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The Life Lessons of Jack Handey

SET GOALS. Set goals for your friends and relatives to achieve. Check up on them to make sure they are meeting those goals.

IN CHOOSING YOUR MISSION IN LIFE, DO WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY. Let’s say you enjoy lying on the couch, watching TV, not thinking about anything. Or maybe lying on the beach, wondering what’s on TV. Chances are, that’s where your greatest happiness will be.

NOTICE THE LITTLE THINGS that are constantly biting you.

IMAGINE YOURSELF ACHIEVING YOUR DREAM. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn to surf but for some reason never have. Imagine yourself riding on top of a big wave. Feels good, doesn’t it?

BE PREPARED TO CHANGE PLANS. Maybe you decide to go skydiving, but at the last minute you decide not to jump and grip onto the railing with all your might, so that your fingers can’t be pried apart. Have the courage to do that.

GIVE KIDS A HANDS-ON APPROACH TO NATURE, but not the way Uncle Lou did.

CULTIVATE A SENSE OF HUMOR. Suppose your friend Don gets his arm bitten off by a shark. As a joke, show up at his hospital bed and say, “Hey, Don, look what I found on the beach,” and pull out a mannequin arm.

LEARN TO THINK ON YOUR FEET. If a ranger asks you if you have a fishing license, calmly reel in your line, then turn and run.

GET THROWN IN PRISON IN A THIRD-WORLD COUNTRY. It will be a good story to tell your children and grandchildren as they grow up within the prison walls with you and their prostitute mother.

PUSH YOURSELF. If you get attacked by a bear and survive, see if you can’t get attacked by another bear, because then maybe you could get the nickname Two Bears.

DON’T TRY TO OUTSWIM AN ATTACKING BEAVER. Go limp and float over the lip of the beaver dam, downstream through the rapids, to safety.

DON’T PLAY DEAD WITH RACCOONS. It only makes them mad.

TRAVEL TO BALI AND MACHU PICCHU AND NEPAL, because, oh, no one’s ever done that before. In other words, be sarcastic.

KNOW YOUR LIMITS. If a cross-country race is too strenuous, take a short-cut to the finish line.

KEEP YOUR BONES HEALTHY, BUT DON’T WORRY ABOUT YOUR MUSCLES. Let’s face it, you’re going to be a skeleton a lot longer than flesh and blood.

LEARN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE. Just kidding. Who could do that?

AT LEAST ONCE, FLY FIRST CLASS TO AN EXPENSIVE LODGE. And try not to embarrass yourself.

RETIRE TO A FOREIGN COUNTRY. Create a whole new identity for yourself and, if you can afford it, a whole new set of fingerprints.

NEVER FORGET THAT HAPPINESS IS SOMETHING YOU HAVE TO WORK AT, every hour of every single day, until you die.

Jack Handey, creator of Saturday Night Lives “Deep Thoughts,” is the author most recently of The Stench of Honolulu: A Tropical Adventure.

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Go Out With a Bang

I USED TO HAVE a recurring nightmare about climbing a fragile ladder straight up into the sky. The ladder wasn’t leaning against anything and the only way I could keep it balanced was to continue to climb as fast as possible. The view was great, but inevitably the ladder would topple and I’d fall to my death, over and over as the dream occurred. Needless to say things weren’t going well back then. I was trying to support a wife and two daughters on less than ten grand a year. Things got better after I wrote Legends of the Fall, and I no longer have this desperate dream.

I grew up on a farm for a while where death is so obvious. You chop the head off the chicken for Sunday’s dinner. Your favorite piglet dies for no reason. A massive draft horse drops dead while plowing, still in the harness. Quite a job to bury it.

