Thank you, Grace Experience, for living up to your name

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The first time my daughter, Grace Experience, appeared in this column, she was in utero: it was Mother’s Day, 1993. How long ago was 1993? Most of us weren’t sending email. (Most of us didn’t know what email was.) Bill Clinton was in his first year in the White House. I had hair — and not just in my ears, but actually above them.

The other day Grace graduated from college. (Technically, she finished in December.) She’s a working actor, performing in New York and — this summer — in Pennsylvania.

So, does this mean that my wife’s and my work is done? We can wash our hands and take a victory lap that we didn’t raise a girl who ran off to join “The Bachelor,” “The Bachelorette,” or any reality TV show involving spray tans and hot tubs?

Probably not. I think I was a work in progress for my own parents until I was much older than 21. Besides, just because a person’s a grownup doesn’t mean a columnist has to stop using him or her to fill the rapacious maw that is a daily newspaper. Good Lord, I am still shamelessly exploiting my adult neighbors. But there were some Sundays in the mid-1990s when my column lived or died on my daughter’s diapers or her obsession with “The Wizard of Oz.” I chronicled her encounters with Santa Claus, Minnie Mouse, and a tall, blond woman named Barbie she met when she was in kindergarten — a person Grace honestly believed was the human model for the Barbie Doll.

When I look back on the last 21 years, I know in my heart that my favorite roles I have had in this world are dad and husband. Back in 2010, I wrote an essay for a book called “What I Would Tell Her,” a series of letters filled with advice that dads were asked to write to their daughters. I thought long and hard about my contribution to that book. Some of my counsel was serious. Some less so. Among my suggestions? I advised against wearing four-inch heels around Soho unless it was absolutely necessary. I reminded my daughter that food is love, especially if it’s fresh food involving good bread, finely chopped tomatoes, and extra virgin olive oil. And I encouraged her to minimize her regrets, which meant minimizing her tattoos.

My sense is that parents always find reasons to worry about our children. We give up the role of nurturer slowly, painfully, perhaps even grudgingly. My father used to meet my family at the airport in Florida when we would visit, and try and wrangle our suitcases from us well into his seventies. My mother-in-law used to greet my family when we would visit her in Manhattan with our favorite dinner until she died; she would make sure there was always cream for my coffee.

Two weeks ago, on Mother’s Day, I gave a shout-out to my lovely bride and her wonderful work as a mom. So, today I want to celebrate our daughter. Some people wonder about the origins of our daughter’s name, especially her middle name. The short answer is that both “Grace” and “Experience” are family names, and we liked the phonetics. It made us smile because it sounded so crazily counter-culture. Think hippie.

But then something happened at Grace’s christening. Before the church service, a member of our congregation, Ruth Coyle, was holding our daughter in her arms. “Oh, Grace Experience,” she said, “your parents were so wise giving you this name. Grace: the gift we are all given at birth. And Experience? That which you will earn every day of your life.”

My wife and I looked at each other. Wise? We thought we were being glib. But Ruth had poignantly articulated the power and the poignancy and the resonance of our daughter’s name.

So, Grace Experience, thank you. Thank you for being you. We are so grateful for the heaping dollops of happiness you have brought into our lives every single day. And we are so proud of the beautiful woman you have become, inside and out.

Congratulations on this latest steppingstone. And thank you for always living up to your name.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on May 24, 2015. The paperback of Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives on Tuesday. Grace Experience was the audiobook narrator.)

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Conceiving the narrator of “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands”

ChrisBohjalianatworkSome years ago – back in the Mesozoic era, if I’m not going to be coy—a review of my novel Midwives ended with the critic complimenting me on the candor and honesty with which I described what it must have been like for me to give birth. My name is androgynous and I was flattered. To this day, it’s one of my favorite reviews of my work.

