I never knew the poet Nina Cassian as anyone but Nina—until I read her obituary in the New York Times this morning and learned she was born Renée Annie Katz—and to a Jewish family—in Galati, Romania, in 1924. And now it is too late to ask her about that—though I have not spoken to her in 15 years.

I met Nina in 1985 during my first semester in the graduate creative writing program at New York University. She was only my second real writing instructor (Philip Schultz had been my first)—and certainly my first writing instructor under the auspices of the NYU program. Not knowing what to expect from the program, I had one distinct advantage: I was open to anything.

I had another advantage as well, although I did not consider it one at the time. I had gone to a smallish state university in Texas that was not known for its liberal arts program, to put it kindly. So I was aware, at NYU, that I was handicapped by my background. Not a bona fide literary type at all. (I had even majored in journalism!)

A few of the other students in my seminar with Nina were handicapped in other ways—mostly by expectations of grandeur, to put it nicely. They had obviously been gifted students at respected colleges, and they expected the gifted treatment to continue. But Nina catered to no one, particularly when such behavior was expected. She was a communist, after all—with a big C, I later discovered. She despised hierarchies. She treated people equitably, directly and honestly—the way, I assumed, she expected to be treated herself.

I hadn’t known anything about Nina before selecting her as my preceptor that semester, except that she was a visiting scholar from Romania. I had not read her work (it was not readily available in the United States at the time). I had no telepathic glimmer that I would like her as much as I did, from her musical way of speaking, her clear voice and Romanian accent that hit key words in poems with exactly the right emphasis and could turn sly in a flash, the sarcasm in the spoken words not always mirroring what was written on the page.

I loved her blonde hair (though it was clearly enhanced, since she was in her early sixties by the time I met her) and the way it ranged untamed around her long Romanian face. The prominent chin, the beautiful nose. In her apartment in Roosevelt Island the last time I visited, there was a photo of her from her youth in Romania. In the photo, she lay stretched out along a sofa, her head and hair thrown back, her expression purely erotic. I had never seen a woman seem so unabashedly beautiful. And that is saying something, coming, as I did, from the “buckle” of the Bible Belt.

Most of all I liked the things Nina taught me: the importance of humor and rhythm and satire. Her contempt for “Have a nice day” modes of communication, for insincerity of any kind. And, once the semester was over, her knack for living it up around New York with me and another of her students.

I think we American students came as a real shock to Nina. We were nowhere near as well read as she was. We had little understanding of Romanian culture. I doubt that, at that time, any of us had ever heard the name “Ceausescu,” the Romanian dictator who later had one of her close friends tortured and killed, necessitating Nina’s application for (and eventual granting of) political asylum in the United States.

Things I remember: She assigned us each a poet to emulate—a poet she considered our literary opposite. She explained that we could learn a lot by stretching to write to our opposite tendencies. I watched as she anointed my classmates: There was Eliot, Pound, Shakespeare, Dickinson….my mouth watered in anticipation. But when she got to me, I was assigned (sound of tin hitting the floor) Ogden Nash. OGDEN NASH. She spotted my disappointment right away.

“You are too melancholy,” she told me. “You need to try to be happy sometimes.” I knew she was right about the melancholy, but I wasn’t sure I agreed about the need to be happy. After all, Schultz had once told me, “You don’t have to have a miserable life to write good poetry, but it sure helps.”

It wouldn’t be the first time Nina urged me to lighten up. And now that I have aged a bit myself, I have to admit she was right. In fact, the truth is glaring: When someone who lived under Ceausescu tells you you’re too dark, you’d do well to listen.

I remember a field trip we took to the Romanian Consulate in Manhattan—how she showed us all off as though we were her own lovely ducklings. And showed her culture off to us.

I remember a session on Hamlet, back at NYU, when Nina was discussing Ophelia’s demise. “How do we know she killed herself” Nina asked, “if she was alone? Maybe somebody gave her a little push…no?”

And I recall the first time she invited us to her apartment, her nervousness over getting it right. When we arrived, there were several low tables, each set with at least one enormous bottle of good Russian vodka, two packs of cigarettes, and several ashtrays. There weren’t enough chairs so I sat on the rug and watched the dust bunnies drift along the margins of the room. That was Nina. She got the hospitality right—but to hell with housework. I’m a soul sister on that.

After the semester ended, I introduced Nina to an American communist friend of mine. He and I traveled to her apartment on Roosevelt Island. Same offering of vodka and cigs. Heated argument between Nina and my friend over communism and politics. Table-pounding on occasion. I sat in the corner, sipping vodka and listening. Though my friend and I were close, we were no couple (my choice, mostly, but that’s another story). When the yelling quieted down and we gathered our coats to leave, Nina pulled me aside to whisper in my ear.

“What’s the matter with that one? He’s perfect for you!”

To this day, I still believe that is one of the few judgments Nina got wrong.

There are other stories—how she bailed out of a cab that contained me and one of her unwanted foreign suitors, leaving me to escape his clutches on my own. (With the benefit of hindsight, I think she may have been setting us up…)

And the last time I saw her, she was with Galway Kinnell and Stanley Kunitz at a reading to celebrate Paul Celan and the poems of the Holocaust. Though she never mentioned her Jewish heritage, I do recall that she held Celan in highest esteem, translating some of his work into Romanian and introducing us, her students, to his poetry.

