The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay by Mike Vouri

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Historically, issues surrounding British North America were negotiated between the Americans and the British, excluding the people who actually inhabited the land. This is particularly evident in the Anglo-American Convention, following the resolution of the War of 1812. Britain made several concessions to the Americans in order to build their alliance with the USA, a nation that would likely gain influence as a global power. These stipulations included American access to the Atlantic Fisheries, a point that British North Americans fiercely disliked. The British favored the Americans, despite the fact that British North America was their own possession. This pattern is complicated in Vouri’s analysis of the dispute over San Juan Island in his book The Pig War. While civilian officers dealt with British North American Citizens, the issue was ultimately decided without consideration for British North America.

Governor James Douglas, a British North American, exercised a significant amount of power initially in the San Juan dispute. Douglas is considered a British North American, rather than a British citizen because of his deceiving of the British of the nature of the British presence on the island and failure to acknowledge the influx of Hawaiian’s that had arrived to work on the island. This suggests his loyalty lay in the country he inhabited, rather than the country in which he was born. While Douglas aggressively pursued British rights to the island for honor’s sake, the British Navy soon swept in to take control and prevent him from acting rashly. General Scott, the American determined to peacefully solve the San Juan boundary dispute, had little interest in engaging with Douglas. “The general…never left the ship, or his cabin for that matter, throughout his negotiations with Douglas.” (189) The issue of the San Juan boundary dispute was eventually put to Germany. This “impartial” arbiter would determine who had the rights to the island. The choice of Germany as an arbitrator, a nation who was likely to favor the US showed the dwindling interest of the British in British North America. Indeed, Britain was considering dropping BNA as a colony, which results in the forming of the dominion of Canada. The economic benefits of San Juan Island were not lucrative enough to cause the British to wish to engage the issue further. Douglas, and other British North Americans, however, felt the battle should be fought for the principle of the matter. While Douglas is a central character to Vouri’s narrative, he does not ultimately get his way. Rather, the British government decided the value of San Juan Island was less than their continued alliance with the United States.

It was not only the British and the British North Americans who faced divisions. There was also a division in military culture between civilian officers and military officers on both the British and American sides. As previously discussed, James Douglas was firm in his convictions that the island belonged to the Hudson Bay Company, thus making it already British. His anger over the loss of Oregon combined with his own anti-American bias due to his hatred of slavery stemming from his own racial background caused him to be less inclined to settle peacefully. Charles C. Griffin, the man whose pig was shot, catalyzing the San Juan conflict, was not willing to settle for simple repayment from Lyman Cutlar for his killed animal. Instead he passionately began questioning the right of Cutlar to settle on the island. Cutlar reports the incident, “Mr. Griffin flew in a passion and said it was no more than I expected…for you Americans are a nuisance on the island and you have no business here and I shall write Mr. Douglas and have you removed.” (53) Cutler shot back, “I came here to settle for shooting your hog, not to argue the right of Americans on the island for I consider it American soil.” (53) Griffin’s failure to simply accept payment reflects the HBC’s itching to start a conflict.

The British military officers were much less inclined to engage militarily with the Americans. The British Navy was determined to not allow a conflict to come to fruition, but to enforce peace with the knowledge that their forces could blow the Americans out of the water. Their mere presence was enough to maintain an uneasy peace. While the HBC argued that the possession of the island was a matter of national honor, the British navy saw the invasion of San Juan Island as a mistake. Rear Admiral R. Lambert Baynes, the Pacific Station commander was determined to avoid a collision. “I was decidedly adverse to a joint military occupation, which could in no way strengthen our claim, and was very likely, from various causes, to bring about a collision.” (143) In a letter to Captain Geoffrey Phipps Hornby, Baynes writes:

It is now my positive order that you do not, on any account whatever, take the initiative in commencing hostilities by firing on them or in any work the may have thrown up…Should the troops of the United States commit any aggressive act by firing on the Tribune or any of Her Majesty’s ships or boats, you are at full liberty to resent the insult by adopting such measures as you think [desirable] informing me of the circumstances as quickly as possible. (135)

There were clear divisions in the British forces between the hawkish HBC and the Dovish Royal Navy.

