Archive for January, 2014

Confessions of a Piece Writer

January 31, 2014

By Robert Israel

 

For the first decade of my life, I lived with my immigrant grandparents in their triple-decker in South Providence, Rhode Island where Yiddish and Russian were the primary languages spoken in the home, synagogue and in the neighborhood. Very early on I learned how to mimic and later translate the coarse words and phrases I heard into English. I also learned some hard lessons about the economics of piecework.

In those days, in Providence in particular, either you worked by the piece with schmates (cloth garments), or you worked by the piece in jewelry shops. When my father, the late Maj. Harold N. Israel, who served in India and Burma during World War II, returned stateside, he found work selling pieces: Fuller brushes, door-to-door, and later, on the road and for thirty years, automotive parts.

When it came time for me to find employment after college, I drew on this economic model and applied it to writing. As it turns out, many other writers work this way, too.

View of South Providence from the Providence River

When I discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Ledger in the library, published posthumously in an oversized, facsimile edition, I found it to be a useful resource. In each column of this ruled notebook, Fitzgerald chronicled how much money he made each year and for each piece, which of the popular magazines of his day he placed these pieces in, and how much he was advanced for treatments, books or other writing projects. He not only wrote his pieces, he lobbied for their placement. In 1929, for example, Saturday Evening Post paid him $3,600 for a short story, far more than he earned for his novels. While the amount seems lucrative, even by today’s standards, his Ledger reveals, in his final tallies, that he barely got by. As biographical evidence establishes, he emulated the lifestyle of his fictional Jazz Age characters, overdrawing from his less-than-ample purse.

With Fitzgerald’s Ledger as a model, when I returned from Japan, where I had been awarded a 10-week fellowship to report on the lives of atomic bomb survivors, or hibakusha, I telephoned scores of editors, to peddle my pieces. Many said no outright, complaining of shrinking news holes, and asking me why they should squander their miniscule budgets to pay for my stories when they could fetch a similar one free off the wires. But a handful said yes, and my pieces, tailored to fit the respective publications, were published.

In my own ledger, I jotted down that I received $150.00 for a story that ran, with my own photographs, in the Montreal Gazette. Other papers paid me $50.00 per piece. It was similar to how my grandparents were paid for work in garment shops in Providence: provided only with a bolt of cloth, they made the suit or the dress to order; if there was anything left, a bisel (smidgen), they stitched for you a matching vest. In this manner, they might clear a week’s pay. But often, they never quite made their nut. Their home was foreclosed in the 1930s, and they bought it back from the bank a second time. When they died in their early 60s, my mother and her sisters sold the home for less than my grandparents paid for it both times put together.

**

 

Piece writing often begins with a notice in the newspaper, a found item, a snippet, the way the late Malvina Reynolds said she went about writing her songs. She said she had read a one-paragraph mention from Reuters about a mouse that disrupted an entire computer system in Buenos Aires by gnawing on a cable; it later became the inspiration for her song, “The Little Mouse.”

And so, an item I found in the International Herald Tribune about a firebombing of an immigrant’s house in Germany became the impetus behind a piece as to why, so many years after World War II, Germans still harbored hatred against minorities. A neighbor’s story about his son who had immigrated to Israel and who was being drafted into the Israeli Army led me to contact him, and others like him, who had made similar journeys. A former student, calling me one night to tell me he was a doing just fine as a drug pusher and inviting me to tag along while he pushed crack cocaine, brought me face to face with the drug underworld in Boston. And my father’s descriptions about the years he spent as a quartermaster at a U.S. Army post in Calcutta, India, inspired me to travel there to experience for myself just what had fascinated him about that strange and beguiling land.

But sometimes items that are not in the newspaper spur me on. When an elderly survivor of the Nagasaki atomic bomb delivered a lecture in Providence, I was the only reporter to show up. This led me to apply to Japan to interview other hibakusha, whose stories still haunt me.

