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fifteen reviews, readings, articles and poems
that were called up most often by our readers.

Twitch and Shout
A Touretter's Tale
Lowell Handler
Handler ran across Jean-Claude Labbé, another Touretter, a French photographer who had spent some time in Vietnam. During an awards ceremony at Rockefeller Center, Jean-Claude and Handler sat together.

    As the room became quiet and Howard began to speak, the loud noises Jean-Claude and I made became increasingly noticeable. What was worst was that the more Jean Claude was Touretting, the more I made noises and twitched. This "copy-cat" Touretting is typical when groups of people with Tourette get together. We tend to set each other off on a relay of symptoms. The public relations man from Nikon said to Robert, "Your friends are making too much noise. They must be drunk or something. If they do not stop, we are going to have them removed."

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The Blue Tattoo
The Life of Olive Oatman
Margot Mifflin
(University of Nebraska)
In The Blue Tattoo, the Mohaves come off as being the good guys ... the original Noble Savages. They are tall, stately, and humorous. One contemporary wrote that they moved "with the dignity of princes."

    They appear to be intelligent, and to have naturally pleasant dispositions. The men are tall, erect, and finely proportioned ... their eyes are large, shaded by long lashes ... Their bodies and limbs were tinted and oiled so as to appear like well-polished mahogany.

One observer wondered "How long will it now be before a reason is found or invented for beginning a war of extermination against the hitherto peaceful Indians of the valley of the Colorado?" The author provides the answer: Within five years the tribe was but "footprints in the sand."

It seems the author --- and now, your reviewer --- are in love with the Mohaves. Olive Oatman might have succumbed to their charms as well. After all, they saved her from the Apache Yavapais who, it was rumored, were fond of "roasting girls." One Mohave not only cared for Olive during a famine, but, in secret, fed her, kept her alive while others around her were half-starved.

The Indians named her "Spantsa" --- a rather salacious Mohave word having to do with unquenchable lust. The name, among other things, makes Mifflin suspect that the young woman might have fallen in love if not in bed with one or more of the Indians she lived with for more than five years.

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Let Us Now Praise
Famous Men

James Agee
Walker Evans

(Houghton Mifflin/Mariner)
The quotation is from Sirach --- also known as Ecclesiasticus --- one of the Apocrypha of the Old Testament. The irony of the words is obvious and biting, for Agee is describing, minutely, the least famous, the poorest of the poor, the men (and women, and children) who lived in and around central Alabama in the middle of the depression, in the summer of 1936.

If you have never read Agee you might consider the possibility of dropping this review and calling up the American Book Exchange or Powell's to get a copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men so that you don't have to waste your time in having me tell you what a fine piece of work it is. Barring that, let me say that it's the work of a young man (twenty-seven) who knows words and knows how to use them and wants us to see and hear and smell and feel what it is like to be intimately involved with three families who are certainly not famous but certainly are poor --- "dirt poor" as we used to say.

Agee has set out to bring us into this world, and he does it with a vengeance. It is apparent that he is trying to do with words what companion Walker Evans did with the sixty-four pages of photographs that appear in this volume.

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Rum, Romanism, & Rebellion
The Making of a President, 1884
Mark Wahlgren Summers
(University of North Carolina)
For those of us somewhat vague on late 19th Century American history, we know that the phrase "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion" meant something important to somebody somewhere. But it wasn't until we read Summers exhaustive discussion of the campaign of 1884 that we learn that one Dr. Samuel D. Burchard, addressing a gathering of the Religious Bureau of the Republican National Committee, a week before the general election, stated,

    We are Republicans, and don't propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and rebellion. We are loyal to our flag.

What Burchard did, by reciting this triplet, was to saddle the Democrats with being on the wrong side of three of the most sensitive issues of the times:

  • Prohibition --- a controversy which the Women's Christian Temperance Union and others had brought to fever pitch;
  • Catholicism --- a feared minority of the time (all actions were considered as coming from Rome), and
  • The Civil War --- which had but twenty years before, been brought to its bloody end, leaving in its wake no end of bitterness on both sides.

