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Puzzlers

 

From time to time I wonder—even worry slightly—about the effect of my retirement idleness on my powers of cognition. Maybe that's too pompous a phrase—maybe I just mean, on my thought and memory. Yet, when I chanced upon a remark in a TED Talk about the retirement brain which mildly dissed working on puzzles, I mostly ignored it and continued to do my morning routine with word and jigsaw puzzles. Then I read a review of a new book about solving puzzles and decided to think more about puzzlers' brains.

 

The TED Ideas post by Cella Wright was an abbreviated overview of a TED Talk by gerontology researcher Ross Andel, director of the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida. He cites research linking retirement to "a decline in cognitive functioning" sometimes "double the rate of cognitive aging" and acknowledges it "does not apply to everyone." He discusses a twenty-year-long study of aging and cognition conducted in Australia where participants complete a number of tests that gauge memory, speed of thinking, verbal abilities and other cognitive skills. His research seemed to show that speed of processing ("a main indicator of the aging of the brain") declines with retirement, which "slows down information" and "leads to memory loss and disorientation." Because we don't use our brains as we did when we were working, we become "more susceptible to cognitive decline."

 

Andel thinks retirees need more "routine and individual sense of purpose." He urges anyone considering retirement to "find a new routine that's meaningful," one that provides a personal sense of purpose, such as "learning to play the hurdy-gurdy, mastering origami, bird-watching, [. . .] playing with grandkids." Andel deliberately avoids saying that "purpose is about intellectual engagement" and asserts that retirees "should not feel compelled to do (unless they like them) crossword puzzles and brain-teasers." Rather than "as a permanent holiday," he thinks it would be "more helpful to perceive [retirement] as a time of personal renaissance," a chance to "reinvest in things that truly matter to us."

 

Frankly, my own puzzling habit didn't seem like a personal renaissance. Then I discovered "Game Theory," Judith Newman's review of The Puzzler: One Man's Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life by A. J. Jacobs. The subtitle suggests a sweeping overview of puzzles ("From Crosswords to the Meaning of Life"? I suspect different levels of complication). Newman calls the book "a romp, both fun and funny," though, she claims, Jacobs believes "puzzles can save us. Far from a waste of time, they soothe, focus, excite; they can, Jacobs argues, 'make us better thinkers, more creative. more incisive, more persistent,' while giving us 'that dopamine rush of discovery.'" Jacobs asserts that puzzles "can nudge us to adopt the puzzle mind-set—a mind-set of ceaseless curiosity about everything in the world, from politics to science to human relationships—and a desire to find solutions."

 

He considers all kinds or puzzles: "Crosswords, anagrams, rebuses, jigsaws, mazes, chess problems, math and logic, ciphers/secret codes, visuals (think 'Where's Waldo?'), cryptics" and a good many more. Newman mentions Jacobs visiting "C.I.A. headquarters (to investigate Kryptos, the copper sculpture embedded with a secret message that continues to defy cryptanalysts)" and competing with his wife and three kids in the World National Jigsaw championships in Spain, representing the United States. She also gives attention to Adrian Fisher, who claims to be "the most prolific maze designer 'in the history of humankind'," creator of "a Beatles-themed maze in Liverpool, a maze in the passenger terminal of Singapore's Changi Airport, and one on the side of a building in Dubai, 'which shouldn't be attempted unless you're Spider-Man.'" She refers to Will Shortz, the NPR/New York Times editor, as someone "who is to puzzles what Kim Kardashian is to buttocks."

 

She opines: "The truth is, we're all puzzlers, whether we're trying to remember our passwords or losing sleep because we're staying up till 12:01a.m. to do Wordle—a simple word puzzle that ballooned from 90 daily players on Nov. 1 to 300,000 at the beginning of the year to millions now." She concludes with reference to "what Jacobs calls the true puzzle lover's ethos: 'We should look at a problem and figure out potential solutions instead of just wallowing in rage and doubling down on our biases.' With the dreadful puzzle we're finding our world in today, this just might be the answer."

 

I suspect that doing crosswords or jigsaw puzzles—or learning to play the hurdy-gurdy, mastering origami, or bird-watching—is a generally rewarding way to avoid concentrating on the present dreadful puzzle our world faces. We might imagine a solution but never have the power to resolve it. We'll have better luck with Wordle.

 

 

Notes:

 

Andel, Ross. "Is retirement bad for your brain?" TEDXFulbrightCanberra.

 

Newman, Judith. "Game Theory," The New York Times Book Review. (June 5, 2022): 52. Review of The Puzzler: One Man's Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life by A. J. Jacobs. New York: Crown, 2022.

 

Wright, Cella. "Think Retirement Is Smooth Sailing? A Look at Its Potential Effects on the Brain." TED Ideas, July 12, 2019. Summary of "Is retirement bad for your brain?" | Ross Andel | TEDxFulbrightCanberra"

 

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Little Hybrid Thing

 

Ned Stuckey-French was an advisory editor for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies and his essay on the essay, "Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing: Toward a Definition of the Essay," appeared in their first issue. He also served as a book review editor for Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction and was a professor of English at Florida State University. His death from cancer in 2019 prompted a considerable outpouring of grief from his colleagues, who were deeply aware of his loss on both personal and professional levels. He had been working on a collection of essays and after his death his long-time friend John T. Price was enlisted by Ned's widow Elizabeth Stuckey-French and his friend and former professor Carl Klaus to prepare Ned's writing for publication. The collection came out this year and, as familiar as I had been with many of the selections there—Ned's work had been reprinted in Best American Essays several times over the years and I was aware that Ned had been both an outstanding nonfiction scholar and a memorable personal essayist—I appreciated the chance to have so much of his writing in one volume.

