Writing examples

It would be one of them: Hallett, Levitt, Lowder or Long. It might be the mysterious Richard Hallett, a tiny peanut of a man who refused to have his picture taken or play checkers with anyone smoking. It might be the jovial Leo Levitt, a nuclear physicist from Los Angeles, or quiet Elbert Lowder, a bachelor piano tuner from Sanford, N.C. Or it might be Asa Long of Toledo, Ohio, who had won the title back in 1922, at age 18 and, if he won this tournament as well, would be both the youngest and the oldest man ever named U.S. Checker Champion, therefore embodying the sort of symmetrical statistic beloved by checker men.

— Susan Stewart in Westward magazine


Haim Saban is an Israeli American businessman whose main claim to fame is the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. A proud partisan, he is one of the biggest benefactors of the Democratic Party and Israel, and yet he remains little known outside the inner circles of power in L.A., Washington and Jerusalem. On a cloudless morning in Beverly Hills, he steps out the front door of his mansion to greet the day. His suit is pluperfect plutocrat, tie platinum, hair slicked back and streaked with stately silver. He is 58 years old, at the happily-ever-after end of a rags-to-riches story. He lives in a cocoon woven of the finest silk, on a six-acre estate in an exclusive gated community in a fantasy version of reality where all doors are opened for him: the front door, the car door, the door to his private jet, most every door he cares to walk through. Saban occasionally opens doors himself, though, with a mixture of charm and insistence. “After you,” he says, standing aside as he ushers me to his waiting Cartier edition Town Car.

— Guy Lawson in GQ magazine.


Nathan Alexander Bickley.  Now there’s a name. It conjures up a definite image, something like that of a graying Boston banker; shrewd, prosperous, dignified, confident but not arrogant, faintly aristocratic. It’s a good, gilt-edged name — exactly the kind of name you’d pick for a man who is executive vice president and paladin for the Dallas Citizens Council.

— Kit Bauman in Westward magazine


On first arriving from Florida, I brought my mother’s face close to mine, slid into a pair of well-worn loafers, some faded dungarees, and a royal blue, zippered sweatshirt; piled the marble-topped coffee table adjacent to the davenport high with long-neglected volumes; walked into the kitchen and from the pantry closet removed a package of Oreo Creme Sandwiches; returned to the living room and flicked on the television, which after a momentary lull began its incessant and hypnotic drone; invited Christie III, my mother’s saucer-eyed, russet-and-white cocker spaniel to share the davenport at my feet, and then lay down until the spring of 1958.

— Frederick Exley in A Fan’s Notes





JR Buchanan knew where the body should be — on the rocks alongside Walker Prong, high on Anakeesta Mountain in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a couple of miles from the road where the victim had been taken from his car weeks earlier by two murderous companions.

And he knew why it wasn’t there. Animal tracks crisscrossed the sandy spits along the creek, the prints of “five or six different bears.”

Then Mr. Buchanan and his partner, Buck Branam, found a jawbone, a human jawbone. And, in the still eddy pools of the creek, they spotted bits of what looked like skull.

“The bears had gotten the body and tore it apart, carrying it off. They’d cracked the skull open to eat the brains,” says Mr. Buchanan, relishing the detail.

The year was 1981and JR Buchanan (his given name is just the two initials) and Buck Branam were park rangers, back-country specialists brought into the case after one of two suspects told the FBI his companion had taken the victim up the creek and killed him with a blow to the head.

“We had to have the skull to prove the murder,” Mr. Buchanan says.

So he and his partner got down on their hands and knees to look for bear.

“The rocks were covered with moss — we would lift the moss and feel underneath for the imprints on the bottom. We worked our way up the side of the ridge from the creek — crawling — looking for anything unusual.”

Mr. Buchanan’s specialty is looking for things unusual: He’s a tracker, trained in his youth by his grandfather and uncle to track game through the forest. And if you can track bear, turkey and deer, you can track people: poachers, lost hikers, marijuana growers, murderers.

The “unusual” might be a broken twig, an overturned rock, the silvery underside of pine needles. In this case, it meant the cracked and yellowing remains of a human head.



It’s Saturday night and jet foils are pulling into Macau’s ferry terminal every 15 minutes, bearing crowds from Hong Kong and the Chinese city Shenzhen, each about 40 miles distant. A mile to the north, arrivals by land elbow their way toward customs checkpoints in a hall longer than two football fields. By 9 o’clock, visitors will arrive at the rate of some 16,000 an hour. They carry pockets full of cash and very little luggage. Most will stay one day or less. They will spend almost every minute in one of Macao’s 29 casinos. — Smithsonian, by David DeVoss



The death of Case 0996-81 was not very elegant. The 67-year-old man, reeling from a lethal dose of alcohol, galloped among the stripped-down televisions and boxes of junk in his duplex early April 15 and, finally, dropped dead, his chin catching the edge of his mattress and feet pointing straight out on the floor like a ballerina. Case 0996-81 was in hot pursuit of a 58-year-old woman. — Westward magazine, by Ralph Frammolino



“Walk with me,” John Travolta said.

