to take off running.

Read more…

Your Best Work Comes from Scaring Yourself

Photo by Ryan Lowry

Ryan Chapman | Longreads | June 2018 | 16 minutes (4,419 words)

Several of the sentences in Chelsea Hodson’s debut Tonight I’m Someone Else radiate with the epigrammatic wisdom of Kelly Link or Maggie Nelson. There’s just something about her lines — “How lovely to be young enough not to know any better” or “I once loved so hard I almost lost everything, including his life, including my own” (both from “Simple Woman”) — that demands furious underlining and exclamation points in the margins.

These essays span the writer’s life in Tuscon, Los Angeles, and New York as she investigates what it means to have a body, to be an object, to run away, to look for answers in strangers, and to chase danger. As in, let’s tie a butcher knife to the ceiling fan and sit beneath it until someone gets hurt (“Near Miss”).

With praise from Miranda July and Amy Hempel, Tonight I’m Someone Else is a book that delights and disturbs and — in its deep dive into the performance of female identity — feels very now. Hodson is an essayist with one foot out the door, and she’s holding the keys to someone else’s car, asking if we want to drive into the ocean. Read more…

The Daughter as Detective

AP Photo/Heribert Proepper

Alice Bolin | Dead Girls | HarperCollins | June 2018 | 27 minutes (7,414 words)

My parents met as library students at the University of Kentucky in 1979. From my intimate point of view, library school is a bit of an academic catchall, sometimes a plan B, appealing to weirdos of many backgrounds. People assume that librarians love books, but that isn’t even it. University librarians like my parents love flying below the radar, omniscient about university curriculum but not bound by classroom teaching, grading, or even regular students. When she went to library school, my mom was a 25-year-old polyglot, very pretty and shy, who until then had been taking graduate German courses and hanging around Lincoln, Nebraska, listening to the Who. My dad was 32, starting a new career after years of working for the army as an Arabic translator. He is very loud and friendly, bubbly even. Contrary to the stereotype, he is a librarian who is constantly being shushed.

On their first date, he raced up the stairs to her apartment too enthusiastically and fell and broke his arm. He tried to deny that he had injured himself, and they went to a showing of Casablanca. He cradled his arm like a baby in the dark of the movie theater until the pain became too great, and my mom took him to the emergency room. The next day was Labor Day, and no pharmacies were open within walking distance of my dad’s house. He didn’t have a car, so he sheepishly called my mom to ask if she would drive him to get his prescription. She took him back to her house and made him grilled cheese and tomato soup.

The patently adorable and weird quality of their first date seems to have set the tone for their entire relationship. Early on, my dad gave my mom a copy of one of his favorite books: Roseanna, the first in a series of ten mystery novels by Swedish writers Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö that follow the detective Martin Beck. “You’ll find it ironic,” he told her coyly, and she did: the title character, whose murdered corpse washes up on the shores of a Swedish lake, is a librarian in her 20s from Lincoln, Nebraska. My mom was not put off by the implications of this macabre coincidence, and she and my dad are still together now, many decades later. Improbably, my parents’ marriage echoes the Dead Girl story, but with a happy ending.


Uncovering the origins of my dad’s Martin Beck obsession has been more of a project than I first anticipated. When I asked how he discovered the books, he first told me that he read about them in a footnote in Robin Winks’s 1969 essay collection The Historian as Detective, a study in the methods and pitfalls of the academic historian, imagining historians as sleuths solving thorny cases. Throughout the book, there are references to actual detective fiction, which my dad used as a syllabus. He talked to me at length about The Historian as Detective, but later was fuzzy on whether Winks had mentioned Sjöwall and Wahlöö at all. He was only certain that it was where he had heard about Robert Hans van Gulik’s Judge Dee novels, historical mysteries about Tang Dynasty China. (The last Judge Dee mystery is called Poets and Murder, a possible alternative title for this book.)

When that lead dried up, he launched into a story from when he was in the army, working a desk job in Charlottesville, Virginia, and, as he told me, “having a lot of fun.” Unexpectedly in 1973, he was called back from vacation and ordered to report to Fort Bragg. The Russians were in danger of joining the Arab-Israeli War, which might require reciprocal action from the United States. Nixon had put all of the 82nd Airborne, of which my dad was nominally a member, on alert. His superiors on the base refused to issue him a uniform because they didn’t know how long he would be staying there. Instead of having him run information in street clothes, they sent him to the library and told him to read whatever he wanted. “I asked them whether they could teach me to jump out of an airplane if we had to go to the Middle East,” he said of his time at Fort Bragg. “They told me, ‘Eh, no problem.’” He read several of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s books there, but he was already very familiar with the series, so in the end, they were not very important to that story.

A few days later, he called to tell me he actually first read the Martin Beck books when he was a student at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. He had known he would be drafted and sent to Vietnam, so he joined the army and became an Arabic translator, an ironic way to avoid combat, considering our current geopolitical situation. In Monterey, he said, he had studied stupidly hard and had no fun, but he found a Martin Beck book on a rare trip into town. Later, he emailed me another confounding update: he visited a relative, a man named Jim who he claimed was his father’s “cousin/nephew,” the night Nixon had fired his attorney general. Jim had worked briefly in the Nixon White House, he told me. His stories unfold this way, full of the small, intriguing details that in a novel might work as foreshadowing. “I typically spent the first hour of the workday looking through The Washington Post to see what the latest Nixon news was,” he went on to say before circling back. “I think I was at Jim’s when I got a call instructing me to go to Fort Bragg.”

I have found his stories often share an eccentric focus on what he was reading during his somewhat Forrest Gumpy journey through the 20th century. Once he regaled me with memories of his time as a firefighter in Idaho in the late 1960s, when he lived with an agriculture student who was later a prisoner in the Iran hostage crisis. (Rory Cochrane, the guy who played Lucas in Empire Records, portrayed Dad’s roommate in the movie Argo.) Dad hitchhiked down to Jackson Hole during a day off and got The Twenty-Seventh Wife, Irving Wallace’s biography of Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young’s wife, and Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith the Mormon from the library. He took issue with my saying in an early version of this essay that he checked out books about the Mormon Trail. “I was more interested in biography than the settler experience,” he wrote me. “I have since read books like Angle of Repose, and taken an interest in TV shows like Deadwood and Hell on Wheels.”


Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were a pair of Swedish journalists, a married couple who wrote the Martin Beck novels over long nights after their kids were asleep, working on alternate chapters. Their ten novels, released between 1965 and 1975, were an unexpected sensation, popular worldwide and the subjects of dozens of film and TV adaptations. The books are violent, sexually frank, and political, updating the hard-boiled American noir for the liberal Scandinavian 60s. Nearly everyone acknowledges Sjöwall and Wahlöö as the origin point for Nordic noir, a regional genre that has produced international stars like Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, and Jo Nesbø. But Sjöwall and Wahlöö didn’t just inspire other Scandinavian writers to embrace the murder mystery: they shaped the genre so completely that all of their descendants bear their eccentricities. The Martin Beck series is bizarre, a fitting starting point for what has become a multimillion-dollar industry selling other bizarre, exasperating books.

The novels follow the melancholy detective Beck and his cohort in the Swedish National  Police’s Homicide Division as they solve cases including a serial sex murderer preying on children, a mass shooting on a bus, a “locked room” mystery involving a corpse decayed beyond recognition, and the assassination of the Swedish prime minister. Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s books hold very little allegiance to the typical noir that is sparsely written and pessimistic, showing one man against the world. Beck is the putative hero, but in practice, the books are ensemble dramas, shading often into ensemble comedies. His colleagues are annoying misfits, described by their quirks, like the fastidious Fredrik Melander, who has a photographic memory, passionately loves his ugly wife, and spends too much time on the toilet. The series abounds with pairs of hapless bozos whose comedic value is underlined by their alliterative names. Bumbling beat cops named Kristiansson and Kvant wreak havoc at several crime scenes until Kristiansson is tragically killed. After that, Kvant gets a new partner named Kvastmo.

Sjöwall has said she and Wahlöö were influenced by “progressive” crime writers like Dashiell Hammett and Georges Simenon, but they took this progressive imperative rather further. Believing that “people read more mysteries than they do political pamphlets,” they set out to write a Marxist indictment of the failures of the Swedish welfare state disguised as a series of mystery novels. They titled their series “The Story of a Crime”—that is, the crime of a cruel and unequal society. They described their political agenda as “the project,” as if it were a covert mission of infiltration, when it could not have been more obvious. In book after book, the authors include pages-long polemics about the nationalization of the police system, Stockholm’s overdevelopment and the miseries of urban life, and the many demographics that had fallen through society’s cracks. Their political tirades are written in a strident, journalistic tone, fissures where narrative conceit drops out completely. A visit to Beck’s elderly mother becomes an occasion to bemoan (at length) the state of Swedish retirement homes:

Nowadays they were called “pensioners’ homes,” or even “pensioners’ hotels,” to gloss over the fact that in practice most people weren’t there voluntarily, but had quite simply been condemned to it by a so-called Welfare State that no longer wished to know about them. It was a cruel sentence, and the crime was being too old. As a worn-out cog in the social machine, one was dumped on the garbage heap.

