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.)

close your eyes mech

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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.


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.


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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The Souls and Stories That Vanished in the Armenian Genocide of 1915

armeniaThe photo can only be called exotic. It was taken at the end of the 19th century in an Ottoman city southeast of Ankara called Kayseri. It’s a fraying family portrait of the eight people who comprise the Bohjalian family, and the toddler sitting in his father’s lap is my grandfather, Levon Nazareth—or Leo as he would come to be called when he sailed to the United States decades later with his new bride, Haigouhi Sherinian. She may already have been pregnant with my father, the first of their three children.

My brother and my cousins and I all have our stories about Leo and Haigouhi. There was our demure grandmother’s extraordinary prowess as a pool player in a Westchester suburb of New York City. There was the time she took her handbag and practically beat an assailant senseless with it when he tried to rob her in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan. There was our grandfather playing his beloved oud, a stringed instrument a bit like a lute, on Sunday afternoons. He is wearing a suit because in our memories he is always wearing a suit. (I once asked his daughter, my Aunt Rose Mary, whether her father had always worn a suit when she was growing up. She laughed and said, “Of course, not. I remember one time when he was cleaning the oil burner, he took off his jacket.”)

But as for Leo’s parents? We knew nothing about his mother and next to nothing about his father—that fellow on whose lap Leo was sitting in that old family photo. His name was Nazaret and, supposedly, he was a tailor. We were told that he might have dabbled as a writer.

This year marks the centennial of the start of the Armenian Genocide: It was April 24, 1915, when the Armenian intellectuals, professionals, editors and religious leaders in Constantinople were rounded up by the Ottoman authorities—and almost all of them executed. During World War I, the Ottoman Empire would systematically annihilate 1.5 million of its Armenian citizens, or three out of every four living there. The majority of Armenians alive today are descendants of those few survivors. It was just this April when Pope Francis acknowledged the slaughter and called it genocide.

My grandparents rarely spoke about what they had seen or what their families in the Ottoman Empire or the Middle East had experienced. We knew only bits and pieces.

We knew, for example, that our grandmother’s father provided cavalry horses to the Ottoman Army and had for years by 1915. The horse farm was on the outskirts of Ankara. That spring, instead of buying the horses legally as they always had in the past, they simply shot her father to death, confiscated the herd, and then—for good measure—confiscated the family home. But our grandfather’s family? We knew almost nothing. Leo had already journeyed to America. We knew he had three brothers in the Middle East or Anatolia, one of whom may have been a pharmacist in Cairo in 1915, but all of them were lost to the mysts of history. Our grandfather either never knew or never shared what happened to them, and to this day their disappearance (or death) remains a mystery.

In the mid-1920s, my grandfather journeyed to Paris to meet Haigouhi, and there they would fall in love and marry. In 1927 he brought her to New York City, and the next year he built the beautiful brick monolith in Tuckahoe, New York, where they would raise their children and reside for 40 years.

Which brings me back to my great-grandfather in Kayseri—the fellow in that antique photograph whose name was Nazaret.

This spring I unearthed a book that has been in my attic for nearly a quarter of a century. It’s a volume from an old Armenian encyclopedia of sorts about the notables from Kayseri. My Aunt Rose Mary gave it to me when she and her husband sold their house in 1992. I understood it had mattered to my aunt and, before her, to my grandparents. She said as a young writer I should have it, but I didn’t know why and I still can’t read Armenian.

When I was thumbing through it this spring, however, I came across a photograph of my great-grandfather. There he was, the man from that antique family portrait. And so I shared the encyclopedia with my friend, Khatchig Mouradian, a genocide scholar who speaks and reads Armenian, asking him to translate the sections around the image of Nazaret Bohjalian.

IMG_3729It seems that my great-grandfather was not merely a tailor who may have dabbled as a writer. He was a poet. He was, as a matter of fact, a troubadour: He sang as well as wrote. In the five-page entry about him in that book, he is described as a prodigy. At 14, he was brought from Kayseri to Jerusalem to perform. He was writing and singing in Constantinople as a teenager and throughout his 20s. Only at the age of 30 did he return to Kayseri to marry and start a family. But he continued to write.

