Category: Notables

Return of the expat


Wellesley Magazine‘s spring issue carries an essay worthy of your attention. “Not All Here” is foreign correspondent Paula Butturini’s graceful pondering of the experience of returning to the United States after 32 years abroad in London, Madrid, London, Rome, Warsaw, Berlin, Rome, and Paris.

“Lucky you,” people often respond when they ask where we’ve lived. I’m always the first to agree. But I never know how to answer when they follow up with the inevitable, “What’s it like to be home?”

My gut response—a puzzled-sounding “Home?”—tends not to go down well. But the fact is I haven’t felt at home since we moved back, and didn’t expect I would.

Butturini returns to a country much changed.

Perhaps it’s the sea changes in American life that explain my unease. Who sent our factory jobs to the developing world while I was gone, our secretarial and administrative jobs to customers’ home computers? When did poisonous party politics replace public discourse? Who canonized a new class of oligarchs and decreed that stratospheric wealth was a heavenly nod from the Creator? When did public civility and civic obligation become quaint? How can white police shootings of young black men be back in the news, half a century after Selma—the march, not the movie?

I like this paragraph, too, and am in the author’s debt for introducing me to a German term I immediately embraced:

My husband suggests that we may be missing what the Germans call Idiotenfreiheit, or the freedom enjoyed by idiots, the insane, a freedom that can apply to foreigners as well. Foreigners living outside their home country often enjoy a large measure of psychological freedom; they may be treated much the same way a country treats its own citizens who are not quite “all there.”

Idiotenfreiheit indeed.

I’m all for more essays in university magazines. We’re the perfect place for them. And Wellesley did something else I like here, which was use four pages for a two-page essay. The first two pages are devoted to a graphic opener — illustration on first page, head and deck on the second, the essay text on pages three and four. Would like to see more of that.


Clever images, good words

Clever work by the designers at Research, an annual published by Michigan Technological University. The opening spread for “The Healing Stent,” a story about using zinc in coronary artery stents, superbly conveys the size of the technology by setting an example of the life-saving arterial technology next to some red Life Savers. Too good. (Click on image to appreciate it.)

Screenshot 2015-04-20 10.31.28

The University of Texas has a clever and talented physics doctoral student named Frank Lee who likes to leave sketches on chalkboards in the physics grad student lounge. Alcalde, the UT mag, devoted a spread to some examples. My favorite is this one, derived from The Big Lebowski. The Dale abides.


Alcalde also has a worthy profile of Jake Silverstein, former editor of Texas Monthly and current editor of that hallowed scribsheet The New York Times Magazine. Writer Chris O’Connell starts out with a nifty bit of indirection:

Barbecue?” Jake Silverstein asks playfully, as he leans back in his chair inside his glass-walled office.

The 14th or so word out of his mouth, after pleasantries and a welcoming, familiar smile, is oddly pertinent. In the northeast, where we are presently, barbecue used to mean frozen hamburgers on a cheap charcoal grill. Not anymore, and partial credit goes to Silverstein. Barbecue is now familiar. It is wholly American. It’s fad-proof cuisine, the opposite of fondue or cronuts.

Do I want to ask him, a newly minted captain of New York’s media elite, from his perch on the sixth floor of the most famous newspaper and magazine building in the world, about barbecue? It hadn’t occurred to me, but yes. Yes I do.

Silverstein, MFA ’06, took over as the editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine in May 2014 after nearly six years at the helm of Texas Monthly, and his legacy at that hallowed institution is already defined—beyond a profound emphasis on longform journalism—by a predilection for the ever-growing culture of slow-cooked meats.

One part of the story gave me chills. O’Connell spoke to Texas Monthly executive editor Pamela Colloff about working with Silverstein on her piece “The Innocent Man,” which won a National Magazine Award.