A visual metaphor for what I do as a piece writer appeared before my eyes one evening in a crowded Cantonese restaurant in Nagasaki, Japan. A wondrous dish, champon, an intricate layering of fried noodles, baked fishes, sautéed meats, egg yolks, sauces and rice was placed before me and a half-dozen voracious dinner guests. We were seated in one of those ornate private dining rooms on the fourth floor overlooking the crowded Chinese district. I could see the busy harbor where container vessels were docked near the sprawling Mitsubishi plant. The torpedoes used in the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor were manufactured there, our guide informed us. I was wondering how I would capture all these details when I was admonished to put my pen down and pick up chopsticks. The champon was being divvied up and heaved onto steaming platters. I admired it for its handiwork. It resembled a beehive and had aromas wafting out of cross-hatchings. I half-expected a blackbird to emerge from it, like in the nursery rhyme of my youth.

And so it is with piece writing: like champon, a good piece has many pungent layers and surprises within, and a story emerges that is worth telling, and worth reading.

**

While publications popular during Fitzgerald’s time, like the Saturday Evening Post, have since gone the way of the wooly mammoth, many new on-line publications have emerged, attracting new readers. I write for two of these paying publications, each of them established a few years ago, and I am always scouting out others.

What hasn’t improved is the pay, which remains lowly, or the irksome editors who relish rubbing a writer’s face in it all, despite the unspoken rule about not voicing who is exploiting whom. Piece writers must either grow a thick hide or be prepared to bleed.

If one elects to toil in this vineyard, one soon learns to distinguish between the sweet versus the sour grapes, to avoid imbibing swill, and to raise one’s glass in triumph when one’s piece has been published and one has been paid, all the while making ready to place the next one, and the one after that. Playwright John Guare once told me that he always has another script “in the typewriter,” a lesson he learned after “Bosoms and Neglect,” which featured onstage violence that shocked the sensibilities of audiences, opened and closed within the week at a major Broadway house.

Piece writing requires learning new areas of expertise and working at it with dedication and aplomb, and putting in hours that one is never compensated for. It helps mightily to have a day job.

Woe to the writer who tries to sell pieces to Jewish publications. I have worked as an editor for two weekly Jewish newspapers: one has been subsumed by the local Jewish federation and does not pay for freelance pieces; the other is on the dole from their local Jewish philanthropic overlord who sends over a front-page story each week, written by their in-house flack. Independent Jewish journalists have better luck selling their pieces to the mainstream press, which, as in days of yore, complain of shrinking news and feature holes.

**

The late journalist Shiva Naipaul – brother to V.S. Naipaul, the Nobel laureate — described an encounter in Delhi with a wealthy woman who didn’t understand what he meant when he told her he was collecting materials for articles.

“What kind of materials are you interested in? Cottons? Silks?” she asked.

Naipaul responded that he was collecting cottons. He was half-joking. Never one to cultivate pretense, Naipaul said he preferred cotton over silk because he knew that a good story, like the rag stock it is printed on, is homespun and durable.

Naipaul’s recounting of the incident in Delhi stirred images of South Providence, where I grew up. I remembered a man who made rounds in his pickup truck calling, “Rags! Rags!” as if chanting liturgy. The din of wire factory’s motors, whose workers waited for him on the sidewalk with garments stuffed into paper sacks to sell for pennies, provided a percussive backdrop.

A piece writer hunts and gathers rough materials he uses to create well-stitched stories. Readers notice the craftsmanship when they try it on. It fits just so, ready to wear.

**

Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer and editor. He can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com

Memory: Touchstone of Our Lives

January 31, 2014

By Robert Israel

I write non-fiction pieces based on information gleaned from research and recorded interviews. Essential to the writing process is drawing on observations I may not have jotted down but have committed to memory. This began as a kind of an insurance policy:  mechanical devices failed, background materials were inadvertently deleted. Since then, I’ve incorporated memory into my work. When crafting a piece I prepare an outline, make a sketch, blend in the research and weave in the memorized impressions.