Midwives, however, was only the first of a great many times I’ve chosen to write across gender. Three of the four narrators in Secrets of Eden were female, as were two of the four in Trans-Sister Radio (and three of the four would be by that novel’s conclusion). I chose to make the Armenian American novelist who knows far too little of her own ancestry in The Sandcastle Girls a woman – and elements of that novel are profoundly autobiographical.

There are a variety of reasons why I write across gender, but the main one is that sometimes a woman is better suited to tell the particulars of a specific story. Other reasons? My male narrators, who often have a lot of me in them, are not especially likeable. (I wish I could say that was always by design. Alas, not.)

Still, I was unprepared for something my daughter, Grace Experience, said to me after she read the first draft of Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. She was nineteen years old at the time. “Dad,” she began, “take this as a compliment—because I mean it that way. But I think your sweet spot as a novelist is seriously messed-up young women.”
I had never thought of my work in that context, but when I contemplated my daughter’s observation, I knew she was right. Some of my most interesting fiction is not merely narrated by a woman: It’s narrated by a woman who is deeply scarred. It’s from the vantage point of a woman who has experienced a horrific trauma. Women such as the young partisan in The Light in the Ruins, Serafina Bettini, who has been physically and emotionally brutalized by the Second World War. Or Laurel Estabrook, who survives a violent sexual assault in The Double Bind. Or poor, mute little Hatoun from The Sandcastle Girls.

Now there is Emily Shepard in Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands: A sixteen-year-old homeless orphan, trying desperately to keep it together after a meltdown of a nuclear power plant in New England. She’s a cutter, she pops Oxycontin tablets like M&M’s, and she’s an aspiring young poet obsessed with Emily Dickinson.

And while I knew who she was and how she sounded from the moment I started the novel, I depended on occasion on my daughter to find precisely the right words. She was a sophomore at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts at the time, and I would text her, asking for the perfect hipster speak synonyms for “hook-up” or “stoned.” I wasn’t sure whether I should be worried or proud, but instantly she would text back four or five words I just loved—including my favorite expression for rage: “bitchcakes.” (Appropriately, Grace would narrate the novel for Random House Audiobooks.)

I have grown very protective of my Emily Shepard. I think the reason for this is clear: I am a dad of a daughter. There is no role in the world that matters to me more than being a father.

And so while some people presume that writers view their books as their children, we don’t. We view our children as our children. Our books? When they are at their best, they offer a glimpse of our deepest fears and our greatest joys. They are about those subjects that will hold our interests for the year (or more) we are writing them. And in a book such as Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands—which I hope is among my best—there may also be a small hint of those things we will always care about most.

(The paperback of Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, arrives this coming Tuesday, May 26.)

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A vegetable garden? Food for the soul.

image4Why garden?

Note the verb. In your mind’s eye, conjure a backyard vegetable plot. Imagine activity and effort. Visualize stooping. Lifting. Tilling. Seeding. Planting. Watering. Weeding. Thinning. (I abhor thinning. I haven’t the heart to rip from the soil the small, fragile leaves that will become lettuce or carrots or beets.) There are more — many more — words that buttress that single verb, “garden,” but you see my point. There is a lot of work before you get to harvesting. Savoring. And (yes) eating.

Moreover, I imagine if I added up the costs of my wife’s and my vegetable garden, it would not be a profitable venture. The rototilling, seeds, manure, pots, tomato cages, fertilizer, and hay alone might cost more than if we had bought the same vegetables at a farm stand or grocery store between July and October. But even if that’s not the case, when you factor in the hours and hours of our labor, our vegetable garden can’t possibly make fiscal sense.

And yet neither of us can imagine a summer without it. The same, I am sure, goes for all of our neighbors in the center of Lincoln, Vermont. Most of us have vegetable gardens, and many of us have some combination of blueberries and strawberries and raspberries, too.

The irony in my case is that I grew up loathing all vegetables except petit peas from a can and corn on the cob. I’m not sure I ever ate fresh vegetables other than corn until the summer I was 18 years old, when the woman who would become my mother-in-law taught me that peas didn’t actually come from a can.