Summers points out that Doctor Burchard was

    a lifelong enemy of the saloons, a steadfast Union man who had assembled a regiment of volunteers in the church basement, but [he was] not noticeably anti-Catholic. Perhaps his own explanation later is the best, that like many preachers he could hardly resist a good alliteration, "a mere rhetorical flourish," and improvised on the spur of the moment.

The candidate James G. Blaine was there, in the audience, but there was some question as to whether he even heard. Some thought the minister had said, "Rum, Mormonism, and Rebellion." The newspapers mostly ignored the remark. If Blaine sensed trouble, he didn't do anything until a full three days had passed, when the public actually caught on to the ugliness of the phrase that had come out of the mouth of a man of god, at a Republican rally. By then, it was too late.

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My Black Cat
My black cat gave birth last night
Four and five make nine-o ...
One of them had deep blue eyes
Eyes as pretty as mine-o.

Mother said that they must go
Drown them in the well-o ...
So I hid the little one in my shoe
The one with eyes like mine-o.

--- Clare Marx Arce

An Epic Tragedy
Diana Preston
The most fascinating and concise chapter, tucked at the end (at Appendix B) is "A Technical Account of the Sinking." Readers in a hurry might turn at once to this and --- for some of the flavor of the disaster --- Chapter Eighteen, "A Long Lingering Moan." With its horrible vignettes drawn from testimony of passengers and crew, it's impossible to put down. It includes Alice Middleton's vision, after she had torn herself free of the sinking ship, of "a screaming woman in the process of giving birth." And Michael Byrnes' telling of

    the bodies of infants laid in life jackets, and floating round with their dead innocent faces looking towards the sky.

As he swam, he reported that he had to push them aside like "lily pads on a pond."

The vision of the floating dead, the "sight and sound of people drowning all around," and the pictures of those in overloaded lifeboats bellowing and hitting at others to keep them from pulling themselves in are dramatic, unforgettable. We could only hope that the next tome that Ms Preston launches will include a proofreader or two. "The two men baled out frantically with their hands..." does jar some of us old nautical types, since these two, according to the author (and my beloved Webster's) are frantically trying to turn the bilge "into a bale, as in a bale of hay."

Which is probably as futile as saving the sinking ship --- and, consequently, the world --- from a ghastly disaster.

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The Hindoo Fly
J. R. Ackerley

I swatted a persistent fly this morning and it fell with a broken wing, and some internal rupture no doubt, and lay on the ground on its back, desperately moving its little black legs. I gazed down at it with something of an Indian conscience, or at any rate with that fearful fellow-feeling with which we are likely to regard even our worst enemy at the approach of the common foe.

Nearby, a colony of ants had its home, and there was a great coming and going round the entrance, where the colonists were taking in stores of the crumbs that had fallen from my table. Running hither and thither in their spasmodic spurting way, sometimes quite erratically it seemed, as though they relied upon some other sense than sight, they hurried off with their burdens into their mysterious underworld, the entrance to which was a narrow cleft between the flagstones of my verandah pavement, or emerged, often as many as a dozen at a time, suddenly, like a puff of dark smoke, or as though shot up in a lift.

The fall of the wounded fly, almost into their midst, with a pretty deafening thud one would have thought, did not seem to discompose them in the least, and one or two of them, unburdened, passed and repassed quite close to it on their indefatigable journeyings without appearing even to notice it, though above their own small noises, scuffle and patter of ant feet, shrill of ant voices, it must surely have been kicking up the most infernal rumpus.

At length, however, a solitary ant approached the fallen giant, and was at once repelled by a convulsive movement of the struggling legs. But he was not deterred. With remarkable courage, I thought, he returned and, single-handed so to speak, leapt boldly upon the fly. A fearful battle ensued, the details of which I could not clearly see, but the ant seemed to fasten himself upon the fly's head, perhaps with the object of putting out its eyes. He was again repulsed and again returned to the assault, making for the same part of the fly's anatomy, and was then flung off so far --- a distance of quite two inches --- that he apparently came to the conclusion that this was not a one-ant job and went off in search of help. Soon he returned (though I confess I could not swear the identification) with some comrades, and in a business-like manner they divided their small force, some climbing nimbly on to the fly, whose struggles, weakened no doubt by its recent exertions, were growing feebler and feebler, others crawling beneath it to loosen it from the paving stone to which its own blood was causing it to adhere. This done, a single member of the band began to drag the fly off by one wing --- a notable feat of strength --- while its legs continued to wave and twitch.