I trust my memories to be indelible, distinct and unchanging. Since childhood, I am able to recall entire conversations verbatim. This ability is accompanied by visual impressions, recorded in my mind’s eye. As a youngster, I began mentally cataloguing details of landscapes; physical attributes of people (even those who may have arbitrarily crossed my path); vivid aspects of foods, smells, colors, interiors and exteriors of rooms or buildings; items stacked on shelves, (and in what order); views from specific windows, and so on.  Over six decades, this has become how I tick. Moreover, I add to the catalogue daily, mentally sorting memories, then purposefully filing them internally, all without the slightest ache. For me, using memory is one of the keys to my writing process — like drawing water from the well.

Much debate has ensued about the veracity of using memories in writing, and whether writers should trust memories as sources, the argument being that memories are susceptible to lapses, and recalling a memory that may not be fully crystallized internally may subject those memories vulnerable to distortion or alteration. This hasn’t happened to me, but I can see how it might.

But what do other writers think about  the role of memory in our lives?

Ernest Hemingway’s Banal Story is a compelling example. In his short short, we learn about a legendary bullfighter, Manuel Garcia Maera, who died of pneumonia at age 28 in Andalusia in 1925. Hemingway draws on the tragedy of Maera to illustrate his take on the veracity of memories. In the story he pits pure memories – recorded by those who witnessed the bullfighter and committed impressions of him to memory — – against invasive or intrusive memories that succeed in corrupting the original source.

He writes:

Men and boys bought full-length colored pictures of him [Maera] to remember him by, and lost the picture they had of him in their memories by looking at the lithographs. .. After the funeral every one sat in the cafes out of the rain, and many colored pictures of Maera were sold to men who rolled them up and put them away in their pockets.

In Hemingway’s view, memories must be kept pure, hermetically sealed in one’s mind, preserved. Nowhere does Hemingway consider that even one of these men might have gazed upon Maera’s image as a means to possibly enhance his memories. He insists that the viewing the color photograph is akin to leaving that sacred space where pure memories are stored, and entering the profane world, where memories become distorted. The men and boys in his story have committed an act of defilement: they’ve wiped their memories clean.

A distinctly opposite view of the role of memory is described by author Christopher Isherwood in his 1939 story, Goodbye to Berlin. He writes:

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Someday, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.

Isherwood likens our minds to visual and aural recording devices. What we see and experience is recorded with complete accuracy. What’s in front of us is captured, and, if we train ourselves (that’s where “thinking” comes in), Isherwood posits that we can then take what has been imprinted in our minds and reproduce – similar to a photogravure process – -the distinct features of what we’ve captured and committed to our memories.

The Mexican poet Octavio Paz endorses this notion, in his poem Same Time:

 

A couple embraces by an iron railing/she laughs and asks something/her question floats up and opens high above/At this hour there’s not a wrinkle in the sky/three leaves fall from a tree/someone whistles on /the corner/a window lights in the house across the way/How strange to know yourself as alive!/to walk /among people/with the open secret of being alive.

Paz, like Isherwood, takes it all in. Even the most mundane details – leaves that fall from a tree, the sound of someone whistling – are recorded, verbatim. Moreover, Paz is ecstatic about it. This is the joyous “open secret of being alive,” and, like a giddy child, Paz invites us all to partake in the pleasures this process of memory hunting and gathering engenders. Once we memorize, we are free to revisit and experience these tasty morsels anew. By repeatedly capturing sensual details and storing them in memory is to traffic in a vital, universal celebration.

It is not Hemingway’s either/or: either keep the memory alive by sealing it in the mind’s vault or run the risk of losing it simply by going outside the experience. Rather, as the other writers have testified, we all have the ability to absorb great quantities of memories, and, if we train ourselves, to call them forth – in their original, graphic details — at later dates.

The grief the men in Hemingway’s story experienced was the catalyst for their collective act of replacing their original, or pure, image of him.. He notes that the men and boys attended the late bullfighter’s funeral, where the photographs were distributed. The men were bereft, and in their grief, unsuspecting. Losing him was too much to bear. Better to cling to a graven image of the dearly departed in all his robust glory rather than to think of him as embalmed in his coffin.