Walk with him? Yeah, right. He didn’t mean walk with him; he meant walk like him, and we all know about his walk, that it is his instrument, and that he owns it. — GQ magazine, by Tom Junod.







On Language

By Melissa Wozniak

The first thing you have to do when you get to Cape Town, South Africa is learn how to be a knee-jerk racial profiler.

No, the first thing you have to do when you get to Cape Town is to get comfortable with the label Coloured, which is fundamentally different from black or white.  It’s awkward, snaky, illicit on the American tongue.  It’s also the same thing as saying, “I’m Irish.”  Back in the day of colonial rule, when tribes ran South Africa and then the Dutch showed up, and then the British, and then the Indian merchants and slaves from the Malay Peninsula, East Asia and other parts of Africa, and even though whites considered themselves superior to the natives and slaves they regularly mated with them, the gene pool got mixed up.  It made the practicalities of apartheid really difficult.

But it’s been nearly 20 years since Nelson Mandela gave his inaugural address to a free South Africa, in its soul and marketing slogan the Rainbow Nation.  Its new constitution is regarded by the rest of the world as the purest working incarnation of democracy.  Like any country, there are people who are post-racial, just like there are ones who cling to the hateful close-mindedness of the past.  The reason you have to learn how to profile, before even stopping for a photo of gorgeous Table Mountain looming blue on the horizon at the end of the N2 highway from the airport, is that it is the only way to make sense of the present.

You can close your eyes on the ride from the airport.  You can ignore the haphazard field of corrugated steel roofs separated from the highway by a barbed wire fence and rippling in the sunlight like a mirage, making it unclear exactly how far it extends.  South Africa isn’t defined by its shantytowns.  It isn’t defined by its Mediterranean-style beaches, either, or the Ferraris that cruise the strip in Camps Bay.

What it’s defined by is the presence of both, and how even if you close your eyes on the way from the airport you’ll still have to deal with the juxtaposition of the two on a daily basis, because that’s the friction that gives Cape Town its indescribable energy, a messy complicated throb on a tiny strip of land sandwiched between a majestic mountain and the endless sea.

The Europeans called it paradise.  Coldplay agreed.

History can be ugly.  You learn from it, and then you relegate it to textbooks.  The thing with history, though: Laws change immediately, but reality doesn’t.  The reality is that looking at an aerial snapshot, apartheid still exists in South Africa.  Neighborhoods that were black, white or Coloured are still black, white or Coloured because community—family—determines where you live, and those bonds go deeper than any law can.

Money does too, and that’s more complicated.  See, back in the day, laws controlled what kind of education a person received.  Education controls the cycle of poverty.  So to end poverty you must have education, which requires money and that by its very nature is unequal in society, particularly one that used to regulate it by the color of one’s skin.  So how do you end inequality?  You wait for it to work itself out.  Or you elect new politicians.  Or you enact affirmative action hiring laws meant to lift the poorest of the poor—blacks in the shantytowns—to an even playing field, at the expense of other races that may need the opportunity, too.

It’s the knee-jerk observation of a woman’s skin color crammed next to you in a public taxi that gives perspective to her rants about there being no jobs.  It shifts attention to the children, and how you help them get textbooks so they learn math and economics and figure it out one day. It is the plebian way to begin to understand the higher philosophy of a nation.

Then there are the practical reasons for racial profiling.

There are three different clicks in the isiXhosa language, on the C, X and Q.  You’re supposed to simultaneously click and pronounce the letter, which is pretty damn near impossible for non-natives—even the name of the language, isiXhosa, you say while making a noise off the side of the cheek like how you call a dog.  Tsk!  Click!  Pop!

But as a foreigner in town on a volunteer grant, you make the effort to master that, somewhat.  You try out a few words on a kid admitted to the pediatric ward of Groote Schuur, the stately white-columned public hospital which serves a largely indigent population and is the site of your volunteer work for the next five weeks. Unjani?  Ngubani igama lakho?  How are you?  What is your name?

The kid is four, and four-year-olds are universally hard to understand, but instead of opening her mouth she stares at you blankly.  So you try the one word you know in Afrikaans, and you declare it with such gusto that no four-year-old’s heart could possibly maintain its steely guard. Grondboontjiebotter!  Peanut butter!  Nothing.

