That was the hum

What follows is the text of the first speech I ever gave in my life: a talk at the American Library Association Winter Conference, before the publication of my first book, The Swimming Pool.

I came across it the other day as I was writing a letter to Kemie Nix, one of the teachers I thank in the acknowledgments for The Half Brother. It’s quite possible I wouldn’t be a writer now without Mrs. Nix. She was the one who made me feel like I wasn’t an oddball for being a voracious reader, but instead special. She affirmed my obsession, and thus gave me the strength to let my nerd flag fly.

As you’ll see, my speech was largely about her. It turned out that many people in the room that day knew her, which is no surprise, as she is a children’s literature legend. 

I was, of course, quite conscious that I was talking to a roomful of librarians. But every word I say here is true.

 

Hi. Thank you so much for having me here today, and thank you for braving this weather—I am originally from Atlanta, so I feel your pain. [note: It was January, in Boston.] I’ve been here 20 years and I’m just starting to get used to it. Thank you also for including me in this wonderful group of writers. It is a real privilege.

This is my first official gig in honor of The Swimming Pool, and I am so glad it’s here with you today, and that I get to talk about libraries. I grew up in libraries.

Although I should mention here—full disclosure—that I also grew up, quite literally, in a bookstore, my father’s bookstore, Oxford Books in Atlanta, which in its day was a wonderful store. It’s no longer there. I worked there in the summers and I hung out the rest of the year and filched as much as I could get away with. You might think that as the daughter of a bookstore owner I wouldn’t have much use for libraries, but my book needs were vast, and if I had taken everything I wanted from my dad he wouldn’t have had a children’s section left. I believe that’s called shrinkage. I was not allowed to shrink the bookstore. So I ended up, of course, at the library.


 Every book contained its own world, and the library contained hundreds, thousands, of books, and that was a kind of infinity. That was the hum.


Some of my earliest and best memories are of my elementary school library. It was one of the places in my life where I have felt the safest—not that I have felt unsafe, thank God, in other places. But I walked into that library and felt cocooned. I felt surrounded by a hum, of stories, of knowledge, and surrounded by the caring of both the people I knew, the teachers and librarians, and of those I didn’t: the writers, the mysterious, omnipotent writers, who wanted to share those stories with me. Maybe I’d have to give the books back. But if you were me, you would also check them out again and again and again.

In my memory, I am alone in this library a lot. In reality, I’m sure I wasn’t allowed to roam the halls of my school alone, or to go wherever I pleased whenever I pleased, but even if it’s not true this picture of me alone in the library is part of its appeal, because I like being alone. That’s one of the requirements of being a writer, of course. And I think especially as a child, being alone meant freedom—it meant no one telling me what to do, no one distracting me. It meant that I was free to explore whatever I wanted. In other words, all those books. The one person I really remember in the library, other than myself, was Mrs. Nix, the Children’s Literature teacher. Some of you, actually, might know Mrs. Kemie Nix, of Atlanta. She’s still teaching. More on her in a minute.

So you walked in the library and there’s the librarian’s desk and there is the stamp pad and the stamper, and the place where you write your name on the card. There are shelves all around, and in the middle of the room are some round tables—but I am headed to the other end of the room: to the fiction. The fiction stacks were in lines, like this. In my memory, I am surrounded by these stacks, and they seem enormous, enfolding—but I can also just reach the top shelf.


 I’d take this big teetering pile of books to the checkout desk and surely, surely I am transgressing, but no, they let me take them all.


So over here, the alphabet starts—we’ve got Lloyd Alexander. We’ve got E. Nesbit—but she’s filed here under Bland, which she certainly was not, in the Bs. I found out that’s what they did, it was this little secret: there on the spine she’s E. Nesbit, but inside on the copyright page, in that librarian handwriting–what’s up with that?–it says she’s Mrs. Edith Bland. So I felt privy to this little secret, to the rest of her name. Then there’s Susan Cooper; then Edward Eager; jump over one, C.S. Lewis—you are probably detecting a pattern here. I was definitely a little Anglophile fantasy nut. But also Burnett, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and John Fitzgerald, of the Great Brain, and way over here Laura Ingalls Wilder–and many, many more, some of whose names I unfortunately don’t remember.