I went up to greet her, and she introduced me to her new husband. By then she must have been nearing 75.

I smiled and shook his hand. Happy she was happy. Still resolving to get there one day myself.


Here is her lovely voice reading


I never knew him, never heard him speak in person, rarely read anything he wrote.

I heard about him regularly. I knew, roughly, his point of view on things, although he still managed to surprise (his stance in support of the Iraq war, for instance).

For the most part, I lived my life without thinking of him much. And yet, when I learned that he was terminally ill, I felt genuinely sad. And this week, his death hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. I don’t think I’m alone in these sentiments, judging from the high readership his obituaries appear to be enjoying on the Internet, along with various tributes to him by colleagues and acquaintances.

I frequently disagreed with Hitchens’ opinions. When he published his book on religion (God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything), I was rediscovering a hunger for theology. I thought his decision to support the invasion of Iraq insane. (And I read in his obituary in the New York Times that he even supported Britain’s invasion of the Falklands!) I decried his blunt assault on many aspects of American culture. I thought he seemed rather full of himself.

But now that I must write about him in the past tense, I realize what a tremendous loss it is. We on the Left have become so timid in so many ways—always taking pains not to offend and to pass our lives in “moderation.” Hitchens plunged in. He lived.

I have a friend who reminds me of him. A powerful writer and thinker, a dedicated atheist, a lover of travel, unabashedly self-absorbed. And this fall, she, too, was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. As I write, she lies in a hospital bed fighting pneumonia, the ailment that succeeded in killing Hitchens. Since I have known my friend, I have encountered a number of people who have decided to forego any relationship with her because of her abrasiveness. I, too, was ready to bail at one point, but then the awful diagnosis was handed down.

Now the confluence of her fate with that of Hitchens makes me more appreciative of her distinctive brashness and courage. It isn’t easy being a left-winger or an atheist outside a big city. Nor is it a comfortable existence to write iconoclastic fiction that regularly lampoons the sacred cows of America—particularly if one is a woman. Freedom of speech may be a core value in these United States, but one can pay dearly for that privilege.

So here are a few qualities I most admire about both these writers: zest for life, self-confidence, no compunction to apologize, originality, worldliness, generosity. That last one surprises me. But Hitchens blessed us with columns about his illness and impending death, written with unflinching honesty and generosity of spirit, even as he faced severe pain and increasing incapacitation. And as my friend has navigated the end of her life, she has demonstrated remarkable kindnesses to me. Last weekend, for example, because it was my birthday, she insisted on staying up with me to watch a movie she had already seen, when she clearly did not feel well at all. (She checked into the hospital the next day.)

Would that we could all muster the courage to rise to these standards at least once in a while. And think of them when we do.

Leo and Katya met about 5 years ago, when I introduced them, and they’ve been together ever since. At the time of their introduction, Katya went by the name “Rosie,” which didn’t seem to fit her at all. Rosie suggested a more sanguine nature, not the downright cranky creature I knew. Not long after they met, in homage to the Russians, Rosie morphed into Katya. It made for a more appealing couple: Leo and Katya. Very Tolstoy.

From the start, the contrast in their personalities couldn’t have been more dramatic. Besides her crankiness, Katya evinces overall high-strungness and restlessness, whereas Leo is definitely the quiet type; he rarely says anything and is über-calm. He is also all huggy-kissy, whereas Katya clearly does not like to be touched unless she knows you really, really well.

Leo is fascinated by machinery—the television, the microwave, the HP printer. Katya, not so much. Despite her high-strung nature, she spends a good portion of every day—usually after dinner—sitting in the corner, focused on one particular spot, her form of meditation.

Katya likes to talk. A lot, sometimes. Sometimes to no one in particular. And her voice is amazingly expressive. Sometimes it is strident, relentless. Other times, very tentative and endearing.

Leo and Katya are also very different in build. Leo is angular, Katya rotund—but not in a voluptuous way. More in a cartoon sort of way.  Or maybe it’s not her build so much as the way she moves, like a gunslinger, her bowed legs braced to support a belly of considerable size.

But the thing that unites both Leo and Katya—besides their zeal for mealtime—is birds. They are obsessed. About any bird, period—not just songbirds or birds of prey or ordinary birds like crows. Anything with feathers grabs their attention immediately, no matter what they happen to be doing at the moment. It is not a protective obsession, either. One senses they’d be more than willing to crush any bird into dust. What prevents them? They never go outdoors.

By now you have probably figured out that Leo and Katya are not people. They’re cats, and they live with me. And since I gave up eating meat and consuming animal products, I’ve been freed enough from guilt to ponder their inner lives.

You don’t have to be vegan to care about the inner lives of animals, of course, but it sure helps. Watch at least 15 minutes of Food Inc., and you’ll see what I mean. To disengage from the machinery of animal death can be liberating. And since I have, strangely enough, Leo and Katya have been a little friendlier. It’s like they can tell somehow.

He is using a dog’s body

A friend once told me about an exchange between a well known swami (a Hindu ascetic or religious mystic) and a Western youth. The youth asked the following question: What is the difference between a human and a dog?