But death does not trump memory. Ted Berrigan, in his poem Things to do in Providence, poignantly captures how memory can morph when facing a tragic loss:

The heart stops briefly when someone dies/a quick pain as you hear the news & someone passes/from your outside life to inside./Slowly the heart adjusts/to its new weight, & slowly everything continues, sanely.

Berrigan believes we are resilient. Even when we lose someone, our memories can accommodate the “new weight” of loss. It is as natural as Isherwood or Paz who celebrate the act of purposefully acquiring imagery to be used later, for reminiscences or for writing.

We are not porous beings. Memories do not flow into us and then exit the way air enters and leaves our lungs. Memories have staying power when they become rooted in our minds. They speak to us even in sleep, when we awaken abruptly from dreams we often wish we could dismiss.  Indeed, as we go about purposefully laboring at wakeful tasks, we push memories aside. Sometimes they haunt us, like specks of light captured on photographic paper, leaving their imprint as they travel upwards from the depths of our consciousness.

One thing is certain: we cannot silence our memories. If we accept that they are part of us, and find a way to continually collect them and return to them to learn what they contain, they will be useful to us as touchstones for our lives.

**
Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer. He can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com, or by visiting http://www.bobisrael.com

Reasons to be Thankful

January 31, 2014

Bike accident

By Robert Israel

They scraped me off the street, my bicycle in a heap nearby, and ever so gingerly placed me on the gurney. A crowd of curious onlookers watched intently, thankful they were not being loaded onto the ambulance.

The nurses at the hospital were calming as nurses are wont to be, and administered an intravenous tube of morphine, and soon everything around me became fuzzy and numb, and the florescent lights above the gurney where I lay no longer hurt my eyes. Another tube pumped fluids into me. The emergency room doctor slowly unraveled the gauze that held my almost-severed ear in place.

“There’s nothing we can do for you here,” she said. “You’ll have to see a surgeon at another hospital.”

Supposedly I agreed to this prognosis, but I’ll be damned if I remember any of this, or anything else that was said to me as I drifted off, the pain finally lessening to a throb. Someone bathed my bruises with mercurochrome, or at least it reminded me of that foul smelling liquid they used to apply to all my bruises when I was a boy, it was once stored in a small bottle with a wand attached to the cap and I must’ve gone through a gallon of it as a kid always tumbling, always getting scraped. But this scrape was deeper, cruel, ugly.

Soon I was in another waiting area, in another hospital, my tee-shirt all bloody, my head bandaged. The mercurochrome on my leg had dried into a dark ochre stain around the wound. I could feel something wrong with my head, a slow ooze around my lacerated right ear, a tug on my chin where the bandage closed another wound.

Within hours I was stitched up and sent on my way, the good doctors performed what all the kings’ men and all the kings’ horses couldn’t do for Humpty Dumpty: they put me back together again. And thanks to my wife I made it back to the house where we were staying, and I found my way to bed.

In the days that followed I heard stories of other injuries told by road warriors who had been victims of hit and run accidents in Boston, offered up by survivors I met in coffee shops or in restaurants near my home, who, viewing my stitches and bandages took me aside and freely and without provocation told me of their lives, their mishaps, the ensuing law suits, the tragedies of losing loved ones, the totaled cars, the ruined bicycles, the aches that never go away all these years later.

I had the stitches removed. I got back on my bike for long rides down the Minuteman Bike Trail, safe and busy, but nowhere near cars. I bought a new helmet. The wounds healed. The months passed, and the trauma faded from memory.

And then there were new stories on the news, reports of other tragedies far greater than mine, blood that was spilled in the city streets, accidents involving bicycles in the suburbs that claimed lives, children whose lives were full of promise meeting tragic ends, horrible reports that arrived with each day.

Over time I put my own injuries in perspective and moved on, thankful for the life that continues to unfold, more patient with the healing process that always takes longer and reminds us of our fragilities. 

If I wasn’t humble before the accident, I have been made more humble now. And if I find myself tearful at each report of a tragedy, or an accident, or a loss of life, it is out of grief for those that have been hurt, not self-pity. My tears stream down my cheeks without control, out of sympathy for those who have endured pain, and out of a recognized bond between me and others who struggle daily to maintain dignity and health.

