I can’t get enough of Steve Yarbrough’s writing

“Just look at what happens to poets,” I used to tell my honors class on the first day of school. “Half the time they go mad. And you know why I think that happens? Too much truth distilled to its essence, all surrounding evidence ignored or discarded. And I’m not faulting them for that. They’re just doing what poets are supposed to, and they’ve left us some beautiful works of literature, some of which have lasted for hundreds of years.” – Safe from the Neighbors by Steve Yarbrough

safe from the neighbors


Living with a Wild God

Of course we are shaped by our mutual dependency, and to a degree that is almost embarrassing. I have no argument with that. Other than certain insects, humans are the most social of animals. Infants who are not cuddled or held die of a syndrome called “failure to thrive.” Seemingly successful adults can be driven to depression or suicide by a lover’s rejection or an accumulation of professional slights. Which is to say that we are “hive” animals or—to invoke a more extravagant biological metaphor—we are the individual nuclei studded throughout a syncytium of shared protoplasm, utterly dependent on each other for structure and nutrients. To be pinched off from the main body of the community is to risk real damage, and one form the damage can take, I’m willingly to concede, is an inability to enter wholeheartedly into what is social defined as real.

– Barbara Ehrenreich, Living with a Wild God


living with a wild god

The Painter

My house is three miles south of town. There are forty acres of wheatgrass and sage, a ditch with a hedgerow of cottonwoods and willows, a small pond with a dock. The back fence gives on to the West Elk Mountains. Right there. They are rugged and they rise up just past the back of my place, from sage into juniper woods, then oak brush, then steep slopes of black timber, spruce and fir, and outcrops of rock and swaths of aspen clinging to the shoulders of the ridges. If I walk a few miles south, up around the flank of Mount Lamborn, I am in the Wilderness, which runs all the way to the Curecanti above Gunnison, and across to Crested Butte.

The Painter by Peter Heller




Casement saw much more brutality on the part of other white men in Africa. It is hard to tell whether there was a particular moral turning point for him, as there would be for E. D. Morel when he made his discoveries in Antwerp and Brussels. One such moment for Casement may have been in 1887, when he traveled up the Congo River on a steamboat that also carried a Force Publique officer named Guillaume Van Kerckhoven. Van Kerckhoven was a hot-headed, notoriously aggressive commander with a rakish grin and waxed-tip mustache, one of those whose expeditions even the Congo’s governor general called “a hurricane which passed through the countryside leaving nothing but devastation behind it.” Casement listened, aghast, as Van Kerckhoven cheerfully explained how he paid his black soldiers “5 brass rods (2 ½ d.) per human head they brought him during the course of any military operations he conducted. He said it was to stimulate their prowess in the face of the enemy.”

King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild


king leopold's ghost

the hour of peril

Pinkerton, whose work frequently took him below the Mason-Dixon line, was appalled by what he read in the pages of Southern newspapers. “Especial efforts had been made to render Mr. Lincoln personally odious and contemptible,” he wrote, “and his election formed the pretexts of these reckless conspirators who had long been plotting the overthrow of the Union. No falsehood was too gross, no statement too exaggerated, to be used for that purpose, and so zealously did these misguided men labor in the cause of disunion, and so systematically concerted was their action, that the mass of the people of the slave states were made to believe that this pure, patient, humane, Christian statesman was a monster whose vices and passions made him odious, and whose political beliefs made him an object of just abhorrence.” Pinkerton worried that the hostile Southern press would tip over into actual violence against Lincoln, which might, in turn, serve as the flash point for armed rebellion. –  Daniel Stashower, The Hour of Peril




Days of Fire

As much as Obama had run against Bush’s legacy in 2008, he ended up embracing much of it in 2009. He kept Bush’s defense secretary and many other top national security figures, and he decided to follow Bush’s plan for a three-year withdrawal from Iraq. While he jettisoned the term “war on terror” and banned the harsh interrogation techniques that had been so controversial, Obama failed to close the Guantanamo prison, just as Bush had, kept the terrorist surveillance program, authorized the use of military commissions, and decided to hold some terror suspects indefinitely without trial, albeit with more procedural protections built into the process. He more or less adopted Bush’s policy toward North Korea, only somewhat modified the approach to Iran, effectively copied the Iraq surge by sending more troops to Afghanistan, and expanded the drone campaign in Pakistan. Arguably, Obama validated some of Bush’s most important decisions. By 2013, Ari Fleischer was claiming that Obama was “carrying out Bush’s 4th term.”