My notes from the books are filled with comments like “so didactic” and, more to the point, “why didn’t somebody cut this?”

Critics revisiting Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s books now are fawning, using that canonizing method of inverting their weaknesses instead of acknowledging them. A write-up in The Wall Street Journal from 2009 hilariously calls the Martin Beck books “anything but polemical.” Louise France writes in The Guardian that while the action in the books is “often slow,” they are addictive: “You want to block out a week of your life, lie to your boss, and stay in bed, gorging on one after another, as though eating packet upon packet of extra strong mints.” I admit that I don’t recognize the impulse to stay in bed for a week binging on mints, so maybe that’s why I found the experience of reading these slow books a bit slower than France. The sometimes-tedious lack of action in the books is often pointed to as a strength. In his introduction to Roseanna, Henning Mankell writes that “it’s probably one of the first crime novels in which time clearly plays a major role.” Sjöwall echoed this idea recently, saying that “slowness, and the tension that waiting, distance, and irritating gaps in communication create, became an aspect of the books’ realism.” This argument smacks of imitative fallacy to me, but the wonky pacing of the series does point to its redeeming strength: the utter wonkiness and unconventionality of their entire approach.

Roseanna is more wrapped up in Dead Girl genre tropes than the rest of the books. At first, the series seems less a treatise against corrosive changes in Swedish society than a darkly funny and melancholy meditation on the absurdity of Swedish bureaucracy. The novel opens by describing the administrative procedure for dredging the lake that eventually reveals Roseanna’s body: it is unclear who can okay plans for dredging, and papers for it move among agencies, “passed from one perplexed civil servant to another,” a process that takes months. This critique is more existential than political, a mirror for the frustration Martin Beck experiences in his marriage and his career. As a good Dead Girl should, Roseanna haunts and excites Beck, who for a time is unable to identify her. The case consumes him, so that “when he closed his eyes he saw her before him as she looked in the picture, naked and abandoned, with narrow shoulders and her dark hair in a coil across her throat.” Once he identifies Roseanna, though, his image of her is inevitably complicated.

In conversations with her roommate and her boyfriend, back in Nebraska, Beck learns that she was promiscuous and odd, that she looked messy and slept with her friend’s boyfriends. Where Beck thought he had found a Dead Girl, he had, in fact, found an ordinary dead woman.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s books at first seem to follow the Dead Girl genre’s usual depiction of female sexuality as sinister and crazy. Women are constantly described as “nymphomaniacs,” including Roseanna and other female victims, seemingly indicating that they have been punished for their insatiability. There are the requisite femmes fatales, many of whom make attempts to seduce Martin Beck, who distractedly rebuffs them—like many noir detectives, Beck is at first little more than a neutered intellect. But especially as the series wears on, we see that many of the regular characters have adventurous and unconventional sex lives, like Beck’s detective friend who lives with his wife only on the weekends and has a girlfriend in Copenhagen. Beck releases himself from his unsatisfying marriage and finds new love with a magnetic and iconoclastic leftist. Unlike most detective series, which rely on the bleakness of their protagonists’ lives, Sjöwall and Wahlöö allowed their detective a journey of enlightenment and redemptive love.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö did not have a conventional relationship either: Wahlöö was married when they met, and Sjöwall was twice divorced. They lived together for 13 years but never legally married. Sjöwall has said that after Wahlöö died, shortly after the publication of the last Martin Beck novel, she was “kind of wild for a while.  With  guys, with pubs.” She has had relationships since then but maintained her independence. “I know many guys,” she said. “Some of them I have been together with for a while, some are just good friends. That is enough for me.” Considering the authors’ lifestyles, the books read as less judgmental of their promiscuous female characters. Despite my skepticism, I’ve come to believe Sjöwall and Wahlöö did what they set out to do: write a series of novels that are truly progressive, or, at least, that have fewer hang-ups.


My dad told me he had read the entire Martin Beck series “five or ten times.” “Why?” I asked him. “Because I love them,” he replied. I don’t know why it’s so frustrating that my dad refuses to say or even think about why he likes the things he does, when his preoccupations run so deep and are so consistent. When I ask him why he likes something, it’s a perverse exercise less to gain new insight than to trick him into admitting to his personality. It’s obvious to me why he likes the Martin Beck books. They are exactly the kind of thing he likes!

When I was a kid, the Martin Beck books were everywhere in my house, old duplicate copies my dad bought at garage sales and used-book stores, leering out at me with their incendiary titles: Cop Killer. The Terrorists. I had never read them until I began working on this book, when I read all of them over the course of several trying months, capping off that experience by reading another Swedish mystery series, the only one that has managed to supplant the Martin Beck books in my dad’s heart: Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. I thought I was reading them in a quest to understand him better, but I’m not so sure that’s true now. At worst, this essay seems like a Freudian patricidal project to ignore, then obsessively read, then talk shit in print about my dad’s favorite books.

My dad’s fixation on the Dragon Tattoo books began so quickly and has held for so long it is stunning. He listened to the audiobooks on his iPod over and over again, until he reached the point where he would listen to their chapters on shuffle. I am admittedly inclined to be frustrated with Stieg Larsson’s project, especially because after Larsson’s idols Sjöwall and Wahlöö so cleverly subverted Dead Girl tropes, he embraced them. His books have the Dead Girl story’s typical investigator with a good-guy complex, the crusading investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, whose career is dedicated to revealing fraud and corruption in the financial industry. In the first book, he is drawn into solving the 30-year-old disappearance of a wealthy industrialist’s niece, Harriet Vanger. The second and third have him trying to get to the bottom of an ever deeper conspiracy that begins with the smuggling of prostitutes from the Baltics and ends with a secret and all-powerful cabal in Sweden’s security police. Since Dead Girl stories are so psychologically fraught, harried by every demon Freud ever thought up, they often have the torturously complex plots of nightmares. The serial killer plot in the first book particularly has that frenzied kitchen-sink feel: there is not one but two killers, targeting scores of victims over many decades. Some of the murders are humiliating and bizarre, inspired by verses in Leviticus, and on top of this, the killers have ties to nascent Swedish Nazi organizations.

The key element of any Dead Girl story is the investigator’s haunted, semi-sexual obsession with the Dead Girl, or rather, the absence that she has left. Larsson plays with this overtly, as Blomkvist investigates Harriet Vanger’s case and he finds himself “hopelessly fascinated with the enigma of the dead girl’s disappearance.” A police officer he talks to also admits that he is still captivated by the Harriet Vanger “puzzle.” The implication of this choice of vocabulary, if I am being uncharitable, could not be more clear: that women are problems to be solved, and the problem of absence, a disappearance or a murder, is generally easier to deal with than the problem of a woman’s presence. True, Blomkvist (spoiler alert) eventually finds Harriet alive and has an affair with her, as he does with most of the women he comes into contact with in these novels, lending this Dead Girl story a stupefying and ambiguous denouement.

After Larsson’s death, one of his hangers-on, the Swedish journalist Kurdo Baksi, wrote a strange hagiography of him for the Daily Mail, in which he discusses Larsson’s passionate opposition to violence against women. When they discussed this violence, Baksi writes, “Stieg’s eyes would fill with tears. He could not accept someone could be denied their freedom simply because of their gender.” Larsson’s disgust at what he saw as a ubiquitous misogyny was supposedly the impetus for the Dragon Tattoo books, with the original Swedish version of the first novel being titled Men Who Hate Women. But forgive me if I find the Dragon Tattoo books to be something less than the feminist treatises they claim to be. As Christopher Hitchens wrote in his characteristically rude piece on Larsson, their “moral righteousness comes in very useful for the action of the novels, because it allows the depiction of a great deal of cruelty to women, smuggled through customs under the disguise of a strong disapproval.”

More troubling to me than the books’ violence is a flaw at the core of Larsson’s anti-misogynist mission. Throughout the novels, characters insist that “men who hate women” are not monsters: they are everyday people. Blomkvist’s fellow investigator, Lisbeth Salander, says in the first book that their villain is “not some insane serial killer … he’s just a garden variety bastard who hates women.” But Larsson’s villains are as monstrous as he can make them, even though they may hide in plain sight. They are cruel, insatiable, and meticulous, with strange and deviant sexual appetites. The first book is obsessed with sexual sadism, ending with a flourish in a serial killer’s tricked-out torture chamber. This depiction sidesteps the complicated truth of sexual desire and fantasy, which is that in certain circumstances, a person can be turned on by the idea of violence that they would never commit or condone. In the same way, the books sidestep the true face of misogyny: if men who hate women are normal and common, then misogynist violence does not have to be so diabolical. Larsson’s partner, Eva Gabrielsson, has said that Larsson was inspired by comic books, and he obviously could not resist the temptation of the archvillain, a worthy foe for his hero. Where Sjöwall and Wahlöö succeeded in deromanticizing crime and criminals, in his mission to condemn violence against women, Larsson has ended up lionizing its perpetrators by exaggerating the same old prudish tropes.