So you evaluate.  She looks black.  IsiXhosa should have worked, because kids generally don’t learn English until grade school and isiXhosa is what’s spoken in black homes.  Unless she comes from KwaZulu Natal in the east, in which case she probably knows isiZulu, or one of the other 11 official languages in South Africa, or one of the dozens of unofficial ones.  Maybe her family came from that tiny province that spoons Swaziland, but linguistically isiNdebele and isiXhosa are similar.  Maybe her family came from Zimbabwe.

But is she really black?  She’s light.  Coloured?  But not Cape Coloured—there’s black somewhere in her lineage, not Indian or Malay.

So you continue to evaluate:

The nursing sisters go about their daily tasks on the pediatric ward, wheeling metal carts of medicine and nappies between neat rows of painted metal cribs.  They lower the side railing of each crib to adjust tubes and tuck in blankets, to reposition the celery-stalk arm of a tiny patient stricken with meningitis or dehydration or any number of stomach ailments.  Beside each crib is an easy chair, and in almost every easy chair is a mother, slouched and exhausted.  Some of these mothers have spent a week on 24-hour watch.  They sleep in the easy chairs on the ward.  They shower around the corner.  By default, they’ve formed a tenuous community.  One kid cries, and another mother straps him to her back with a blanket and paces to soothe him.  They have their own share of burdens, these women.  In a low voice, a teenaged girl frets about not consulting the sangoma, the traditional healer, a revered figure in Xhosa tradition that links physical health to the relationship with one’s ancestors, or sometimes to witchcraft.  In a not-so-low voice, a much older first-time mom, with tender nerves and tea-colored eyes streaked red, agonizes over the fact that the undiagnosable illness in Crib 2 is a result of giving her baby the wrong name.  She decides her family will hold another Hindu naming ceremony at once.

The easy chair beside Thimna’s crib is empty.  The toddler has one pudgy foot over the railing, shrieks on contact, and needs someone to give her a firm talking-to, in whatever language.

But which of the nurses are also Coloured and therefore know Afrikaans?  If you ask a black nurse to communicate with this kid in Afrikaans, will she be insulted that you thought she was Coloured?  How are you supposed to tell?

There are scores of history books detailing hair texture pencil tests and other measures government officials once devised to determine such a thing.  As a two-day resident of the country, you see firsthand, morals aside, that at its core, apartheid is stunningly idiotic.

The nursing sisters all try their luck with Thimna.  Afrikaans doesn’t work, either, but the wren-like melody of it sounds pretty, even when the sisters cry out, “You naughty child!” (which is often).  The crib in the corner quickly becomes the social focal point of the ward, and more often than not Thimna is attached to the back, hip or hemline of someone—the sisters, the mothers, an eight-year-old fellow patient.  She is a brick of energy, one that hurls its stocky frame against the rails of her confines like a manic human pinball and races circles around the nurses’ station, stopping only to tremble with the rattling pneumonic cough that brought her here.

The cough is wicked, but it’s improving at a rate that impresses Dr. Roux on his morning rounds.  Thimna doesn’t have time for it.  She speaks constantly, even though technically she’s not really speaking, and the cough is just a punctuation mark in a long paragraph of made-up vowels and consonants.  It isn’t baby’s babble.  There are deep inflections, pauses, a thought visually dancing across the toddler’s eyes.  Questions end with a rise in pitch.  Sometimes she scratches the smooth, close-shaven crown of her head, stares at the ceiling for a moment before pursing her lips and continuing on.  She gesticulates like a diva.  You imagine another little girl in America wearing a pink tiara and hosting an imaginary tea party: the matter-of fact authority with which she’s telling Mr. Bear that no, the princess is not available to see him tonight because he is a bear and only unicorns are allowed to go in the castle on Tuesday. You participate as an honored guest, sometimes in English and sometimes in her tongue, mimicking tones and expressions and getting caught up in this dreamlike exchange until you abruptly realize it’s the best conversation you’ve had in awhile.

The nursing sisters finally give up trying to figure out which language Thimna might know and use whichever one is handy.  They are persistent teachers—“You want your koppie?  Sound it out.  Kuh, kuh, koppp…”—but Thimna always manages to get a drink of water without ever properly asking for it, and stubborn child, she never attempts the syllables next time.  The sisters are persistent teachers, but they are also busy, and also there are children with dressings to change who are much sicker than Thimna, and also it is the mother’s job to teach vocabulary.  From the looks of things she has quite a bit on her hands.

But Thimna has an arsenal of communication tools that take the place of vocabulary.  Pointing, furtive smiles, a brow that stretches and scrunches in one fluid motion.  Wild, flirty, expressive eyes.  The most powerful weapon at Thimna’s disposal, however, is a pose that quickly earns the nickname around the ward as her Claudia Schiffer.  Arms akimbo, chin tucked and lips twisted in a pout, thick caterpillar eyelashes just daring to tell you where you hid the purple crayon.

