Postcard — October 4, 2017, 1:52 pm

Dark Side of the Mountain

“I met the Dark Lord and his masters at the trailhead to upper Twin Lake, far from the bright center of the universe.”

Photograph by the author

On an uncharacteristically warm Sunday in June, Darth Vader stood on some fallen logs at the edge of an alpine lake in central Washington State. He struggled to find his balance; the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Forces prefers flat surfaces.

“Hope he doesn’t fall in,” said thirty-three-year-old Melody Saltzgiver as she carefully adjusted the position of her approximately four-foot plastic doll.

“Yeah,” said her husband, Paul Moore. “That’s happened a few times.”

Once Darth Vader steadied himself, Saltzgiver stepped a few paces away, crouched down with her Sony point-and-shoot camera, and snapped a photograph. In the picture, Darth Vader looks pensively over the mountain peaks. The distant mounds of granite—some still capped with a blanket of snow—were reflected perfectly in the stillness of upper Twin Lake. The lake basin was otherwise lined with pine and maple trees, all basking in the sun.

I first learned that Darth Vader was going hiking around Washington in early May, when I was researching destinations for an early-season backpacking trip. For trail-seekers in Washington State, the Washington Trails Association’s webpage Trip Reports is an indispensable resource. Community members write posts to give others snapshots of trail conditions: whether a route has snow or signs of wildlife—such as bears—or whether hikers will be ravaged by blood-sucking mosquitos that have no regard for DEET. When I went on the site, I was greeted with a new blog post titled “A Pig, T-Rex and Darth Thaddeus Go Hiking.”

The photos W.T.A. user Darth Thaddeus posted had me fooled; I thought someone had dressed up in a Darth Vader costume and hit the trails. As it turns out, perspective is everything for Saltzgiver.

“I try to make it not show how small he actually is in photos,” she said as we hiked to upper Twin Lake.

Darth Vader became a mainstay in Moore and Saltzgiver’s lives two Christmases ago, when they first moved to Entiat, a small town in central Washington, from Detroit. The large Star Wars “battle buddies” were one of the popular Christmas toys that year.

“I told my mom, ‘I WANT THIS!’” said Saltzgiver.

“It was kind of a joke, but we still got it,” Moore added. “So here we are.”

Both of them unabashedly confess to being “pretty big nerds” when it comes to Star Wars, although they wouldn’t say they’re “psycho fans.”

Star Wars is just a space soap opera,” said Saltzgiver. “It’s hard not to love it.”

Moore and Saltzgiver met in Iowa in their high-school years. They went to see Star Wars: Episode II in theaters on their second date. Saltzgiver dressed up as Padmé Amidala, queen of the planet Naboo, complete with red freckles on her face. Moore, however, didn’t dress up. “I was lame back then,” he said. “I was all goth with black hair.”

Darth Vader occupied a small nook between the laundry and the television in the couple’s living room throughout the winter, but after the snow started melting and spring came around, Saltzgiver decided to bring him along for a hike. She and a friend went to Ingalls Lake, a blue lake nestled among the craggy granite peaks of Ingalls Peak and Mount Stuart. Once they reached the lake, she perched Darth at the edge and snapped a photo. At first, Saltzgiver thought it was slightly odd to be taking photos of a large Darth Vader toy out and about in nature. But when other hikers on the trail were enthusiastic to do the same, she was inspired to continue bringing the battle buddy along on hikes and photographing it. Over the course of the following year, Darth Vader has, more or less, become his owners’ main day-hiking companion.

And Darth Vader has inspired Moore and Saltzgiver to be more active. During the week, Moore is an English professor, teaching online composition courses and writing short stories; Saltzgiver works as a plant geneticist. But on weekends, they’re out exploring the diverse landscape of Washington—waterfalls situated in old-growth forests, glacially carved alpine lakes with sawtooth ridges and granite spires in the backdrop, cave formations within basalt coulees, and more.

After a year of hiking with their battle buddy, Saltzgiver realized she had accrued so many photographs of Darth Vader from her hikes that she should, perhaps, do something with them.

Moore and Saltzgiver decided on the W.T.A. handle “Darth Thaddeus” in honor of what Saltzgiver would have been named, had she been born a boy. When Saltzgiver’s mother was pregnant, there were no sonogram machines, and doctors determined gender using cardiograms. “The doctor told my mom, ‘you’re obviously having a boy,’ since my heart rate was apparently so slow. My mom was going to name me Thaddeus Bartholomew. When I heard that name, I was like, ‘hell no.’” Instead, Saltzgiver repurposed the name for her hiking buddy and occasionally calls him Thaddeus.

I met the Dark Lord and his masters at the trailhead to upper Twin Lake, far from the bright center of the universe. Saltzgiver is partial to hikes with lakes and waterfalls, and this particular trail to the lake seemed to be relatively less visited.

Their main objective for embarking on this hike was to post about it on Trip Reports. Many of the trails they explore on aren’t extremely popular and don’t have much written about them. The directions to the upper Twin Lake trailhead said drivers would pass a campground, but when Moore and Saltzgiver pulled into the parking spot next to me, they were a little confused. “It said that the trailhead started after the campground, but driving in, I was like, ‘Where the heck’s the campground?’ I want to write that up,” said Saltzgiver.

To carry a four-foot-tall plastic Darth Vader toy, Moore and Saltzgiver had to get a little creative. They cut holes out of the bottom of a canvas backpack bag to accommodate the toy’s legs. Riding in a backpack is much less efficient than the T.I.E. fighter in which he usually travels in Star Wars. “This thing really isn’t meant to go out and about,” said Moore while struggling with Saltzgiver to force the fallen Jedi into the backpack—one of them holding the toy, the other shimmying the bag up his legs. When Darth Vader was secured in the bag, he appeared to be wearing a pair of canvas shorts.

We got our bearings and followed a wide dirt road lined with red and orange Indian paintbrushes, lupine, and yarrow for approximately two miles. Finally, we reached the trailhead and after zigzagging through a short, shady trail, arrived at the lake.

It was just the four of us on the trail that day, but on more popular hikes, other folks take notice of the hulking plastic toy strapped in a backpack. Some kids ask if they can take a selfie. “Sometimes people think we have a kid in the backpack, inside the Darth Vader,” said Saltzgiver.

Darth Vader can’t really move. At least, his legs don’t, but his wrists and arms do. And he talks, when either the green or red button on his suit of armor gets pressed.

At the lake, I stood by the shore and took everything in: the sunshine dancing through the trees to my right, the reflection of the mountains in the lakes directly ahead, and the Darth Vader photo shoot happening close by. As Saltzgiver picked up the toy to move it, she pressed a button by mistake. I heard him speak, in his deep, mechanical voice: “Impressive. Most impressive.”

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October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

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Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

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