**

Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer and editor. He can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com

Madonna of Sheafe Street

January 30, 2014

By Robert Israel

Donella stood at the window squinting as summer sunlight danced on laundry strung between tenements like tattered flags of surrender. Leaning on a pillow, a kerchief around her head, she tossed breadcrumbs to pigeons that flocked beneath her windowsill like locusts.

Lilly, my next door neighbor, met Donella thirty years before when her husband rented a flat across the street. Donella was pregnant with their daughter Maria.  She spoke no English. A month before the baby was due, the husband announced he was stepping out for a pack of smokes. He never returned. Lilly said everyone suspected his disappearance had something to do with unpaid gambling debts.

Facie brute,” Lilly called the husband. “I don’t blame her, she’s just a peasant from the mountains. But him!” and she lobbed a mouthful of spit onto the sidewalk. “If I got my hands on him he’d be dead before that spit had a chance to dry.”

Lilly never married. Dressed in black that matched her jet black dyed hair, she smelled of lacquer and perfume. Her voice was raspy from years of smoking. Her family – brothers, nephews, nieces — visited her daily, their footsteps trudging down the long linoleum corridor to her rooms.

Once a week a van from the church parked on Sheafe Street. Two nuns trundled up the stairs to fetch Donella and Maria from their flat furnished only with a toilet and a kitchen sink. The nuns brought them both to the public baths at the North End Union on Parmenter Street so they could be bathed and groomed.

“But sometimes, when it’s cold outside the old lady can’t make it down the stairs, so Maria boils water for her on the hot plate and washes her hair, like she’s making pasta. I used to go over there to help them, to bring them things, but not lately,” Lilly said. “If I go over there now it’s too much for me, it just gets worse, it breaks my heart.”

Women from the neighboring streets would appear holding plastic boxes of food or spuckadellas from the bakeries on Prince Street. They’d rap on the window pane. They’d call Donella’s name aloud, twice, maybe three times. Donella would raise her shades, pull back her curtains, prop open the window and smile her toothless grin. She’d lean over, accept their food, hold up her rosary and bless them.

Most summer weekends the neighborhood closed for the feasts. Crowds strolled beneath colorful lights strung between tenements and light posts. Vendors sold pastries, meatball sandwiches, clams on the half shell, curbside shot glasses of grappa.

Photos of North End, Boston
Margaret Street, Sheafe Street at the top, Boston’s North End

**
At the Feast of Madonna della Cava, men from the social club on Battery Street displayed a banner depicting Mother Mary as she had appeared in a mute boy’s dream from a 13th century Sicilian folktale. They paraded the banner through the streets on a stretcher covered with plastic flowers. The crowd cheered, “Viva Madonna della Cava!” Greenbacks, tossed from tenement windows, cascaded over the procession like confetti. Boys retrieved fistfuls of cash from the gutters and pinned the bills on the Madonna whose eyes gazed heavenward in blissful reverie. A priest, crucifix in hand, led the throng. A marching band played “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The smoke from the grilled sausages and the steam from manicotti bubbling in aluminum trays blanketed the air like fog.

I had moved to Sheafe Street without a job. After three months I had not found work. Lilly wormed it out of me that I was skimping on buying food and threatened to give me a sciafo unless I went shopping. The next day, and every day thereafter, she “cooked coffee,” as she put it, delivering it to my apartment sweetened with sugar and evaporated milk. She’d leave a pan of stuffed peppers on my doorstep covered with foil paper. When she went to buy calamari from Frank Giuffre’s, the fish monger on Salem Street, she’d prepare an extra portion for me, the squid’s tentacles and darkened eye sockets poking up through the gravy.

There were food bargains aplenty, day old spuckadellas for a quarter, free pizzas still warm at the close of business from restaurants on Hanover Street, overripe fruits and vegetables at Haymarket Square Fridays and Saturdays.

My luck improved two weeks later. Temporary agencies telephoned in the morning with assignments. I’d report to work at the office buildings I could see at night from my Sheafe Street windows, skyscrapers that towered over the tenement with blinking red lights on their roofs and rows of illuminated windows that glowed like grinning teeth.