The division in the American forces is less clear-cut. Though George Pickett and William Hearny were American Military Officers, their physical occupation of the island, especially when compared with Winfield Scott’s detached position in his cabin, put them in a position to be dealing directly with hawkish HBC officials. It is arguable that Pickett and Hearny became the equivalent of the British civilian officials, manipulating orders and operating without full knowledge of the conflict. Indeed, George Pickett did not even know about the Oregon Treaty or the background of the San Juan dispute. He was simply convinced that the island was American. Harney admitted to not reading the Marcy Letter, which asserted that the island belongs to no one until the British and American governments decide, until Douglas shared his copy with him. (144) Hearny and Pickett were willing to fight for the island. Harney was a former “pet” of Andrew Jackson and had a similar positive attitude toward engagement. Thus, he dispatched 500 soldiers to the small island causing the HBC to set the Northern Indians upon the American forces.

In contrast to the militant Pickett and Hearny, Winfield Scott was known as the “Great Pacificator.” He was horrified with the behavior of the two American officers. “Harney and Pickett were professional officers who should have known better than to intrigue in areas best left to civilian government.” (188) Scott, a former lawyer, had experience in settling boundary disputes. He saw his sole responsibility was to prevent war. There was a clear divide between the two military cultures. While civilian officials, in which I assert Pickett and Harney are included, were much more open to the idea of hashing out the conflict. The British Navy and Winfield Scott were equally determined to prevent war. There are several reasons Britain and America’s reluctance to engage, perhaps one of the most important being the British Naval shield.

 

The British naval shield made both Britain and the United States unwilling to engage militarily. The British and American alliance had been beneficial for the economy of both nations. Britain’s navy was the strongest in the world. While the navy protected British North America, the United States was also protected from invasion. This allowed the United States to pursue their landward turn, which led to further development and economic prosperity. While the United States became a massive land power, Britain remained a formidable sea power. Both nations benefitted from the other. The British had invested millions of dollars in the American industrial infrastructure and were benefitting economically from that partnership. That partnership was much more valuable to Britain than the possession of San Juan Island. This can partially explain Britain’s seeming lack of effort in their fight for possession. Thus, the nations’ economic ties made war a disastrous prospect. Vouri fails to emphasize the importance of the naval shield in the resolution of this conflict.

During the San Juan conflict, the American Civil War was unfolding. This had several effects on the San Juan conflict. Firstly, the impending civil war distracts the Americans from fully engaging in the San Juan conflict. The possible division of their nation is much more important to the Americans than the possession of a small island. The civil war also causes divisions between the British and the British North Americans. BNA were sympathetic to abolitionist sentiments. Indeed, Douglas was particularly concerned about San Juan becoming an instrument of the slave trade. However, the British begin to toy with the idea of aiding the South, not because they agreed with slavery, but because they saw the benefits of the division of the United States. The British built two warships for the south, angering the Americans and British North Americans. The British never intervened militarily on behalf of the South.

The resolution of the Civil war and the resulting abolition of slavery had an effect on the resolution of the San Juan dispute. The British North Americans were much less vehement in their determined possession of the island, since their fear of the island becoming involved in the slave trade was not to be realized. The United State’s survival of the Civil War also reaffirmed their status of superpower. It was in Britain’s best interest to concede to the United States an island that would become a part of the dominion of Canada anyway. This partially explains the British’s acceptance of Germany as impartial arbiter, despite Germany’s American bias.

 

Germany was certainly not an “impartial” arbiter. George Bancroft, the US ambassador to Berlin influenced the choice of Germany as arbiter, foreshadowing a US bias. The American’s first choice was Germany, while the British advocated for Austria. Germany was biased toward the United States because the USA was not a European country, and thus not a direct competitor. As Germany was uniting, they sought the United States as an ally. They had no incentive to help Britain, as the nation was a European rival. Thus, the Germans decide two to one that the United States will get San Juan Island. The dissenting vote, Goldschmidt suggested a compromise that was overruled by the other two geographers. Germany was an obviously unfair choice for arbiter, however the British decision to not challenge the choice shows their growing disinterest in North America.

Vouri fails to address this point of unfair arbitration. He is so pleased with the peaceful resolution on the conflict, that he does not address the fact that the Americans were favored. In his preface, he makes it clear that his anti-war sentiments are what drove his desire to write the book. While a peaceful resolution is indeed admirable and desirable, Vouri does not fully address the reasons for this peace. His failure to examine the naval shield and acknowledge the American advantage is a notable oversight.