But the point is that I am in these stacks and I am surrounded by things I already love, or things I am going to love. The sense of possibility there was intoxicating. Every book contained its own world, and the library contained hundreds, thousands, of books, and that was a kind of infinity. That was the hum.

As I got older the hum continued, and changed a bit—in my high school library, the hum got louder, and the tone changed, with all the hormones zinging around–and in my college library things were getting serious, and the hum was definitely louder still, and different again, not better or worse, just different. Because all that nonfiction was definitely changing the tone.

When I moved to Boston, I took a couple of classes at Harvard, and I got library privileges. And let me tell you, at Widener, there’s not a hum, there’s a roar. Practically deafening.

So, I have always been well-served by my school libraries.

The summer was the time when I went to my public library. I got a few books from my dad but I had a lot of time on my hands, and, as I said, my needs were large, and at the public library there was no limit. I would wander their stacks, which were much bigger, and just pick and choose at will, get obscure things, things I’d never heard of, and I’d take this big teetering pile of books to the checkout desk and surely, surely I am transgressing, but no, they let me take them all. And then I’d go home and curl up in the corner of the sofa, inside, in the air conditioning, away from the Atlanta heat–because I was not really an outdoorsy kind of kid, as you might imagine–and I read for hours and hours, days and days. You read until your mom calls you to dinner and you look up and you’re dazed and you’re not really sure where you are, or maybe even who you are.


 For a kid who didn’t have any ribbons or trophies from track meets, or swim meets, or   horse shows, those medals confirmed that maybe, in fact, I didn’t need to get my nose out of the book.


And I wrote all the titles of all these books down, because I had done all the required summer reading by now and I was way out off the grid, and in the fall I carried my list to school and very proudly gave it to Mrs. Nix, the children’s lit teacher.

Now. I loved Mrs. Nix, and I think she loved me. I imagine I was pretty easy for Children’s Lit teacher to love—I’m not sure anyone else literally jumped up and down when it was time to go to the library or when the Scholastic book order came in. Mrs. Nix wore doubleknit pantsuits (this was the 70s) and she had a round face and round sort of hair, which she wore in a big round bun, every day, with a velvet bow. Reepicheep was her favorite character; you’d get extra credit if you knew that. Starting in 2nd grade, she came to our classroom several times a week and we talked about books. We kept a reading journal, and we had to read every night and write down what we read.

At the end of the year, there was a reading banquet, where Mrs. Nix gave out medals. There was a bronze medal, for second most books read (this was for every grade); there was a silver medal, for most books read; and there was a gold medal, for the best books read. One year I won the bronze, and the next year the silver, and the next the gold. And for a kid who didn’t have any ribbons or trophies from track meets, or swim meets, or horse shows, those medals confirmed that I was, in fact, doing something important, during all those hours lost in other worlds. Those medals confirmed that maybe I didn’t need to get my nose out of the book.

So I had this list of all the books I had read, starting when I was seven or eight, in the back of my reading journal, and the list grew and grew.

I went to a school that was K through 12, and elementary school lasted then through 6th grade. When we were getting ready to graduate, and go across campus to the scary junior high, Mrs. Nix said to us, “Give me your lists. Give me your list of books and I will keep it safe, I will put it in my files, and someday when you graduate”—which was of course impossible to imagine—“when you graduate, come back and I will give you your list. But make sure to give it to me, don’t keep it yourself, because you’ll lose it.” So I gave her my list.

And I didn’t forget about it. I was probably the only one who thought about that list for the next six years. And I wanted the list—especially as I got older and my memory got fuzzier of what books were actually on it—but I thought, no no, Mrs. Nix has the list. The list is safe.


 That’s what libraries do: they keep those worlds alive, and available, like so many magic wardrobes, all lined up.


 

And then one day, miraculously, I was a senior in high school, and I was eighteen years old, and I made the trek across campus back to the elementary school, where everything was very, very small. The chairs were little bitty and the toilets were little bitty and the stacks in the library were to about here.   And I went and found Mrs. Nix in her office, which I think was literally the size of a broom closet, and I said, “I’m here! I’m here for my list. I want my list.” And she said, “You came back! Of course you did! Let me get the list.”

And she looked for it.

And she couldn’t find it.

She had lost my list.