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Dr. Laura
The Unauthorized Biography
Vickie L. Bane
(St Martins)
She calls herself Dr. Laura. But, according to the California Board of Behavioral Science Examiners,

    Nobody is allowed to use 'Doctor' unless they are a medical doctor or...a professor in the psychological field with a clinical license.

Schlessinger has a PhD, but it isn't in psychology --- it's in physiology. Her doctorate was entitled Effects of Insulin on 3-0 Methylglucose Transport in Isolated Rat Adipocytes. According to one of her professors, she spent most of her doctoral training time "pulling fat pads off rat testicles."

I asked a friend of mine who works in the field what "Methylglucose Transport" is all about. He said,

    It's the standard, routine, crushingly dull thing done back in the days before DNA. Physiology is the term used for lower-level biochemistry.

However, he concluded,

    it does not sound like an obvious portal into psychology, even of the broadcast variety.

Despite all this, and despite the fact that many consider Laura Schlessinger the Dragon Lady of talk radio, some of us can't help but admire her. She is snippish, overbearing, and often insulting --- but anybody who has the temerity to call in to her program knows what they are going to get, especially if they plea ignorance or innocence.

Not only does Schlessinger stick it to all those tedious people who call up on the air, she does it, in spades, to those who pay for outside appearances. In 1997, she appeared before the League of Dallas at a benefit. It was question-and-answer. In response to what she thought was a dumb question, she said, "If you listened to my program, you know those are the kind of things I'm not even going to address: They are too frivolous."

Later, at another meeting, she said, "I'm glad to be in Dallas. You look so good. I expected to find a bunch of overweight people." Someone got up and says she wanted to know how to deal with being grandmother to "intermarried children." Laura snapped, "My grandmother's dead. I wouldn't say anything because my grandmother's dead."

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Quitting the
Nairobi Trio

A Memoir
Jim Knipfel
(Berkley Books)
As he looks out the door of his room, "a skinhead in complete Brownshirt regalia walked by; shiny black jackboots, armband, cap ... A few minutes later, another Nazi walked by, headed in the same direction." A nurse comes in with a package --- "a gaily wrapped bright-red box with a huge black bow."

    I tried to tell her about the Nazis, but nothing came out of my throat. She set the box on the edge of the bed and lifted the lid. Three huge black Norway rats scurried out of the box and slid to the floor, clutching at the sheet as they scrambled down... "How beautiful!" she crooned. "But whoever sent it didn't include any card." She peered into the box to make sure. "You must have a secret admirer! Well, I'll just leave it right here so you can see it."

The power of Knipfel's writing is this excellent (and scary) blend of lunacy and non-lunacy. All the while he is seeing Nazis and rats, he is reading Jacques Lancan, "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience." Reading Lancan in the loony-bin is a bit like looking at a picture of someone looking at a picture of someone looking at a picture.

Knipfel takes time out in his story to give a fairly good disquisition on Lancan's theory of language and communication: to wit, since language is "the only thing we can use to represent ourselves to others," there will always be "miscommunication." And miscommunication comes close to being the theme of this wonderful story ... that Knipfel has been miscommunicating with the world, and (mostly) with himself, all these years.

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The Philosophy
Of Consciousness
Thomas Metzinger
There is a new image of man emerging out of genetics and neuroscience, one which will basically contradict all other images of man that we have had in the Western tradition. It is strictly unmetaphysical; it is absolutely incompatible with the Christian image of man; and it may force us to confront our mortality in a much more direct way than we have ever before in our history. It may close the door on certain hopes people have had, not only scientists and philosophers but all of us, such as that maybe somehow consciousness could exist without the brain after death. People will still want to believe something like that. But just as people will actually still think that the sun revolves around the earth --- people whom you basically laugh at and don't take seriously any more. So there's a reductive anthropology that may come to us, and it may come faster than we are prepared for it; it may come as an emotionally sobering experience to many people particularly in developing countries, who make up 80% of human beings, and still have a metaphysical image of man, haven't ever heard anything about neuroscience, don't want to hear anything about neural correlates of consciousness, want to keep on living in their metaphysical world-view as they have for centuries.

