Every time The Sun arrives, I look for Poe Ballantine’s name. His writing evokes joy, bewilderment, laughter, and deep thought. How could I like him any more? After reading Caleb Powell’s interview with Ballantine [“High Plains Drifter,” February 2014], I do.
I just finished reading the excerpt “Rowboating with Hobos” from Poe Ballantine’s Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere [February 2014], and I want more.
I laughed when Ballantine’s wife, Cristina, finally got his dry sense of humor. And I appreciated that the two of them have stayed together long enough for that to happen.
I agree with Ballantine’s view on autism-spectrum disorder (ASD) — that it’s just part of the wider spectrum of human behavior. We should focus on what’s right with a person. We’re all abnormal, odd, or queer at some time. As long as we’re not hurting ourselves or others, we’re fine just as we are, with our diverse personalities, behaviors, and ways of folding laundry.
In Caleb Powell’s interview with him, Poe Ballantine states that his son, who’d been diagnosed with ASD, became socially and academically successful after his father employed “an old-fashioned remedy called ‘love.’ ” While I am happy to hear that Ballantine’s boy is doing well, the implication that love cures ASD is a slap in the face to all the families and educators who have or work with autistic children. Dealing with the difficulties ASD brings is hard enough without having to feel guilty that we do not love our kids enough.
Many years ago I was a teacher at a juvenile-detention facility in Missouri. I had roughly three thousand students go through my program in the eleven years I taught. Literature was part of my curriculum, and I went out of my way to find stories that would hold my students’ attention. Many Sun stories made the cut.
I would photocopy the pieces to hand out to my students. My rule was if a student really liked a story, he or she could keep the copy. Several from The Sun stood out as favorites: “What Miss Lena Prays For,” by Jessica Anya Blau [September 1998], “Some Keep the Sabbath,” by Janis Bultman [January 1998], and “Dale,” by Carol Estes [February 1995].
But one author was a giant: Poe Ballantine. I made hundreds of copies of his “The Color of Their Souls” [August 1995]. It was the best-liked story among my students, bar none.
I have finally fallen in love with Poe Ballantine. The first time I read something of his in The Sun, I thought, Who is this depressing wastrel? His work seemed relentlessly self-abasing.
Today, sitting on the grass in the sun, I laughed out loud at his humor, wordplay, and perspective. I saw myself reflected in his wanderer persona, eternally searching for the breakthrough that will give his life meaning and purpose.
It wasn’t Ballantine’s latest piece I was reading but an essay called “Troubled Youth” from June 2010. (Thankfully I don’t throw out old Suns.) I felt such appreciation for the gold he spins from the straw of life. For his willingness to write about “what is so.” For his brutal honesty. For his ridiculously poetic name. He became my “textual antidepressant.” Poe, please don’t stop writing, even if you find that place “where everything [is] finally going to be all right.”
Though I have no particular fondness for actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, I was saddened when I read that he’d died of a heroin overdose. That night I flipped open the February 2014 issue of The Sun and read Sybil Smith’s short story “Imogene’s Prayer,” which caused me to relive my own Ritalin binges: the confident, cynical, introspective highs; the anxious, remorseful, desperate lows.
Ritalin, heroin, and other drugs were there for me when I refused to be there for myself. I became trapped, unable to deal with life in any other way, even after I’d depleted my bank account, lost my apartment, and drifted through various homes.
I cried at the final scene of Smith’s story, in which Imogene bags up her syringes for the garbage, drops to her knees, and prays. That act seems hopeful, but, having done the same thing multiple times, I knew that she would do it again.
In the February 2014 Correspondence, Steve Kowit writes that the only war in which the U.S. has fought on the side of justice was World War II. Despite my left-leaning political views and my hatred of the Iraq War, I’ve seen enough of the world to know that Kowit’s statement is false. Has he traveled to Croatia and been given a liberator’s welcome? Would he tell African American civil-rights leaders that the Civil War had no thread of justice? Has he seen the difference between South and North Korea: freedom and prosperity in one, death camps and starvation in the other? Was the war this nation fought for its citizens’ freedom and self-determination unjust?
War is horrible, and the U.S. frequently abuses its military power abroad to satisfy the greed of its citizens. But Kowit’s naive exaggeration gives liberal ideals a bad name.
Steve Kowit responds:
Our destruction of Korea and our slaughter of millions of Korean and Chinese people, most of them civilians, had nothing to do with America’s putative love of freedom or justice. I would recommend Matt Eggers read Bruce Cumings’s The Korean War. It will disabuse him of his triumphalist notions about that genocide.
U.S. wars and counterinsurgency operations have almost always been waged for the purpose of propping up dictatorships, creating new ones, and either destroying nations or turning them into U.S. client states. Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars reveals the real goals and methods of U.S. foreign policy.
As for the American Civil War, had President Lincoln permitted the South to secede but boycotted the import of all goods produced in that new Confederate slaveholding nation, it would have brought an end to the slave system rather quickly and saved the lives of the 750,000 men who died in that monstrous bloodbath.
In their argument over how best to cook corn on the cob — boiling versus microwaving — Sparrow [“My Life in Vegetables,” September 2013] and Richard Chapman [Correspondence, February 2014] are both missing the mark. Steam’s the way to go; uses a lot less water and ’waves.
Of all the surprises of my life, the fact that I have ignited a raging controversy about how to cook corn is one of the greatest.
After reading “Summit Fever,” by Davy Rothbart [January 2014], I can’t decide which I find more dismaying: the author’s willingness to put himself and others in peril by being in a wilderness setting without appropriate preparation, or the editors’ decision to print the essay. It’s irresponsible and dangerous to glorify an inadequately equipped attempt to climb a twelve-thousand-foot mountain. As a trained Wilderness First Responder, I am continually mortified by celebrations of the dumb luck that allows people like Rothbart to survive, though he and others like him put fellow climbers at risk, strain resources, and potentially close off access to wilderness areas as a consequence of their selfish choices. Why do we as a culture continue to admire such high-risk behavior and negligent recklessness?
Davy Rothbart responds:
I understand Tom Schiff’s concerns about unprepared, foolhardy climbers putting themselves and others in danger, but that was not us. My brother Mike is a lifelong wilderness expert who was making expeditions to the North Pole by the age of seventeen. And although I was in mediocre shape and Mount Adams presented an enormous physical challenge, I don’t feel we were ever at serious risk. Schiff’s letter does raise an important question, though: How can we welcome newcomers into the great outdoors and still be certain they’re being safe and responsible?
Having been married for fourteen years, I’ve realized that marriage can be different things to us on different days. It’s a confusing path to walk, to say the least. I’ve also realized that the path is our own, and our partners don’t always walk by our side. They have their own paths to tread, sometimes alone.
When I finished your December 2013 issue, I had a deeper understanding of the complexities of love, marriage, children, and aging. I will keep this issue, to reread when I need to know that there are others who understand how amazing, horrible, powerful, and lonely love and marriage — and life — can be.
In Jeanne Supin’s interview with Barbara Kingsolver [“The Moral Universe,” March 2014] the following quote was attributed to Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” King in fact was paraphrasing, and in his writings gives credit to, Theodore Parker, a nineteenth-century Unitarian minister, American Transcendentalist, and abolitionist. Born in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1810, Parker began preaching in 1845 in Boston, where he and his followers formed the Committee of Vigilance, a resistance movement that helped hide fugitive slaves. The longer version of the quote is found in Parker’s sermon “Of Justice and the Conscience” (1853).