One Friday morning I spied Maria lumbering down Salem Street past butcher shops where carcasses of lambs hung from meat hooks and slaughtered pigs, pink hooves folded beneath them, looked as if they had just finished some kind of morbid ballet.

I caught up with her at the Haymarket’s open stalls. She fingered tomatoes and argued with the men at the pushcarts. I approached her, offered to carry her bundles back to the North End. She didn’t comprehend. So I did a pantomime: I hunched over, swayed back and forth on the balls of my feet, pretending to be an ox. She shook her head and said aloud, “No, boy, no help me, boy.”

A few days later, when I stumbled out my door late for yet another temporary job, Donella and Maria stood at the window, waving. I waved back. Donella gestured for me to approach, insistent I cross the street. I stood beside the pigeons. Donella held up a rosary. I lowered my head and received her blessings.

Crossing Blackstone Street where the drunks of Haymarket Square were sleeping it off in the chill morning air, I emerged onto Government Center plaza squinting. The city was drenched in brilliant sunlight. The Madonna was smiling.

**

Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer. He can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com

Report from Mexico: A Haunted Visit to Palenque

January 30, 2014

By Robert Israel

We were clustered in rooms off a corridor. On one side was a parking lot, on the other a forest. Foraging ants marched into thickets and tree branches shook as monkeys traversed on vines.

A ragamuffin group of tourists in rooms adjacent to mine were waiting for me when I opened the door. I owed my popularity to a hand-cranked coffee grinder, a backpacking stove, and an espresso pot. I brewed shots for everyone; they sipped the elixir as if it were cognac.

Scotty and Robert were first in line; Thomas and Suzanne close behind, each holding porcelain cups.  It was mid-January. Frosty temps blanketed the eastern seaboard as far south as Georgia, but in Mexico it was steamy. We were padding about in flip-flops and tee-shirts. Palenque, with its Mayan ruins and verdant grounds that had been carefully manicured to reveal stone temples and a ball court, was just a few miles down the road.

“We crossed into Mexico and immediately got arrested,” Thomas said. “The cops were looking for payola. They put us in a holding cell next to a bandito whose cell was equipped with a refrigerator and bottles of tequila. When we arrived a woman was in his cell with him, sitting at the edge of his bed. I told him I fixed things. He produced a gold wristwatch and some jeweler’s tools. ‘Show me how good you are,’ he said.  Ten minutes later I had it ticking. He spoke to the guards. We were released.”

Robert and Scotty said they fled the Russian River valley of California where they trafficked in marijuana. A week before a helicopter hovered over their backyard. Convinced they’d wind up in jail like so many of their neighbors and that their crop would be burned or confiscated, they loaded up their van and drove off in the middle of the night. “We’re going to stay as long as our money holds out,” Robert announced.

A teenage boy carrying a knapsack appeared from the parking lot wearing a straw hat and soiled cloth sack pants hitched around his waist with a frayed hank of rope. Scotty greeted him in Spanish. The boy produced plastic baggies crammed with mushrooms he said he had grown in the dung where he groomed horses. Scotty haggled and they arrived at a price.

“Do you think I could borrow your camp stove?” Scotty asked. “I’m gonna cook me up some tasty psilocybin tea.”


Temple of Inscriptions, Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

My girlfriend Robin and I departed for the park as the morning sun peeked over the tallest trees and onto the lawn leading to the ruins. Just out of earshot was the sound of cascading water. Owing to the early hour there were only a few tourists about. The guards were nowhere to be seen. The heat of the day was intensifying. Reaching the top of the Temple of Inscriptions, I regarded the violet-tinged glow that seemed to radiate off each building, bathing the grounds in a purplish vapor that highlighted the structures and the manicured lawns without leaving shadows. I recalled a day years before during a total eclipse of the sun when I strode out onto the gray shale cliffs at Beavertail Light as the moon blocked the sun and the sky was plunged into an eerie gloaming. I noticed the seagulls – they had been flying out to sea – but as the eclipse neared totality, they hastened back to shore in search of shelter. Palenque was awash in similar light.

