Travel is a vanishing act, a solitary trip down a pinched line of geography to oblivion.
Paul Theroux

Friday, August 28, 2015

Chin Up

Feeling downtrodden, fellow writers? A little weary of the daily rejections slowly filling your inboxes?

Read this, then, and let your gentle hearts be soothed.

What follows is a pearl from the magnificent, prolific Philip Graham:

Don’t give up too easily. Keep an essay you believe in out there in the running as long as you can. Be patient. I was rejected 11 times by The New Yorker before they accepted a story. One of my favorite stories, “Angel,” was rejected 25 times before it found a home, at the Missouri Review (and subsequently won a prize, was nominated for a Pushcart, and was included in a national “fantasy” anthology).

Believe in your work. Be stubborn. Wear down the dopes who don’t get it. Someone finally will. Your work is too good for you not to be its best champion.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

To the Midnight Illich Searchers

For five years I've had this blog, and for four of those five, the most popular post has been the one I wrote about Ivan Illich. (For those of you who missed that post, Illich was an Austrian thinker with sharp, extreme views on everything from the educational system to the nuclear bomb to international aid.)

Anyway, I might only get ten blog viewers a day, but at least five will be reading about Illich.

I wonder sometimes who you are: Who comes to my blog at five AM, at two AM, at three in the afternoon? The map tells me you're from China, from Russia, from Thailand and Australia. Maybe today you're hippies in a Nicaraguan town, in a Nicaraguan bar.  Maybe you're a homeless man. Maybe you're a soldier. Maybe you work for the government.

Whoever you are, what follows is an update to what I wrote four years ago. It's dedicated to you: you, the reader from near or far who Googled Ivan Illich and ended up here.


Ivan Illich's Best Intentions

Five years ago, Ivan Illich changed my life.

I was backpacking through Latin America at the time, having recently quit my day job in Boston. I had moved out of my apartment, left my cat with my folks, and stuffed clothes, a water filter, and a Lonely Planet into an old frame backpack my dad used in the seventies.

Early on in my sojourn, I stopped in Granada, Nicaragua, with the intentions of teaching English and studying Spanish. I wasn’t just a tourist; I was a traveler.

A volun-tourist, I think we’re sometimes called.

In pretty, colonial Granada, I met Mitch, who bartended at my hostel. I would perch on an unsteady three-legged stool and listen to him talk about his Nicaraguan life. His other job—and the reason he was there in the first place—was helping people build their own houses by soliciting donations, mostly from the United States. Or, he’d set up pricey guided tours of the nearby Lake Apoyo, enlisting the help of bilingual locals and then giving them all of the profits. He trained farmers to use less water and to grow vegetables alongside flowers and herbs in order to naturally repel pests.

“I’m a Middle Eastern Jew,” he would say, shrugging. “I like to help the disenfranchised save their money.” Mitch walked Granada’s streets most nights with a chicken sandwich in his hand, greeting almost everyone he passed. He stopped and helped old women out of cabs. We’d pass groups of tattooed guys, and they’d all slap Mitch five. In these barrios, he’d found his place.

Eventually, Mitch got me a volunteering gig at a community school a few blocks from the hostel. I worked with the youngest kids: Orel, Ricardo, Stefanie, Manuel, and Carlos, who wore gel in his hair and showed up outside the school on his dad’s motorcycle, neither he nor his dad wearing helmets. Indeed, the students arrived in all manner of ways: those who had taxi drivers for parents got rides with paying customers. Other parents perched their children on the handlebars of their bicycles. Kids came with their dogs in tow, or sometimes their cats. They arrived alone or with a trickle of siblings and friends. They showed up with wet hair and clean clothes. Only one boy had the look of a vagrant: sun-bleached hair, torn clothes, a black eye, and no shoes. The teachers let him in with everyone else, and after classes I saw him sitting on the steps of the crumbling cathedrals, begging.

And so every morning I’d go to the school, and when I came home after lunch, Mitch would just be waking up. He’d dump the morning’s coffee and check his email, all the while yawning and stretching and talking. Mitch never stopped talking: about the grandmother who sold tortas out her living room window, about the girl who got mugged last night just outside the hostel, about the two old drunk men who came in the afternoon before and begged Mitch for cigars. His Nicaragua was so different than mine. While I cooked in the hostel’s kitchen, he found the cheapest deals in town and went out. I took taxis; he hitchhiked. I paid for Spanish lessons; Mitch had picked up all he knew on the streets. I was a stranger, a drifter passing through, but Mitch, after two years in Granada, was a permanent resident.