As I aged, I expected to think about death far more than I do. My favorite epitaph is the one that my hero, the anthropologist Loren Eiseley, wrote for himself, “We loved the earth but could not stay.” Wonderfully concise. But what do we do before we go? As a writer I’ve never stopped. I’ve written more in my seventies than ever before. Of course, I frequently wear out, a condition I have countered by becoming a master of naps. The first of the day comes in the morning, soon after walking the dog and five cups of coffee. Coffee has never kept me awake an extra minute. I doze about 20 minutes under the idea that I’m clearing my head, maybe an illusion, but then it works. The next nap is what Henry Miller called a “full dress nap.” It comes after lunch, the official siesta time in Spain. This one takes an hour or more. You have to take off your clothes and get in bed. At no time may any nap be taken with your socks on. This is likely a superstition, but I stick to it. I also believe in the Resurrection, because it never occurred to me to stop believing in it. The third nap takes place after dinner and is a matter of habit. For years I had to work at full-time jobs and then write at night. I’d take a nap after dinner and then work until well after midnight. I still take the naps but rarely work at night anymore, because my mind would become clinically fugal, which means that it would slide into an uncontrollable whirl. Not pleasant.

I have been teased relentlessly by laymen and other writers about my naps, but then I just published The River Swimmer, my thirty-sixth book, and they didn’t. In Buddhist terms, my naps are a Noble Truth. My father’s message was, “Get your work done,” and I am still at it. I’ve had books published in 29 countries, which mystifies me. There was the recent addition of Bulgaria. Why do they want American fiction in Bulgaria? Would Bolivia be better?

Aging brings around illnesses beyond the head-cold range. Late last fall, I had extensive spinal surgery, and the recovery hasn’t been fun. Before surgery I couldn’t walk at all, which was hard on my dog, who became melancholy without our walks. After surgery, I wasn’t recovering fast enough and was sent to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where I learned to walk again, a pleasant talent compared with sitting. I admit that I no longer stride through the forest, but shuffling is much better than nothing.

Which brings up the sporting life. For 30 years, I spent a couple of months each fall and winter hunting game birds—grouse, woodcock, quail, and doves—in various parts of this country. I loved it, even for eight exhausting hours a day. After my spinal problem, I can’t keep up with my friends and bird dogs anymore. I have thus perfected the art of log sitting. Similar to a bed and naps, I find a nice log and sit on it, usually for as much as 40 minutes. My bird dog occasionally comes back for a visit, perhaps to commiserate, and then she is off again to where the action is, her singular imperative. I don’t mind. I’m old, semi-crippled, and want her to have a good time. She was my main motive for back surgery. Dogs don’t live long and deserve walks every day.

Of course, your sexuality vastly diminishes in your seventies. Perhaps this is the gods getting you out of the gene pool. You used to while away hours concocting electric fantasies, but now you are far too realistic and pragmatic. You know very well that those beautiful girls and women you see wandering around New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago don’t pray after work, “Lord, gimme a geezer tonight.” This is hard to accept, but don’t sit under an apple tree until you get the long-lost constant hard-on that plagued your youth. The apples will ripen and fall on your head before anything happens. I’ve read that you don’t help matters by drinking and smoking too much, but these ingrained habits help me want to live. French red wine is as necessary as oxygen for me.

As a matter of plain fact, life has become pleasantly smaller and simpler. Lucky for me I live in Montana and can still fly-fish for trout. About 90 days a summer and fall will find me gliding down rivers in a guide boat. When I get even older, we’ll drop an easy chair into the bow. I can make the throw sitting down because I had 20 years of salt-water fly-casting in Key West. Those were wild days and nights, with social diseases lurking in the alleys. I lived through them and try not to think about them anymore. They were just life in its simpleminded prime. Now I’m so wise, I share nasty oatmeal with the dog. She’s getting older but still loves life.

Jim Harrison's Brown Dog, a collection of novellas, will be published in December by Grove Press.

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Eliza Griswold on the Importance of Taking Risks

I WAS A twentysomething divorcée sitting behind a flesh-toned cubicle wall at Vanity Fair magazine. This was a desk that many coveted, but not me. Don’t get me wrong—the magazine was a terrific place to work. Its sleek blocks of frosted-glass offices were lined with smart, caustically funny people editing some of the most vibrant voices on earth at the turn of the 21st century.