There were more pronounced differences over domestic policy, most notably Obama’s expansion of health care and support for marriage and military service for gays and lesbians. But even at home, the new president preserved many of Bush’s initiatives. Obama completed the financial and auto industry bailouts that Bush began, largely kept No Child Left Behind and the Medicare drug prescription program, and built on his increase in fuel economy standards and incentives for renewable energy. While Obama ran against Bush’s tax cuts, he ended up reauthorizing roughly 85 percent of them, reversing them for just the top 1 percent of American taxpayers. And Obama made one of his highest second-term priorities an overhaul of the immigration system, moving to complete Bush’s unfinished mission.

The disparity between Obama’s campaign trail rhetoric on national security and his actions upon taking office shocked some of his supporters but should have come as little surprise to anyone who watched the evolution of the previous administration. Obama essentially ran against Bush’s first term but inherited his second. By the time Bush left office, he had already shaved off the harsher, more controversial edges of his war on terror, either under pressure from Congress, the courts, and public opinion or out of a conscious effort to put his policies on a firmer foundation with more bipartisan approval. He had emptied the secret CIA prisons, cleared out many of the prisoners at Guantanamo, approved no waterboarding after 2003, and secured the approval of lawmakers for military commissions, expansive surveillance, and other elements of his program.

–          Days of Fire Bush and Cheney in the White House by Peter Baker

days of fire

women and the law

On June 18, 1860, Reverend Theophilus Packard committed his wife Elizabeth to the Illinois Hospital for the Insane. A staunch Calvinist, Theophilus held that his wife’s refusal to accept the orthodoxy of his religious views, her refusal to echo his thinking spoke unequivocally of a deranged mind. Theophilus acted quite legally. Illinois law permitted a husband (but not a wife) to authorize the involuntary commitment of a spouse. Elizabeth Packard, forty-four, the mother of their six children, and completely sane, had not given her consent and was literally dragged off. Elizabeth spent three years imprisoned in the state insane asylum as punishment for her refusal to bend to her husband’s commands. She won her release only in 1863 when her eldest son reached the age of majority and asserted legal standing to petition for her freedom. Months later Theophilus again, stubbornly, locked Elizabeth in a room whose windows had been nailed shut. This time she was freed only after a court trial in which a jury declared her sane.

Elizabeth Packard’s fate was the consequence of male action. In addition to her husband’s, the decisions of fathers, brothers, sons, male legislators, sheriffs, and doctors contributed to her imprisonment. Even the final—felicitous—ruling of a local jury declaring her sane was a judgment of men. At every step, Elizabeth Packard contended with norms and laws established and carried out by men.

rebels at the bar

someone else’s love story

The gunman pulls the trigger, and it seems to William that he smells the sulphur before he hears the bang. This isn’t possible, but this is how he experiences it, in spite of science. He barely clocks the blood that appears in a wash on the shoulder of her blue uniform shirt; he is noticing instead her face, how it stretches and thins, as if the entry of a bullet into the closed system of her body is fundamentally changing her already. The late-coming sound feels loud in the small market. It starts a ringing in his ears. The child makes a noise and pushes his fact into William. The face feels wet, and the wetness is absorbed by William’s shirt, coming through the cloth to touch his skin.

–          someone else’s love story by Joshilyn Jackson

someone else's love story

Christine Granville

In December 1939 a ‘flaming Polish patriot . . . expert skier and great adventuress,’ according to British Secret Service records, submitted  bold plan to ski into Nazi-occupied Poland from Hungary, via the Carpathian mountains. The patriot was Christine and her aim was to take British propaganda into Warsaw to bolster the Polish spirit of resistance at a time when many Poles believed they had been abandoned to their fate, and to return with intelligence on the Nazi occupation. ‘She is absolutely fearless,’ the report continued, before concluding rather pathetically, ‘she says the matter is urgent.’

–          The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley

the spy who loved

Oklahoma Tough

Things were going well. Daddy’s whiskey business at the gas station kept getting bigger and bigger, until one day he came home and announced that he had bought a house, for $4,500 cash. The one-story house at 2742 East King Street was made of fieldstone painted white and had two big cedar trees in the front yard and evergreen shrubs around the foundation. In the backyard was a well-kept lawn and a large cherry tree. Lucille remembered: “It was a nice house. It had two bedrooms, and a nice bathroom between, all tile, a huge kitchen and a big breakfast room and living room and dining room. We were living there when the war ended. By then we were selling whiskey by the case and delivering it. I don’t know how we got into that. Wayne handled all that. I answered the phones and took orders.” Wayne was twenty-three, and he had taken a decisive step into a criminal profession.