Now, I know for a fact that Mrs. Nix felt much worse than I did. She probably still loses sleep over it. I remember she wrote me when I graduated from college and said, “That was probably the stupidest thing I ever did, saying I would keep those lists! I am so, so sorry!” And she sent me the old reading lists from when I was in elementary school, because maybe those would be a substitute. And they did jog my memory, but it wasn’t the same. Because I had found the stuff that wasn’t official. I had found the stuff on the dusty shelves. I had found the stuff that people hadn’t checked out in years, and I had sunk into the sofa and into those worlds, which were still alive, even after all that time–because the world of a book is around as long as the book is. Because that’s what libraries do: they keep those worlds alive, and available, like so many magic wardrobes, all lined up.

I won’t sugarcoat it. I wish I had that list. In a way, that list would be the real story of my childhood—at least as much as the things that actually happened to me, and in some cases more so. Those worlds formed me. Those characters are in me. Watching them wrestle with their problems and make their decisions, watching them be impossibly creative and impossibly brave, watching them realize that the solution to their problems and perhaps their very survival came down to them—for what is the world of a children’s book if not a place where the adults are ancillary, and where the children, out of utter necessity, finally have power?—taught me, as well, that I could be independent, that I could be strong, that I had power.

Later on, that faith in myself helped me to believe that, just possibly, I too could become one of those magical creatures: not a faun or a fairy, but a writer.

In the end, those titles that I no longer have are the details. If I knew them, they would be like the ticket stubs in the scrapbook, the pictures that are fading a little bit, where everyone has bad hair and you can’t believe you really wore gouchos. All those titles would make me say, “Oh! Of course!” But what they would make me see would be the threads that are already tightly, inextricably woven into the fabric that is myself.

So I did become a writer, a desire which once seemed to me the height of hubris. But somehow I’ve done it. My book, The Swimming Pool, is a book for adults. It has no fairies or fauns or phoenixes, and I suppose it is only fantasy insofar as in it an older woman has an affair with a younger man. (And I would like to mention that I began writing it several years before the term cougar really entered the zeitgeist. So I suppose I was just prescient.)


 In a way, that list would be the real story of my childhood.


It is set on Cape Cod, and it’s the story of a young man, Jed McClatchey, who has lost both his parents. He is grieving, emotionally frozen, but then he falls in love with Marcella, the older woman—who he then discovers had been his father’s mistress. She is grieving too, but together they begin to inch forward—but then he, and we, begin to wonder if she knows anything about the death of Jed’s mother, whose murderer has never been found.

The Swimming Pool is definitely a story about passion, about the love between lovers, but also between sibings, between long-married spouses, and especially between parents and children. It’s a story about the connections, sometimes surprising, that bind us together, and about the ripple effects of our actions, sometimes generations later.

As a writer, of course, I hope that my book is always checked out of your libraries. I hope it’s never actually there on the shelf—I hope there’s a waiting list for it. I hope it never gathers dust. But still, I would be very happy if someday someone stumbles upon The Swimming Pool when they weren’t looking for it. My fondest hope is that readers take it home and sink into their sofas, or into their lounge chairs, or into the sand on the beach, and get lost in a world I have created, and let my characters become a part of them. And perhaps let my characters change them, as I was changed, by those hundreds–nay, thousands–of books I read, and am still reading.

Thank you.

 

Stuck in the middle with you

Today there was a review in the Wall Street Journal of a new book by Scott TimbergCulture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. Here’s the part that struck me hardest:

“While acknowledging the role of the ‘bohemian fringe,’ [Timberg] feels that the ‘churn of culture’ is generated mostly by the middle class. And while he is immune neither to pop culture nor to high art, his heart belongs to middlebrow. He is nostalgic for the ‘three-or-four-decade Age of Middlebrow,’ which, appropriately enough, he sees as having spanned the middle years of the past century. (Two examples of its fruits are Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts and ‘a book club run by W.H. Auden, Jacques Barzun, and Lionel Trilling.’) Middlebrow, in his view, ‘said that . . . there was a canon worth knowing, that art was not the same as entertainment . . . and that those who make, assess, and disseminate the arts were somehow valuable to our society regardless of their impact on GDP.’”