Never once do you question the meaning or emotion behind Thimna’s words.  And yet, she’s puzzling.  You don’t know much about autism.  Or children, for that matter, whether learning a proper language is an inborn human desire or a behavioral choice.  You don’t know what goes on in this child’s head when she wraps her limbs around your waist like a brown little squid and tugs at your clothing so the two of you can walk to the floor-to-ceiling window and peer out over Cape Town.  She never wants to leave the window.  There is something close to joy in her eyes, but not quite.  Bridled excitement.  The shine of a child sitting in front of a wrapped present, imagination churning with different scenarios.  She has stories to tell, and soon the window is smudged with fingerprints.  The red Spanish tiles of Groote Schuur’s roof descend in levels down the steep terrain, nestled in the foothills of Table Mountain.  The peaks themselves aren’t visible, but downtown Cape Town is, a cluster of skyscrapers glittering with the prosperity of any big city viewed from a distance.  At the base of Groote Schuur is grimy, artsy Observatory, and beyond that are the manicured green lawns of Rondebosch Commons, where University of Cape Town students and well-to-do white suburbanites go for their morning jog.  The boxy rows of middle-class houses in the Coloured neighbourhood of Athlone lie over the bridge.  And after that, the sea: cobalt blue, shining cold and vivid.  There isn’t a cloud in the sky.  The only smudge is the perpetual wisp of smoke in the distance that lingers over the Cape Flats, a product of trash burning and fires kept for heat mixed with car exhaust and pollution from the rest of the city that Table Mountain funnels down into this wasteland.  Gugulethu, Langa, Philippi, Samora Machel.  Mitchell’s Plain and Manenberg.

Thimna doesn’t tell you where she’s from.  And it doesn’t matter, really.  Some people structure their lives on the self-perpetuated premise that they are victims.  Thimna, by product of will or necessity, has learned not only how to survive but how to get exactly what she wants without saying a word.  All she needs is one person willing to take the time to grasp her hand as she traces the ABCs and tell her, man, you’ve got the rest of this figured out.  The question that seems to have fallen through the cracks is why exactly this child does not speak.

A week later, the occupational therapist shakes her head. Appointments are set, an official intervention launched.

It turns out Thimna—sassy, street-smart, four-year-old Thimna—does not know a single language.  She lives at Sarah Fox Children’s Home.  She is a temporary member of a congress of kids in varying states of orphanhood because of the social situation at home, but she’s a lucky one, because technically she has a mother, even though no one by that name shows up at the hospital to visit the little girl.  Thimna’s chart lists an address in Khayelitcha, the shantytown by the airport, and a mother with severe alcohol dependency.  At some point between toddling through goat shit outside a home constructed from garbage bags and corrugated steel and joining the overcrowded ranks of Sarah Fox, Thimna never learned a language.

And until today, no one noticed.

Melissa Wozniak Biography

Graduated from UT’s College of Communications with a degree in journalism, magna cum laude, and a minor in political science.

Recipient of the Alex Haley scholarship and internship at Playboy magazine.

Worked on publications in New York and Nashville in editorial, art and production.  Writing in Nashville Scene, Marie Claire, playboy.com, Inked.

Won Travelocity’s competitive Travel for Good grant, which is awarded quarterly based on essay submissions.  Grant covered five weeks of volunteering in Cape Town, South Africa with a partner company, Cross Cultural Solutions.

CCS determined placement at Groote Schuur Hospital, visiting with children on the pediatric floor.   On Wednesdays and Thursdays, worked with Kidzpositive, the pediatric HIV/AIDS care nongovernmental organization (NGO) operating in another wing of GSH.

After five weeks of the formal programme, decided to stay on independently in Cape Town.  Continued to volunteer occasionally at GSH and became more involved with Kidzpositive. Through a connection in the States, learned about the South African Education and Environment Project (SAEP) and in March began full-time volunteer work in its media and fundraising office.

Kidzpositive (www.kidzpositive.org) cares for the needs of children affected by HIV/AIDS and their families.  Children visit the clinic for antiretroviral treatment, therapy and support.  There are resources available to the parents, including an income generation beadwork project many mothers work on in the waiting room while their children get treatment.  Kidzpositive was instrumental in establishing pediatric ARV treatment in Southern Africa, and it remains dedicated to a holistic approach.

SAEP (www.saep.org) empowers young people who are neglected by South Africa’s education system.  Through tutoring, enrichment and support, it gives impoverished students the tools to reach their potential and uplift their communities.  There are seven different programmes that build strong early childhood education; mentor and tutor motivated high school students; provide outlets in the arts; and give graduates the skills and resources needed for employment or university study.

In Cape Town from October 2011 to July 2012. then traveled independently for three and a half months through Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya.