It take more than a snow cone of vomit to scare a book group

It was 13 years ago this autumn that I vomited in front of a lovely reading group from Illinois. When I’m with a book club, I hold nothing back.

It was a Friday afternoon and I was on my third plane of the day, this one a Dash 8 turboprop from Denver to Steamboat Springs. The next day I was joining Jacquelyn Mitchard, Andre Dubus III and Sena Jeter Naslund for the Bud Werner Memorial Library’s annual Literary Sojourn, an all-day celebration of what words and reading and books can mean to the soul. It’s a terrific event and lots of book clubs make a pilgrimage there—including, that year, one from Illinois that was on the Dash 8 turboprop with me.

Now, I really don’t mind the Dash 8. But that day I had been traveling since about six in the morning in Vermont, where I live, and there was the usual Rocky Mountain clear air turbulence. I was on my third flight of the day. The book group on the airplane recognized me instantly as one of the authors they were coming to hear, despite the fact that soon after takeoff my skin was airsickness green. And so we chatted and I sipped a Diet Coke and set the air vent above me on “wind tunnel.” Surreptitiously I kept reaching into the seat pocket, trying to find an airsickness bag amidst the magazines and Sky Mall catalogues. Somehow I had two of each, but no airsickness bag.

The group was, like most groups, all women. We talked about books as we flew to Steamboat Springs, and the unforgettable brilliance of the first sentence of Sena’s new book, Ahab’s Wife: “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.” We discussed the heart that fills all of Jacquelyn’s work. And we shared the page-turning dread we had all experienced as we read Andre’s House of Sand and Fog.

At some point I reached into the pocket of the seat beside me for an airsickness bag. There wasn’t one there, either.

Looking back, I really thought I was going to make it to Steamboat Springs with my dignity intact. I fly a lot and it’s rare for me to feel like I’m going to lose my lunch. I was sure I could remain in this book group’s eyes an author they found charming and open, the sort who didn’t vomit on Dash 8 turboprops. This is called hubris—and, in hindsight, naïvete.

It was on our initial descent that we hit the bump that finally did me in. Now, I did feel it coming. And so without an airsickness bag handy, I showed an instinctive skill with origami I hadn’t known existed somewhere deep inside me: I ripped a few pages from one of the catalogs in my seat pocket, twirled them into a snow cone, and folded the bottom into a seal. Yup, somewhere around 15,000 feet in the air, I created a snow cone of vomit.tumblr_n9emp8NJTE1rtv9fro7_1280

Now, here is why I am sharing this story with you. The woman in the book group beside me actually offered to hold my handmade Sky Mall biohazard so I could wipe my mouth and rinse with the last of my Diet Coke. So did the woman behind me. That’s support. That’s kindness. That’s the sort of heroism that is way above any reader’s pay grade.

But people in book groups are like that. I’ve been talking to book groups via speakerphone (and now Skype) since January 1999. I began because one of my events on The Law of Similars book tour was snowed out, and a reading group that was planning to attend contacted me with questions. (A lot of questions, actually.) And so we chatted via speakerphone. These days, I Skype with three to six groups a week. Some weeks I have done as many as 12.

I do it for a lot of reasons. I do it as a way of thanking these readers for their faith in my work. I do it because it helps me understand what makes my novels succeed aesthetically—and, yes, what makes them fail. (Most book group readers share with me exactly what they think of a story.) I do it because it is one small way I can help the novel—a largely solitary pleasure—remain relevant in an increasingly social age.

And, yes, I do it because once upon a time a book club member offered to hold my snow cone of vomit on a Dash 8.

(This column originally appeared earlier this month in BookPage Magazine. Chris’s most recent novel is “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.”)

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Trick or treat or kale

Remember the good old days when you would go trick-or-treating and there was always one amazing house where you were guaranteed an awesome piece of kohlrabi or a couple of Brussels sprouts? Probably not. I know that I would have put toilet paper all over the front porch of any house that had the audacity to give me Brussels sprouts instead of M & M’s when I was a kid. Used toilet paper.

