Amy Wilentz | The Nation

Amy Wilentz

Author Bios

Amy Wilentz

Amy Wilentz, a Nation contributing editor, is the author of Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti (Simon & Schuster), published this month, and The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier, among other books. She teaches in the literary journalism program at the University of California, Irvine.


News and Features

The Haitian people have once again been excluded from their own governance.

For those who know Haitian history, this has been a time of eerie, unhappy déjà vu.

The future of Haiti hinges on support for a state based on law.

Topic magazine is a kaleidoscopic new British literary review,
still in its infancy and edited by a bunch of precocious Cambridge
graduate students.

The current Salmagundi (Summer-Fall 2002) has a section on what it
calls "Femicons" (the category includes articles on Emma Goldman,
Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Willa Cather); but

Until and unless a nonhuman animal becomes a legal person, she will
remain invisible to civil law." This quote from the legal profile in
Bark magazine's fall issue in many ways sums up

In this season's Granta, Fintan O'Toole, an Irish writer,
speculates that the enduring appeal of the British monarch is that she
makes the British crowd feel good about itself, about i

By Anthony Trollope.
Oxford. 1,024 pp. $11.95.

As summer winds down, retreats and vacations come to an end (no more
toasted marshmallows) and regular life begins again, with everyday
chores like buying new shoes for children and paying long-ignored bills
and getting files back in order--the whole workaday schedule.

Usually the end of summer has its own bittersweet cyclical comforts, but
this year I've been feeling more than the ordinary stress of returning
to tall stacks of unread mail and to the zip and chaos of subways and
traffic lights and elevators and buses. I realized the other day that
much of my extra angst is about September 11, and starting up life again
in New York (otherwise known as Targettown).

I'd been up in the Adirondacks, where we try to spend a week every
summer, and attempting to figure out which was reality, this--the lake
spread out before me, distant pines, a couple of ducks diving, a canoe
gliding by, the gas station that sells sub sandwiches, the ice-cream
shop with the "Pies Today" sign, the campfires and the cold nights--or
New York City; in the same state, the two places seem to exist on such
separate planes.

As a New Yorker, I've joined in the general quest for stress relief (we
did this pre-9/11, too, but the answer was usually Prozac or yoga or a
Manhattan, not an inflatable lifeboat or a lifetime supply of instant
milk and potassium iodide), to little avail. Still haven't got the ten
gas masks, one set for home and one for school and work...

The latest step I've taken in the quest for inner peace--while "ongoing
police investigations" in my city cause traffic jams and mini-panics and
nightmares for overactive imaginations--is to sit back with a few issues
of Adirondack Life. Eight times a year it hides a happily
provincial interior behind a handsome, sophisticated cover, and provides
a perfect escape from real troubles but is not escapist in its
intentions: Life doesn't feel compelled to paper over the
troubles of the region it's covering, it just doesn't happen to be
covering Manhattan or Iraq, and its own ground zero is the Adirondack
Park, not Ground Zero. Like many regional magazines, it contains
puffery. The October cover story, "Hunting Wild Elk," is little more
than a paean to the resplendent Elk Lake--hence no final beauty shot of
an actual wild elk, but plenty of pictures of canoes and swimming
platforms and autumn foliage. (Indeed, an issue of Adirondack Life
without a single image of a canoe would be like an issue of
Rolling Stone--at least, the old Rolling Stone--with no
reference, even glancing, to the Beatles.) Even when puffing, though,
Adirondack Life is not as touristy as some regionals, and it
feels less provincial, less like the local section of a small newspaper.
(Yankee and Hudson Valley magazines come to mind.)

It's a more important magazine, closer to the heart of the country, or
what's good about it, than most others of its type. For me, and many
others, the Adirondacks are a throwback to what American life was or
could have been--at some idealized moment of pioneering and small camp
settlements, of fur trading and logging and fishing, all on a small
scale; a paradigm of man and nature together in the East among pines and
hills and lakes. Though there is nothing left of the wild in Manhattan
and only about a square block of it remaining on Long Island, in the
Adirondacks there are places where you can imagine the continent before
the advent of the white man, and how rich, promising, altogether
stupendous and just plain big it must have seemed to the settlers. You
can see how the sheer sweep of the land was predictive of the future of
the nation.

