Dreaming of Freedom and Horse Thieves

Scott blog OK.jpgGuest post by Scott Nadelson

My ancestors emigrated from Sweden to Minsk sometime in the eighteenth century, most likely to escape restrictive anti-Jewish property laws. But there’s a legend in my family that accounts for the move differently. According to the story, which is usually told with a smirk that suggests no one takes it seriously, our patriarch was a Stockholm horse thief who, after being caught in the act of raiding a rich merchant’s stables, was chased across the Baltic Sea.
It’s a fairly ludicrous story. Whoever heard of a Jewish horse thief? Or a Jew having anything to do with a horse, for that matter? Still, as a child, the story captivated me. It was romantic and dangerous, and it gave me a sense of possibility: Yes, I was shy and undersized and terrified of the world, but somewhere in my blood was recklessness and courage and an adventurous spirit I hadn’t yet tapped. Life doesn’t always have to be the way it is, the story seemed to suggest; there are other lives waiting to be lived.
The story may also have established my literary taste early, priming me to identify with the anti-hero, the failed striver, the hapless criminal. Now it sounds to me like something out of Isaac Babel or Chekhov–not just the horse thief’s flight, but the child dreaming himself in the thief’s saddle, imagining a treacherous nighttime ride, the horse heaving beneath him, furious hooves clattering over cobbles, shots ringing out behind.

Continue Reading

They Used to Burn Us

Carol Keeley blog OK.jpgGuest post by Carol Keeley

When Lisa told me, joyfully, that they’d decided to have the baby at home with a midwife, I took a breath before chorusing support. Because I love her, I resisted blurting my worries. “But you’re forty-one and this is your first baby. Are you sure?” It was clear she was sure. And serene. And her confident faith persuaded me. I’ve known many strong women–including my mother, who had eight children–but I’ve never known a woman who gave birth at home. Lisa and her husband, Jacob, had selected a doula and a midwife. They were preparing their sunny Brooklyn apartment for the birth. I was blissed when they asked if I’d come and help. The due date was mid-December. Residents of their building became more interactive as her baby bump grew. Their Slavic super kept grinningly calling Lisa a “skinny chicken.” His wide-eyed wife whispered, “You not afraid?” when she heard they were having a home birth.


That fear isn’t uncommon. “The medical community believes that home birth is dangerous,” says √Član McAllister, president of Choices in Childbirth, “which makes sense because doctors aren’t trained in the eighty to ninety percent of births where things go right. They train for emergencies.” As a nation, we’ve pathologized the birthing process. We’ve forgotten that it’s natural, that the body is exquisitely designed for it. In 1900, virtually all births in the U.S. were at home. By 1940, most births were in hospitals, the result of a damning campaign against midwives–depicting them as dirty immigrants–and the rise of antibiotics post-WWII. Through the lens of gleaming hospitals and obstetricians, what was natural had begun to seem unclean, even deadly. The number of home births has been fairly static since 1955: about one percent. This is largely due to restrictive legislation and the same mislabeling that worked in the Forties. Today, midwives and the women who choose them are often depicted as hippies, but the demographics for home births in New York include bankers, models, lawyers and Broadway theater producers.
Maternal health is the largest category of hospital care in the U.S.–about $86 billion a year–which is odd since pregnancy isn’t a disease. Plus maternal deaths have doubled in the past twenty years. A recent report by Amnesty International on maternal health in the U.S. calls it a “human rights crisis.” Our Caesarean rate is shameful–above thirty percent, though the World Health Organization says five to ten percent is optimal and above fifteen harmful. These dismal statistics derive, in part, from liability-driven decisions, poverty, lack of health insurance, lack of prenatal care, and lack of access in rural and poor communities. Most of this could be remedied by a shift in perspective on midwives.

Continue Reading

Lisa Cupolo on Her Year in Kenya

portraits.jpgLisa Cupolo’s story “Long Division” appears in our Spring 2010 issue, and is currently available to read on our site. The journey begins with a father who leaves Portland for an African village nine-thousand miles away, only to remember the son he never was close to:

Then I’m just standing there watching him do the work of organizing things in this camp, or whatever it is. When he was little I helped him with math problems once. Once. His mother talked about that a lot in the weeks before she died; the only instance of my being a father to him. The famous instance.

As their encounter progresses, the father reveals to his son Tim what’s troubling him at home–as Tim questions the certainty of what “home” means anymore.
In her own words, Cupolo shared with us how her own pilgrimage to Africa formed the backdrop of her fiction.

In 2001, I spent close to a year in western Kenya working at an AIDS orphanage in Kisumu on Lake Victoria. At the time, Canadian Stephen Lewis had just been named the Special Envoy to the UN Aids Relief, which launched the Grandmothers in Africa campaign. These events formed the inspiration for this story.