But, alas, I was a child long before we learned that we should all eat more kale. I couldn’t have picked kale out of a lineup that included Sponge Bob, Bruce Jenner, and Wilson the Volleyball. I didn’t eat a lot of vegetables. And on Halloween night, I kind of expected that I would fill my bag with enough sugar to launch me into space like an Apollo rocket.

But times change. This Friday night, Halloween, somewhere between 60 and 70 kids will go to Cynthia Kelley’s home knowing full well that they might be offered kale. Or a sliced roasted beet. Or maybe a piece of a turnip. Cynthia has been doing this for 22 years, first in Colchester and now in Essex Junction, Vermont.

“I’m not stupid, I give out candy, too,” she told me. But there is always that vegetable.

The tradition began in 1992. She and her husband, Todd, were eating dinner at 4:30 so they would be done well before the kids started arriving, their mouths open and chirping for candy like baby birds. But at 4:35, the first trick-or-treaters arrived. While her husband tried desperately to find the candy – which they had hidden so Cynthia wouldn’t eat it – she went to the door and tried to convince the seven-year-old boy that candy was coming and to please hang around. As a joke she picked a piece of broccoli off her own dinner plate and said, “This year we’re giving each trick-or-treater a choice of broccoli or candy.” Much to her astonishment, the little boy picked the broccoli.

 

Cynthia Kelley is known in her neighborhood for giving out vegetables as well as candy on Halloween night. Here she is showing Dallas Martell what kale looks like back in 2003.

Cynthia Kelley is known in her neighborhood for giving out vegetables as well as candy on Halloween night. Here she is showing Dallas Martell what kale looks like back in 2003.

But then her husband arrived with the candy and they give the kid a chocolate bar, as well. Two, as a matter of fact. This is called self-preservation. She had to know that she would have been seriously risking her home’s property value by sending the kid back into the night with just a broccoli floret.

Still, the child had really been into the vegetable. And so she offered broccoli to other kids that evening, and she was utterly shocked by how many wanted the green stuff.

The following year she gave out kale – again, along with candy. Thus was born a tradition. Since then, among the more exotic veggies she has handed out to the little ghosts and goblins have been arugula, radishes, Bok Choy, mustard greens, parsnips, shallots, and Swiss chard. (I am a grown man and I don’t eat Swiss chard. I tip my cap to the kids in Colchester and Essex Junction.) One year “crispy leeks” were a particular favorite, she recalls.

Cynthia grows all of the vegetables herself in her backyard garden.

So, have her trees in Colchester and Essex Junction ever been draped in toilet paper? Has a vampire or princess or pretend George Bush (who famously hated broccoli) ever gotten medieval on Cynthia’s cars with a can of shaving cream? Have the walls and windows of her home ever been egged? Nope. Never.

“The kids know they get too much candy,” she said. “And they know what I’m going to be handing out. They feel like they get what they came for.”

Indeed. Her trick-or-treaters are very, very loyal. They always come back. And, yes, they always eat their peas. Or kohlrabi.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on October 26. Chris’s “Halloween” novel is “The Night Strangers,” published in 2011.)

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Time to find my vampire tuxedo

Chris with his daughter Grace Experience, circa 2004.

Chris with his daughter Grace Experience, circa 2004.

Let’s set the scene. My wife and I are newlyweds in our early twenties. We have, as a matter of fact, been married not quite three weeks. We’ve only recently returned from our honeymoon. We live in an apartment on the third floor of a five-story walkup in Brooklyn. And now it’s Halloween. It’s a Wednesday night.

And so at the end of the day my wife returns home from the 104th floor of the World Trade Center where she works, and I race back from the office in midtown Manhattan where I’m employed. We put candles in the small pumpkins we have hollowed out and line them in a row in the third floor hallway from the top of the stairs to our front door. We put a cassette with our spooky Halloween cries and moans – ghost porn, we call it – in the cassette player. I dress in my vampire tuxedo and my wife climbs inside a very slinky black witch’s dress. We both put plastic fangs on our front teeth. We pour bags of candy into a punch bowl, a wedding present we’ll use maybe twice in the ensuing years for punch, and wait for the first trick-or-treater.