What’s strange is that Age of Middlebrow is what, somehow, formed my own thinking about culture, and shaped my own expectations and dreams. I’m a child of the seventies and eighties, so the only reason I can think of is that my teachers were the children of that age, and I absorbed their thinking thoroughly. (I know that I am at heart a New Critic, for the same reasons.) Without having words for it, the cultural moment I grew up in struck me as philistine (and I was, always, paying attention only to books). I longed for Paris in the twenties, New York in the thirties. When I thought (very amorphously) about wanting to be a writer, part of it was wanting to be a writer in that moment, which had already passed.

Timberg’s book opens with a chapter called “When Culture Works,” a look (says the review) at “how ‘a fortuitous kind of ecology’ can bring creative types together and stimulate art.” One of his examples is literary Boston in the fifties, and that lingering collective memory—of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, W.S. Merwin, Richard Wilbur, etc., living and creating in the then-seedy Back Bay—is very likely one of the reasons I moved to Boston at the age of 22. And why I took the first writing class of my life at the Center for Adult Education, which was where Anne Sexton met Maxine Kumin.

If I were back in grad school, I’m sure I could tear this argument to shreds. It isn’t even an argument: it’s simply a set of emotions, of longings, and of beliefs, about art and literature and the place they should hold in a just and educated culture. Art itself now has the taint of elitism. Never mind canon. Dead white men, etc. etc. (Auden! Barzun! Trilling!) Perhaps because I was actually a child of the post-civil-rights era, however, and believed that Free to Be You and Me was actually how the world worked, I always assumed the canon was simply going to widen. I assumed the best of the recent past would continue, and be altered to fit the more enlightened present.

It’s interesting to me that Timberg’s sentiment can’t be labeled definitively as either liberal or conservative, at least in 2015 terms. “A canon worth knowing…art was not the same as entertainment”:  reactionary, conservative. Genre wars! Mayday! And then the next part crunchy, impractical liberal: “[T]hose who make, assess, and disseminate the arts [are] somehow valuable to our society regardless of their impact on GDP.” It’s the GOP, after all, who always want to cut the arts funding, decimate the NEA.

I’ll read Culture Crash, although I imagine it’s going to be depressing. If we can think about what formed those ideal artistic ecologies, maybe we can better nurture them, although as in so many other areas of the culture it probably will take a wholesale transformation of our economy to make a difference.

Scott Timberg’s work for Salon is here and his website is here. He seems to know a lot about music, and so by definition is way cooler than I will ever be.

After the storm

Schools are back in session, the streets are basically clear, the sun is shining, and I feel bereft. A storm is a sort of holy time. Any time we can get that is removed from regular life, out of our control, seems holy. A blizzard especially, as long as you are warm and your house is solid: you’re encased in the wind and snow; you have no choice but to be present.

In The Half Brother there is a blizzard, and at the end the characters emerge completely transformed. Climaxing action in a storm feels natural to us. Lear on the heath. The voice of God comes out of a whirlwind: pay attention. In my book, in the storm, people finally start telling the truth.

I didn’t grow up with blizzards, not in Georgia, and when I was writing the long blizzard scene I realized it would have seemed so exotic to me at one time, and that it was a sort of arrival—that I had gone native—to know what it’s like to have snow literally blocking the door, to wait for the snowplow, to slog through snow up to your thighs.

I hear there is another storm coming, next week.

(Photo credit: Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe)

This book brought to you by

There’s been a lot of attention the last couple of days to this piece by author Ann Bauer—the title is self-explanatory: “ ‘Sponsored’ by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from.”

It’s a message that needs to be heard. Bauer was married to and then divorced from an addict, becoming a single mother to their three children, one with disabilities, before she found her “sponsor.” She began her writing career before her second marriage, but makes the very obvious point that it is simply easier to have money than not—in order to write, in this case, but really in order to do anything. And she calls out (not by name, although there’s a lot of speculation as to their identities) a couple of writers of independent means who she’s witnessed blushingly attribute their success to hard work alone.

People took offense at her message, though, as people will do. Some of them didn’t want to be told writers don’t make much money (!!!). Some had trouble with the heteropatriarchy. Some missed the point and thought the piece was gloating. Some seemed miffed that Bauer needed decent conditions and stability in which to write.