But I was blindly impatient and headstrong. I loathed sitting still. I couldn’t figure out how I was being paid (barely) to keep my butt in an office chair even though I had so little to do. I wasn’t even allowed to answer my boss’s phone, since he and his friends played elaborate prank-call jokes on one another. So I whiled away afternoons reading great stories. Without realizing it, I was learning that curious people could support themselves by traveling and writing about the world’s problems. One day I was sent to the offices of Human Rights Watch to fetch photographs of possible war crimes that Sebastian Junger had shipped back from Sierra Leone. As I waited for the photographs, someone pulled me aside and told me the story of honor crimes: women who are killed by their families for rumors of sexual dishonor in Jordan and on the West Bank.

This was a story that demanded reporting, I thought, and I decided to go to the Middle East and do it myself. This was ambitious, yes, but I had nothing to lose and I knew it. I had few expenses, and I was responsible to no one. (I was living in my parents’ guest bedroom following my divorce.) There was no chance in hell that Vanity Fair would send me, so I pitched the story to The New Republic. If I could do it, the editor said, the magazine would publish it. After just nine months at Vanity Fair, I’d left my desk behind for good to pursue a life as a writer. About a year after publishing that first story, on an achingly bright September morning in 2001, I was walking through Central Park with my sister when emergency vehicles began to race past us. I called up The Sunday Times of London and offered them my services as a stringer in New York. After filing a few dispatches for them, I scrambled and found a women’s magazine that wanted a story on refugee camps on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. At the time, the United Nations was sending journalists to Pakistan. In addition to helping secure visas fast, the UN would arrange for a flight if the journalist had an assignment.

I landed in Islamabad wearing sneakers white with the dust of 9/11 and rushed into the refugee camps from which the Taliban had sprung. For the next three years, I worked for whoever would pay me. I left Pakistan for Medellín, Colombia, to report on child assassins. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I reported on pygmies who claimed that rebels had killed and eaten their family members. I returned to Pakistan several times to report from the tribal area of Waziristan. And each time, I returned home to the same set of pink twin beds in my parents’ apartment.

I finally moved out, but I’ve kept going for the past decade, working primarily on issues of religion and justice in Africa and Asia. My story isn’t uncommon. There’s a whole itinerant pack of us who came of age in the shadow of the falling towers. As I’ve grown older, I’ve mellowed with the realization that the good things—jobs, skills, careers, love—take time. Talent is the least of it. But the attributes I learned during that unsettled period continue to serve me: curiosity, empathy, and a desire to return to desperate places. As a wise friend told me years ago, the greatest challenge is getting there.

Eliza Griswold is the author of The Tenth Parallel.

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Archetypes: Andrew Forsthoefel

CV: Attended St. Andrew's high school in Middletown, Delaware. Graduated from Middlebury College in 2011 with an environmental-studies degree. In September, after losing a job on a lobster boat, Forsthoefel started walking west from Philadelphia with a 50-pound backpack, a mandolin, an Olympus LS-10 audio recorder, and a sign that said WALKING TO LISTEN. He recorded interviews with people he met on the road: a woman in Alabama whose Marine-vet husband had died from complications related to an IED attack in Iraq; a cop near the Grand Canyon who “pulled over” Forsthoefel for pushing a baby stroller containing his pack over a windy pass. Forsthoefel completed his journey in Half Moon Bay, California, 11 months after setting out, and seven months later, This American Life aired a popular show on the project.

Up Next: A book about his trek. Forsthoefel is pulling espresso shots in Woods Hole by day and writing by night.

15: States he walked across.

On Letting ’er Rip: “Taking unusual and maybe risky paths opens up opportunities. It’s the quickest way to go from living in a bubble to learning something new. That’s what the walk was about.” 

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