A little before nine o’clock, we blow out the candles in the pumpkins. We have had – and this is an exact number, not a hyperbolic estimate – zero trick-or-treaters. We’re talking the big goose egg.

Now, common sense might have told us not to expect any trick-or-treaters given that:

  1. We were pretty sure there were no children in the small apartment building in which we lived; and
  2. The building’s front door is locked and there is no doorman. There is, however, often a hirsute gentleman on the outside steps who always smells of urine and sometimes stands there and pees.

Nevertheless, at the end of the evening, my wife and I were. . .disappointed. Sad. Melancholic. We had high hopes for our first Halloween together. Don’t most newlyweds?

A few years later, we would be ensconced in the nineteenth-century Victorian in Lincoln, Vermont in which we would build our lives and raise our daughter. Now, I know from my friends and family who live in Brooklyn that Halloween there can be rock concert awesome. My wife’s and my first Halloween together was an attempt to court clinical depression because we were new to the borough and hadn’t the slightest idea what we were doing.

But Lincoln has proven a terrific place to indulge our inner ghouls. I think New England is built for Halloween. (Sure, New York has Sleepy Hollow. We have the House of the Seven Gables.) It’s not simply our Puritan preoccupation with sin or the fact we actually executed people for being witches in Salem. New England has very old cemeteries. Wrought iron fences. Trees denuded of leaves by now that look eerily skeletal.

We live the memes here. We walk amongst the iconography.

Here in the center of Lincoln, we will have easily a hundred trick-or-treaters. (In the center of nearby Bristol, some people will have three times that many.) And, frankly, I think we’d have that many even if we had a hairy guy who smelled like a bus station bathroom on our front steps. People would just think he was a part of our annual Halloween display.

For my wife and me, that’s a great gift. Sure, in most ways Halloween is an utterly ridiculous holiday – unless you’re a dentist or you own stock in a candy company. But it’s also ridiculous fun.

And now it is a mere 12 days away. Time to find my vampire tuxedo.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press. Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” was published this summer.)

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So glad I made you an honest woman after Cancun

10634_139986273996_649308996_2697799_56257_nWhen my wife and I were 23, we spent an October week in Cancun. When we returned, my mother-in-law wouldn’t speak to my wife. Why? Because at the time, my wife and I were merely boyfriend and girlfriend. Weren’t even engaged. Sure, by then my wife was a bond trader on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center and I was an account executive with J. Walter Thompson. We were grownups. But as my mother-in-law said to her daughter – finally and only briefly breaking the silence – “What if your plane had crashed and you’d died? How would I explain to your grandmother what you were doing with a man in Cancun?”

To try and restore peace and harmony, my wife reminded her mother that we had been dating since we were freshmen in college. It had little effect.

And so we decided to go big. We would try and retake the moral high ground. We told her we were planning to get married. The truth is, we had known we were going to get married for easily four years by then. But the response was immediate and perfect: Diplomatic relations between the two women instantly were normalized. No, they were better than normalized. My mother-in-law was thrilled. She had four daughters and finally one was getting married.

Tomorrow is my wife’s and my wedding anniversary, and I am happy to report that we have been married more years than we were single. There are a long litany of reasons why I wake up every morning feeling more than a little blessed to be married to the woman who against all reason puts up with me. But she does. How amazing is my wife?

In November 1993, she went with me to the Palace 9 in South Burlington to sit through the movie, “Gettysburg.” Why was this love? The movie is four hours long. It had, I believe, zero women in the cast – but 5,000 (no exaggeration, I checked) Civil War re-enactors as extras, some of whom could bloat on command to look like battlefield corpses. And any day now she was going to give birth. She was nine months pregnant and this was our last date before our daughter would arrive.