His poems taught morals and values, and were cheerful celebrations of the people around him and the beauty in life. Think Walt Whitman.

In 1896, however, the tone of his work changed. As a prologue of sorts to the Armenian Genocide, roughly a quarter of a million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were butchered between 1894 and 1896 in what have come to be called the Hamidian Massacres—named after Sultan Abdul Hamid II. On November 18, 1895, the slaughter came to Kayseri. My great-grandfather was there. A few months later, he wrote a 70-quatrain epic about what he saw. Among the couplets?

“They killed infidels with axes, daggers, and didn’t ask who you were, whether merchant or coolie.”

“They took the babies out of the wombs of their mothers, and those who witnessed lost their minds.”

It’s a wrenching, eyewitness testimonial.

I will never know precisely why my grandfather never spoke of his father’s renown. Perhaps he didn’t realize the extent of Nazaret’s accomplishments. Levon was the youngest child, born only years before his father would die in 1902 from natural causes. Moreover, we can only conjecture how the family was scattered first by the Hamidian Massacres and then by the Armenian Genocide.

When we discuss genocide, we always begin with the numbers: the six million. The 1.5 million. But it’s not just the souls that we lose, it’s the stories.

My novel of the Armenian Genocide, The Sandcastle Girls, was published in 2012, and I assumed at the time that I was the first Bohjalian to try and make sense of this cataclysmic crime through art. It was only this spring, however, that I understood I was but the second.

(This column appeared originally in Newsweek on April 21, 2015. Chris Bohjalian is the author of 18 books, including his novel of the Armenian Genocide, “The Sandcastle Girls.”)


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The Norwegian who helped the Armenians come to America

imageEarlier this year, I journeyed from Vermont to Oslo to introduce myself to Marit Greve, an 86-year-old Norwegian who still swims in the fjord outside her home on the outskirts of the city. I wanted to meet her because it’s possible some of my Armenian ancestors would not have wound up in America were it not for her grandfather, Fridtjof Nansen. My Norwegian publisher, Pantagruel Forlag, engineered the visit.

Nansen is a treasure in Norway, a Nobel Laureate and arctic explorer who lived from 1861 to 1930. He is less known outside of Scandinavia — unless you are of Armenian descent. His memoir of his 1925 visit to the Anatolian Plains and the Caucasus Mountains on behalf of the League of Nations, Armenia and the Near East, is both a beautifully written travelogue and a concise history of the Armenian people. (The fact there are few topographies as disparate as Norway and Turkey is a testimony to Nansen’s eye for detail.) It is also a wrenching chronicle of the Armenian Genocide: the Ottoman Empire’s systematic annihilation of 1.5 million of its Armenian citizens during and immediately after the First World War. Three out of every four Armenians would be slaughtered, including some of my own ancestors in Ankara and Kayseri. The majority of Armenians alive today are descendants of those few that survived.

I was interested in meeting Marit because this year marks the centennial of the start of the Armenian Genocide — the coming week, as a matter of fact. Many of you know that thanks to Pope Francis and his courageous mass last Sunday. Many of you know thanks to all of the newspaper editorial boards and columnists who have urged Turkey to acknowledge the cataclysmic crimes of the Ottoman Regime and end a despicable, century-long policy of lies and denial about the genocide. Armenian-Americans like me are urging President Obama to finally make good on his 2008 campaign promise, and use the word “genocide” in his annual message about the slaughter.

It was April 24, 1915, when the Armenian intellectuals, professionals, editors, and religious leaders in Constantinople were rounded up by the Ottoman authorities – and almost all of them executed. But it was thanks to Nansen that so many survivors of the Genocide were able to build new lives in new countries. Nansen, working with the League of Nations, created a document that has come to be called the Nansen Passport.

Here, after all, was the reality: Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were scattered across the Middle East who could never return to Turkey. The final borders of the Armenian nation were a fraction of what many Westerners, including President Woodrow Wilson, had originally envisioned. (And soon enough, that fledgling nation would be swallowed by the Soviet Union.) Many of these Armenians were living in refugee camps and were, essentially, a stateless people. Thanks, however, to Nansen’s efforts on behalf of Russian refugees immediately after the First World War, the Armenians had a legal status and an internationally recognizable travel document that would allow them to transcend victimhood and move to nations where they were welcome.