The first Dragon Tattoo novel features what is in my eyes a maddeningly long final act, where Blomkvist, having solved the mystery of Harriet Vanger’s disappearance, seeks revenge on a corrupt Swedish billionaire who has sidelined his career. Later I came to see that this fight against corruption was exactly the point of Larsson’s books, with misogyny functioning more as an occasional thematic hobbyhorse. Larsson was a lauded  investigative journalist, having founded the anti-fascist Expo magazine, and his plots about corruption among CEOs and government agents gave him the opportunity to write random op-eds a la Sjöwall and Wahlöö on subjects including the injustice of the stock exchange, the Swedish police force’s use of hollow-point bullets, and inconsistencies in enforcing prostitution laws.

In fact, twisted misogyny often acts as a metaphor for other kinds of personal corruption, with fascism, authoritarian overreach, and greed manifesting as sexual malignancy. The political intrigue Blomkvist is investigating in the second and third books turns out to be a conspiracy of perverts, as a sadistic rapist lawyer, a security agent who consorts with prostitutes, and a pedophile psychiatrist conspire to get Salander institutionalized. Blomkvist and Salander hack the hard drive of the psychiatrist, Peter Teleborian, and discover masses of child pornography. This evidence is sprung upon him during his testimony against Salander in the third book, and he is led in handcuffs from the courtroom. After that, as if caught off guard by the implausibility of the book he has found himself in, the judge remarks, “I have never even heard of a case in which the prosecutor’s chief witness is arrested during a court in session.” My dad told me that the downfall of Peter Teleborian is “one of the great moments in literature.”


If I sound completely fed up with Larsson’s books, it’s because I have barely talked about Salander, the girl of the books’ titles, who is undeniably their soul and their selling point. When Blomkvist first meets her, she is working as a private investigator at a firm called Milton Security, a role she dispatches so brilliantly, we later learn, because she is one of the most skilled hackers in Sweden, as well as a polymath with a photographic memory. The books are as preoccupied with her unusual appearance as with her unusual talents: she is very small and looks very young, with tattoos, piercings, and a personal style that could be approximated as motorcycle Goth.

Larsson is seemingly in love with the trick of having his heroine judged as a child, a criminal, a deviant, only to have her prove everyone wrong with her unbelievable intellect. The longest arc of the novels is correcting the injustice she suffered from Sweden’s guardianship system. She was put in a mental hospital as a child, and when she was released was assigned a guardian within the government who had control of her legally and financially. An incorrect psychological assessment from when she was a teenager had the government believing she was mentally ill, with criminal tendencies and very low intelligence. Her edgy appearance did nothing to persuade the guardianship agency of her competency.

But despite the Dragon Tattoo books’ focus on Salander’s journey to seize self-determination, she is often constrained by the narrative’s own gaze, even when it is mediated through characters who will end up in the wrong. Descriptions of her are icky either in their prurience or disgust, with a creepy focus on her body. In the first book, I count six times where she is described as looking anorexic (she is not anorexic). Before we have gotten to know her at all, several pages are devoted to her boss’s coming to terms with his sexual attraction to her, a plot element that goes exactly nowhere. She later jumps into bed with Blomkvist, as she is (conveniently) into older men. Salander is, in many ways, a male fantasy of a rebel girl: she is bisexual, rides a motorcycle, works out at a boxing gym, and eats only junk food. Considering that she is only one of Blomkvist’s many paramours, her characterization works especially to distinguish her from his other girlfriends. As with so many detective series, the Dragon Tattoo books seem to be a study in every kind of woman the detective, as proxy for the writer, could possibly be attracted to.

Luckily, Salander is a more compelling, surprising, and complex character than Blomkvist, in his possessive and protective desire, can see. Salander, a classic avenging angel, has her own notion of justice, but it is hard to rationalize her actions, as Blomkvist repeatedly does, as stemming from some deep morality. She uses her computer skills to steal millions from the corrupt industrialist at the end of the first book because he is a bad guy, but also because the opportunity presents itself. When she was 12 years old, she attempted to kill her abusive deadbeat father by throwing a burning bottle of gasoline into his car. This violence is constantly justified by Blomkvist and others, who say that she was only trying to protect her mother, but I do wonder if she could have protected her in a way that did not involve a firebomb.

Larsson created a character so interesting that she wriggled from the grasp of his narrative, letting ambiguity and chaos into a world he set up as black and white, good guys versus bad. Larsson’s widow, Eva Gabrielsson, often speaks about the books like sacred tracts, seeing them as being didactic first, entertaining second. I would tend to agree. But with Salander, who is impulsive, intransigent, and sad, very often unable to be there for the people she cares about most, it is difficult to say what lesson is to be learned—fortunately for the reader. Without her, we would have only Blomkvist, a character as intolerably, triumphantly decent as Perry Mason. (Mason, the hero of Erle Stanley Gardner’s legendary detective series, is the smuggest, most well-adjusted milquetoast in the history of mysteries. In the early nineties, my dad recorded every episode of the Perry Mason TV series onto VHS tapes and cataloged them on our old DOS-prompt computer.)


Salander injects into Larsson’s matrix of morals some of the anarchy of children’s literature, and that was by design. Gabrielsson explains how Salander was inspired by Pippi Longstocking:

this delightful and formidable little girl has been a champion of equality between the sexes: she doesn’t depend on anyone, can use a revolver, has sailed the seven seas … But the main thing about Pippi is that she has her own ideas about right and wrong—and she lives by them, no matter what the law or adults say.

But Salander lends some of the melancholy of children’s literature, too. Pippi’s story, after all, is not only about how she brings excitement to a staid Swedish village but the problem of her loneliness, as she seeks friendship and understanding in a world that wasn’t made for her.

I am charmed by Gabrielsson’s description of Pippi Long- stocking, not only because it describes the near-superhero Salander so well, but because in spirit (though in not many practical details), it describes my dad, too. I always think of him as an impish mischief-maker, something of a manic pixie dream dad, whistling in public, sobbing at stories on NPR, flirting with babies, buying candy and stuffed animals, and generally pissing off uptight assholes. Once when he was walking with my brother, they saw a car with a “Who is John Galt?” bumper sticker, a reference to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. He stuck a notecard on the windshield that said you are an idiot.

As I think about my dad and Pippi, it illuminates another common feature of the films, books, and TV that he likes: girls who kick butt. He was an early fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (though he believes it took a downturn after she graduated from high school) and is even more ardently committed to the cult teen detective show Veronica Mars, whose plucky heroine wields a Taser almost as well as Salander does. I first told him to watch Veronica Mars, and later, after he had breathlessly emailed me about Veronica and Logan and Dick Casablancas enough times, I regretted ever watching it. I used to think that he only had some embarrassing pervy attraction to girls who kick butt, and, I mean, he definitely does. But after he told me through tears that “he only wants Veronica to be happy,” I should have gotten the picture that he sees himself in them, too. I guess it is no surprise that he identifies with teenage girls, when there is an illustrious tradition of grown men expertly crafting young women’s entertainment, from boy bands of all eras to Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink, to Buffy and Veronica Mars.

“I definitely think he relates to those girls,” my mom told me. She reminded me of a scene at the end of the first Dragon Tattoo book, when Salander realizes she has fallen in love with Blomkvist and resolves to confess her feelings to him. When she finds him, he is on a date with another woman, and Salander is crushed. This is the most affecting part of the books for my dad, my mom told me. “He’ll just cry and cry about that part,” she said. All along I thought he saw himself as the valiant everyman Blomkvist, who comes to the aid of the sexy girl who kicks butt. I was wrong about that, and I shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking I have figured him out again. I told him that I thought he identified more with Blomkvist, but then it occurred to me that he maybe identified with Salander. “I don’t think I’m like any of them,” he told me stubbornly. “I just think the books have the ring of realism,” a description that in my opinion could not be more incorrect.


When I complained to my mom about my dad describing books that strain plausibility in every way as having “the ring of realism,” she explained to me how this is one of the phrases he uses indiscriminately to describe works that grab his imagination (the other is “the spark of greatness”) in the manner of, for instance, the cop show Hill Street Blues. This shorthand praise is another way for him to avoid analyzing his own whims. It’s also, maybe, a defensive posture to keep us from analyzing him.

This could be why I have delayed addressing what was supposed to be one of the points of this essay: whether my dad has autism and if it matters. The therapist he works with has suggested that he has Asperger’s syndrome, based on his difficulty reading conversational cues and other people’s moods; his short temper; his many intense enthusiasms; and his almost complete lack of social inhibition, which often leads to totally inappropriate behavior. When I asked him about it for this essay, it was the first time we had ever spoken about it. “Why are you asking me about that?” he said incredulously, and I explained that it made me think of him when Blomkvist privately guesses that Salander has Asperger’s because of her savant-like skills and social awkwardness. “Yes, that is one possible diagnosis,” he said about Salander. Of his own diagnosis, he would only say, oddly, that he didn’t remember it, comparing it to the apparent amnesia he developed in the 1990s when he had bursitis of the elbow. I pressed him, but he stood by his “no comment.” “I have zero memory of anyone ever saying I have Asperger’s,” he said. “I’d completely forgotten that and I hadn’t thought about it. I don’t have any thoughts or any opinions.”

