A Complicated Sky

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“Are you going to miss anything about Arizona?” a friend asked recently.

We were sitting on a patio, at a bar, on one of my last nights in Phoenix. I had lived in Arizona for two momentous years. I would miss a lot of things—people, mostly, but also hiking trails, sitting outside, well-paved asphalt, and all the cacti. I would miss the easygoing attitude and indifferent dress code. I would miss dust storms and real Mexican food. I would miss the life-changing opportunities the city had leant me.

“Anything you won’t miss?” asked my friend, helpfully adding: “The heat?”

“I don’t mind the heat,” I said, although the summer heat wave hadn’t yet descended on the Valley of the Sun, so I was still full of pro-summer bravado. “One thing I won’t miss—the sky.”

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Books by People I Know: “How the English Establishment Framed Stephen Ward”

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In 2014, I was performing in a Costa Rican production of The Glass Menagerie. During a rehearsal, I was standing backstage and decided to introduce myself to Caroline.

“What do you do?” I asked.

“I’m a writer,” Caroline said, in her elegant English accent.

“Oh,” I said, thinking she meant blogger or diarist. “What do you write?”

Then Caroline threw me a curve-ball: In the 1980s, she co-authored a bone-rattling account of the Profumo Affair, which, in Great Britain, you might compare to the Watergate Scandal, except that there were a lot of sex parties involved. Caroline’s account, How the English Establishment Framed Stephen Ward, was a total coup: Few people involved in the Profumo Affair had ever spoken openly about it. The book was a bestseller. It blew the scandal wide open. Years later, the book would inform Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Stephen Ward.

Caroline and I have become great friends ever since, and we admire each other a great deal. I could gush about Caroline forever: She’s a world-traveler, a humanitarian, a thespian, a journalist, and a loving mother. She has done more in a lifetime than any hundred regular people combined. You can read about her mind-blowing experiences on her blog.

As for Stephen Ward, here’s the review I wrote on Goodreads a couple of years ago, still as accurate as ever:

Six months ago, I had never heard of Stephen Ward, and when I asked my parents (who were cognizant middle schoolers when Ward went to trial), they drew a blank. In general, Americans know little about the Profumo Affair. Indeed, unless the scandal has “gate” tacked onto the end of its most notorious personage or locale, we tend to ignore it. “Wardgate” just doesn’t have the right ring.

This is a good thing, because it means an American 34-year-old can read “How the English Establishment Framed Stephen Ward” without any preconceptions. If you know nothing, skip the Wiki-history and start the book on page one, happily innocent. Milquetoast critics love to say that a book “reads like a thriller,” but in fact “Stephen Ward” IS, essentially, a thriller, and in the most spectacular sense: There are call-girls, slimy businessmen, Russian spies, and more famous names than you can shake a Oscar at. Figuratively, the story is a tragedy of blood — instead of pandemic death, as in a Shakespeare play, character assassination kills everyone involved. But the road to perdition is long and complex, and because it’s filled with sex, fistfights, and car crashes, the elaborate plot is also titillating.

At the heart of the book is the eponymous Stephen Ward, English osteopath and general enigma. Like any good biography, Ward’s personality is richly recreated, and a remarkable personality it was. Ward’s life was filled with contradictions: He loved American freedom, but he became famous among English aristocrats. He thrived in the city, but he escaped to the country whenever possible. He worshiped women and constantly surrounded himself with highly erotic girls, but he wasn’t himself very sexual. He was a methodical physician with an exceptional talent for art. He abhorred English class structure, but he was happy to defend its newly democratic values to a Soviet official and even provoke heated debate. He loved wild parties, but he particularly loved coffee.

For me, much of the pleasure of “Stephen Ward” was reading about an extinct zeitgeist: London in the 1960s. British culture had reached such a remarkable crossroads, where Mod fashion and sexual liberation and postwar personality crises and decayed government and predatory tabloids and Cold War gamesmanship all collided in the same city at the same time. Britons seemed unable to reconcile their gentlemanly days with their (literally) orgiastic nights. Sixty years later, it is impossible to imagine a well-dressed physician having casual sleepovers with a bevvy of teenaged girls, especially when Ward was the Dr. Oz of his day — living publicly and befriending every celebrity in sight. Ward now seems so innocent, hanging out with exotic dancers and Communist officials, earning and spending money without a care. It’s a peculiar case of Russian roulette when the player doesn’t realize he’s been aiming a loaded gun at his own temple for years.