Marit knows well the affection we Armenians have for her grandfather. She has ventured to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, and seen the statue of Nansen. She showed me the plaques she has been given. But at one point she said something that has left me haunted: she was curious why we have such respect for her grandfather when he “failed.” She was referring to a dream he had (and wrote about in Armenia and the Near East) of creating an irrigation project that would have helped turn an arid patch of Armenia into an agrarian mecca, and allow tens of thousands of refugees to resettle there. But the League of Nations — which the Soviet Union had not joined — wouldn’t fund it, and the effort never commenced.

Still, I reassured Marit that in my people’s eyes, her grandfather had most assuredly not failed. I reminded her of the way his book educated so many Westerners to the Genocide. “These were atrocities which far exceed any we know in history, both in their extent and their appalling cruelty,” he wrote at one point in his account. There was also his faith in the indomitable spirit of the Armenian character: “All misfortunes and all maltreatment notwithstanding, the soul of Armenia’s people could not be crushed.” But most importantly, there was the Nansen Passport.

What I did not do when I was thanking her, and it is my principal regret from my visit, was to quote William Saroyan. We Armenians quote our Fresno born Pulitzer Prize winner a lot, and it surprises me I was so off my game that I didn’t. I attribute my failure to the fact I was so moved to meet Marit. But it was Saroyan who wrote, “Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send [the Armenians] into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”

It is thanks in part to Fridtjof Nansen that today there are new Armenias all across the world — and all across America. As April 24 nears, I want to be sure that Marit Greve knows.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on April 19, 2015. Chris’s novels include “The Sandcastle Girls,” “The Light in the Ruins,” and “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.”)



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Want to change the world? Take a walk.

Hannah Woodruff has been volunteering for COTS since she was in middle school. Here she is in her COTS Walk t-shirt in 2008

Hannah Woodruff has been volunteering for COTS since she was in middle school. Here she is in her COTS Walk t-shirt in 2008

When Hannah Woodruff was in seventh grade, she and her classmates at the Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury, Vermont were given a rather ambitious assignment: they were each supposed to change the world. Or, at the very least, they were supposed to try. Hannah decided that her individual project would involve the homeless.

This was back in the autumn of 2006 when she was 12 years old. Now she is a 20-year-old neuroscience major at the University of Vermont, and one result of her efforts is a nine-year relationship with the Committee on Temporary Shelter that includes both her younger sister, Alice (a freshman at UVM), and her mother, Kate Finley Woodruff, a lecturer there. Over the years, the three of them have volunteered for COTS in a variety of ways, and participated in the annual COTS Walk – which is coming up on May 3.

This spring, Kate is teaching a course in community development and applied economics that she is hoping will ripple well beyond the 16 students in her class. The goal? Use a $5,000 grant from Cabot Creamery Cooperative to raise awareness of the homeless across the UVM campus. The course is called the Cabot Community Marketing Challenge. The tactics include guerrilla marketing such as “static clings” that stick to mirrors to show that anyone can be the face of homelessness, as well as more traditional efforts such as posters, bus ads, and social media.

“It costs about $800 to prevent a family from becoming homeless,” Kate said, “but as much as $10,000 to get that family back into housing. So we are focusing on prevention.”

In addition, some of her students will be walking the talk at the COTS Walk three weeks from today.

I’m a big fan of the COTS Walk. It’s not simply that it’s a very pleasant couple of miles through Burlington, Vermont and raises somewhere around $180 thousand annually for the shelter. It’s not even the great company of 1,500 other people walking with you for the same cause. It’s not even the Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream you get to savor when you finish.

It’s that you actually walk through the different COTS shelters on the journey. You see the insides of the men’s and women’s shelters, the day station, and the different family shelters. (Yes, homelessness is so extensive in the Burlington area that we have multiple family shelters.) The face of homelessness? It’s often a child. Last month, COTS launched its #172VT campaign, because it counted 172 homeless children in our community.