The UN’s work hadn’t reached Kisumu. In fact, there was little to no talk of AIDS in the concrete building where I lived with thirty children. And the patriarch of the house, a man named Nelson, would get very angry if I talked about having the children tested or wanting to explain why their parents had died.

The day I arrived at the orphanage was the day the teacher didn’t show up. So I became the teacher and the children were very patient with me, making it all up as I went along. Their ages ranged from 18 months to 17 years, so I tried to vary things. I am writing a series of Africa stories based on what I witnessed, and what I’ve come to know about that beautiful and tragic place.

Lisa Cupolo has been a doctoring screenwriter at Paramount Pictures, as well as a literary publicist at HarperCollins, Toronto. Her articles and stories have appeared in Narrative Magazine, The Toronto Star, ArtAsia Pacific, and many other publications. She is completing her first novel, titled Two Elizabeths.
You can download “Bread,” a Kenya-based nonfiction story by Cupolo, from Narrative magazine, here.

Like Fire on My Skin

Scott blog OK.jpgGuest post by Scott Nadelson

The first time I saw Be Here to Love Me, the documentary about songwriter Townes Van Zandt, I was in rough shape. This was in 2005. I’d recently gone through a devastating break-up, which left me reeling and broke, living in an attic apartment whose ceiling was infested with squirrels. For months I hardly went out, spending day and night reading books, watching movies, drinking, and listening to music obsessively. My credit card was nearly maxed, but there was a record store within walking distance of my apartment, and every couple of weeks, when I was feeling especially down, I’d treat myself to something new. When I brought it home I’d play a single track over and over until I could hear it in my head as I walked down the street or shopped for groceries or lay awake in bed, staring at the ceiling. It was a sort of meditation tactic, I suppose, a way of crowding out thoughts I didn’t want to indulge.
The music I was into ranged from Eric Dolphy to Steve Reich to the New York Dolls, but more than anyone else, I listened to Townes. I’d been a fan for years, but since my life had fallen apart, and in the state of despair and slow recovery that followed, I had the feeling that his lyrics were addressed to me directly. “Everything is not enough, and nothing’s too much to bear,” he’d sing, and I’d nod and pace my attic’s splintered floorboards. “The dark air is like fire on my skin, and even the moonlight is blinding,” he’d sing, and I’d huddle down in my frayed, second-hand sheets. “Lay down your head awhile, you are not needed now,” he’d sing, and I’d forgive myself for hardly having left my bed in months. His ballads were mournful, but his voice was casual, with a mixture of wisdom and resignation and reckless bravado, as if he couldn’t take all this mournfulness too seriously. Life is tough, he seemed to be saying, but you can take it. At the time, that was the only message I wanted to hear.

Continue Reading

The Voice Inside the Book

Carol Keeley blog OK.jpgGuest post by Carol Keeley

Thumbnail image for pshares522.1.jpg

My friend Pip sent an intriguing note recently. He’d just finished reading A Short History of Nearly Everything and had a taste for something classic, so pulled Homer from his shelves. The book was part of a library his dad had accumulated, Pip wrote. “I opened The Iliad and out fell a note from my father, written thirty-one years ago, after I had read the books for college and replaced them on his shelves. As his handwriting had nearly failed by then, the note took several hours to decipher.”
This friend has been my techno-emergency hotline for decades. He’s invariably calm, good-humored, and wondrously literate. A single frantic call will often include references to Cal Ripken, glacial sculpting of the Rawah Wilderness, the fine art of home-brewed beer, Pepys’ diary, how his father skipped graduation from Hopkins because John Foster Dulles was the keynote speaker, and the challenges of food transport in southern India. Simultaneously, he’ll resurrect my computer. The man is a god to me.
His father had juvenile diabetes. “I never knew him healthy,” Pips says. His grandparents had lost their daughter when she was nine. Later they had Pip’s father, who got rheumatic fever and nearly died at the same age his sister had. His parents became even more fiercely protective of their youngest son. Books became his companions. Pip’s ancestors were mainly laborers–including gunsmiths whose work is now in private collections–until his father. He was not only the first high-school graduate in the family, but the first to go on to college and graduate degrees.

Continue Reading

Silverstein, Shel, Surprising Encounters With

Bridget blog OK.jpgGuest post by Bridget Lowe

A favorite story of mine that my boyfriend, Cree, tells is how, at age ten, he and some friends found an abandoned stash of Playboy magazines. While marveling at the nude women in that ’70s soft focus lens work, he was shocked to find an ink drawing of a man’s very long penis tied up in knots. It wasn’t the silly subject matter of the drawing that surprised him, though–it was the familiar style of the artist. There in the pages of such naughtiness was the unmistakable work of Shel Silverstein.