She has read the rough drafts for all 19 of my novels, 17 of which were published and two that were such abominations they exist only in manuscripts in my alma mater’s library, where my papers are archived. She has also read the vast majority of these columns as rough drafts (although not this one), and has been doing so almost every week for 22 years and 8 months. That’s roughly 1,178 columns – or nearly 800 thousand words. Add to that the 1.9 million words in those 19 novels, and she has read nearly three million words I have penned.

Just how much faith has she always had in my work? I amassed 250 rejection slips before I sold a single word, and never did it cross her mind that “novelist” might not be in my future – even when, yes, we sold our living room furniture so we could buy a few more months of health insurance and continue to pay our mortgage.

And, of course, she endures the reality that I live in Lycra bike shorts most summer afternoons. That’s love.

When I was in fifth grade, the boys and girls in my class had their first serious crushes, and I was pretty sure that I was so fat and shy that no girl was ever going to have a crush on me. But I still had my fantasy wish list I would whisper to myself before school: She would have long hair, a beautiful smile and would love books as much as I did. I did not know at ten that I would also want someone who cries for stray cats and old dogs, and whose kindness would dwarf a redwood. I just got lucky.

Happy anniversary to my lovely bride – my muse and my inamorata. I am still so very glad I made an honest woman of you after Cancun.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on October 12, 2014. Chris’s most recent novels are “The Light in the Ruins” and “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.”)

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Friends (with four legs) for life

Among my boyhood dogs in Connecticut was a small mutt named Beauregard. How small? He came to mid-shin. He was so homely that one of my older brother’s friends insisted he was the offspring of a pig and a rat. But he was among the smartest and happiest dogs I ever met.

And every morning, usually when my brother and I were about to leave for school, a spectacularly handsome golden retriever – the kind that wins dog shows, the kind that becomes a movie star – would appear at our front door. His name was Buffy and he belonged to our neighbors, the Fentons, who lived about four-hundred yards away through the woods. We would open our door, Beauregard would race out, and the two dogs would disappear for hours – often the whole day. Invariably, sometime before dark, Buffy and Beauregard would return. Buffy would drop Beauregard off at our home before continuing on through the woods to his house. The two dogs were. . .friends.

I mention this because I came across a study this past summer that suggested dogs experience jealousy. The study, which appeared in “PLOS/One,” was conducted by Christine Harris and Caroline Prouvost. I first heard about it from WBUR’s absolutely terrific animal expert, Vicki Croke on “Here and Now.” (Croke also wrote about animals for “The Boston Globe” for nearly a decade and a half before joining the station.) The researchers, in a nutshell, “found that dogs exhibited significantly more jealous behaviors (e.g., snapping, getting between the owner and object, pushing/touching the object/owner) when their owners displayed affectionate behaviors towards what appeared to be another dog as compared to nonsocial objects.”

Wanda and Ian Goodyear, and their dogs Missy and Tory, in Lincoln. The two dogs are friends with each other -- and with their human family. (Photo by Jennifer Goodyear).

Wanda and Ian Goodyear, and their dogs Missy and Tory, in Lincoln. The two dogs are friends with each other — and with their human family. (Photo by Jennifer Goodyear).

This study was, in some ways, groundbreaking – unless, of course, you’ve owned a dog. Or a cat.

I am always a little astonished when people contend that dogs and cats (or many other creatures) don’t experience what we like to believe are “human” emotions. Jealousy. Happiness. Sadness. Likewise, I’m taken aback when people contend that dogs and cats don’t have complex relationships with one another – such as friendship. In a blog post in August, Croke pointed out the verbal lengths to which some people will go to deny this reality:

“We humans seem determined to separate ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom, even if we have to cheat. And sometimes it does sound like cheating. Because while scientists continue piling up the evidence, documenting how much we share with other animals—emotionally, cognitively, and neuro-chemically—many humans still use outdated linguistic distinctions that put animals in their (allegedly inferior) place.”