I really don’t blame him for having no thoughts or opinions. No one even raised the possibility that he was on the autism spectrum until he was 68, and charging someone that age with a condition we often associate with childhood is complicated by a lifetime of ambiguities and examples to the contrary. As he approached his eighth decade, the methods he had learned to navigate the world were just his personality, as they are, I assume, for everyone. He was also unwittingly encountering a fateful tendency in my family to monumentalize the eccentricities of its members, to talk and laugh about them among ourselves and with strangers—write about them, even—until the picture shifts into focus, and those eccentricities reveal themselves as dysfunction.

And no matter his age, I’ve come to see autism spectrum diagnosis as an alienating thicket, where there is no textbook case. At his therapist’s suggestion, he read David Finch’s memoir The Journal of Best Practices, the story of Finch being diagnosed with Asperger’s as an adult and using this new self-knowledge to become a better husband. Despite what would seem to be obvious commonalities between Finch and my dad, he found no applicable lessons in his story, and he thought the book made Finch look, frankly, like a jerk. Finch and his wife, Kristen, were on an episode of This American Life in 2012, where Kristen, a speech therapist who worked with disabled kids, says that she and her coworkers would always joke that their husbands were autistic. The stereotypes in that joke are uncomfortable for me in both directions. Joking about men’s emotional stuntedness seems at best inaccurate, at worst self-reinforcing, and joking about autistic people as socially retarded and robotic almost certainly increases their ostracization. But it also collapses the almost endless variation among people with autism spectrum disorders: my dad didn’t recognize Finch’s compulsions, which isn’t to say he has none of his own.

I found myself combing through websites about the autism spectrum, many of which are compiled by civilians who have the disorder themselves, who I think are also trying to come to terms with the many ways one can have autism. One particular website called Inside Perspectives of Asperger Syndrome and the Neurodiversity Spectrum describes possible autism spectrum symptoms across an exhaustive list of categories, including work, sex, eating, sleep, phone problems, “spacing out,” and even allergies and drug sensitivities. The primary sources on every page are testimonials from web users who identify as having autism and related conditions, like Asperger’s and ADHD, describing their own experiences. Many of these don’t describe my dad at all, while others do with eerie accuracy. During the conversation we had about his possibly being autistic, this description was dinging in my head: “Some have problems with reciprocity & timing and either talk on and on without letting anyone else get a word in edgewise, constantly interrupt others without realising that it’s disrespectful to do so, or say nothing at all unless asked a direct question.” There is of course also the claim that many with autism “are able to hyper-focus intently on the same thing for hours, days, sometimes weeks on end, and keep up a special interest for years”—see Sjöwall, Wahlöö, Larsson, et al.

One of the most helpful things I read on Inside Perspectives is this eloquent description from one of the site’s users of the problem with seeing autism as a disorder:

If you have one neurodiverse trait you are more likely to have additional neurodiverse traits. I am not sure why this is. The more of these traits you have, the more difficult it is to function . . . If you can’t function in society because you have too many of these traits and/or they are too intense then it becomes a disability. And when it becomes a disability then they have to put a label on it. . . . The ‘clump traits together and give them a name’ strategy is fundementally [sic] flawed . . . Labeling falsely claims you have one thing, not a group of things which may be better treated individually.

But viewing the autism spectrum as a matrix of possible traits evokes all the problems of mental health diagnosis, because, to put it simply, everyone has traits. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) does not seek to describe what a healthy person looks like: psychological “normalcy” is judged only by an absence of any of the dysfunctions it addresses. Considering the gargantuan length of the DSM, there are nearly as many ways to be crazy as there are to be alive. But despite the DSM’s attempt at exhaustiveness, it remains very difficult to wrangle a human being’s habits, thoughts, desires, quirks, and pain under the heading of a single diagnosis of mental illness. This is underlined by the manual’s primary use, which is not therapeutic, but clerical: a diagnosis of a disorder with a DSM classification is often the requirement for an insurance company to authorize treatment.

I gained the most insight from the wonderful autistic writer and rhetorician Melanie Yergeau, who discusses the problem of diagnosis on her blog As she writes, “For many, diagnosis is validating and/or leads to self-understanding. Diagnosis can explain a lot.” But a disease model of autism, where there are degrees of severity and some have it “worse” than others, effaces the individual value of autistic people. Yergeau writes powerfully for the model of disability that relies on disabled people’s rights to advocate for their own needs:

Whether your disabled child screams in the grocery checkout line or testifies in front of Congress, he is self-advocating. Whether your disabled child throws peas in your face or writes a snarky blog post or falls asleep during board game nights or says NO in all capital letters, she’s self-advocating. And none of these things is less noble or gutsy than the other.

All people have needs that flow from their humanity, not from a predetermined list of problems that we call disability. Diagnosis and the vocabulary that it trades in should be tools to help people understand themselves and ask for what they need. It follows, then, that if the language of disability doesn’t help someone advocate for himself or herself, he or she should be free to reject it.

For my dad, navigating the “neurodiverse traits” that make functioning more difficult individually—like  helping him to remember not to make too much noise around the house, to reflect more on his emotions, not to give in so quickly to frustration—is most helpful, and it doesn’t require him to align all the vagaries of his personality with a diagnostic label. The autism designation isn’t helpful for him. The autism spectrum is one more place I’ve looked for my dad, with only partial success. My mom told me that, library cataloger that she is, one of her greatest interests is in creating typologies, finding categories and seeing where things fit. But she has never been that good at categorizing the people close to her, not suspecting that there was anything in my dad’s weirdness that might be explained by someone else’s weirdness. “I tend to be accepting of the way that people are,” she told me helplessly, which might be another way of saying that love is blind.


Larsson died of a heart attack shortly after delivering the manuscript for The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, never living to see his novels published, much less the worldwide sensation they would become. Per Wahlöö died after he and Sjöwall finished the tenth Martin Beck novel, blessedly missing most of the social degradation he had warned against. These deaths are both eerie in the same way: socially conscious writers not living to know how right they were. Sjöwall cheerily admits now that “the project” was a failure. “Everything we feared happened, faster,” she says. “People think of themselves not as human beings but consumers. The market rules, and it was not that obvious in the 1960s, but you could see it coming.” What would have been harder for them to see coming was the murder of the Swedish prime minister Olof Palme in 1986, 11 years after they wrote about a fictional Swedish prime minister being assassinated in The Terrorists. The most remarkable thing about reading the Dragon Tattoo books now, in the spring of 2017, is their overwhelming, prophetic resonance with the scandals of the 2016 election and the Trump administration, as they involve neofascists, computer hackers, sexual misconduct scandals,  Russian spies, government corruption, evil billionaires, and journalistic integrity. It makes me wish Larsson had lived to comment on it, although I assume the current era would immediately make him wish he were dead.

Many people have noted the marketing brilliance of changing the title of Larsson’s Men Who Hate Women for the English translation, shifting the focus from creepy men to always more salable “girls.” Men Who Hate Women could be another alternate title for my book, and I have chosen, maybe hypocritically, to sell it on girls instead. In the end, the careers of Larsson and Sjöwall and Wahlöö turn out to be Dead Man stories, where men leave their wives and collaborators to deal with their absence for decades. This female survival is probably the truer story and, I think Larsson, Sjöwall, and Wahlöö would agree, a better one, but it doesn’t have the same addictive glamour that comes with a Dead Girl. In Roseanna, one of Beck’s colleagues mentions a movie that the suspect they’re trailing goes to see. “It has a wonderful ending,” he says. “Everyone dies except the girl.”

Larsson died at 50, after years of working too much, eating too much junk food, drinking too much coffee, and smoking too many cigarettes. There has been extended drama involving his partner of 30 years, Gabrielsson, who, since they never legally married and Larsson left no will, is not entitled to any of his posthumous millions. His death was ironic and unjust, having happened at altogether the wrong time. I can’t help but think about my dad when I read about Larsson’s heart attack: how Larsson’s colleagues found him in a chair, breathing heavily and in a cold sweat, and even then he did not want to admit he was sick. My dad was probably in congestive heart failure for weeks before my brother and his boyfriend found him hunched over in a parking lot, gasping for air. I burst into terrified tears when I saw him on a gurney in the emergency room, looking so gray and puny. “It makes me cry, too,” he said and sobbed.

Insofar as this is a Dead Girl story with a happy ending, you know that my dad got better. His cardiac emergency became another episode in his life, another story underscored, appropriately, by reading. In the hospital after his angioplasty, he had a paradoxical reaction to a sedative that launched him into an hour-long panic attack. Every 60 seconds, he would jump out of bed and run around his hospital room, endangering his fresh stitches. At one point my mom, her nerves completely shot, picked up The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and began to read from Salander’s trial. This was the only thing that soothed my dad, and she read to him until he fell asleep.

* * *

From Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin. © 2018 by Alice Bolin. Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

City on a Hill

Getty, Illustration by Katie Kosma

Leslie Kendall Dye | Longreads | June 2018 | 11 minutes 2,944 words)


At the top of Riverdale, at the top of the Bronx, there is a city on a hill. The city exists within a single building; there are single rooms with no locks, each with a bed, a dresser, and — if the resident’s family provides one — a television set with which to while away the hours. Time is measured by the same clock as it is in other cities, but here it curves and collapses, compresses yet languorously stretches. Once a week there is a hairdresser and a manicurist, too. It is lovely — and dreadful. You can visit the citizens here, and you are free to leave when you are ready, if freedom is measured by the movement of one’s feet. My mother lives in this building, which is a nursing home. We signed the contract for her just last month, in what might have been human blood.