And that’s when I felt a tingling at my toes that was slowly traveling up my legs, benumbing them.  And then the blows came as if someone was pummeling me in my gut. I fell to my knees, barely able to hold my head above the boulders.

Robin watched me writhe and said she stooped to assist me, but told me later that she couldn’t reach me. She likened it to some sort of force field she said kept her from approaching me. When the forces finally quit me moments later, she helped me to my feet. I couldn’t speak. Something had passed through me. Now it was gone.

I bumbled my way down the steps to the ground, sat on the stones near the parking lot. I was spent. The violet light had given way to bright sunlight, the park was cast in shadows, a tour bus arrived and visitors were strolling the grounds holding color-coded maps.

Back at the motel, Robert was sunning himself in a canvas deck chair, Thomas and Suzanne had gone off to the town, and the army ants were relentlessly transporting chipped leaves on their backs down into a gully deep into the woods. Scotty, Robert told us, had spent most of the morning on his hands and knees vomiting the psilocybin tea he had ingested; he was now in bed mumbling incoherently.

Robert offered me a puff of his marijuana cigarette, homegrown from his ranch in California, but I held up my palm and declined. I had no use for intoxicants, no matter how pungent. In our room, Robin helped me off with my clothes. I stood under the shower, listening to the patter of water gush down the drain and the encroaching sounds of insects and birds beyond the screened window.

**

Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer. He can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com

Report from Canada: Val-David and the Vagaries of Language

January 29, 2014

By Robert Israel

Two Belgian draft horses – massive creatures broader than three men put together — pull the sleigh. Snow swirls. We are hunkered beneath horse-hair blankets. On the outer edges of Ferme Duqette, a rambling century old farm in Val-David, Quebec, we enter a secluded copse. The lights from the paddock disappear from view. The sleigh bucks. The driver murmurs calming words in French, he clacks his tongue, tugs on the reigns. We plunge into the woods.

Boulders loom menacingly along the sides of the bridle path. We are in a strange yet hauntingly familiar world. Apart from the horses’ snorting and the incessant tinkling of their harness bells, all is shadowy, subdued. Lac Raymond is frozen and milky. The whisper-still Laurentian hills surrounding us are barely visible in the gloaming.


Belgian draft horses

The driver turns to face me and flashes a toothless grin. He’s eager to provide us with a vocal tour, but lacks the skills to do so in English. He apologizes. A cheerful fellow with a black wool cap and ear patches folded down and tied beneath his chin, his face is a map of deep furrows. I am inspired to recite Robert Frost’s poem about viewing the frozen lake while musing on life’s wearisome journey of promises to keep and many miles to go before one sleeps, but my English is lost here. And besides, the mood is far from sober. So I offer up a bit of French toilet humor I learned from a childhood friend. The driver roars with laughter. He recites it back to me, in patois, his guttural chortle booming as if he were quaffing ale at a backcountry pub.

And then the horses stop.  I mean to say they suddenly come to a dead halt. I look around. Darkness is encroaching. There’s only “easy wind and downy flake,” to borrow a line from Robert Frost. I quickly surmise that the horses are neither spooked nor fatigued. They stand in repose. Frosty plumes emerge rhythmically from their nostrils. As it happens, they hear deer, or more precisely, they catch a whiff of deer somewhere nearby. The driver seems to know this, and yanks on the reigns. He commands them to back up. Clip-clop, clop-clip, they take five steps backward. He guides the reigns gingerly, and, using those same soft French words again, beckons them to halt. In a moment they return to a state of eerie tableau. And then, just beyond the sleigh, between shivering poles of trees, a few yards from where we are seated under the smelly horse-hair blankets, I regard five deer, clustered and still as if etched in charcoal, ears twitching, watching us watch them.