The answer might seem self-evident, but the youth asked nonetheless. The swami’s answer? “The difference is that you are using a man’s body and the dog is using a dog’s body.”

You laugh, of course. (I did, especially after hearing the anecdote told in a thick Indian accent.) But then, if you are like me, you will find yourself returning to this Q&A surprisingly often. I know what it means to use a human body. But what is it like to inhabit an animal body? The answer depends on the specific animal, of course.

Our closer cousins, not so surprisingly, spend a lot of time observing our behavior and imitating it to their own ends. I recall a chimpanzee in my hometown zoo when I was growing up, who had learned how to smoke cigarettes so expertly that he could blow perfect rings of smoke that levitated overhead for almost a full minute before disintegrating into the atmosphere. He seemed to enjoy the attention this garnered him—not to mention the act of smoking itself. (His visitors would light the cigs and hand them through the bars.) (Yes, it’s shameful, but interesting nonetheless.)

In a 1999 article on animal intelligence, Eugene Linden describes an orangutan who learned to pick the lock of his enclosure—always checking first to make sure no humans were watching—and then concealed the wire he used in his mouth as he wandered around the zoo. And in an article from 2010, Jeffrey Kluger describes a male bonobo (cousin of the chimpanzee) who knows at least 384 words and can string them together into meaningful sentences.

Not such a big surprise, you say, considering these animals are primates? Well, what about crows, who are known to fashion tools to extract food from tight spaces? Or blue jays, who hide their stored food from other animals—making sure, in the process of stashing it, that none are around to watch?

One of my relatives tells the story of a crow who showed up one day and decided to become a member of the family. It slept beneath the family dog’s floppy ear, and enjoyed digging up the dog’s bones and hiding them in a new location when the dog wasn’t looking.

And a friend told me once about a large greyhound, the pet of a family of humans in semi-rural Vermont, who adopted a white rabbit who happened through the yard one day. Shortly after, all the dogs within a mile or two began gathering at the greyhound’s digs every morning, sitting around the greyhound (and rabbit) as pilgrims would surround a guru, then dispersing every afternoon.

Clearly, something more than dim consciousness is going on in these encounters. We cannot understand it fully because we are trapped in a human body.

Does dominion = cruelty?

Back to the swami’s deceptively simple response to the question of human-animal distinctions. “You are using a man’s body, and the dog is using a dog’s body.” If the only difference between humans and animals is the body we choose to inhabit, then how can we justify our cruelty toward the animals we eat?

My point here is this: Animals are not dumb beasts. They clearly have consciousness and different forms of intelligence. Should we be treating them the way we do, forcing them into excruciatingly close quarters and shooting them full of antibiotics and hormones, stimulating them into hyper-maturity and then slaughtering them in view of their kin?

Some people use the Bible to justify this treatment. The argument goes that God granted humans “dominion” over all living creatures, so we are free to treat them as we wish. But dominion is one thing, calculated brutality another. It seems to me that any God-granted gift, such as this dominion over the animal kingdom, ought to be revered and managed with sensitivity and responsibility. Instead, we use it as an excuse not to have to examine our actions and their sad consequences. We abuse the gift, in other words. That is what being a human animal has come to mean, tragically enough.  I almost wish I were using a dog’s body.


Kluger, Jeffrey. Inside the minds of animals. Time magazine. Aug. 5, 2010. http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2008759,00.html.

Linden, Eugene. Can animals think? Time magazine. Aug. 29, 1999. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,30198-1,00.html.

Markham, Beryl. West with the Night. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1942, 1983.

When I woke up this morning, the first thought that came to mind was that the ninth anniversary of September 11 was over. Thank God.

It has seemed to me that our collective observation of the anniversary has become a bit hollow and repetitive without deepening our appreciation of the incredible horror and losses the day involved. And why focus on the horrific deaths, I wondered sincerely, when the lives that preceded them were so vibrant, so much more worthy of our attention. I was also troubled by the fact that, as the years pass, more and more kooks come out of the woodwork, seizing upon the anniversary as a tool to foment misunderstanding, mindless nationalism, and racism.

Then I went to see A film unfinished, a documentary, by Yael Hersonski, about Hitler’s propaganda machine. A film unfinished, as the name suggests, is a film about a film. I was unaware, when I went to the movie, of how greatly Hitler relied on film to manipulate images and control the German population. I knew about Leni Riefenstahl and Triumph of the Will, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Apparently, before they succumbed to the Allies, the Nazis stashed hundreds—perhaps thousands—of propaganda films in an archive hidden in a forest. And that is a fraction of what was made.

A film unfinished describes the making of a “documentary” about the Warsaw ghetto in 1942, just a few months before mass deportations to concentration camps began. The Nazis hired cameramen to film daily “life” in the ghetto—but with a twist. They focused on contrasts between the Jews who were still relatively comfortable (those who still had some money left) and those who were completely destitute and clearly starving. The Nazis framed this “docu-drama” so that it appeared that some Jews were starving because other, more fortunate Jews were monopolizing all resources. The reality, of course, was that all of the Jews were confined to a few blocks of the city, with few of their belongings and little money remaining, because of the actions of the Nazis, not the Jews.