 

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The Solitude of Self: Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton by Vivian Gornick

ImageVivian Gornick succeeds in writing a biographical account of Elizabeth Cady Stanton that captures her very essence as a woman and an activist. Gornick argues that Stanton’s radical position “among radicals” makes her the most forward thinking feminist thinker of the nineteenth century, one whose ideas gave birth to the present ideals of feminism. However the ambitiousness of her goals for women did not always lead to admiration by her peers. Indeed her decision to fight for suffrage in the late eighteen forties caused her fellow activist and friend Lucretia Mott to initially exclaim, “O Lizzie, thou wilt make us ridiculous.” (41) In her own time, Elizabeth was seen as erratic and impractical, sometimes even racist and insensitive. Gornick notes, “She hardly ever spoke before she thought, but she always spoke without consultation or strategic consideration.” (46) It is this lack of “strategic consideration” replaced with pure passion that led her to say things like, “for the negro can be raised to the dignity of a voter if he possess himself of $250; the lunatic can vote in his moments of sanity; and the idiot too, if he be a male one…” (51) Though her contemporaries judged her harshly, it was her unbridled enthusiasm for women’s rights and individualist spirit that make her such an essential figure for present-day American feminists. Indeed Gornick goes as far as to say, “We are beginning where she left off.” (16)

In her first chapter, “1840 to Begin With,” Gornick begins with Stanton’s stepping down from her position of president of the National Woman Suffrage Association with her “The Solitude of Self” speech. She explains that Stanton felt distant from her beloved cause because of the “kind of single issue, nuts-and-bolts politics she had come to deplore.” (4) For Stanton, pragmatism was less important than principle, thus she felt isolated in this practical, lifeless environment. The book begins with a perceived failure or surrender, yet then continues to Gornick’s own personal journey in feminism, recounting experiences of sexism, “I remembered my young husband and me talking for hours about what we would do with the future, both clearly taking it for granted that his life was to be our life.” (12) Gornick argues that contemporary American feminists share the ideals of the once perceived radical Stanton. “Reading Elizabeth Stanton,” Gornick remarks, “made me feel on my skin the shock of realizing how slowly (how grudgingly!) politics in the modern world has actually moved…” (16) Though Stanton was born nearly one hundred years before Gornick, their politics are incredibly similar.  The fact that some people today may even see Gornick as a radical in the twenty-first century, demonstrates how much of an extremist Stanton must have seemed to be.

In her chapter “Radical Among Radicals,” Gornick highlights how even in a movement seen as radical, Stanton’s goals were more ambitious than the rest. Ironically in one way Stanton was a “true woman.” She was a diligent mother of seven, and looked like a modest grandmother from a fairly early age. However she was certainly neither submissive nor pious. She detested religion as she felt it was the institution that most prevented women from advancing. She regarded religion as an “old and worn-out theology full of bigotry and prejudice.” (121) This was not true of some of her peers; Susan B. Anthony was a very pious Quaker. Stanton’s speaking out against Christianity in that period of time was to court public hatred. Stanton spoke openly in favor of divorce causing scandal for the National Woman Suffrage Association. The New York Observer wrote about Stanton, “no true woman could listen to what had been said without turning scarlet, yet words that would turn the world into one vast brothel had been read unblushingly by a person in woman’s attire, named in the programme as Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton.” (67) Though her radicalism may have been a perceived danger to her cause, she never agreed to compromise her own beliefs. Without this strength or stubbornness, it is unclear is modern feminist would be what it is today. Stanton pushed boundaries that no one else was willing to, and therefore remains incredibly pertinent and influential today.

The final chapter “From There to Here” focuses on the far-reaching consequences of Stanton’s politics for modern feminists and an explanation of why feminism is American. She argues the Emersonian ideal of self-reliance is a distinctly American phenomenon, “That famous American loneliness, with its fierce credo of self-reliance, has time and time again become a source of collective dissident strength. It allows us to stay the course of alienation when a protracted action is required to fulfill the (broken) promise of inclusiveness into which the country was born.” (131) Citizens of countries like Israel who are built on the bedrock of family are unable to see themselves as pure individuals the way Americans do.  In Stanton’s “The Solitude of Self Speech” she speaks of the isolation and loneliness that perhaps gave her the bravery to speak as openly as she did. Her ability to fight for her own beliefs without concern for the immediate consequences for the National Woman Suffrage Association make it clear that she perhaps had “the long view” in mind.  Stanton’s individualist tactics allowed her to become the most influential female activist for woman’s rights in the 19th century: a model and an inspiration.