On the surface, reading about the Profumo Affair anticipates our hyperactive obsession with celebrity scandal, and if it was ever revealed that Dr. Phil (to use another famous caregiver) routinely let Selena Gomez sleep at his place, all the while hanging out with a shifty Iranian “attaché,” we might imagine the fallout. Yet 21st Century people have become experts in the ways of scandal. We only express shock because we follow our cultural script; in reality, bedroom shenanigans have become so routine that we mostly just snicker with schadenfreude. Ward faced charges that now sound strange (“immorality offenses”), and “the establishment” is much more complex than it once was, but the repercussions of Ward’s trial nearly toppled the social order. No more group sex, no more poolside flirtations in the privacy of country homes. The party, it seems, was over.

Stylistically, “Stephen Ward” is a frank and often eloquent book. The story is interesting by nature, but Kennedy and Knightly perfectly married encyclopedic fact and colorful anecdote, and the result is burbling suspense, as if John le Carré had tried his hand at historical nonfiction. The story involves so many characters and spans so many years and locations that it feels like a TV miniseries — any given chapter is packed with insults, lawsuits, and a Silver Screen cameo. We learn, in the end, that the backward-thinking British aristocracy was willing to do anything to save face. Twenty years after these events, it’s remarkable that Kennedy and Knightly had the courage (or even the resources) to reopen an ugly wound and bleed it clean. The value of “Stephen Ward,” in its reissued form, is its cautionary theme: Posh society can be exciting and fashionable, but the stakes are also high. A mild-mannered physician can threaten an entire nation, just by having the wrong friends, or sketching the wrong muse.

Books by People I Know: “Junkette”

31UKFHgIfxL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI was an enthusiastic Sarah Shotland fan the moment I met her. But then again, pretty much everybody is.

Sarah made a splash in Pittsburgh when she dreamed up Words Without Walls, a writing program for people in prison. You can read my interview with Sarah about this groundbreaking program over at Pittsburgh Magazine.

But Sarah is so much more than Words Without Walls. She’s plainspoken and hilarious. She speaks with the subtlest Southern twang. We spent many nights yukking it up on her porch in Friendship.

We met in Chatham’s MFA program, but we really bonded over theater. Sarah is an accomplished playwright and has worked for theater companies around the world. She has spent time in Spain and China, Texas and New Orleans. Chatham’s MFA program attracts many students in their mid-twenties, so Sarah and I felt a little older, a little more road-tested. We are similarly laid-back, and similarly diehard about our labors of love. No matter how much time passes, we pick up our conversation where we left off.

As I write this, I am about halfway through Junkette. Sarah and I exchanged books (Junket for The Green Season) last time I was in town, just the kind of literary barter I enjoy. Like most of the paperbacks in my life, the novel has languished on my bookshelf for months, screaming to be read. I started the book this morning and have found any excuse to keep reading.

The reason is this: It may be a book about heroin addicts in New Orleans, but it’s a breezy read. Sarah cuts to the chase. Each paragraph seeps into the next. The dialogue is sparse and springy. The story so far is matter-of-fact, neither exploitative nor self-pitying. The protagonist rationalizes her self-destruction so naturally that shooting rope almost sounds like a decent pastime.

It takes a hell of an author to pull that off, and I’m so glad I know her.

You can find Junkette on Amazon or order it from your neighborhood bookstore.

Books by People I Know: “Talking Tico”

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Joe Baur is my doppelgänger. Or maybe I’m his. On paper, we’re practically interchangeable.

Joe arrived in Costa Rica shortly after I did, to study at the University for Peace. When I learned of his arrival, I looked up the usual sites—Facebook, LinkedIn—and was shocked to discover our similarities.

Joe grew up in Cleveland, while I spent most of my adult life in Pittsburgh. Like me, he’s a writer, videographer, photographer, podcaster, and traveler. He has produced sketch comedy, as have I. We both have Germanic surnames and personal interest in our Central European heritage. We are both avid cyclists and abhor automotive dependency, and we both refused to drive for many years. We were both avid contributors to The Tico Times, especially the travel section. We have both written for a range of publications about craft beer. We are both recreational runners and chronicled our first races in the tropics. We both married to our longtime girlfriends in streamlined weddings shortly before we became expats. We both moved out of our longtime homes and lived with our in-laws for a short period before the big move. We resided in Costa Rica for similar stretches of time, and our casas were located 10 miles away from each other, roughly on the same road. Facially, we could probably pass for cousins or even brothers, especially in Latin America.

And, to complete the Venn diagram, Joe and I have both written first-person books about our respective experiences in Costa Rica. Both volumes are essay collections, they are deliberately good-humored, and they both include a long chapter about the life of Juan Santamaría in the first third of the book.

Incredibly, Joe and I have only ever seen each other twice: Once, during a visit to downtown San José, and the second time at the airport, when we were both departing for the U.S. It’s hard to fathom the brevity of our interactions, given how prolifically we’ve corresponded and how much worldview we share.