The city-building overlooks the Hudson River, which today glimmers silver under a portentous sky. It’s spring by the calendar, but winter has persisted in the Northeast. I trudge west from Riverdale Avenue bundled into my down coat, the wind biting at my neck. I like to pretend that my mother is expecting me.

She has lived there only a few days. I am acquainting myself with the place every time I visit. She lives on one of the dementia floors, the medium security floor, with other people who are social and display a level of intellectual competence that affords them the illusion of freedom — they do not require help from aides with dressing and bathing, for example, and they may choose where to sit at dinner.

She lives on one of the dementia floors, the medium security floor, with other people who are social and display a level of intellectual competence that affords them the illusion of freedom…

There is a code to gain entry to the elevator, and another to make the elevator move. We are asked not to let the residents know these numbers, although this seems to miss the point; no one who lives here could retain the numbers long enough to use them. Still, I take the piece of paper on which the nurse has written the codes and stash it deep in my coat pocket, checking it discreetly before punching in the numbers.

The unit has a hospital floor plan, which casts a gloom over the space, a reminder that this is a ward, not a home. Still, the idea of a central nurses’ station affords some comfort — someone is just down the hall in case of emergency. My mother has one endless emergency here — her own urgent need to leave.

She looks up eagerly when I cross the threshold bearing my weekly gifts — this time, a CD player, some photos to hang, cookies, fresh underwear and socks. Everything she owns must be labeled; dementia-floor residents can be found in each other’s clothing routinely. “You have to have a sense of humor about it,” my mother’s social worker tells me.

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Her room has a river view. I wonder what it’s like not to know which body of water it is that one sees through the glass; not to know that the sun will set over this water because one is facing west; not to know which way the bathroom is or what time it is or how to find the phone; not to remember the combination of numbers that will allow you to reach your children; to know you have children, but not to remember their names.

“It’s so large,” my mother says, as we stroll down the hall, gazing at the paintings on the walls. We take the elevator to the mezzanine, where we can get some food. We walk down another long hall, passing a small pool, a gym, a spa. “Isn’t this nice, Mom?” I ask, and she nods agreeably.

I hear music, an accordion bleating out a melody in a minor key.

Those were the days, my friend
We’d thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d thought we’d never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.

I smile; it is comically, tragically apropos for a nursing home. Still, I guide my mother toward the music, which is both lively and disturbing, as though accompanying the final sequence in a horror film.

We arrive at a small ballroom in which a crowd of mostly wheelchair-bound seniors sit, nodding to the music, enlivened and demonstrating as much to the height of their ability. It reminds me of bar mitzvahs I attended long ago — the wall-to-wall carpeting, the tinny music reverberating in the stale, enclosed space. I turn my head toward the door and notice a bird cage. It’s actually a glass enclosure, in which parakeets and cockatoos chirp and flit from one end to the other.

“Let’s find the café, Mom,” I say, and she replies that she will follow me anywhere.

I direct her out of the ballroom. We walk until at last I see sunlight. They call it the River Cafe; it looks like a bodega. Here we can buy cookies and toiletries and coffee. Booths line a glass wall affording a dazzling view of the water.

“Look at the view!” I have been saying this a lot today, as if the sight of the river were recompense for her confinement.

“Yes, it’s lovely,” she replies, “It’s very nice.”

She is uneasy, asking me constantly if after this tour I will be taking her “out of here.”

“Look at the view!” I have been saying this a lot today, as if the sight of the river were recompense for her confinement.

Yes, I tell her, we are going to my sister’s house, it’s not far at all, we are walking there.

“Thank god,” she says. “ I can’t tell you how happy I was to see you walk in.”

* * *

Almost no new memories imprint; I am struck by the specific details she retains: my entrance into her room, what she felt like at that instant, how desperate she felt just before. Will this crystallized moment be sent down the pipe to long-term memory? Or will she have it only for today?

We buy a cookie then leave the café. On the way to the elevator, a small room set up like a museum alcove catches my eye. Pickles and Egg Cream reads a sign overhead. It’s an exhibit of dioramas in which a woman named Ruby G. Strauss has recreated scenes from her parents’ years on the Lower East Side. I peer into a scene of passengers exiting the subway stop at Broadway and 14th Street, another of Strauss’s grandmother’s garden in summer, wedged between two tenements, a line of clothes drying above children skipping rope and a man in a straw hat reading the paper. There are dozens of little figures holding tiny props: a man drinking wine by a cathedral radio in his parlor, a bride and groom on their wedding day, a grandmother wearing wiry glasses, knitting.

Like the parakeets, the dioramas are too easy a metaphor. Life under glass. Life observed through glass. Life imprisoned within glass walls. I pull my mother out of the alcove. Her eyesight has been failing, so for her the exhibit is a blur.

I punch the code in and the elevator arrives. We emerge on the first floor and exit through the lobby, passing a collection of dolls made in the images of American First Ladies. I can see my mother’s reflection — her long coat and dark hair — in the glass that encases the dolls, moving swiftly and enthusiastically toward the lobby door.

A shock of cold wind hits as it slides open.

“It’s really a nice place,” I say. “In spring all these trees will bloom and they have barbecues in the garden.”

“Yes, I’m so lucky,” my mother says. “Are we leaving now?”

As we walk down the hill toward the guard booth, I think of an Isaac Asimov book I read in my youth. In Caves of Steel, he envisions a futuristic city complex where New York City once stood. It is entirely enclosed, without a drop of fresh air seeping into its midst, contained under metal domes.

The air is so qualitatively different outside the walls of the pavilion in which my mother now lives, which hums with the electrical energy of a well-run hotel. Its seamless wall-to-wall carpet obliterates any hint of nature, the scent of cateria food permeates the first floor corridors, the ring of elevator cars creates a perpetual dinging soundtrack in the lobby.

A siren goes off, as though a dog had jumped a security perimeter. It’s my mother’s electronic bracelet, which they’ve attached to prevent her from wandering off the property. I negotiate our departure without alerting my mother to this indignity.

We proceed eastward on a paved path. Alongside the path runs a tall metal fence that separates us from some tan, patchy grass — the sort that works as visual shorthand for the ravages of winter. I’m breathing better now, as is my mother, who has all morning complained of agitation.

“I was so glad when I saw you in the doorway,” she says again, as we walk into the wind toward Riverdale Avenue. We cross it and as we do, seem to travel through a time portal. The red-brick houses are narrow and built right next to one another; they have small porches, and I see a window sign declaring that We are all made in God’s image. There is a cozy, nostalgic compression to the neighborhood, some sense of Americana that is absent from the busy streets of Manhattan, where I live. I see errant crocuses defying the angry winter wind and a daffodil or two, flags, rusty porch swings, and broken children’s wagons on tiny front yards.

“Where are we going?” my mother asks.

“To your daughter’s house,” I reply. “We’re almost there.”

“That’s right,” my mother says. “I know I have to go back tonight, to the place, but I don’t want to think about it now.” She smiles and plays with the electronic bracelet on her arm, unaware of what it does.

I bring up the river, again, out of habit.

“There’s a beautiful view from your room, Mom,” I say, finding my own smile sinister.

“Yes — ” she starts. “I’m so lucky.”

Another universe unfolds inside my sister’s house. It is organized along the principle of family: children’s bedrooms, toys organized by age appropriateness and size, a kitchen stocked with packaged soups and treats young children like. Still, the wreckage of six children and two dogs is everywhere in evidence: chewed pillows, fights underway, dirty dishes on the table, crayons on the floor. My mother settles on the couch after asking if she can be of any help. She smiles at me, looks around for my sister, asks where the house is. I am not sure how to answer. I tell her it is down the street from where she lives, but this means almost nothing to her. We are supposed to give her something to do, something to occupy her hands and provide her with a sense of her necessity; I have read that all humans need this. Sometimes we do find tasks, but sometimes we lack creativity and tell her she should just relax. She cannot relax; there is nothing relaxing about perpetual confusion. She asks again if she can help. I ask her to pick up the crayons. I find later that she’s put them in the dishwasher.

Noam, who is 7, kisses his grandmother when it’s time for me to walk her back. He looks at her as though in love, and I wish this were all she needed, all anyone needed. I assure her that she will return to this house soon. Right now, it’s time to go. She sighs; I hear a whistle in her breath that betrays more than passing reluctance.

The clouds have drowned in the ink of a night sky; I sing a familiar tune and hold my mother’s hand as we walk back to the nursing home. I assure her I’ll be back soon. It jangles my heart, this wrongness, this dropping off, this dislocation of a family member, the exile imposed by decline. The lobby murmurs with electricity, the First Lady dolls stare expectantly from behind their glass.

It jangles my heart, this wrongness, this dropping off, this dislocation of a family member, the exile imposed by decline.

I punch in the code and we ascend in silence to the second floor. My mother suddenly squeezes my hand and tells me she loves me.

The air in here is stale as ever. Both of us feel the panic return.