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letter to Miss Pierson

A few words on poetry from a wonderful Worcester native:

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I am answering you because (1) You enclosed a stamped, self-addressed envelope. (This happens very rarely.) (2) You think that poetry discussion groups are ‘a bloody bore’ –and although there are exceptions, in general I agree with you completely.

I think you have set up difficulties for yourself that perhaps don’t really exist at all. I don’t know what ‘poetic tools & structures’ are, unless you mean transitional forms. Which one can use or not, as one sees fit. If you feel you are ‘moralizing’ too much–just cut the morals off–or out. (Quite enough young poets tend to try to tie everything up neatly in 2 or 3 beautiful last lines, and it is quite surprising  how the poems are improved if the poet can bear to sacrifice those last, pat, beautiful lines.) Your third problem–why shouldn’t the poet appear in the poem? There are several tricks–‘I’ or ‘we’ or ‘he’ or ‘she’ or even ‘one’–or somebody’s name. Someone is talking, after all–but of course the idea is to prevent that particular tone of voice from growing monotonous.

From what you say, I think perhaps you are actually trying too hard–or reading too much about poetry and not enough poetry. Prosody–metrics–etc are fascinating–but they all come   afterwards, obviously. And I always ask my writing class NOT to read criticism.

Read a lot of poetry–all the time–and not 20th century poetry. Read Campion, Herbert, Pope, Tennyson, Coleridge–anything at all almost that’s any good, from the past–until you find out what you really like, by yourself. Even if you try to imitate it exactly–it will come out quite different. Then the great poets of our own century–Marianne Moore, Auden, Wallace Stevens–and not just 2 of 3 poems each, in anthologies–read ALL of somebody. Then  read his or her life, and letters, and so on. (And by all means read Keat’s Letters.) Then see what happens.

That’s really all I can say. It can’t be done, apparently, but by willpower and study alone–or by being “with it”–but I really don’t know how poetry gets to be written. There is a mystery & a surprise, and after that a great deal of hard work.

Sexual Politics by Kate Millet

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In high my high school yearbook a select few students are given a superlative; most likely to skip class, best smile, class clown etc. I won most likely to be president along with my friend Keith Pence (a boy and a girl won each). The day we found out, one of the ugliest guys in our class approached me and said through his crooked teeth, “Well you’d have to be VP.” When I asked him why, he responded as though it was obvious. “Because you’re a girl.”

Now if this ogre had given me a valid reason why I’d be a lack-luster president I might have backed down. You’re too cranky, or selfish would have been sufficient, but the fact that he used my gender as a handicap hit me the wrong way. After pushing him in the hallway, I proceeded to try and run him down in the school parking lot with my Toyota Rav4 (not my proudest hour). Here’s the thing. As a woman in American society, I haven’t felt that things are going to be easy for me. Employers are wary of hiring me because I may be pregnant in a few years. Could I do the job better than the next mediocre male who walks through the door? Probably. But my gender has held me back in success, and it isn’t for lack of intelligence or effort.

Again in high school, I was held to yet another double standard. After a heated debate in my government class about whether women should be allowed to fight in the military, I had heard just about enough. A kid who I had known since elementary school had revealed particularly sexist tendencies, pontificating about the physical weakness of women. Thinking I’d show him weakness, I slapped him across the face twice. Of course my government teacher saw and the next thing I knew I was sitting in the dean’s office.

“You’re going to have to call a parent.”

“Okay…can a choose which parent?”

“Well…yeah…”

“Okay, great.”

I told my dad what had happened. “I hit someone in class.”

“Boy or girl?”

“Boy.”

“He deserve it?”

“Yep.”

“You hit him hard?”

“Yep.”

“We don’t have to tell your mom about this.”

Feeling relieved with my dad’s reaction I sat comfortably back in the deans office chair. The female dean said to me, “You know, I know how you feel. This high school is a bit of a boy’s club. You know if you were a boy, you would be getting detention for this, but since you’re a girl, we’ll let you off with a warning.”

Seriously?

The whole reason I was in that office was for trying to defend my gender, and here again I am treated differently. I told her that I wanted the detention. I served it, and frankly I consider that blot on my record a battle scar in the war of gender rights.

