In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I would love to spend the day in Sandor Katz’s kitchen [“Countertop Culture,” interview by Liz Crain, May 2010]. We have gotten too far away from wholesome food in this country. I was at a large supermarket recently and kept asking myself whether I could feed this or that product to my family in good conscience: MSG in soups, corn syrup in everything from sweet pickles to jam, and a two-inch-long list of ingredients for a bread that has the word nature in its name.
I thoroughly enjoyed Sarah Rakel Orton’s short story “Scars and Scales” [January 2010] and was surprised that the only printed letter about it was negative [Correspondence, May 2010]. Flo Kellogg requested that instead of publishing this type of “science-fiction” tale, The Sun publish more “down-to-earth fiction packed with humor, drama, and human emotion.”
It is difficult for me to think of a more down-to-earth description of a young teenager coping with the death of her mother and holding a grieving family together than Orton’s story, in which the narrator’s father and brothers gradually turn into thick-skinned, giant reptiles, and she continues to care for them. Part of the appeal is the author’s insistence that we take the reptiles in a literal manner, not just as a metaphor for the protective imagination of the young protagonist. The reader is forced to experience the child’s fractured state of mind as she becomes alienated from her family.
Fiction allows us to expand our empathy for people in circumstances we have not experienced ourselves, and fantasy often provides the best access to the complexities of another person’s mental state.
I can appreciate Sy Safransky’s thoughts in the most recent fundraising letter [Friend of The Sun, May 2010]. I’ve struggled all my life to stay awake. At forty I cried bitter tears when I realized that the reason I couldn’t remember much about raising my children was that I’d slept through their childhoods. In my fifties, when my parents died, I realized I had slept through my years with them as well. Now sixty-three and fully aware of my tendency to nod off, I am shocked almost daily to notice that I’ve been sleeping once again. Your magazine helps me stay awake.
I did a double take when I saw that the short story “The Mere Mortal” [May 2010], with its aging female protagonist, was written by a man. This only underscores what we know to be true: that it’s who we are inside that matters most.
Louis B. Jones’s character Carla is a wise and endearing woman who lightheartedly relinquishes the trappings of youth and celebrates her daughter’s coming-of-age. This is an enlightened vision of aging compared to our society’s inaccurate and mean-spirited portrayal of grudgingly over-the-hill females.
Thanks for the role model.
It might seem absurd that a two-page story about eating peas would make a grown man cry, but the M.F.K. Fisher excerpt on the May 2010 Dog-Eared Page did just that.
Though Fisher doesn’t say so explicitly, it’s clear that the joy and intensity of her experience were made possible by the fact that the meal was shared with “most of the people in the world” whom she loved. The taste of the peas, savored by a dozen or so people in harmony, was no doubt amplified by the communality of the experience. How sweet they must have been. What a glimpse of heaven.
I was disappointed in Arnie Cooper’s interview with Alex Steffen in the April 2010 issue [“The Bright Green City”]. Both interviewer and interviewee grossly mischaracterize the work of Derrick Jensen. Steffen suggests that Jensen ignores the suffering that would come with “a return to the Stone Age way of life.” In truth, Jensen is deeply concerned about the suffering that will come with the inevitable collapse of modern civilization and argues that the only way to reduce that suffering is to hasten the end of this deadly culture. To maintain his “optimistic” environmentalism, Steffen simply ignores the fundamental unsustainability of civilization and suggests that Jensen — or Steffen’s version of him — is deluded. Rather, the delusion lies in Steffen’s idea that we can tweak this culture and make it sustainable.
Perhaps this delusion arises from his ahistorical ideas about human culture. At one point he makes the absurd claim that “people have always liked to shop” and supports it with a discussion of medieval fairs in the thirteenth century. Aside from the fact that the culture of domination was well underway in medieval times, it’s ridiculous to make a claim about what people have “always” done by looking at the brief period from 1200 A.D. to the present. Humans have been around for just a bit longer and only recently developed an alienated need to purchase baubles.