 

One by One, the Stars had been incomplete (and lacked that title) at Ned's death and a few of his earlier essays were added to what he had compiled. Among them was "Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing: Toward a Definition of the Essay" and once I'd made my way back to it near the end of the collection, I was reminded of the way Ned had managed to be simultaneously an authoritative scholar and a personable communicator. The essay refers to a variety of essayists—he points out early that the essay was established both by Montaigne, as "a means of self-exploration, an exercise in self-portraiture, and a way for him to explore, tentatively and skeptically, his own thoughts and feelings" and by Sir Francis Bacon, as "a means of instruction, a guide to conduct, a way to test, recognize, and appreciate the 'truth'." He refers to a number of major essayists—George Orwell, E. B. White, Joan Didion, Edward Hoagland, Virginia Woolf—and such contemporaries as Philip Lopate, Douglas Hesse, David Lazar, and Scott Russell Sanders.

 

But for all his scholarship he also models the voice of the personal essayist. "A good way to begin drafting an essay is to explore a story that you yourself aren't quite sure about, a story that haunts you, a story you need to tell but you don't know why." He suggests, "The struggle is both to tell the tale but also to find your inner voice from that time (the voice of reflection) and your inner voice now (the voice of retrospection)." He quotes Joan Didion's observation about the need to "keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be" and concludes:

 

"An essay recaptures the voice of a former self and in so doing enables one's current self to talk about that former self, and then one or both of them, though most likely just the current self, talks to the reader about the lives lived by both selves." In the next paragraph he adds: "Got it?"

 

Later he quotes E. B. White's explanation: "The essayist arises in the morning and, if he has work to do, selects his garb from an unusually extensive wardrobe: he can pull on any sort of shirt, be any sort of person, according to his mood or his subject matter—philosopher, scold, jester, raconteur, confidant, pundit, devil's advocate, enthusiast." Ned reminds us that White adds, "There is one thing the essayist cannot do, though—he cannot indulge himself in deceit or in concealment for he will be found out in no time."

 

Ned's essay opens with a bountiful survey of competing terms applied to the essay and then subtly (and sometimes unsubtly) proceeds to demonstrate particulars of that range, from learned exegesis ("All genres are contaminated by other genres, and taxonomy itself is a subjective and relativistic exercise") to wry allusions ("It's slippery business. Our selves are and are not. They once were lost and now are found." That last sentence is a good example of his subtle humor, quietly echoing a verse from "Amazing Grace."

 

Carl Klaus and Ned had co-edited Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time, published a year after Ned published his historical overview The American Essay in the American Century. In his commemoration of Ned on Assay, Klaus called "Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing" "A tour de force from its slangy opening to its concluding shot," "a verbal and visual adventure," and "a striking embodiment of Ned's inventive and inspiring approach to the essay." As I read—and reread—his great essay on the essay, I fondly felt Ned's presence rise from the page.

 

Notes:

 

Babine, Karen, editor. "'Never to be yourself, and yet always': Paying Tribute to Ned Stuckey-French," Assay Journal. 6.1 (Fall 2019).

 

Klaus, Carl H., and Ned Stuckey-French, editors. Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012.

 

Root, Robert. "The Death and Life of the Essay," review of The American Essay in the American Century by Ned Stuckey-French, American Book Review 33:2 (January/February 2012): 7.

 

Root, Robert. "On The American Essay in the American Century," Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, 6.1 (Fall 2019).

 

Stuckey-French, Ned. "Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing: Toward a Definition of the Essay," One by One, the Stars: Essays. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2022. Originally published in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. 1.1 (Fall 2014).

 

Stuckey-French, Ned. The American Essay in the American Century. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011.

 

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Kelley

 

It sometimes takes awhile for things to connect. My son sent me a photocopy of an image of me from his mother's SUNY Geneseo college yearbook, taken when I'd been a student there, and, though uncertain about its context, I wrote an essay about it. The photo was from 1965, the photocopy from 2015, the essay published in 2020.

 

I may have only learned of William Melvin Kelley's death in February 2017 a year later, through an article by Kathryn Schultz in The New Yorker. I'd occasionally thought about writing an essay about the creative writing class I'd taken from him in Spring 1965 and how much I'd admired his short-story collection and four novels. I'd read his first novel, A Different Drummer, when my college made it required reading for freshmen, and I'd reviewed his second novel, A Drop of Patience, in our college newspaper. Copies of his five books were likely somewhere in our garage, probably near issues of The Lamron I'd published in.