Sexism is imbedded so deeply in our culture that it is hard to find the exact origin. Kate Millet in Sexual Politics explores this phenomenon in several disciplines including psychology, anthropology, sociology, and finally literary influences. Though there is no clear solution for the problem of sexism, understanding the basis of out culture’s understanding of gender is essential in moving forward. I highly recommend this book to both males and females to better understand the gender politics of current society.

Poetry-Phobia: A Battle Between Narcissism and Insecurity

Most people loathe going to the doctor.  My father intentionally chose an elderly physician so that when he died, he was left doctor-less; no more making up excuses to avoid appointments, no more irritated receptionists leaving messages when he “forgot” his yearly physical.  It’s odd that I, as his first born, the child with whom he shares the most similarities anticipates going to the doctor with as much enthusiasm as I show for kittens and my birthday.

I sit down on the paper covered aqua cushion, bouncing my legs in anticipation as I await the nurse.  She slides back the door and pulls out my chart.  “I’m going to have to ask you a couple of questions.”

I respond cheerfully, even though I’m disappointed that there will only be “a couple” questions. A hundred, a ton, or even several would have been a more satisfactory quantifier for the word questions.  The nurse allows me an opportunity to speak shamelessly and extensively about the only subject I can claim to be on expert, myself.  Regular doctor visits are decent, but specialists are better. (They have to take a whole family history, which generally takes a while).  The dentist is no good because my mouth is housing the fingers of the brutish dental hygienist, and I won’t even get started on the gynecologist.

My enjoyment of discussing myself has unfortunately become a detriment to my writing. I continually find myself inserting myself in places I don’t belong, usually making a grand appearance wearing parentheses and dripping in sarcasm and drama.  Sometimes I find ways to include myself a bit more subtly, thinly veiling myself in a character name, or sneaking into the story as an extra.  But the question is why? I’m certain a psychologist would have a few things to say about it, (another doctor to ask me questions) however because, as I stated as before, I am the authority on—well me, I think I should be able to answer my own question through examination of the very thing that this narcissism most obviously and destructively affects: my writing.

There is a comfort in non-fiction. The responsibility of creating intricate settings and complex characters is alleviated.  The writer’s job is not to create, but to record with his or her own distinctive voice and style.  A bit of the “blank page anxiety” is lessened. Perhaps my love of writing personal stories is a safe choice.  It is in my comfort zone. No one can discredit me because there are no sources to help him or her fact-check my life.  However, I think within that comfort zone, there is a tendency for me to create more easily and more beautifully.  More of my energy can go into making each sentence “sing” than into research and creating.  Within those constraints, my creativity flows freely, unburdened by stress or anxiety. And yet, limiting my focus to one specific genre has stunted my growth as a writer; fear of failure has prevented me from experimenting with other forms.

The form that scares me the most is certainly poetry, that indefinable, mysterious form that twists the mind of prose writers to no end. I had avoided poetry throughout my university creative writing career, taking Prose 1, and Creative Non-Fiction. Do I like reading poetry? Yes. But when it comes to writing it, I am lost. When I saw I had to write not one, but two poems for my second creative writing assignment my stomach dropped in horror. Two poems? To be graded?

My poetry-phobia is a relatively recent development. In fact, the first things I ever wrote voluntarily and seriously were poems. The summer I turned fourteen; read The Bell Jar, and discovered Sylvia Plath, I was inspired to start writing.

I devoured Sylvia Plath. After The Bell Jar I began reading her collections of poetry including The Colossus, Ariel, and The Collected Poems.  The latter especially appealed to me. The handsome brown leather cover with the gold embossed writing on the spine, and the slightly musty smell that lingered on all of the pages made me feel scholarly and important. I read it in an armchair wearing loafers and glasses, drinking a cup of tea without milk or sugar because I thought it was more literary that way. By the end of that summer I had read her complete works.

Sylvia Plath is a dangerous author for a fourteen-year-old girl to read.  Every word she wrote echoed the experiences I had everyday. Sylvia felt alone and so did I. She wasn’t sure of herself and neither was I. She suffered from clinical depression and so did I. The difference was she had written beautiful poems and novels out of her dark feelings, while I just lived in my angsty world, suffering and producing nothing.

It was then that I decided to write my feelings down into a tangible form. That tangible form was bad poetry, usually written in my chemistry notebook during class, but I was writing, and it was easy.

