The first evening as supper was finishing, I was sitting alone noticing the napkin rings were numbered when a steward entered the dining saloon and, bending to me, whispered that the captain would like, after coffee, to have me up. (He’d gone up already, from his place at center table.) So later I climbed, first the staircase and then a steep metal stair-ladder in open air to the boat deck up top. The captain’s quarters were fitted in closely behind the bridge. We hadn’t yet left Dubai, which sat off behind the darkened harbor area. I knocked on the captain’s door, hearing communication equipment inside.
To the dessert forks and coffee spoons, each piece in the Dwarka’s silver was engraved with the letters “BI,” for British India Steam Navigation Company, Ltd. B.I., as itself, no longer exists — it is part of a corporation now — but in its day it had as much to do with the making and shifting of eras in the world as has any similar enterprise, early or late, any carrier of human beings.
I step into a quiet passageway, and an Indian steward in a white jacket appears, leads me to my cabin. It has wood shutters and a fan on the wall, a sink, dressing table, desk, two wardrobe closets and three bunks, two over-under. No one else is in here. I sit on a bunk. The clamor is distant now. The harbor ruffles outside.
In early 1981 I took passage on the last ocean-going, regularly scheduled passenger ship in the world: the RMS Dwarka, running from the Persian Gulf to Karachi and Bombay. I had just left my newspaper job to travel in the Muslim world and write my first book, The Heart of the Bazaar: A Journey Into Islamic Asia. The book was rejected 75 times and never published — so this chapter from it has never before been shared. I thought I’d serialize it, starting today.
The last Dubai morning is washed in sun. A taxi takes me from my hotel neighborhood, looking back as I leave it, down into Port Rashid through a gate in a very long, high wire fence. I see no water, only asphalt expanse. Cranes and cargo derricks stand at leisure, far down the sky. Somewhere in this the taxi lands me at the passenger terminal, which is a tiny white cube on the asphalt. This is not, it seems, a people-oriented port.
If you observe a good teacher working with an elementary or middle school class, you’ll very likely notice something striking. I’ve seen it often — and so has Soryu Forall, director of the Burlington, Vermont-based Center for Mindful Learning.
“By and large, teachers teach the same two points most often,” Forall writes on the nonprofit’s "Modern Mindfulness for Schools" blog. “They ask the students to focus, and they ask the student to relax. ... ‘Pay attention,’ ‘Let’s begin,’ ‘Eyes on me’ ... ‘Settle down,’ ‘Calm down,’ ‘It’s okay.’”
But even the best teachers don’t teach kids how to relax, or how to pay attention. If they knew how to teach that, wouldn’t they? “No teacher would merely tell their students to understand math,” Forall points out.
Recently I contributed a guest blog post to Shatterproof, an impressive online campaign whose "mission is to protect our children from addiction to alcohol or other drugs and end the stigma and suffering of those affected by this disease." Here's what I had to say:
As an adult child of two alcoholics, I know how addiction can be the “elephant in the living room,” the thing it’s never okay to talk about. But if we’re to make a real impact on this nationwide trauma — and since, as this website reports so strikingly, addiction “nearly always originates in adolescence” — then I think we need to confront the elephant that it’s still so hard for many of us to face or discuss. Teenagers tend to learn addictive behavior from their parents.
The teenager daughter of two friends actually read four (!) of my YA novels, and asked if she could send a few questions. I said, Sure. She sent 10. So here they are, with my answers:
1. What inspired you to write these books?
I'm generally inspired by real kids, by the things they share with me and the things they deal with.
When my YA novel The Revealers was just breaking through, a friend in Montpelier, Vermont, where I’d lived for many years, asked if I would write about the experience for The Bridge, the state capitol's local paper. I asked if I could interview myself, and if it could get testy. So ...
How much longer do you plan on exploiting your pathetic childhood for personal gain?
That’s your first question? That’s how you want to start?
School Library Journal’s February issue has a big feature on the rise of small presses and self-publishing, and what this means to librarians. The article’s essence: there’s a big and growing flow of fresh books from non-mainstream sources. And librarians, though often open by nature to new possibilities, are challenged to sort through everything and dig out the good stuff.
Fair enough. But the article’s headline capsulizes the challenge that faces the people, such as me, who’ve taken to producing books independently. The head: “Fringe Factor.” Its implication: do we really have to wade through all this junk?
“I started out with nothing, and I’ve still got most of it left.” That old Vermont saying pretty much captures the career I've had, myself, as a full-time, self-employed writer up here for over 30 years. Not complaining; but in the bleakness of winter, I have been reflecting. Has it been worth it? Is it still?
One of the funniest things on the web — it’s been on there for several years; this is not a late-breaking news blog — is the list of “leaked” tour demands that Steve Martin posted on his website when he was touring with his bluegrass group, the Steep Canyon Rangers. The whole thing is hilarious, but the part I remembered, when I went looking for the piece this week, is this:
One designated runner to liai
It’s hard not to feel despair, isn’t it? The massacre in Paris is an assault on free expression everywhere; I’m afraid the same will prove true of the big-money takeover of Congress. Today I woke up to read that a father threw his five-year-old daughter off a bridge in St. Petersburg. It’s January, it’s deeply cold in New England, and it’s hard to see the way.
I hope to turn toward silence.
The front cover is long gone, as is the Santa who popped up when you opened the book, lost with most memories of our long-ago Christmas Eves. That golden spine is still there, chipped and worn to cardboard in places, but there. So is the story that was special to me, about the boy who didn’t deserve a Christmas.
You don’t often see a middle-school author visit described in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town,” but this was Russell Brand, the British comedian, film star, Fox News lambaster, self-styled revolutionary, and now, okay, YA author. Brand’s retelling of the Pied Piper story was published last month, as the first in his new “Trickster Tale” series — and he told the magazine that this story, as he frames it, is about revolution.
Every year at this time of year I spend two days with the eighth grade at Whitehall (NY) Central School, where every student, alone or in small teams, creates a new or extended scene for my book The Revealers. Each year this is one of the richest projects I get to be part of. English teacher Sue Ringer and I have done it for eight years now, and we’ve gotten better at drawing these new scenes out of the full range of kids. The work they did this week was the best I’ve seen so far.
Each year I visit the Main Street Middle School, a good school in Montpelier, Vt. where the sixth grade reads The Revealers, and it’s a well-planned highlight of my travels — but this year there was a twist. I'd stayed, the night before, with friends close to Montpelier, and in the morning we opened the daily paper to find, front-page news, that Jeff Kinney, author of the ginormous Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, had been in Montpelier the day before. Visiting ... the Main Street Middle School.
As my friend Jim laughed, I wondered aloud, “Should I even show up?”
The website Bookbub.com has a piece up called “6 Beautiful Libraries You Need to Visit Right Now.” I visited the site, at least, and beheld the images of stunning large libraries like Boston Public, George Peabody Library at Johns Hopkins, and the Seattle Central Library, a glass-sheathed, very angular architectural statement that says something, though I don’t think it’s “library.” But anyway.
The libraries I’ve loved have tended — I realize this just now — to be not very attractive, appearance-wise. I think of the metal-shelved catacombs that fill the dim-lit, below-ground floors of Baker Library at Dartmouth College, and the chairs of molded plastic that made me feel like I was back home at the American Library in Kathmandu, where I taught English across the street many years ago, and tried to get the writing of my first book started. But the place where I made the deepest connection with what libraries can mean was, probably, the least lovely of all. It was damp and borderline moldy, in fact.