 

A year ago, posting entries about short stories written for our college magazine, one about "The Stone" from Spring 1965 made me remember Kelley's comment on it. He thought it had too positive a conclusion and that my sympathy for my characters made me avoid a more realistic outcome. He was likely right. Together with his reaction to my Lamron article about him, I had two anecdotes to share if I wrote an entry about Kelley on my blog. By now Geneseo's English department had been archiving its history online, including material focused on Walter Harding, a Thoreau scholar who had been instrumental in bringing Kelley to campus. I found a wealth of material on the exhibit website, including one mention of me.

 

"An Open Letter About William Melvin Kelley" by Art Brooks, published in Books, began with the statement, "William Melvin Kelley is a disappointment to students at the State University College at Geneseo, N.Y.—and they love him because of it," and then elaborated: "As Robert Root wrote in the college newspaper, it was logical to assume that Kelley would be 'a beatnik, an egoist, a rebel, controversial, flamboyant.' Instead, students have found, since he arrived at Geneseo in February to take up his appointment as writer-in-residence, that Kelley is 'very human, very real, an average guy outwardly.'" My article incited Kelley to sneak up behind me in the college snack bar and hiss "Assassino!" in my ear, startling me and walking away laughing. I ran after him to talk more about the article, which—thankfully—he liked.

 

That yearbook included a two-page dedication to Kelley's time as writer-in-residence, with close-up photos of Kelley and some of his students. "Ten people sat around an elliptic shaped table," the comment opens, adding nine student names and Kelley's and explaining they "came together weekly to examine their writing. There between puffs on his cigar, William Kelley would emphasize a point by tapping his finger or folding his fist. His manner was one of casualness and quiet alertness. He would listen as the students criticized each other's writing and then insist they drop their politeness to dig deeper into each other's errors. After all comments ceased the author in residence spoke."

 

A list of quotations from Kelley's classes follows, ending with: "You have to be presumptuous to be a writer. You have to believe you must write because there's a gap that must be filled. You wouldn't write if you thought you'd just say something that someone's said before. Instead, you try to break the mold."

 

I appear in two of the photos, one with my friend Doug Brode and one that is that yearbook picture my son sent me seven years ago. Now I know where I was in the photo, in a classroom being taught how to write fiction by a novelist with a uniquely individual perspective on race and relationships. His advice stayed with me for a long time whenever I tried to write fiction.

 

Kathryn Schultz's New Yorker article was inspired by finding a copy of a Langston Hughes' novel with its frontispiece autographed, "Inscribed especially for William Kelley ~ on your first visit to my house ~ welcome!" She gives us a thorough overview of Kelley's published books and the later decades when he published none of the other novels he continued to write. She calls him a "lost giant of American literature," and that may be apt— for almost fifty years I heard nothing about him until his death—but I've learned that all his novels have been translated into several other languages and are all available in more recent editions once more. There's still an opportunity for readers to appreciate the kind of writer he was. I'll always remember the kind of person he was.

 

 

Notes:

 

Kelley, William Melvin. A Different Drummer (1962), Dancers on the Shore (1964), A Drop of Patience (1965), dem (1967), and dunsfords travels everywheres (1970). All five books have recently been published again.

 

Root, Robert. "The Stone," June 25, 2021.

 

Schulz, Kathryn. "The Lost Giant of American Literature." The New Yorker January 29, 2018

 

"The Spring of '65: Walter Harding and William Kelley," The Days of Walter Harding, Thoreau Scholar.

 

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Andy & Angell

 

Roger Angell, celebrated sportswriter and editor, died on May 20, at age 101. I've read a couple of his baseball books and especially admire his more autobiographical collections, Let Me Finish (2006) and This Old Man: All in Pieces (2015). He was the son of New Yorker fiction editor Katherine Angell and the stepson of essayist E. B. White. I met him once, when we both spoke at the E. B. White Celebration at the Museum of the City of New York in 2003. I was introduced as an E. B. White scholar; he was simply introduced as Roger Angell.

 

I spent most of the 1990s studying White's writing. Angell's death prompted me to browse our guest room bookshelf lined entirely with books by or about White. There I found both my first edition copy of White's Here is New York from 1949 and a commemorative edition with an introduction by Roger Angell from 1999. It was good to get the chance to read the two of them together. Angell was working for Holiday Magazine in 1948 and his editor asked White, who then lived in Maine, to write an essay about New York. White likely accepted the assignment for the chance not only to revisit New York but also to spend time with his stepson. The essay in Holiday eventually became the small book.

 

In March 2003 I flew to New York City for a teacher's conference, everyone haunted by the September 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center and nervous about our new war with Iraq. I'd brought along a copy of Here is New York and began an essay comparing White's past sense of the city to my own sense of it fifty-five years later. Reading him helped me get perspective on the times I was living in. I met colleagues at the Algonquin Hotel, where White had stayed, and studied its painting of Algonquin Round Table writers, including New Yorker contributors White knew. I strolled past Turtle Bay Gardens, where Andy and Katherine had maintained an apartment, often hosting Roger Angell and his wife. A few months later, on June 7, I wandered through Central Park to meet Roger at the Museum on 8th Avenue, trying not to worry about his reaction to whatever I would say about his stepfather.