So it was a particular pleasure to read Joe’s new ebook, because it covered such familiar territory. (At one point, Joe rides with the ChepeCletas, a bicycle activist group in San José. When he mentions his contact and friend, José, I realized he was probably talking about my contact and friend, José Pablo Avila Arias. As my—our—editor David Bodigger used to say, “Costa Rica es un pueblo.”)

While Talking Tico sometimes felt like a book I had written in a parallel universe (where I am fitter, a better Spanish speaker, and did my graduate studies in progressive leadership), the book is also very distinct from The Green Season. Our paths diverged quite a bit, especially where our professions were concerned. The most astonishing chapter, to me, is Joe’s account of a week-long simulation at UPEACE. Students acted as journalists and aid workers in a political hot zone, where cartels are actively kidnapping and threatening interlopers from other countries. The simulation is all fiction, of course, but Joe recounts getting blindfolded, taken to a mysterious location, and interrogated by hostile men. It’s a real nail-biter of a tale, and Joe allows himself to criticize his peers, whose indecision causes even bigger problems. It’s a tough cautionary tale for people who mean well but have no idea the risks they face in unstable regions.

So congratulations to Joe on his new book, and on all his achievements since leaving Costa Rica! One of these days, hopefully, we’ll actually get to grab a beer.

You can find Talking Tico on Amazon.

Books by People I Know: “Let Me Clear My Throat”

19178979.jpgThis is my favorite story about Elena Passarello:

We were in college, and the theater department threw a basement party. Someone had hired a DJ. The audio equipment stood on a flimsy foldout table. The music was loud and throbbing.

Elena had made friends with a small cohort from Manchester, England, and invited them to the party. The Brits were new in town and didn’t know most of the people there, but that didn’t seem to bother them. They started dancing to the music.

One of them leapt up and down. It was a wild, thrashing dance. Emboldened, he sprang in the air and landed in the middle of the flimsy, foldout table.

The table broke in half. Or maybe it fell over. Whatever the case, the audio equipment went flying. Piles of CDs clattered on the tile floor. The music stopped. The party stopped. Everyone stared in disbelief at the Brits, who were now huddled in the corner, shocked and uncertain what to do next.

Elena sprinted across the room, grabbed a microphone, and screamed into it: “NO WONDER YOU LOST THE WAR.”

Everybody laughed. The Brits laughed. The partiers laughed. It’s possible even the DJ laughed. Everyone shrugged their shoulders, the music started to play again, and the festivities resumed, exactly as before.

This memory summarizes Elena in my mind: a boisterous, fearless, high-octane superhuman. Her zest and good humor can make 30 angry people smile.

It’s always strange, when you’ve known people for years and years, to read their writing, because the voice of prose is so different from the voice of the person you see in real life. This book does Elena’s personality some justice, but it’s also refined, perfected. It’s like taking an already perfect wine and distilling it into cognac.

Much has been written about Let Me Clear My Throat, so I’ll just summarize some of those remarks: It’s rare for a book to be about sound. Books are silent. They are usually read in quiet isolation. You can’t literally hear a book, any more than you can literally see music. It seems so obvious, that sound would be used as a literary theme, since it’s one of our very limited number of senses. Alas, not often.

The essay about the “Wilhelm Scream” alone is worth the price of the book, but the first-person account of the Stella & Stanley Shouting Contest is by far the most Passarellian. Though it’s been years since I’ve been able to hang out with Elena, this essay made that time feel a lot shorter. I am biased and protective about the books my friends write, but let Me Clear My Throat is objectively brilliant. And my anticipation for her next book makes me want to scream.

Books by People I Know: “Senseless”

12363496.jpgI spent much of my twenties at a restaurant called Joe Mama’s. The happy  hour crowd was a cultish bunch of bohemians and ne’er-do-wells, and they have remained some of my closest friends. The bar was big and U-shaped, and there was little distinction between regulars and staff; we bantered for hours, talking life, art, sex, and politics as the Pittsburgh skyline darkened outside. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.

Damien worked as the all-star bartender, a boisterous and heavily bearded young man with a golden sense of humor. The moment I learned that Damien had (also) studied creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh, we’d spend whole evenings swapping favorite book titles and book summaries and ideas for future books.

Then Damien did something that I had always dreamed of doing: He moved to Prague and started to teach English as a second language. I had plotted to do this for years but always found a reason to stall. But Damien dove in, embraced his new Eastern European lifestyle, and has lived in the Czech Republic ever since.

And then he published his novel. Senseless is goofy and booze-soaked, but it’s also a sensitive story about families, particularly fathers, brothers, and sons. Anyone would enjoy the weirdness of this book, but Pittsburghers of a certain age will recognize its many familiar monuments, and anyone who knows Damien will find a thousand inside jokes.

Here’s hoping Damien has collected enough European stories to produce a second volume. Not everyone can pull off semi-autobiographical novels, but Damien did, I can only hope he will again.