–          Oklahoma Tough My Father, King of the Tulsa Bootleggers by Ron Padgett

oklahoma tough

oh yes!

“Upon arriving in Dijon a couple of hours later, they checked in at the Hotel Terminus, where their room, like every room in the hotel was outfitted with wine faucets, one for red and one for white, in the bathroom. It was a marketing gimmick, meant to promote the hotel and the local wine. Hanging beside the faucets was a silver pair of silver tastevins—wine tasting cups. The wine was on the house, according to the small sign, and it really wasn’t bad.” – Provence, 1970 – M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste by Luke Barr.

hotel terminus-postcard1468

Hitler’s Furies

It was not long before nurses, secretaries, and teachers began to grasp that the war was, as Hitler wished, a campaign of annihilation. For individual women, this moment of realization occurred during the journey eastward, through overheard conversations in a train compartment, at border crossings, of when they arrived. Nearing the genocide was jarring for most women, since they were not formally trained in violence, either in committing it or responding to it. For the men it was different. Young men in Germany were raised in the shadow of the Great War’s graphic, often homoerotic imagery of brutal trench warfare. Hitler Youth exercises often focused on overcoming fear, shaming cowards, enduring pain, and forging bonds of comradeship like those of a gang. Marching exercises, shooting drills, public flogging of nonconformists, and regular military training prepared the young men to kill. German women, aside from the specially trained camp guards, did not receive this degree of military indoctrination, nor did they form gangs to commit atrocities.

 Because very few of the women who arrived in the East had received any preparation for witnessing or assisting in the execution of mass murder, their varied reactions to the Holocaust reveal less about their prewar training than about their character and ideological commitment to the regime. Their responses ranged from rescue at one extreme to direct killing at the other. But the number of ordinary women who contributed in various ways to the mass murder is countless times larger than the relative few who tried to impede it.

 Mostly out of curiosity but also greed, many German women came face-to-face with the Holocaust in one of the thousands of ghettos in the East. These “Jewish-only” districts were officially forbidden territory; those who entered did so against Nazi regulations. Despite official threats and bans (or perhaps because of them), ghettos became sites of German tourism. And there was a distinctly female feature of this emerging pastime: shopping trips and romantic outings.

 One Red Cross nurse in Warsaw had nothing planned for her day off. Her friend greeted her with a surprise: “Today we are going in the ghetto.” Everyone goes there to shop, her friend gushed. The Jews place all their personal items on the street, on planks and on tables – soap, toothbrushes, cosmetics, shoelaces, w whatever you need. Some even offer the items from their own extended hands. The nurse was hesitant to defy German rules by entering the ghetto, but her friend reassured her that German doctors were going there also, to meet with Jewish doctors who would advise them about treating typhus. The two women went on their shopping adventure, and afterward the nurse recorded that she’d seen poverty and filth much worse than in the Polish population. The “ghetto smell” of “those people” stayed with her for a long time.

hitler's furies

On Paper

Unlike so many other landmark breakthroughs—be it the invention of the wheel, the methods for making glass, the smelting of bronze or iron—we know today with some degree of certainty when paper was first made, and where it emerged. The year traditionally given by the Chinese is A.D. 105, when an official in the Imperial Court of the emperor Ho Ti, responsible for making tools and weapons, a man named Cai Lun, announced the invention in a formal report and outlined specific instructions for its manufacture. Writing about this key achievement three hundred years later, the official historian of the Han Dynasty, Fan Ye, declared that Cai Lun (until recently spelled Tsai Lun in the West) had “initiated the idea of making paper from the bark of trees, hemp, old rags, and fishing nets,” and that once perfected, the process was “in use everywhere.”

Today, statues of Cai Lun are found in museums and public buildings throughout China, his image printed on postage stamps, his name revered by many millions of schoolchildren, even though archaeological finds from the past hundred years strongly suggest that papermaking was practiced several centuries before he introduced it at court. Some of the most persuasive evidence for an earlier provenance comes from excavations in the early years of the twentieth century by the British explorer Sir Aurel Stein along the Silk Road, the network of caravan routes that for close to two thousand years linked China and Europe. Stein is best known for the spectacular find of fifty thousand scrolls and artworks he recovered from the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas at the Dunhuang grottoes, also called the Mogao Caves and once a booming oasis in the Gobi Desert in Gansu Province.