One afternoon, Mitch had his laptop open to Ivan Illich’s speech, To Hell With Good Intentions. “Have you read this yet?” Mitch asked, and when I shook my head, he explained that Illich was an Austrian philosopher who had serious problems with the status quo.

“Read it,” Mitch said. “The audience was like us, Americans.” In fact, the audience was a group of volunteers, fresh off the boat, so to speak, and eager to make a difference. Delivered in 1968 in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where Illich had founded the Centro Intercultural de Documentacion in 1961, the speech was addressed to the Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects.

I skimmed the speech’s intro, offered by The Swaraj Foundation, which posted the speech. They prefaced To Hell With Good Intentions by claiming that Illich, as usual, is biting and sarcastic, and in this speech, he “goes to the heart of the deep dangers of paternalism inherent in any voluntary service activity.”

Mitch was hooting with a pack of newly-arrived Australians. I leaned in again, peering at his fingerprint-smudged screen.

Early on in his speech, Illich says, “The existence of organizations like yours is offensive to Mexico. To hell with good intentions. This is a theological statement.” Illich tells his audience they’ll do no good in a country where they don’t understand the values, the culture, or the language. He accuses his audience of advertising “the middle-class American Way of Life” and urges them to work at home instead, for then they will know what they are doing and why. In their home countries, they will actually stand a chance of making a difference. Illich says, “It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don't even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you.”

I closed the computer after that. I felt guilty. I wanted to accuse Illich of being crazy. He didn’t know me, or my goals to become a teacher, or my pursuit of a book about Latin American schools. He didn’t understand that I was trying: studying Spanish, staying in a hostel long-term, shopping locally. Surely, I said to myself, there's still hope for the international volunteer. Isn’t human interaction the most important thing? Isn’t mutual growth still possible? I bristled all day.

Later, though, I looked up the speech again, long after everyone had gone to bed, and I read Illich’s words a second time. After I finished the speech, I started Googling.

Born on September 4, 1926, Illich died in 2002. In The Guardian’s obituary, authors Andrew Todd and Franco La Cecla remark, “In the last 20 years of his life [Illich] became an officially forgotten, troublesome figure.” His theories undermined everything from the Vatican to universal education to the Peace Corps, and he is the author of more than a dozen books on the subjects; titles include Deschooling Society (1971) and The Right To Useful Unemployment And Its Professional Enemies (1978)—both of which hint at his ‘troublesome’ nature. In any case, Illich seems indeed to have been erased from the memory of today’s society; in a New York Times search for his name, I came up with only one entry within the past forty years.


The next morning, I went off to the school as usual, where I helped the kids form letters on dotted notebook lines. We drew pictures of our pets and wrote what colors they were. At the end of class, the other teachers and I ushered the kids out and cleaned up turned-over chairs, scattered puzzle pieces, and forgotten notebooks. The teachers chatted to each other; I could only half understand. I kept quiet, worked quickly, and left.

That morning, I became aware of the constant commentary turning over and over in my mind. I realized I’d been silently criticizing the quality of education the children received—the lack of discipline, the unused extra room in the school, the way the teachers sometimes ignored their students and gossiped. As for Nicaragua in general, I had rolled my eyes at the transportation system and shuddered at raw meat hanging in the market. Drunk men peed in the streets in broad daylight. Wounded dogs limped along. Women threw trash into the road. All this I had watched before with pity and condescension. Now I could hear the words behind everyone’s stares: You don’t belong. You do not understand. You don’t mean to sell anything, but you are. You think that your way is best.

“Come to look,” Illich pleads, “come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers…But do not come to help.”


In the end, I took his advice. Instead of concerning myself with doing “good,” I called a spade a spade, so to speak, and shifted my focus from feeling dutiful to feeling grateful. I was, after all, one of the lucky ones: my purse held a US passport, a debit card, and a dog-eared Lonely Planet. This journey, I decided, was a gift—one I’d earned after years of juggling three jobs back in Boston. I fell in love with Granada in the rapid, moony way a tourist does. I stayed on as a volunteer because it made me feel good, and because I learned more Spanish from the students than I did anywhere else. I no longer worried about the unused room in the school, or the gossiping teachers, or the kids with no helmets riding motorcycles. I was a tourist, nothing more, and it was not, Illich taught me, my place to judge.

Instead, I took the students to the library, just two blocks down the street. Most hadn’t been before. They went nuts over the books, reading in Spanish, and then reading in English, dozens of books devoured in two hours. The price of a book in Nicaragua could feed a family for a week.