Over and over Adirondack Life captures that sweep, as well as the
idiosyncrasies of the citizens of what is self-consciously called the
"North Country" but might as well be called America. In another October
article, called "First Estate," Lynn Woods presents the utopia of
Brandreth Park, a huge piece of land bought in 1851 by Dr. Benjamin
Brandreth with proceeds from the fortune he made as the maker of
Life-Addition and Vegetable Universal pills and remedies. (Along with
quackery, Dr. Brandreth could boast of a gift for Bible-thumping
advertising.) After he lost the then 24,038-acre park in 1873 for
failing to pay taxes, his wife bought it back from the state for $5,091
at public auction. The 12,500 remaining acres of Dr. Brandreth's park
are still held by ninety of his descendants--offshoots of his thirteen
children--and their families. Paulina Brandreth, a granddaughter, was a
fabled Adirondack iconoclast who dressed as a man and who in photographs
barely differs from her wilderness guide, Reuben Cary, except for her
beardlessness. Boozers, cross-dressers, big-gamesmen, Presidents,
madwomen and steely-eyed, bear-shooting great aunts--all the material is

Today, that flinty, eccentric spirit remains at Brandreth Park, which is
like a dream of Adirondack perfection. No motorboats allowed here, no
noise pollution except for the generator that powers Brandreth's water
pump, the main road rerouted so that headlights won't play across the
pristine face of the lake. The architecture is utilitarian, not
twig-bedecked and touristy.

It would be splendid to visit the Brandreths of old; to drive down a
dirt road to a wooden camp and live off the lake with the help of a
Reuben or Paulina. The best way to get a sense of what that visit would
provide is to read Adirondack Life. You won't learn only about
quacks and scenic lakes, though. You'll also read Bill McKibben on how
the changing global environment is affecting the Adirondacks, and Amy
Godine on the summer at Saratoga.

I tried to get other magazines up in the North Country, but the best
periodical I could find other than Adirondack Life was a consumer
shopper on trucks for purchase at public auction (call Mrs.
Brandreth...). There was, however, no shortage of Adirondack
. No sense of timeliness or, worse yet, "news," mars the
unchanging, eternal stasis here. At Hoss's Country Corner in Long Lake
you can buy about two years' worth of back issues.

One more thing: I failed to mention the photographs, which alone can
soothe the terror-tried breast. Barns in the snow. Mist coming off a
pond in early morning. Purple ice cracking at sunset. Green grasses in
the blue Cedar River. Another world.

Now back to the 111th Street newsstand.

It seems a long time ago that I stocked my pantry (pantry is a concept in
Manhattan, not a reality) with two weeks' worth of emergency food
(including powdered milk, an oddly comforting substance when faced with
the potential collapse of infrastructure) and other items like duct tape
and three five-gallon bottles of water. Now I discover that a good
friend and an expert on terrorist threats has three 125-gallon drums of
bleach-processed water in his children's bedroom, as well as
military-grade surgical masks, potassium iodide (against radiation
poisoning) and Cipro--the anthrax antibiotic--as well as rolls of
plastic sheeting to cover the windows.

What does one make of all this? My personal response has been to flee to
a place in the country, and hope that the attack comes on the weekend.

My kids' room doesn't have space for both them and the water drums.
Maybe if I could do something about clutter, as the shelter magazines
call life's detritus, I could find a floor area for adequate emergency
supplies; but I just can't bring myself to buy Real Simple, nice
as it is.

So instead, I've secured a copy of the upcoming Summer 2002 issue of
World Policy Journal, published by the World Policy Institute at
The New School, and may I say that after reading it, I am seriously
thinking of running back out to get Real Simple and, with a few
easy organizational steps, squeezing the three 125-gallon water barrels
into a corner of our living room.