Consequently, I had never gardened (there again is that verb) until my wife and I moved to Vermont in our early twenties. My wife did not have to drag me into the effort kicking and screaming, but I remember watching our neighbor Clark Atkins — who had to have been well into his seventies by then — as he used wooden planks to walk a pretty serious rototiller off the back of his pickup, and thinking how I might have seriously underestimated how much work this garden might be.

But I have never regretted it. I know my wife feels the same way. Gardening is much like biking for me. My mind wanders and I find myself solving problems. Think of that great expression, “the shower principle.” I first heard the term from the fictional Jack Donaghy on the now defunct sit-com, “30 Rock.” How does Donaghy define it? “The shower principle is a term scientists use to describe moments of inspiration that occur when the brain is distracted from the problem at hand — for example, when you’re showering,” Donaghy explains. I have certainly corrected flaws in whatever book I am writing while gardening, and understood some of my characters a little bit better.

Moreover, I wouldn’t say I approach gardening with a Zen-like serenity, but only because I approach nothing with a Zen-like serenity. Still, I grow a little calmer than usual in the garden, I become a little less intense. I take an almost parental pleasure in nurturing the plants as they grow, and the work is never a chore.

And I know that I enjoy the garden most in the first half of the summer, before the lettuce has gone to seed and the first cherry tomatoes are ready to pop into my mouth. After all, by August, despite our ministrations and care, the garden will start to look a little ragged and unkempt. By late September, when we are pulling the last of the carrots and the beets from the soil, it will look downright terrifying. The tomato plants will be dangling from the cages like the tentacles of dead man o’ war jellyfish on the beach.

But then we will put the garden to bed for the winter and allow it join a world that all around it is growing quiescent. The parallels with our lives are, for better or worse, inescapable.

So why do we garden? Because it connects us to that very world and reminds us on some level that we are a part of it. Because it feeds our soul as well as our stomach. Because, pure and simple, it makes us happy.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on May 17. The paperback of Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives on Tuesday, May 26.)

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“Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands:” The inspiration behind the novel.

IMG_5138It’s one of those classic, absolutely reasonable questions—that is, alas, as impossible to answer briefly as the meaning of life. But I am asked it often. All novelists are.

Where do your ideas come from?

The glib answer—always offered with a smile—is this: “Macy’s.”

The reality is that each of my 17 novels sprang from a very different seed and grew in a very different fashion. My most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” is a case in point.

Emily Shepard, the 17-year-old Vermonter who narrates the book, was born in Beirut—or, at the very least, she was conceived there. It was December 2012, and I had arrived in the city while on a seven-day speaking tour in Lebanon. My plane landed around 3:30 in the afternoon, which my body clock adamantly told me was really 10:30 at night. I went out to dinner with my hosts from one of the universities, and returned to my hotel around 11 p.m.—at about the time I would be rising if I were back home in Vermont. I had slept on the plane, but not very much. I was exhausted and knew I should go right to bed, since the next day was going to begin with a breakfast meeting.

But I didn’t go to sleep, because I had started reading a novel on the flight and had to finish it. It was riveting. The book? Emma Donoghue’s “Room.” It wasn’t simply the plot that held me fast, as taut as it is; it was the narrator. As a novelist, I was dazzled by the authenticity of the voice Donoghue had created for her five-year-old male storyteller. That’s right, a little boy named Jack shares with us the wrenching, adult story of his and his mother’s imprisonment in a shed, and his mother’s desperate attempt to save them both.

I finished the novel around two in the morning in Beirut, and knew I wanted my next novel to be a first-person tale with a voice that genuine and unexpected. I had no idea, however, who that storyteller would be. An important detail, I know.

Ten days later I was back in my beloved 802. (We have just one area code here in Vermont: 802.) I went to lunch with a friend of mine, Annie Ramniceanu, a therapist who at the time was working with teens in trouble. She told me how a couple of homeless kids—teens who were falling through the system—had built igloos against the Lake Champlain cold out of trash bags filled with wet, frozen leaves, and I knew instantly the novel I wanted to write.

