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Chasing the Whale, Part 1

“Ignorance is the parent of fear, and being completely nonplussed and confounded about the stranger, I confess I was now as much afraid of him as if it was the devil himself who had thus broken into my room at the dead of night.”

So sayeth Ishmael, the narrator of Melville’s “Moby Dick,” as he reflects on his dark-skinned, tattooed, Polynesian bunk mate, Queegqueg, before they shared a friendly pipe and a whaling journey on The Pequod with Captain Ahab. The book, which is a tome, was published in 1851 at a time when men and and women with amputated moral consciences took pleasure in justifying slavery, one of America’s fault lines, the other being the genocide of the Native tribes. The evolution of our democracy was stunted then, as it is stunted again today, cut off at the knee like Ahab’s stump by an innocent whale fighting for its life.

It’s no surprise to me that I am reading “Moby Dick.” Iconic stories often arrive in our consciousness at the right historical and/or personal moment. We pick them up and suddenly they make sense. Had I been forced to read it in high school? If so, the language alone—Shakespearean, biblical, hyperbolic, often polemical—would have shut down my curiosity, if I had been curious, which is doubtful. And where are the women? I have encountered only one in 300 pages: she brings supplies onto the moored boat in Nantucket. This is a story about men at sea, literally and figuratively. They kill whales, which they barely notice are mammals. And they are unapologetic about the blood letting of these intelligent creatures. They need the oil and the meat, but mostly the oil. Another present-day resonance.

Hubris. Entitlement. Amputated moral conscience. We’ve seen plenty of this in recent months in Washington.

This flawed book, which I am not certain is even a novel, is encyclopedic, epic, occasionally self-important. But there are so many jewels embedded in the text that I am staying with it. I’ll report again when I have finished and read a biography of Melville by Andrew Delbanco. After that, “Billy Budd.” Immersion reading.  Read More 
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Where I'm From

I’m from New York, born and raised in New York on 104th Street and West End Avenue. I’m born of European parents, refugees, exiles from the European continent, educated German-speaking cultured Jews, both of them doctors. If they hadn’t escaped and found safe-haven in France and America, they would have been killed and I would not have been born. They were dreamers: a new continent, a new language, the “promise” of America and all its implied protections.

My family’s dislocation and relocation is embedded in my writer’s brain and heart. I write about it often, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, sometimes unconsciously. Their experience was unique and also typical of most Americans. Unless we are Native Americans, all of us, absolutely all of us, are from someplace else or have ancestors who were from someplace else. That includes the Pilgrims and Puritans, the slaves who were forcibly stolen from West Africa, and the economic migrants, and the undocumented adults and children who are escaping gangs in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and the current President of the United States. Ignorant, pathological, abusive, so vile is this man’s blunt racism that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has formally denounced him.

Where I’m From. I’m from a progressive family, European Social Democrats. They loved Bernie, understood his rap, couldn’t understand why he didn’t make it to the White House. Their paradigm, even after so many years as citizens of America, was a European parliamentary paradigm. Build coalitions. Get things done. The Fascists are still present, but the newly formed Post-World War II coalitions will defend liberal democracy. “The courts work,” my European lawyer step-father might have said. He was enamored of the Supreme Court and read everything that was written about them. And, in this sense, he was as American as apple pie.

The term is about to begin, and this being New York, I will have students from everywhere, Dreamers included, in this ostensibly sanctuary city. But ICE is on the move. And this is worrisome. I think of my students from despotic regimes--China, Iran--many returning to their home countries after the term is over. What do I say to them? Speak boldly. Write without self-censorship. This room is a safe haven. No one will arrest you. But now I am not so sure of any of this, though I won’t stop saying it.

Every writer must feel entirely free. And even if we are not certain of our external freedoms in America right now, or our countries of origin if we are visitors here on visas, we can cultivate freedom, civility and courage within ourselves and write with a bravado that brings tears, laughter and inspiration to everyone who reads our words. Read More 
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Intelligence

Definition: 1. The ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. “He writes with intelligence.” 2. The collection of information of military or political value.

My husband, Jim, was in an intelligence unit in the United States Navy (dates classified). He’d been on active duty in the Seventh Fleet for two years and had a six-year reserve commitment. Once a week, he put on his Navy Whites and headed for Treasure Island to read, interpret, and write dispatches and reports. Although he never received his top secret clearance—that takes years—there was plenty he was able to read, interpret, and re-write in plain English. That much he told me.

Of course, I was curious. We were living together but not yet married. I tried to seduce him with a meal before his departure every week, Thursdays I think it was, in the car by 6 p.m., over the Bay Bridge, and onto the base for his obligatory monthly duty, home by 10 p.m. “So how was it? What did you find out?” Silence.

Why has this anecdote surfaced today? Well, I’ve been reading some Le Carré (“Russia House,” “The Night Manager”), a fine writer who was in the intelligence service himself, and a thriller by Dan Fesperman called “The Amateur Spy.” A relief worker friend had boasted he’d been interviewed by Fesperman as he was researching. They’d met in Bosnia when Fesperman was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. Like other war reporters—Hemingway, Steinbeck, Sebastian Junger more recently—Fesperman has used the trove of collected stories from war zones as inspiration for fiction. But how fictional is “The Amateur Spy?” Would there be clues to my relief worker friend’s mysterious life in the text? Why does he only have a P.O. Box at the moment, refuse to give me his address, and disappear at regular intervals? Had he, in fact, been recruited as a spy long ago when he was in the field as a relief worker? Does it matter? Doesn’t someone have to do this work? Is the work of a spy for the greater good? And whose greater good? Yours and mine? France, Britain, Russia, Iran, China? Are these rhetorical questions or can they be answered?

I’d often heard from refugees and asyless that relief workers were suspect, in the pay of governments as spies, and not to be fully trusted. I had tried not to believe these stories. It’s obvious, isn’t it, that the dark world of intelligence gathering is almost impossible to decipher unless one is in it. Spies live in the shadows; they can never be fully known. The stories they tell, where they live, where they have traveled, remains hidden to normal mortals, friends, lovers, even relatives. And, so, in addition to my husband’s brief foray into intelligence work, I think, possibly, I have known three spies. The most recent was a man at a dinner party who said he’d just returned from Syria. That was all he said—and it was probably too much. It was difficult to imagine him wandering in that now desolate country. How had he managed to return safely? Who was he traveling with? The mind wanders, imagination kicks in.

I was thinking about all this on the subway yesterday as I was reading Talk of the Town in this week’s New Yorker. “Some spy stories will be forever confined to memory, locked safes, and invisible ink,” writes Nicholas Schmidle. He goes on to describe a literary journal, “Studies in Intelligence,” published by the CIA! Browsing their website—submission guidelines on the site—I have decided it is more an academic journal than a literary journal. But never mind. Spy literature, the CIA calls it, and who are we not to believe the CIA? For the youngsters in the family there’s a “Kids’ Zone,” which includes a coloring book, puzzles and a word find.  Read More 
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