Great Contemporary Writing


Okay.  I only have 3 example so far, but there will be others...

Letters from Idaho: Shadows Everywhere

The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings,
which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.

- Thomas Merton

by Anthony Doerr

We return to Idaho from our year in Rome and I start having nightmares I’m dropping my sons: They slip off chairs, rooftops; their skulls thud on the tile.

I wake sweating.  I ride my bike to work and climb the dusty stairwell and the view out the window is already familiar: a film of dust, the cornice of the Smith Block Building across the street, pocked with holes from which pigeons emerge occasionally and strut and preen.  Beyond that a line of trees by the river, and the white tower of the train depot, and then sky the rest of the way - hot and white, hazed with smoke from lightning fires.

The shadow of apocalypse, it seems, is on everything.  Three nights ago a fire burned maybe 6 miles from our house and I could see the flames - orange and small - from the interstate.  Now I can’t take my eyes off pictures coming in from New Orleans: First the satellite photos of spiraling clouds; then the families on rooftops; then the prisoners quarantined on a half-flooded section of freeway.  People refusing to leave their homes, people drowning trying to get out.

I look up at the office ceiling and wonder: What kind of strength would it take to tear through a plywood and shingle roof?

Nine thousand miles away, families in Sadr City turn out in the dark to watch almost a thousand corpses - including babies - process past their houses.

My friend Al writes, "Start gathering animals. I’ll prepare the ark."  I think: I should start keeping an ax in the corner of the bedroom.

Last week the president was in town for four minutes, grinning on the tarmac at the Boise airport on his way to a helicopter that would take him 90 miles north for "the mountain biking."  Now tens of thousands of people are smelling their own fæces in the Louisiana Superdome and the president’s face is back on the television listing resources he’s sending them.  135,000 blankets. 5.4 million packaged meals.  "Everything will work out in the end," he says.

The Wall Street Journal runs a poll called "Prioritizing: If you had to flee your home, what would you take?  Join the discussion."

Is this real?  Is this what it’s like being an American?  Ten minutes ago, at the bagel shop, I watched a woman pour sugar into her coffee for maybe 25 seconds.  I’m walking back to the office when I pass an enormous lady, her face bright red, sitting on the sidewalk, bawling.

I kept walking.  Horrible, I know.  To see our planet from space, you’d never know about all our human dramas, all these cravings being played out in our deserts and gutted forests and drained wetlands, the Earth a tinderbox of sage and cheatgrass.  The bright flares of human desires, the endless, indifferent swirls of the skies.

Everyday we are reminded how little control we have: a broken air conditioner, a sore throat building despite the dozen times you’ve washed your hands.  And yet we spin our tires; we make our music.  Two plates of stone on the ocean floor collide, and the resulting percussion sends waves of water to drown 200,000 human beings.

All our cities will be ruins someday.  To walk out a door or ingest a hamburger or bend to tie a shoe is to risk your life.  You stoop; an invisible, unseen bullet might just whiz past your head, or it might fly straight through your throat.

To live is to risk.  You have no other choice.  You can’t hide inside all day.  The problem is, I can’t get over the fact that I’m failing, failing because I should be in New Orleans right now, using my hands to help somebody.

Anthony Doerr is the author of a short story collection, The Shell Collector, and a novel, About Grace.  His fiction has been published in seven languages and has won awards including the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the NY Public Library's Young Lions Award, Barnes & Noble's Discover Prize, two O. Henry Prizes, two Ohioana Book Awards, and the Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University.  He has lived in Africa, New Zealand, Italy, and Ohio; now his home is in Boise, Idaho.  His wife is ridiculously good-looking and his twin sons are preternaturally skilled at sports.

Source: 2 September 2005

What My Uncle Knew About War

by Dick Cavett

Tell me, are you too getting just a little bit fed up with our leader’s war?  Isn’t everybody?  Do you actually know anyone who thinks it’s all going to turn out fine?  Except that chubby optimist Dick Cheney, of course, who thinks the Titanic is still afloat.

And am I alone in finding our leader’s behaviour at press conferences irritating?  I mean that smirky, frat-boy joking manner he goes into while, far away, people he dispatched to the desert are having their buttocks shot away.  It’s worst when he does that thing of his that the French call making a "moue"; when he pooches his lips out and thrusts his face forward in a way that seems to say, "Aren’t I right?  And don’t you adore me?"