Now here we come in these rich, decadent, non-believer Western countries, and we suddenly have theories which work very well in medicine and in treating psychiatric disorders, and which say 'There is no such thing as a soul,' and 'You are basically a gene-copying device,' and it is not clear what that will do to us. A chasm will open between the rich, educated, and secularized parts of mankind on the planet and those who for whatever reason have chosen to live their lives outside the scientific view of the world, and outside the scientific image of man.

Our image of ourselves is changing very fast, but there's a problem associated with it: that image, in a very subtle way, influences the way we all treat each other in everyday life. One question is, for instance, whether a demystification of the human mind can take place without a desolidarization in society. What has held our societies together and has helped us to behave have been metaphysical beliefs in God or psychoanalysis and other substitute religions like that.

The question is, can science offer anything like that to keep mass societies coherent after all these metaphysical ideas have vanished, not only in professional philosophers and scientists, but in ordinary people as well? If everybody stopped believing in a soul, what effect would that actually have in the way we treat each other?

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No One's Perfect
Hirotada Ototake
Oto is obviously a smart cookie, and his willingness to take on anything to get him through school and into the prestigious Wasada University is inspiring. His coming-of-age story, No One's Perfect has become an instant best-seller in Japan. According to the publisher, it has sold over 4,500,000 copies --- the second largest selling book in that country in fifty years. This is even more amazing, they tell us, in light of the fact that in Japan there is a powerful prejudice against fumanzoku --- lit. "not all there."

Oto has become a celebrity in Japan and many other parts of the world, and it's easy to see why. He is daring, alive, charming and --- apparently --- never sad. He undertakes to work and to play with minimal help, always with a smile, always upbeat. In fact, he reminds us of that old song,

    Where never is heard
    A discouraging word
    And the skies are not cloudy all day.

There is no doubt that he has done a yeoman job in breaking the barriers of prejudice in Japan. Still, I am going to suggest, spoilsport me, that many of us in the world of disability are going to have trouble with his unfailingly bright view of the world. I can't help thinking that Oto, like the rest of us, has periods of self-doubt, of anguish. There have to be times when he cannot accomplish something he holds dear --- perhaps some intimate physical act that he chooses not to tell us about.

He tells us, for example, that girls "weren't beating down his door," then says,

    No matter how brave a face we may put on it, the hard fact is that people with disabilities do have a handicap in love.

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Hindu Mysticism
S. N. Dasgupta
(Open Court)
Here is a little book by the professor of Presidency College, Calcutta, which offers salubrious reading to those persons who still labor under the delusion that the Hindus are privy to a store of wisdom hidden from Western eyes, and that their religion is, in some vague way, more refined and civilized than Christianity.

Professor Dasgupta, it appears, shares that notion himself, but he is too honest a man to conceal the facts that blow it up. Those facts he arranges neatly in six chapters. They show conclusively that the theology of even the most enlightened Hindus is almost as barbaric and nonsensical as the theology of the Swedenborgians or Seventh Day Adventists, firmly anchored upon a bibliolatry precisely similar to the Christian bibliolatry --- nay, upon one that is far worse.

The Christian Fundamentalist at least tries to make himself believe that the Bible is a record of actual human experiences, and that its mandates do no violence to that wisdom which has come out of human trial and error. But the Hindu accepts the Vedas as completely transcendental --- and yet completely binding.