I could regale you (or bore you) with dozens of the ways my five cats bond or battle with each other in ways that suggest the sorts of sibling dynamics that Louisa May Alcott made famous in “Little Women.” Among them? Jealousy. The desire to have my wife’s and my attention. The need to be appreciated – to feel special.

It was well over two hundred years ago that Jeremy Bentham said the issue we need to concern ourselves with when it comes to animals is this: “The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor, ‘Can they talk?’ but ‘Can they suffer?’” My answer to that has always been a resounding yes – they most certainly can feel pain – which is why I am a vegetarian.

What is wonderful about this new study by Harris and Prouvost is that it provides a little more scientific heft for the idea that animals, in their own way, reason. They are more than mere Pavlovian responders. Clearly my cats are.

I have no idea how Buffy and Beauregard spent their hours together, but I will never forget one summer day when my mother and I were returning from my late afternoon swim team practice. We were in her white convertible, the top down. We were at least two miles from our home, when we spotted the two dogs near a stonewall at the edge of someone’s property. My mother slowed and the dogs – both of them – instantly recognized my mother’s car and sprinted across the street and climbed into the backseat.

It never crossed our minds that recognizing a vehicle far from home suggested the animals’ profound cognitive abilities. It was simply dogs being dogs.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on October 5, 2014. Chris’s most recent novels include “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” and “The Light in the Ruins.”)

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Driven to distraction? End now.

According to a July 2014 study by insure.com, a consumer insurance website, we Vermonters are not at our best when we are behind the wheel of a vehicle. Of the fifty states and the District of Columbia, we are the sixth rudest. We babble incessantly on our phones when we are supposed to be focused on the road, we tailgate, we have no idea how and when to signal a turn, and we drive as if we believe I-89 is the Talladega Superspeedway. (Corroborating the idea that we speed? A 2010 DriverSide.com study reported that Vermont is third in the U.S. for speeding tickets issued per capita. Either we have extremely conscientious law enforcement or we are not quite as chill as we like to believe.)

When I first read this story, my immediate reaction was that I would have a field day with rude driving jokes. I’d quote Judith Martin – a.k.a., Miss Manners. I’d make fun of the way the report’s findings seem to suggest Vermont’s “peace, love, and tie-dye” reputation and vibe are unearned. I’d recount the banana peels and water bottles (and jugs) that Vermont drivers have thrown at me as I have ridden my bike along a road’s shoulder.

And I would be sure to note that despite those water bottles and banana peels, most Vermont drivers have struck me as pretty darn civilized – one more reason I’m proud to live in the 802. I might even end by observing that the survey was in all likelihood a publicity gimmick, and insure.com simply wanted gullible columnists like me to write about it. (Mission accomplished.)

But then I thought of Casey Anderson Feldman. I never met Casey. But I stared at a large photograph of her earlier this month at the DoubleTree Hotel in South Burlington, Vermont while her father, Joel spoke of her death – and what it is like as a parent to bury your child. Casey was killed by a distracted motorist. She was 21, a senior at Fordham University and an aspiring journalist. She was crossing the street – was actually in a crosswalk – when she was run over.

Her father and I were among nine speakers sharing different moments from our lives as a part of the Vermont Association for Justice’s “Cornerstone Stories.” Feldman’s story was especially powerful, not simply because of the eloquence and honesty with which he shared every parent’s most devastating nightmare, but because of how he and his wife Dianne Anderson chose to go on living. And part of that path forward was the creation of the organization, “End Distracted Driving” (EndDD).

The group’s mission is to educate drivers – adults as well as teens – to the reality that driving is “not a secondary task, it should be the only task.” Among the distractions that lead to crashes? The cell phone (of course). But other causes include putting on makeup, eating, trying to read a roadmap, and changing the music. The driver who killed Casey was reaching across the console for a beverage.