 

Angell wrote about White in "Andy," a New Yorker article published twenty years after his stepfather's death. It evokes their time together and the challenge of reliving those moments: "What were we talking about, just now? We were close for almost sixty years, and you'd think that a little back-and-forth—something more than a joke or part of an anecdote—would survive, but no. What's impossible to write down, soon afterward, is a conversation that comes easily." He remembers them ice-skating on a frigid day in Boston in 1929 and on their return finding the shoes that Andy had hidden under a bush missing. That makes him recall an essay in One Man's Meat from 1942 where White remembers as a teen-ager holding a girl's hand and decides, "It was enough that spring to remember what a girl's hand felt like, suddenly ungloved in winter." Angell observes, "The shift from the winter general to the sudden particular of the girl's hand is a White special, as is the self-deprecation." He remembers how often White avoided public events, such as being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 and his wife Katherine's burial in Brooklin Cemetery in 1977. At White's memorial service in 1985, Angell told attendees, "If Andy White could be here today, he would not be here today."

 

Angell noticed how Here Is New York "was widely rediscovered in the weeks just after September 11th, because of its piercing vision." He calls it "a revisiting of the pulsing and romantic city White knew and worked in during his late twenties and early thirties" and refers to White's mention of how "a small flight of planes could now bring down the great shining structure in a moment." The final sentence, he points out, ends with "the famously reversed final phrase: 'this city, this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death.'" Angell concludes, "Losing New York is possible, but not holding on to the thought of it—which is all we may have in the end—much worse."

 

Reading Angell's writing about White in Let Me Finish and This Old Man, not simply in titled pieces like "Andy" and "Past Master: E. B. White," but also in anecdotes interspersed through random reminiscences and comments that give us access to the workings of The New Yorker, deepens my appreciation of them both. I almost feel as if I knew them both, if only through their writing.

 

Notes:

 

Angell, Roger. "Andy," Let Me Finish. Orlando: Harcourt, 2006: 113-137.

 

Angell, Roger. "Past Masters: E. B. White," This Old Man: All in Pieces. New York: Doubleday, 2015.

 

Bonomo, Joe. "From the Desk of Joe Bonomo: Roger Angell, Legendary Writer," University of Nebraska Press Blog.

 

Remnick, David. "Postscript: Remembering Roger Angell, Hall of Famer," The New Yorker. June 6, 2022: 14-15.

 

Root, Robert. "Here is New York," Postscripts: Retrospections on Time and Place. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012: 69-79.

 

Root, Robert L., Jr. E. B. White; The Emergence of an Essayist. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.

 

White, E. B. Here is New York. Introduction by Roger Angell. New York: The Little Bookroom, 1999.

 

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Telling Everything

 

Years ago, when I was teaching writing in an Ohio graduate program, I would spend two summer weeks on its campus—we taught online in fall and spring semesters—where the far-flung faculty would get to know one another and meet other visiting poets, fictionists, and nonfictionists. In summer 2016, I was assigned to co-present a craft lecture with a new faculty member, Erika Krouse, she a novelist, I a memoirist. We planned to discuss our genres jointly in a dual presentation. At the start of our talk, "The Value of Vignettes and Other Variations," she explained that we both "use vignettes a fair amount in our own work" and would talk about our particular strategies. I mentioned a couple of my essays and my recent memoir Happenstance, she mentioned some of her short stories and her recent novel Contenders, and we alternated giving examples from other writers in our genres. The talk went well.

 

That was my last year with the program and, like all but one of the people I'd known there, Erika didn't remain on the faculty either. She continued teaching in the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, a solid writing program I once (briefly) taught in. I tended to keep track of Colorado writers I'd read and eventually discovered that Erika Krouse had recently published a memoir, Tell Me Everything: The Story of a Private Investigation. I learned about it because she posted on Facebook about its imminent publication and mentioned her appearances at various venues to read and discuss it. By the time she posted an image of a long review in Slate for March 14, a brief review declaring it Book of the Week in People for April 4, an article in The Week naming her Author of the Week for April 15 and quoting a Colorado Sun review, and a half-page review in the May 8 issue of The New York Times Book Review, my wife and I had already read the book aloud to one another at supper time and thought it truly merited the attention it was getting.

 

There are two ways to interpret the subtitle of the book. The primary narrative is a story of a specific private investigation, following the author's recruitment as a detective working for a lawyer representing the victim of sexual assault by college football players. That story tracks the author's development of her abilities to interrogate subjects and witnesses and essentially exposes a network of abuse and covering up evidence. The personal private narrative that is interspersed with that story involves the author's childhood victimization by her stepfather and its long-lasting impact on her sense of self and outlook on the world she moves through.

 

All of these elements are drawn from her life, altered in some details for personal and practical reasons, but otherwise emotionally and intellectually observant and honest. As Patrick Hoffman points out in his review of the book, the case centering on football players, coaches and recruits and the story of Krouse's sexual abuse "become the two threads that compose this beautifully written, disturbing and affecting memoir. This is literary nonfiction at a high level." A private investigator himself, Hoffman claims to have initially "worried that the dual narratives of Krouse's personal story and the football team's rape case wouldn't coalesce. Sadly, they fit together all too well."

 

In the introduction to her interview of Erika in The Colorado Sun, Kathryn Eastburn calls it "the tale of Krouse's work from 2002 to 2007 as a private investigator on a rape case against a Colorado university football team that evolved into a landmark Title IX civil rights case. It's also a blistering account of the toll of childhood sexual assault on her life." Krouse herself points out that "this case in Colorado changed the perceived responsibility of the university toward its students, saying the university is responsible for the safety of its students, no matter what."

