Two fellows at Carey Institute discuss their works-in-progress.

Jonathan Meiburg

Photo by James Hamilton

Urban observer: Jonathan Meiburg, who has has traveled to remote parts of the globe to observe human and non-human communities, here observes the inhabitants of New York City from a subway point of view.

RENSSELAERVILLE — Deer strolled past the window in the fading November light as Jonathan Meiburg described his first encounter in the Falkland Islands with a species of falcon that will be the subject of his first book; and, later, while Marie-Therese Connolly talked about her struggle to contain a vast subject — the neglect and abuse of the elderly in this country — between the covers of her own first book.

Meiburg and Connolly, fellows in the Logan Nonfiction Program at The Carey Institute for Global Good,  are classmates: two of the  14 men and women —  many of them journalists — chosen for a 12-week working residency at the institute’s campus, where  peace and quiet reign, and the distracting details of daily life fall away.

What  the fellows have in common is that, through their writing — or in one case, filmmaking — they want to  report and illuminate  something they consider urgent, fascinating, or compelling. Or all three.  Their chosen method is in-depth longform writing, the kind that takes time to complete and focused concentration to do well.

Though “longform” can mean a book, it can also mean writing of a length for which fewer and fewer publications exist.  The program describes its mission as seeking “to address the public’s need for longform nonfiction to inform the policy debate essential to democracy,” but in practice it supports something broader: deeper knowledge about many subjects, spread more widely.

Established in 2015, the program’s  current class is its third.  Its fourth will arrive next spring. Each class is selected from among dozens of applicants. Though writer workshops and residency programs are plentiful across the country, the Carey program may be unique as the only one devoted exclusively to longform nonfiction writing and reporting.

Distractions subtracted

Meiburg  lives in Brooklyn; Connolly, in Washington, D.C. — two places deeply unlike the quiet hamlet where they have been buckling down this autumn on writing their books, both to  be published by prestigious publishing houses.

A musician and composer,  the youthful Meiburg writes music  for Shearwater, a well-known alternative band he founded 15 years ago and still leads. The group  has recorded 11 albums; the latest, released this year to critical praise, is  “Jet Plane and Oxbow.”  A non-specialist in an age of specialists, Meiburg  is also an ornithologist. An anthropologist. A student of evolutionary biology. And a philosopher of sorts.

Connolly is a lawyer who was  responsible in her work at the United States Department of Justice for helping to craft federal legislation that became the Elder Justice Act enacted by Congress in 2010. She was also the winner in 2011 of a $500,00o MacArthur genius grant awarded yearly to persons doing outstanding work in their fields.

The two fellows are equally enthusiastic about their stay at Carey.

“They treat us like royalty here,” says Meiburg. The 14 fellows take their meals at the institute’s Carriage House Restaurant, known for  gourmet food. Their time is their own — to work alone, or to discuss their works-in-progress with the prize-winning journalists who are associated with the program and who are available for mentoring, or simply to do some thinking as they ramble the grounds and the nearby Huyck Preserve.

“We all suffer from the same anxiety,” Meiburg says of himself and the other fellows, “being scared when it’s difficult. The experience  makes you feel much less alone.”

“The place allows my brain to breathe, “says Connolly, “and to submerge myself more deeply in my writing. If I hit a wall, I take a walk along the lake.”

Echoing Meiburg, she says, “They take  care of us in a very extraordinary fashion.”

 

— The Joy of All Things
Well-feathered: The bird that beguiled Jonathan Meiburg on his first visit to the Falklands proved to be at ease with humans and “charismatic.”

 

“A racoon with wings”

Meiburg, 40, describes the caracara, the bird that captivated him on his first visit to the Falkland Islands and that is the subject of his book, as a “racoon with wings.”  Though a member of the falcon family, the caracara is more scavenger than predator, he says.  The bird steals eggs from the nests of other birds, for example.

Its several subspecies — of which the Falklands bird is one — range through South  and Central America but they are making their  way north. One was spotted at Bear Mountain near the Hudson River in Rockland County  last year, Meiburg marvels.  It’s another instance of this creature’s adaptability to changing circumstances —in this case, a changing climate.

He says his first encounter with a caracara made a lasting impression on him. He was in the Falklands as a recipient of a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship awarded him to study daily life in remote communities of the world, including the southern Atlantic island group.

“A caracara walked up to  me and looked right at me, as if to check me out,” he recalls. He was sitting at the time with notebook and pen nearby. The bird grabbed his pen.  Other caracaras joined the first and soon  “a group was fighting over my pen.”

As he watched them, he felt “how much they are like us,”  a feeling he often gets when observing fellow creatures.

“Caracaras are generalists,” he says. “They do everything.”  He admires how adaptive they are as scavengers, alert to every possible food source. “There are lots of ways to make a living” is their approach to life, he says. “They make the best of what’s thrown at them.”

Much like humans do.