The very idea of a teen girl living alone in one of those igloos broke my heart. That image haunted me—and spurred me on.

And I knew my narrator. I knew Emily Shepard was a cutter and Oxycontin addict, and an aspiring poet with a girl crush on Emily Dickinson. She was a homeless kid and an orphan trying desperately to keep it together after a Fukushima-scale meltdown of Vermont’s lone nuclear plant.

Most of my novels begin very much like this: an inspiration. An anecdote. An unexpected synaptic connection.

Now, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” is not the first time I’ve had a female narrator share with my readers a story. “Midwives,” “Trans-Sister Radio,” “Secrets of Eden,” and “The Sandcastle Girls” had female narrators, too.

But, as I will reveal in my post here next week, this was the first time I found myself texting my teenage daughter for hipster-speak synonyms for “hookup” and “stoned.”

Stay tuned.

(The paperback of “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” arrives in 9 days, on May 26.)

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The great moms endure Barney and “Gettysburg”

IMG_5143In November 1993, not quite a week before my wife’s and my daughter was born, my wife made a sacrifice of epic proportions: she went with me to see the four-hour movie, “Gettysburg,” on a Friday night date. Our baby was going to arrive any day now, and this might be our last chance for a romantic dinner and movie for a while — and she knew how much I wanted to see this particular film. How giving was this gesture?

The movie is four hours of Civil War reenactors feigning death and bloating on the battlefield, interrupted occasionally by really long speeches about the critical nature of the battle. There is, I believe, one woman in the movie, but she has no lines and you only see her for about a second when a Confederate column is marching into Pennsylvania.

Yup, my wife is so bighearted that she endured four hours of that while nine months pregnant. That’s love.

And then, when our daughter was a toddler, she would sit with her and watch hours and hours of Barney on PBS. Barney is the big purple dinosaur that is the reason all other dinosaurs are extinct: they killed themselves rather than risk association with him. (There have been no new episodes of Barney filmed in years, but the reruns and the web site remain in this world like nuclear waste: you can bury it, but it’s not going away anytime soon.) That, too, was love.

I mention this because today is Mother’s Day, and it is precisely this combination of thoughtfulness and patience that makes her such a remarkable mom. As my sister-in-law Ceci Blewer once sagely observed, “Don’t do something with a toddler once, unless you’re prepared to do it a hundred times.”

My sense is that these are among the attributes that make any person a good parent. Certainly there are others: knowing how to use a microwave oven is critical. So is a comfort level with snow boots that smell like port-a-potties. It also helps to have a pet, so you can watch your little one play with it and determine early on whether he is going to grow into a serial killer. (Note that I used a male pronoun in that last sentence. There are female serial killers, but they are about as common as a good hair day for Donald Trump.)

My wife did a lot of things right with our daughter. One of my favorite photos is a summer shot of the two of them sitting beside each other in Sugar Hill, New Hampshire, in white Mexican dresses. They are on the stone steps that led to the back porch at what then was my mother-in-law’s home. Our daughter is four at the time. Both females are smiling, though my daughter is trying to add a touch of impishness to her grin.

The image is roughly 17 years old — our daughter is now 21 — but it still captures for me the beauty of their relationship. My wife insists that raising our daughter was always so easy because of nature: we just got lucky and got a good one. There is probably something to that. But as I look at their friendship now, I think back at two things that marked my wife’s mothering modus operandi over the years: serenity and tolerance. My wife was so good at not judging, that those rare times when she did have a strong opinion — heels in my memory were an occasional source of contention — our daughter thought long and hard about why her mother was weighing in with such passion.

In any case, the fact our utterly amazing little girl is an adult is perhaps why I am taking a moment now to raise a glass to my lovely bride — as a mom. Thank you for all the hours you spent making and wearing angel costumes, dressing Barbies, coloring, reading aloud, making preschool snacks, making lunches, working on Brownie badges, building fairy houses in shoeboxes, and – yes – watching Barney. It’s a lot of hours and a very long list. And it sure did pay off.