In the last two and a half years, over 400 people have given the EndDD presentation to over 125,000 listeners. How powerful is the group’s message? I now throw my phone into my glove compartment when I get in my car. I can still make phone calls through the vehicle’s hands-free technology, but I am not even tempted to check an email or text, or try and punch in a new number.

This Wednesday, October 1, it becomes illegal to use any hand-held device while driving in Vermont. This was, in my opinion, one of the great accomplishments of the past legislative session, and I tip my hat to Senator Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden) who championed the law early on and Senator Richard Mazza (D-Chittenden/Grand Isle) who pushed the bill across the finish line. The law might not make us any less rude when we’re driving, but it will make us safer. More responsible.

And, in our way, we will be honoring the tragically short life of Casey Anderson Feldman.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on September 28, 2014. Chris’s most recent books include “The Light in the Ruins” and “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.”)

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The gifts of the autumnal equinox

IMG_0784Tomorrow night, around 10:29 p.m. in the Eastern Time zone, the autumnal equinox arrives. We all know what that means. Beginning this week, the nights will be longer than the days. There will be a decided chill in the air. And my vegetable garden will look like it belongs in the backyard of a haunted house. The tomato plants, long dead, will be drooping from their metal cages like the dying, tentacled aliens from “The War of the Worlds.”

I’m not good at autumn chores. (Oh, who am I kidding? I’m not good at spring chores, either.) But throughout September, I delude myself into believing that summer still has a little heat left. A little juice. That means the Adirondack chairs will sit on the lawn until I have to scrape the snow off them before carting them into the barn. The attic windows will remain open so long that people will think I must own stock in the LP gas company that fills the tank in my backyard. And I will resist putting the gardens to bed as long as I possibly can.

I’m not alone. Far from it.

Most of us have very mixed feelings about the autumnal equinox. We all understand the way it can (quite literally) darken one’s spirits. That’s especially true in a place like Vermont, where summers are breathtakingly beautiful and dispiritingly short. Everywhere, however, the autumnal equinox reminds us that another summer has past, the natural world is growing quiescent (or dying), and we are older. There is less sunlight. Less warmth. No blueberries.

Soon that ultimate bacchanal of death will be here, Halloween.photo

And what follows Halloween? The gray morass we call November. That’s usually the month when I finally get around to raking the trillions of leaves that have swooned (starving) to their death in my yard. Some are still phantasmagorically beautiful. All are annoying when they stick to the tines of my rake.

For the next three months, the days will continue to shrink and the nights will grow very, very long. There will be days in the not too distant future when it will feel here in Lincoln that the sun is falling behind the ridgeline to the west a little after lunch.

Have I depressed you enough?

But here’s the strange and wonderful reality that marks this time of the year: It actually feeds the soul’s need to cocoon. To nest. To hunker down after the zeal and sheer busyness of summer. I love those first fires I build in the woodstove – the aroma, the warmth, the luminescent little blaze through the palladian glass windows. I love collapsing on the floor in the den in the waning light of a Sunday afternoon and reading – often with a cat on my back. (Occasionally, as a matter of fact, with a 17-pound cat on my back.) I love the permission that short days and long nights give me to watch DVDs of two-decade old episodes of Seinfeld.

1456739_10151993860972118_1056085797_nThat’s the gift of autumn. Because we are human, we can’t hibernate and we can’t fall dormant. (Okay, we can fall dormant. But it isn’t pretty. Think grungy gray sweatpants and not bothering to shave. Envision Cheez Doodles debris on your teeth.) But we can allow ourselves a small retreat. Sure, some of us will be hunting in November and some of us will be skiing in December. Likewise, there remains an outside world in need of tending. Nevertheless, we slow down.

And that’s healthy.

The truth is, I really don’t mind the autumn. For the first time in months, we can savor the sluggishness that all of us, once in a while, crave. After all, in a mere 90 days – 13 weeks – the days once more will begin growing longer.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on September 21, 2014. Chris’s most recent novels are “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” and “The Light in the Ruins.”)

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