The most sobering article--in a very sober, well-written, intelligently
conceived publication--is called "The Threats America Faces." In it,
John Newhouse, a senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information in
Washington, enumerates the many kinds of attack to which we are
incapable of responding. The most shocking for its cruelty, its
understanding of human vulnerability and its supertechno cartoonishness,
is the potential for terrorist infiltration (they've already done it!)
of computers that control major operating systems, like electricity, air
traffic control, banking or communications. (My friend with the water
drums says Al Qaeda wants to interrupt communications at the precise
time of a physical attack; mayhem as well as massacre.) Newhouse points
out that before September 11, the defense community was obsessed with
the possible threat from long-range missiles by rogue states, as a 2001
State Department guidance memorandum stated it. He and other experts,
though not necessarily Rumsfeld's Defense Department, are now more
concerned about missiles that could be launched from an offshore
location by a third party against, say, Moscow, triggering an all-out
nuclear attack on America--or vice versa. Newhouse also raises the
specter of the inadequately secured former Soviet nuclear arsenal, and
notes that the only way to deal with such phenomena is through bi- and
multinational agreements of the kind the Bush Administration has to be
dragged to by its short hairs.

It's all about blowback, but Newhouse believes that concerted
multilateral diplomacy, agreements and shared intelligence can, with a
little luck, forestall an act of terror that would provoke what he calls
a "hidden-hand war," a war against an unknown adversary. It's a hope, if
Bush and his boys and girl can be pushed in that direction.

World Policy Journal's issue is almost all of a piece, very
artfully structured around a common theme that is, modestly stated, the
future of the world. Martin Walker contributed to the discussion with
his piece on "America's Virtual Empire," in which he compares the United
States to, among others, Britain under Victoria, and comments on how
much weaker Victoria's armies were than ours is today, and yet how much
more willing she was to deploy her nation's military. Walker has a nice
aside on the meetings that take place at Ditchley, a country house in
Oxfordshire celebrated to its initiates as the spiritual home of the
Anglo-Saxon alliance since Churchill's day. The way Walker describes
Ditchley, it's like Hogwarts for NATO leaders: They don black tie for a
splendid dinner in a stately hall on Saturday nights before gathering
around the piano in song. (One does wonder what exactly they sing.)

Also do not miss David Unger's fair-minded essay on the Middle East
crisis, "Maps of War, Maps of Peace," which provides a real idea of the
labyrinthine impasse, and hope that there is some way out.

With all this in mind, I decided to escape to that house in the country,
and I lugged some shelter magazines along (it's much easier to read
about nuclear holocaust when you are at least an hour and a half from
Targettown). Oddly, nothing in Metropolitan Life looked like our
house. Hmmm. This Old House was more like it, but the people in
This Old House actually know how to deal with things. Like
floors. Or mice and mildew.

Yet the magazines, including Design NJ and House &
Garden--with their empty stylish, upscale interiors--do give you an
idea of what it is the average person thinks we are upholding and
defending from what Newhouse tells us has been called a low-probability,
high-consequence attack. Shelter magazines, with their largely fantastic
scenarios, superbly condense the American dream. In House &
, led by the edgy middle-American-design thinker Dominique
Browning, there is a piece about designers making children's playspaces
(there's an interior climbing wall for your 10-year-old); one about
filling rooms with (how shall I say?) things based on Roy
Lichtenstein's interiors; and yet another on an impossibly perfect house
and garden on a Nantucket shore, which almost no one can afford. What
all this says (and it is repeated in dozens of other similar magazines,
reaching its bizarre zenith of impossibility in Architectural
Digest) is that there is always a better mousetrap (I wish), that
your future and your family's future holds promise and rewards, and that
one day, you too may have a beach. Given the vision of collapsing real
estate with which we were presented on September 11, the shelter
magazines seem more dreamlike and escapist than ever. In a way, this
makes them even more pleasurable, like a guilty fantasy you shouldn't be
indulging. Like porn.