Then this piece by Susan Straight surfaced, in which she describes how she’s produced ten books in the crevices left by life: “I wrote in my green Mercury Villager van, with headlights that made it look like a shark at night, according to the girls who waited for me to pick them up from practice for everything children can practice for. For 24 years I wrote not while driving but while waiting in parking lots for hours.” Although I very much doubt it’s how Straight meant it (and it was written before Bauer’s piece), some people took her narrative as proof that people like Bauer were too precious and persnickety, required too much. That Straight—also a single mom, and, apparently, a faster writer—was tougher and nobler and deserved more credit.

Writing is hard, sometimes. It doesn’t make much money. I’ve had people ask me at readings what my advances were and how much money I’d made. I’ve had people ask me—challenge me, really—about why I didn’t self-publish instead. I’m not getting into that whole debate, except to say that there are a lot of writers out there who want desperately to believe that writing is the way to untold riches (and that the “legacy” publishers exist only to cheat authors out of these piles of cash), and they get very put out if you whisper otherwise.

Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote The Duino Elegies at his patron's castle. Nice.
Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote The Duino Elegies at his patron’s castle. Nice.

On the flip side, there are people who are outraged that writers can’t make a decent living anymore, like that’s a new thing. Well, there was a brief shining moment when F. Scott Fitzgerald could get $20,000 in 1925 dollars for a magazine story, but the longer history has been of artists having patrons—sponsors. John Gardner (in On Becoming a Novelist) said that the best thing a writer could do, male or female, was to marry rich. He was serious. Now we have a system of MFA programs and teaching positions, which works in its own imperfect way.

I don’t have any hardship stories—none that I care to share, anyway. We all have them, and some of them are more extreme than others, and some of them have to do with money and others have to do with matters that are even weightier. I’ve been the beneficiary of a great deal of privilege, and I’ve also surmounted obstacles and worked hard. I often wonder how things would have turned out if I had had to deal with circumstances like Bauer’s or Straight’s. For a while there, in my twenties and thirties, I was hanging on by my fingernails—as a writer, sometimes as a person—and that was just as a married mom of healthy children. I was determined, incredibly stubborn, but if I’d been a self-supporting single mother, I honestly don’t know where I would have ended up as a writer. I mean that I honestly don’t know. It might have been okay. It might not have. Either way, it would have been my responsibility.

For any writer the main task is to get out of her own way, and those barriers, or issues, or demons, whether financial or psychological or practical or spiritual, take as many forms as there are writers. Some people have bigger barriers than others. That is a fact.

Whenever I hear a discussion about writers supporting themselves, or about how in the world you write if you’ve got kids (which is a question you get asked only if you’re a woman), I think about my male writer friends. I have always thought that, in the end, I had it easier. The men I know—most married, with kids—seem to feel, no matter how liberated they are, an extra psychological burden of being the breadwinner, which in some cases makes them give up their writing, or delays it in the extreme. That’s patriarchy too. They don’t feel the freedom to take risks. They don’t feel the freedom to fail, to have a part-time job, to have people snub them at parties because they seem unimportant. For every Ben Fountain, who wrote at home for eighteen years before publishing his first, award-winning book, while his wife went to work as a tax attorney, there are probably hundreds of would-be novelists who are instead corporate attorneys themselves, or mechanics or teachers or bankers or any profession you care to name that’s respectable and includes benefits and makes a man feel like he’s doing his job as a man.

Ben Fountain, though, was man enough, artist enough, to be sponsored by his wife. Just like Ann Bauer was sponsored by her husband. (And, obviously, this is a discussion about couples who can survive on one income, whoever’s it happens to be. An enormous amount of luck from the start.)

I feel like I got the patriarchy to work for me. I don’t know if that counts as subverting it, but it doesn’t much matter. I had kids, which I very much wanted to do, and then stayed home with them, and flew under the radar, and wrote. It was a confluence of my upbringing and expectations, my husband’s, the culture’s. Call it luck, call it privilege; it’s both of those things, and possibly also it was a bit ruthless, on my part, but at some point I realized what I had, and I ran with it. You have to get what you need.

In one of the great, early Paris Review interviews, William Faulkner said, “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies.” Now, Faulkner wasn’t above hyperbole. And I am too full of scruples and conscience and timidity to follow his dictum to the letter.

But I remember it.