And for Hannah Woodruff, the walk brings her back to the family shelters where she initially volunteered with her mother when she was in middle school. “I was shy at first,” she recalls. “I listened a lot. What got to me was seeing the kids there my age. A couple of times there was a girl only slightly younger than I was, and together we decorated flowerpots. They were going to take them to their apartment because they were about to move out of the shelter. That felt really good to me, especially because it was someone I could relate to.”

You can get a small taste of the power and the poignancy of moments like that on the COTS Walk. “Homelessness is not an abstract concept,” Hannah added. “It’s a real thing and involves real people. It’s important to remember that there are people behind the word.”

So how do you change the world? You decorate flowerpots in the spring with homeless kids at the local shelter. Or you bring gingerbread houses there – as well as the Skittles, the chocolates, and the peppermints so they can transform them into fairy tale mansions. Or you volunteer at the annual phone-a-thon. Or you teach a college course in how to raise the visibility of the homeless.

Or on May 3, a spring Sunday afternoon, you join your neighbors and walk the streets of Burlington on their behalf.

* * *

To register for the COTS Walk or obtain your pledge sheets, visit http://www.cotsonline.org and click on “COTS Walk.” Questions? Call Gillian at (802) 864-7402.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on April 12, 2015. Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives in paperback next month.)


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The ties that bind? A baseball’s cross-stitching.

photo1On Monday afternoon, my beloved New York Mets resume their annual quest to reach mediocrity. Once again they will try to win a few more games than they lose. They haven’t done that since 2008. But tomorrow someone will actually shout “Play Ball” in Washington D.C., where the Mets start their season against the Nationals, and baseball will be back.

Throughout spring training, there was a lot of talk that 2015 is a “put up or shut up” year for the Mets. They actually won a lot in March. The wild-eyes optimists were saying that they might even sneak into the playoffs as a wild card team. We’ll see.

But baseball for me has never been about winning and losing. This is, of course, the difference between a Mets fan and a Yankee fan. It’s always about winning for the Yankees. But when I think of the Mets and baseball, I think of my father, my brother, or the solitary pleasure I took in the sport as an overweight kid who was — given the adult I would become — surprisingly shy. I understand that baseball may be the sport of dinosaurs, a second fiddle to football, but I know also that it’s the sport of family.

There is my father, laughing over dinner one night in October 1969, at the way he and the other “mad men” at his Manhattan advertising agency had thrown great heaps of confetti out their skyscraper windows because the Miracle Mets had finally won the World Series and were being given a tickertape parade. The punchline of his story? The parade had not gone past the avenue with his office building. But no one cared, because this was the Mets and this was baseball, and New York’s ultimate losers were winners.

There is my brother, five years my senior, but still willing to play one-on-one Wiffle ball with me for hours, our backstop (and strike zone) the garage door at the end of our driveway. He would also teach me to play the “Official Denny McLain Magnetik Baseball Game.” (Yes, “magnetik” really was spelled that way. In hindsight, that makes sense. McLain was the last pitcher to win 30 games in a single season, but he was also a little wacky.) The game was a metal baseball field roughly two feet square, with a small marble for a baseball and a spring-loaded bat the size of a cigarette. My brother figured out how to pitch a curveball, the marble wrapping around the bat and landing in the strike zone against the wall. I never won; but I always felt loved.

And he taught me a game called dice baseball he found in the “Fireside Book of Baseball.” There I am spending hours alone in the finished basement of our suburban colonial in a New York City suburb in the summers when I was 10, 11, and 12 years old, playing the game on a folding card table. The game was a blunt instrument — double sixes were a home run for every player, pitchers and cleanup hitters alike — but I was addicted to it. Each year I played the same 162-game schedule as the Mets, using their roster, and I kept meticulous statistics on the performance of the players in my fictional league. By hand I frequently calculated the earned run average for my ten pitchers, and the batting average for my 15 position players.

I spent so many hours down there that my parents must have feared I was an elementary school serial killer and I had human body parts in the refrigerator. But I was untroubled and content; it was the perfect respite from the world for a pudgy kid who was awkward and shy.

