Nichole Bernier's Blog
January 1, 2017
The office was an entire floor of a skyscraper, a large city-like footprint. My main job seemed to be walking the square perimeter of halls and offices with an exotic young owl-hawk on my shoulder. It was one from nest of orphans an editor had rescued on location somewhere, and we all had one. Mine was a badly behaved alpha that didn’t play well with the others. But he was mine, perched on my shoulder in his cumbersome endearing way, and it weighed on me that I was responsible for finding him a home. Once during lunch I’d tried taking him on a walk in the jungle adjacent to the building. There were similar owl-hawks in the distance and I tried setting him free, but he wouldn’t go.
That afternoon I was called into Barack’s office. He was packing his belongings, loading boxes onto the helicopter pad that extended from one wall. Goodbye, he said. He was leaving the magazine, going to the small village in Africa where his father had lived. In his memoir Dreams From My Father, he’d written about the way he’d lied to his elementary school class, claimed his father had been a Kenyan tribal chief. Turns out it was true, and he was going to Africa to assume the position of his successor. He handed me a photograph of someone who looked exactly like him. The man wore a navy blue cylinder-shaped beret, his face serious but warm.
Even though we’d only had Barack at the magazine a short while, I couldn’t imagine him gone. There was a small sense of having been abandoned. I handed him back the picture, and asked if he’d enjoyed being with us.
He stared at me a long time, beyond what was normal or comfortable. I focused on a glass cabinet of medals to avoid meeting his eye. His silence meant he thought it was sort of a silly question, and that he also knew what I was really asking: Whether he was going to be as sad to leave me as I was to have him go.
He put out his arm to my owl-hawk. “I’ll take him,” he said, and it stepped from my shoulder to his forearm.
* * *
When I woke up it was 6 a.m. New Year’s day, still dark. I went downstairs to write by the glow of our misshapen, off-balance, tied-to-the-wall Christmas tree. There was a sound then from the undeveloped woodland behind our house, the loud, low reverberating call of an owl. I don’t hear them often, but when I do the sound makes me wistful. Later this year developers are razing the woods to build homes, knocking down almost all the native trees (“junk trees”) in favor of a more manicured cul de sac. Our family tried to protest the project at town zoning meetings, or at least limit its scope, but had no luck. My children worry where the animals will go, and what will happen to the birds with nests in the trees.
Another owl answered the first and then there was a volley of them, low stacattos overlapping each other in the dark. It struck me, listening from beside our imperfect tree, that next year at this time the owls won’t be in their place, and neither will Obama.
August 29, 2016
June 30, 2016
A month ago I started doing a CSA workshare at a local farm one morning a week in exchange for a full share of weekly produce. I wanted to get my hands on the fresh vegetables and learn a few things about growing, plus I tend to find when I put myself in new settings learning new things, I can just feel my brain expanding. The first day I harvested hundreds of bok choi, beets, turnip, radishes, lettuce heads and chard fronds, but after two hours on my knees weeding I couldn’t stop thinking of all the other things I could have been doing with my time not to mention work deadlines looming and said to myself, I CAN’T DO THIS IT ISN’T WORTH IT.
Each Thursday since then I’ve given myself over to the rhythm of the morning and brought home funky vegetables like kohlrabi and garlic scapes, and introduced my kids to hand-shelled peas and dried-on-the-cob popcorn and the world’s largest zucchini. I come home filthy and exhausted working side-by-side with the college-kid crew, feeling badass with a mini-machete until my back and knees remind me I’m old enough to be their mom and possibly their grandma.
This morning while we were cutting cilantro a Dickinson history major guy asked me what bands I like and a Tufts OT gal confided her misgivings about grad school and I love being wrong, especially about new experiences.
May 1, 2016
April 15, 2016
March 16, 2016
Notes before the interview
I was getting ready for an interview recently, a follow-up phone call for a magazine piece profiling a semi-famous person. An entrepreneur who’d started off on the completely wrong foot before finding the right calling, and on the way, happened to become a helluva great bartender.
I love this kind of journalism. It’s real-life storytelling, all the messy and gorgeous stuff of human nature that reminds us it’s never really just the facts ma’am, it’s the facts behind the facts. How people do what they do, and what drives them to do it. The times of struggle and stagnation, and the innovation that follows. It’s the story of the Olympian and the visionary, and it’s just as much the story of the murderer and the spy. Real life is as crazy and rich as any fiction.