Raising A Reader

Imagine if you had never been read to. If you have children in your life, imagine if you had never read to them—because you had no access to books, because you couldn’t read yourself, because no one had ever told you it was important.

When I published The Swimming Pool, I wanted to repay some of the generosity that had been shown to me, and I specifically wanted to find a cause dedicated to literacy. When I found Raising a Reader, I knew I needed to look no further.


The simple habit of reading to a child is one of the most powerful ways to help that child become successful in life.
Gabrielle E. Miller, Ed.D., National Executive Director, Raising A Reader


RAR’s approach is basic and deeply effective: they train parents, many of whom were never read to as children themselves, about the importance of reading to children, and lend books to these young families on a weekly basis. They are even able to give illiterate parents tools to expose their children to books and reading. The results of early childhood reading are well-documented: children continue to reap the educational benefits all the way through high school and beyond, showing higher literacy rates, test scores, graduation rates and college attendance, and lower poverty rates.

At the same time, RAR gives each parent in their program something priceless: the simple joy of snuggling with their child and a book for a few moments of peaceful interaction. Every parent needs these experiences when she knows, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that she is doing the right thing. This kind of parenting confidence has effects that reach far beyond story time.

Yes, books are powerful.

Thanks so much for considering this wonderful cause. I am involved with RAR Massachusetts, but it is a national organization as well. Please check out the links below for more about how you can help in your community.

Desiderata: or, A Few Caveats to Start

 

A few years ago, not very many, I remember telling someone that if I ever started a blog they should just go ahead and shoot me. I was trying to find the time and space to write my first book, and at the same time the internet was inconveniently growing, becoming a massive distraction. I was aggrieved, peeved, humbled and overwhelmed by the rapidly-reproducing content out there: overwhelmed at the volume of it and at the thought that I should be adding to it; humbled by the sheer output of other writers I knew; peeved by the quality, or lack thereof, of all these dashed-off thoughts; and most of all aggrieved by the idea of regularly making my private thoughts public.

Since what you’re now reading is, in fact, a blog, this would be a good time to refute all those objections. I can’t. I think often of something Nabokov once said, that showing around one’s first drafts is like passing around samples of one’s sputum. (Sorry.) I can’t get over the idea that blog writing will be messy, sloppy, and unfinished. However, I am coming around to the idea that it’s supposed to be that way.

I’m starting this blog mainly because, despite my long-standing aversion, I can no longer count the times that I have started writing imaginary blog posts in my head. Often it’s because Twitter and Facebook are deeply unsatisfying as venues for substantive thought and argument, and I just need more room. In the same vein, I often have thoughts I’d like to work out about an article or event long after it has passed through the approximately 10-minute news cycle we now endure on social media. If nothing else, this blog will be the land of ICYMI.


 “The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.” – Anton Chekhov


 

As a fiction writer—or, maybe, just as a person—I hold on to things for a long time. (Nabokov has done his damage.) I don’t like to show drafts until they’re polished, or at least readable. Sometimes that’s a good instinct, and sometimes it’s not; polishing something that turns out to be a dead end is a frustrating waste of time. Some writers are able to be very free, but one of my goals is to be more free. Letting things go when they’re only days, or even hours, old will be a good discipline.

Chekhov said that the role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them. I just recently learned of this quote, and not a minute too soon. I spent much of the time writing my last book worrying that it was a book only of questions and no answers. When I finally decided I had no choice but to accept this half-enlightenment, along came Chekhov, in the universe’s beautiful way of synchronicity, to confirm it. Of course he was talking about fiction; however, I happen to think also that the lion’s share of nastiness in our public sphere today comes from the imperative to come up with answers quickly. We must be pithy, we must be punchy, we must give no quarter, we must take no time to weigh things carefully, passing them from one hand to the other, and we must not decide that the truth is somewhere in the middle, because that will not fit into 140 characters—even though that is where the truth often lies. Especially for fiction writers, whose job is empathy, not judgment.

So consider yourselves warned, dear readers: I will ask questions, probe, look at things from all angles; I will waffle, wiggle and waver (pace Bill Bradley); and then most likely I’ll slink away, leaving the rest to you. We live in fearful times. We want certainty, but the best antidote to its absence is the earnest whirring of our brains, and hearts.