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Le Bio

A nessay by Ellen Larson

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This is a biographical essay, not a resume.
For the dry stuff, see above.

I was blessed by the gods with good health, an optimistic spirit, a reasonable degree of intelligence and enough physical coordination to be reasonably effective with a monkey wrench or a tennis racket, as required. Thanks to the inherent buoyancy of the middle class America into which I was born, I have lived comfortably and never lacked the time to pursue my interests, both the pointless and the passionate. In other words, without lifting a finger I was handed a ticket to whatever I wanted to do in life; I did nothing to deserve it.

Sometime during the winter of 1963/64 my parents bought 150 acres of rugged farm land, with a house and a barn, in Salem, NY. The tenor of life changed: where once there had been the Tudor houses and sprawling lawns of New Jersey, endless games of stick ball and hide-and-seek amidst the tulip and dogwood trees, now there was blackberry jelly and four hour car rides every weekend, barbed-wire fences, birch trees, summers with my sister, and horses....

Between the ages of seven and twelve I read little outside The Black Stallion books by Walter Farley, and The Bobbsey Twin books by no one in particular. Horse stories inevitably brought me to tears -- to this day I have only read The Black Stallion Revolts once. The Bobbsey Twins were less gut-wrenching, but had their own appeal: they were collectable in great numbers. Collecting series of things is a passion that has stayed with me to this day. In this obsession I was aided and abetted by my father, who had read and enjoyed the adventures of the Bobbseys in his day, and who happened to work not far from a used book store in Manhattan. I would supply him with lists of Bobbsey books missing from my shelves -- oldest editions preferred, please. In the end we pulled together fifty or sixty of them -- although there was one title I could never find. Left to my own devices to collect all the Black Stallion books, I am sorry to say that I resorted to unscrupulous methods. Sorry, Mr. Woolworth, I owe you.

My sister gave me The Hobbit for my thirteenth birthday and that was the end of the Bobbsey Twins.

When I was a young sprout, fourteen or so, I was walking along the rollicking little stream in the horse pasture (where never a horse did graze), wrapt body and soul in a fantasy involving favorite imaginary characters on a distant planet -- notable, if I remember correctly, for circling a purple sun. It was August, and the little valley was a wilderness of shoulder-high meadow flowers and yellow grasses, through which narrow deer runs zig-zagged -- green because of the constant use. The sun has never shone so brightly. Something must have interrupted my fantasy, for I remember coming back from that distant realm and becoming self-aware enough to think: I'd better enjoy this; I won't be able to lose myself so completely like this for much longer." Oh my prophetic soul.

Brenda Blackwell taught me how to play Yahtzee when I was sixteen. I was working at the time at the River Vale Free Public Library, of which my mother was the head librarian and Brenda her number two. I worked for Brenda "downstairs" in the children's library, typing up cat cards and shelving books in addition to playing Yahtzee. My salary was $30 a week -- the amount budgeted for part-time "shelving" help, as I understood it -- I worked full-time. It was a compromise between reality and necessity, and a good one. I had dropped out of high school as a sophomore the previous year, after a history of non-attendance. Life between fifteen and eighteen was difficult, but my time at River Vale was fun and well spent. Where are you, Brenda? I've thought of you often.

I met my dear friend Deloris on the first day of classes at Windham College in 1972. She was the teacher of my first writing class. She asked the room if anyone had actually written and completed a novel. It was one of the proudest moments of my life when my hand alone went up. I had written "The Farm Novel," as we called it, the previous summer. This was the beginning of my Ellen of the Farm phase, when I was finally deemed old enough (18/19) to be on The Farm alone. Ellen of the Farm lasted a decade and a half. My friendship with Deloris has lasted longer. 

What did I do with my twenties? Wrote three novels that nobody wanted to publish, watched my mother die, kept bees, tried to train horses, stumbled through a couple of dead-end jobs, studied Shakespeare, directed community theater. I wrote theater reviews for the local paper in the summer. Made two attempts at graduate study, both of which failed. Towards the end I studied Mandarin Chinese. I got pretty good. Too bad I can't now remember a word.

June 1987. After preparing for two years, I set out for China via England, on a wee journey of self-discovery.I had a three-tiered plan. 1) I would have a three month holiday, go to Wimbledon, and see every play on the West End. 2) I would find a job, making good use of the work permit I had gotten as a student, and stay for six months. 3) I would somehow get established and stay ten years. That was sixteen years ago.

In 1994, I was a member of the team that took First Place, Team of Four/Women at the annual bridge tournament in Cairo, beating out, among others, a team headed by Omar Sherif. I didn't stay for the awards ceremony, and a chance to meet Ustaz El Sherif himself--I had to race back to Maadi to be in time for my regular Saturday Night Card Sharks date. But I still have my trophy.

I went on a round the world trip in the early Nineties, visiting India, Nepal, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and Hawaii. For my fortieth birthday I visited Turkey and sat in the wind on the stonework of a ruined castle and gazed upon the Black Sea. In February, 2000, I found myself sitting in an office on an agricultural research institute in the Ivory Coast, plugging my iBook into the office network, preparatory to beginning the booklet I had been hired as a consultant to design and write. I looked out the window at the baobab trees and the kites and thought, "How the hell did this happen?" Life is full of surprises. And I haven't even made it to China, yet..