Shifting shadows

The footage from 1942 is haunting. Most of the inhabitants who appear on the film are, at a minimum, gaunt. Many look directly into the camera, their eyes full of sorrow and mistrust. The deteriorating film has left shadows that drift across the frames. In one frame, a shadow on a woman’s cheek resembles a bruise, then creeps slowly across her face and vanishes. The images of children are the hardest to watch. There is no flesh on them. They sit on doorsteps or walk slowly, lacking any lightheartedness or playfulness, their heads enormous on stick bodies.

One of the many scenes that affected me deeply showed a group of people at a restaurant in the ghetto. The Nazis had instructed a local leader to arrange for relatively well-fed Jews to report to the restaurant at an appointed hour wearing their best evening clothes. This local leader was a Jew by the name of Adam Czerniakow, head of the Warsaw ghetto Jewish council, who kept a journal about life in the ghetto, including details about the shooting of the propaganda film. When the Jews reported to the restaurant, they were presented with multiple courses of fine food and wine. (The cost of this elaborate meal was later deducted from the money allotted for rations to the ghetto, which were already extreme—e.g., 2.4 eggs per person per year.) The Jews at the restaurant were instructed to eat and smile, dance and smile. In the unedited footage, the camera follows one couple dancing. I watch them sway and turn together, graceful despite the charade they are forced to enact. All of a sudden the camera dips, and I catch a glimpse of their shoes, which are scarred and muddy, betraying their real circumstances. Outside the restaurant—and also filmed—are the starving. A number of relatively healthy Jews positioned along the sidewalk were instructed—again by the Nazis—to ignore the gaunt beggars who filed by. A film unfinished shows both the unedited and edited versions of this scene. The edited version suggests that wealthy Jews fiddled while Rome burned, so to speak, and turned away from their neighbors’ suffering.

Jew against Jew

Unseen in the Nazi footage: Any brutality among the German soldiers; they appear to be benign. In contrast, the Jewish officers, who were compelled by the Germans to police their own people, were filmed beating those people with sticks and chasing them out of the street. Yet, as one of the cameramen later testified, the Jews were clearly terrified of the Nazis. You can see it in their eyes when they are instructed to behave a certain way. A kind of panic. A desire to flee but with nowhere to run.

The ghetto, in many respects, is already a concentration camp. There are people—even small children—who are little more than bundles of bones enclosed in skin. There are beggars in rags so threadbare it is startling. There is a great mountain of feces and garbage, created by the lack of sanitation, the starvation. As one survivor of the ghetto explains in A film unfinished, the people were too weak to dispose of their refuse any way except by dumping it out the window. Why? They were too weak to walk. And had no desire to. When humans are treated like animals, the survivor explains, after a while they lose their humanity.

There is a scene, too, of a mass grave, with starved corpses stacked on top of each other in great quantities. And this was before Treblinka and Auschwitz.

So what does this have to do with September 11?

It occurred to me, as I watched the film, that it proved the lie to my earlier rationalization about September 11—specifically, my suggestion that we should not focus on the horrors committed against the living, now dead, but on the lives they lived before the horrors descended. A film unfinished, supported by The New Israeli Foundation for Cinema and Television, Yad Vashem Film Project, and YES Docu, demonstrates the importance of documenting crimes of any kind, so that the people who follow us in history can learn from what actually happened—not from a distorted version of reality. Documenting the slaughter of innocents—in the Holocaust and on September 11—also honors their courage in the face of suffering, and their anguish itself.

Sadly, there will always be people like Hitler who seek to rewrite events to cast themselves in the most favorable light. We owe it to the victims of any mass murder, regardless of who commits it, to make sure the truth is told and remembered. The facts need not be manipulated or transformed into somebody’s expedient political message. People are wise enough to recognize the truth when it is presented without any agenda other than to make it known. And the dead we honor deserve no less.

NOTE: It is still possible to see this film in some cities. It opens September 24, 2010, in Boston, Washington DC, Baltimore, and San Diego, and October 1 in San Francisco, Berkeley, Phoenix, and Chicago. For more information, go to http://www.afilmunfinished.com.

It’s been ages since I read an entire book in one day—until After the workshop came to my attention. That’s John McNally’s new novel about life after an MFA (in creative writing).

Some folks have the World Cup. Glued to their TV screens, they pump their fists in the air every time their team scores. For 24 hours, I had After the workshop. Immersed in its pages, I chortled every time McNally took down another deserving target—from clueless publicists to trendy but talentless novelists to literary groupies.

Great literature? No. (But I doubt it was intended to be.)

An engrossing read? Yes, with a fully imagined (and rendered) main character, who endears himself even as you suppress the desire to whomp him over the head.

Great fun? Absolutely!