In an effort to hide the magazines in a place where he could access them again, Cree’s brilliant ten-year-old idea was to roll them up and slide them into nooks in the woodpile in his backyard. He said for months after little bits of weathered paper would blow through the yard and stick to other things, sometimes a bit of real breast or a coy smile, confusing his father until the magazines finally disappeared, parental or elemental forces at work.
But the presence of Silverstein’s work in such a publication left an impression–it was a significant encounter with the jumbling of child and adult worlds. Of course looking at a nudie mag at that age is also a jumbling of child and adult worlds, but in a way that is knowingly forbidden–the expectation is complete immersion in the adult world, not a mixture of the two.
The presence of Silverstein’s work in Playboy was actually a regular occurrence throughout his career, with his very popular contributions including travel correspondence, cartoons, poems, and for a few years he even called the Playboy Mansion home. And Silverstein was concurrently a mainstay of childhood for many of us. His poems and stories display a unique understanding of what children value and, by extension, what they fear losing. He was capable of both humor and heartbreak, evident in his extremely popular collections Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic. He also had a knack for making the everyday suddenly extraordinary, unpredictable, or even menacing.

Continue Reading

A Writer’s Envy, Part VI: Coda–Orpheus on TV

Scott blog OK.jpg

Guest post by Scott Nadelson

By now it’s probably obvious that when I’m talking about envy, I’m really talking about influence. I want to learn from the visual artists I admire so much. I want to seek our common ground, to discover what we share, to strive toward what I find so powerful in their work.
As I’ve been writing about the exhibitions I recently saw in New York City, I’ve been thinking about one of our longest-lasting archetypes of the artist, one who serves as model or inspiration for writers, visual artists, and musicians alike. What is it about the story of Orpheus that keeps our attention so many years after lyre music has gone out of fashion?


A classical rendering of Orpheus


A contemporary one by artist Maxim Tyminko

Finally, Jean Cocteau’s cinematic version from 1950

Continue Reading

A Writer’s Envy, Part VI: Coda–Orpheus on TV

Scott blog OK.jpgGuest post by Scott Nadelson

By now it’s probably obvious that when I’m talking about envy, I’m really talking about influence. I want to learn from the visual artists I admire so much. I want to seek our common ground, to discover what we share, to strive toward what I find so powerful in their work.

As I’ve been writing about the exhibitions I recently saw in New York City, I’ve been thinking about one of our longest-lasting archetypes of the artist, one who serves as model or inspiration for writers, visual artists, and musicians alike. What is it about the story of Orpheus that keeps our attention so many years after lyre music has gone out of fashion?

Here’s a classical rendering of Orpheus.


Here’s a contemporary one by artist Maxim Tyminko.


And finally, Jean Cocteau’s cinematic version from 1950.

Eddie Johnson’s Indian Summer

Carol Keeley blog OK.jpg

Guest post by Carol


Chicago has lost another tenor sax great. Eddie Johnson was
eighty-nine. He played up until 2004, when his sweet swinging horn gave way to
emphysema. Like many Chicago jazzicians, Eddie chose family over the perils of
road life and fame. He had an offer to join
Duke Ellington’s band in the Forties, but went with the more
lucrative jump blues gig with
. Over the years, Eddie performed with Ellington, Coleman Hawkins,
Benny Carter and Cootie Williams, among others. But between family demands, a
bout of tuberculosis that took half a lung, and head-butting with the local
musician’s union, Eddie transitioned out of clubs and into a steady job as the
city’s Chief Systems Engineer.

As he neared retirement, Eddie burst back onto the music scene, thrilling crowds at the
Jazz Festival in 1980 and making the first recording under his own name since
the early Fifties, and later recording with
Kurt Elling. Eddie packed his steady
gigs at
Andy’s and the Moosehead.
Fans loved his molten ballads and how hard he could swing. The music was
Eric Schneider
used to warn men in the audience to “hold on to your ladies” before Eddie
played a ballad, it was that spell-casting. Along the way, Eddie helped to
school select young musicians like Eric and
. The latter (who is married to this blogger) was only twenty-one when he joined the band.
Eddie would deliberately call tunes he didn’t know. There were no music stands
on the gig back then, no Fake Books. You had to develop your ear–to hear the
changes and play
on the fly. Every night was a baptism by fire. Eddie de Haas
would outline the chord roots on his bass or John Young would map them on the
piano, then the young musicians would go home and shed. “I literally learned
hundreds of tunes on that gig,” Brad laughs. By the next night, he’d not only
know the tune, he could synchronize with Eddie’s phrasing.

Continue Reading

Follow Pshares on Twitter – Win Swag

twitset18.pngJust when you thought no good could possibly come from your compulsive social networking tendency, Ploughshares is encouraging you to tweet away in exchange for free stuff.

It’s true – if you follow Pshares between now and our 1000th follower, you will be entered in a drawing to win a tote bag, plus a years’ subscription to Ploughshares! That’s 365 days worth of the best new literary work available.

Click here to follow us on Twitter!

We’ll tweet updates about Ploughshares and our upcoming issues, blog posts, guest editor events, and literary happenings.