I have an impulse to seize my mother’s arm and run. I want to bring her home and put her in bed and sing to her until she falls asleep. Instead, I pick out a nightgown and pat her head. She tries not to cry.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Mom,” I offer.

“Will you?” she asks.

And I retreat — from her, from her pain, from mine, from the city on the hill.

I punch in the code and the humming box takes me down. First floor. Past the First Ladies. Out into the night air. Onto the BXM2 bus, which will carry me home to Manhattan.

* * *

Reality is a a series of universes with membranes loose and undulating. Where does one end and the other begin? Is there a wall between the perceptions of the “demented” and the rest of us, who retain enough memory to support a more continuous vision of our histories, our days, to support a logic dependent on past and future? Or is it more a window, or more alarming yet, a swinging door?

All realities exist near porous borders — for example, my mind has flown into fantasy as I mentally retrace in words the cavernous, tiny universe of my mother’s nursing home complex. I’ve fashioned it into a cave of steel, in the image of another reality, stolen from within the pages of fiction. The path between it and my sister’s house is now a time machine of my own construction, my sister’s street is a world built of images I see in the past of a country in a time before I was born. My mother merely wants to know whose house we are visiting; her “sane” daughter, her guardian, is dreaming of the way in which streets, houses, concrete walkways, and riverside high-rise complexes splinter and spiderweb outward into separate communities from the moment humans began interacting with time. Which of the two of us, my mother or I, is more connected to reality as we define it as an everyday convenience? Surely my mother’s questions are more practical, more connected to pragmatic concerns, than mine, which are based on hallucinatory impressions of time and space. I have fallen somewhere on this visit, stumbled and slipped into fantasy, allowed the home that keeps my mother safe to drive me close to madness. I am not sure where anything begins or ends anymore, not sure that anything does.

The bus is turning off the Major Deegan Expressway now, it rolls steadily down Fifth Avenue. The trees on either side, illuminated by a flush of light from a streetlamp, are bare and white and wild-limbed against the black sky. They incline toward the street, forming an archway under which we sail. There’s the time portal again, coming into view: the buildings lining the avenue, stately and majestic, are alive with the ghosts of the 19th century, one can see the horses and carriages clopping underneath the arboreal canopy, one can smell the pipe smoke and the dirt, see the women in full skirts hurrying across this boulevard two centuries ago.

How easy it is to slip into reverie, to slip across the boundary from one reality to the other, one fancy to the next, especially in this city. New York is known for its boundaries between rich and poor, but also for the suddenness with which the neighborhoods change. Swank lobbies with doormen line one block, graffiti-worn bodegas and chain link fences line the next. This is how fast Madison Avenue shifts between 94th and 96th Street.

My mother is confined in her cave of steel, trapped within the boundaries of her forgetfulness. I am trapped in my own universe of half dreams and meditations. Her worries are immediate and connected to the hardness of her reality, mine are existential, free to float philosophically above her everyday concerns.

We walk the halls of her city on the hill together, unavailable to each other, trapped under different kinds of glass.

My bus drops me at my West Side stop; I exit to the sight of hot dog carts and the scent of park-bench smokers, to the music of barking dogs and basketballs bouncing. Though now walking a familiar route home, the sensation of wandering does not abate. Maybe it is merely the tableaux of street life shifting and sliding past that evokes my dizzy sense of dislocation. I think it is something more, though — I walk as if chased by the wind, or worse. I slow down, speed up, ascend the stairs to my apartment; still I am pursued. I go to bed and dream of the city on the hill. It is now a castle in which old people turn young, wrinkles are smoothed into satin flesh, the people dance and flick their skirts and sing.

We walk the halls of her city on the hill together, unavailable to each other, trapped under different kinds of glass.

A river runs past this castle, and boats too, in which the people make their escape. I do not see which boat my mother takes, or who ferries it, but when I return for our next visit she is not waiting on her bed for me, gazing at an unknown vista. I am so very glad — when I arrive at her threshold — that this time I do not see her there. She has crossed the perimeter between her world and my reverie, traversed the undulating boundary between reality and fancy, between mother and daughter, between dementia and freedom.

But this — this is only in my dream.

* * *

Leslie Kendall Dye is an actress and freelance writer based in New York City.

* * *

Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Jacob Gross
Illustrator: Katie Kosma

Old In Art School


Nell Painter | Old In Art School | Counterpoint | June 2018 | 14 minutes (3,906 words)

Curiosity in my regard, and there was a lot of it, didn’t only come from inside Mason Gross, for generally the kids were cool with whatever. Curiosity came from people of my generation in my soon to be former existence. They regarded my new life, my adventure, in the words of some, my “journey,” with envy and hesitation. They identified with my break for freedom but feared their academic or lawyerly selves had already quashed their inner Beyoncé. They wondered if they, too, could leave dutiful, controlled professional personas and fling themselves into a new, hyper-saturated, Technicolor — no, RBG color-coded — artistic life of creativity and apparent abandon. I had yearned like that before actually walking away. Professing admiration for my bravery, my friends asked how I did it and hoped I would send back a report.

Why do something different? Why start something new? Why did I do it? What made me think I could begin anew in an entirely different field from history, where, truth be told, I had made a pretty good reputation? Was it hard leaving a chaired professorship at Princeton? I didn’t think so. For a long time, my answers, even to myself, were simple — too simple by far.

I said, because I wanted to.

Because I could.

I knew from my mother I could do it.

My smart, small, intense, beautiful, disciplined little mother, Dona Irvin, administrator to author, held the key to my confidence. To a very great extent, she still does. The so much more of myself beyond my sex, race, and age that I cherish is rooted in my family, in my father the gregarious bohemian, who had taught me to draw decades ago, but even more, in my mother, who starting over at sixty-five, blossomed as an older woman, transforming herself into a creator in her own right after a lifetime as a shyly dutiful wife and mother. As an older woman, she cast off the strictures of a lifetime — well, some of them — and took to wearing red or white with her dark skin and taking the bus overnight to play slot machines in Reno.

My mother had never written a book before 65. She had started her career as a school administrator late, after the civil rights movement opened opportunities for an educated black woman, and she had grown professionally. She overcame crippling shyness whose stutter made the telephone her monster. At a liberating feminist retreat at Asilomar, near Monterey, she reclaimed her own name, Dona, after decades of letting other people correct her. Yes, people tried to correct her pronunciation of her own name and talk her into accepting the more easily recognizable “Donna.” At the Asilomar retreat, she put a stop to that and made people call her by her own name. And she started writing in earnest.

Always a terrific writer of letters and reports, she’d never attempted a book. After Asilomar, she found steel within to pull it off.

She devoted ten years to research and publishing her first book, The Unsung Heart of Black America, about the middle-class black people she knew as close, long-term friends in the United Methodist church we attended in the 1950s and early 1960s in Oakland, a work the fine and generous historian John Hope Franklin blurbed.

It took me years to sense the bravery, the sturdy determination her metamorphosis demanded, for she was tougher than I could see during her lifetime. I knew she delved deep to express herself with unadorned honesty. Hard for a woman. Doubly hard for a black woman. Triply hard for a black woman of a class and a generation never wanting to let them (meaning, mainly, white people) catch even a sidelong glimmering of your doubts.

Suppressing doubt and never washing dirty linen in public came naturally to my mother. A public that was black and wore the beloved faces of her friends awaited my mother’s writing as an upstanding black person. That public’s expectation of her as a black author discouraged her speaking as an individual whose identity exceeded race. She felt that pressure and wrote her first book as a black woman, never losing sight of race in America. Yet there was more to her.

It took her ten more years to write and publish her frank and funny memoir, I Hope I Look That Good When I’m That Old. Just pause for a moment and imagine the guts and good humor she needed to use that title, to admit to looking good, and to write the word “old” and apply it to herself.

I Hope I Look That Good When I’m That Old.

People used to say that to her all the time, and now they’re saying it to me.

In her memoir, she went on to claim herself as a unique individual, racialized, but with much more to her than race. She wrote as a daughter of two parents in conflict on the most intimate level. The conflict stayed within the range of ordinary human misbehavior — the usual adultery and betrayal — but talking about that exceeded the vocabulary of race alone. Hard to do in the USA, because it’s hard to describe black humanity beyond race and so easy, practically an automatic response, to interpret a claim of individuality as treason to blackness. It’s as though individuality, the pride of white Americans, belongs only to them; as though a black woman speaking as an individual must be backing away from blackness. My mother had to find words to claim both uniqueness and blackness. But find those words she did. Dona was working on a website about vigorous old people of many races when she died at ninety-one, not at all ready to leave.

Looking at her, identifying with her when I was 64, I figured, hell, I could do that. I could do something new in the quarter-century or more still before me, even starting from close to scratch. My mother’s example made me think I could lay down one life and pick up a new one.


I had been a youthful artist, and for years I carried a sketchbook and drew all the time. I was still drawing when I lived in Ghana with my parents in the 1960s. These three drawings, pencil on paper, were in my sketchbooks there.