For two months, I cleaned up messes and took kids to the bathrooms. I fumbled with my Spanish and did my best to be respectful. The teachers smiled at me and thanked me each day for coming, but after I left, they stayed, and before I arrived, they were there. I came, I went, and eventually I would leave. All of us knew this.

I’d planned on volunteering all across Latin America, honing my skills as a teacher, but after I met Mitch and read To Hell With Good Intentions, I stopped putting that pressure on myself. I stopped expecting that I could make things better. I stopped assuming things needed to be better, although in many ways, of course, they did. Still, it wasn’t my place to judge. I got to where my Spanish was nearly fluent: I could say what I needed to say to get around, and get around I did, taking cheap, rickety buses from Guatemala City to Bariloche, Argentina. When I could, I’d try and work—in an orphanage, a day care, a school—not because I wanted to help but because I wanted to feel useful, and I wanted to learn. Volunteering abroad is not work, I realized, it is school, and my journey was a lesson, not a project.


The year I read To Hell With Good Intentions, I learned that there were other ways to live. I opened my mind and my heart to the countries I saw and the people I met, determined to take some part of them back with me. When I moved home, I went to New Mexico, which my dad always claimed was the least American of the United States. I think that’s part of why I chose it. Since my return, I have cultivated a life according to the values I picked up in Latin America: more time for family and friends and less fuss over money. I have a garden, and I care more now about making good food, and hiking in the mountains, and making art. I practice my Spanish in New Mexico all the time. I am an English teacher now.

Here, I feel close to the places I fell in love with: Guatemala and Ecuador, Peru and Costa Rica. Mostly, though, New Mexico reminds me of Nicaragua, where I first read To Hell With Good Intentions. The places share the same long, sweet light, the weeks of parched skies, and the long-awaited drenching storms that last all afternoon. Some days, I drive along the mountain-flanked highways and say to myself, I’m home.

I took Illich’s advice, climbing the mountains of Latin America. I studied the language and admired the art and the food. I made friends, and I spent all my money. I did not try to help. I took the gifts the year granted, and then I came home.

As for Mitch, we lost touch. He never updates his Facebook, but I have a feeling he stayed.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Dear Younger Self:

This summer's Wellesley Magazine had me weeping at the kitchen table at seven AM.

Dear readers, even if W has nothing to do with you, kindly skim the pearls of wisdom below, and then tell me this morning's tears weren't caused by hormones alone.

Excerpted from Dear Me: Letters to My Younger Self, the four following excerpts are part of a brilliant, thoughtful compilation of letters distinguished alumnae wrote to their graduating selves.


As you commence into the world, let me whisper in your ear that the most satisfying accomplishments in your life will be decades in the making. Balancing patience and impatience takes practice; don’t quit before you’ve properly begun. You will come to appreciate the slow build of change, the delayed gratification of getting things right, and the small payoffs in between. Nothing worth much will reveal itself quickly; the end result is never the end.

 - Ophelia Dahl


I don’t think there is any way to prepare for tragedy, and my only advice about what to do if it strikes is to take care of yourself. Do what you can to survive, for yourself and for your children. But one piece of advice I would give to any young woman starting out: Prepare for your future with the knowledge that tragedy can strike anyone. In my case, it was violence, but it can be in the form of accidents, illnesses, even divorce. And if it does, always be in a position where you can provide for yourself and your family. If you can’t, you will face a tragedy within the tragedy.

 - Carole Beebe Tarantelli


Make it your job and priority, all the days of your life, to help those black people who have not had your opportunities or experiences. Every morning, look in the mirror and say, “I refuse to accept the expectations of the entitled.”

 - Shirley Taylor Haizlip


I ended up choosing a marriage partner because he was smart, witty, and good company. Never before had I dated a man who suggested that we go hear Eleanor Roosevelt speak at Harvard or see Racine’s Phèdreperformed in the original French. But I wasn’t in love. My brain told me that one does not spend one’s married life in bed. So when he declared his passion for me, I made the mistake of listening to my brain and not my heart. When I walked down that aisle my legs were brave, but my heart was wobbly. That marriage was a big mistake. Three children and five grandchildren later, I realized happiness often comes disguised as disaster.

 - Maude Haleztine Chaplin


Brava, W Magazine, brava.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Tango Slide

Check it out, everyone!

My travel essay, "Street Tango in Buenos Aires," at Your Life is a Trip, Judith Fein's chic, place-based site for stories from around the globe.