 

"It is not the detective who creates the culture of the crime, like Sherlock Holmes fiddling with his matchbooks, watermarks, Dutch cigarette butts, or the fading scent of white jasmine perfume," Krouse tells us. "The culture of the crime is defined by the culture of the place where the crime is committed." Through her perceptive and conscientious prose, we come to fully understand the culture of the crime and its lasting effects on its victims.

 

I lived some dozen miles from the university when the case went to court and media reported it, and met Erika briefly a decade later, but have only just learned about her role in the case. The book has been optioned for TV. If the adaptation can capture what she has created on the page, it will be a very powerful viewing experience. I look forward to it.

 

 

Notes:

 

Eastburn, Kathryn. "Sunlit Interview: Erika Krouse couldn't ignore own sex assault in a broader investigative story," The Colorado Sun (March 20, 2022).

 

Hoffman, Patrick. "Trust Me," The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, May 8, 2022): 19.

 

Krouse, Erika. Tell Me Everything: The Story of a Private Investigation. New York: Flatiron Books, 2022.

 

Miller, Laura. "The Unreliable Narrator," Slate (March 14, 2022)

 

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Renkl

 

The judges who gave Margaret Renkl the 2022 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay claimed that her weekly essays for the New York Times "offer a model for how to move through our world with insight and sensitivity" and called Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartbreak from the American South "a stellar collection that spans nature writing and cultural criticism, the present and the past." I'd read earlier PEN winners and finalists like Annie Dillard, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Ann Patchett and saw a review comparing Renkl's "graceful sentences" to those of E. B. White. Renkl seemed like an essayist I should read.

 

Graceland, At Last gathers sixty essays from her op-ed column, arranged in separate sections (as she explains in her introduction) "on the flora, fauna, politics, and culture of the American South [. . .] but also on the imperiled environmental context in which the flora and fauna are trying to survive, the social justice issues raised by the politics of this region, and the rich artistic life of a widely varied culture." Each essay has a publication date, none in strictly chronological order. Though some are more narrative and personal and others more editorial and argumentative, all are thoughtful and interesting.

 

One essay that stayed with me—I dogeared a lot of pages—was "Hawk, Lizard, Mole, Human," the first essay in the opening section, "Flora & Fauna." It is divided into four short, titled parts, each focused on one of those beings. Below the title she writes in italics: "Because William Blake was right: 'Every thing that lives is holy'" and that theme is reinforced in her witnessing of the first three creatures and her reflections on their lives in the fourth section. It's the only segmented essay in the book; the rest are in familiar essay format. I took my time reading through the book, four or five essays a night, and found her to be good company, honest and thoughtful no matter her subject.

 

The book contains two pages of blurbs about her previous essay collection, Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, and the nature of them made it seem even more necessary for me to read it. Ann Patchett compared it to Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Agee's A Death in the Family as potentially "an American classic." People claimed it "has echoes of Annie Dillard's The Writing Life," the Times called it: "Equal parts Annie Dillard and Anne Lamont with a healthy sprinkle of Tennessee dry rub thrown in," and novelist Richard Powers called it "A compact glory, crosscutting between consummate family memoir and keenly observed backyard natural history." Blurbs are intended to encourage you to read the book. Her first book arrived in the mail before I finished her second book.

 

Most pieces in Late Migrations are dated, the collection moving chronologically from an account of Margaret's mother's birth in 1931—one of the occasional excerpts edited from transcripts of her brother Billy's interviews with their grandmother, each titled "In Which My Grandmother Tells . . ."—up through "Separation Anxiety," Margaret's account of preparing to drive her sons to their college dorms in 2018. Billy Renkl's artwork sometimes sections off his sister's essays. Some undated essays are taken from her New York Times column, but the dated essays always refer to moments in Renkl's personal history, births and deaths and family events. Much of the material is short, essentially "micro-nonfiction," only a few paragraphs or a single page or two long, expressing and inhabiting flashes of memory and observing the nature around her.

 

In "Prairie Lights: Eastern Colorado, 1980" she's traveled from her home in Alabama to her boyfriend's family reunion in the west and witnesses a meteor shower: "And, oh, the stars were like the stars in a fairy tale, a profligate pouring of stars that reached across the sky from the edge of the world to the edge of the world to the edge of the world. Even before the first meteor winked at the corner of my eye, I tilted my head back and felt the whole world spinning." The reader is continually, fully invited into the moment the writer relives.

 

In "Still" she tells us, "Every day the world is teaching me what I need to know to be in the world." Throughout the book her reflections on family and personal history intersect with her reflections on nature and place. In "After the Fall" she realizes, "There is nothing to fear. There is nothing at all to fear. Walk out in the springtime, and look: the birds welcome you with a chorus. The flowers turn their faces to your face. The last of last year's leaves, still damp in the shadows, smell ripe and faintly of fall."

 

 

Notes:

Renkl, Margaret, with art by Billy Renkl. Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2019.

 

Renkl, Margaret. Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartbreak from the American South. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2021.