It’s so fascinating to me that I could be so insecure; yet write so freely and without care. Somewhere along the way, I grew up and became more confident, but while I was more assured in myself, I became afraid of my writing. At a reading of Danielle Evans’ work, the author made a very astute observation, one that could explain one facet of my addictive self-insertion and my simultaneous fear of writing.  She said that most writers have a bi-polar personality, switching from thinking they are God’s gift to the written world and thinking that they have written nothing of value. I insert myself, not only to hide my insecurities, but because I have the pure nerve of thinking I know what I’m talking about. I should not need myself on the page as a crutch, weighed down by the weight of my insecurities.  I need to trust that my words hold meaning and truth without putting myself on the page to advocate for them. The bipolar nature of my writer personality does not have to be in opposition.  Danielle Evans stated that there was a state between the manic and depressive ones.  In this state I can make the most progress in both writing and editing. Writing takes both ego and self-consciousness.  By learning to control my emotions surrounding my own work, I could avoid writing solely about myself.  By gaining confidence in my ability to learn and write about other things, perhaps my egotistical writing will subside along with my fear of literary failure.

Poetry is the genre that is the easiest to write absolute crap and have it look inspired by a layman. However, the experts know how to weed out those poems. There is a lot more to poetry than writing down emotional words. You have to worry about syntax, rhythm, syllables, and then there’s the actual words themselves; they still have to mean something. Possibly because I have personally written bad poetry, I am wary of writing more. But this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like anything, writing takes practice. If I always live in fear of setting pen to paper, I will never improve. I will have to churn out several if not hundreds of bad poems to write one good one.

The one good thing about assignments is that you do inevitably have to finish them. Unlike recreational writing, you can’t just shelve them away when the going gets tough and words stop flowing so easily. I had to write two poems, and no amount of fear or reluctance could stop me.

Were these poems the best ones I’ll ever write? No. But I wrote them, I practiced and that is a start.

I plan to force myself into more dangerous terrain experimenting in genres besides memoir, maybe even delving into poetry? Though I adore writing memoir and personal essay, I may be stuck in a rut. My comfort lies in these two genres, keeping me from expanding and refining my writing.  Practicing other forms can only improve my writing.

Babies are self-centered and disregard others and in some ways I am still an infantile writer. Luckily babies mature and grow; this gives me hope for my writing. Without proper nourishment, encouragement, and a certain amount of willpower, babies will not develop properly. Similarly, I must continue nourish myself by reading the writing of others, following the instruction and encouragement of my teachers, and devoting myself to improving and developing my writing.  Simply allowing myself a place to write without my own judgment gives me a safe place to practice and fall without consequences. It is perhaps in my failures that I will learn the most about writing.

Visiting Shakespeare: An Odyssey Through Stratford-Upon-Avon to Hamlet’s Castle

I was heartbroken when I wasn’t allowed to tour the Globe Theater.  “There’s a show tonight,” the woman said. “Come back tomorrow.”

“But I’m only here for the day!” I said, my voice trembling, holding back tears.

She shrugged her shoulders, and continued with whatever busy work she had started. My best friend, Harriet, took some photos of me in front of the theater, but it just wasn’t the same.

ImageLuckily, Harriet knows me well, could tell I was brooding about my non-entry to Shakespeare’s theater. “You know Cher,” she said with a cheeky smile, “My house is only about an hour away from Stratford-Upon-Avon. We could go if you like.”

The gratitude welling in my eyes acted as a resounding yes.

So off we went, Cher and the Bryant women to Stratford-Upon-Avon.

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We started off with Shakespeare’s birthplace. Unfortunately we were surrounded by a group of French tweenagers, who were just plain rude. The shoved me as I tried to get my picture of Shakespeare’s first folio, quite possibly the most valuable book EVER. “Excuse-moi!” I snarled thinking you have no idea what this means to me, you little brats, but they just curled their lips and flounced away.

My anger quickly dissipated as we entered the house. We were allowed in all the rooms with the exception of the cellar, and frankly, who would want to go in there anyway.  I listened enraptured to docents explaining about the Shakespeare family’s choice of wallpaper, and the cooking tools of mama Shakespeare.

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I exited the house reluctantly, placing a few pounds in the donation till on my way out. Donate to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust if you want to make a girl like me’s dreams come true.

We left Shakespeare’s birthplace to head for his grave. We walked through a beautiful churchyard, realizing that currently there was a funeral blocking my way to the grave. How dare they. An understanding usher noticed the heartbreak on my face and said, “Don’t worry, they’ll be done in fifteen minutes,” giving me a wink.