Thank you, Judith, for your editorial prowess, and thanks also to Ellen, for making my words look so lovely.

Enjoy this sunlit eve, dear readers. Summer on!

Monday, August 10, 2015


Real quick everyone: 

It has come to my attention that some of you out there have not yet encountered Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. If you have not inspected her closely, dear readers, please run and do not walk to your nearest library, hurry to the front desk, and request Americanah

Americanah with an H, that's right. Just do it. Just do it.

In a way you're lucky in that you missed having to request it at the library right when it came out and then wait and wait and wait for months, like I'm doing (patiently) for H is for Hawk.

By the way, if you live in Santa Fe and have checked out H is for Hawk from SFCC, please return it! Please! Return it!!!

Anyway, or Americanah is available on Amazon for $6.14 used. It's probably better to own your own copy anyhow. I gave mine away to the lovely Penelope, and she damn well better have read it.


Meanwhile, enjoy these panting dog days, dear readers! Sip lemonade and fan yourself with that good book you've got there in your hands. Soon enough we'll be aching for this kind of heat, and you know it.

Summer on!

Friday, August 7, 2015

Saba Sulaiman on Revisions, Fair Use, and the 30-Draft-Rule-of-Thumb

Meet Saba Sulaiman, everyone! Recently profiled as a hot new literary agent in Writers Digest, Sulaiman came under my radar through a mutual friend. She's proven enormously helpful as I wade through the murky waters of query letters, agents, publishers, and all that lies beyond - and, she's willing to share her insights with us here today!

According to Writers Digest, "[Sulaiman] was born to Pakistani expatriates in Sri Lanka and studied...modern Persian Literature at the University of Chicago, where she got involved with editing the department’s academic journal. 'And it finally hit me—working closely with writers to hone their craft; seeing a piece of writing from its inception through to its eventual publication; and advocating for what I believed was stellar prose worthy of recognition—this was my calling. So I interned at various newspaper and magazine publications, worked as an editorial intern at Sourcebooks, and then wound up at Talcott Notch, where I’m excited to begin my career as a literary agent.'"

Below, please find Sulaiman's useful answers to my blundering questions.

How do I get my book agent-ready? 

At this point, this is what I'd recommend: if you can, join a critique group, or, better yet, apply for a position in an intensive workshop. You need as much feedback as you possibly can. Of course, this depends on how serious you are about getting this book published -- I understand how taxing and thankless this stage of the writing process can be, and you have to be really dedicated to see this book through all of it's future versions. Most successful authors have around 30 fully reworked drafts of their book before it's finally ready -- not that you necessarily need that many drafts, but it's something to keep in mind.

My memoir is set in a specific time and place. As I revise and revise, my concern is that the book and its story will grow 'dated'. 

Don't worry about that too much. A well-done memoir should feel relevant regardless of what time period it harkens back to. It actually might be useful to make this one of your aims as you revise -- make sure your subject doesn't sound dated in your treatment of it.

How do agents/editors feel about authors who use quotes? I want to include more words by a few writers, namely Eduardo Galeano (who passed a few months ago). How do you view authors who quote other authors?

The question is, how are you using the quote? Because it all depends on whether or not it's fair use, which can be a very, very ambiguous thing. If they're just quotes before chapter beginnings, I'd day you should be fine, but otherwise, it might depend. Here are some useful online resources that might make things clearer:

Personally, if they're just short, one line quotes before chapters, or before the book begins, I'm okay with it -- and it should fall within "fair use." But I generally like to keep other quotes/song lyrics out of an original, debut manuscript, just because it can get complicated very fast. And at the end of the day, by using this material, you’re basically increasing the publisher's cost of buying your manuscript, because they would have to potentially buy the rights to all the quotes you use.

Does it make a difference if the author being quoted has passed? 

Even if the author is dead, he/she has an estate that continues to receive royalties. Now if an editor falls hard for your manuscript, he/she may advocate for their bosses to budget high for your book, but that’s a huge risk to take. Editors have to draft Profit and Loss statements for each of the books they bring to their acquisitions board meetings, and if they’re already setting aside a chunk of money just to buy these extra rights, that puts your book at a guaranteed disadvantage. So I'd strongly advise you not to use too many quotes, and find other ways to achieve what they were doing in your narrative. 

Thanks, Saba Sulaiman! May our paths cross again - and in the meantime, happy reading!

