All posts filed under: Memoir

Listening to Literature—What We Gain and Lose with Audiobooks

I couldn’t finish Ulysses. This was 1994, the year after I’d graduated from Arizona State University with an English degree, and the year that my rock band started providing a living from playing gigs in Tempe. Both of these events left me divorced from a reading community I’d come to rely on since my junior college days in Moline, Illinois, when I took a class that required the reading of eight novels. I read those novels—which included A Clockwork Orange, The Awakening, 1984—found them more daring and provocative than anything in rock music, and started entertaining the idea that I too might write one someday. It would be 10 years after that class before I would quit my band and jump headfirst into novel writing. Until then, I was left with a music life that paid the bills but ultimately didn’t ask much from me, and a literary life that felt stalled—no more instructors leading me down the path of great literature; no more parsing the differences between romanticism, realism, and naturalism; no more Shakespeare …

The Philologist, the Iraqi Girl, and Me

I hadn’t bargained on the climate, especially not in the summer and especially not on the coast. That didn’t stop me from going ahead and doing what every self-respecting American college kid visiting Israel, such as Bernie Sanders, did back then—a stint of physical labor on a kibbutz. We’re speaking of June 1962. Eichmann’s ashes had just been dumped in the Mediterranean. Aware of this but not of a lot of other things, sporting horn-rimmed glasses, khakis, loafers, and button-down shirt, I washed ashore at a left-wing settlement halfway between Haifa and Tel Aviv where the comrades worked at their own tile factory, in a banana plantation, and on the trawlers of quite an unpretentious little fishing fleet. Of course, I knew from reading that kibbutzim were socialist successes. But as I got up at the crack of that first dawn to ride a manure-spreader out to the bananas I had no idea that various parties and sects of Zionist socialists bickered over who was the most successful at making the vision come true, over …

How All My Politically Correct Bones Were Broken

In my first 10 years of college teaching, from the mid-60s to mid-70s, I modeled myself on my best teachers—men and women who questioned my ideas vigorously. They let me know that I mattered to them, they praised when praise was due, and they pushed me hard. Often I balked, and they continued to push. Indeed, the teachers who sternly, even at times angrily, called me out on my intellectual arrogance and sloppiness became mentors and, in several cases, lifelong friends. I think of one in particular, an English teacher to whom I’d brought a piece of freshman writing I’d ginned up only minutes before a mandatory conference. I knew it was junk when I carried it to his desk. He stunned me, growling, “You get the hell out of this office. And don’t come back until you respect yourself and me enough to do serious work.” The upshot—I admired his refusal of my bullshit. I went on to take all his classes. Today, such a teacher would be subject, at least, to sensitivity training …

What Are Dads Good For?

Last weekend, our lone London, Ontario-residing child somehow got it into her head (and successfully implanted the idea into ours as well) that it was Father’s Day and came over bearing tins of Guinness and a saucy new red wine called Off The Press to join us in a splendid repast featuring the favourite foodstuff of right-thinking fathers everywhere, fish and chips. Realizing that we’d jumped the gun, we joked that we should endeavour to set things right by reconvening on the true Father’s Day this Sunday with my second favourite foodstuff, Chinese takeaway. If that reprise should happen to come off, fine and well. But really, my cup of paternal homage already overfloweth: I think we all recognize that Father’s Day is a sort of poor cousin or add-on jubilee that wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for Mother’s Day—rather like Boxing Day is to Christmas. The sadly deflating truth of the matter is that it can take a good few years before children begin to apprehend what fathers are good for. After …

Thomas Sowell’s Harlem Years

Thomas Sowell was born in rural North Carolina in 1930 to a family with no electricity or running hot water. His father died before he was born and his mother, a maid, passed away giving birth to his younger brother a few years later. The orphaned Sowell was taken in by a great aunt, who raised him as her son and hid from him the fact that he was adopted and had a sister and four brothers. The family relocated, first to Charlotte, North Carolina, and later, when Sowell was eight years old, to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, where he was raised thereafter. A bright student with a tumultuous home life, Sowell was admitted to one of New York’s most competitive high schools but dropped out at age 16. He left home a year later, after a magistrate labeled him a “wayward minor,” and moved into a shelter in the Bronx for homeless boys, where he kept a knife under his pillow at night for protection. He took whatever jobs were available at the …