    They are not a body of facts, but a body of commands and prohibitions ... They do not represent commands of the inner conscience or of the spirit within us; they do not give us any food for the spirit. They represent an objective and unalterable law...
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A Very Short Introduction
Anthony Storr
Neville Jason, Reader

(Naxos AudioBooks)
Storr was a practicing psychoanalyst, which would mean that he should also be patient, observant, non-judgmental. In writing about Freud, he is patient and observant but very judgmental. He wants to make sure that we know that when Freud defined the obsessional character ("order, cleanliness, control") the master was talking about himself: a man of detail, one who was detached, one who did not brook rebellion in the ranks.

Storr suggests that although Freud repeatedly called his handiwork a science --- not a philosophy, not a religion --- those who deviated from the dogma (Fleiss, Jung, Rank) were cut off, even labeled by the other followers as "Neurotic" or "Psychotic."

There are some surprises here. Freud was called "my golden Ziggy" by his mother. He took a dim view of humanity, called it "trash." He was generous. One of his long-term patients he christened The Wolf Man because of a dream he related to Freud --- a dream, perhaps, next to the dreams of Emanuel Swedenborg, one of the most famous in existence:

    I dreamed that it was night and I was lying in my bed. Suddenly the window opened of its own accord, and I was terrified to see that some white wolves were sitting on the big walnut tree in front of the window. There were six or seven of them. The wolves were quite white, and looked more like foxes or sheep-dogs, for they had big tails like foxes and they had their ears pricked like dogs when they pay attention to something. In great terror, evidently of being eaten up by the wolves, I screamed and woke up.

Wolf Man lived into the 1970s, was often interviewed on the master's technique. He tells us that Freud chatted with him about his own life, talking of his children, daily events; he even loaned him money, arranged for loans from others when he was broke. The only thing Freud did not do, Storr tells us, was to cure him. Even in later life Wolf Man suffered from depression, from the frightening thoughts that first brought him to treatment when he was a young man.

Freud's books, and monographs as published constitute some twenty-four volumes, but Storr informs us that he did not even begin writing until he was thirty-nine years old. Storr doesn't think much of most of Freud's writings outside of his theories (although he does make an exception for his paper on Michelangelo's Moses). Moreover, he suggests that Freud was not all that great an analyst. He offers up the idea that he saw patients mainly to create or shore up his own theories of the mind.

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Moko Maori Tattoo
Hans Neleman,

(Edition Stemmle)
It's a question of face, isn't it?..."the face we prepare to face the world..." It is the part of us that presents the Me to Everyone Else.Many women of the west painted their lips and cheeks, shaded their eyes and eyelashes, and hung decorations from the ears. This was supposedly to enhance one's beauty, make one more interesting or desirable. But if I am Hindu, a third eye painted above the bridge of my nose is not for sensual purposes, it, instead, tells the world of my religious beliefs.Contrariwise, if I am a young American, sticking pins in the eyebrows, a jewel through the nose, a ring in the lips --- I am showing all who meet me that I am different, and that I am willing to go through pain to assert that difference.All these have one element in common: the third eye, the lipstick, the rings can all be removed. But there is no going back with the facial tattoo of the Maori. It is a painful process of design which states publicly one's passionate belief in one's people, and their ways, and their religion and history.These photographs, almost a hundred in number, are a wonderful peek at a culture of artful difference. Some of the tattoos are delicate, understated. But some are a poke in the face, so to speak, at the world. Sinn Dog's decoration, running across the lower half of his face --- like a mask --- including nose, lips, cheeks and chin, proclaims MONGREL FOR LIFE. He is an ominous-looking dude, with or without tattoo. Meeting him in a bar, I would suspect most of us would speak to him with caution and some care. His life-time sign, right there before your eyes, says it all.

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World War II
A Photographic History
David Boyle
No matter how you look at it, six years of human sacrifice (mostly concentrated in the period 1942 - 1945) ended up being a staggering price to pay for what the Germans called "Lebensraum," the Japanese referred to as "The Greater Asia Co-prosperity Sphere," and the Americans referred to as "The War Effort." It was nationalism in action: billions of dollars spent to destroy whole cities, to kill and maim people, just because they happened to be citizens of another country.

It was called a World War, but that's typical Western arrogance. Almost half the world --- much of Africa and South America, even in the far reaches of the "belligerent" countries --- were not forced to participate in the general mayhem. I remember it as being a particularly pleasant time for me and my family.