 

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Puzzling

 

A few years ago, responding to my inactivity and slowing memory, my daughter sent me a book of mixed puzzles. Supposedly, doing puzzles helps your brain stay active and engaged. I obligingly worked my way through most of them.

 

I now have a first-thing-in-the-morning online routine: three different crossword puzzles, then two (or three) jigsaw puzzles, then the day's weather forecast, all before checking my email account and then—too often—Facebook. I claim knowing the weather helps me decide what to wear and it's remotely possible I'll have a personal email message or find an urgent Facebook post. I delete most of the messages out of a sense of tidiness and scroll quickly past most Facebook posts. I claim that this routine prepares me to start the working day, but other than editing and re-editing an entry to post on my blog on Friday morning or revising my check list of things I might be doing during the coming week or composing biweekly notes to record what I did or didn't do in terms of writing, editing, and reading, my concrete accomplishments in any week are likely to be various household chores and curbside errands.

 

Online jigsaw puzzles appeal to me, especially the plentiful array of nature scenes and historical sites available at Jigzone and Jigsaw Planet. Those sites give me a range of patterns to work with. The Jigzone puzzles range between 6 pieces and 247 pieces, in over a dozen shapes (zigzag, birds, polygons, stars, lizards, triangles—in one option you piece together a map of the United States); I almost always do the 48-piece Classic version. The Jigsaw Planet puzzles have eight shapes to choose from and generally range between 24 and 300 pieces; I mostly choose 24- or 30-piece puzzles in a fairly simple shape. Most of the puzzles I pick show places I've sometimes but most often never have been.

 

Crossword puzzles—AARP's The Daily Crossword, The Daily Word Search, and Scramble Words—appeal to me more. They involve words that call upon powers of memory and interpretation. The Scramble Words puzzle is a timed event in four rounds with three to five or six blank spaces to be filled with certain letters randomly presented below the puzzle. If one of the letters is an S, chances are good that one or more three-letter or four-letter singular words will add it to become a plural: tip, tips, pit, pits, port, ports, sport, lime, limes, guy, guys, dent, dents, gent, gents. I almost always make it through the third round, but I've only completed all four rounds three times. I can look up the words I've missed when the game ends, which usually makes me certain I would have guessed them if I'd had more time.

 

The Daily Word Search centers on the trivia theme of finding words about that day in history. Words are variously arranged in a puzzle grid, to be read up, down, forwards, backwards and diagonally. The words are listed beside the grid, two of them hidden for extra points. I generally try to find the hidden words before they're exposed but pay no attention to the score I rack up.

 

In The Daily Crossword the words are either horizontal or vertical, roughly 80 or so intersecting one another, with a numbered list of clues for up words and down words alongside the grid. You need to figure out what a clue is alluding to: a historical figure or event? a familiar expression? an alternative meaning? I avoid the more complicated crosswords—the Anagram Crossword, the Cryptic Cross, the Daily American Crossword (which took me over half-an-hour to complete yesterday)—and stick to the Daily Crossword, which I can now complete in six or seven minutes. My speed relies on how repetitive the words are. I can almost count on certain words showing up: Ella, elle, ella, ell, ells, els, Elton, Eddie, Reba, Alec, Alecs, Eric, Erics, area, arena, Erie, eerie, lama, llama, aper, icer, and how Shakespeare would write "never" or "ever" or "evening". The repetition makes the puzzle easier, of course.

 

As I confess to the frequency with which I work at crosswords and jigsaws, I'm aware of how insistently I opt for the less challenging approaches. More challenging versions take more time and the prude in me resists playing games that long. I suppose the question might arise as to whether the time I'm spending and the level of challenge at which I'm spending it is sufficient to keep my brain active and my memory operational. Maybe the more urgent question is whether this blog post is proof positive that the crosswords and jigsaws I've completed have helped keep me as intellectually proficient as I used to be.

 

No replies to the question are requested.

 

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Family Photos

 

A cousin recently sent me some family photographs. Seven of them were taken in her parents' basement family room in 1960, likely on the occasion of my maternal grandparents' fortieth wedding anniversary. Her father was their oldest child, my mother their second child, and two more uncles followed. My cousin was the youngest of three daughters; I was the oldest of all the grandchildren. The second uncle and his wife had two boys and two girls, the youngest boy the same age as my brother. The youngest uncle by then had been divorced and his two children no longer lived in our state; he and his third wife had yet to have their first child. Four of the photographs highlight individual families, another pictures the four siblings behind their parents, and another displays my grandparents and ten of their grandchildren. My grandmother's younger sister and her husband, a childless couple, also appear in a photograph.

 

In that photo of grandparents and grandchildren my brother and sister surround my oldest uncle's oldest two daughters in the back row; three of the second uncle's children are in the middle row; and the three youngest grandchildren—my adopted sister, one uncle's youngest son, and another uncle's youngest daughter, the one who sent me the photos—share the front row with their grandparents. The only grandchildren missing are those two living elsewhere and me, who graduated from high school that year and was on a road trip to California and Mexico with a high school friend.

 

I've opened and reopened those photos several times by now. Even at the first viewing I could identify by name every one of the people pictured. My grandmother would have been sixty on that occasion, my grandfather sixty-five. I especially like the picture of my mother and her brothers standing behind them—I can't recall ever seeing a similar photo. Unsurprisingly, my mother is the only one speaking while everyone else simply smiles cheerfully. In all the pictures, except for some closed eyes or distracted glances, almost everyone appears pleasantly genial.