As in his case, I was never a soldier, but God knows I wanted to be.  Not in later years when my draft number came up for real, but back in my Nebraska grade-school days when Jimmy McConnell and Dickie Cavett watched John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima at least five times, one of us sneaking the other in free through the alley exit.  Then we went home, got our weapons (high-caliber cap pistols) and took turns being John Wayne.  The alley was Iwo Jima.

Years later I met Big John.  It couldn’t have been better.  He was in full cowboy drag on an old Western (studio) street and mounted on his great horse Dollar.  He looked exactly as he did in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and it took my breath away.  I didn’t just like him, I loved him.  I sorta wished I hadn’t liked him quite as much, so I could have asked him, "Duke, how come not you nor any of your four strapping sons ever spent one day in the armed services?"  ("I’m merely asking," I might have added to lighten the tone.  Or delay the concussion.)

I didn’t dodge the draft, and unlike our VP I didn’t have "a different agenda."  I didn’t have to.  I had mononucleosis (imagine how the "nuke-you-lur" president would injure that word in pronunciation) and, my draft board said, they had way too many guys and nothing was happening, war-wise.  Sound preposterous?  And yet there was such a time.


I have a statement: Anybody who gives his life in war is an idiot.

I guess I left off the quotation marks to let the words have their full effect.  They aren’t mine, but I’m related to them.  They’re my Uncle Bill’s words, and his credentials for uttering the remark are a shade better than mine.

He may well have been the sole Marine to have survived driving landing barges on three bloody invasions in the South Pacific.  I asked an old Marine vet once how rare Bill’s survival was.  He was gifted of speech: "I’d say survivors of what your uncle did could probably hold their reunion in a phone booth and still have room for most of Kate Smith."  (We’ll pause while youngsters Google.)  "My guess is that your uncle is unique."

Bill said that aside from knowing that any minute was likely to be your last, the worst part of the job was having to drop the landing barge’s front door so the guys could swarm out onto the beach.  Despite the hail of bullets against that door, he had to drop it, knowing that the front five or six guys would be killed instantly.

The phrase Bill hated most was "gave his life."  That phrase is a favourite of our windbag politicians; especially, it seems, the dimmer ones who say "Eye-rack."

"Your life isn’t given," I remember him saying, "it’s brutally ripped away from you.  You’re no good to your buddies dead, and when the bullets start pouring in you don’t give a goddamn about God, country, Yale, your loved ones, the last full measure of devotion or any other of that Legionnaire patriotic crapola.  You just want you and your buddies to see at least one more sunrise."

Bill also served on land and experienced something so god-awful that he thought he would go mad: "Tom [his best friend] and I were trotting along, firing our rifles, and I turned to say something to Tom and his head was gone."  (Bill had great difficulty telling this.  I guess I felt honoured that he had not been able to speak of it for years.)  He said the worst part was that while still holding the rifle, the body, now a fountain, continued for four or five steps before falling.  He hated to close his eyes at night because that ghastly horror was his dependable nightly visitor for years - like Macbeth, murdering sleep.

By sheer chance I was out on the sidewalk in front of Bill’s house (we lived next door) when he arrived home from the war. I wasn’t even sure it was Bill at first, he looked so much older.

I blurted, "Hey, Bill, welcome home."  He was two feet from me but neither saw nor heard me.  I knew the phrase current then.  Bill was "shellshocked."  Not the current "post-traumatic stress disorder" or whatever the PC-sounding phrase is today.  For the first six months he was home, he slept in the yard.

You will think less of me for this, but my friend Jim and I, noticing how poor Bill jumped at sudden sounds, thought a firecracker might be in order.  Bill’s training kicked in by reflex.  He hit the ground so fast it looked like film with frames removed.  And, lacking the standard-issue shovel, he started digging with his hands.  He never knew who did it.  As for Jim and me, I trust that this will be deducted from our shares in paradise.

Isn’t it the excellent combat chronicler Paul Fussell who gets credit for the phrase "the thousand-mile stare"?  It described the look of the haggard soldiers coming back from their first battle as the eager, fresh-faced kids - which they had been a few days earlier - filed past them on their way "in."  By definition, both groups were the same age, but there were no young faces in the returning group.  They looked more like fathers than sons.

It amazes me that this bungled war can still be considered controversial.  Who are the 28% anyway, who think that George W, the author of this mess, has "done a heckuva job"?