As poet Donald Hall once reminded us, “Baseball is continuous like nothing else among American things, an endless game of repeated summers, joining the long generations of all the fathers and all the sons.” And, yes, the brothers.

I have no expectations that the Mets will win the pennant this year. But in April? All that matters is that baseball is back, and at least in my mind I am but a son and a brother, and summer, once more, is nearing.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on April 5, 2015. Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives in paperback next month.)

close your eyes mech


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Perchance to dream – and then to write

A print of the Cynthia Price painting, ‘Moving to Higher Ground,’ hangs in Bohjalian’s bedroom. He savors it because of the way it combines his love of Vermont and his fascination with dreams.

A print of the Cynthia Price painting, ‘Moving to Higher Ground,’ hangs in Bohjalian’s bedroom. He savors it because of the way it combines his love of Vermont and his fascination with dreams.

I’m writing a novel about sleep, and so lately I’ve been trying to understand my dreams. A novel about sleep may sound like a yawn, but at the moment I’m finding it eye-opening.

I’ve also been reading a bit of Freud and a bit of Jung, but a little of either analyst goes a long way in a novel – especially a novel set in Vermont in the present. I’ve also been thumbing through articles on nightmares and essays about dreams about sex (which, of course, can also be nightmares). I’ve contemplated the way we use the words “nightmare” and “dream,” which is rather like navel-gazing, unless the people using the words are James Joyce, Frida Kahlo, or Martin Luther King, Jr.

And just as I am thinking more about my own dreams, I am driving my wife crazy by asking her about hers. My wife may be a lucid dreamer. Sometimes when she is asleep, she’s aware that she’s dreaming and has some control of the content. It also means that she is capable of waking herself up when the dream is morphing into a nightmare: before the plane she is on actually crashes, for instance. But it also means that she will remind herself as even less dramatic action is unfolding that she is dreaming and this is, perhaps, merely wish fulfillment of a sort. In the months after her mother died suddenly in 2011, she dreamt of her mother often, the two of them behaving as if her mother were still alive and they were conversing in her mother’s Manhattan apartment; always, however, my wife understood that her mother was dead and this was (sadly) only a dream. Likewise, she enjoys flying without a plane, and does so periodically – well aware that she is, technically, asleep.

And yet there is nothing we hate more as readers and viewers than a story that ends with these five words: “And then I woke up.” We feel utterly cheated. There are a few exceptions to this, of course. We do not merely forgive L. Frank Baum and “The Wizard of Oz” for building his story around Dorothy Gale’s dream; we cherish the construct. Likewise, we accept (more or less) the premise of Christopher Nolan’s movie, “Inception,” which has characters attempting to move about in one another’s subconscious and dreams.

So much of what novelists and filmmakers do is to try and convince our audiences to suspend disbelief. “Fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind,” observed John Gardner in his concise examination of our craft, “The Art of Fiction.” He compares this dream to a movie in the reader’s head, adding that most of the time there is nothing worse a writer can do than distract the reader – “[break] the film, if you will” – with bad technique. In other words, we never want to wake the reader from the fictional dream.

Which brings me back to real dreams. Lucid dreams. Nightmares. I think I know the answer to this, but one of my characters has been pondering which is more profound: the relief when we wake that a nightmare was but a dream, or the sadness when we wake that a good dream – a really good dream – wasn’t real? Certainly I’ve experienced both. Everyone has.

And it is very easy to read more into a dream than is there.

But here is the one, deeply personal reality I keep coming back to: I start writing the moment I wake up. I go downstairs and pop a sugar free Red Bull and I am off and running. It’s a work habit that goes back to my years before I became a full-time novelist: I would write everyday between five and seven a.m. in the morning before going to work at advertising agencies in Manhattan and then Burlington, Vermont.

It’s only now, as I write a book in part about sleep, that I am realizing why this time of day has always worked so well for me: I am still half-asleep when I start, and my mind is still rich with the magic of dreams.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on March 29. The ebook of Chris’s love story set in the midst of the Armenian Genocide, “The Sandcastle Girls,” is on sale this week for $1.99 wherever ebooks are sold.)


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