 

I can't help reopening and enlarging the photo of my family. It's not ideal—my smiling mother's eyes are partially closed, my sister seems solemn, perhaps pretending to hide annoyance, my brother is pleasant and cheerful, my father looks weary but cooperative though his shins are showing, and my young adopted sister hunches down between my parents with a jolly, mischievous look. The photo likely captures the moment.

 

The images remind me of three photos from a family reunion ten years earlier, grouping people by generation or gender. Some children in the anniversary photos were then unborn. In the children's picture, my sister and I are surrounded by older grandchildren of more distant relatives and stand squinting at the photographer; two of my oldest uncle's daughters sit at our feet, the younger one bawling, the older one pretending not to notice. In the men's picture, below a crowded standing row, my father sits on the lawn gazing toward my young brother on his lap, my grandfather crouches near them, seemingly disinterested, and neither notices the photographer. In the women's picture, my mother kneels on the ground before five standing women, two of them her sisters-in-law, and looks solemnly away. These pictures often suggest relationships.

 

Sixty to seventy years have gone by since these pictures were taken. Much has happened in these families. Some of my cousins are parents and grandparents by now, their own photographic records probably extensive. Like me, many of them left our hometown for new lives elsewhere. The longer I look at their images the more I remember how many of them are no longer living. My grandparents, grand-aunt and grand-uncle are gone, my uncles are gone, an aunt is gone. Two cousins are gone. My parents are gone. My sister is gone. My brother is gone. Out of twenty-two people in those seven photos, fourteen are gone. Only eight are now alive in this new century, two aunts and six younger cousins. I know little of how their family histories continue.

 

Sue and I have been married almost forty years. This summer we expect to gather with Sue's siblings, their children and grandchildren and our children and grandchildren. We'll hope to take photos like those my cousin sent me, pictures of everyone in family groups and generation groups. I could send copies to all of those relatives so they could pass them on to their own descendants forty years later to give them the chance to think about who preceded them and possibly who is following them. Perhaps some of those grandchildren (or great-grandchildren) will want to record where everyone is right then, so that their own grandchildren will be able to consider it someday. They might like to know.

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Once a Juror

 

As instructed by phone the previous day, I arrive at the county courthouse just before 8:00 on Tuesday morning. I join a line of people at the screening entrance, lower my pandemic mask to compare my face to my driver's license image, spill my belt, wallet, keys, glasses, and watch into a deep tray, then pass through the x-ray, retrieve my belongings, and descend to the basement rooms where prospective jurors are gathering. We watch county officials explain the jury system in a video, and then potential members of four separate juries are called by name, summoned according to the rows in the courtroom where they will initially sit. When we line up, we are given numbered stickers to wear—I am Juror 28—and then escorted up to a first-floor courtroom.

 

The first 24 prospective jurors are seated in the two rows of the jury box and two temporary rows before it. The rest of us sit in the gallery. Our jury will serve in a criminal trial of an accused sexual abuser. The judge introduces both the prosecutor and the defense attorney and questions the primary jury prospects to determine who might be allowed to hear the case or might need to be dismissed. When prospects in the jury box are excused, jurors in the gallery, including Juror 28, are called up to replace them. The prosecutor and the defense attorney consult with the judge and thirteen of us—the thirteenth a potential replacement for someone who becomes unable to serve—are selected to serve on the official jury,

 

That afternoon, prosecution and defense present opening statements, and each juror receives a notebook to record observations and information. The first prosecution witness, a social psychologist who hasn't interviewed the alleged victim in the case, explains the nature of sexual abuse and its effects on children. The second witness, a young female police officer, testifies to recording the victim's accusations and his confirmation of her accuracy. The third witness, the victim, a man in his twenties, testifies in emotional detail to having been sexually exploited as a child by his stepfather, the defendant. Each testimony is subject to prosecution and defense questioning, then lengthened by prosecutor and defense attorney re-direct and rebuttal.

 

On Wednesday a sheriff's department detective reports on questioning the defendant and shows a video of their interview, the defendant terse and non-communicative on camera, mostly expressionless in the courtroom. The prosecution rests and the defense first calls the defendant's father-in-law, who is also the victim's grandfather, appearing under subpoena, and then the defendant's wife, who is also the victim's mother. Defense witnesses discredit the victim's testimony, the mother claiming the stepfather never had time alone with her son. The defense rests.

 

On Thursday we hear closing arguments by prosecutor, defender, and then prosecutor again, and go into our deliberation room to seek a unanimous verdict deciding the stepfather either guilty or not guilty, judging on a basis of reasonable doubt. A juror we all respect is randomly chosen to be Juror 13 and released. Juror 29, who has served on other past juries, becomes our foreperson. We discuss our reactions to the trial at length, most of us willing to be temporarily undecided, although two women on one side of the table are strongly pro-guilty and two women opposite them are adamantly pro-not guilty. We all suspect the stepfather is guilty but aren't confident that the evidence presented is sufficient to reasonably convict. Given the way the law works, we wrestle with the reasonableness of our doubts until ten of us cave in to the not-guilty duo and agree to a not-guilty verdict.

