The Man on the Train

Screen Shot 2018-08-11 at 1.22.39 PMYou may have seen him—the man on the commuter train to Los Angeles—leaning over his laptop, glasses slipping down his nose, wired in, absorbed, on deadline, not to be disturbed. Because he wears a suit and tie, you may assume he calculates quarterly sales results due on arrival downtown. It would be easy to make this mistake. The truth is he’s two thousand miles and forty years away.

It’s 1978 near the Guatemala-Honduras border. A stranger, who appeared out of nowhere, has been severely beaten and a 19-year-old Peter Nielsen—the man you saw on the train—carries the wounded stranger to a remote village clinic, his clothes wet with the stranger’s blood. Later that night, the beaten man dies. On another night in Gualan, Guatemala, the Mayan villagers watch the World Cup on black and white TVs, giving the deserted streets a bluish glow. When Argentina scores the winning goal, the village erupts in “one full-throated cry of joy.” Continue reading

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The Sorrows of Physicist Max Planck

downloadConsider for a moment the sorrows of Max Planck, the theoretical physicist who originated quantum theory. In 1909, his wife, Marie Merck, died of tuberculosis. In 1914, his son, Erwin, was taken prisoner by the French during the First World War. Then his eldest son, Karl, was killed in 1916 at the Battle of Verdun.

Planck had twin daughters he adored—Emma and Grete. In 1917, Grete died in childbirth. Her twin sister Emma went to care for the surviving baby and soon fell in love with her sister’s husband. Soon after this, in 1918, Planck received the Nobel Prize for physics. The next year, 1919, his daughter Emma also died giving birth to her first child.  Continue reading

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being

IMG_2262At a recent library sale, I paid twenty-five cents for a new paperback copy of Milan Kundera’s novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being to replace the dog-eared, yellowing copy I’ve had for 35 years. Still, I find it hard to part with the old artifact. Continue reading

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Young Iranians and Americans at Twenty

Man_holding_sign_during_Iranian_hostage_crisis_protest,_1979On November 4, 1979 radical Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, capturing 66 hostages who would not be free for 444 days. I was a Mormon missionary in New Mexico at the time. Twenty years old. This ominous event added to my list of reasons to expect to be drafted after my return home. The next spring, many missionaries were required to register for the draft. I missed the deadline by only a month. Life went on. Continue reading

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Night Sky

total eclipseTo calm myself, I need only two words: night sky. If I could, I would drink in the sky. I would breathe in the moon and stars. Continue reading

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Man at the Fire

We shared a birthday, my father and I, July twenty-fifth (1933 and 1959 respectively), and often celebrated with a trip to the Oregon coast. Just the two of us. We’d drive out from Portland on a Friday evening after dad finished work and spend a weekend. “We’re a couple of bums. That’s what we are,” dad would say. We slept in the roomy ’65 Chrysler and lived on cheese, saltines, apples, plums and summer sausage—the kind of food you can slice with a pocketknife and eat with your hands.

On one of these ‘bumming it’ weekends in July 1969 we had built a driftwood fire on a deserted beach near Manzanita, then strolled out toward the surf and south until our fire was no more than a distant star. When a night fog rolled in with the incoming tide, we were all but blind and turned back north hoping we would eventually see the light from our fire and find our way to the gravel road where our car waited.  Continue reading

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The Invisible Salman Rushdie

One could argue the death threat Salman Rushdie received from Ayatollah Khomeini for writing The Satanic Verses ranks among the worst rejections in literary history. Fueled by Khomeini’s fatwa, or edict, Rushdie’s enemies not only banned and burned his book, they wanted to kill him for writing it, called on the wide world of Muslim believers to do the righteous deed, would-be assassins blowing themselves to bits, fellow Muslims pipe-bombing bookstores and killing other Muslims for not hating Rushdie enough. Protests, often violent, broke out in Paris, New York, Oslo, and in India, Pakistan, Germany, Thailand, the Netherlands, Kashmir, Bangladesh, Turkey, Sweden, Australia, and England. The Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, Hitoshi Igarashi, was murdered in an elevator, stabbed repeatedly in the face and arms. Ettore Capriolo, the Italian translator, was attacked, kicked and stabbed, but survived. Rushdie’s Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, took three bullets, yet lived. Rushdie, forced into hiding and invisibility—from February 14, 1989 to March 27, 2002—found himself at the center of a global controversy about what it means, and what it costs, to speak freely.  Continue reading

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