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The Story of My Life:
The Restored Classic
Helen Keller,
Roger Shattuck, Editor

There is one thing that haunted Sullivan and it was the one place, I suspect, where she failed. This period in American life was the time of freaks being put on show. Tom Thumb. The Fat Lady. The Siamese Twins. The Bearded Lady. Anne wanted to protect Helen from being displayed as a "prodigy." But her personality, and the need for money, made it so that before her eighth year, she had been written up in the public press. She quickly went out in the world, insisting on kissing all those she met, delighting people with her curiosity, her agile mind, and her "luminosity."

Helen met with and was befriended by many of the political, scientific, literary, and theatrical stars of the day: Mark Twain, Alexander Graham Bell, John Greenleaf Whittier, William Dean Howells, Edward Everett Hale, Oliver Wendell Holmes:

    There was an odor of print and leather in the room which told me that it was full of books, and I stretched out my hand instinctively to find them. My fingers lighted upon a beautiful volume of Tennyson's poems, and when Miss Sullivan told me what it was, I began to recite:
      Break, break, break
      On thy cold gray stones, O sea!
    But I stopped suddenly. I felt tears on my hand. I had made my beloved poet weep, and I was greatly distressed.

She was on display her whole life, but because of her generous personality, and the generous love that flowed between the two of them, she was almost always in good spirits. Even her description of those times when she was sad carry not only a lovely melancholy, but one that inevitably ends in joy:

    Sometimes, it is true, a sense of isolation enfolds me like a cold mist as I sit alone and wait at life's shut gate. Beyond there is light, and music, and sweet companionship; but I may not enter. Fate, silent, pitiless, bars the way. Fain would I question his imperious decree; for my heart is still undisciplined and passionate; but my tongue will not utter the bitter, futile words that rise to my lips, and they fall back into my heart like unshed tears. Silence sits immense upon my soul. Then comes hope with a smile and whispers, "There is joy in self-forgetfulness." So I try to make the light in others' eyes my sun, the music in others' ears my symphony, the smile on others' lips my happiness.

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The Grave Mother
Marilynne Robinson
Her eccentricities might have irked and embarrassed us when we grew older. We might have forgotten her birthday, and teased her to buy a car or to change her hair. We would have left her finally. We would have laughed together with bitterness and satisfaction at our strangely solitary childhood, in light of which our failings would seem inevitable, and all our attainments miraculous. Then we would telephone her out of guilt and nostalgia, and laugh bitterly afterward because she asked us nothing, and told us nothing, and fell silent from time to time, and was glad to get off the phone. We would take her to a restaurant and a movie on Thanksgiving and buy her best-sellers for Christmas. We would try to give her outings and make her find some interests, but she would soften and shrink in our hands, and become infirm. She would bear her infirmities with the same taut patience with which she bore our solicitude, and with which she had borne every other aspect of life, and her silence would make us more and more furious. Lucille and I would see each other often, and almost never talk of other things. Nothing would be more familiar to us than her silence, and her sad, abstracted calm. I know how it would have been, because I have observed that, in the way people are strange, they grow stranger. We would have laughed and felt abandoned and aggrieved, never knowing that she had gone all the way to the edge of the lake to rest her head and close her eyes, and had come back again for our sakes. She would have remained untransfigured. We would never have known that her calm was as slight as the skin on water, and that her calm sustained her as a coin can float on still water. We would have known nothing of the nature and reach of her sorrow if she had come back. But she left us and broke the family and the sorrow was released and we saw its wings and saw it fly a thousand ways into the hills, and sometimes I think sorrow is a predatory thing because birds scream at dawn with a marvelous terror, and there is, as I have said before, a deathly bitterness in the smell of ponds and ditches. When we were children and frightened of the dark, my grandmother used to say if we kept our eyes closed we would not see it. That was when I noticed the correspondence between the space within the circle of my skull and the space around me. I saw just the same figure against the lid of my eye or the wall of my room, or in the trees beyond my window. Even the illusion of perimeters fails when families are separated.

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