Today, I am thirty-seven weeks pregnant with our second child. I promised to turn in a draft of this piece before the end of the week. I just dropped off our first child, a two-and-a-half-year-old boy, at his daycare, which he attends part-time on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. I’m drinking coffee that I purchased at the gas station, $2.59 for a bucket-sized cup; the flavor was labeled “Turbo.” Now I feel like there is a blinding sunrise happening inside my mind. Coffee has turned the baby inside me into a fetal ninja, but it has not yet helped me to find the words I need, or my rhythm on the page.
At the moment I am our family’s “breadwinner,” to use a compound noun that evokes the Brothers Grimm, and also a lottery held during a famine. Writing has always been a matter of survival for me; becoming a mother has not changed that. But a book in utero feels dangerous to me in a new way now: it’s a hungry ghost on the desktop, a succubus draining security and attention from my real babies. An unfinished book — yawning, open, blank — is still the mouth I want to feed. Soon we’ll also be responsible for feeding two children.
At the North Pole, 24 time zones collide at a single point, rendering them meaningless. It’s simultaneously all of Earth’s time zones and none of them. There are no boundaries of any kind in this abyss, in part because there is no land and no people. The sun rises and sets just once per year, so “time of day” is irrelevant as well.
Yet there rests the Polarstern, deliberately locked in ice for a year to measure all aspects of that ice, the ocean beneath it and the sky above. The ship is filled with 100 people from 20 countries, drifting at the mercy of the ice floe, farther from civilization than the International Space Station. I’ve been supporting communications for the mission remotely from landlocked Colorado, where time is stable. My world is a bewildering contrast to the alien one the ship’s scientists are living and working in—where time functions and feels different than anywhere else on the planet.
The giraffe is nearly down. Two men have stretched a thick black rope in front of the animal, to trip her up. The giraffe hits the rope, and the plan seems to be working until she gains a second wind and breaks into a fresh run. Her body sways backward and forward like a rocking horse being pulled along on a dolly. Six more people grab onto the ends of the rope, and the group runs behind her, holding tight, pitting their meager strength against her weight. It would be no contest, were her veins not coursing with tranquilizer. She loses her footing and careens forward, her legs splaying out behind her. But her seven-foot-long neck still stretches resolutely skyward. A woman leaps from behind her back, collides with her neck midair, and rugby-tackles it to the ground. People run over, carrying a hood and a drill. The giraffe—an emblem of verticality—is now fully horizontal.
The team of people who have drugged, tripped, and tackled the giraffe is a mix of scientists, veterinarians, and rangers who study giraffes in the few parts of the world where the animals still live. Giraffes are so beloved and familiar that it’s tempting to think their numbers are solid and their future secure. Neither is true. Giraffe populations have decreased by 30 percent over the past three decades. Only 111,000 individuals remain. There are at least four African elephants for every giraffe. To safeguard a future for giraffes, researchers need basic information about how far they roam. GPS trackers can offer answers, but to get a tracker on a giraffe, one must first take it down.
In the 1980s, Elizabeth Tallent’s intricate, intense short stories about relationships appeared in the New Yorker at the pace of three or four a year. She published three acclaimed collections and a novel. Then, for two decades, silence. What happened? In “Scratched,” Tallent reveals how perfectionism sabotaged her writing and her life.
“Scratched” is a brave and complex memoir — though a sometimes heavy-going read — about a subject that deserves closer scrutiny. Perfectionism is an odd affliction, part spur, part handicap. Tallent explains: “In a boon rare among afflictions, to name yourself its sufferer is to flatter your own character as uncompromising, bound to impossibly high standards: ‘I’m such a perfectionist’ failed to sound sick.” On the contrary, “A supposedly surefire means of pleasing a job interviewer is to answer What is your biggest flaw? with I’m a perfectionist.”
A friend who teaches at a university in Hong Kong recently reminded me of what any author writing a story knows: in fiction, unlike in real life, the ending determines which actions her characters will take. Change the ending, and all else in the story must shift as well. But this is a real-life instance in which the protagonists are living in a narrative where the ending — 2047 — is already known.
Wasserstrom’s strength lies in how he puts a human face on the protesters and makes heartbreakingly clear their dilemma. One is left feeling compassion for a generation that feels doomed, that is waking up to its identity only to have it recede before their very eyes at the moment of their awakening.