Monday, August 3, 2015

Summer love

Happy August, dear ones. Summer on!
Photo courtesy of brother Dave McCahill. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Anne Boyer on Not Writing

[Writers: to fall in love, please read immediately] 

Thanks to Book Forum for posting and to Philip Graham for sharing  Anne Boyer's poetic list-style essay on the seldom-discussed topic of not writing:

It is easy to imagine not writing, both accidentally and intentionally. It is easy because there have been years and months and days I have thought the way to live was not writing have known what writing consisted of and have thought “I do not want to do that“ and “writing steals from my loved ones” and “writing steals from my life and gives me nothing but pain and worry and what I can’t have” or “writing steals from my already empty bank account” or “writing gives me ideas I do not need or want” or “writing is the manufacture of impossible desire” or writing is like literature is like the world of monsters is the production of culture is I hate culture is the world of wealthy women and of men.

—Excerpted from Garments Against Women (Ahsahta Press, 2015): "Not Writing" and "What is 'Not Writing'?"

Saturday, July 25, 2015


I had just finished Wild by Cheryl Strayed—a book that made me laugh, weep, and write earnestly into the night. Next I mused over In Some Other World, Maybe, a smart, very trendy, and ultimately memorable novel by Shari Goldhagen. I was having a blast. These women writers were feeding my summertime soul, and I wanted more. I wanted something fresh, something that would make me think, but not too hard. It is summer, after all.

Euphoria, Lily King's newest, had been sitting on the kitchen table for about two months. Before Wild and In Some Other World, I'd gone through a reading drought, so to speak. Do you ever have those? All through a hectic semester and a month-long road trip across the country, library books languished on my kitchen table. I unwound with LL Bean catalogs, Every Day with Rachael Ray Magazine, and The Best of Me by Nicholas Sparks. Some choices we just can't explain.

In any case, finally. The moonsoons had arrived, bringing to a blessed close my reading drought. I poured a glass of wine and took Euphoria outside. For a moment, I watched the setting sun and inhaled hot pinion.

Then I opened the book, and almost immediately my world fell away, replaced swiftly and fully with King's. Euphoria was a different animal than anything I'd recently read, and I understood immediately that King writes at a whole other level than most. Above being a storyteller, she is a sort of research-artist, a painter whose pigments include facts, dates, and theories. She is a setter of well-researched scenes and well-considered characters. She is a master of point of view, structure, and restraint. An hour and a half later, my full glass of wine had some flies in it. The sun had set, and I realized I was cold.

I warn you, fellow writers: in King's presence you'll be humbled, whoever you are.

Of King's fourth novel, Emily Eakin of the NYTimes writes, "[Euphoria] is rife with such visceral imagery and pungent with the stink of disease, foul breath and unwashed bodies." Eakin adds that "The threat of violence and death looms from Page 1." The review closes with this: "In King’s exquisite book, desire — for knowledge, fame, another person — is only fleetingly rewarded, and gratification is inseparable from self-­deceit."

Ms. Eakin, I must politely disagree with it all. Well, all except the exquisite. Euphoria is certainly filled with visceral stink and foul breath and the threat of violence, but this after all is a book about white anthropologists traveling the Sepik River in New Guinea in 1933. What did Ms. Eakin expect? In her vaguely coy (but ever stylish) review, she overlooks what really roots the reader to Euphoria: the book's humanity. A sustained, dynamic current of sensuality and desire runs beneath the whole story, connecting each character and scene. This is the Copula Spider Doug Glover was talking about: bodies, sweat, pain, want, over and over again. Desire may be fleetingly rewarded for the characters, as Eakin claims, but for the reader the effects endure.

Speaking of want, it's immediately clear in Euphoria what every character wants. I've heard this is something you're supposed to do in fiction: understand what your protagonist wants most in the world, and tell your reader. In Euphoria, one character wants more than anything to learn. Another wants a place to call his own, and a woman to join him there. A third wants—well, I guess there is one character whose desires are less clear. Maybe he wants to forget. Maybe he wants never to leave the Sepik River.

It's all in the book, my lovelies, it's all in the book, so best not miss out on this lush work of art. King will take you to a place you've never been, a muggy, buggy place you won't want to leave. Weird, I know, but just trust me on this one. Euphoria looks short, like maybe you'll finish it in one night, but I assure you, dear reader, you will not.

Friday, July 24, 2015

You'll Never Walk Alone

Read my writing at The Millions!

Thanks to Philip Graham for the nudge, and to C. Max Magee, for making my essay look gorgeous.

And, thanks to Katie Thebeau for her images.

Onward and upward!