**

In Val-David, nestled deep in the Laurentians, a region I have visited over several decades and return to enthusiastically, I confront the vagaries of language and I’m forced to labor to communicate differently with those I meet. I always ask, in French, if the person I am addressing comprehends English. I am told, Je parle anglais un peu, or, more often, Je ne parle pas anglais. And so I take the initiative to find French words, at night before bed I sometimes write down sentences – a subject, a verb, an object – but, in conversation, none of the sentences flow, so I resort to facial gestures, using my hands and fingers. Employing the art of pantomime is most effective.

Val-David may be only hour and a half from Montreal, but it could be from a century ago. The spirits of the first voyageurs seem to haunt the woods I finally exit from, chilled, disarmed, yet elated I have taken a sleigh ride that began at the paddock at Ferme Duquette and brought me back through a snowy meadow all in one swoop. Centuries ago, hearty men and women followed those same bridle paths in pursuit of furs, game, open pastures. They knew nothing of ski slopes or well-appointed auberges that feature outdoor hot tubs and salons de beautie. While these bubbly cauldrons are fun to soak in (if you don’t mind ice crystals clumping on your hair and eyelids), ultimately it’s what one discovers among the people that is inspirational.


A wintry view of Val David, Quebec

Yet everywhere I go, conversation is neither simple nor easy. Take, for example, an encounter with Mlle. Nathalie Monette, owner of Bistro des Artistes on Rue de L’Eglise, the main drag in Val-David.  She offers me a welcoming smile as I enter and hands me a menu written solely in French.  I am able to place a basic order, she dutifully writes it down, nodding approvingly at my choice. Before she scurries away, I call her attention to her photograph displayed prominently in the menu alongside a short biography, (again, written in French), lauding her origins as a native of the Val-David and her years of apprenticeship at notable restaurants in Quebec. She is not someone who seeks or embraces celebrity. She is visibly discomforted when I call her attention to the photo. Wordlessly, she grasps her own cheek and jowl, pinching the excess flesh on her face between her fingers and says, (freely interpreted from French): Alors, that photograph was taken when I was younger, if only I could have aged more gracefully!

“I want to use more English,” the clerk at the market tells me. “But there is no one to speak it to.” The boy beside her who bags my groceries says, “Yes, I speak English all the time,” but when I attempt to engage him in English conversation, his face goes blank.

I am not alone in my struggle to communicate. Even those with a fluency in French find it a challenge.

“The French we use here in Quebec dates from the fifteenth century,” a woman I meet in a warming hut in the provincial park tells me. We have all retreated to this outpost to enjoy lunch by a blazing wood stove, taking a break from climbing the arduous the cross-country ski trails. She introduces herself and her husband. He is a native of France, she grew up in northern Quebec and works at Marche Jean Talon, the massive market in Montreal’s Little Italy where one can purchase a juicy peach even in the depths of winter. Her husband does not share her French-Canadian accent, or her vocabulary. Quebecers, he says, often look quizzically at his use of French.

“Her parents live six hours north of Quebec City,” he begins, peeling an orange he purchased from Marche Jean Talon. A bittersweet citrus burst fills the shack and mingles heavily with the wood smoke. “In northern Quebec, they invent words, combining English and French,” he says. “When I visit her family, we talk around things and avoid discussing things emotionally. Much is lost.”


An outdoor hot tub at Val David, Quebec

**

Yet the chasm between antiquated vernacular and modern language usage in the 21st century in Quebec is on the wane. Since I first traveled here some thirty years ago I can report that the mood has lightened, the hostilities that once flared between the English and French have calmed. There may be occasional bristling when language gears don’t mesh, but, overall, Anglo visitors with limited French speaking abilities get along amiably.

It’s the mysteries of what is not said, the untold stories, the personal histories stored in repertory that go unshared – these remain beguiling. One only gleans so much from ephemeral encounters. One’s appetite craves more.

“What gives value to travel is fear,” Albert Camus wrote. “At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being.”

This may explain why I am drawn to the Laurentian region, especially during the depths of a frigid winter: there are far fewer distractions then, and most of those I meet are willing to find ways of understanding each other, despite the vagaries of language.

There is no pretense among the people who live in Laurentian hamlets connected by bridle paths and old roads. They share whatever they can of their lives by using a common language of vitality.

**
Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer and editor who can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com