Leaving Portland

Portland, Oregon, has been the most politically violent city in the United States since Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Just a few days after the result, a peaceful protest against the incoming president turned into a riot when anarchists broke off from the main group and rampaged through the Pearl District, a renovated SoHo-like neighborhood adjacent to downtown packed with art galleries, loft apartments, bookstores, and restaurants. Vandals used baseball bats and rocks to break cars, plate glass windows, bus shelters, electrical boxes, and anything else that looked smashable. The election-night mayhem was not an attack against Republican voters. Donald Trump received a paltry 7.5 percent of the vote in that precinct. It was an assault on the urban middle class and bourgeois society itself, and it was perceived as such by most people who lived there. (The protest organizers, not incidentally, raised tens of thousands of dollars on GoFundMe and disbursed checks to damaged businesses.) I was born and raised in Oregon, and it’s where I live now. I spent most of my …

Bunker Boy: Preparing for Apocalypse Since 1979

When I was 11 years old, back in 1979, my mother helped me build a nuclear bunker. It was kitted out with about 50 cans of beans and pulses, tuna, and peaches; every shelf was stuffed with bags of rice, crisps, and chocolate bars; I lined the walls with tin foil (to protect us from gamma radiation from the impending nuclear blasts), and we had three torches, a huge supply of batteries, a home doctor manual, a first aid kit, iodine, a ton of toilet roll, and a bucket for human waste. Although it wouldn’t have been particularly effective in a nuclear war and was little more than the closet under the stairs with all the shoes and mops thrown out to make space, this was my first serious attempt at “prepping” for the end of the world. I spent a lot of time in that little bunker reading up on what to do when the bombs fell and the end began. I recall being worried that I might have to choose between my dog …

I Retired First

It’s Sunday as I finish writing this, and I’m reflecting on work on this biblically traditional day of rest. Specifically, I’m thinking about not working, i.e., retirement. The ultimate rest for the dues-paid-in-full working stiff. I didn’t plan it, but I retired first. Before any start to a career. Through my four-year college degree program that took seven on-and-off years to complete, and a few more years on top of those, I spent my time doing a host of things one associates with a traditional retirement: playing golf, reading, hitting the beach, doing a range of odd jobs to make some money, keeping my “nut” as low as possible to match the lean cash flow, taking classes to keep my brain in the game, writing in my journal, doing some traveling, offering some folks and good causes time and help, reflecting on life past and future, learning a couple of new hobbies, hanging with similarly positioned friends, and observing with secret satisfaction all those other people who spin themselves into a frenzy in their workaday existence. …

To Skate—Perchance to Soar

Nairobi, January 2021. Saturday morning. I whizz joyfully around the multi-coloured skatepark. Beneath my feet, the board responds with twists and turns. I apply pressure with my toes and heels. I pop its tail and jump. It rises into the air, lifting me with it. My confidence grows. Now I decide to drop in from the edge of the kidney shaped pool. My heart races. I fly into its deep end and carve around the bowl’s steep edges. But I am coming back over the hip when, abruptly and unexpectedly, the skateboard slips away from me. My fast-moving body obeys its own trajectory. I fly up, then down, before crash landing—arms splayed, chest first—on the hard concrete. The impact knocks the breath out of my lungs. I roll onto my back, gasping. Faces appear above me, silhouettes against the blinding equatorial sun. They keep saying sorry. What for, I wonder? It’s not their fault. It might seem odd, given that I am in a skatepark and far from the written word, but gathering my breath, …

Circling Back to My Grandfather’s Judaism, Seventy Years Later

I was born in Toronto in 1942. My earliest memories were Jewishly buoyant because of the excitement in my home and close-knit community around the rebirth of Israel as a sovereign nation in 1948. It was only when I was a teenager that I became fully aware of the cataclysm that had preceded this miracle. Until the 1950s, there was a kind of taboo about discussing the Holocaust with children—or even discussing it at all. It was too recent. I knew, but didn’t know. North American Jews needed time to absorb the scope and originality of the horror they had been spared. The public high school I attended was almost entirely Jewish. (Our district was mostly gentile, but almost all the gentiles sent their children to private schools.) Few of us were prepared when our history teacher showed us a film about the liberation of the concentration camps. I was shocked by the newsreel footage of stacked corpses, the skeletal camp inmates staring, stunned, at their approaching liberators, the mound of children’s shoes, the numbers. …