Or perhaps Steffen’s delusion is rooted in a more basic misunderstanding of carrying capacity. At another point he notes people’s addiction to modern comforts and says, “Restraining prosperity simply will not work.” So a culture of growth that has already consumed most of the planet’s primary resources can keep on growing endlessly? What planet is he on? Certainly not Earth.
Alex Steffen notes, in “The Bright Green City,” that Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House, whereas Ronald Reagan was actively hostile to sustainability. I wonder if Steffen has read the New Yorker article that ran shortly after Reagan left office and included this anecdote: Reagan had just moved into the White House and was strolling across the lawn with an aide one day when he spotted the solar panels on the roof and asked what they were. The aide told him, and the president promptly instructed the aide to have them removed. They probably wound up in a dumpster and are now sitting at the bottom of a landfill outside Washington, D.C.
I wanted to send Genie Zeiger an e-mail to congratulate her on her excellent piece “20, 40, 60, 80” [April 2010], so I checked her contributor’s note to see if it contained her address. When I learned she had died, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. (Somehow I’d missed Sy Safransky’s note on the page before the essay.) I moped around for a good couple of hours, trying to wrap my tiny mind around my own mortality, as well as the hopelessly complicated relationship between life and art, and how a writer’s death had transformed a fine essay into a masterpiece of heartbreaking irony.
I’ve always admired Zeiger’s poetic yet unaffected style. I’ll miss seeing her work in The Sun.
Reading about Genie Zeiger’s life and death struck me forcefully. I too am sixty-six. I too am a writer, teacher, poet, and essayist. I too have been published in The Sun (in Readers Write). I too am Jewish. I too married a younger man. I too have witnessed a close friend, also younger than myself, die.
It could have been me, I thought. And it will be me, sooner than I’d like to think. Genie’s life, death, and generous, authentic words are a reminder — once again — to savor the days while I have them.
I failed to stick up for myself today in an encounter with a public official whose behavior was uncooperative and disrespectful. The meeting I went to next didn’t go well either. When I got home, my wife had a headache, and we quarreled like a couple of wounded animals, then made up.
I stayed awake to read the new issue of The Sun. There was Genie Zeiger in all her gentle, modest character and womanly beauty, exactly as I remembered her from the two years I had spent in her writing workshop. Her soul was as transparent in her essay as it had been in person. I forgot my difficulties and felt blessed.
I gasped when I saw in the April issue that Genie Zeiger had died. I had the great fortune of meeting her twice. The first time was at a Sun retreat in Rowe, Massachusetts. She read a piece of hers that involved the death of a young man named Patchen. Afterward I talked to her and confirmed that it was the same Patchen who had dated my co-worker long ago. Genie patted the empty seat next to her, inviting me to sit, and she filled me in on Patchen as if I were an old friend. I had felt alone and vulnerable at Rowe, and it was reassuring to experience that kind of authentic contact.
Two years later I saw Genie again at a Sun retreat in Big Sur, California. By then I was in the throes of two crises that felt monumental. I took Genie’s writing workshop but couldn’t read my contribution aloud without breaking into tears. After the workshop Genie asked me to come for a walk with her, and she took my hand and spoke about her own struggles. I vividly remember one thing she said: that our relationships with our parents keep evolving, even after our parents die. She told me of a healing dream she’d had in which her father had embraced her and showered her with approval as never before. I came away with a great deal of hope.
Now that she’s gone, I feel cheated. We’ve lost an authentic voice that formed as immediate a connection with readers as Genie did with me in person. It was eerie to read her assumption that she would live to be eighty. Why couldn’t it have been true?
The Sun has been an ongoing inspiration to me. Your advertising-free model is an example I frequently hold up to others. It is also fuel for my own grass-roots endeavor, Whole Wheat Radio, an effort to support independent musicians. I cannot thank you enough for showing everyone that there is an alternative to accepting advertising. You have, in a quiet and dignified way, made a significant contribution to progressive media everywhere.