The novel is a first-person account of media escort Jack Hercules Sheahan, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Jack, it’s safe to say, is a major fuck-up who lives hand-to-mouth in Iowa City, earning his keep (barely) by escorting visiting authors around town. After a few early successes, including publication in The New Yorker, he’s lost his way, with a half-finished novel tucked away under his bed (but not forgotten). Twelve years have passed since he graduated from the Workshop, but he still lives in the same apartment and drives the same old Toyota, which drops a muffler in the opening pages of the novel. And because Jack has just spent his last $200 on a breast pump for one of the authors he must escort—who skips town soon after—he has to spend the next few days at the mercy of the locals and the visiting literati, most of whom aren’t so friendly. The cast of characters includes that runaway author (creator of a hit novel entitled The outhouse); a big-city publicist; a romance writer; a reclusive author (think Salinger); a steroid-injecting weight lifter with a real poet’s soul; bloggers; pompous Workshop students; and so on.

At one point, I must admit, the cynical capitalist inside me stopped to calculate the potential market for such a book. I mean, MFA programs are a dime a dozen these days. By now, there must be thousands of people like me, graduate of one such program, who have failed to live up to expectations, however grandiose those hopes may have been. What the novel succeeds in demonstrating is that this “failure” may not be entirely their fault. And “success” takes many forms. It may be better, in the long run, to retain your humanity than to star on the New York Times bestseller list.

If you’ve ever marveled at the adulation heaped on writers of little literary heft, or rejoiced when one of them finally gets their comeuppance in a Michiko Kakutani review, this book is for you. Just make sure you have an extended interval in which to enjoy it. Once you start reading, you won’t want to put it down.

Day 1. A few days after I friend my cousin on Facebook, I notice garish cartoon postings populating my news feed. My cousin is offering pink cows, golden chicken eggs, and green calfs to the fastest clicker. I dismiss the postings as childish stuff, but decide not to block them from my stream. My cousin and I just reconnected after several years, and I want to stay in touch this time, even if farm animals are part of the package.

Day 5. My cousin invites me to be her neighbor on “Farmville,” and, wanting to be polite, I accept—though I am not sure exactly what Farmville is or what neighborliness entails. Clicking through the request brings me, eventually, to a Farmville play screen. There I am prompted to render an avatar in my own image (except she is wearing coveralls, which I wouldn’t be caught dead in) and am deposited on my “farm”: 6 tiny plots of land sowed with virtual eggplants, strawberries, and soybeans. The first thing I do is turn off the hokey music, which is punctuated by loud animal sounds—a moo, a bleat—and marked by a square-dancey rhythm. In the blessed silence that follows, I create a couple of additional plots of land, plant more soybeans, and leave, wondering what the big Farmville deal is.

Day 10. In a moment of boredom, after watching cows and eggs and cartoon announcements stream across my Facebook page by the dozens, I return to my farm. My soybeans are dead. Apparently, there is no grace period for harvesting. Either you’re there when the time comes, or your crops croak. I plow my land to eliminate the evidence. In the process, astonishingly enough, I am promoted to level 2, awarded some gold coins and given something called “XP.” I am also offered the opportunity to broadcast my promotion to all of my Facebook friends. I cringe at the thought. What would my Harvard-educated boss think of me being named a “Kinderfarmer”? I click on “Cancel” and skedaddle.

Day 12. My cousin sends me a Farmville “mystery gift.” I’m intrigued enough to return to my farm. Demystifying the present requires that I locate and open my “gift box” to extract a pretty purple cube. I click. A violet cloud appears, unleashing a mass of swirling stars. When the virtual fog dissipates, I discover that my gift was a tree. An acai tree, to be exact. Not bad, as offerings go. I put the tree in the corner of my farm, plant some pumpkins, and leave.

Day 14. My cousin sends me a goat. I return to my farm. The pumpkins are dead. The electronic farming experience is turning out to be remarkably similar to my houseplant experience: lots of fried plants. I plow away the debris and place my goat at the perimeter of my farm. Something about owning a “live” creature makes me a little more attentive. I use some of my gold coins to buy some fences—my inner farmer knows instinctively that animals must be fenced in. Just as I run out of money, I am promoted again, awarded more gold coins and more XP. I also get a free bale of hay. I place it next to the goat, plant some more pumpkins, and exit.

Day 15. I return to Farmville to check on my goat. It’s alive. Miraculously enough, so are most of my pumpkins, though a few have gone crispy on me. I harvest the live ones, collect my gold coins, and plant some soybeans. My goat watches from the far centimeters of my land. It’s kind of cute. Every few seconds it blinks its eyes, ducks its head, and wiggles its ears. It has a “goatee”—is this where the word originated, with a goat?

Day 30. After a couple of weeks of plowing, planting, and harvesting mostly alive plants, I hit level 15 in Farmville. I am—get this—Professor of Agriculture. Thanks to my cousin, who is level 48, I now have 10 cherry trees, 4 goats, eight chickens, a tool shed, a fountain in the shape of a heart, an Eiffel tower, a penguin, and a tent. I have been growing mostly soybeans. I’m not sure why I’ve chosen soybeans to farm, but it coincides, funnily enough, with my eating lots of edamame. Farmville is growing on me—ha, ha, ha. (That’s what we farmers say a lot in FV—ha ha ha.) It’s rather uncanny how the FV designers rope you in. With very little effort, you start raking in the money and the points. You amass possessions. You win prizes. Your access to various plants and animals increases as you rise through the rankings. I’ve even enlarged my farm a couple of times. The one thing I’m still NOT doing: broadcasting my progress on Facebook. The truth is, I’m ashamed of my Farmville activities. I have an MFA, for chrissakes. My friends would NOT understand. Still, I can’t seem to stay away. Today I clicked on one of my cousin’s golden eggs and was rewarded with a pink cottage! A whole cottage! Eureka! I’m more successful, materially speaking, in Farmville than in real life, where I own a tiny 1-bedroom apartment in one of the less desirable neighborhoods of New York City, and absolutely no land. ☹ I’m even starting to use emoticons. I never used emoticons before I moved to Farmville.