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So we waited fifteen minutes and marched back in.

And there they were, the Shakespeare family. Poor Anne Shakespeare next to William’s, probably still cursing him after only inheriting his “second best bed.”

And there his was, my boy Will. I thought about kneeling down and saying a prayer, but realized that probably would be considered idolatry and the was a priest practicing for mass just around the corner. I instead blew him a little kiss and said “Goodbye William.”

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I flew from London to Denmark a few days later to meet another of my best friends, Olivia.  As we rode the subway, I listened jealously about how she had gone to visit the castle that in which Hamlet is set. “Yeah it was amazing. There was even a dead swan in the moat.”

I crossed my arms and sulked a minute. Hamlet was one of my literary boyfriends. How could she do this to me! “We could go there if you want. It will take the whole day but–”

“YES! Yes, I want to go. Let’s go!”

So we decided to go the following morning. But our Shakespeare activities weren’t done for the day. Olivia took me to the Royal Danish Ballet for my birthday, so we obviously saw Romeo and Juliet. My love for Mercutio was increased tenfold after that performance.

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The next morning we boarded the train for Kronborg Castle.

It was exactly what I dreamed it would be. A moat, a drawbridge, turrets, spires, and best of all casements, which we toured.

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The casements were not at all well lit. I luckily brought my iPhone so we employed my handy-dandy flashlight app. “I feel like there are Orks in here,” Olivia whispered.

“Shut up!” I said, because in that dark dripping dungeon, I was positive Hamlet’s father’s ghost was floating around me.

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On Climbing Ben Nevis

Sonnet. Written Upon the Top of Ben Nevis

By John Keats

Read me a lesson, Muse, and speak it loud


Upon the top of Nevis, blind in mist!


I look into the chasms, and a shroud


Vapourous doth hide them, –just so much I wist


Mankind do know of hell; I look o’erhead,


And there is sullen mist, –even so much


Mankind can tell of heaven; mist is spread


Before the earth, beneath me, –even such,


Even so vague is man’s sight of himself!


Here are the craggy stones beneath my feet,–


Thus much I know that, a poor witless elf,


I tread on them, — that all my eye doth meet


Is mist and crag, not only on this height,


But in the world of thought and mental might!

 

My friend Charlotte is clever. She didn’t ask me, “Hey Cher, how would you like to climb the tallest mountain in Britain”, or “How about a trek with the mountaineering club.” No, she said nonchalantly, “Do you like John Keats.” I said that I did.  “How would you like to hike up the mountain that was John Keats’ inspiration. What the hell was I supposed to say to that? Before I knew it, ten of my precious pounds were in the grubby hands of the mountaineering club.

 Two days before the climb we received an email.  “Please meet us in front of the sports center at 6:00 AM. If you are late we will leave without you. Bring a head torch and a compass.” 6:00 AM? A head-torch?  The night before my roommate Harriet and I said tearful goodbyes in case I didn’t return the next day.

 My alarm went off at 5:25 AM. I slept in the clothes I was planning on wearing just to avoid an extra step. Luckily, out of concern, Charlotte’s roommate Catherine had brought two pairs of hiking boots up. “You cannot climb a mountain in trainers.” Thank God for Catherine. She was so right.

Charlotte and I trudged to the sports center sporting hiking boots, thick socks, layered leggings, sweatshirts, hats, and a waterproof (A.K.A. Raincoat). We had a map of Ben Nevis in a waterproof folder and blister Band-Aids in our rucksack. We felt pretty damn prepared.

We arrived at the sports center. It was still pitch dark.  We hopped in a van and slept on each other’s shoulders for three and a half hours until we arrived.

When we got there it was snowing. Not just gentle flakes falling gracefully, but actually snow-snowing. Charlotte and I looked at each other, and looked up at the mountain.  Here goes nothing.

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Our first mistake was we brought no money. Ben Nevis is about a six-hour hike and we were allowed eight hours. There’s a pub at the base of Ben Nevis but we couldn’t very well stay there for two hours without buying anything. Luckily our friend Erik was on the trip and spotted us four pounds.

We began our ascent, passing sheep and climbing over boulders. Here’s the thing about climbing a mountain: it is all uphill. I don’t think I entirely appreciated that until it was too late. We were climbing a mountain. There was no going back. I consoled myself with the fact that I would undoubtedly return with amazing Instagram photos.