Among the treasures Stein removed to England was a copy of the Diamond Sutra of the Chinese Tang Dynasty from A.D. 868, appearing more than five hundred years before Johannes Gutenberg introduced movable metal type in Europe, making it the earliest printed book on record to bear an identifiable date. A number of letters written on paper, which Stein found in the ruins of a watchtower in the Great Wall of China, have been dated more than seven hundred years earlier than that, to about A.D. 150. In an exhaustive history of Chinese paper published in 1985, the distinguished University of Chicago historian Tsien Tsuen-Hsuin suggested that the oldest paper specimens extant today are fragments discovered in 1957 in a tomb in Shaanxi Province, dating to about 140 B.C. Early examples from other locations have been identified as well, increasing the near certainty that the process evolved over several centuries.

Significantly, one of the first Chinese words for paper, Chi, was defined in an early lexicon as “a mat of refuse fibers.” While not correct in every respect, the description does provide a context for what paper is, and what it is not. Many manufacturers today certainly do mix discarded rags and “recovered” papers into their pulp, and paper may well be the first industrial produce to include recycles materials on a significant level, but many other fiber sources often find their way into the final product, ones that are anything but disposable scraps. A more accurate definition might describe paper as a composite of water and pulverized cellulose fragments screened through a sieve and dried into a flat film. Using that description, there is a mat, and there are fibers—but there is also H2O, which is vital to its composition.

–           “Common Bond,” On Paper by Nicholas A. Basbanes

on paper

‘an essential allegory’

the brothers

Paul Kattenburg, State Department – excerpt from The Brothers, “A Matchless Interplay of Ruthlessness and Guile” by Stephen Kinzer
“Few if any policy practitioners in Washington or among American representatives in Asia would dare to say in 1950, for example, when Ho Chi Minh was beginning to defeat the French: ‘Ho is certainly a Communist, but he has great appeal; he is regarded as a champion of nationalism and of anti-colonialism; he is forging an unbreakable bond with his people; he will win his revolutionary struggle regardless of the odds, for we can see, hear, and sense that the masses of the people support him and not the French or their puppets.’ Stilling or silencing voices such as these, and hearing instead only those who said, ‘Ho is a Communist, therefore he cannot really represent the aspirations of his people, and moreover they regard him as a tool of Russia or China,’ led American leaders—and people was well—into an anti-Communist climate of deafness and blindness. . . . It is one of the most dangerous, in fact potentially suicidal, things a great nation can do in world affairs: to cut off its eyes and ears, to castrate its analytic capacity, to shut itself off from the truth because of blind prejudice and a misguided dispensation of good and evil.”

Read this book . . .

you will be happy you did.

the story of a happy marriage
Excerpt (“On Responsibility”, published in The Bark, Winter 2003)

I am not responsible for much. I do not have children who have to get to school on time and wear matching shoes and be taught the difference between right and wrong. I do not have a job in which the well-being of a company or the safety of the nation or the health of anyone at all is resting on my shoulders. I have a couple of plants I must remember to water. I make a point of paying my taxes on time. I take care of myself, but that’s not worth mentioning. I pitch in and help other people when I can, but they are people who could find the same help elsewhere if I went on vacation. When I think of whom I am responsible for, truly responsible for, I can whittle the list down to my dog and my grandmother, and it just so happens that last week they were both sick.


These days, when people ask how I’m doing—some of them still ask, you’d be surprised—I shrug and say, as manfully as I can, “Much better than you’d think.” And this is true. I am fed, I am clothed, I still have a few patients, the Nets are winning, and my mother, thank God, has finally agreed to the assisted-living place in Rockland. And I have a home, of sorts—the room we built for Alec above the garage so that he could pursue his oil painting with the firm scaffold of our love and money under his feet. God forbid that Alec should ever have felt unsupported—that we should show dismay at his dropping out of Hampshire after three semesters and almost sixty thousand dollars of tuition, books, board, and other proofs of parental esteem. Sixty thousand dollars vanished—puff—like smoke; our son fails out of a college that doesn’t even give grades, and in response we build him an art studio above our garage. And here’s the kicker: we were happy to do it. This is one of the many lessons we took from the plight of our friends Joe and Iris Stern, whose daughter Laura was lost to them once, and is again, now.

–          A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein



My first memory is of a time ten years before I was born, and the memory takes place where I have never been and involves my daddy whom I never knew.

– Harry Crews, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place



Most of the way I was accompanied by a pair of yellow-and-red-and-black western tanagers, who constantly zoomed ahead of me and then dashed back as if they were border collies out for a walk.

–          Crime of Privilege by Walter Walker



“His manner was gentle, respectful, with a quality of refinement that made the men drinking vodka out of plastic cups down at the local Moose Lodge question whether Dean could property be called a redneck.”

– about Dean Price in George Packer’s novel The Unwinding An Inner History of the New America

George Packer
George Packer