Day 32. During a Facebook chat, my cousin asks why she is my only Farmville neighbor, and why I never post any of my agricultural accomplishments on my Facebook page. I tell her I’m trying to stay beneath the radar because some people from my office are Facebook friends. I am discovering that, apart from her Farmville fanaticism, my cousin has a lot to commend her. She has an irreverent sense of humor (we laugh about the way real trees remind us of FV trees, instead of the other way around). And she spends her Farmville bucks to buy me nice presents—a French Quarter-style domicile and a large lake, for instance, complete with a dock and jumping catfish. She also hooks me up with a couple of her Farmville neighbors, who agree to keep my activities on the down-low. Now I can send them gifts and expect them to be returned, fertilize their crops and have mine enhanced in exchange, and so on. I am surprised at how much more entertaining the game becomes as a result.

Day 36. I discover that my cousin has 182 Farmville neighbors, and I wonder where she found them all. After harvesting my crops, I mosey on over to the Farmville fans page on Facebook to have a look around, and I am shocked to discover that the game has more than 22 million official fans. I poke around some more and stumble upon a shitload of folks clamoring to play the game. “Friend me-plzzzz!” “need nayborz!” “fertilize fertilize fertilize!” and other emphatic messages abound. This is when my Farmville strategy transforms from a minimalist approach to an all-hands-on-deck embrace of the game. I return to my Facebook page, tinker with the privacy settings, and make my wall invisible to all my old friends, family members (apart from my cousin), and colleagues. From now on, when they click on my page, they will see only my photo and status. Then I head back to the Farmville page and begin friending all the desperate folks I can find. It’s surprisingly easy! My Facebook friends tally rises well into the triple digits. Oh how satisfying! Laissez les bon temps roulez!

Day 37. I now have more than 50 FV neighbors. Hitting that magic number enabled me to expand my farm, now officially a “plantation,” into a “mighty plantation”—once I forked over 500,000 coins, of course (not an inconsequential number, even in FV). I’ve finally quit growing soybeans. It’s grapes for me—a vast vineyard that will produce some of the finest wine in FV. This period coincides with my drinking, in real life, lots of cabernet. Once I hit level 3 mastery of grapes, methinks I will move on to coffee. Ha ha ha.

Despite my 50+ neighbors, it’s been a little lonely on FV. I seem to be the only fanatic in my circle of farmers able to maintain an appreciation of the absurdity of the experience. That is, I’m the only one until a neighbor of a neighbor friends me, along with a couple of his neighbors, and we discover that we have compatible sensibilities. These folks are from the Netherlands, where, it seems, the citizenry doesn’t take every aspect of life so seriously. Here in America, if you create a cartoon capitalistic system and set a bunch of people loose, they take their fake wealth-building completely to heart.

Day 39. My Dutch friends and I post snarky comments under our FV postings. We are not openly ridiculing of our regular neighbors—that would be crass. But we do poke fun at some of the animals, such as the “Luv ewes,” pink sheep with heart-tipped antennae hammered into their skulls. Another target: the “wandering stallion” that appears periodically on our screens, with a message prompting us to find a home for him for the night. Should you agree to put up the stallion, there’s a surprise in store for you: The very next day one of your FV mares gives birth (oh so discreetly) to a foal.

“Even the mares get an occasional visitor,” Tom mock-complains. “What about us farmers?”

“There’s always the Saturday nite barn dance,” I reply, “but I hear the local girls have moustaches.”

Day 40. Tom is not content to play the official game. He messages me and several other neighbors behind the scenes to alert us that he will be posting a prize at a certain time. We are to be waiting so that we can be the first to click on it. That way, we can determine exactly how many clicks (i.e., bonuses) it yields. In the back and forth that follows, Tom reveals that he is descended from a long line of farmers, dating all the way back to the 16th century. He still lives in the family home and drinks out of teacups that are more than 100 years old. I tell him my grandparents were farmers in Texas in the early 20th century, growers of cotton and maize, but that the farming ended with their generation. I, too, have some teacups, but I don’t use them. If I ever have a real house, instead of a closet, I might expand and take them out. Until then, it’s a giant coffee mug for me, thank you very much. I also wonder, is this what our ancestors had in mind when they envisioned the future? Their descendants planting fake corn and staring at a computer screen from dawn to dusk? (But who would know, really, what time of day it is…)

Day 40. The latest FV craze—of which there is a steady supply—is the French maison you can build for a mere 5,000 coins. It’s cheap because you have to collect all the necessary materials—10 aged bricks, 10 weathered boards, 10 clinging vines, and so on—from your neighbors. Until you gather all 50 items, only a skeleton of a building appears on your farm—the bare wood frame. Tom places a mystery gift beneath the frame on his farm, detonates the gift (remember the whirling stars?), and takes a picture using his FV camera. (Yes, there’s an app that allows you to take pictures of your farm.) Then he posts it on Facebook, with a caption that reads: “explosion at the construction site.” Lots of ha ha has and lols follow. Pretty clever, no?