He says their resourcefulness may help explain their longevity. They are among the oldest beings on the planet: like sharks, flamingos, opossums, and alligators, they have been around a very long time, their admirer says.

But he might not be writing a book about them and their place in evolution and the natural order if he didn’t find them to  be also “charismatic and beguiling.”

An Anglo-Argentine writer and fellow ornithologist  influenced the shaping of  Meiburg’s  untitled work-in-progress, he says. William Henry Hudson  wrote many books about the birds of Argentina and the British Isles, and a classic novel, “Green Mansions.”  For Hudson, birds were “feathered people,” Meiburg says.

“I like very much,” he says, “the way he thought about animals, no matter  how small.” He says Hudson maintained that even a grasshopper has an aesthetic sense.

Meiburg’s  own practice of natural observation, he says,  is based on the principle that  “you have to let them guide you” and not get hung up on classifications. Caracaras, though in the falcon family, are much more like ravens in their behavior than falcons, he notes.

What does he want people to get out of his book about a creature most of us will never see?

“I hope people will get an enhanced sense of the incredible mosaic of the world,” he says. “We need to see life in  a broader context. These birds have been going on for a long time without ever having us in mind.”

As he said in a  radio interview, “We tend to think of nature as something outside of us, rather than as something that we exist within.”

If he could, Meiburg says, he would have a caracara living with him in his Brooklyn apartment.

Seeing the invisible

Connolly, 59,  arrived at the Carey Institute with a van full of boxes, her accumulated research in a now long-standing effort to describe and report on the welfare of America’s elderly citizens. And to nudge society to do better by them.

“My intent is not to issue a screed,” Connolly says. “But rather to publish a book that will be a subtle call to action.”

 

The Enterprise — Tim Tulloch
Book in the making: Marie-Therese Connolly, who likes to be called MT, is in residency at The Carey Institute. Her book will be published by W.W. Norton.

 

Her book, also still untitled, was in draft form when she arrived. Since then,  she has been working to reshape it to her satisfaction, to find the right structure in her weeks as a Logan Nonfiction Program fellow.

“It’s such an interesting group of people,” she says of the other fellows, “all of whom are grappling with complex subjects. Everyone has to figure out a structure, one that appears natural and organic.”

Her subject is as complex as society itself.  She has had to  wrestle with how to contain between the covers of her book — one meant for the general reading public – all  the legal, medical,  and economic aspects of elderly abuse and neglect.

“It’s a problem that has remained so invisible,” she says, “even though everyone has a story.”

She is building her book, she says, on three persons and their perspectives: a geriatric doctor, a social worker, and a prosecutor.

Connolly’s  interest and expertise in the subject began to grow when she headed successful prosecutorial efforts at the Department of Justice to hold federally-funded nursing homes to account  for abuse and neglect of residents.

Her role in developing  the 2010 Elder Justice Act that became law as part of the Affordable Care Act was her next contribution to shedding light on the invisible problem. But today she confesses her disappointment in its results: “It was not funded for several years and remains severely underfunded,” she says, “though it has helped some with enlarging awareness.”

“Part of the problem ,” she says, “is that there has been very little research...There’s not much information to inform policy.”

“What I am trying to do in this book,” Connolly says, “is to strike the right balance between ideas and facts, and storytelling.”

She wants her book, too, to show all that can be done and is being done.

“People are doing amazing work”, she says, even as she bemoans the falloff in medical students becoming specialists in geriatric care.

“Anytime that something is not inevitable,” she declares, “it can be taken on...There’s a lot we can do...We don’t lack for opportunity, that’s why I wanted to write about it.”

Elder abuse — physical, financial, psychological, sexual —and neglect  are things “we need to talk about in a more open way,” she says. “People are living it...Now what’s needed is conversation, within families, communities, and nationally about how to prevent it.”

Greater public awareness and concern will lead, she hopes, to what’s really needed: “It’s calling out for better national policy,” she says.

How extensive the problem is remains to be nailed down. But recent studies show that as many as one in every 10 persons  who are 60 and older are victimized. And with those in the baby-boomer generation having entered their elder years and with as many as 5 million Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Connolly’s contention that abuse and neglect of the elderly is “ a really big deal”  has met with appreciative support —  both from those who awarded her the MacArthur genius grant  and from those who invited her to spend an idyllic but hard-working residency at the Carey Institute.

“”Our society doesn’t value old age very much,” Connolly says. This, in her mind, makes it all the more urgent to start the conversation.

There’s a lot of knowledge in various places about her book’s subject she says.

“Its central to a democratic society to have deeply reported and deeply investigated  accountings of complex subjects,” Connolly says.

Her book, she hopes, will be such an accounting and help bring about the change needed.


Updated on Dec. 6, 2016: Statistics from Marie-Therese Connolly​ were added, that as many as one in every 10 persons over 60 is victimized.                                                                                             

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