Executive editor Pamela Colloff had the same nurturing experience while writing “The Innocent Man,” the epic story of Michael Morton, who spent nearly 25 years in prison after being falsely accused of murdering his wife. As her story ballooned to almost 16,000 words—vying for serious print real estate at that point—she panicked.

“He said, ‘Just keep going, just keep writing,'” Colloff remembers. “That’s not what you typically hear from an editor after the 16,000-word mark. He was not hemming me in, or urging, ‘You’ve got to finish this story.'”

Silverstein also made the unorthodox decision to split the story into two parts over consecutive issues, as it landed at a novella-esque 27,000 words when the dust settled.

An editor encouraging a writer to produce a 27,000-word piece? Oh, be still my fluttering heart.

As you’ll see if you follow the link, Alcalde did their usual exemplary job of applying HTML-5 to their online treatment of the story. Damn them.

Look in the back

HARVxCV1x0315From the start of my career, this has been the pattern: Rewrite the top of the story 10 or 15 times, rewrite the bulk of the story a half-dozen times, rewrite the end maybe twice. I work sequentially paragraph by paragraph. By the time a story is ready for typeset, the first fourth has benefited (I hope) from 10 times the attention paid to the last fourth. I always wonder—can readers tell?

The back of the book in our magazines often feels to me like it gets a similar amount of attention relative to the front of the book and the feature well. So it was a pleasant surprise to find some excellent prose in the back of Harvard Magazine‘s March-April issue. First, an essay by Sophia Nguyen, discussing Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, a book you will be hearing more about. Second, a condensed portrait of a farrier by Nell Porter Brown titled “No Hoof, No Horse.”

The latter piece is as much equine science as alumni profile, imparted by Brown with a deft touch. She is much aided by a quotable subject in farrier Hilary Cloos.

Injuries do happen, which is why Cloos favors shoeing long-term-performance horses like her “clients.” Farriers get heated over topics like letting horses run barefoot, she reports: “It’s akin to people who think human runners should run without sneakers. Some can, and there are those who can’t. We haven’t genetically selected for good feet with domesticated horses: we’ve selected for good breeding, we’ve chosen for pretty, fast, or jumps high, and those are not necessarily paired with good feet. In the wild, horses are selected for good feet: the fleet-footed stallions catch the babes and the good-footed mares can carry the babies to term.”

What’s not to like about “the fleet-footed stallions catch the babes”?

Nguyen, a new hire at Harvard, is an acute reader and dexterous writer. I could quote a lot of good graphs but will settle for this one:

The contemporary personal essay habitually makes a certain swerve: when the author feels compelled to announce that she fully expects to be disliked or dismissed. Then she renews her commitment to authenticity, warts and all; the act of writing is framed as a bold transgression. Whether defensive disclaimer or preemptive strike, the subtext is always the same—“I am watching you watch me”—and wrapped up in the bravado is a gambit to gain the reader’s sympathy and respect. This reflex appears as often in print as it does in online outlets: Daum’s The Unspeakable, Gay’s Bad Feminist, and Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl all have prefaces working overtime to justify their very existence. That they take pains to be taken seriously is understandable, but disheartening: imagine if, in the run-up to the vault, Olympic gymnasts first had to argue the point value of each twist and tuck.

Astute analysis, wide reading lightly borne, and that nailed landing—”the point value of each twist and tuck.” Dwight Garner reviewed Ongoingness in The New York Times, and Garner knows what he’s doing, but in this case he did bring in a piece as good as Nguyen’s. Nice.

You don’t see this every day

Autumn-Scene-pt-3-optI am an issue behind in my reading of Scene, the magazine out of Colgate, but I had to make note of something extraordinary anyway, from the Fall 2014 issue: A president’s letter that actually addresses a contentious campus issue with something more than strategic banality. Colgate apparently has been wrestling with some serious on-campus problems regarding race, gender, and ethnicity, as have many American universities. Things got bad enough for students to form a group, the Association of Critical Collegians, and the ACC staged a sit-in at the Hurwitz Admission Center. (I’m getting misty-eyed with nostalgia here.)

