It all began with a book review. Last year, I read an article by David Aaronovitch in The Times of London about Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind. The book concerns a resurgence of interest in psychedelic drugs, which were widely banned after Timothy Leary’s antics with LSD, starting in the late 1960s, in which he encouraged American youth to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” In recent years, though, scientists have started to test therapeutic uses of psychedelics for an extraordinary range of ailments, including depression, addiction, and end-of-life angst.
Aaronovitch mentioned in passing that he had been intrigued enough to book a “psychedelic retreat” in the Netherlands run by the British Psychedelic Society, though, in the event, his wife put her foot down and he canceled. To try psychedelics was something I’d secretly hankered after doing ever since I was a teenager, but I was always too cautious and risk-averse. As I got older, the moment seemed to pass. Today I am a middle-aged journalist working in London, the finance editor of The Economist, a wife, mother, and, to all appearances, a person totally devoid of countercultural tendencies.
And yet… on impulse, I arranged to go. Only after I booked did I tell my husband. He was bemused, but said it was fine by him, as long as I didn’t decide while I was under the influence that I didn’t love him anymore. My eighteen-year-old son thought the whole thing was hilarious (it turns out that your mother tripping is a good way to make drugs seem less cool).
From the very beginning my daughter asserted her editorial rights over the memoir I was writing about our family. Early in our yearlong trip around the world, I told Lyra I was including a detail she disagreed with, and she replied, resolutely, “When I edit the book to cut out all the things about me you’re not allowed to write, I’ll change it.”
Allowed to write? I scoffed. That’s not how it works between writers and subjects. Like all journalists, I’d never let someone I was writing about read a piece before publication, much less weigh in on it. Not even when the subjects were grown adults. I certainly wasn’t ceding control of my book — my book! — to a 12-year-old.
But as the stories I was writing about my family got more charged and more challenging, I found myself rethinking my reflexive rejection. Twelve is a tough age for anyone, and Lyra had spent her 12th year uprooted from her comfortable life and forced to follow along on her dad’s notion of a family adventure. The book reflected that: It chronicled her annoyances and our bitter fights, not to mention her three-month guerrilla campaign against what she viewed as a repressive Dutch classroom.
On the other side of the equation, it’s all too easy to take idleness for granted. Society prepares us for years and years of being useful as it sees it, but gives us absolutely no training in, and little opportunity for, idleness. But strategic idleness is a high art and hard to pull off – not least because we are programmed to panic the moment we step out of the rat race. There is a very fine divide between idleness and boredom. In the 19th century, Arthur Schopenhauer argued that, if life were intrinsically meaningful or fulfilling, there could be no such thing as boredom. Boredom, then, is evidence of the meaninglessness of life, opening the shutters on some very uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that we normally block out with a flurry of activity or with the opposite thoughts and feelings – or indeed, any feelings at all.
Brodeur’s book about her mother’s very long con and her own miserable role in it manages to be both elegant and trashy at the same time, elevating 40-year-old gossip to an art form. To situate her on the “Mommie Dearest” scale, Brodeur combines the you’re-not-gonna-believe-this outrage of a Sean Wilsey (“Oh the Glory of It All”) with the high-test filial devotion of a Mary Karr (“The Liars’ Club.”)
On an early-evening, late-summer outing, my hiking partner and I were booking it up a steep forest path to get to a Salish Sea overlook while daylight still permitted. The descending mountain bikers we’d encountered a short while before had assured us it wasn’t far. But cycling down a path and marching up it are very different ways of considering time and distance. My friend and I agreed to allow ourselves another 20 minutes of upward hustle, until a muddle of clouds on the horizon induced a premature dusk and confounded our calculations. OK — so we’d at least get up to that bend in the trail to take a peek … and … drat! All we saw around the bend was more tree-encased trail leading uphill. We took rueful chugs from our water bottles, and headed back down.
It helped — at least a little — that I had been reading David Guterson’s latest book before going on that hike. “Turn Around Time” is a slender moss-green volume that’s been touted as a walking poem for the Pacific Northwest.