The other word Bill hated was "sacrifice."  Sacrifice is something you give up in order to get something in return.  What good are we getting from this monstrous error?  Cooked up as it was by that infamous group of neocons (accent on last syllable) who, draft-averse themselves, were willing to inflict on the (largely unprivileged) youth of this country their crack-brained scheme for causing democracy to take root and spread like kudzu throughout that bizarre and ill-understood part of the world, the Middle East.

What service is this great country getting out of all this tragedy, other than the certainty that historians will ask in disbelief, "Was there no one to stand up to this overweening president?"

I cringe at the icky, sentimental way the president talks about what we owe to the people of plucky little Iraq.  You’d think we all grew up ending our "Now I lay me down to sleep..." with "... and please, Lord, be good to Iraq."  They detest us now, along with just about everybody else.  Personally, I don’t give a damn what happens to Iraq, and don’t think it’s worth a single American life.  Or any other kind.  Haven’t philosophers taught us the immorality of destroying something of infinite value - like a human life - in order to achieve a possible good?  I guess not.

For weeks the word "cause" has rolled around in my head, attached to an elusive quote.  I found it.  It’s from Shakespeare’s Henry V (as distinct, I suppose, from Paris Hilton’s "Henry V") and it’s the part where the king, in disguise and unrecognised, sits at a fire listening to some of his men discuss the next day’s battle and what it means to be fighting in a good cause.  One says, "But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, ‘We died at such a place,’ ... their wives left poor behind ... their children rawly left.  I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle. ...  Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it."

Source: posted 24 May 2007 by Lew Goodman from The New York Times 28 February 2007

All Apologies

by Henry Alford

I sometimes find strangers’ manners so lacking that I have started engaging in an odd kind of activism.  I call it reverse etiquette: I supply the apology that they should be giving me.

When the ebullient young woman behind the cash register at the grocery store dropped my apple on the ground, she smiled nervously, picked it up and put it in my bag, but said nothing.  So I offered, in a neutral tone of voice, “Oh, I’m sorry.”  This did not elicit the remorse I hoped it would — she simply grimace-smiled and said, “That’s okay.”  So I added, “Sorry about that — I really didn’t mean for you to drop that.”  At which she stared off into the mid-distance as if receiving instructions from outer space.

A few weeks later, the skinny, 20-something gentleman manning the cash register at the pizzeria told me, “I can’t break a 20.”  So I asked, “Would you mind terribly if I went next door and got change?”  He said, “That’s fine.”  When I returned, no thanks or apology forthcoming from him, I said in a flat, non-sarcastic voice, “So sorry — I hope I didn’t keep you waiting?”  Confused, he shook his head no.  “I forget stuff sometimes,” I said — a cue that went unmet.

How did I get here?  I’d feel like a marm or a scold if I told a stranger that he has bad manners; so instead I wage a campaign of subtle remonstrance.  That this subtle remonstrance was, in its initial forays at least, mostly lost on my interlocutors did not faze me: being able to sublimate my irritation was its own reward.  But I like to think that in some instances my behaviour, by causing others to wonder what I’m going on about, may help to carry out etiquette’s mandate: to promote empathy.  It’s my distinct hope that the person who is apologised to when she drops my apple is a person who will have an epiphany the next time someone drops her apple.

And yet, placated though I am by the realisation that I am providing others with gentle, time-released lessons, sometimes the angry little man inside me wants more.  Much more.  To wit, an apology.

So I have become more explicit in my acts of reverse etiquette.  The other day I apologised to a tall, bearded man who slammed his duffel into me at Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street.  Then I told him, “I’m saying what you should be saying.”  He responded, in toto, “Oh, right.”

Though this response could not be described as “blanket-like,” it nevertheless gave me enough ground to see that I was on the right track.  I realised that I just need to be even more explicit with people.  So the other day, when a stroller-pushing mother semi-vigorously bumped into me at 6th Avenue and 8th Street — this corner is apparently the Bermuda Triangle of manners — I expressed remorse, and added, “No one says I’m sorry anymore, so I do it for them.”


“My idea is that if I say I’m sorry, then at least the words have been released into the universe.”

She stared at me with equal parts irritation and faint horror, as if I had just asked her to attend a 3-hour lecture on the history of the leotard.

I continued: “The apology gets said, even if it’s not by the right person.  It makes me feel better.  And maybe you’ll know what to say next time.”

“Wow,” she said.  (The tickets for the leotard lecture were $200, or $500 at the door.)

And then, finally, came the words I have longed these many months to hear: “I’ll think about it.”

Henry Alford is the author of the forthcoming How to Live.

Source: 10 November 2008

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