Not only did the magazine report on the protest, President Jeffrey Herbst addressed the situation in a letter to the magazine.

When more than 150 students began a sit-in at the Hurwitz Admission Center on Monday, September 22, it was only a matter of hours before I came to believe that it would become one of the most important events in Colgate’s recent history.

You can read more about the sit-in in the news story, but here I want to share my thoughts about this student movement, the incredibly important issues behind it, and where the university is headed and why.

Herbst goes on to say

My colleagues and I recognized immediately that these were important issues that had to be addressed, and, as an educational moment, this would help Colgate to move forward. We told the demonstrators that we were with them and we knew that candid conversation between us would be critical to develop a constructive resolution to the sit-in.

Well, damn.

While I’m catching up on matters Colgatian, Scene published in the same issue a terrific undergraduate essay—how often do I get the chance to use those three words together in a sentence?—titled “My God. My Enemy. My Eating Disorder.” Writer Kathryn Van Scoter is, if I’ve done the math right, a junior at Colgate, a religious studies major who has contended with an eating disorder. She describes and addresses her disorder as ED.

It’s been nine years since I met ED (Eating Disorder). Our love affair began ever so slowly, until I fell face-first into his arms and the unknown.

On a two-week exchange program to Mexico, ED took me by surprise. We had our first dance whilst twirling blissfully around a plate of untouched spaghetti and, soon after, we shared our first kiss on a scale offset by 10 pounds. When I returned home, my family was wary of my engagement, so I kept my suitor’s identity secret.

ED and I shared simple pleasures. There was nothing that made us happier than watching my father and brother devour pizza while we shared dry salad with Mom. Like any good lover, ED rewarded my good behavior with the intoxicating flowers of femininity.

Read the whole thing. As a writer, this kid’s got chops. Rebecca Costello edits the magazine.

A Doctor Writes

manchandaThere are physicians who can write—Atul Gawande is Exhibit A—but they are uncommon. Rishi Manchanda is one of them, if “Wide-Angle Healing” in the Winter 2014 issue of Tufts Medicine is any indication. Manchanda’s piece is a cogent, well-wrought explication of all that’s wrong with emphasizing medical care in US health-care thinking.

The physician-author, who is founder and president of HealthBegins, a new health care company in Los Angeles, opens with an effective narrative from his personal clinical experience:

It was an unseasonably warm spring day in south-central Los Angeles in 2011. Veronica, a 33-year-old woman, sat in my exam room, her head in her hands. Her otherwise tall and formidable figure was slouched over in pain. This was not the first time she had felt this way. For more than a year her headaches had come and gone. And each time, the pain would ripple through her life, disrupting her family and work. This episode was no different. She had missed about seven days of work as an office manager at an auto parts dealer in the past month.

Good start. Manchanda uses Veronica’s case as an example of someone who had received treatment that he describes as “what is generally considered adequate care.” Adequate even though Veronica continued to have debilitating headaches. It was only after his clinic noted that her apartment was afflicted with leaks, mold, and roaches, that he could correctly diagnose her problem as a reaction to what she (and her children) had been breathing in the apartment and finally deliver an effective intervention to make her well.

I noted Manchanda’s cogency:

The nature-vs.-nurture debate can no longer be viewed as a battle between equals. The impact of nurture—in the form of the social and environmental settings that surround us—is far more powerful than we’ve ever imagined These are the forces that shape or distort our genes, our behaviors and the landscape of opportunity in our communities.

These essays in alumni magazines frequently suffer from being mealy mouthed; authors shy from asserting anything that might provoke. Manchanda writes like he means it:

I would suggest that the current standard of care itself is simply unacceptable, from a moral and an economic perspective.

That would have been a stronger statement without the “I would suggest” bit, but it still stands out from the vanilla banality that permeates so many university magazines. Good work.