Ghana gave my Bay Area eyes, squinting into a bright blue sky, a whole new palette, a landscape and architecture and people in clothes and rioted textures and colors. Something grew on every surface: bushes, flowers, or mold, or all of it all at once. The California Bay Area that I had left was a beautiful, but a eucalyptus gray place, foggy in the morning, dryly sunny in the day, with mostly light-colored people.

In Ghana, I moved through a humid world of tropical contrasts and color-wheel hues. The dirt was red, the trees and grass blue-green. White buildings, red tiled roofs. Red-orange bougainvillea climbing whitewashed buildings and cascading over fences and walls, some topped with menacing shards of broken brown glass or black wrought-iron spikes testifying to class tensions that barricaded the wealthy against the grasping poor. Together, this colorful landscape and the very black people in white and spectacular clothing altered my vision of everyday life.

In Ghana, I taught French in the language school and gave the news in French on Ghana Radio for a year. I can still hear the drums

Boom boom boom      Boom  Boom

announcing “Ghana calling!” I began graduate study in pre-colonial African history at the Institute of African Studies before a coup d’état deposing Kwame Nkrumah ended his nascent African socialism and sent us Afro-Americans, including Maya Make (later Maya Angelou) to Egypt, to Europe, and for us Irvins, home to California.

I completed my MA in African history at UCLA, having previously discovered a love of history during my junior year abroad at the University of Bordeaux. After UCLA a year of rattlebrained, youthful follies too embarrassing to mention, I ended up at Harvard for a Ph.D. in history. I quit smoking. I wrote a dissertation that became my first book, published by — ahem — Alfred A. Knopf. Many books and professorships at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Princeton University followed.

I was a whiz kid, tenured and promoted at Penn in three years and promoted to full professor at Chapel Hill in another three. In the early days of my career, I never questioned my ability to do well in my field. I loved history, loved research, loved writing — I still love history, love research, love writing. I published books at a regular pace: Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction (1976), The Narrative of Hosea Hudson: His Life as a Negro Communist in the South (1979), Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919 (1986), Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol (1996), Southern History Across the Color Line (2002), Creating Black Americans: African American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present (2006), and the Penguin Classic Editions of Narrative of Sojourner Truth and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. And there were fellowships (Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Humanities, Fulbright, &c.), scholarly societies (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Antiquarian Society, &c.), and honorary doctorates (Dartmouth, Yale, &c.).

I don’t want this to sound effortless, for it was all a lot of work, a hell of a lot of dedicated work. Good work, I mean, work that felt good to me, for writing history gave me enormous pleasure. If you want to see the whole panoply of achievement, check out my website, or look at my Facebook page. Over the years, though, images made their way into my writing of history.

Visual art’s gravitational field had renewed its pull decades before my mother had reinvented herself as a writer. Still, I cannot shrug off my change of field as simply a matter of time. It took place step by step, as I was writing history.

My history writing tugged me toward art over the years. I used a photograph I had taken as the frontispiece of my second book, The Narrative of Hosea Hudson, and I wrote about the photograph as a meaningful image, not merely an illustration. Then came the “Truth in Photographs” chapter in my fourth book, Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol, on Truth’s self-fashioning through photographs. I spent hour after hour preparing that chapter in the abundance of Princeton’s Marquand Art History Library, where the art books fill four levels and you can sit comfortably for hours, with the history and theory of photography. In Marquand I learned the rhetoric of the image and critical seeing.

I illustrated Creating Black Americans with fine art. Though it’s a narrative history, Creating Black Americans gave me an introductory course in African American art history. There was, I discovered, more good art by black artists than I could ever cram into one book, even limiting the art to subjects bearing on history. None — okay, very few — of those artists figured in the art history I would study in art school.

The books I wrote weren’t art history, but each one took me beyond text into new visual archives. I loved working with images; I loved learning new history and new artists. This was not like my first undergraduate experience in art.


Back in the 1960s I had studied art at Berkeley, had been an art major and drawn a couple of covers for the campus humor magazine. My art major ended with a C in sculpture, a C I earned by not doing any work. Why should I have to work at sculpture, I reckoned like the kid I was, because talent should insure success. I saw talent as everything, therefore exerting myself would make no difference. What kind of reasoning is that? Dumb kid reasoning. I didn’t know how to work on learning sculpture, and I didn’t know any professional artists to show me a way. On the other hand, my academic family applauded my writing. There ended my story in art for decades. Except for occasional sketching and knitting, I put down the visual and wrote a very great deal of text. Eventually, my books returned me to art, and once back in images, I concluded, Yes, I think I could stay in the world of pictures. Let me test this out.

During my last year teaching at Princeton I took two introductory painting classes. Introductory painting came after my regular teaching and kept me in Princeton to 10 PM. After that, I’d get home to Newark in the middle of the night. My generous Princeton colleague Valerie Smith let me stay over at her house and sweetly bought one of my first drawings. At first, I didn’t know to photograph my work, so Valerie’s drawing has disappeared from my files. The office of another Princeton colleague, Edmund White, was next to my painting studio. He bought my very first painting, my attempt to depict a set-up in various surfaces and shades of red and yellow, shiny, matte, opaque and translucent, saturated and toned down. The reflective red hat contrasted with two drapes, one also reflective but mixed with blue, the other with a pattern that fractured in the folds of the cloth. The bright yellow shopping bag in front combined a shiny surface and a broken pattern.

In this first Princeton class I painted gray scales and figures and landscapes and learned light sources and perspective, as in two other early paintings. The gray scale began simply as that, a gray scale, where you alter hue and saturation between black and white. I liked that exercise and added mountains in the distance. It still looks like a gray scale, but with something else going on. The blue painting came from an exercise in creating depth through perspective, shadow, and luminosity. I made both these paintings on manufactured canvases 24 x 18”. I still have a whole pile of these canvases, which I consider beneath me now. My second Princeton painting class taught me how to make my own stretcher bars and to stretch and gesso my canvases, thoroughly enjoyable manual labor.

My Princeton painting classes took me to museums, to Philip Guston’s cadmium red, ivory black, and titanium white cigar-smoking Klansmen and John Currin’s skinny, huge breasted naked white women the color of supermarket peach flesh. I joined the throng of Guston admirers, but never acquired a taste for Currin’s virtuoso painting. I still stumble over his skinny, big-breasted women and wonder why his famously rendered Thanksgiving turkey is raw.


Even before art school and with what I look back on as incredible hubris, I toyed with the idea of myself as a professional artist, not a mere Sunday painter. I might want to go to art school, not just to undergraduate art school, but to graduate art school as well. I might want to work professionally. I might want to be as professional a painter as I was a historian. Well, within reason. Why would that pose a problem?

As I poke into the crevices of memory, I touch another motive for leaving history, a motive that wants to stay beneath the surface, pulling back into deeper obscurity like a darkness-dwelling troglobite I’m dragging into the light for you. It is not a nice feeling to acknowledge, but candor demands acknowledgment, for otherwise I just might have remained in the grooves of academe. For there was, as always, much more history yet for me to write. Any sentiment other than gratitude strikes me as most unbecoming in one whose achievements have been honored with a Princeton professorship, honorary doctorates from the Ivy League and beyond, and the presidencies of the Organization of American Historians and the Southern Historical Association. What could be more annoying (a word I learned to employ in art school) than a person of privilege whining about what hasn’t been bestowed? Nonetheless. Nonetheless, let me whine a little. There was some sour sense of limits reached, of disappointment over book prizes not won and books not reviewed. It was as though I had assumed I’d be exempt from the rules of the world, where people who looked like me or who didn’t fit an image of how they were supposed to be were never fully seen or acknowledged. For all my lovely recognition, I seemed not properly to fit in.

I’ve never been a black person easily captured in the idea of a black person—come to think of it, no one is. No person, no black or otherwise person fits a racial mold. The idea of a black person is a stereotype that shifts its shape in order never to fit anyone real. I’ve hardly suffered or overcome hardship, can’t talk ghetto, won’t don a mask of black authenticity or speak for black people as a whole. Too many disparate themes reside in me for coherent recognition: images, phrases, people, and things from the multiple worlds I live in and have lived in over many years of life. The freedom I treasure in art reminds me of walking in Bordeaux in the 1960s and inclining toward the study of history. My mother’s dismay at the appearance of aging triggers scattered associations, from the biography of a French theorist to older women artists. Driving down I-95 from Providence calls up a memory of skidding my beetle across a snow-covered bridge over the Connecticut River when I was a graduate student at Harvard. This jumble is not smooth, but its disorderliness is what makes me me.

When I sniveled to friends that I had never received a book prize of import, they pulled me up short, and not just by recalling my honors. They reminded me of the world we live in and the off-kilter nature of my writing. What on earth did I expect? I had enough, I really did have enough in many meanings of the word. Enough in hand, I left history, in the sense of no longer writing scholarly history books as I used to, with honor and fulfillment. History remains a part of me, naturally, and it remains in me even though my relation to history became uneasy in art school.


After my two toe-dipping Princeton painting classes, I took the summer drawing and painting marathon at the New York Studio School on 8th Street in Manhattan. The Studio School started at 9 a.m., ended at 6, with crits stretching past 9 p.m. Okay. For me that meant get up at 6 a.m. walk across the park, take Newark light rail to Newark Penn Station. New Jersey Transit to New York Penn Station, that hell of thank-you-for-your-patience dysfunction. The 2 or 3 subway downtown, get off at 4th Street, walk to 8th Street, and arrive before everyone else.