Day 43. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, which is fast approaching, all FV farmers are given a metal pot and invited to collect gold pieces to put in it. You get the gold pieces, of course, by asking your neighbors for them. Almost immediately, there is a gold rush—so many requests and receipts of gold bars, coins, bears, necklaces, and nuggets—that FV temporarily grinds to a halt, malfunctioning all over the place. The frenzy infects even me. I want my share of the shiny stuff. Although I am partial to the gold bars, I’ll take any form of the metal. I send out a mass mailing to my neighbors, requesting bullion. The gold trickles in and I place it in my pot, which begins to emit a weird glow. After I’ve collected two dozens bits of gold, I realize it’s a rainbow forming just above my pot, hovering like a UFO.

Oh, I get it.


Day 44. It has taken a while, but I’ve stored away enough Farmville coins to buy a tractor, harvester, and seeder. My farm is now completely mechanized. No more clicking on each individual plot three times just to produce one crop. Now I can roll over four at a time. The only problem: Machines need fuel. I get a modest increment each time I log on to my farm, but now that I have a mighty plantation, that is nowhere near enough. I buy a big jug of fuel with my FV bucks, of which I don’t have many. This is going to be a challenge.

Day 45. The gold rush continues, and it is brutal. The system keeps track of how much gold each player collects, and when one player passes another player in the tally, an announcement appears on Facebook:

Debbie has collected 52 pieces of gold and just surpassed Dick.
Debbie currently ranks 13 out of 47 amongst their neighbors.

Along with this announcement are posted the photos of the surpasser (Debbie) and the surpassee (Dick), who, in this case looks to be a kid. Way to go, Debbie, crushing the dreams of an 8-year-old!

Day 46. One of my neighbors seems to think that FB is a proselytizing platform. Her name is LaVerne. I call her crazy LaVerne. Her photo shows an elderly woman with white hair and a kind face leaning into the camera. But her posts are hard to take:

I am out to prove that my friends will repost, I hope I am right!!!
When Jesus died on the cross he was thinking of YOU and me.
If you are not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ, copy and repost!!

ATTENTION!!!!!!!!!! DO NOT join the group that runs
currently on facebookwith the title “Becoming a father or mother was
the greatest gift of my life.” This is a group created by
pedophiles whose aim is to access your photos!!!!!!! Please
copy & paste this to your status and pass it round.


LaVerne Davis became a fan of Laura Ingraham

LaVerne Davis joined the group Christian
Anti-Defamation Commission

Day 47. One of the ways to amass XP and FV coins is to collect small quantities of certain items, such as garden tools. The way to collect these items is to click on other people’s postings. Every time you complete a collection, you are awarded 5,000 coins, 500 XP, and 5 refills of fuel. I now see the solution to my petroleum needs. I begin rising early every morning and scrolling backward through 24 hours of FV postings to collect as many collectibles as possible. This strategy proves to be remarkably fruitful. This morning alone, I completed 3 collections! I might as well have struck oil! The black crude begins to flow into my tanks. I cruise among my vineyards on my pink tractor without a care.

Day 48. St. Patrick’s Day. The gold trading continues at a brisk pace, with no end in sight. But another event begins to draw some attention as well: the vote on the health-care bill. As it begins to appear likely to pass, despite opposition from Republicans, FV farmers begin to vent. Several of them join the FB group I bet we can find 1,000,000+ people who disapprove of the Health-Care Bill. Ire over the bill also stimulates ire over other social ills. My neighbor Mary, who went out of her way to help me build my French maison, reveals a different dimension of her psyche, becoming a fan of Attention ghetto moms, NOBODY is gonna hire your child named Shenequataylicha. FV begins to feel a bit like the Deep South during Jim Crow. The pretty grape clusters on my farm seem sinister. I log out and go to the gym to work through the negative vibes.

Day 52. Spring has sprung. We have achieved vernal equinox. For the first time since I joined the FV scene, I’ve spent several days away from my farm. Today is no exception. I am caught up with the health-care debate, and I keep the television on in the background throughout the day so that I can monitor developments. Something historic is in the works; I can feel it. For once, rather than being frustrated by the Democrats’ timidity, I’m proud of them. I spend the day cleaning and paying bills and watching the proceedings. The weather is pleasant enough that I open the windows for the first time this year. A freshness washes over me. The trees are still bare, but across the way, my neighbor’s daffodils are roofing through the soil, and the kids in the apartment below me are drawing pictures on the sidewalk with colored chalk, making lots of noise. Ah, city life. The day is almost over when the vote finally comes. I sit right in front of the television until it is decided: 219 votes in favor. It’s a done deal. Then I turn in for the night and lie in the darkness with a smile on my face.