Happy Mother’s Day.

(This column appeared May 10, 2015 in the Burlington Free Press. The paperback of Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives two weeks from Tuesday.)

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Let’s learn from these bike tragedies

IMG_0806My wife confessed something to me this week: whenever I leave on a bike ride, whether it’s a brief 15-mile jaunt or a journey that will last 30 to 50 miles, she says a little prayer. She prays that I will come home safely.

She shared this with me because already this spring three Vermonters have died in collisions between cars and bikes. Two of them were men riding their bicycles, and a third was a teenage boy behind the wheel. These are horrific tragedies, and we need to learn from them.

But let’s begin here: a bicyclist has no chance against a car or a truck. No chance at all. And while bicyclists do not always behave perfectly — I have seen them race through stop signs – most bicyclists I know obey the rules of the road and understand that safety lives along the shoulders of the road.

And yet many drivers find bicyclists vexing at best and infuriating at worst. I’ve had passengers in cars throw banana peels and water bottles at me as they have passed. I had one driver squeal to a stop ahead of me on an utterly deserted two-lane road, exit his car, and threaten to beat me senseless for not biking on the shoulder. Just for the record, there was no shoulder.

Emily Boedecker, executive director of Local Motion, a nonprofit that promotes people-powered transportation, told me that the “driver versus bicyclist” paradigm is a mistake. “What can we do to change the conversation around our roads?” she began. “It’s not about the vehicle. It’s about the person. After all, I’m a walker. I’m a biker. I’m a driver. We need to think about our actions as people. We need to have an awareness that this is a shared space from the moment we leave our driveways.”

After all, she added, a driver is “responsible for thousands of pounds of steel moving at a very fast speed. These are not accidents of fate; these are collisions.”

In addition to the basics — driving sober and within the speed limit, and never texting — there are other things a person behind the wheel can do to decrease the likelihood of hitting a bicyclist. Here are a few:

• “Leave enough space when you’re driving,” suggested Doug Costa, a bicyclist who works at Earl’s Cyclery and Fitness in Williston. “The bike has a right to the road, too, and if the bike has to swerve suddenly, you’ve created a dangerous situation.”

• “Be aware that the cyclist is dealing with uneven conditions,” Boedecker said. “Potholes, gravel, lack of shoulders. Know that they have to anticipate and react to hazards.” I would add to that two important realities: All Vermont roads are punished by winter and often the shoulder is so chewed up that a bicyclist has to edge closer to the center of the road. Second, our highway budgets – both local and federal – have often been eviscerated lately, which has meant that even new roads have shoulders that can only be called slender.

• Don’t honk at a bicyclist if he or she is riding on the side and you simply want to announce you are approaching. The bicyclist’s reflex is to turn to the left, and thus inadvertently pull the bike more toward the center of the road – and possibly right into the path of your vehicle.

• Wait a few extra moments to pass the bicyclist if conditions demand it. Trust me, that extra five or ten seconds you are behind the bicycle is nothing compared to the disasters that loom if you pass before it’s safe for everyone.

Finally, I love this last piece of advice that Boedecker shared: “Think of the smile on that bicyclist’s face – that guy, that gal, that kid, that grandpa – as they are breathing the fresh air and noticing the turkeys in the field.”

Indeed. I clear my head and feed my soul when I bike, and I often solve scenes in whatever novel I’m writing. It’s among my favorite parts of my life.

There are memorial rides Sunday and Monday for fallen cyclists Kelly Boe and Richard Tom. The ride for Boe begins Monday at 4 p.m. at Middlebury Union High School. People will begin gathering for the ride in Tom’s memory this morning at 11 a.m. at Champlain Valley Union High School.

As we mourn the deaths of three of our neighbors, let’s take a lesson from my lovely bride and pray that the rest of biking season is free of collisions between cars and bikes, and these are the last memorial rides for a long, long time.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on May 3, 2015. The paperback of Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives on May 26.)