ImageI thought about John Keats. He probably didn’t have hiking boots. He probably hiked up this mountain in loafers armed with nothing but a notebook and a sense of wonder. We had hiking boots a waterproof, and a map in a folder. We could do this! Once we hit the first viewpoint I understood the reason he climbed the mountain just to write a sonnet.

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We continued trekking, stopping occasionally to eat a Pop Tart or apply a blister Band-Aid, but we were making good progress. Suddenly I didn’t feel powerless or tired. I felt like the queen of the world.

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We made it to a frozen lake and decided to stop for lunch. We sat on a snow-covered rock in the bitter cold, “like water nymphs” we joked. Charlotte munched on pita’s spread with Nutella while I ate a rock hard loaf of cheesy bread.  We finished as quickly as we could. Some huge crows were starting to loom closer to us.  Plus it was much warmer while we walked.

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We reached the top of the damn mountain. It was worth it. It was.  We felt accomplished and wonderful, until we realized we had to climb back down.

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We slipped down the mountain. The icy rocks yielding under our boots. By the time we made it to the pub we were exhausted. Charlotte fell asleep on a couch after spitting some cheesy garlic bread.  I closed my eyes contentedly too realizing that Charlotte Gorman and I, two wee American girls in a strange country, conquered the tallest mountain in Great Britain.

George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker by Robert Gottlieb

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George Balanchine actually has a pretty fascinating life story, (Don’t worry Lucius, I’m not praising him as a choreographer) but this book was nearly impossible to get through because of the dull voice the author employed. Yes, this is a biography, thus non-fiction, but that does not automatically toss a book in the boring category. Certainly, a biographer’s job is different than that of a fiction writer. A biographer must stick to the solid facts, while a fiction writer is free to do whatever he or she pleases. The trueness of a biographer’s story does not excuse repetitive sentence structure and lack of voice. The duty of a biographer is to chronicle a person’s life, but it is also to write in such a way that people actually want to read it.

Hopper by Mark Strand

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I always enjoyed Edward Hopper’s work, so when I heard that a renowned poet had written a book solely on his paintings of course I picked it up. I don’t want to say I was disappointed by the book, because that isn’t entirely true. However, I wished that he had written more than a one to two page synopsis for each painting. Hopper’s paintings lend themselves to discussion quite easily. I would have like to see a more in depth analysis from Mark Strand, rather than what at times seemed like a shallow dive. 

That being said, Strand did prove himself to be quite competent at describing and analyzing art. His explanations of composition and presumptions of what was going on in the paintings were all very interesting and well done. I just wanted more of it. 

Earth Works: Selected Essays by Scott Russell Sanders

When I decided to go the discussion of the writer’s craft by Scott Russell Sanders (dragging my decidedly conservative best friend with me) it was because I had read and loved his essay “Under the Influence.”  This essay painfully and realistically describes his own experiences with an alcoholic father.  The essay was masterfully crafted, simultaneously heartwarming and tragic. When I came to the card table with the shiny orange stacks his new, overpriced, first edition book, I bought it without a pause for the main purpose of getting it signed.  After hearing his talk I knew that I had bought, not a book of personal essays about his family, (though “Under the Influence” is featured) but a book of environmental preaching.

I did get the book signed, obviously.  As it sat on my shelf, my third signed first edition in my collection, I stared at it warily. To read or not to read. That was the question.  Of course I read it. As any carnal lover of books knows, a book’s purpose is to be read, regardless of its autographed or first edition status. They are nothing but shells unless their pages are perused. Sander’s writing, though brilliant in its craft, did have the tendency to put me off, especially when he went off on environmental tangents. Don’t get me wrong, I love the environment as much as the next girl (though not as much as my good friend Charlotte Gorman), but I hate, hate people preaching. Several of his essays adopt an accusatory tone, which as a reader, I find very unattractive. Passion is lovely, but molding that passion into a cohesive thought provoking suggestion (as opposed to a command or reprimand) takes artistry.  Luckily, there were just as many essays with a tone of true inquiry, showing a man who is using the essay in its original sense of the word, “to try, or “to attempt.” Sanders tries and attempts to answer questions that truly bother him: Why is there inequality between men and women, what has happened to my relationship to my son, why do I write, is there a God? It is these essays, rather than the soapbox ones that led me to be an admirer of Sander’s writing.