Then the pay-off. Stand up and draw and paint for eight hours. I loved it.


The paper, the charcoal, the canvas, the set-ups, the model, the space, the perspective, the shadows, the colors, the smell. Concentrating hard, I did it wrong, and I did it right. I painted a still life in red and blue that taught me that you can’t mix cerulean blue from ultramarine and white oil paints as they come from a tube. A figure painting asked for warm but light browns for skin and an indefinite darker shade for light skin in shadow. This shade has no name, so you mix it out of the leavings on your palette.

Here’s the best lesson of all from the Studio School marathon: Staple a 5’ x 4’ piece of tough watercolor paper to the wall; cover it with a charcoal drawing of the model in the set-up, the very best drawing you can make. Cover the entire paper. This takes hours standing up, drawing in the heat. Sweating. Now rub out your drawing with a chamois. Owwww!! All that work for nothing! Draw it again, only 10” to the right. Okay. Concentrate. Draw. Sweat. Fill up the paper. Rub it out. Erase it again? Yes. Rub it out. Draw the model and set-up 1/3 smaller. Draw draw draw. Rub it out. Again.

Lesson learned? Essential lesson learned! You can erase what you draw, even what you’ve spent a long time drawing and sweating over. You can throw away what you paint and, as I learned to do later, cut it up and incorporate it into a new painting. A lesson to take straight to heart, and not only in art making.

I loved it. Even though I was the oldest by far, I stood up and painted right up until 6. Some of the kids came late, farted around, took two-hour lunch breaks, and left before dinner without washing their brushes. Crit came after dinner break. To accommodate Newark light rail’s evening schedule, I would leave crit around 9 PM. Start all over the next morning, five days a week. Okay, I could do it! Let’s go!

I applied to Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers with a portfolio of drawings and paintings from Princeton and the Studio School marathon. Rutgers admitted me. What a thrill! What an accomplishment! My knowing Friend Bill hinted later that undergraduate art school isn’t all that hard to get into. Be that as it may, my admission puffed me up as a worthy achievement. I affiliated with Douglass College, the (sort-of formerly) all-women’s college, for its feminist tradition, of course, also for its quiet.


In the summer before I started at Mason Gross, Dear Husband Glenn and I attended an art exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris. You will only hear of Glenn occasionally, when absolutely necessary because Glenn doesn’t want a role in this story. We were together in Paris, where the Grand Palais had installed a huge show of stirring paintings, abstract and figurative, witty videos ironic and silly, sculpture bright and colorless, and perfectly gorgeous drawings: a feast for the eyes of color and movement and sound. Wait a minute. What in creation was spilling over several folding tables—used ball-point pens, foil, torn newspaper, doodles, bits of paper, the contents of a wastepaper basket held together with cardboard and brown packing tape. A shapeless mass of faded color and haphazard images. Too-muchness splayed out from one section to another without any composition, without coherent color that I could see, as though a drunken Do-It-Yourselfer had turned over his trash barrel in the lofty Grand Palais. Hunh? An art enigma. A mistake, surely. But what did I know? I did not know this was art.

This piece by the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn had won the show’s first prize, and Hirschhorn was installation art’s shining international star. I hadn’t yet heard of installation art and didn’t know that in the twenty-first century this was more than any old art; it was good art, excellent art. The best art. With work in the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate, and the Walker Art Center, Hirschhorn had hit all The Art World’s high notes and strutted off with its prizes.[1] Clearly, this was art, and Hirschhorn was a major artist. Hirshhorn’s work raised the oldest questions in the world of art, questions that followed me for a very long time afterward. What counts as art? Who is an artist? Over the course of several years, I learned the answers. The hard way. In art school.


From Old In Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over by Nell Painter, published by Counterpoint.


[1] By “The Art World” I mean the important museums and galleries that bestow visibility and money on selected artists, virtually all white men. Without caps, the world mans everything in and around art, regardless of sex and race and wealth and wide recognition. 

A Beginner’s Guide to Fly Fishing With Your Father

Illustration by Steven Weinberg

Heather Radke | Longreads | June 2018 | 6,282 words (25 minutes)

In front of the cash register at the fishing shop in Grayling, Michigan, between the Trout Unlimited maps of the river and the hats that say size matters, there is a small shelf lined with business cards. Each of the stacks of cards, save one, are for fishing guides, men who will take you to the good spots on the river and teach you how to cast a fly rod. The final stack of cards is for a local urologist.

I am here with my dad, trying to finally learn to fish. We have driven three hours up the middle of the state from Lansing to Grayling, one struggling city to another. Camp Grayling, just outside of town, is the training ground for the Michigan National Guard. There is only one expressway that far north in Michigan, and as we approached Grayling on the two-lane highway that runs to the Upper Peninsula, tanks and camo Humvees slowed us down, too big to pass.

Michigan is a state of struggling towns, places that depend on a trickle of tourism, small farms, or a single industry. There was a time when the promise of the unions and the auto industry was this: You can make enough money working on the line to have a house in town, a car in the driveway, and a cottage on the lake. It feels ludicrous now to think that a blue-collar job could propel you so far into the middle class, particularly as we drove through the desiccated remains of the failure of that once-true promise. Grayling was the kind of place where you might have built the cottage. Now the tanks, the Family Dollar, and the boarded-up bow-and-arrow factory hint at the presence of another Michigan cliché — the Michigan Militia, a right-wing paramilitary group that was once rumored to be affiliated with the Oklahoma City bombing.

As we turn off the main road into the gravel parking lot, the fishing shop stands before us in contrast to much of the rest of town. Fly-fishing is a gentleman’s sport. It is literary and beautiful, historic and manly. Elegant in the simplicity of its mechanism, it suggests stewardship and stalwartness. This shop does not sell florescent orange camouflage vests or mechanized crossbows. It sells fishing baskets and slouchy hats, signs that say catch and release, volumes of poetry from local authors, millions of tiny hooks and feathers meant to be ordered neatly into small boxes, collected and organized taxonomically for ready response to myriad conditions. Read more…

The Cold War and its Fallout

Photo courtesy the author, Collage by Katie Kosma

Vincent Czyz | Longreads | June 2018 | 21 minutes (5,418 words)


I was born into Cold War America, 1963: Brezhnev, the Kremlin, the KGB, ICBMs, the Warsaw Pact. My father was a hard-line Republican, a Rough Rider looking for his Roosevelt. Reentry vehicles, NATO, first-strike capability, limited strike, and hardened silos were all part of my vocabulary by the time I was 12. He dismissed with contempt liberals who wanted to cut the defense budget and showed me bar graphs comparing U.S. and Soviet military hardware. The red bars representing Soviet numbers always towered alarmingly over the blue ones, except when it came to helicopters; the United States had a lot of those.

The stalemate between the superpowers has been over for a long time, but every now and then I still catch some of the fallout. While making a furniture run, for example, with a friend — Danny had mothballed a bedroom set at his mother’s house and needed a hand getting it into his truck. We went to the front porch in jeans, construction boots, jackets. It was a chilly March afternoon. He rang the bell.

Danny’s mother, a small Korean woman, opened the door. She gasped when she saw me, then covered her mouth. I almost stepped back, wondering what I’d done wrong.

Mrs. Lo Cascio lowered her hands. “You look just like your father!”

From his early 20s on, my father had had a mustache, and this was the first time Mrs. Lo Cascio had seen me with a beard. Her reaction was a rerun of an incident at my father’s wake in June 1983, a couple of weeks before I turned 20. Uncle Eddy, an adopted member of the family, put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “You’re the ghost of your father when he was 17.” As often happens at funerals, his face performed a high-wire act between smiling and crying.

Read more…

We Are Scientists

(AP Photo/Saurabh Das)

Kirtan NautiyalBoulevard | Spring 2018 | 25 minutes (6,903 words)

In 1969, my father traveled alone from India to Boston so that he could enroll in the master’s program in geophysics at MIT.

I don’t know whether he flew or came by boat, so when I try to picture him setting foot in America for the first time, I don’t know what to imagine. I’ve tried to find the photographic evidence, but there aren’t any pictures of the fifteen years he spent in this country before he married my mother. Maybe he just threw out the tattered albums when we were moving between houses, but it’s more likely that he never took any photos at all. He’s never been a sentimental man.

I also don’t know why he chose to come in the first place. He has never had any great fascination with money; despite his making a good living, we lived in shabby rentals for most of my childhood, and my mother shopped for us from department store discount racks. I never felt that professional success was what he was after either. He never advanced past middle management, and except for one late-night discussion in which he made clear that he felt there was a glass ceiling for people with our skin color, I never heard one word of frustration from him about work. Maybe it was to help his family – along with his brother who came to Kansas State University earlier in the 1960s, he supported his parents in India for years with the money he earned. When trying to make us feel guilty about our second-generation lassitude, which is often, he tells us of how at MIT he had to work all hours of the night in the cafeteria and library while keeping up a full courseload, so maybe we need to be a little more appreciative that he helped with the room and board during our own time in college. Read more…