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Why I will not forget the dead

Today I am in Manhattan. This morning I am at St. Vartan, the magnificent Armenian Cathedral on Second Avenue, for the Divine Liturgy. In the afternoon I am in Times Square, helping to host the commemoration of the centennial of the start of the Armenian Genocide. There will be thousands of Armenians at both events.

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Skulls pulled from the sands of Der-el-Zor in the Armenian Genocide Chapel in Beirut. Photo by the author.

It was exactly one hundred years ago this past Friday when the Armenian intellectuals, professionals, editors, and religious leaders in Constantinople were rounded up by the Ottoman authorities — and almost all of them executed. It was April 24, 1915. By the end of the First World War, 1.5 million Armenians had been systematically annihilated by their own government, including some of my own ancestors in Ankara and Kayseri. The majority of Armenians alive today are descendants of those few that survived.

I’ve written a lot about the Armenian Genocide the last few years, as both a novelist and a journalist. Just last week in this space I wrote about the Norwegian who helped so many Armenians rebuild their lives around the world.

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The remains of the Armenian monastery, St. Sargis, in northeastern Turkey. Photo by the author.

Sometimes people ask me why I care. Sometimes they ask because they know nothing or next to nothing of the genocide, and are curious as to why I am fixated on a crime that began quite literally a century ago. And sometimes they ask with an edge to their question, because it seems to them that I am too focused on this part of my people’s story. They feel I should move on — that I should not, as an Armenian, be defined by the genocide.

The question came up again this past Monday night, when I was on a panel at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey with two renowned genocide scholars, Deborah Dwork of Clark University and Khatchig Mouradian of Rutgers University. Someone asked whether we felt Armenians would be better off if we just let go of the way our ancestors were massacred.

Khatchig, who is a great friend of mine, answered simply and with a smile, “We can walk and chew gum at the same time.” He then elaborated that he certainly doesn’t define himself personally in terms of the genocide, despite the reality that it is his specialization as a scholar.

I feel exactly the same way. My Armenian grandparents were survivors of the genocide, but when I think of them, I don’t think first of what their families lost in 1915 or, in my grandfather’s case, what his family witnessed in the Hamidian Massacres of the 1890s. I think first of my grandmother’s delicious boregs — filo triangles filled with cheese — or the way she was an unbelievable pool player. I remember sitting happily on my grandfather’s lap, or then on the floor when he would play his beloved oud — an Armenian stringed instrument a bit like a lute.

Next week in this column I am very likely to be writing about my vegetable garden here in Vermont. Or, perhaps, one of my neighbors in Lincoln. Or how much I love biking along Lake Champlain or up the Appalachian Gap.

That’s what Khatchig meant when he said we can walk and chew gum simultaneously.

But make no mistake, the genocide matters today. It matters morally and it matters politically. It matters because it was an unpunished crime — and a crime of cataclysmic proportions. You want to see the definition of ethnic cleansing? Visit Anatolia. Once, millions of Armenians lived there. Now? Virtually none. Only the ruins of our churches and monasteries remain.

Moreover, there is a direct link between the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, the Cambodian killing fields, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. As I heard a scholar observe in March, impunity begets impunity.

It matters because to this day Turkey does not acknowledge it. Imagine if Germany did not acknowledge the Holocaust. We would be justifiably outraged. It would certainly affect our international relationship.

It matters because — to quote Pope Francis in his Mass this month in which he courageously called the slaughter “genocide” — “concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding.” It is a psychic trauma, and the cure begins with recognition.

And it matters to me because I know the world is a better place when we stand up against violence and villainy; when we put righteousness before realpolitik; and when we honor our ancestors whose voices were forever stilled. As Elie Wiesel said, “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

So, does the genocide define me? No. But is it a part of my soul? Yes. And I am proud to say that.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on April 26, 2015. Chris wrote about the Armenian Genocide in his novel, “The Sandcastle Girls.”)

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