At any rate, this is what my pre-interview notes look like. Sloppy, one freely associated thought leading to another, all needing to be written more neatly and put into cognitive sequence before I pick up the phone. These are the building blocks of the process, or at least my process. And it struck me that no matter how much I love technology — and oh do I, the convenience and connectedness, the smart phones and e-readers, the fitness apps and spreadsheets — the concrete thing always comes before the computed thing. First comes the spark, the action, the motivation. The legwork. Next comes the technology that organizes the action, bring the idea to fruition.
Not too long ago, my recording of an interview somehow turned itself off mid-conversation, and I discovered I’d lost an hour of material. After returning to my car and pounding the steering wheel like a cartoon character, I sat down and wrote out the skeleton of our conversation, everything I could remember. I knew I could call back later to fill in the holes. And then I set out to write around it first, which is actually more laborious. (Quotes can be a wonderful crutch and space-filler.) The confidence of the legwork years made my brief car tantrum loss much less of a big deal than it would have been earlier in my career.
Because there are conveniences, but there are no real short cuts. No matter what kind of technology you have supporting you, you still have to germinate the idea, have the epiphany, put in the practice time, collect and interpret the facts, mix the drinks if you have to. The technology helps us get where we need to go, no doubt about it. But without it, when all else fails, there’s the scribbly paper, and you’re the one making the scribbles.
December 2, 2015
Me: “What are you doing?”
Him, deadpan: “Living wild.”
A minute later the 8yo comes in, not wanting to go to school.
Me: (Blah blah blah)
Him, changing tack: “I don’t even know why you trust these strangers to take care of us. It isn’t safe.”
Anyone who wonders why this evocative Moscow novel isn’t getting written, it’s because my life wants me to do evocative Erma Bombeck.
October 30, 2015
Between writing projects and consumed with fixing up our new home, I’m refinishing the medicine cabinet in our bathroom (rather than revising the novel).
All the toiletries are in bins on the floor: Bacitracin and Benadryl, Ibuprofen and Robitussin, poison ivy remediation and Maalox.
The 6yo surveys the layout and exhales, impressed.
“Wow,” he says. “We are one sick family.”
September 29, 2015
Her: “There are several options for people in your situation.”
Him: “Our situation?” Say, Irish people who like forest green walls marrying French Canadians who prefer taupe? Husbands who eat pigs-in-blankets sharing a refrigerator with wives who juice kale?
Her: “Well, people who aren’t married.”
Him: “We’ve been married for 17 years.”
Her (confused): “Oh. But you have different last names.”
September 21, 2015
A book I read last spring ruined me for books for a little while. Because after I finished, I had such a book hangover that I didn’t feel ready to go back to the trough right away. When I did, the first 50 pages of anything would feel so pale by comparison that I’d wander off mentally, then physically. It didn’t help that we were in the midst of moving, so my attention span was pretty compromised.
The book is A LITTLE LIFE, by Hanya Yanagihara, and news came out last week that it had made the longlist of nominees for the National Book Award. Irrationally, I felt a pride of relational ownership, like a niece had made the US hopscotch team, because that’s what falling in love with a (then) little-known book feels like to me. You become its advocate, you feel like everyone should see how spectacular it is — what, you’ve never seen my niece hopscotch? how can you not have seen that fancy footwork, those vertiginous transitions between movements…
I don’t recommend the book wily-nily to everyone because it’s a tough read — not tough on the sentence level, but tough in the sense that the subject matter isn’t for the faint of heart, circling back constantly to the mind-boggling suffering in a character’s past, and how he struggles to overcome it secretly his entire life. I won’t say more, though the reviews always do, because I think it diminishes the scope of the book, intimidates potential readers, and ruins the joy of discovery. But to me, it was a brilliant book about lifelong male friendship, a topic not often written about with depth unrelated to sports or military, and what it truly means to look out for one another.
Someone brought this collection of quotes from the book to my attention the other day, and I think it gives as good a sense of the book as any review, and without any real spoilers, which is nearly impossible to do. It’s a feature in a literary blog called “In 10 Quotations,” which gives a hopscotchy sense of a novel through 10 chronological excerpts.
I can’t promise you’ll love it arrestingly the way I did, but so far everyone I’ve recommended it to seems to have. But I can promise you’ll never forget the characters Jude and Willem.
“Always, he wonders why and how he has let four months—months increasingly distant from him—so affect him, so alter his life. But then, he might as well ask—as he often does—why he has let the first fifteen years of his life so dictate the past twenty-eight. He has been lucky beyond measure; he has an adulthood that people dream about: Why, then, does he insist on revisiting and replaying events that happened so long ago? Why can he not simply take pleasure in his present? Why must he honor his past? Why does it become more vivid, not less, the further he moves from it?”