 

The judge is informed. We walk in, our foreperson hands our decision to someone who hands it to the judge who reads it aloud, makes us all say "Yes" to whether we all agree, thanks us, and dismisses us.

 

Later, the judge comes to the deliberation room to answer questions and we learn that the stepfather is a previously convicted sex offender in a different case. Some of us gasp or sigh or groan. The last woman to leave the room ahead of me mutters her distress. I say that, given what we've learned of that disturbingly dysfunctional family, it may be that he actually didn't abuse his stepson and that his stepson lied under oath. That might be uncertain consolation for having declared a convicted sex offender not guilty of sexual abuse in this case.

 

A guilty verdict depends on convincing, corroborating evidence. A verdict of not guilty is not equivalent to a verdict of innocence. You needn't prove innocence to be declared legally not guilty—they aren't the same thing. I wonder if, like me, my fellow jurors will long be haunted by their time dispensing justice.

 

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Kanjiroba Pilgrimage

 

I started reading William deBuys' books about the southwest around the time I enrolled in a writer's workshop he taught in Santa Fe. I had been working on early drafts of Recovering Ruth: A Biographer's Tale and he gave me sound advice and a lot of encouragement on the book. When I read his books, I could tell that we had similar ideas about what we wanted to accomplish in our writing about place. Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range (1985), River of Traps: A New Mexico Mountain Life (1990, with photographer Alex Harris), and Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California (1999, with photographer Joan Myers) were all thoroughly informative narratives of place. A Great Aridness (2011), in some ways a culmination of the earlier series of books, sweepingly surveys the effect of climate change on the American southwest. I suspect that some of my writing about place is much indebted to deBuys' books, especially Following Isabella: Travels in Colorado Then and Now, written while we lived there. During that period, I heard him read at The Tattered Cover Bookstore from The Walk (2007), his most powerfully personal book, and the next day I interviewed him for Fourth Genre.

 

In that interview, deBuys mentions having discovered "a certain paradox. The exploration of the familiar can lead you to surprising new places and new discoveries as easily as—or maybe more easily than—exploration of the unfamiliar. The familiar can take you into unusual personal territory faster and more deeply than the exploration of what you never encountered." The paradox arises from consideration of the opposite experience: "if I'm traveling in wilderness—that's what wilderness is, where it's really wild, where it's unfamiliar—I'm so fascinated by the newness that I don't go inside. There are so many connections to be made on the sensory surface of experience that you don't necessarily go as deeply into those senses." In his latest book he goes to somewhere unfamiliar.

 

I was unaware of how far he'd ventured from the southwest in his explorations and his writing until I discovered copies of his most recent books in a local library. The Last Unicorn records his search in mountainous areas of Laos for a saola, a rare, virtually undocumented horned animal. In The Trail to Kanjiroba he recounts his journey on a medical expedition to remote regions of Nepal, in the Himalaya. I started reading it on my twice-weekly library visits and, soon needing to dogear pages in chapter after chapter, I bought my own copy to read daily at home.

 

DeBuys tells us in his introduction that, like his books about climate change and the likely extinction of the saola, this one will "look into dilemmas posed by human transformation of the planet," but he expects The Trail to Kanjiroba to be "about preserving one's sense of joy. It is about finding grace amid the grief." The primary narrative of the book is a recounting of a "five-week, one-hundred-forty-mile medical expedition, in a remote corner of Nepal, hard against the border of Tibet, a land known as Upper Dolpo." The group he travels with, the Nomads Clinic, brings primary medical care to people who are remotely isolated from modern health care services. The route they travel takes them on a long circle, climbing to altitudes of seventeen thousand feet, where deBuys describes "turn[ing] in a slow circle, and in every direction I see the majesty of Tibet and the high Himalaya [. . .] All around me, brilliant in the light of the sun, I see the world resplendent." Kanjiroba, we learn, is "a massif cresting just shy of twenty-two thousand feet, a height taller than the highest points of Europe, Africa, and North America." They view it on their downward passage, its summit deep in clouds, aware that the glaciers of the Himalaya are shrinking and places that some people remember as having been ice-covered twenty years earlier are barren now.

 

At one point, deBuys wrestles with his awareness of both how magnificent the landscape is and how its remoteness doesn't isolate it from change. "Let's be real: we don't live in the gentle Holocene anymore. Alteration of the climate has delivered us to the Anthropocene, and the heat already loaded into the climate system guarantees increasing impacts for decades to come." He had been advised that "Everyday is a yatra"—a pilgrimage, and he accepts the possibility that the way past grief is to stay in motion, as the people he's been traveling with have been doing: "And always, all around us, the land presided. It contained our traveling and our living. It immersed us in an immense, austere beauty that was at once impermanent and eternal, thrilling and stern."

 

Notes:

 

deBuys, William. The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015.

 

deBuys, William. The Trail to Kanjroba: Rediscovering Earth in an Age of Loss. Oakland: Seven Stories Press, 2021.

 

Root, Robert. "Interview with William deBuys," Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 10:2 (Fall 2008): 133-145.

 

SHELF LIFE: "Rediscovering Earth: A Conversation with William deBuys and Bill McKibben." April 21, 2022. A video recording at VaBook.org/watch.

 

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