Day 54. I return to Farmville to check on my grapes, which are, of course, withered. I plow away the remnants of vines and plant tomatoes. A good basic vegetable is obviously needed here—I don’t know why I didn’t see it sooner. Then I cash in all the collections I have completed: 12 assortments of feathers, bugs, butterflies, etc. That means 60 fuel refills. I try to get excited about it, but I can’t help but notice the anti-health-care postings and rants. Four neighbors have joined the group REPEAL THE BILL. I become a fan of Nancy Pelosi in retaliation (and sincerity). I also fan the Democrats. Nobody remarks on my positions. I halfway expect to be defriended. Then an especially ominous post appears:

On this day 3/23/33, Adolf Hitler legally obtained plenary powers
and established his dictatorship by signing “The
Enabling Act”. On this day 3/23/10, Barrack Obama
signed America’s first order to demand unprecedented control
over it’s citizens through “ObamaCare”.
Interesting, huh? Copy and repost if you think this is more
than a coincidence…

I head straight for the logout.

Day 56. I return to FV to find my tomato crops evaporated. Crazy LaVerne has also posted the following:

Dear Lord, in the past year you have taken away
my favorite actor, Patrick Swayze, my favorite actress,
Farrah Fawcett, my favorite musician, Michael Jackson,
my favorite salesman, Billy Mays, and my favorite
athlete, Chris Henry. …. I just wanted to let you know…..
my favorite president is Barack Obama. Amen

Some grand gesture seems called for on my part, and I know just the thing. I spend the next hour photographing my farm and doctoring the photo with an image of a giant mushroom cloud. I chuckle to myself through the cutting and pasting. There is something deeply satisfying about imagining the cartoon cottages, barns, shrubberies, and barren fields—even the Eiffel tower—going up in flames. I scan the image into my computer and post it on facebook, with the caption: 96 gallons of fuel. Then I log off. Think I’ll head over to the local market and buy some greens and tomatoes.

What can I say about a book that has already been widely acclaimed—that, in fact, has already won the 2009 National Book Award in fiction—that hasn’t already been proclaimed from the rooftops?

The book I’m talking about is Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. I picked it up based on its title and cover design (yes, you sometimes can judge a book by its cover)—oh, and the fact that it was included in the top-10 lists of quite a few reviewers.

In case you haven’t read it, the novel centers on an actual event: the August 7, 1974 tightrope walk by Philippe Petit, who strung a cable between the two towers of the World Trade Center and captivated New York City with his aerial skills that summer morning. That tightrope walk is the veritable pivot point of the novel (as is the World Trade Center, and the reader’s knowledge of its fate colors the story), around which revolve the lives of the 7 million or so people who inhabited the city at the time. McCann zooms in on a dozen of those lives. In what Frank McCourt rightly called “a heartbreaking symphony of a novel,” McCann renders the salient details of each life so tenderly and vividly that you end up convinced they originated with you—that there is no middleman (McCann) between you and the characters.

Like several of the characters, I am a transplant to the city, having lived here almost three decades now. And by the time I picked up the book, I must confess, I had already decided to move away to a quieter life someplace else. I was—what’s the word?—jaded. But the novel reminded me why I came to the Big Apple and why I have stayed as long as I have. In McCann’s own words: “It had never occurred to me before but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected.”

Here’s a larger piece of the portrait McCann paints of the great city:

The theater began shortly after lunch. His fellow judges and court officers and reporters and even the stenographers were already talking about it as if it were another of those things that just happened in the city. One of those out-of-the-ordinary days that made sense of the slew of ordinary days. New York had a way of doing that. Every now and then the city shook its soul out. It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief.

He had a theory about it. It happened, and re-happened, because it was a city uninterested in history. Strange things occurred precisely because there was no necessary regard for the past. The city lived in a sort of everyday present. It had no need to believe in itself as a London, or an Athens, or even a signifier of the New World, like a Sydney, or a Los Angeles. No, the city couldn’t care less about where it stood. He had seen a T-shirt once that said: NEW YORK FUCKIN’ CITY. As if it were the only place that ever existed and the only one that ever would.

New York kept going forward precisely because it didn’t give a good goddamn about what it had left behind. It was like the city that Lot left, and it would dissolve if it ever began looking backward over its own shoulder.

Yesterday, as I shoveled my car out from under two feet of heavy snow, having just finished the novel, I experienced residual effects. Every person who drove or walked past seemed larger than life. I found myself looking directly into their gaze, as though I suddenly recognized them after a long period of amnesia, and realized I was connected to them, and they to me. Six degrees of separation, if you will. Or two or one. Even the snow seemed to shine with a special intensity. In short, I found that I was inhabiting my life again—the present, city life—rather than the future.

McCann is not just a fiction writer—he’s a poet, too. So much of the language transcends the prosaic. Some paragraphs are masterpieces in and of themselves:

Little else to distract attention from the evening, just a clock, in a time not too distant from the present time, yet a time not too distant from the past, the unaccountable unfolding of consequence into tomorrow’s time, the simple things, the grain of bedwood alive in light, the slight argument of dark still left in the old woman’s hair….

Possibly the greatest compliment I could pay this book is that it reminded me of the necessity and transformative power of literature, and made me want to work at it myself. Not that I could come close to rivaling this beautiful cacophony. Only that my life will be fuller if I try.